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The Scarlet & Black

Bates Flowers’ Underground Roots

Flower Shop - Aaron Juarez
Bates Flowers houses a secret tunnel used by slaves en route to freedom on the Underground Railroad

By Lisa Oyolu

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, love is in the air. Bates Flowers & Greenhouses on 1012 Broad Street is not only a prime promoter of the holiday of love, but according to proud owner, Jim White, the business is also planted in a rich, historical ground.

Initially located on 4th Avenue, Bates Flowers was established in 1909 by Roy Bates, who was a pharmacist at the drugstore in town at the time. In addition to selling medication, Bates sold salads and sandwiches along with flowers. When Bates opted to leave his career as a pharmacist, he sold his drugstore in 1915 and opened a flower shop instead. Five years later, he relocated to the present location of Bates Flowers on Broad Street, which features an adjoined house built by the niece of J.B. Grinnell, Stella Bartlett.

In 1921, Bates renovated this home, adding on a showroom for his flower shop and a greenhouse, so that he could house all of the operations for his business under the same roof.

“It was all complete; it was his business, his home and the greenhouse all in one place, and we’ve been here ever since,” White said.

White was 21 years old when he first came to Grinnell in 1971. Although he admitted that he originally intended on opening up a restaurant in town, after going to design school and investing time and finances into another local flower shop, he decided to join the staff of Bates Flowers, 50 years after its relocation to Broad Street.

Soon after, White and his wife moved into the upper floor of the home connected to Bates Flowers. It was there that the couple uncovered an incredible aspect of the building’s history.

“The furnace went out one night, so I went downstairs to light the furnace and I bumped up against the wall in the furnace room, and the wall fell in, and here was a tunnel,” White said.

White later learned that he had stumbled upon a secret tunnel, which was a major part of the Underground Railroad, the 19th century network of “stations” by which runaway slaves made their way to freedom in the North. Soon after, when White repaired a step on his back stairway, he came across another surprise.

“In the back stairway, the second step was real weak, so I wanted to have that step fixed. When I did, I found a book that had the slaves’ first names and a pencil and an early reading book,” he revealed.

This discovery and the previous one motivated White’s interest, so he searched his front stairway as well. Under the front steps, he uncovered a feather mattress and a candle inside a compartment where slaves were hidden. Interestingly, White also learned that his home is not the only one in town to have such features.

“J.B. Grinnell was an abolitionist that did not believe in slavery … so he promoted hiding [fugitive slaves]. There are a lot of different houses all over Grinnell that have slaves’ tunnels in them. People took the slaves in and hid them to protect them,” White explained.

Although abolition was a movement upheld by numerous townspeople at the time, White is continually touched by the importance of living and working in a home that was an important force in ending the injustice of slavery.

“Grinnell was one of those places that when the slaves got here, if [they] could get out of Grinnell and they hadn’t [been] captured, they were free,” he said. “I’m so honored that my wife and I live upstairs [above the flower shop] in the house as our whole home.”

Living and working in such a historically rich place is the main reason White enjoys running Bates Flowers, but he also loves the nature of his job as a florist.

“If you don’t like sentiment, if you don’t have any feelings, this is not the job for you, because you sell feelings,” White said. “You [also] never know what the people are going to be like. You could have a young boy or girl in love. You could have a new dad with a baby. You could have an anniversary … a death–all in one day.”

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