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New Historic Dodge House exhibit to highlight paintings of early Council Bluffs
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New Historic Dodge House exhibit to highlight paintings of early Council Bluffs

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This painting by George Simons is believed to be one of the earliest images of Council Bluffs.

COUNCIL BLUFFS — The Historic General Dodge House has been awarded a $2,600 Humanities Project Grant by the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs to establish a unique art exhibit.

The exhibit, which will be displayed at the historic Beresheim House, the next-door companion to the Dodge House, will feature 40 paintings and sketches by artist George Simons, including some of the earliest images of Council Bluffs, and contemporary photographs of the same areas by local photographer Buck Christensen.

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A painting of George Simons.

Born in Canada in 1834, George Simons came to Council Bluffs in 1853. According to the Council Bluffs Public Library, Simons was part of Grenville Dodge’s surveying party. The party was tasked with mapping routes for the Mississippi and Missouri Valley Railway, and Simons was employed as a cook. Between meals, Simons made drawings of the landscape and Dodge came to rely on these drawings, using them as a reference.

Over time, Simons traveled the plains drawing and painting scenes of pioneer life, including settlers, log cabins, steam boats, trains and more. Some of his original works are now housed at Joslyn Art Museum.

The IDCA awarded 31 grants totaling $364,760 to support public humanities projects and educational programs in 17 Iowa cities that encourage contemplation, spark conversation and invite communities to explore the human experience. Funding for the new program comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency that last year recognized the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs as its interim state humanities council partner in Iowa.

The Dodge House already has many of Simons’ work in hand, according to Tom Emmett, executive director.

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A colorful western scene painted by George Simons.

“We have the majority of his surviving paintings in our permanent collection,” he said. “One is among the earliest, if not the earliest, of Omaha (in 1854).”

Simons also did early paintings of Council Bluffs, Emmett said. They show a bird’s-eye view of the city’s early structures and the hills that overlooked them.

“We have one of them — probably the second-oldest painting of Council Bluffs,” he said. “In addition to the paintings George Simons did, he also did a lot of sketches.”

The Dodge House, Council Bluffs Public Library and Pottawattamie Arts, Culture and Entertainment own most of them, Emmett said.

“It will give Council Bluffs folks a little sense of place, time and perspective,” he said.

The Dodge House will gradually convert one room in the Beresheim House into a George Simons exhibit space and develop a new website that will show some of the images, Emmett said. It also hopes to obtain additional works by Simons that the local institutions do not possess. The artist’s remaining known works include more than 100 sketches and 17 paintings.

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A steamboat crosses the Missouri River in this painting by George Simons.

“I would argue that the sketches and paintings of George Simons are the most precious legacy of Council Bluffs,” he said. “Grant Wood was inspired by George Simons — so Iowa’s most famous artist was inspired by George Simons.”

The grant funds can’t be used until 2022, so Christensen’s photography and the exhibit of Simons’ work won’t appear overnight, Emmett said.

“It’ll be developed over the next few years,” he said.

The Historic General Dodge House is located at 605 S. Third St. in Council Bluffs. For more information, go to dodgehouse.org.


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