People passing by the large brick building at Seventh and Scott streets in Des Moines may not realize its significance in Des Moines history. The structure, listed as one of “Des Moines Seven Most Endangered Buildings” by the Des Moines Rehabbers Club (2008), was the longtime home of the Roadside Settlement House.

Founded in 1896 by the Kings Daughters Union, a group of church women, the settlement house provided services to the poor, at various times including a nursery school and kindergarten, a public laundry and baths, the city’s first branch library, and a gymnasium. In addition, the 1911 Handbook of Settlements lists the following Roadside activities: employment agency, savings bank, classes in cooking and sewing, dramatic clubs, and Sunday afternoon concerts. Roadside also had one of the few telephones in the neighborhood and residents were free to use it.

When the Depression hit in the 1930s, Roadside developed its own relief programs, which included paying women 25-cent credits for each hour in sewing class. Credits could be exchanged for food and clothing. Unemployed men completed renovation of the building in 1938.

In 1949, Roadside Settlement marked the 50th anniversary of its 1899 incorporation and it continued to offer services to the neighborhood until the 1970s. By then, government agencies had taken over many of the programs previously offered by the Settlement. United Way took over funding of the Settlement in 1968, but withdrew this funding in 1973 and the Roadside Settlement House closed. The name of the house was inspired by a poem by Sam Walter Foss which included the lines:

Let me live in a house by the side of the road,
And be a friend to man.

The Des Moines Register, April 11, 1993, page 1C.
The Des Moines Register, June 19, 2002, page 2AT.
Brigham, Johnson. History of Des Moines and Polk County.
Chicago: The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1911.

6 Responses

  1. Great post! I always wondered what that building was growing up on the SSide.

  2. Another south side treasure I’d love to learn more about is the horse water fountain near the settlement house. It’s closer to E 14th I think.

  3. Found a DM Register article 01/16/2007 by Jason Pulliam that says at that time it was 101 years old and on the National Register of Historic Places. It was given to the city in 1906 by the National Humane Alliance. Pulliam states, “The trough is one of the last vestiges of teh Southeast Bottoms’ old neighborhood amenities.” A 1994 article by Reka Basu states that people were still collecting water from the trough when pipes would freeze, as the water would still flow there. It’s at SE 10th & Scott.

  4. Remember getting my polio shots there in the late 50’s
    My grandparents live on 2nd and 5th streets for many years

  5. I lived in the southeast “bottoms” of Des Moines as a child and the Roadside Settlement House was one of my and my brother’s playgrounds. We did many things there. Our church was near the House and we used it for many purposes (because our church was tiny and didn’t have a space for church business meetings, pot luck suppers, etc.). A few years ago my brother and I (now in our 60s) located the owner and he graciously opened the building to us. It was just as I remembered it although, of course, empty and somewhat “trashed” inside. I could identify all the rooms and what they were for–from the “parlor” (wedding receptions and other somewhat “formal” events) to the gym (of course) to the room in the basement that held the washing machines (gone, now, of course). Our home in the bottoms didn’t even have running water, so we used the Roadside Settlement House for many things. I got all my immunizations there, too. I hope it never gets demolished. Tim Rounds, we played together in that old building! I’m sure you remember me….

  6. Oh my goodness yes, The Bottoms, my daddy was a baliaff and we’d go at dusk and I would sit in the car while he served warrants. The dogs barking, the food cooking and the laundry drying in those hot humid nites of Fire flies. I loved to go, smell all the lovely smells of fried potatoes, coffee, and whatever the Blavks were cooking, I’d die to share supper with them. Then shots came and Daddy was nearly hit and mama won’t let me go no more. I loved to go to the bottoms. People were people there. I’m 72 and it was a long time ago but I can still smell the yummy food. Everyone black spoke to me. And the children playing til Mama yelled it’s dark time to come in. How I loved Des Moines, where I was born. Susan Myers

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