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The Man Who Preached Himself West

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The Black Hawk Purchase in 1833 opened up a large tract of land along the Mississippi in Illinois and Iowa and fired the imaginations and ambitions of restless Easterners. Among these was a young Philadelphia doctor, Lewis McKee.

But McKee had no money. The usual trip down the Ohio River by steamboat and then up the Mississippi from St. Louis was far too expensive for him.

The young doctor was not one to give up easily, however. He decided to walk west. God helps those who help themselves, he thought. And he was right. At one of the first farmhouses he stopped at to see if he might spend the night, the prosperous farmer mistook McKee's profession, and thought he was a minister. The farmer agreed to feed and house the doctor if he would conduct a church service for a gathering of neighbors.

McKee was more hungry than honest. Yes, he would preach a sermon—after he had eaten. The plain Pennsylvania farmers were more than pleased with the prayers and sermon that followed. They somehow came to believe that McKee was a missionary on his way to bring religion to the frontier, a mistake McKee did not correct. They took up a collection of money and sent the missionary on his way.

That ended the young doctor's worry about how he would get to Iowa. He preached his way across the rest of Pennsylvania, across Ohio, past Indiana, and in Illinois, all the way to the little village of Bloomington, Iowa, soon to be renamed Muscatine. Here, he became the town's first doctor.

Doctoring turned out to be less profitable than McKee had imagined. Mainly, he dispensed calomel and quinine to treat fevers and agues. He was eventually forced to supplement his income by becoming the county treasurer and recorder.

Muscatine historians have wondered why McKee didn't just keep preaching—he had been so successful at it all across the United States. Why not set up a small church, gather a comfortable congregation, and spend his years in the pulpit?

Why, don't you see the answer as clear as can be? With a settled congregation, he would have to have thought up a second sermon—and then a third, and so on. That's much harder than it sometimes sounds from the pew.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.