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Captain's Log: A Few Books and the Mystery of the Hidden Room

By Jeffrey A. Rothermel

August 25, 2022

Secret rooms were things I read about in Hardy Boy novels as a kid. I spent my youthful summers reading the pseudo-reality adventures by the numerous ghost writers known as Franklin W. Dixon. Later in my life, secret rooms were places we looked for and searched during counter-insurgency operations while serving in the U.S. Army. Today, as a bookdealer my packed schedule had nothing on it about the Hardy Boys and secret rooms. Today, the plan was simply to go to and review a private library filled with books about Native Americans. My Master's Thesis in history concerned the military patterns of conflict between the U.S. Army and the Great Plains Native Americans (1823-1891). Thus, I knew it was going to be a great day due to the types of books I would be reviewing. Rare books are filled with plot twists. People often ask me where I find all these great books that are in the shoppe. The Captain's Log is designed to record those adventures. It is always a good day when you find a great book, and even a better day when you sell two books. Today has the extra bonus of book hunting in the secret room, just like the Hardy Boys.

Scholars spend a lifetime developing their expertise, and often acquire a vast treasure of books. Which books they sell, and how they sell them, and when they sell them are topics I discuss with each client as required. Most books are not as financially liquid as U.S. Treasury Bills or stocks. Books do fluctuate in value. Today's book adventure takes us back to 1929, right before the stock market crash and the Great Depression. The task was to take a look at some books in a landmark stone house sitting on a bluff overlooking the Iowa River. I found some interesting books, a few mysteries, a hidden room and a gracious intellectual host.

The home was originally built by a U.S. Army officer of the First World War, Dr. Herman Jacobson with his wife Sylvella. It reportedly, at one time had a 20-yard-long pistol range in the basement. But today, there was no signs of a pistol range in the basement. Dr. Jacobson was recalled to active duty in 1942 during the Second World War where he served in the Pacific Theatre. He was struck by a tropical disease and evacuated back to the U.S. for treatment. He died while being treated for the disease in California.[1] It is an example of the theme in the Pulitzer Book from the late 1990s: Guns, Germs, and Steel:

"Until World War II, more victims of war died of war-born microbes than of battle wounds. All those military winners of past wars were not always the armies with the best generals and weapons, but were often merely those bearing the nastiest germs to transmit to their enemies.[2]"

Professor of Physiology Jaŕed Diamond

One can only speculate as to why Dr. Jacobson built a home with a hidden room. Often bookdealers are called by the estate to look at a private library. A personal-private library is often a mystery. Why did the person collect certain books? How many times did they read a particular book or subject? Why did they have certain subjects, but others are missing? The estate often only wants to know the bottom line, financial worth. When called upon by a collector or family member to assist them in moving their books, the thing I remember is that it is private. Today is an example of not jumping to judgment. What is known is that the room was truly hidden. The likelihood that someone would notice the hidden door was very remote.

The Jacobson family no longer owns the home. The current owner gave me verbal permission to write about my book hunting at the house with the hidden room. The historian Irving Weber never revealed the room's actual location inside the house, thus I too- will not. He wrote about the house with the hidden room in the Iowa City Press Citizen Newspaper in 1988. His articles were published in eight volumes by the Lions Club called Irving Weber's Iowa City. When the books were new, they reportedly generated $80,000 for charity. They are plentiful and remain a staple in most local used bookstores. They can be found in town for about $7 - $14 retail in the secondary market or online. (I have even seen them for sale in a local barber shop.) Signed books in very good condition have a retail price of $30. The book below, due to rough (rubbed) softbound cover, is selling for $7 at Captain's Book Shoppe. Most folk like a mystery, so all I will say at this point is the house with hidden room is in volume five.[3]

Today, one must not buy a hardcopy of Irving Weber. The University of Iowa has the entire Weber book series digitized and online. Irving Weber's Iowa City | The University of Iowa Libraries (

How advances in information technology have affected demand for books and thus their current market value is an interesting subject. Despite the fact that Irving Weber can be downloaded for free on the internet, people still call, in search of and pay for his books. He was a local, mass-media author and historian that people are still reading.

Another way I find books is that they walk in through the book shoppe door. Clients set up an appointment and then bring in their book(s). One famous local Iowan was the author of forty books (and the thirty-first U.S. President) thus some impressive books occasionally enter and depart the shoppe. Before Herbert Hoover became U.S. President during the Great Depression, he was a mining engineer. His wife, Lou Henry Hoover, was a noted linguist. Together they translated a 1556 Latin book about mining: Georguis Agricola's DE RE METALLICA in 1912.[4]