top of page

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]

The more expensive (famous) the book, the greater likelihood that the buyer and seller will evaluate the economics of a digital version of the book which is often less costly (even free) compared to the original book. Many prefer to get their information and to digitally store it. While some prefer digital versions of the written word, Irving Weber's Iowa City reminds us of the steady demand for printed works, particularly the book. Why certain original books or translations continue to hold their monetary value when free digital copies are available interests me. Some books decrease in value. Why books decrease in value is an incredibly important factor to understand, if one desires to stay in business. Understanding such mysteries is what I enjoy investigating.

As a book detective, I use Iowa City as a base camp for my investigations. It is where fiction and non-fiction meet. The Pearl Harbor historian, Professor Gordon W. Prange (1910-1980) was born in Pomeroy, Iowa. He went to the University of Iowa for his bachelor's and PhD. in history. He taught history at the University of Maryland from 1937-1942 when he entered the U.S. Navy due to the Second World War.

"Dr. Prange was an authority on the Pacific campaigns of World War II, the military occupation of Japan, and the career of Gen. of the Army Douglas MacArthur. From 1946 to 1951, he served on Gen. MacArthur's general staff in Tokyo. During these years he directed an Army historical staff of more than 80 persons, including former Japanese military officers as well as U.S. Army officers and enlisted men, to produce a history on the operations of Gen. MacArthur."

He wrote numerous books, which include At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor which was made into the movie Tora, Tora, Tora.[5]. Oddly, on the fiction side there are young adults that walk into the store and have never heard of the novel First Blood by former University of Iowa English Professor David Morrell. (Technically, he wrote the book while a grad student at Penn State.) His classes were always full by the time I registered, though his books remain all over town- still to this day. As an undergrad I had a top-notch writing instructor, Pulitzer recipient James Alan McPherson. The town is full of readers, writers and poets. Theoretically, not a bad place to pitch a tent to sell a few books under the shadow of the giant Amazon warehouse that took over the old Heinz Ketchup warehouse. There is never a shortage of interesting fiction and non-fiction in this town looking for a market.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations aimed at promoting world peace and security through international cooperation in education, arts, sciences and culture. Iowa City is a UNESCO City of Literature.

"UNESCO's History:

As early as 1942, in wartime, the governments of the European countries, which were confronting Nazi Germany and its allies, met in the United Kingdom for the Conference of Allied Ministers of Education (CAME). World War II was far from over, yet those countries were looking for ways and means to rebuild their education systems once peace was restored. The project quickly gained momentum and soon acquired a universal character. New governments, including that of the United States, decided to join in."[6]

"The Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa pioneered the teaching of creative writing at the university level. Dozens of creative programs within the university and the city followed. The newest chapter in this tradition is Iowa City’s designation as a UNESCO City of Literature."[7]

Iowa City in 2008 became the third out of what is now forty-five international communities that are designated as UNESCO Cities of Literature. Thus, there are plenty of new and old stories (books of fiction and non-fiction) awaiting to be discovered in this town.

The secret realities and mysteries of books make for an interesting adventure almost as unbelievable as the Hardy Boys. Who would believe that today I went book hunting in a house with a secret room? This is a town where fact is often stranger than fiction. Locally, in Eastern Iowa there is generally a slightly higher demand for vintage Nancy Drew because the ghost writer for that series was from Ladora, Iowa and was an University of Iowa graduate. That is a story for another time...


[1] Irving Weber, Irving Weber's Iowa City Volume 5 (Iowa City: Iowa City Lions Club, 1989), 121- 4. Series 41... ( (Accessed September 12, 2022).

[2] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), 197. For additional online information about the book, please consult: Guns Germs, & Steel: About the Book. Jared Diamond | PBS.

[3] Irving Weber (1900 - 1997) after his retirement from the dairy industry, was an Iowa City historian. Every Saturday, beginning in 1973 The Iowa City Press Citizen newspaper published one of his historical essays. The local Lions Club published the articles in softbound books called Irving Weber's Iowa City (eight volumes). The books have reportedly generated $80,000 for charity. They are plentiful and still a staple in most local used bookstores. The used books run about $7 - $14 retail in secondhand bookstores or online. Signed books in very good condition have a retail price of $30. The above book, due to rough (rubbed) softbound cover, is selling for $7 at Captain's Book Shoppe. Addall Search Engine book prices on August 25, 2022. Irving Weber: Iowa City - price comparison listings ( (Accessed August 25, 2022). University of Iowa's Digital Library provided biographical, copyright, and charity earnings for the Weber books. Irving Weber's Iowa City | The Un Tiversity of Iowa Libraries ( (Accessed August 27, 2022). Irving Weber – Mr. Iowa City. | Our Iowa Heritage (Accessed August 27, 2022).

Herbert Hoover - The White House (Accessed September 12, 2022).

[5] Prange History Professor G. W. Prange Dies - The Washington Post (Accessed September 12, 2022).

[6] UNESCO in brief | UNESCO (Accessed September 12, 2022).


Recent Posts

Follow Us

  • Black Facebook Icon
  • Black Twitter Icon
  • Black LinkedIn Icon
  • Black Instagram Icon
  • Black YouTube Icon
bottom of page