Buena Vista County, IA
USGenWeb Project




It was fall again -- the fall of 1857.  Some settlers moved west in ramshackle wagons that would hardly hold together for the trip, some drove smart carriages and spirited horses.  Others drove mules, cows, oxen, ponies -- anything that would pull a load.  Some had wagons neatly fitted with wagon bows and white canvas for a cover, while others cut willow saplings and bent them over the wagon to make the bows, and used old blankets, bed quilts, homespun coverlets or sheepskins for covering.  Some had good guns, plenty of supplies and ammunition, and money to buy bright new Conestoga wagons painted blue, with stout wheels and water-proof wagon bodies which could be floated over rivers like a boat with no leaks to wet the settlers’ supplies.

There were no roads then in the Fort Dodge country -- only grass-grown trails.  All western Iowa was the Fort Dodge country -- all beyond the Des Moines River.

The creeks were shallow, the marshes narrower, and the grass stood brown and yellow, stiffened by the long days of drying heat.  Hiram and William Brooke were driving across-country from Cedar Falls.  A settler from the neighboring county of Cherokee has left a description of the crossing, in Thomas McCulla's History of Cherokee County. There was a ferry at Fort Dodge, a ferryman, and a boat made of a cottonwood log hollowed out and sharpened at one end, rounded at the other. In this the settlers were taken across the Des Moines River. Farther down-stream was Des Moines, a small village then with only one brick building -- the new State Capitol. Wagons were floated across the river, or taken apart and carried in the ferryboat, a few pieces at a time.

"We came across the prairie", says that first settler, "when there were no roads whatever, and not a bush or tree of any kind with the exception of three or four cottonwood trees at the inlet of Storm Lake. There were no houses at Storm Lake at that time.  We were guided from Sac City to Storm Lake by following the crushed prairie grass made by a man, who with a wagon, had made the journey shortly before. We camped on the lake shore to let our worn oxen recuperate for a few days and then went on to Cherokee." Now perhaps the man who had gone on before was a settler going into Buena Vista County. Perhaps it was the Brooke brothers themselves.

When these two brothers arrived in the country near Sioux Rapids they took four quarter sections of timber land with upland pasture land adjoining, and in this same place William Brooke lived for more than 50 years.  Brooke Township was named for these two brothers.  We can imagine the frightened curlews flying above their heads as they stopped the oxen, wheeling back in flight to take a second look, then stretching their wings up over their backs as they alighted safely again on the prairie.  We can imagine the flocks of prairie chickens scattered by the sound of voices and running off through the grass, and the smell of fall in the air, the smoky blue of the sunset, the coolness of the night ahead.

The next spring another man came to the settlement on the Little Sioux.  He was not a farmer but a town-builder.  His name was Luther H. Barnes.  He was what the farmers called a speculator, for he bought land with the idea of dividing it into town lots and reselling it at a large profit.  Barnes had money and was intent on making more.  His town was a paper town and he named it Sioux Rapids, not because he found any rapids in the river but because he liked the sound of the name.  There were many towns like this all over Iowa -- towns planned on paper, named, surveyed, and divided into lots.  Many never grew beyond the lofty dreams of their founders.  So it was at first with Sioux Rapids.  Barnes had bought the Templeton claim and large parts of two other sections and had laid out a city of great magnitude and importance.  But the city did not grow according to his plan.  So far there were only about 13 settlers who had come in.

W. S. Lee came in 1858, and with him H. S. Jameson.  Lee was a New Yorker by birth and proved to be a shrewd business man who entered at once into the public affairs in the county.  Moses Van Kirk came about the same time and settled on section two in Barnes Township.  A man by the name of Cole built a log house on section six in Lee Township.  This house was afterward owned by Stengrin Hesla, the “Shoemaker”, as he was called, who settled on section one, Barnes Township.

Timber was so scarce that many of the first settlers lived in sod houses or dugouts.  A traveler at that time might have thought that the county was dotted with oversized gopher mounds, each with a man-made chimney from which smoke and fire poured as though it came from the inner regions of the earth.  To build one of these sod houses, the homesteader would first dig down a few feet, cutting out a series of steps leading up to what was to be the front door.  Then he would put up a framework built of as much lumber as he could haul for the rafters of the roof and the side walls.

Freshly cut sods packed over this made a warm shelter. The roots of prairie sod were so firmly entangled and thickly matted that they offered almost weather-proof protection. The doorway was covered with boards, skins, a rag carpet or an old quilt, and the window openings similarly stopped up until the occupant had a chance to drive to Fort Dodge and buy real doors and windows to set in place.  In such primitive shelters the families of Buena Vista County lived while they worked to make the prairie yield them a living and money enough to buy lumber to build real homes.  They used native grass for fuel, as described in the Past and Present of Buena Vista County:

"He could always tell when our neighbors were getting supper by the puff of fire that would come from the chimneys where slough grass was being burned.  And everyone burned it, as coal was too high, and money too scarce.  Twisted slough hay made a hot fire for a few minutes, and was used extensively.  It would ignite at once and the fire would puff out of the top of the chimney, visible for miles on an evening.  It was a comical sight also to see the people come tumbling out of the sod shanties when callers came, for all the world like a lot of gophers coming out of their holes."

Sometimes the grass burned right out on the prairie, and people had good cause to dread the "prairie fire."  Occasionally stray bands of Indians would start a blaze to scare up game for hunting, and in the fall when the grass was as dry as tinder, it could easily catch fire accidentally.  "When once started", says Past and Present," the only thing to do for a man who was in their path was to save himself, and that as quickly as possible.  During the season when they were frequent, the settler could expect to be awakened almost any night and see the sky painted red from the glow of the flame, his house full of smoke, and if the proper precautions had not been taken he and his family in danger.  Imagine a sheet of flame from ten to fifteen feet high, sometimes a mile in width, rushing along with the wind, with a dull roar that could be heard for a long distance, and you have some idea of what such a spectacle was."

How Dr. W. D. Bailey of Storm Lake escaped death in a prairie fire has been told by his daughter, Mrs. India Butterfield, in the Pilot-Tribune for January 15, 1925.  One autumn day when Dr. Bailey was out hunting he noticed a peculiar haze over the sky and he knew that the prairie must be afire.  He had to act quickly before the flames rolled toward him over the horizon.  "Dismounting from his pony", wrote Mrs. Butterfield, "he started a fire to meet the oncoming one.  The smoke became so dense that he covered his nose and mouth with his cap. As the roaring fire came on it parted at his backfire and went on either side of him and the frightened pony, leaving a blackened waste behind."

In those early years swarms of mosquitoes bothered the settlers and were a genuine menace.  During the summer months, especially before the swamp lands were drained, they infested the region.  Cotton clothing offered no protection from their stings and people had to suffer the discomfort of heavy clothes to ward them off.  Sometimes at night it was necessary to build smudges and drive them out of the house with smoke before the family could go to bed.  At a dance -- possibly the first held in the county at the Fourth of July celebration at Isaac Enders' home in 1861 -- it was necessary to fill an old kettle with smoldering and "ill-smelling material" and bring it into the room between each number to smoke out the mosquitoes and allow the party to progress in some degree of comfort.

Of course, prairie life had its compensations.  In fine weather, almost everyone could appreciate the beauty of the spacious open country.  Wild roses grew thick and, according to Mrs. Butterfield, the sunsets were "glorious", and the moonlight turned "the grass into billowy waves."

For the first few years[,] elk, deer, and other game were plentiful.  Often flocks of wild geese and ducks darkened the sky.  In the winter the men would fish by cutting holes in the ice and killing the fish with spears as they swam near the opening.  Trapping was a profitable occupation too, and high grade furs were shipped east from Buena Vista County.  The women made practically all of the clothing for their own households, and they took bits of fur to trim coats and hats.  It was not unusual for them to make caps and mittens of mink trapped in the vicinity.

While the settlers were locating homes, planting crops, and making the most of the natural advantages of the region, they grew increasingly anxious for a county organization, with officials elected to carry on the business of the county and a courthouse where taxes could be paid, law courts held, and other public affairs directed and managed.

Buena Vista County had been attached to Woodbury County for voting and judicial purposes until 1856.  Then Judge A. W. Hubbard of Woodbury County appointed a committee of three men to choose a county seat.  The only settlement at that time was at Sioux Rapids but the committee did not approve that site because it was so near the banks of the river. Instead they chose a location one mile south and marked off ten acres for the town in section 18 of what afterward became Lee Township. They called this place Prairieville.

But nothing happened for two years more.  Then William S. Lee came out from the East and settled in "Trusty Gulch" just north of Sioux Rapids.  He acquired the land at Prairieville and soon the townsite [sic] came to be known as Leesburg.  He built a log house there which was used for a dwelling, for religious services, and for official purposes.  But no real town nor courthouse ever materialized.

The actual organization of Buena Vista County took place in the fall of l858 after Luther Barnes had prepared a petition and carried it to the district court of Woodbury County in Sioux City.  The signers of the petition were Lennox Barnes, W. S. Lee, M. S. Jameson, Abner Bell, W. R. Weaver, Morris Metcalf, "Shoemaker" Hesla, Charles Metcalf, John W. Tucker, Moses Van Kirk, S. E. Packard, Luther Barnes’ son-in-law, Barnes, Cole, and Arthur Reeves.

Woodbury County authorities did not grant the petition because they were not satisfied that the signers were a majority of the legal voters of Buena Vista County.  Instead they ordered L. B. Crittenden to act as organizing sheriff and to post notices of township elections to be held that October.  The settlers did not like this arrangement, and S. E. Packard and 21 other legal voters signed another petition objecting to it.  This was granted after Luther Barnes had taken an oath that a majority of the legal voters in the county had signed it.

Lennox Barnes acted as organizing sheriff and posted notices that the election would be held November 15, 1858.  At that time a number of officials were chosen:  Sheriff, Abner Bell, County Judge, Arthur T. Reeves, County Clerk, John W. Tucker, Superintendent of Common Schools, Mordecai Jameson.  The offices of treasurer and recorder, coroner, surveyor, drainage commissioner, township clerk, supervisor, constable, justice of the peace and township assessor were also filled.

The results of the election were odd in many ways.  There were 17 offices to fill, 13 votes were cast for each; and yet the poll book lists show only 14 voters!  One name is missing.  Some of the men were evidently absent from the county.  W. S. Lee, one of the leaders, neither voted nor ran for office.  John Tucker, William Brooke, Hiram Brooke, and H. S. Jameson were successful candidates, but did not vote.  William Weaver was elected to three offices while Mendel Metcalf and Aquilla Cook each had two.

One of the first acts of the new officers was to levy a six-mill road tax and bridge tax which brought in about $200 the first year.  Another task was to lay off the county into townships so that roads and schools could be built, but this was neglected for nearly 11 years during which there was only one big township -- Barnes.  Probably the worry and hardships of surviving several unfavorable seasons caused the settlers to concentrate on more personal problems.

The winter of 1858-1859 was again a hard one and in early spring came another rumor of approaching Indians.  The settlers had very little ammunition and some of their guns were as ramshackle as their wagons.  Every kind of gun was used, muskets from the Revolutionary War, Kentucky rifles, squirrel shooters, shotguns, pistols, long guns, sawed-off guns, good guns and poor guns -- anything that would shoot.  There were even some of the new Sharpe's rifles, breechloading [sic] guns to be used in the coming struggle of the Civil War.  But they needed shot and powder to load the guns and during the long winter their supplies had been used up.  S. H. Packard was a young and able man[,] so he started off to Fort Dodge to bring home the ammunition.  He reached the Des Moines River safely and started across but he did not know that the spring thaws had already weakened the ice.  When about half way across he broke through and though he saved himself from drowning,  his feet were badly frozen before he could reach the settlement. Both feet had to be amputated when he reached Fort Dodge.  He never returned to Sioux Rapids.  When his father-in-law, Luther Barnes, heard of this tragedy he too gave up and soon afterward left the county, never to return.  All that was left of his promised city were the stakes which marked the blocks and streets.  The thrifty settlers soon gathered these for firewood and the land was once more taken over for farming purposes. The name of Barnes is, however, still remembered in the County, for the township and grove were named for him, and though the town itself was called Hollingsworth Ford for some time, the original name finally came back into use and the town, as Barnes had named it, began to prosper.

Iowa Writers’ Project.  Buena Vista County History.  Storm Lake, Iowa:  Work Projects Administration, 1942.  14-19.  Print.

Contributed anonymously