Buena Vista County, IA
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CHAPTER 7

LIFE ON THE IOWA FRONTIER

During all this time things were happening.  Schools and churches, store buildings, and homes were being built.  Unfavorable weather conditions had to be overcome.  The blizzard of March 1870 came and went, said by some to be the worst storm in the county, until the blizzards of 1880-1881 rode in to set new records of fierceness and cold.  Then came the grasshopper years from 1876 through 1878, when crops were wiped out and many farmers lost hope in the new land and traveled east again, looking for their former homes.

Some experiences of the period were vividly recalled long afterward by John Wart, in an article printed in the Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune for February 26, 1931.  Wart had then lived in the county more than 61 years, 50 years of that time on section 24, Newell Township, where he “raised black cattle and red pigs and good horses.” Wart and his parents and his brother came to Buena Vista County in 1869, a little ahead of the railroad.  They left New York in April, traveling by stage, but “wound up walking into the county the most of the way from Fort Dodge, following the railroad stakes, wading and swimming the Big Lizard and the Little Lizard and the Cedar River before there was a house or a furrow plowed, where Fonda now stands.”  Mrs. Wart waited at Fort Dodge until her husband and sons located a place to stay -- the upper part of a sod house.  They bought oxen and a wagon, and returned to get Mrs. Wart and convey their household goods to their new abode.

While living in the sod house, the men of the family went back and forth from Fort Dodge, hauling lumber for a frame house.  They laid out a trail to Fort Dodge and for a long time, “all of the travel west to Dakota and to the northwest went over this trail.  Well, it did not take long to build the house.  We clapboarded three sides and on the west side we just put building paper on the studding and tacked lath on it about a foot apart.  It was not rubberoid, just common tar paper and we put brown paper on the inside.  When winter came and the wind blow in, the paper warped up and the wind blew harder in the house than it did outdoors.”

As a stable had to be built for the oxen and there was much timber on Sunk Grove Island, three miles away and surrounded by water from 40 to 80 rods wide, the boys swam across to bring back the wood.  Their father cut crotches in the logs and after the framework was up, covered it all over with slough hay.  It looked more like a haystack than a barn.

John Wart trapped muskrats that winter.  “I would go out early in the morning,” the Pilot-Tribune quotes him, “and stay until dark and all I had for dinner was a roll of cornmeal pancakes stuffed in my pocket and they tasted as good to me as pie or cake does now but my hands smelled a little ratty when it froze up.”  Finally the boy had about $300 worth of skins tied up in bundles.  He put them in the attic, but when the snow began to melt after a storm, it dripped on the pelts which had to be removed for drying to the room where the family ate and lived.  The skins were spread out until there was only a path left on the floor from the stove to the cupboard and table, and Mrs. Wart had an uncomfortable time trying to get meals with the skins right there before her.

The blizzard of March 14, 15, and 16, 1870, was terrible.  “The snow was so deep in the house we could not start a fire,” Wart continues, “so we stayed in bed the last two days and slept with our clothes on for we did not know what minute the house would blow away.  We thought it a long time.  Our beds were loaded down with snow.  After the storm we crawled out and started to shovel out.”

They dug a path to the barn and had to break in the door and dig through the snow to the cattle, which they found still alive and standing with their backs against the roof.  It took a long time to free them from their frozen prison and, “when I took the first ox out in the cold he shivered ... and we had to get a bed quilt and put it on him to keep him from freezing to death.”  The deep snow had to be carried out of the barn in a washtub.  After the place had been cleared, the oxen were kept wrapped in quilts, given a drink of melted snow and hay to eat, and the animals pulled through.

Nevertheless the family felt discouraged and if they could have sold the muskrat skins would gladly have started back to their old home in New York.  A little while after the blizzard, a man from Sac City came to buy the furs.  He paid $825 for them.  Almost immediately past hardships were forgotten!

Before long, railroad graders began work on the first railroad through the region, the Dubuque and Sioux City, afterward to become part of the Illinois Central.  Gangs of men spread out over every mile to lay the ties and rails.  The first passenger train went by the Wart house on the way to Newell and Storm Lake July 4, 1870.  As the father of the family watched the little engine puff by, hauling one car, he remarked, “I don't know how that looks to you, but it looks good to me.”  It looked good to everybody!

In another article in the Pilot-Tribune, W. F. Couch stated that one could ride a horse 50 miles in any direction and never see a house, a tree, or a fence.  He told the story of how a neighbor, M. D. Watkins, who lived near Newell, got lost while mowing.  He had hitched his fine team of bay horses to the mower -- the first in the vicinity -- and started out to mow hay.  After going half a mile down into the hollow, he realized that he was lost.  The “blue joint” reached up high against the horses.  Watkins stood up on the mower.  Then he climbed up on the backs of the animals, and still he could not orient himself.  The day was cloudy.  Finally he turned the mower around and started back along the swath already out until he reached a point where he could get his bearings.

“Nate” Couch traded a span of small horses for two yoke of oxen and had started to break up the land when one of the oxen died.  Couch then made a single yoke for the odd ox and went right ahead working with the three animals.  He broke 30 or 40 acres that first year.  His boys followed with an axe, chopping a hole in the center of every third sod, dropping in the corn, and giving it a “lick” with the butt of the axe before going on to the next.  For the next several years Couch marked the corn rows each way with a corn marker, and during the planting season his son dropped the seed into the cross, to be covered over by two men following up with hoes.

Squirrels, gophers, and blackbirds dug up the seed and as a precaution Couch would soak the seed in thin coal tar to make it less attractive to these biped and quadruped marauders.

The ponds and sloughs provided nesting places for all kinds of game and birds.  From there in the fall emerged sandhill cranes, wild geese, brants, ducks, and prairie chickens, in such numbers that they had to be driven from the crops by the watch dog, named Shep.  When he made his morning and evening rounds, the game would rise up in clouds from the edges of the fields.  So many sandhill cranes would settle on the prairie that from a distance they looked like great flocks of sheep.  The mosquitoes, too (we are told today) were so enormous that they might have been mistaken for blackbirds.

The greatest curse of all was the grasshoppers, which came in countless numbers in 1876.  For several days they were so thick one could hardly see the sun.  The grain was stripped everywhere, but the Couch family managed to save about half of their crops by dragging long ropes crosswise with the wind over the fields.  The hoppers, once forced back to the empty prairie, would never face the wind to return.  But they were followed almost immediately, of course, by others which came with the wind.

The Couch boys had a real thrill one day in 1876, when they hitched up the two young red oxen, Tom and Jerry, and hurried to Newell to buy a horse collar.  Just as they reached town they saw a long train pulling into the station.  They tethered the oxen and hiked to the tracks where soldiers were getting out of the cars for a little exercise.  The smart-looking men in uniform stepped down to the street, marched briskly down one side and back on the other.  The boys had not thought there were so many soldiers in the world.  Then they noticed a distinguished-looking officer with longish hair, and a stylish lady who clung to his arm.  The crowd that was watching supplied the news that this was General Custer, on his way out west with his soldiers to fight the Indians, and the pretty lady, his wife, was going to accompany him as far as possible.  The Couch boys had to explain why the trip to town had taken them so long, but they were always glad afterward that they had seen the train and the passengers, for this was the last trip for General Custer and for most of his men, who were massacred by the Indians at the Big Horn River late in June 1876.

The boys unexpectedly had another glimpse of a national figure a year or two later.  They were tending a smudge fire near the stable of a neighbor named Ballard, to keep the mosquitoes away from the stock.  Ballard was absent for the night.  It was getting late and possibly the boys drowsed a little.  Suddenly something wakened them and Sam rose to stir up the fire.  As he poked it, the flames flared up and revealed a line of eight horsemen, all drawn up abreast.  In a flash the mysterious riders, who had approached almost noiselessly, wheeled their horses and vanished into the night.  The two boys rubbed their eyes and wondered whether they had been dreaming.  Shortly afterward Frank and Jesse James and some other outlaws were captured at Northfield, Minnesota.  The Couch brothers always thought that these men were acquainted with Ballard, who was from Missouri, and had perhaps ridden up to talk with him, or possibly ask for shelter.  But seeing the unfamiliar face of Sam Couch in the firelight, and not knowing how many other persons might be waiting in the darkness behind, they had hastened away without stopping to inquire.

After the railroad came through, it was followed by more people, homes, schools, churches, stores, and blacksmith shops.  John Wart told how his father got a compass and with its aid and a law book, called Every Man His Own Lawyer, worked up quite a trade helping settlers get locate at $25 a claim.

Among the first to settle on the shore of Storm Lake were the Baileys, Dr. W. D. Bailey, his wife, Martha Ellen, and their four small children.  Like the Wart family, they preceded the railroad.  They had to camp in a tent for months before their house was ready.  Sometimes during the winter several families would move into one cabin and burn the other houses for fuel.  When the snow began to fall they tied ropes from the kitchen door to the barn to guide them during the storms which were sure to follow.  And, as the wind swept in from the lake on washdays, the women fastened small rocks in the corners of each piece hung up to prevent it from being blown off the clothes line.

Later the Baileys bought property on Cayuga street.  A willow switch brought from the lake shore was stuck into the ground; in time this grew into a large tree which drooped over the wall into the yard.

John Ludington was perhaps the first man to settle on the north side of Storm Lake.  He took a claim there in the summer of 1868.  At first the town was to be located on the southeast shore and would then turn the title over to the railroad for a town site.  Then he refused to give up the land, thinking perhaps that he could sell town lots.  After that the railroad changed the location of the town to the north central lake shore and there the town was laid out.  At the time the lots were sold the only buildings on the site were the real estate office of Barton and Hobbs and the Selkirk House.  Two months later there were 83 buildings in the new town.

The first dance in Storm Lake was held in the little hotel put up by T. S. (Uncle Tommy) Smith at the early site, three-quarters of a mile southeast of the town later located by the railroad company men.  Smith's two sons, James and Augustus, kept a store there, too.  Afterward the hotel was moved to the new location at Storm lake.

The first new Storm Lake lots were sold on August 11, 1870.  During the previous month the Dubuque and Sioux City Railroad had completed the extension of its line west from Iowa Falls to Sioux City.  When all the work was finished the working parties from both ends of the line met one and a half miles west of Storm Lake to celebrate the occasion with appropriate ceremonies.  The construction gangs had worked respectively west from Iowa Falls and east from Sioux City, until they came together. Then the first four spikes toward the completion of the road were driven by Messrs. Barton, Vincent, Phelps, and Carson.

Storm Lake was staked off into town lots, sites mainly controlled by the Sioux City and Iowa Falls Town Lot and land Company, whose incorporators were led by John I. Blair.

The lot sale gave rise to many problems, especially since it was known that Blair and other eastern capitalists were to be present, and Blair was to start auctioning off the first lots.  As the day was wet and disagreeable, the selling took place indoors, in the Thomas Selkirk House.  Blair worked energetically, calling particular attention to lots that he thought suited certain businesses.  Corner lots north of the railroad track on Lake Avenue were the first to sell.  Afterwards the others went rapidly.

Aurelia Blair Wirick was the first child born in Storm Lake.  The date was December 7, 1870.  Her father, Edmund Wirick, had brought his family from Illinois to western Iowa in 1869 and, after prospecting along the line of the railroad, bought a lot at the original sale in August 1870.  At that sale John I. Blair, a heavy stockholder of the railroad, promised to present a town lot to the first child born there.  The next month Wirick had brought over his wife and two children, Leora and Frank, to live there.  And in the following December, after the birth of the new daughter in the Wirick home, there came a letter containing a deed for the promised lot and a name for the child -- Aurelia Blair Wirick.  The name was given in honor of Blair's daughter who had recently died.  The Wiricks were much surprised by their good fortune, especially on learning that the lot was well located.  It was across from the place where the courthouse was to stand some years later.  When Aurelia was eight years old, her father built the Park Hotel.  Here, at the center of Storm lake, she spent her girlhood days.  As a young woman she was married to Dr. J. W. Lawrence of Sioux City.

The planners of Storm Lake looked to the future.  They made all of the streets 100 feet wide, and extended Lake Avenue, the city's main thoroughfare, to a width of 120 feet.

L. J. Barton and Samuel Hobbs opened the first bank in town.  Later James F. Toy, who came in 1870, started a lumber and implement business, then took office as cashier of the Storm Lake Bank, the first to be established under State banking laws.  James Harker was president and J. A. Dean vice-president.  Toy soon started branch banks in Alta and Sioux Rapids.

Other pioneer business men were Phil Schaller, for whom the town of Schaller was no doubt named; Senator Robinson, later Supreme Court judge; Lot Thomas, who became district judge and then Congressman; Edgar E. Mack, who became senator and then chairman of the Republican State Central Committee; A. D. Bailey and James De Land and J. E. Buland, prominent attorneys, and also William Milchrist, one of the best known lawyers in northwest Iowa, who later located in Sioux City.

Growing prosperity brought with it better living conditions and even touches of luxury.  The James Harker home on Lake Avenue in Storm Lake was the first brick residence in Buena Vista County.  It was built by the Harkers in 1875.

Iowa Writers’ Project.  Buena Vista County History.  Storm Lake, Iowa:  Work Projects Administration, 1942.  40-46.  Print.

Contributed anonymously

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