USGenWeb Cherokee County Iowa IAGenWeb

WPA History of Cherokee County


Compiled and written by the Iowa Writers' Project of Works Projects Administration, State of Iowa

Thomas McBride, assistant state geologist, said in his report of this county in 1870, "Cherokee presents a landscape so varied and yet withal so moderate as to be without a rival in all that looks to agricultural beauty and easy, fortunate husbandry."

Named for a tribe of Indians which had its range far to the south near St. Louis, Cherokee County has turned out to be quite as wonderful as those early settlers thought it would be, and their hopes were indeed high. To them it was to be the Eldorado and the Promised Land. From the far East they came, from Massachusetts and from Maine. From the Middle States, Indiana and Ohio and from Dubuque County and the river towns in Iowa, they came to find the "goodly heritage" of the deep black soil.

They came part way by train or on river boats. They came in covered wagons, on horseback, and afoot, each seeking a home in this "land between two rivers." Some sought to settle "where the long slough grass grows," believing that would be the deepest soil and the richest. Some wanted land with a flowing spring of cool water for their families and stock, and when they found springs in Cherokee County they were well pleased and settled there. Some wanted to build on high land where they could look out over their own acres and watch their cattle graze for miles and miles on the broad prairie. They found such places in Cherokee County and contentedly settled there. Some wanted to build along the rivers where there was plenty of wood to burn and fish and game to eat. It seemed warmer, too, in the river valleys and there were always more visitors to bring the news, for the rivers were the first trails, and here the traveler went by on horseback, in Indian canoes, in wagons or on foot. Thus many settled aldng the little Sioux River which flows southward through the county.

Did all these people find the good homes they expected, and the good times, and the good crops? The work was hard, food scarce, winters cold, and the living lonely. Some speak of sod breaking, hard times, grasshoppers, wolves howling among the hills, and Indians coming to the door for food; but the old pioneers say, "We were happy then. Those were the good old days.” Thomas McCulla writes in his history of Cherokee County, "While the fare was hard at times and the labor rough, there was something -- 'a sort of feelin' in the air' -- that will never come again."

Herbert Quick, who was one of the early mayors of Sioux City and a writer of several books of pioneer life, said: "The prairie was like a great green sea with the spring grass beginning to show on the uplands and the swales coated thick with an emerald growth "full bite-high." In the deeper, wetter, hollows grew cowslips with glossy golden petals. On the hillsides pasque flowers showed their furry coats and a few violets gave promise of making the sunny slopes as blue as the sky. "The keen northwest wind swept before it a flock of white clouds and under the clouds went their shadows, walking over the lovely hills like dark ships over an emerald sea."

For miles and miles the rolling land was carpeted with thick turf. It grew tall and moved in endless waves of shining green in the summer wind and sun. Here was a boundless pasture, a chance to plow and plant without first clearing the land of trees and stumps, rocks and undergrowth, as was so often necessary in the East. Here was a place where the wind could blow over a thousand miles of hay land and the air was sweet with the growing grass.

This prairie land is truly one of the wonders of the world. Prairie is the French word for meadow or grassland and in the broad reaches of the Mississippi Valley the grass grew for centuries without being disturbed. Patches of this wild grass and tall bluestem may still be seen in country schoolyards and in wild sloughs. The wild prairie rose, Iowa's state flower, blooms in pink clusters in June oatfields and along roadsides. It is said that originally Cherokee County had more native timber than any other five counties in the northwestern portion of the state. Along the rivers there are still places where this timber has not been cut. Here in the fall the crimson berries of the wahoo bush hang like drops of blood. Scarlet bittersweet blazes from the thickets. Woodbine leaves turn red against the brown trunks of river trees Sumac glows like campfire flames, and hickory trees and cottonwoods turn to shining gold. There are giant cottonwoods here which have been growing since the pioneers came, and tall black walnut trees, oaks, dark Norway spruces, and honey locusts. In Turkey Hollow near a high hill called Reny's Knob is a bladdernut tree. This has queer seeds or nuts which look like the fruit of the groundcherry but have hard shells.

All sorts of flowers bloom in these woodlands -- bloodroot with petals as white as waxen birthday candles spread fanwise in gleaming circles; the white trillium, pink trillium, troutlily or dog's tooth violet, and a small rare flower of palest purple set in a frame of warm brown leaves, the hepatica.

Gum weeds grow tall along the roadsides and sunflowers are yellow as the ripe corn. Late in September one may find the closed blue gentian blooming. In October the sky will suddenly be filled with the white wings of the Franklin's gulls flying low over pasture and plowed lend. Then on a certain day, often et sunset or when the sky is low and dark with rain, the wild geese and ducks go over. The steady monotone of their chanting may be heard as they pass far overhead toward the south.

In the tall slough grass the cattails grow and here one may find the Maryland yellowthroat, a small yellow and gray bird with a black mark across his eyes which looks like a velvet Halloween mask. This bird, like the dickcissel and the meadowlark, sings all season until its song, like the lark's, becomes a familiar and expected background of summer. The red-winged blackbird swings its nest in a clump of buckbrush, ties it firmly with cord, and then sings about it jubilantly all day long, scolding loudly at anyone who approaches too near. In the evening killdeers and nighthawks fly with weird calls. Brilliant pheasants may come down to drink, and the black-crowned night heron, the great blue heron, and the bittern, may be seen. The bittern will often stand stiff and straight in the pastures, trusting to its protective coloration to make it invisible. Once a flock of white pelicans settled on the Little Sioux River for a season. These birds are so huge that they have a wingspread of eight feet and farmers along the river stopped their work in amazement to watch them.

A Cherokee County 4-H girl tells how she saw little foxes come out to play when she went to pick gooseberries. Beavers come back also to the streams of Cherokee County and have established several colonies. Virginia opossum and raccoon are frequently seen, as well as skunk, weasel, mink and an occasional badger.

Thus we see that Cherokee County is a land of contrasts -- a land of ancient things and of new things, a land which may yield with the rich opulence of the South and in another season may present the brooding, frozen, lonely landscape of the North. Here cultivated fields lie beside wild prairie and woodland, purebred livestock thrive as well as wild beaver, and implements left to us from older days may be found as well as brightly painted modern implements. But the story of Cherokee County is too long and too complex to tell in one small volume. In an area of some 573 square miles about 19,000 people live. We can but touch the surface in this space.

If anyone should ever tell you that nothing exciting ever happens in Cherokee County, give him the story of the two back-woodsmen of Hardin County, Kentucky, who met one February morning in 1809. One man asked the other, "Any news down t' th' village, Ezray?" And the second replied, "Well, Squire McLean's gone t' Washington t' see Madison swore in, an' ol' Spellman tells me this Bonaparte fella has captured most o' Spain. What's new out here, neighbor?"

Whereupon the first man, sure of his ground, answered, "Nothin' a tall, nothin' a tall, ‘cept fer a new baby down 't Tom Lincoln's. Nothin' ever happens here."

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