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 Iowa History

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Northwestern Iowa, which is typical of the state, is not a land of lofty peaks and tremendous gashes in the ground, but a gently swelling country with a broad matronly bosom suggestive of protection and nourishment. It is not a land of which its children are in awe, but which they love, and its expanses of mellow soil, sometimes varied along its water courses by rounded banks and hills, are a constant assurance of thrift, contentment and prosperity. Iowa is not a land in which to constantly admire the grandeurs of nature, or dream of its beauties, but a country in which to work and thrive, to enjoy the comforts and homely things of life, and to thank God for giving its men, women and children those physical bounties which enable them to prosper materially and to rise in a healthful way to high planes of thought and action.



The story of how nature has worked to mold this pleasant and bountiful land to the uses of an industrious and grateful race is a fascinating romance for those who desire to read it. From the foundations of the earth to the surface of the teeming soil, it was destined to produce great crops of corn and grasses, and to breed and maintain thousands upon thousands of droves and herds. The sun and the rains even have cooperated to make Iowa and its people among the select regions and children of the earth.

Northwestern Iowa is so purely and agricultural region that it is not necessary to more than mention iron, lead or coal in connection with her natural resources, although the coal fields of Dallas and Polk counties overlap her extreme southeastern territory. Some of the counties in the northwestern section of the state have valuable beds of gravel and clay, but they go to emphasize the fact that the economic wealth of the earth which covers that region lies comparatively near the surface and far above the primary rocks.


The section of Iowa covered by the twenty counties of this history owes its natural riches to several glacial drifts which came down from the north and covered the state with the exception of a small northeastern corner. A large portion of Canada was buried under a mile of snow. As the surface melted little by little, the water filtered down through the vast mass of snow and ice was formed. As the thickness of the ice field could not be uniform, a movement commenced in all directions which was determined by the inclination of its bed. It pushed slowly southward into the United States, bearing along great blocks of stone, some of which were frozen in when it started on its dramatic journey and others gathered on its way through what is now Minnesota, Wisconsin and New England. For ages this enormous ice-sheet, or glacier, crept southward, grinding loose rocks and polishing the more permanent formations which it encountered, forming vast deposits of powdered material (
rock flour), wearing off the hilltops and scouring out the valleys. Thus it passed over the present State of Iowa, except the small



northeastern section mentioned, traveled beyond its southern boundary and only halted in Central Missouri.


After a time, the climate grew warmer and the great ice-field commenced to melt along its thinnest or southern edges, and gradually all the area which is now Iowa was uncovered. As the glacier dissolved, its accumulations settled. In some places hills were made of the accumulations of boulders, broken rock, rock flour, gravel and pebbles. In other sections the glacial drift was spread more evenly. In some portions of the state, a layer more than a hundred feet thick was left on top of the bedrock, while in other parts only a few feet were deposited. Five times did these great fields of ice push into Iowa, either killing the elephants, mastodons and wild horses or driving them southward. The bones of some of them which were thus overtaken have been found in the gravels of Harrison and Monona counties and in other parts of the state.

It was by this slow and tedious process that the surface of Iowa was formed; nothing that is of lasting value is ever made in haste. As the glacier moved forward it left at the edge of the ice a ridge called a “lateral moraine.” Where tow glaciers came together a larger ridge called a “median moraine” was formed, and at the terminus of the ice-sheet, where all the residue carried by the glacier was deposited, the ridge thus formed is known as a “terminal moraine.” In the western part of Emmet County the geologist can find abundant evidence that the ancient glacial river left there a median moraine, where it came in contact with another glacier that covered the County of Dickinson.

The boulders commonly called “nigger heads” that are to be seen in all parts of the state were deposited by one of these glaciers. They are found in large numbers all over Northwestern Iowa, particularly along the Little Sioux River, to which the Sioux Indians gave the name of Ea-ne-ah-wad-e-pon, or Stone River. In the southern part of Cherokee County is a red granite boulder, 40 feet wide, 60 feet long and 20 feet high. It is so conspicuous that it is called Pilot Rock.




Three ice-sheets invaded Northwestern Iowa, and almost concealed the bedrock. The area covered by the first (Nebraskan) was completely overridden by the second (Kansan), and the drift of the first is exposed only in valleys that have been cut through the overlying drift-sheet. The drift-sheets of the second and of the third (Wisconsin) ice invasions appear at the surface outside the valleys. The Kansan drift sheet is therefore the oldest which is to be seen on the surface of Northwestern Iowa. The direction of the original water courses as they existed in the glacial period of the Nebraskan drift is largely a matter of speculation, although some geologists claim that it was toward the southeast. Careful observations made by the Iowa Geological Survey, however, indicate that the great Wisconsin ice drift turned a great volume of the accumulated waters toward the southwest and the valleys of the Missouri and the Sioux rivers, thus substantially fixing the divide and water shed of Western Iowa as it is today. (see “Geology of Northwestern Iowa,” by J. Ernest Carman, Iowa Geological Survey, Vol. XXVI.)


The bedrock exposures of Northwestern Iowa occur chiefly in the slopes of the Big Sioux and the Missouri valleys along the west boundary of the state. Along the west line of Plymouth and Northern Woodbury counties, there are many small outcrops, along the west line of Southern Sioux County there are a few, and in Lyon County are two or three outcrops in the very northwest corner of the state. Away from these valleys only two small exposure of bedrock have been reported in Northwestern Iowa. Most of these outcrops are in steep valley slopes, evidently gouged away by the glacial action of a later (Wisconsin) drift.

Two widely separated divisions of the geologic column are represented by the bedrock outcrops in the Big Sioux Valley. The few exposures in Northwestern Lyon County are of the Proterozoic, or quartz-like rocks, while those of the counties tot he south are of Cretaceous rocks. In the northwestern corner of Lyon County there are two exposures of what is



known as the Sioux quartzite. One of these lies near the Minnesota line, and the rock stands as a ridge twenty feet high and about a quarter of a mile long. The other outcrop is in a small valley two miles to the east. These two exposures in Iowa lie on the south border of a large area of quartzite, which extends north to Flandreau, South Dakota, a distance of forty-five miles, and has its eastern limit at Redstone Ridge, Cottonwood County, Minnesota, and its western limit at Mitchell, South Dakota. The rock is well exposed at Rowena, South Dakota, just north of the outcrops on the Iowa side, in and around Sioux Falls, and at many other places in Eastern South Dakota and Southwestern Minnesota. The area within which the Sioux quartzite directly underlies the drift in Northwestern Iowa cannot be definitely outlined. The Sioux quartzite and other ancient rocks of its geologic age form a basic foundation for Northwestern Iowa. Their upper surface dips southward from the outcrops at an altitude of more than 1,400 feet above sea level in the northwest corner of Lyon County, and, as shown by well borings, 878 feet at Hull, Sioux County, and 215 feet at LeMars, Plymouth County, and 135 feet below sea level, at Sioux City.

This basic stone of Northwestern Iowa, the Sioux quartzite, is a very hard vitreous rock, varying in color from pink to red. It consists of rounded quartz sand grains, so firmly cemented with silica that the whole resembles a mass of quartz.


Northwestern Iowa lies just within the eastern margin of the great area of Cretaceous rocks of the Great Plains, and the chief bedrock formations belong to the Upper Cretaceous system. Outcrops appear at intervals in the slopes of the Big Sioux Valley south from the mouth of Rock River, and in the bluffs of the Missouri Valley to a point about six miles south of Sioux City. Away from the large valleys on the west only two bedrock outcrops of the cretaceous nature have been reported. One of these is two miles northeast of LeMars, Plymouth County, and the other in the southeast corner of Sac County. There is abundant evidence that the Cretaceous rocks underlie the drift of practically the whole area,



for they are the first bedrock penetrated by every deep well that is known within the region.

All the evidences of surface geology indicate that the Nebraskan ice-sheet which was the first to invade the Mississippi basin, covered the whole of Western Iowa and pushed southward into Missouri. It gathered material from all the formations over which it passed, but the most important deposits which it left in Northwestern Iowa comprise the shales of the Cretaceous age, which covered the Dakotas, Western Minnesota and Western Iowa. This source explains the very compact, somewhat calcareous clay, almost free from grit and pebbles, which characterizes the Nebraskan drift and which has been one of the manufacturing and economic assets of this section of the state. The thickness of the till formed by this drift era is not definitely known, for no exposures go completely through it, and well records are usually too indefinite to distinguish between the Nebraskan and the Kansan tills. In several exposures along the Little Sioux it rises fifty to seventy feet above the river, and the record of a well on the upland in the Cherokee State Hospital represents that boring to have penetrated 170 fee of Nebraskan drift below seventy feet of Kansan. It is probable that two hundred feet or more of the material which covers parts of Northwestern Iowa is Nebraskan drift.

In the region under consideration, the Nebraskan till is easily distinguished from the Kansan. Its surface color is gray, while that of the Kansan is brownish yellow. The Nebraskan till is more compact and tougher than the Kansan, and is the abomination of those who dig wells and grade roads. It contains less grit and fewer pebbles and boulders, and breaks into much smaller fragments.


The Wisconsin glacial epoch followed the Nebraskan and was all important in fixing the topography of Iowa. Thousands upon thousands of geological and topographical examinations made by experts from Canada to Iowa bear testimony to the grand voyage taken by the so-called Wisconsin ice-field. During that epoch a great lobe of ice, the body of which occupied Central Canada, filled the basin of the Red



River of the North, and, advancing southward, divided into two parts in what is now South Dakota. The Dakota lobe continued down the James River and reached the southeast corner of the state. The Minnesota-Des Moines lobe passed southeastward down the Minnesota River valley to its bend in South-central Minnesota; then pushed southward over the divide into the Des Moines River valley and across North-central Iowa to Des Moines. The Northwestern Iowa considered in this history was traversed by the Wisconsin glacier over the territory described by counties of the present, as follows: The northern corner of Osceola County, three-quarters of Northern and Eastern Dickinson, Emmet and Palo Alto counties entire, a third of Eastern Clay County and two-thirds of Eastern Buena Vista, a third of Eastern Sac County and half of Eastern Carroll, and all of Pocahontas, Calhoun and Greene counties. The Wisconsin drift region thus defined is generally a level, or gently undulating plain, with terminal moraines more or less well developed on its eastern and western margins. These are especially well marked around the lakes of Dickinson County, in Eastern Clay County and in Western Palo Alto and Emmet counties. The numerous lakes in this region, such as Okoboji, Diamond and Spirit, with distinct tracings of a belt of terminal moraines therein, have led geologists to conclude that they were formed by a minor lobe of moving ice. As the district around West Okoboji Lake presents the most pronounced evidences of morainic topography in the state, this ice-field is known to Iowa geologists as the Okoboji Lobe.
Most of the topographical features of the Wisconsin drift consist of mound-like hills and broad swales interspersed with numerous un-drained depressions. The drainage of the region is youthful and likes and marshes are numerous. Most of the broad swales have streams, but these streams did not make the valleys which they occupy. They made only the narrow channels in which they flow. Some of the larger streams have cut narrow, steep-sided valleys in the Wisconsin drift-plain, but even these streams have formed the topography of only a small part of the area they drain. The chief feature of the Wisconsin plain, however, consists of its large undulations, depressions and elevations of the ground



moraine type. The hills are large, some of them covering a quarter-section and their slopes are gentle. East of the center line of Buena Vista County the region passes into a slightly rolling to a flat glacial plain, and this continues eastward across Western Pocahontas County. Shallow depressions occupied by marshes or ponds once dotted this plain, but most of them have been drained by ditching or tilling and now form the richest of agricultural land.

The Wisconsin drift is a light yellowish gray clay, loose and sufficiently sandy to crumble when crushed in the hand. It contains many pebbles and boulders, which in the morainic areas make a considerable part of the whole. Boulders lie on the surface at many places and pebbles and gritty material appear in the soil. The till is calcareous, even to the surface, and at many places concretions of calcium carbonate are present for a few feet below the surface.


As a result of the Wisconsin glaciations the earlier drainage to the Mississippi was diverted westward over the divide at two places, and both diversions became permanent at the expense of the Mississippi drainage. As a result of the diversion to the Boyer Valley southwest of Wall Lake, the divide from Southern Sac County to Southern Buena Vista County was shifted five to seven miles to the east, and the drainage basin of the Boyer was increased by about 150 square miles. The diversion to the little Sioux Valley was much greater, for the divide was shifted thirty to thirty-five miles to the east and the drainage basin of the Little Sioux was increased by almost 2,000 square miles. Within the area of Northwestern Iowa the divide is the same as during pre-Wisconsin times for only seven to eight miles to the north and south of Alta, in Southwestern Buena Vista County.


The great divide which sheds the waters of the Mississippi Valley toward the southeast and those of the Missouri toward the southwest, and which was definitely fixed by the prehistoric operations of the Wisconsin ice-sheet, has been traced in detail throughout Northwestern Iowa. Three-fourths of



the state is drained southeastwardly by long parallel streams to the Mississippi River. The western quarter of Iowa drains southwest-by-south through shorter streams to the Missouri River. The parallelism of the major streams both to the southeast and the southwest is a notable feature of the drainage of Iowa. The divide between these two great drainage basins has a northwest-southeast direction through Southwestern Iowa, but in Western Carroll County it takes a more northerly course which is followed tot he Minnesota State line. From Western Carroll County, the divide intersects the south boundary of Sac County, crosses the east end of Wall Lake outlet and extends northward through Central Sac County, forming the divide between Indian Creek and Boyer River. It then passes westward along the south side of the Storm Lake basin and northward through the town of Alta, Buena Vista County. Four miles north of Alta it doubles back around the head of the small creek which enters the northwest corner of Storm Lake and extends southeast almost to that lake, rounding the head of Brooke Creek, which flows north to the Little Sioux. North of the head of Brooke Creek the divide is in the Wisconsin drift area and its course to the northward is less definite. It extends north and east through Central and Northeastern Buena Vista County between the headwaters of Raccoon River on the southeast and the tributaries of the Little Sioux on the northwest. It crosses the southeast corner of Clay County, follows north along the Ruthven moraine two to four miles east of the west line of Palo Alto and Emmet counties, crosses the northeast corner of Dickinson County and enters Minnesota about five miles west of the Des Moines River.

The divide continues northward in Southeastern Jackson County, Minnesota, for twelve miles and then bends westward around the headwaters of the Little Sioux, offsetting twenty-four miles to the west and in this distance swinging six mile to the south. Here, northwest of Worthington, Nobles County, Minnesota, the divide changes its direction to north-of-northwest and holds this course for more than a hundred miles along the crest of the Choteau des Prairies.

From the south line of Sac County to Storm Lake the divide is just west of the boundary of the Wisconsin drift-




region. North of Storm Lake the divide lies within that region, but as far as Ruthven it is only five to ten miles east of the boundary. The boundary then angles westward to such an extent that on the State line the divide is thirty-six miles within the Wisconsin drift area, but the westward course of the divide across the headwaters of the Little Sioux brings it back to with a few miles of the Wisconsin drift boundary northwest of Worthington, in which position it continues on to the northwest along the crest of the Choteau de Prairies.

It is therefore evident that, substantially, the Mississippi-Missouri divide corresponds with the western boundary of the Wisconsin drift region, and that the most marked variation occurs in Northwestern Iowa. There, it is believed, a large mass of the prehistoric waters were turned aside by the drift of that era and diverted toward the southwest. This theory is advanced thus in the last report of the State Geological Survey on Northwestern Iowa (1917): “The Mississippi-Missouri divide northwest of Worthington, Minnesota, agrees in direction with the part south of Storm Lake, Iowa. Between Worthington and Storm Lake a great reentrant carries the divide to the east about the headwaters of the Little Sioux River. But for this irregularity, the course of the divide would continue northward from Alta, through Western Clay or East-central O`Brien and Central Osceola counties; it would cross the State line just east of Bigelow, Minnesota and would join the present divide where it changes its direction northwest of Worthington. This raises the question, may not this have been the real watershed of the State? In other words, may not the region now drained by the Little Sioux above Northeastern Cherokee County formerly have drained southeastwardly to the Mississippi River?”


The Wisconsin drift undoubtedly had most to do with fixing the present water-shed and topography of Northwestern Iowa. West of its borders is another distinct geological area known as the Kansan Drift Region. It covers more than twice the territory allotted to the Wisconsin drift in Northwestern Iowa and includes all of Lyon, Sioux, O`Brien,



Plymouth, Cherokee, Woodbury, Ida, Monona and Crawford counties, and parts of Osceola, Clay, Buena Vista, Sac and Carroll. To the south is broadens out into the great Kansan drift region of Southern Iowa and Northern Missouri. Northward it extends into Southwestern Minnesota and Eastern South Dakota. From the northwest corner of Lyon County, Iowa, southward to Canton, South Dakota, the Big Sioux Valley forms the boundary of the Kansan drift region; south of Canton, the Kansan plain extends into Southeastern South Dakota and Northeastern Nebraska.


Preceding the Kansan epoch, Northwestern Iowa had been glaciated by the Nebraskan ice-sheet, which deposited a thick layer of till. As the Kansan ice-sheet advanced, it gathered great quantities of the underlying deposits and mixed them with such new materials as it brought down from the north. Gray limestone is the dominant rock material among the pebbles of the Kansan till. The vari-colored clays are also characteristic of this drift material. The yellow clay has been oxidized; the blue, un-oxidized. A few fossils have been found in the valley gravels of Plymouth County, but are more plentiful farther south. The gravels of the Kansan till which have much economic value, appear in large pockets or layers; some are found in broad valleys and other deposits are exposed in mounds or hills, swelling above the surface. The gravel hills are found chiefly in Lyon, Cherokee and Sac counties, and are stratified, the theory being that they were formed during the retreat of the Kansan ice-sheet. They are composed both of gravel and coarse sand. Most of the sand is of pure quartz. The valley gravels are found along the large rivers and medium sized streams and even along the small creeks nearly to their heads on the uplands. They also fill in certain broad areas on the headwaters of some of the streams. Their distribution is evidently independent of the size of the valley.

Several of the larger rivers head northeastward within or along the Wisconsin drift-margin, and therefore may have carried drainage from the Wisconsin ice. This is true of the Big Sioux, Rock, Little Sioux and Boyer rivers. Lyon, Osce-



ola, O`Brien, Cherokee and Woodbury counties have especially rich deposits of the valley gravels. They rest on the Kansan till, except where it has been entirely removed, as in the Little Sioux Valley and the lower courses of some of its tributaries, in which case they lie on the Nebraskan till.

The Kansan drift of Northwestern Iowa is covered with a mantle of fine-grained yellow clay known as loess. In the southwestern part of the area the loess has a considerable thickness, but it thins to the northeast until it is almost negligible. In the regions where the loess is thick, it is commonly calcareous to the surface and in many exposures contains calcareous concretions and snail shells. The region within which a well developed loess covering exists includes Woodbury County and most of Ida, the southwest part of Sac County, and a belt along the east side of the Big Sioux Valley narrowing northward through Western Plymouth, Sioux and Lyons counties. Within this area, many road cuts on the slopes or on the crests of the hills expose ten to twenty feet of loess. A particularly rugged belt five to ten miles wide just east of the Missouri River valley in Woodbury and Plymouth counties is from thirty to fifty feet in thickness. This distinct belt continues southward along the Missouri River and across Western Iowa, and is particularly noticeable in the region north of Turin, in Central Monona County.


The Kansan drift region, or fully two-thirds of Northwestern Iowa, presents considerable diversity of topography. In its northeastern part in Osceola, Dickinson, O'Brien and Clay counties, the surface is slightly rolling. The largest of the level areas in this region is in western Clay County, between willow Creek and Ocheyedan River. In that area, the surface is so level that the natural drainage is poor, but there is sufficient slope for successful tillage and, with artificial drainage, it has become a productive farm region. To the west and southwest of these slightly rolling areas, the relief and ruggedness of the country are more pronounced. The distinctly rolling topography includes most of Lyon and Sioux counties, Eastern Plymouth, Cherokee and Western Buena Vista and Sac counties. The slopes of this area are



definite, the region is therefore well drained and it includes the best farm land of Northwestern Iowa. Southwest of this rolling area, the country passes into what may be called rough or rugged. It includes a belt which widens southward along the Big Sioux in Lyon, Sioux and Plymouth counties, and embraces all of Woodbury, most of Ida and the southwest corner of Sac County. This topography is extended into Southern Iowa. An area just east of the Missouri River valley in Woodbury and Plymouth counties presents bold and rugged characteristics. There are steep slopes, almost bare of vegetation, pointed hills and narrow ridges.


In contrast to this area are several level deposits of gravel and the dissection of valleys. In O'Brien and Osceola counties, are small areas of low and level land between streams which have been formed by the filling in of gravel. In the Little Sioux valley of Northeastern Cherokee and Southeastern O'Brien counties, on the other hand, are notable examples of the cutting processes. In this region there are places where the stream has cut below the upland from 175 to 200 feet. Smaller tributaries have dissected the area to a less depth, but the slopes of the minor streams are steep; the divides are level and project as spurs out to the very edge of the Little Sioux valley.


Thus Mother Nature determined the courses of the rivers and formed the basins of the lakes of Northwestern Iowa. She also laid the bed of rocks over which the prehistoric glaciers ground the material beneath and within the icy masses, carrying along other debris on their way, and, with the coming of melting weather in the geological ages, leaving vast deposits on the earth of latent productiveness. The drainage basin of the Missouri is by far the most important watershed of Northwestern Iowa. The Big Sioux comes down from Minnesota and joins the parent stream in Northwestern Woodbury County, the Missouri River proper coming from South Dakota, bounding the remainder of Woodbury and all



of Monona County, and constituting the southern portion and the balance of the western boundary of Northwestern Iowa. There are four main tributaries which flow into the Big Sioux and the Missouri in a southwesterly direction and the courses of which lie mainly within the territory under consideration. They are the Rock River, which rises a short distance over the Minnesota line and flows into the Big Sioux in the western part of Sioux County; the Floyd River, which heads in Northwestern O'Brien County and joins the Missouri in Southwestern Woodbury County; the Little Sioux, the largest tributary of the Missouri system in Iowa, which has its sources in the marshes of Jackson County, Minnesota, and empties into the Missouri a short distance below Monona County’s southern line, and the Boyer River, the headwaters of which are near the northern limits of Sac County, and in its course to the Missouri it diagonally traverses Crawford and Harrison counties and the northwest corner of Harrison.

The streams which flow southeastward to the Mississippi have their upper courses almost parallel with the divide, and draw away from it very gradually, while those which flow southwestward toward the Missouri have their headwaters almost normal to the divide. As a result of this difference almost the whole of the east side of the Mississippi-Missouri divide is drained by the tributaries of the Des Moines River, the longest and the largest of the southeastern flowing streams, while nearly every important stream of Southwestern Minnesota and Northwestern Iowa, except the Floyd, has its headwaters on the west slope of the divide. The glacial sources of the Des Moines were in Southern Minnesota as were those of the Big Sioux and, as stated, were divided in Northwestern Iowa. The upper valleys of the Des Moines River formed by it east and west forks traverse the extreme northeastern corner of Northwestern Iowa, while the Raccoon River, its only important western tributary,
rises in Northern Buena Vista County and flows in a generally southeastern direction through that county, and Sac, cuts across corners of Calhoun and Carroll, and continues through Greene and Dallas and Southwestern Polk to the parent stream.




The bodies of water in Iowa which may be designated as lakes are all located in the northern part and within the area covered by this history. Dickinson, Emmet and Palo Alto are especially favored in this regard, and it has already developed in the telling of this geological story what part was played glacial action and deposits in their formation.

Dickinson County has the largest lake in Iowa. It was known to the Indians as Min-ne-wau-kon, or Spirit Water, and was supposed to be the home of evil spirits. In English it is known as Spirit Lake and has been associated for nearly seventy years with the terrible massacre perpetrated by the Sioux in its vicinity. Spirit Lake is about four miles in length and has an area of some ten squares miles. For the most part its shores near the water line form a beautiful sandy beach, with a fringe of trees beyond. Immediately west of Spirit Lake are three smaller bodies of water which are connected and drain into it, and there are numerous other ponds which are called lakes. But the most picturesque of the Dickinson County lakes are East and West Okoboji lakes, south of Spirit Lake. Each is about six miles long and the shores, instead of being beautiful, gentle and sandy, are piled high with boulders of limestone and of granite, porphyry and quartzite, and ramparts of clay and drift. The eastern shores are especially rugged, probably because the prevailing winds are westerly and the waves have been constantly driven to that side of the lakes.

In Emmet County are numerous lakes, several of which deserve mention in these general paragraphs. Turtle, which is the largest, extends into Minnesota and Iowa Lake is on the line. Swan Lake is the largest lying wholly within Emmet County. It is near the center of the county and from its western end a fine view of the West Des Moines River and the country beyond may be obtained. There is also a Swan Lake in Dickinson County and another in Pocahontas County, both considerably smaller than the one in Emmet. Pelican, Lost Island and Medium lakes, in Palo Alto County, as well as Trumbull in Clay County and Wall Lake in Sac County, also nestle in this divide country between the West



Fork of the Des Moines River and the valley of the Little Sioux. The only other body of water of considerable size outside this area is Clear Lake in the Des Moines watershed of Cerro Gordo County.


At various times and by various surveyors the altitudes of numerous localities in Northwestern Iowa have been taken. On account of the variations in local and sectional topography, the data proves little even in demonstrating the general declination of the region of that section of the State from northeast to southwest toward the Missouri Valley. But we know that to be the fact, since the drainage is in that direction. It is conceded, however, that Dickinson, as a whole, occupies the most elevated position of any county in the State. It is recorded that Jean Nicollet, the explorer, in 1839 made an observation on the south shore of Spirit Lake and found the altitude to be 1,310 feet above the Gulf of Mexico. Modern surveyors have computed it to be more than a hundred feet higher.

Going from north to south, or toward the valleys of the Big Sioux and Missouri, the altitudes of various localities in Northwestern Iowa have been announced as follows: Spirit Lake, Dickinson County, 1,413 above sea level; Sibley, Osceola County, 1,502; Estherville, Emmet County, 1,298; Rock Rapids, Lyon county, 1,345; Orange City, Sioux County, 1,421; Primghar, O'Brien County, 1,450; Spencer, Clay County, 1,210; Emmetsburg, Palo Alto County, 1,237; Pocahontas, Pocahontas County, 1,225; Storm Lake, Buena Vista County, 1,420; Cherokee, Cherokee County, 1,338; LeMars, Plymouth County, 1,224; Ida Grove, Ida County, 1,225; Sioux City, Woodbury County, 1,158; Sac City, Sac County, 1,196; Rockwell City, Calhoun county, 1,225; Jefferson, Greene County, 1,110; Carroll, Carroll county, 1,251; Denison, Crawford County, 1,230.

The pitch of the region where the Big Sioux and its tributaries merge into the valley of the Missouri is very slight, only a few feet to the mile. As they have been determined by geologists and surveyors the following are the facts, more in detail: On the north line of Plymouth County, at the cross-



ing of the West Fork of the Floyd River, the ground has an elevation of 1,284 feet, while directly west, about eighteen miles, the Valley of the Big Sioux is 1,150 feet, showing a descent westward of nearly seven and a half feet per mile. The Floyd descends southerly to Sioux City 171 feet, or about six feet per mile, and the Big Sioux falls thirty-seven feet to the Missouri near the mouth of the Floyd. The elevation of the ground where the valley of the Little Sioux merges in the Missouri bottom is 1,086 feet, making the descent from the north line of Plymouth County, where the West Fork of the Floyd enters, to the south line of Woodbury where the Little Sioux passes out, 198 feet, or a little more than four feet per mile. Even from a superficial examination of these altitudes of Northwestern Iowa from the Minnesota line to the Missouri Valley, it is evident that the rivers and streams of this wonderfully fertile region are still quite evenly distributing rich and productive alluvia over its plains.


To generalize: The most recent and noticeable deposits form the bottom lands of the Missouri, which, along the western boundary of Iowa, constitute a belt of rich loamy soil 150 miles long and from five to twenty wide. Farther north, the Little Sioux contributes its share to the basic wealth of Northwestern Iowa. But by far the greatest source of agricultural opulence enjoyed by the farmers and live stock men of the country is found in the drift soils, the origin and composition of which have already been described. Generally speaking they are of a fine loamy mixture of clay and sand, with little gravel, and so rich as to need little fertilizing. The blanket of loess, covering the greater portion of Northwestern Iowa and varying in thickness, is a distinct type of soil; a fine yellowish silt, highly charged with carbonate of lime. The outstanding characteristics of the soil of this section of the State are its depth and its porous nature, by which the agriculturists withstand so effectually the extremes of wet and dry weather. The water does not remain long on the surface, but forms reservoirs at a convenient depth upon which to draw during a prolonged spell of dry weather.

As remarked by one who resided in one of the interior



counties of Northwestern Iowa, which was afterward subjected to drainage: “The surface soil is here very fine, very black and very rich; the subsoil either a fine calcareous clay overlying the gravel, or a more porous mixture of lime, gravel and sand. At any rate the sub-soils of Buena Vista County seem to yield up to the growing crops in unusual measure the moisture needed at a time when other sub-soils seem to fail entirely. It is a problem what effect the wholesale tile-drainage of Northwest Iowa is likely to have upon the region and the State at large in the matter of local precipitation. In the days when vast areas were yet un-drained, but lay as pool and marsh and lake over hundreds of square miles, Northwestern Iowa acted as a water storage reservoir for the remainder of the State. All summer long the waters sucked up by the hot sun were passed on in clouds to descend as showers all up and down the eastern counties. But with the progress of our agriculture these surface waters have almost entirely disappeared, hurried away by our finer systems of drainage to the rivers and to the sea, and the immediate source of local showers for Iowa has disappeared as well.”

Fortunately the great corn and grass crops, the harvests of wheat and oats and the raising of swine, horses, cattle and other livestock, do not depend on local conditions, although they do have their circumscribed effect. Iowa is near enough to the Gulf of Mexico to have plenty of rain brought to it by the south and southwest winds, and whether it comes in great currents of air or is generated in local areas, its porous soil holds it fir the nourishment of the grains and the grasses, which draw also from the earth the requisite elements for their growth; and this truth will be developed more in detail when the chapter is reached which deals with the growth of agriculture and its allied industries.

It is important to know, in this connection, how Nature formed a most wonderful conspiracy to make Iowa, and particularly Northwestern Iowa, the greatest corn-producing country in the world. Corn requires a rich loam soil - one which is easily cultivated and has plenty of plant food - and an abundance of rain during the growing season. It needs a long, warm summer, with warm nights and at least five months free from frost. It grows best where there is some



frost just after ripening time. All these conditions of soil, rainfall and temperature are vouchsafed. Although the average rainfall of the State is about thirty-one and a half inches, most of it comes at the right time to stimulate the growing corn: in May, June and July. The rainfall is least during the ripening months.

The long, hot summer days, with bright sunshine and warm nights, give ideal conditions for raising corn, and the Iowa Weather and Crop Service which has long kept accurate records gives many facts as to why they are so. Some of these have already been produced. It is further learned that the Iowa year has an average of 170 days which are free from frost. There are great ranges of temperature; but, as a rule, they are not unseasonable. Summer is summer and winter is winter in the Hawkeye State. Since the weather records have been kept, the lowest temperature noted was in 1912, when the thermometer fell to forty-seven degrees below zero. The highest temperature recorded was in 1901, when the mercury jumped to one hundred and thirteen degrees above. Both sun and wind do their best to make Iowa a lively State.

As it was foreordained that corn should be crowned king in Iowa, and that its northwestern section should have a large part in the coronation, it followed that the lowly, homely and industrious hog should crunch and root itself to supremacy. Corn is the ideal food for swine, as it both fattens and strengthens them. Iowa has overtaken Illinois in the production of corn, and raises nearly twice as many swine as its eastern competitor. A large portion of Iowa’s corn crop goes to fatten the hogs. The State raises a seventh of all the swine produced in the United States.

Cattle and horses follow swine as wealth producers, and the plains of Northwestern Iowa, with other sections of the State, furnish an abundance of nourishing grasses, stimulated by the lime and other ingredients of the soil. this all makes for well-nourished and hardy animals, abundantly fed and watered. It must also be remembered that the value of such crops as grasses, alfalfa and wild and tame hay, equals nearly one-half that of the corn crop.

Although Iowa is preeminently a prairie and an agricul-



tural State, considerable timber is still standing in the bottomlands of the Missouri, Big Sioux, Little Sioux and other large streams. Cottonwood, willow, honey locust, ash and elm, are chiefly found in such areas, while the less heavily wooded uplands show three or four varieties of oaks and butternut, ironwood and hackberry. In the scattered groves, oak, elm, cottonwood, hickory and maple predominate, while along some of the river bluffs is occasionally to be seen a scant growth of pine and cedar. Basswood, box elder, black walnut, red and black haw, wild cherry and wild plum also prove that Northwestern Iowa is not a treeless plain. Many tracts of timber have been cleared away by the early settlers, and many have been reforested and now present second and third growths; but timber is less than ever a source of wealth to any section of the State. As long as it wonderful soil, its drainage, its rains and its sunshine combine to bring its sons and daughters comfort, prosperity and happiness, Iowa will base her life on what nature has provided in such generous measure.


Largest Rock in Western Iowa


~ transcribed and submitted by Mary E. Boyer for Iowa History Project, August 2008

Northwestern Iowa Table of Contents