IAGenWeb Project

 Iowa History

       An IAGenWeb Special Project











What is designated as Northwestern Iowa had been penetrated and traveled by trappers, uneasy adventurers, troopers and various Government expeditions and waves of its first permanent settlers had advanced mainly up the Des Moines and the Little Sioux valleys and converged in the beautiful lake region of Indian tradition and occupancy. The first site settlements centered around Floyd’s Bluff and the future site of Sioux City, in 1848-49, and various Mormon streams of emigrants flowing ever westward appeared soon afterward and temporarily subsided in what are now Woodbury, Crawford and Monona counties. These lively and energetic and, on the whole, industrious religionists formed several enduring settlements in lower Northwestern Iowa, and, although the bulk of the “faithful” evacuated the state in the great Salt Lake movement of 1854, not a few “backsliders” remained to become good and prominent gentile citizens. Altogether the Mormon settlements were the most noticeable feature of the permanent white occupation of the early pioneer period of this section of the state.

While the Mormons were commencing to leave the country along the Mississippi River and in the lower valley of the Little Sioux, other settlers were pressing northward into



what are now Buena Vista, Palo Alto, Clay and Dickinson counties. The first temporary checks to this advance in skirmish formation were the terrible winter of 1856-57, and the awful massacre of the settlers in the Okoboji Lake region during the height and depth of its blizzards and snow drifts.



But these horrors passed away and the elasticity and sturdiness of the American pioneer soon asserted itself. Stability and renewed advancement were on the way. As stated by Benjamin F. Gue in his “History of Iowa,” other bright rays were illuminating the situation. He says, for example: “The hard times beginning with 1857 were passing away, and a steady and heavy immigration was annually coming into the state in search of cheap homes. Thousands of eastern men of wealth were sending money where the legal rate of interest was ten per cent and the security as fertile lands as any in the world.

“The reports of the discovery of rich gold deposits in the eastern range of the Rocky Mountains, near Pike’s Peak, in 1859, attracted thousands of Iowa people to that region, and it is likely that these departures in search of gold nearly equaled the immigration from eastern states into Iowa. But the tide soon turned back and most of the gold seekers returned tot he prairies of Iowa, better content to rely upon the steady gains derived with certainty from the fertile soil of well-tilled farms.

“Barbed wire fences had not then come into use and the farmers were experimenting with hedge plants of osage orange, hawthorne, willow and honey locust. Others were making fences by ditching. But the common fence was of rails or boards and was the great expense in making farms, costing more than all other improvements combined.”



The Civil war intervened to retard even the scattered settlements of Northwestern Iowa and this fact was in no way more manifest than in the complete cessation of railroad building. None of the four railroads across the state for



which land grants had been made in 1856 had been completed and none was much extended when the Civil war closed; but by 1870, the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific, the Chicago & Northwestern and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy had all reached the Missouri River, and a few years later, the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul completed its line so as to give Northwestern Iowa another outlet and inlet.

In 1865, and for several years thereafter, Boone, in Central Iowa on the Des Moines River, was a frontier railroad station on the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, and was called Montana. While the line was being constructed to Council Bluffs, Carroll County was a favorite hunting ground. Many trains were stopped and all on board, from engineers to passengers, would tramp over the prairies to shoot chickens, and a few returned empty-handed. That trains were delayed mattered little to these pioneer travelers, until the officials made drastic rules against hunting on the way. The engines and cattle care of that early day were not large and a train of ten or a dozen cars was heavily loaded. It required two nights and a day to pull a stock train from the Missouri Valley country to Chicago, after the line reached Council Bluffs in 1867. When trains were caught in snow drifts and blizzards, the fatalities were multiplied. There were no snow fences to protect the cuts and no snow plows to clear the tracks. Traffic was thus frequently tied up, sometimes for weeks at a time.

The building of the railroads marked the transition period from the old to the new order of things, and the Civil war may be said to have definitely closed the times when the primitive life of the pioneer had been little changed by “improvements.”



Again using the facile pen of Benjamin F. Gue, who came to Iowa in the early ‘50s, and, as legislator, agricultural journalist and historical editor and writer, was widely known in all sections of the state and who writes as a participant in the pioneer times which this paper covers, the following is authorative, as well as graphic: “This period in North-


western Iowa lingered along well into the ‘60s, as that portion of the state was the last to be settled owing to the general absence of forests. The prairies were vast in extent, generally inclined to be level and in many cases defective in surface drainage, with frequent ponds and marshes, the home of the muskrat. It was not until the Homestead law was enacted by Congress (adopted by the General Assembly of Iowa in 1849) that the people began to venture out upon the great bleak prairies of Northwestern Iowa to make homes. Mostly destitute of timber for cabins and fencing, with few deep ravines for shelter from the fierce blizzards that swept over them in winter, they long remained unoccupied after other portions of the state were fairly well settled.

“But when the time came in which the head of the family could secure 160 acres of Government land, as a home, for fourteen dollars, the hardy pioneers began to venture out upon the treeless plains and devise ways to live without timber. Then it was that sod houses and stables were invented. They were made by running a broad-shire breaking-plow over the wet prairie where the tough fiber of the sod of generations had accumulated, cutting it into long strips and turning them over. These strips of sod were then cut up with the spades into lengths suitable to handle and laid up like brick into walls for houses and stables. A few poles brought from the nearest timber supported a roof of slough hay, skillfully placed on like thatching, and a comfortable shelter was made for man and beast. The ground was smoothed off for a floor and until boards could be procured for doors the skins of dear and wolves shut out the wind and snow.


“Then it was that the swarms of muskrats which inhabited every pond were utilized to supply the family with groceries. Muskrat pelts were always suitable for cash at the nearest town, where buyers had agents to gather up all kinds of furs and hides of wild animals. During the first year of life on the prairie, before crops could be raised for market, thousands of homestead families were dependent upon trapping muskrats for the cash they must have to buy bacon and


coffee. The homestead was exempt from taxes; deer and prairie chickens furnished meat for a portion of the year; with industrious mending and the skins of wild beasts the clothing was make to do long service; but some money was indispensable for fuel and such scant groceries as were indulged in.



“Most of the homestead settlers were many miles from timber or coal. Their teams were usually oxen, which could live on prairie grass and wild hay, and break up the sod for cultivation. It was always a perilous journey in the winter to the nearest town or timber, or coal bank, for fuel or other supplies. It must be made generally by one man alone, over a trackless prairie covered with deep snow. No human foresight could guard against danger from the fearful blizzards of flinty snow driven with an ever-increasing wind and an ever-falling temperature that were so common in early days. With the sun obscured, nothing was left to guide the bewildered driver toward his destination, as the changing wind often misled him, and many were the victims who perished in all of the early years of settling the great prairies.

“Another danger that was encountered by the first settlers on the prairies came from the annual fires. Early in the fall frosts killed the wild grass and in a few weeks it became dry and would readily burn. Many of the recent settlers were not aware of the danger and neglected to take the proper precautions for the safety of their buildings, stacks and even families. Emigrants crossing the great prairies and camping at night where water could be found, late in the autumn, were often the victims of carelessness or ignorance of danger.

“There can be no more fearful sight or situation than the appearance of a prairie fire before a strong wind in the night. The horizon is lighted up in the distance with a vivid glow, and dense columns of black smoke ascend in darkening clouds as the long line of fire circles far to the right and left. At first the sight is grand beyond description as the rays of the glowing red rise higher and higher and the smoke



rolls upward in increasing intensity. But soon an ominous roar is heard in the distance as the hurricane of fire is driven with an ever-increasing wind, exceeding the speed of a race horse, and the stifling atmosphere glows with the smothering heat of a sirocco from a parched desert. Escape for man or beast is impossible unless a back fire has been started in time to meet the advancing tornado of resistless heat that can be stayed only by a counter fire. Houses, barns, stacks, fences, bridges and all animal life are quickly destroyed as the hot blasts strike them, and in a moment the ground is left a blackened, blistering waste of desolation. The ruin of the camp or farm is as complete as the wreck of a burning town, or the track of a tornado. Scores of people and hundreds of homes were annual victims of these fires in the early years of scattered farms on the great prairies, before experience brought to emigrants and settlers the wisdom to protect their lives and property by timely backfires as soon as the frost had killed the grass.

“It was during these years of hard winters when the homestead settlers ventured far out on the wild prairies at great distances from timber and before railroads had penetrated the great plains that they began to use corn and slough hay for fuel. There was no market for corn within one or two days’ travel, and when the market was reached eight or ten cents a bushel was all that a farmer could get for his load. A large load would sometimes bring him from four to five dollars.



“This was the pay for raising forty bushels of corn on an acre of his farm, husking it and transporting the load a journey of two or three days with his team. The proceeds of his load would pay for about a ton of coal, which he must draw back to his home and which would furnish about as much heat as the load of corn sold. It did not take the settler long to see that he might far better burn the corn at home, and save a perilous journey at midwinter over the bleak prairies, often at the risk of his life. He learned to twist the long coarse slough hay into ropes with which to start his



corn fire and utilized a home-grown vegetable production to furnish heat in place of the expensive foreign mineral production of the same earth upon which he lived. Persons in the luxurious homes of distant countries and state read of the burning of corn in the morning paper by a comfortable grate fire, and were horrified at the reckless destruction of food by the western prairie farmers.”



When the very early settlers of Northwestern Iowa came into the country from the East and Middle West, they were generally on the lookout for timbered tracts such as they were in the habit of seeing in their home lands. Some, however, settled in or around groves, where they would have the advantage of easily cultivated prairie land and at the same time have access to the wooded tracts for building purposes, fencing and fuel. The cabins built were both of sod and longs and sometimes composite structures, and when they settled at a distance for wooded tracts and commenced to raise corn, as already noted, they often burned that cereal as fuel. One of the pioneers who had experience with both sod and log cabins thus writes: “A creaking, canvas-covered wagon slowly came to a halt as the oxen, tired form the long journey, ceased straining at the yoke. The driver looked about him at the expanse of prairie, unbroken except for the timber which fringed an occasional water course. Far behind lay his old home. Days before he had crossed the Mississippi and leaving the busy river town had pushed westward until he had passed all signs of habitation and reached the virgin prairie. Nowhere was a sheltering roof to be seen except the covered wagon whose protection was given tot he women and children. The only table upon which to partake of the plain meals of corn bread and bacon was the green earth.

“But this sketch is not biographical; nor does it deal with the unique. All up and down the Iowa frontier this scene was being repeated. Sometimes a lonely wagon made its way to the edge of the unknown; sometimes a group of neighbors or related families made the venture together. In every case, the pioneer’s first thought was to prepare a home. It would be a dwelling place for his family, a fortress against the In-



dians, a nucleus for civilization. Under these conditions, building the cabin came to be an event of great importance and produced a thrill of pleasure that could hardly be understood by those who had never suffered the same privations.



“The first home was necessarily a simple affair. In the prairie country, where wood was scarce and sod was plentiful, the easiest house to build was the sod shanty. The materials were procured by taking the breaking plow into the low land where the sod was heavy and plowing a furrow from sixteen to eighteen inches in width. This was cut into sections, eighteen to twenty inches long, which were then laid like brick. The roof was usually made of large rafters covered with prairie hay or grass and covered again with sod. Often the structure had a board floor and usually one door and one window. It is surprising the amount of genius that could be expended in the construction of a sod shanty. For this reason, there was great difference in the appearance and arrangement of these cabins. Some had an air of comfort, convenience and even neatness, which gave them a genuine homelike appearance. Others remained as they were at first - simply holes in the ground.

“Even in the wooded districts, finished lumber was not to be had and labor was dear. As a result, the architecture of the house entered very little into the thoughts of the early settlers - it was shelter they wanted and protection from the stress of weather. Of dwellings made of timber, perhaps the most primitive were the “three faced’ camps. These structures - sometimes called ‘cat faced’ sheds or ‘wickeups’ - consisted of three walls made of logs in their trough state, the fourth side being left open. The first settler in a community who had to build his cabin without assistance selected small long that he could raise to the walls alone, but after neighbors came larger logs were used. Across these walls, poles were laid at a distance of about three feet apart, and on these was placed a roof of clapboards, which were kept in position by weight-poles. The only floor in the camp was the earth, and the structure required neither door, window nor chimney, for the open side answered all these purposes. Im-



mediately in front of the cabin was built a huge loge fire which served for warmth and for cooking purposes. These ‘three-faced camps’, built apparently in a hurry to afford a resting place for a family without a home, were temporary in most cases and were soon supplanted by more complete dwelling places.


“The claim cabins proper, which followed these first buildings, required some help and a good deal of labor to build. House raising were frequent and became social as well as industrial events. After the logs had been cut into the desired length according to the dimensions of the house, they were dragged to the building place by horses. The neighbors were then called upon to assist. Four men were selected to ‘carry up the corners,’ and work began. As the logs were lifted up, a saddle was hewn upon the top of one log and a notch cut in the underside of the next to fit upon the saddle. By cutting the notches in the larger end of the log a little deeper and alternating the butt and top ends, the walls of the cabin were carried up approximately level. At first the logs were put together with the bark on. As the idea of decoration and elegance increased, a place was chipped along two sides of each. Finally, the inside and outside of the cabin walls were hewn so as to present a flat surface.

“When the house-walls had reached a height of seven or eight feet, two gables were formed by shortening the logs gradually at each end of the building near the top, and fastening each log to the one below or to the roof logs. The roof was made by laying very straight small logs or stout poles from gable to gable at regular intervals, and on these were fastened the clapboards, very much in the same manner as modern shingles, only with fewer courses, as the clapboards were perhaps four feet long and generally about two and a half feet tot he weather. Weight poles were laid over the whole and were secured by long wooden pins driven into auger holes, which kept them from slipping down toward the lower edge of the roof.



“When this sheltering roof was completed, the small crack between the wall logs were stopped with ‘chinking.’ The spaces were filled in with split sticks of wood called ‘chinks,’ and then daubed over, both inside and outside with mortar made of clay which had straw or hay mixed with it to keep it from crumbling and falling out. In this way the cabin was made comfortably warm during the long cold winter.



“Sometimes an opening was left for a door when the logs were laid, but usually the door space was made by cutting an aperture of the required size in one side of the room. The doorway was not always provided immediately with a door, but instead the most simple contrivances that would serve the purpose were brought into requisition. In some cases a quilt, blanket or skin was spared for the purpose of guarding the entrance. There is an instance in which a table is said to have served as a door also, being taken down and used as a table and re-hung as a door after meals. As soon as convenient a shutter of some kind was provided. Sometimes this was a thatched framework, but more often it consisted of two large clapboards or puncheons, pinned together with cross pieces and wooden pins. The door was hung on wooden hinges and held shut by a wooden catch. Through a hole above the latch a buckskin thong passed, which when pulled lifted the wooden bar thus allowing the door to open. For security at night this latch string could be drawn in; hence as an expression of welcome, there arose the saying, ‘The latch string is always hanging out.’

“Frequently, there was no window at first. Later, when duties became less pressing, a hole about two feet long was cut out of one of the wall logs. Whenever possible, the window was on the south side and could be left open during the summer at least. Greased or oiled paper pasted over sticks crossed in the shaped of a sash was often used as a substitute for window glass. It admitted the light and excluded the air, but of course lacked the transparency. Even greased deer hide was sometimes used.



“The chimney of the western pioneer’s cabin was not built of stone or brick, but in most cases of split sticks of wood and mortar made of clay. Space was provided by leaving in the original building a large open place in the wall, or more often, perhaps, by cutting one after the structure was up. The fireplace - at least six feet wide and frequently of such dimensions as to occupy the whole width of the house - was constructed in this opening. It was planked on the outside by butts of wood notched together to stay it. The back and sides were built of stone, or wood lined with stone, or of stone and earth, the stone-work facing into the room. A large flat rock in front of it, called a hearth-stone, was placed level with the floor to protect the puncheons from brands that might roll out of the fire. For a chimney or flue, any contrivance that would conduct the smoke upward, would do. Some flues consisted of squares of sod, laid as a mason lays a wall of bricks and plastered on the inside with clay. Perhaps the most common type was that known as the ‘cat and clay’ chimney. It was built of small split sticks, two and a half or three feet in length, carried a little distance above the roof and plastered, both inside and out, with a thick covering of clay. Built as they were, the burning of a chimney was a frequent occurrence in cold weather.



“Other accessories were added as soon as possible. The clay, which had previously served as a floor and which had been beaten hard and smooth by this time was over laid with a ‘puncheon’ floor consisting of slabs hewn from logs. After the floor was laid, the upper surface would be smoothed off with an adz. As a final touch of elegance, a few more logs were sometimes put on the building, making an upstairs or loft, which was reached by a ladder secured to the wall. Other families built a better roof or an additions room.

“During all of this building process there was ordinarily no sound of hammering of nails or rasping of the saw; only the dull thud of the ax. The pioneer was often forced to build his cabin without nails, screws, bolts, bars, or iron of any description. Wooden pegs were hewn from the logs; the hinges and even the catch for the door were wooden.




“The living room was of good size, for usually it served the purpose of kitchen, bedroom, parlor and arsenal. In other words, the loom spinning wheel, chairs, beds, cooking utensils and other furniture, were all arranged as snugly as possible in this one room. With an ax and an auger the pioneer met all pressing needs. The furniture varied in proportion to the ingenuity of the occupants, except in the rare instances where settlers brought with them their old house-hold supply.

“The articles used in the kitchen were few and simple. Lacking the convenience of a cook stove, the work was done in and about the big fireplace. The utensils of a well-furnished kitchen included an iron pot, a long-handled frying pan, a skillet and sometimes a coffee pot. Often a later improvement was found in the shape of an iron crane swinging from the side of the chimney and carrying on its ‘pot hook’ the kettles or iron post used in cooking.
“Sometimes a mantel shelf was made by placing clapboards across strong wooden pins fitted into holes bored in the wall logs. This shelf might hold kitchen or table ware, the candlestick with its deer tallow candle and possibly an old clock. If the family were lucky enough to have an abundance of table-ware, a series of shelves with perhaps a cheap cotton cloth as a curtain might be built for a china closet.

“The necessity of finding a more convenient and comfortable place then the ground upon which to sleep produced the ‘prairie bunk.’ This one legged bedstead, now a piece of furniture of the past, was improvised by the pioneer in a unique manner. A forked stake was driven into the ground at a proper distance from the corner of the room and upon it poles, usually of hickory, were laid reaching from each wall. These poles were they touched the walls rested in the openings between the logs or were driven into auger holes. Upon these poles slats of clapboard were placed, or linden bark was interwoven from pole to pole. Sometimes, an old-fashioned cord bed was made by using basswood bark for the cord. On this framework, the housewife spread her straw tick, or piled the luxurious mound of her home-made



feather bed. Such a sleeping place was usually known as a ‘prairie bedstead,’ but sometimes it was called a ‘prairie rascal.’ Beds of this sort, however, were for the grown-ups. Children were stowed away for the night either in low, dark attics, among the horns of elk and deer, or in trundle beds which would slip under the large bestead in the daytime.

“It was easy enough to improvise tables, bureaus and chairs. Often a packing box answered the purpose of the first two, while smaller boxes of the same kind served as chairs. Real chairs were seldom seen in the early cabins; but in their place long benches and stools were made out of hewn planks. These stools were often three-legged, because of the difficulty of making four legs so that all would touch the uneven floor at the same time. The benches were but hewn slabs with a couple of stakes driven slantingly into each end of the under side; and the tables in some instances were simply larger and higher benches.

“In one corner were the loom and other implements used in the manufacture of clothing; while the clothing itself was suspended from pegs driven in the logs. As there was no storehouse, flitches of bacon and rings of dried pumpkin were suspended from the rafters. Over the door was usually hung the rifle and with it the powder horn and hunting pouch. Luxuries were rare even among well-to-do people and seldom was there so much as a strip of rag carpet on their floors, although they might have large tracts of land, numerous head of stock and many bushels of corn.”



The rearing of the cabin - sod or otherwise - and “breaking prairie” marked the initial epochs of the pioneer’s life in the Northwest, and the massive prairie-breaking plow was the most imposing agricultural implement of his time. It was made to cut and turn a furrow from 20 to 30 inches wide, and sometimes even wider. The beam was a straight stick of strong timber 7 to 12 feet long, and the colter or cutter attached to it extended down close to the point of the shear. In the earlier make of plow, this sod cutter was a simple blade, which was replaced in the later steel plow invented by John Deere, of Illinois, by the circular disc. The forward



end of the beam was carried by a pair of trucks or wheels, and into the top of the axle of these wheels were framed two stout, upright pieces just far enough apart to allow the forward end of the plow-beam to nicely fit in between them. To the forward end of the beam and on top of it, there was fastened by a line or clevis, a long lever, running between these stout standards in the axle of the trucks and fastened to them by a strong bolt running through both standards and lever; this bolt acting as a fulcrum for the lever was in easy reach of the man having charge of the plow. By raising or depressing the rear end of this lever, the depth of the furrow was gauged, and by depressing the lever low enough the plow could be thrown entirely out of the ground. One of the wheels of the truck ran in the furrow and was from two to four inches larger than the one that ran on the sod. This, of course, was necessary so as to have a level rest for the forward end of the plow beam. The mould-boards of these plows were sometimes made of wood protected by narrow strips of steel or band-iron and fastened to the mould-board. In some cases, these mould-boards were made entirely of iron rods, which generally gave the best satisfaction. The share of these pioneer plows - or “shear,” as generally called in the West - had to be made of the very best steel so as to carry a keen edge. The original prairie sod was one web of small tough roots, and hence the necessity of a razor-like edge on the shear to secure good work and ease to the team.

L. S. Coffin, for so many years identified with the agricultural interests of the Fort Doge region and a humanitarian and philanthropist of honorable note, describes the ole-time plow as above and continues the picture of prairie breaking: “And next the prairie breaking-plow team. Who sees the like of it today? A string of from three to six yokes of oxen hitched to this long blow-beam, the driver clad in somewhat of a cowboy style, and armed with a whip, the handle of which resembled a long, slender fishing-rod, with a lash that when wielded by an expert was so severe that the oxen had learned to fear it as much as the New England oxen did the Yankee ox-goad with its brad.

“The season for breaking prairie varied as the spring and summer were early or late, wet or dry. The best results



were had by beginning to plow after the grass had a pretty good start, and quitting the work some time before it was ready for the scythe. The main object aimed at was to secure as complete a rotting of the sod as possible. To this end the plow was gauged to cut only one and a half to two inches deep. Then if the mould-board was so shaped as to ‘kink’ the sod as it was turned over, all the better, as in the early days of prairie breaking very little use was made of the ground the first year. The object was to have the land in as good a shape as possible for sowing wheat the following spring. A dry season, thin breaking, ‘kinky’ furrows, and not too long breaking, accomplished this, and made the putting in of wheat the following spring an easy task. But, on the contrary, if broken too deeply, and the furrows laid flat and smooth, or in a wet season, or if broken too late, the job of seeding the wheat on tough sod was a hard and slow one.



“The outfit for prairie-breaking was usually about as follows: Three to six yokes of oxen, a covered wagon, a small kit of tools, and among these always a good assortment of files for sharpening the plow-share, a few cooking utensils, and sometimes a dog and pony. The oxen, when the day’s work was don, were turned loose to feed on the grass. To one or more was attached a far-sounding bell, so as to betray their whereabouts at all times. The pony and dog came in good play for company, and in gathering up the oxen when wanted. The season for breaking would average about two months. The price per acre for breaking varied from $2.50 to $4.50, as the man was boarded or ‘found’ himself. In latter years when it was learned that flax could be raised to good advantage on new breaking, and that it helped to rot the sod, the breaking season commenced much earlier.
“Three yokes of good-sized oxen drawing a 24-inch plow, with two men to manage the work, would ordinarily break about two acres a day; five yokes with a 36-inch plow, requiring no more men to run the machine, would break three acres a day. When the plow was kept running continuously, the shear had to be taken to the blacksmith as often as once



a week to be drawn out thin so that a keen knife-edge could be easily put on it with a file by the men who managed the plow. If the team was going around an 80-acre tract of prairie, the lay or shear had to be filed after each round to do the best work. The skilful breaker tried to run his plow one and a half inches deep and no deeper. This was for the purpose of splitting the sod across the mass of tough fibrous roots, which had lain undisturbed for uncounted years and had formed a network of interlaced sinews as difficult to cut as India rubber, where the prairie was inclined to be wet; and it was not easy to find an entire 80-acre tract that was not intersected with numerous sloughs across which the breaking plow had to run. In may places the sod in these sloughs was so tough that it was with the greatest difficulty that the plow could be kept in the ground. If it ran out of the ground, this tough, leathery sod would flop back into the furrow as swiftly as a row of bricks set up on end, and the man and driver had to turn the long ribbon of tough sod over by hand, if they could not make a ‘balk.’ In the flat, wet prairie, it sometimes took from two to three years for the tough sod to decompose sufficiently to produce a full crop. The plow had to be kept in perfect order to turn this kind of prairie sod over, and the lay had to have an edge as keen as a scythe to do good work. There were usually two lays, or shears, fitted to each plow so that the team might not be idle while the boy with the mustang went often from five to eight miles to the nearest blacksmith to get a lay sharpened. Sometimes the oxen would stray off among the barrens, or follow the course of some stream for miles and hide among the willows to take a vacation, and frequently they were not found until after two or three days of weary search by the men and boys, while the plow which out to be earning six or nine dollars a day was lying idle on the great prairie.



“There were men who equipped a brigade for breaking and carried on a thriving business from about the first day in May to the end of July. When the rush of immigration began in the spring of 1854, there were not nearly enough



breaking teams in the country to supply the demand. In some cases the newcomers would consent to have a portion of their prairie farms broken up in April, and on this early breaking they would plant sod corn. The process was simple. A man with an axe would follow the line of every second or third furrow, strike the blade deep in the ground, a boy or girl would follow and drop three or four kernels of corn into the hole and bring one food down ‘right smart’ on the hole in the sod, and the deed was done. No cultivation was required after planting, and in the fall a half crop of corn was frequently gathered without expense. Those who were not able to get breaking done at the best time for subduing the sod, were often glad to have some done in the latter part of July or the first half of August. So for several years the breaking brigades were able to run their teams for four months each year, and it was a profitable business.



“With all the crudeness, with all the exposure, with all the privations and hard times - for there were hard times in those days - yet the passing of those pioneer days with the quaint old prairie-breaking plow, the string of oxen, the old prairie-schooner wagon, the elk and deer, with now and then a buffalo, the prairie chickens, the dug-outs, sod houses and log cabins, give to us pioneer settlers a ting of sadness difficult to express in words; for with all these have gone a good deal of that community and fellowship of neighborhood feeling, so common and se heartily expressed from one to another in the abounding hospitality and in the kindly exchange of hop in those days. Then those living miles apart were friends and neighbors. Now the family living on adjoining quarter sections are strangers.”



While the pioneer of Northwestern Iowa was waiting for his crops to mature, he found wild game, both of the feathered and furred variety, right at hand, waiting upon his skill to supply the family larder, to furnish him cash and to yield him means of recreation and outdoor sport. Two pioneers



of typical counties in this section of the state draw pictures of the many varieties of wild game which they found awaiting them in the ‘50s. One of them writes: “Besides the larger game, such as elk and deer, wild turkeys, prairie chickens and a species of curlews as big as chickens with bills about eight inches long, abounded. These curlews are now extinct. They had a peculiar whistle and were esteemed highly by the pioneers on account of their delicate flavor. Of water fowl, there were myriads. Fat coons were slaughtered and considered very palatable by the settlers and, aside form their meat, the settlers received a revenue from the sale of their skins. Brother John was the trapper of the family and derived a considerable revenue from the sale of pelts. On a knoll near the house on the present Micham farm, I remember John baited a trap with a skunk for bait and soon had the hides of eighteen foxes from this one place. Mink was very plentiful and one year john sold $100 worth of mink skins, all trapped within the present city limits” (City of Cherokee).

Another picture: “Imagine a vast, unbroken tract of rolling prairie, stretching away in all directions beyond the range of human vision, with little groves of timber here and there along the water courses. Such was Calhoun County when the first white men came to establish their homes within its borders. All over the broad prairie were swamps and ponds, where muskrat and water fowl abounded. The Indian had departed and the only denizens of the country were the wild animals. Big game was plentiful, especially the elk; a few lynx and wildcats were to be found in the little forests; beaver, otter, mink and some other fur-bearing animals inhabited some localities; prairie wolves were numerous and their howling at night sometimes caused little children to shudder with fear, as they cuddled together in their beds, wishing that daylight would come. There was also a small animal called a swift, because of its fleetness of foot. In appearance it resembled a fox, but was smaller and not so cunning. As the country settled up, this swift became such a pest that the county authorities offered bounties upon swift scalps.”
During the very early days, the settlers suffered little an-



noyance from wolves, or coyotes, as the small prairie wolves were called. The coyote emitted a blood-curdling howl, but was not feared and did little damage to live stock. It was only after the country became quite well settled that the farmers, located especially along and near the Little Sioux River, were annoyed by wolves; and they were the larger and fiercer timber wolves. The wild game having almost disappeared, the wolves, during the deep snows of winter, began to attack hogs and young stock. To thin out the wolves, both as a pest and objects of exciting sport, hunts were often organized. On an appointed day, the hunters gathered for conference. Captains of two parties were selected and the men placed so as to form a large circle. Hounds were also brought into the hunt so as to rout out the prey and assist in running them down. The circle was gradually narrowed until the wolves were sighted, when the dogs were loosed and the wolves dispatched, firearms being use d with caution, if at all. The side getting the largest number of wolves was given a supper by the losers. Besides which, there were the proceeds from the “wolf scalps” to be considered.

Turkey shoots were different, as they tended to train the marksman in the killing of game which was a valued source of food. The expert marksman was not only a leading local character, but a valued provider for the housewife and family. A turkey was placed in a box, its head only protruding, and those engaging in the contest would draw a line at a distance agreed upon, usually several hundred yards, and pay so much per shot for the privilege of shooting at the protruding head; and he who killed the turkey owned it. It took a pretty good shot to send a rifle ball through the head of the bird thus placed, as that portion of its anatomy was always in motion. As to the actual profits of the sport, the man who furnished the turkeys usually came out ahead, although a number of birds were sure to be killed. The rivalry was as to which of the contestants could kill the most birds and the winner became a large figure in the community.



Most of the clothing was home-made. Every farmer kept a flock of sheep. In earliest times the carding, the spinning


and the weaving were all done by the women. There was a spinning wheel in every home. Often there were two - a large one for wool and a smaller one for flax - while one loom might serve many families. Linsey, or linsey-woolsey, was made of linen and woolen yarns, the wool serving as the filling. Men rested betimes, but the women did not. They wove the clothe and knitted the stockings. When they could not make new cloth fast enough, they patched the old. Even then, they could hardly keep their families out of nakedness. One woman of those times said she had often sent her children into the woods on the approach of strangers, because they did not have clothes enough to make their bodies presentable. when the settlers first began to buy cotton goods, the clothing came in plain colors and it was dyed to suit individual tastes. Walnut bark and hulls, sumac, madder, indigo and other native materials were used as dye-stuffs, and the resulting colors were often hideous. Bu
t it was all in the pioneer lifetime.



Before the grist and flour mills came, grain was ground into flour between flat stones and sometimes in hand coffee mills. Much corn was eaten after it had been parched and rye similarly treated was a substitute for coffee. Green corn was dried and when cooked with beans made succotash, which was relished by the pioneers as much as by the aborigines. To sweeten their foods, they filched honey from the bee trees and later they made molasses from cane which was grown like corn. The staple meat of the pioneers was pork, fresh and fresh-salted for winter use, and pickled or smoked for summer use. They had plenty of wild meat, too, but quail and prairie chicken surfeited them, while the appetite for pork lasted. “Corn bread, with pork and rye coffee,” says one of the early chroniclers, “formed the prairie bill of fare, with an occasional dish of mustard greens.” Another writer of these times varies this bill of faire by adding hominy or samp, venison, dried pumpkin and wild game, and a few additional vegetables. But Northwestern Iowa is a “big proposition,” and the menu of its pioneers varied considera-


bly with the section of their residence. The common hominy so much relished by them all was boiled corn from which the hulls had been removed with hot lye: hence called lye hominy. What was called “true hominy” was made by pounding the corn. For this purpose a mortar-like hole was made in the top of a stump, the corn placed in it and beaten with a maul. When it was sufficiently crushed, the bran was floated off in water and the delicious grain boiled like rice. All those who write knowingly of the early generation of pioneers in Northwestern Iowa, in whatever section, are agreed that wheat bread, tea, coffee and fruits were luxuries, reserved for “company” occasions.



The stern work of wresting the farm from the sod and timber lands and, in the meantime, of gathering food and clothing from nature’s creatures and crude productions, was an almost constant round of bodily stress and metal ingenuity. Primitive schools and churches were soon established, where several families were gathered together and recreation commenced in the lives of the hard-working pioneer. As the settlements increased in number and density, debating societies and spelling an singing schools were formed, and neither age nor previous condition seemed to be a bar to their activities. The spelling schools were usually held in a country schoolhouse and the competition was as intense and serious as in the struggles for leadership among the wolf hunters or turkey shooters. To this center would flock the best spellers from other districts, the young people frequently coming form long distances to attend the “spell-down.” Sides were chosen by designated leaders, a word being given alternately to each side. Each contestant remained standing until he missed spelling a word and then sat down. When only one remained on a side, the contest became of absorbing interest. At times it was so difficult to spell down some of the participants from common English words that the teacher would have to resort to foreign words, of which a list was always on hand. Sometimes schools were competitors and sometimes districts or localities.

Another less strenuous means of recreation was the sing-



ing school, conducted by a competent teacher. A central schoolhouse usually was the meeting place for the musically inclined, who also found means of making it quite lively as a social institution. With the spread of the modern system of common education, the singing school disappeared; but the old-fashioned spelling school has been revived within comparatively recent years as a public amusement, with the result that spelling, as well as penmanship, is discovered to be almost a lost art or accomplishment; and a poor speller is no longer considered discounted among educated people. It was the gathering or dispersal of the spellers or singers of the olden time that brightly and joyfully stamped the occasions. Those who remember those old-time amusements will recall with brightening eye and warming blood the big bobsled, the jingling sleigh-bells, and the merry load of young and old on their way to these events, or returning there-from. The brisk winter air, vibrant with merry voices raised in song or shouts of laughter, added zest to victory or achievement. Then, there was often a spirited race between rival loads, an occasional upsetting in a cool, glistening snow bank, and other incidents which gave zest to these occasions while they were in the making and long afterward.

If one of the acquaintances thus formed ripened into an intimacy which ended in a wedding, it was usually followed by a charivari, and the discordant serenade was generally continued until the bride and groom showed themselves. The affair ended all the more pleasantly if each of the serenaders was treated to a piece of wedding cake.

Another form of amusement in the advanced pioneer period was the “husking bee.” On such occasions the corn to be husked would be divided into two piles, as nearly equal in size as possible. Two of the guests present would then divide the huskers into two equal companies; each was allotted an equal pile of corn and the outward contest was to see which company should first finish its pile. Both sexes participated. As any young man who found a red ear was permitted to kiss the girl or woman next to him, the aims of the contest were mixed, and it became difficult to decide whether the prime object of the “husking bee” was to reduce the pile or find a red ear of corn. Frequently, the


young men would play an underhanded game by passing the red ear from one to another.

The women had their quilting parties, when a number would take their needles and thimbles and assemble at some house to join in making a quilt. Here there was friendly rivalry to see who could run the straightest line or make the neatest stitches.

Corn huskings and quiltings were frequently followed by a dance. Nearly every frontier settlement had at least one many who could play a violin. The neighbors would call him t the barn our house, where the more staid amusements had been going on, and he would “crape” for the Virginia reel, the minuet and the cotillion, calling the figures in a voice which could be heard a mile or more away. The old-time fiddler may not have been much of a musician , but he could make his violin jubilant of “Turkey in the Straw,” “Money Musk,” “The Bowery Gals” and “The Irish Washerwoman,” and it is more than likely that the steppers enjoyed themselves as thoroughly as do the modern men and women when their select orchestra wafts it melodious strains over the polished dancing floor and seduces them to the tango, the fox trot, the hesitation waltz or the Charleston.


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

Northwestern Iowa Table of Contents