By Col. F. M. Thompson.


My introduction to Lyon County was in October 1875 and I was initiated into the ways of a new country.  A few days after arriving a mass convention was called for the nomination of county officers.  It was held on the street in front of where the city hall now stands.  Early in the day the clans began to arrive.  The old ring was in the saddle as usual, determined to dominate the action of this motley crowd.  After getting together on the meeting ground there were speeches made by some of the self appointed delegates that day that expressed their wishes in terms more expressive than elegant, punctuated at times by the swinging of revolvers.  One big fellow, who stood six feet or more, dressed in true frontier style with a mink skin camp with a tail hanging over one ear, became so enthusiastic and handled his artillery so viciously that two of the opposite faction thought it the better part of valor to make themselves scarce and took refuge in a house nearby.  I was not real sure whether I was enjoying the play or not.  At my old home it was customary to wear a silk hat and I came to the county with one.  On the first morning after arriving, my brother said (carelessly like) if I were in your place I would leave that hat in the house.  I took his advice and went to the corner store and paid a dollar for a twenty-five cent hat, and when I found myself in this mass convention I was sure glad that I had on the conventional head gear, for had I had on the silk one the big fellow with a long gun would no doubt thought himself  William Tell and would have taken a shot, not at the apple, but I would have heard “Where did you get that hat.”

But in that excited crowd were a few quiet determined men who were fully persuaded that the time had come when there should be a change in the affairs of the county and government, and in the afternoon the forces gradually separated, the old party going to the school house and the others coming down town to the old F.M. Thompson building (a few years later the Lyon County Bank was instituted in a part of this same old building), that stood where the Vickers Drug Store is now.  Each party nominated a ticket, A. Tolman and J.K.P. Thompson were the leaders in the new move.  Tolman was then acting treasurer of the county by appointment and was nominated for the short term and for auditor for long term.  J.K.P. Thompson was nominated for recorder and other nomination were also made.  The reform ticket won out at the election.

In writing a reminiscence of this character you are not allowed to wander into the realm of the imaginations.  Like writing a battle scene, if you tell what you have actually seen you will cover but a small era, for amidst it the roar of the cannon, the scream of shot, the bursting of shells and the crackle of small arms one has but little time or inclination to make a study of the entire field.  So in this case to be able to stay by the real truth we can only tell our own personal experience.

When I arrived at Sibley my brother was there to meet me with a top buggy.  Now a top buggy is nothing unusual, and I thought nothing of it.  We reached Rock Rapids in the eve, the next morning that top buggy had disappeared and where it went to I never to this day learned, but it was never seen by the writer since.  I came to see the county, we planned a trip to the west part of the county and the only conveyance it was possible to secure was Uncle Jake Smith’s one-horse wagon with no seat, but we made the three days’ drive sitting on a board laid across the wagon bed.  That was twenty-nine years ago.  Most of ‘the actors of those early days are gone, but the wonderful development made in that time is with us—things of beauty and a joy forever.  There was not a single bridge in the county that could be used.  In coming from Sibley we crossed the Little Rock at the “Monlux Ford” the Big Rock at the Penman Ford.  Going on West we crossed Mud Creek at a ford.  We made great detour to avoid what seemed to us bottomless ponds.  We floundered through slough and waded through grass that came up to the horse’s back and looked out over the wide stretch of unbroken and unoccupied prairie most beautiful.

The first comers took the high dry land and for many years this prevailed, which unconsciously made it true, “The last shall be first.” in the fertility of the soil of their farms.  While all lands in the county are fertile, the lower lands are wonderfully so.  I returned to Strawberry Point, Clayton County, and brought my girl wife back with me, leaving Strawberry Point on the 11th of March 1876, and reaching Rock Rapids on the 14th.  We came by rail and made the trip as quickly as one could, but were on the way almost four days, about ninety hours.  This trip can now be made in twelve hours.

The nearest railroad was at Sibley, in Osceola County, twenty-five miles East of Rock Rapids, from which place we came in the stage in a driving snow storm, and such a storm was no light matter, as on the prairie there was not a house, tree or land mark of any kind to take our course from.  We had secured a small house 16 by 20, one room, in which to begin our first housekeeping.

Our piano, (the first one brought to the county,) stood in one corner, at the end of it stood our bed, at the opposite end of the room was the stove, so we had music room, bedroom, kitchen and dining room, each occupying its own corner.  Our furniture was two wooden chairs, one small rocker, a table and bedstead, all costing less than $10.  My wife was pretty good looking, but not much of a cook.  Our first meal was corn bread, fried bacon and coffee.  I’d give a five-dollar bill today for a piece of that corn bread, as a souvenir.  We well remember a remark that was made as we sat at this meal, “Well, I suppose this is what they call keeping house.”

Dear reader, you will say with the materials at hand a woman could not display very much talent as a cook, and come to think of it, that is so; but there was another thing we had which I had forgotten, and that was a jug of molasses, and this was all that was procurable just at that particular time.  The next day or two I got a sack of flour.

Were we happy?  Yes, in the very highest degree.  We had a small house, but a great big garden spot.  And as we had taken Greeley’s advice, “go West, young man and grow up with the country,” so when it came time to make garden, we made garden, not one of your little town lot gardens, but a regular out West broad prairie one.  The government had sent an abundance of all manner of seed.  Although we were short on many things, we were long on seeds for a home garden, and they were of the very best at that.  We had rented our little home of Jas. H. Wagner (and a better neighbor no young people ever had than he and his noble wife), plowed our garden deep down and dragged it until it was in perfect condition for planting, and then wife and I planted, planted, planted; and while I was away attending to other matters, wife planted, and how that garden grew!  Those government seeds acted as though they were made for no other purpose than to grow.  Well the days and weeks went by, the rains came, the sun shone and we were happy.  We had lots to eat out of the garden, large cabbage heads, and potatoes just beginning to be large enough to eat, in fact, everything was doing fine—when a great shadow came over the spirit of our dreams.  One bright July afternoon we noticed something in the air which looked like flying cotton.  It was an unusual sight, and as we watched farther off towards the northwest, this cloud became more dense, and soon we learned what it was—“Grasshoppers!”  The sky became overcast and they began lighting.  Wife took her broom and tried to keep them off the garden.  She soon found she could not do this.  There was a straw pile about thirty rods out in the field from the last year’s threshing.  She rushed after straw and must have worked hard most of the afternoon, and when I came home along towards evening, she proudly showed me how she had beaten the hoppers by covering up all the cabbage, and quite a good deal of the potatoes.  In forty-eight hours everything in sight was gone slick and clean.  My wife declares to this day that in my sleep that night I muttered, “Go west, young man, go west.”

On that beautiful July morning we looked out upon the luxuriant growth of the waving wheat and oat fields with corn fields between, and the hearts of the toil worn good wife and the anxious husbandman were made glad with the splendid prospects which were so soon to disappear under the ravages of a myriad of ravenous insects.  The cornfields looked like a field of hoop poles.  They ate everything green, even paris green was just an appetizer for them.  The girls used to say they knew some young swains that had to keep in hiding while the festive hopper remained.  however, this might have been, it did not take long or much of this experience to ripen up the young fellows until they did not fear the girls or the hoppers.

When they got through the devastation was complete.  Every cultivated piece of ground big or little was a desolate waste.  They went one afternoon as they came—in clouds that darkened the sun.  That evening wife said now they are gone, I’m going to uncover the cabbage.  I said, “All right, I’m going to bed.”  She went out and soon I heard her taking off the first bunch and heard her, “Oh!”  She went to another, then another, another and still another, then I heard her rushing for the house, and—well, I heard what I’ll not tell—but the hoppers had eaten every vestige of everything.  Every new county since our Pilgrim fathers sailed into Cape Cod Bay in 1620 to the present time has suffered the ravages of some decimating calamity in its first settlement.

If we go back to when the old world reverberated beneath the tramp of the legions of the Caesars or under the swan of an insane Nero, it was war and pestilence; or when Rollo the Dane, with his piratical horde came down from the north and sailed up the Seine, and overran Normandy in A.D. 912.  It was war and famine all through the reign of the three Richards, up to James I and his son Charles the 1st of England.  In 1620, it was war, cruelty and despair.  Then our Pilgrim fathers came to our shores.  Then began a struggle between our forefathers, the wild beasts, the wilderness, sickness and death and their more cruel and relentless foe, the wild savage.  The Wampanoogo under the leadership of Massasoit, the Naragansetts and other tribes made the attempt to settle in our new country a serious and discouraging undertaking.  And as the star of Empire took its westward course those who were in the run met with discouraging circumstances, and when we compare our suffering with those who have gone before us, we find our trials and disappointments were light indeed, but they were real.  There was an abundance of fish in the Rock River, and no game warden to interfere with our fishing.  I have said the hoppers took everything green, but they did not, they did not touch the prairie grass, and when fuel became scarce all we had to do was to get a load of slough hay and twist it into billets the proper length for the stove, and you had a fine fuel, and many families had no other fuel for several years.

The prairie grass was very nutritious.  It has been told that during these years that T. K. Bradley fattened a hog on prairie grass and when he killed it he had to send to Sioux City, seventy-five miles away, for lard to fry it in.  We were deprived of many of the delicacies of life, the nearest railroad station being twenty-five miles away.  At one time wife desired greatly to have some fresh grapes.  I sent by the stage driver to Sibley for some, but when he made his return trip in two days we learned there were none to be had at Sibley, so I sent to LeMars with the same result.  We then sent to Sioux City and succeeded in getting some.  This was as late as 1878.

In 1879 we got our first railroad—the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha.  In that year we began building our first church edifice, and from that time until the present our beautiful Lyon County has made grand strides towards the settlement on every quarter section of land in the county.  Land that was worth in the days of which we have been writing $5 per acre is now selling as high as $75 per acre, not because the soil is any richer today than then, but because of the incoming of railroads bringing us near the markets of the outside world.

We now have three railroads, churches, schools and a happy people, and the sun does not shine upon a more beautiful and prosperous county in the state of Iowa than Lyon County.


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