Peter Johnson, an industrious Norwegian, came from Ford county,
Illinois, purchased land and settled on the northeast quarter of section 32, in
Baker township in the year 1886. He was a poor, single man and bought
his land on time. However, by industry and economy, he made the final
payment on his farm in the fall of 1902. In February, 1903, he attended the
Jake Brandt sale and on his way home stopped in Melvin for supper. That
was the last trace of him alive. Fred Hokuf, at that time a single man. was
one of a
family of Hokufs in the same neighborhood and made a living by
working out. The next day after Johnson took supper in Melvin, this Fred
appeared at the Johnson farm, took care of the stock and husked a
little corn that was left in the field. He
gave out the information that Peter
Johnson had gone back to Illinois on a visit to his people and had left him
there to take care of the stock and the
place while he was away. That story
received more or less credit for a time. Yet
Johnson's nearest neighbor, with
whom he was
particularly friendly and neighborly, seeing each other every
day, thought it very strange that Johnson, who had previously talked over
all his affairs with the
family, should take such a step and not say a word to
them about it. Later when Hokuf
began selling off the personal property
the neighbors became suspicious and tried to get an investigation. As no evidence considered convincing was in sight the county authorities were slow
about taking it up. The matter was finally taken before the board of supervisors and, although they knew there was no authority of law for it, offered
a reward of five hundred dollars for the arrest of the murderer of Peter
Johnson. It had become the general belief by that time that Johnson had
O. B. Harding was then living at Morningside, Sioux City, and when he saw the publication of the reward thought, as he was not doing much at the time, that he might as well come up and look into the matter. Mr. Hard-
O'BRIEN AND OSCEOLA COUNTIES, IOWA. 661
ing's old home for many years had been in that vicinity and he was well acquainted with Peter Johnson, so he made up his mind to try to unravel the
mystery and upon preliminary investigation concluded that Fred Hokuf had
Johnson. Harding, not being used to detective work, induced W. C.
Davenport, ex-sheriff of Woodbury county, to work with him.
Davenport came with Harding and between them pushed the matter to a
finish. When Hokuf discovered his first
story was not credited he added
further that Johnson had sent a man as his agent from Illinois who had sold
him (Hokuf) the personal property and rented him the farm for a term of
years and that Johnson had gone to Norway on a long visit. Thereupon
Davenport went to Johnson's old home in Illinois and found that he had not
been there and no one had heard
anything about his going to the old country. On this trip Davenport learned that Johnson had an illegitimate daughter, then a young lady, living in Illinois. In the meantime Harding looked
up the Johnson personal property and found it to the value of about $800.
Hokuf claimed he
paid $400 for it. Being questioned he first said he gave
a check for it, but when asked what bank he
suddenly recollected that he happened to have the money by him and paid the cash.
Upon Davenport's return from Illinois Hokuf was arrested, June 8, 1904, on suspicion and brought before W. J. Miller, justice of the peace in Sibley, for a preliminary hearing. He waived examination and his bond was fixed at $10,000. Being unable to secure the required bond he had to remain in jail in Sibley to await the meeting of the grand jury and district court. About a month later Harding and the sheriff went to Melvin and organized a posse to search for Johnson's body. Prior to that time the whole neighborhood had such a wholesome fear of the Hokuf family they were afraid to move in the matter or even tell what they knew. Ten men had to be enlisted before they dared act. They searched the cellar and old straw stack bottoms and every place where a grave would be likely to be dug in midwinter when the ground is generally frozen. At the start of that work Harding offered a reward of fifty dollars to the man who discovered the body. By that time it was the general belief that the body was not far away. During the search Harding discovered some coal cinders under the bedding in one of the horse stalls farthest from the door. He cleared away the straw and called the men with shovels to move the cinders, whereupon they found what looked like fresh earth. He probed with an iron rod and struck something hard and said, "There, boys, is Johnson's body." One of the men present went home and returned with his post auger, and at the third lifting of
662 O'BRIEN AND OSCEOLA COUNTIES, IOWA.
auger brought up fragments of overalls accompanied by a strong stench.
They then went to work with the shovels and uncovered Johnson's body.
The coroner and
county attorney were sent for and arrived before the remains were removed. After the
inquest the body was taken to Sibley, but
kept in ignorance of the finding.
When the searching party returned to Melvin, Harding asked who claimed the reward. One of them said it belonged to Harding as he had made the discovery. Whereupon Harding' said. "There are ten of you, so each man should go into the bank and receive five dollars each." The ten men got their five dollars apiece and at least one of them got gloriously drunk on his share.
The sheriff and Harding put Hokuf through a sweating process and after about two hours of hard work Hokuf weakened and made a confession. He said the night after the sale he walked down the railroad track and when opposite Johnson's house he turned in and helped Johnson do his chores. On the way down the track he had picked up an iron brace that had dropped off a car and threw it on top of the snow beside the path that had been shoveled from the house to the barn. On the way to the house Hokuf picked up this iron rod and hit Johnson over the head and killed him with one blow. The broken skull and no other marks verified this statement. After this confession Hokuf tried to claim that he was acting in self-defense. But Johnson being a small, inoffensive man and Hokuf a big burly fellow, he soon found that claim would not work. After the murder he burned Johnson's clothing and papers to make it appear as if he had gone for a long visit. Hokuf acknowledged he drank a pint of whiskey while he was doing the job. In the meantime he was married and was living in Johnson's house with his wife and baby when arrested. It was never suspected that the wife knew anything about the murder. Her father took her home and she has since remarried and is a respected woman. About two weeks before he was to be tried Hokuf shot himself. It is not known how he secured the gun.
The court appointed O. B. Harding administrator of the Johnson estate. Hokuf's death ended the chapter as far as he was concerned, but there is still another short story which it took long to act. Under the laws of the state of Illinois an illegitimate child did not become an heir to the father's estate, but under the laws of Iowa it does. Then followed a legal battle for Johnson's property. The young lady appointed Harding as her agent to prosecute her claim. Johnson's other relatives contested her claim. To cut this part of the story short, the girl won in the district court. The case was
O'BRIEN AND OSCEOLA COUNTIES, IOWA. 663
appealed and the girl again won in the supreme court. All this litigation was expensive, but when all through and finally settled Harding was able to hand the girl four thousand dollars.
George Groen and family came from Kossuth county, Iowa, and settled near the town of George, in Lyon county. He first rented a farm and later bought the southeast quarter of section 17, about one and one-half miles west of the town of Ashton. He was quite a successful farmer. However, when he went to town he was quite likely to drink a little too much. He was not particularly ugly to strangers when under the influence of liquor, but at such times did not get along very well with'the family at home. On December 30, 1908, upon returning from town there was considerable irritation between, him and his big boys. They engaged in the game of pulling sticks for a small bet, and over the payment of this bet a quarrel arose. The father rushed for the door and secured a plow handle for a club and swore he would kill the seventeen-year-old boy. In the meantime the boy had run up stairs and got possession of a loaded shot gun and both thus armed were about to meet on the stairway. Before they met the boy fired point blank into the breast of the father and the father died from the effects of the shot three days later. The boy was tried for murder and at the trial it was made to appear that the father was of a violent and fiery temper; that the boy in a frenzy of fear for his life had fired the fatal shot. He was acquitted by the jury on the theory that he was in a panic of fear and acted in self-defense.
The blizzard of January 7, 1873, is remembered as one of the worst ever experienced in this county. The morning was beautiful and the weather looked promising, causing those who had a trip to make to start out in full confidence. At that time a man by the name of Peter Baker drove the overland stage line between Spencer, Clay county, and Rock Rapids, Lyon county, via Sibley. He left Sibley in the forenoon of January 7th with A. K. Jenkins as his only passenger. When about ten miles west of Sibley a terrible blizzard struck that uninhabited region of prairie with terrific violence. There was considerable loose snow on the ground and the fierce wind picked it up and with a grinding, threshing fury soon had a large part of it in air, quickly, forming into great snowdrifts wherever any obstacle was in the way. The
664 O'BRIEN AND OSCEOLA COUNTIES, IOWA
stage driver's horses soon floundered in a big snowdrift, when immediately
a greater drift formed about them, and in spite of all the two men could do,
the horses soon died.
The men put up a brave fight for their lives‐walking and stamping around, trying to keep their blood in circulation. After about eighteen hours of desperate effort, Mr. Jenkins became insane from suffering and laid down and died before Mr. Baker's eyes.
The storm lasted about three days. On Friday afternoon Mr. Baker was found about one-half mile from the stage trail with both feet and legs frozen to the knees. He was taken to the nearest house and cared for until the next day when he was taken to Sibley. Soon after both his legs were amputated and on May 25, 1873, he died. Thus two more men became the victims of the terrible blizzards of that time.
This man came from Barraboo, Wisconsin, and filed on an eighty-acre
claim on section 10, in East Holman township. He was sixty years of age,
or perhaps a little older, and was called "Old Man Larahty" to distinguish
him from his sons who were also here at that time. His real name was Edward
Larahty. He was a small and not very robust man on whom the marks
of time had made considerable showing.
The winter of 1872-73 was very severe. On Ash Wednesday in February, 1873, he came in from his claim to Sibley to get a few necessary supplies. Among other things he bought a piece of meat from Robert Richardson, who conducted a meat market then, as now, in Sibley. He started for home about sundown in company with M. J. Campbell, who was going his way as far as what is now known as McCallum's Corner. Here they separated, Campbell going northeast to his claim and Larahty steering east for his home, about two and one-half miles distant from that corner. That was the last seen of Mr. Larahty alive. A snow storm and blizzard came upon him soon after he parted with Campbell and the supposition is that the old man became confused and was driven off the road by the fierce storm. Between the exhaustion of wading in the deep snow and the battling with the blizzard, he became totally exhausted, sank down in the snow and froze to death.
His body was found in a day or two on section 16, in a snow-bank, perhaps one mile from his home. His name does not appear among the homesteaders on section 10 as he did not live to prove up. His body was taken to
O'BRIEN AND OSCEOLA COUNTIES, IOWA. 665
LeMars for burial as there was no consecrated
burying ground in Osceola county at that time.
During this same storm a homesteader in Fairview township lost his life. At that time there was a post office on the Spirit Lake and Worthington stage route, a few miles south of the present village of Round Lake, kept by William A Rosier. Mr. Wheeler, a Fairview homesteader, was at this post office when the storm came up. Wheeler, thinking he could get home, started out, but was unable to find his place, and wandered about until he became so benumbed and exhausted, he lay down and died. In his wanderings he nearly reached West Okeboji lake in Dickinson county. When the storm cleared up he was found by Mr. Tuttle, whose house he was near when he perished.
In this same‐ January 7th, 1873‐blizzard, Peter Ladenburger lost his life. This man came from Sheboygan county, Wisconsin, and had no relatives in this part of the country. After the storm he was missing and no trace of him could be found. On the 29th day of November, 1873, Fred Krueger was hunting in the valley of. the Ocheyedan, and when a few miles south of where the town of Ocheyedan now stands, he found the remains of some person, which proved to be those of the unfortunate Ladenburger. Mr. Krueger notified S.S. Parker, who in turn notified the proper authorities. He was positively identified by a ring and the contents of his pocketbook. The skull was a few feet from the trunk. He was lying breast down, just about as a man would fall on becoming unconscious. Mr. Ladenburger was a carpenter and the last work he was known to have done was to put the liberty pole on the court house at Sibley.
Dr. Hall located on section 28, in Goewey township, in 1871 and tried
to remain through the exceedingly hard winter of 1871-72. He was the
father-in-law of F. O.
Messanger, who located on the same section.
At that time people did not know the value of hay as fuel and consequently had to use whatever they could find that would make a little fire. Dr. Hall and his son went with two teams of oxen to the Ocheyedan river to secure willow brush and had their loads cut, loaded and were on their way home when the three-day blizzard of January, 1872, struck the county. The snow soon became so deep in places that the oxen could not get through with the loads. So they unhooked their teams and continued their journey trying to get home. The boy, who was big and strong, drove one team ahead and
666 O'BRIEN AND OSCEOLA COUNTIES, IOWA.
the other team and Mr. Hall followed. When near home the boy knew his father was not with his team, but dared not turn back to find him, thinking he was tired and would follow. The boy and oxen reached home in a half frozen condition, but the father fell by the way when about one mile from home. He was buried so deep in the snow that his body was not found until the next spring. After the snow had gone in the spring of 1872 the family dog came to the house with a foot and ankle with the shoe still on the foot, and the family knew it was from the remains of the unfortunate husband and father. A more thorough search found the remainder of the body which had been torn to pieces and mutilated by the wolves. What was left of Dr. Hall was gathered up and buried on the claim of Charles Jenkins, another son-in-law, on the southwest part of section 18, near Sibley. This grave is located on the Cronin place at the southeast border of Sibley. Soon after the remainder of the family moved away and their whereabouts are now unknown.
The winter of 1871-72 was long and severe with large quantities of
snow that drifted hither and
yon with the drifting winds. Many homesteads
were located in
1871, but it was the misfortune of only a few to have to remain over winter.
Sibley was the only trading point for the greater part of
county. By February, 1872, the snow was deep and weather extremely
cold. February 12th was hue and many settlers congregated at H. K. Rodger's store from all around to
get needed supplies and compare notes. In the
afternoon of that day sixteen men met in Rodgers' store, the only store then
Sibley. The sky was clear and air fine with every appearance of the breaking up of the long winter, when suddenly the wind chopped round and a
fierce blizzard broke over the
county without warning. As was the custom
days, the storm lasted for three days.
These settlers left the store and started out for their homes in various directions. A few went northwest, but stopped at the house of J. L. Robinson, on the outskirts of the town, and dared go no farther until the storm was over. A few went south, getting as far as R. O. Malison's, one-half mile south, gave it up and waited for the storm to abate. J. F. Glover and the White boys went northeast and reached their claims only one or two miles out.
Fred Knaggs, whose homestead was in Ocheyedan township, on section 20, about eight miles from Sibley, started east for his claim and family with a hand sled and a few necessaries. After the storm was over word came to Sibley that Knaggs had not reached home. J. F. Glover, M. J. Campbell.
O'BRIEN AND OSCEOLA COUNTIES, IOWA. 667
C. M. Brooks, Al Halstead, F. F. and Eugene White formed a searching party and followed the marks of Knaggs' sled, finding the sled about seven miles out near a vacant homestead shack. The remains of a sack of flour which the wolves had torn open and partially eaten was all that could be found. They were unable, however, to trace the man farther and were not able to find the body. Late in March the body, partly eaten by wolves, was found by W. H. Lean, several miles southeast of where the sled was found. It was supposed that when he arrived at this vacant shanty he was benumbed with the cold and nearly suffocated with the furious blizzard and that he became confused and lost his bearings and drifted with the wind until, totally exhausted, he sank down and passed into the unknown. A blizzard has a benumbing, smothering and exhausting effect on a person who is out in it and no one but a well-clad, strong and clear-headed man can long survive in a bad one. Mr. Knaggs was not well clad and had too far to go, allowing the storm too much time to overcome him. He was buried on his homestead and, there being no clergyman present, Mr. Frick read a burial service. They laid him away under the soil for which he gave his life, hoping to make a home for himself and family. His wife remained and proved up on the claim. Some years later she married Ed. Lord, and lived in Sibley several years. Finally the whole family moved to the far west.
In the early seventies, C. D. and T. O. Wilbern came here from Cherokee county, Iowa, and conducted a general store under the firm name of Wilbern Brothers. For many years H. K. Rogers, Brown and Chamners and the Wilbern brothers were the leading merchants of Sibley. The Wilbern brothers gained a comfortable competence and retired. A few years after retiring both families moved to California, lured by the siren song of beautiful climate. A very few years sufficed to bring them to a state of mind where the bountiful soil of Iowa looked better to them than the beautiful (?) climate of California, so they wafted back, very little the worse for the experience, but much wiser. While they did not again engage in any regular business they were both of such an industrious disposition that they were never idle. On March 22, 1905, C. D. Wilbern, largely for the sake of having something to do, was helping A. W. Harris in and about his elevator. He was physically and mentally active and alert. One day he was out on the side track, superintending the placing of a car, and while he was watching one car, another came flying in and ran him down, killing him instantly.
668 O'BRIEN AND OSCEOLA COUNTIES, IOWA.
His body was completely broken and crushed. It has always been a mystery how it could happen, that a man so naturally active and alert should be so trapped. However, a useful life was crushed out in the twinkling of an eye.
In the year 1892 Peter DeBloom, of Grundy county, Iowa, bought a farm in this county, and in 1893 moved on to it with his family. Being a good farmer, he prospered and made money, not only by his farming activities but, beyond all expectation, on the advance in the price of land. In the year of 1904 he retired from the farm and moved into Sibley. On Monday, December 29, 1913, he borrowed his son-in-law's team and brought home a load of cobs. As he was returning the team, a train hit the wagon at the railroad crossing, in the south part of Sibley, threw Mr. DeBloom out and many feet distant and killed him instantly. It is a mystery to his relatives and friends how a cautious, active man got so caught. He was only a little over sixty years of age and quite active. He had always cautioned his children to look out for the cars at the crossings. He seemed to be meeting his fate. This accident happened only a few rods from the place where C. D. Wiibern was accidentally killed.
March 12, 1913, Herman Fry was helping to cut trees in the grove of his father, John Fry, a few miles west of Sibley. Suddenly and without warning a branch fell from a nearby tree, struck him on the head and fractured his skull, driving a piece of the bone into the brain. He at first fell, but recovered enough to arise, and was helped into the house. A doctor was summoned, but while on the operating table he passed away. His death was a sad loss as he had a wife and family of small children depending on him. He was buried in the Sibley cemeterv, March 15, 1913.
When Edward Larrahty, who froze to death on section 16, east of Sibley, came here from Wisconsin in the spring of 1872, his three sons, Thomas, Edward and William, came with him. Thomas and Edward took claims, William being too young. When the hard times came, in consequence of the grasshopper plague, Thomas and Edward secured employment on the rail-
O'BRIEN AND OSCEOLA COUNTIES, IOWA. 669
road as section hands. Being sober, industrious and trustworthy men, they
received promotion. Edward was given charge of the six-mile section north
Sibley. On the last day of October, 1892, while at his usual work on the
track a few miles north of
Sibley, the rumble of an approaching train was
heard at a time when no
regular train was due. The work the men were doing was a small job and would occupy only a few minutes ; consequently the
hand car was left
standing on the track ready to move on. Upon hearing the
train all hands ran to move the car off the track and had it turned
around, and two wheels off, with one man working between the rails helping
to push it along, when the pilot of the fast approaching engine struck the
man, throwing the man one hundred feet by actual measurement.
man, John Rasmussen by name, was injured for life and settled with
company for some fourteen hundred dollars, and went to Nebraska,
where, at last reports, he is still living. There was an iron bar on the hand
car which was hit so hard
by the swift going train that it was sent flying
through the air and hit Edward Larrahty, killing him. He is buried in the
Sibley cemetery. His widow settled with the company for one thousand dollars. This train proved to be an extra freight, running ahead of the passenger train, on fast time.
Andrew Verhage, one of the men in the crew, was hit and hurt so severely that he was laid up three weeks. Mr. Verhage is still working for the railroad company and is now section boss of this same section. Thomas Larrahty lives in Nebraska, having worked for the railroad company so long he is now retired on a pension. William Larrahty lives in Colorado.