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Pioneer Memoirs

Written by Mary Faye (Burrill) Dempster Eyres

Supplemented with memories of her daughter, Thelma (Dempster) Reeves

Selected Memories of (Mary) Faye (Burrill) Dempster Eyres

Compiled from writings by Faye

Supplemented with memories of Thelma (Dempster) Reeves


I was born in a small 5 room house on a farm, two and a quarter miles northeast of Adaville in Johnson Township, Plymouth County, Iowa on July 19th, 1897, the fourth in a family of six girls.  My sisters were, in order, Pearl, Eva, Florence, then me, Lillian and Clara.

We attended school in three different one room schoolhouses.  Each one had a large heating stove in the middle aisle near the front.  There were two cloakrooms with a shelf for the lunch pails.  When my sister Pearl was our teacher, in the cold weather we took potatoes to bake in the hot ashes and maybe some soup or something to heat on top of the stove.  She always said she was the one who started the hot lunch program in school!

We attended Sunday school and church in the Adaville United Brethren Church, where I was baptized, until we moved to Union Township in 1908.    We attended the Sunday school and school picnics as a family.  My sister Florence and I were quite popular as singers on the programs.  The Adaville church has been remodeled several times so it is much larger and different than it was when we went there.

The Ben Borchers family are the first neighbors I remember.  Their daughter Kate and I are of an age and are still friends.  Her name now is Ohlrichs. 

Then there was the Hauswald family.  Mrs. Hauswald was the leader of the junior society of the church.  We met on Saturday afternoons, I don’t remember how often.  One Saturday I was going home with the two Hauswald girls of my age, Viola and Clarice, to stay over night.  We decided to walk the 2½ miles so their mother drove the horse and buggy home and we started walking.  We were almost to the top of the big hill with its high banks, when a team and buggy came over the hill.  Two men with red handkerchiefs over their faces jumped out of the buggy and started toward us.  We turned and ran down the hill till we could run up on the bank, then we ran for home as fast as we could run.  Viola was the nervous type so she was sick all night, so we didn’t have the fun we had planned.  We three and the two older sisters slept in one bed room and played guessing games for a while before going to sleep. 

We always kept a night light at home and I remember the first time I stayed over night at Aunt Clara’s.  They waited until I was asleep, then one of them slipped up stairs and took the lamp.  I sat up in bed in my sleep and hollered so they put the lamp back.  That was tried several times before I was sound asleep enough that they could get the lamp downstairs.  Aunt Clara (mother’s sister) and Uncle Al Frager had a family of seven girls and three boys and we spent a lot of time together until they moved to Madison, South Dakota.  We didn’t have Cokes or bottled cold drinks of any kind and no ice boxes.  There were lemons but few could afford them.  I remember Aunt Clara mixing sugar and vinegar in a big stone jar and filling it with cold water, then filling a glass for each of us and stirring in a little soda to make it foam.  We really enjoyed that on a hot afternoon. 

The summer I was 9, (1906) I spent several weeks with Uncle Will’s family near Hinton, taking care of 9 month old Wilbur. Aunt Gertie was pregnant and needed help. I wheeled Wilbur to get the mail and around the yard to keep him busy so Aunt Gertie could get her work done. Howard was born that fall.  He died when he was 2 when they lived in Dakota. While I was staying with them Aunt Gertie taught me to crochet and had a neighbor girl, May Garvey, teach me to play the Pansy Waltz on the pump organ.  Uncle Will, Florence and I went to some woods not far from their place and picked 2 big sacks of hazelnuts one fall.  After we moved to Union Township and Grandma and Grandpa moved to Merrill we didn’t stay with them anymore. 

Uncle Wesley (Dad’s brother) and Aunt Ella lived in Akron.  They gave us two pair of second hand skates.  We took turns skating on the creek in our pasture in the winter.  Uncle Wesley and a Mr. Douglas owned a men’s clothing store in Akron.  Their son Lowell was my cousin.  He spent some of his summer vacation with Aunt Ella’s parents, the Stintons, a mile from our place.  Such a nice couple—we all called him Uncle Tommy.  I wish I had all the pictures they took of us.  Lowell would ride his pony to our place to play.  I don’t remember him ever letting any of us ride his pony. 

I remember when Grandpa Burrill’s had a sale and moved to LeMars. Milton Gable bought their farm. Gables had several small girls and Florence and I would stop on our way home from school to take care of the girls for an hour or more.  Mrs. Gable always had such good sandwiches ready for us. 

In 1906 Dad sold the farm and bought his brother Robert’s farm in Liberty Township around 5 miles southeast of our place.  Aunt Rose had died and left 6 children.  Her sister, Isabelle (Aunt Belle), took the baby. But Uncle Robert couldn’t keep farming so he sold the farm and moved to LeMars. A short time later Stella went to live with Grandpa (George Washington) Burrill and Aunt Em (Emma Alderson, Robert’s sister), after living at the Catholic school until the doctor told them she wouldn’t live long if she stayed cooped up there.    

I don’t remember ever staying at Grandma (Martha Austin) Burrill’s, except a few days so Aunt Em could make me a new dress.  Aunt Em was a dressmaker.  Besides sewing for others she taught sewing.  Eva took lessons from her.  She didn’t like to sew so she taught me how to use the patterns and what she had learned and I sewed for her.  The first dress I made for myself was a plain blue cotton and cost 7 cents a yard.  I used 4 yards for a cost of 28 cents.

Going back to when we moved to Liberty Township, the little school was only ¼ mile away, quite different than the 2½ miles we had walked before we got our pony to drive to the other school.  We had the best teacher we ever had at that school, Jenny Day, later Mrs. Albert Crabb of Kingsley. Our nearest neighbors were the Dennlers.  They were wonderful neighbors.  Edith was later Mrs. William Barnable, Clara was Mrs. Bert Hoss, and Chas married Ben Spies. They were the parents of Robert Dennler who lives near Merrill. 

My mother, Mary Jane (Tullis) Burrill, was a good-looking woman with brown hair and gray blue eyes.  She was smaller than her mother and sisters. Her hair was so long that when she unpinned it, it touched the floor when she sat on a chair.  She was a good cook and housekeeper. Uncle Wesley used to say her floors were so clean you could use them for a table.  She also helped with chores, feeding the pigs, etc, when Dad (George Henry Burrill) was in the field. I remember we were so proud of her when we went to a church picnic.  She was dressed in white and wore a big white hat.  People were all telling her how young she looked to be the mother of six girls.

There are so many memories to crowd into the years before Mother became sick. We had such carefree and fun filled summers.  We built play houses, made mud cookies, rode our stick horses and played games of all kinds.  I remember my birthday party when Grandma Tullis gave me a tea set of china.  I think maybe that is why I like pretty dishes today.  When the field work was slow our parents would pack a picnic lunch and we would drive to Aunt Clara Frager’s, near Akron.  They would pack a lunch too and get in their wagon and we would all go to the river near Akron.  The men fished and the women fried what they caught over an open fire with wood brought from home, while we kids played in the sand.

After Mother became sick things were never the same. I must have been around five.  The doctors couldn’t find the trouble.  She would be really sick for months, with a nurse in our home, then she would be better and able to get around on crutches. She was on crutches part of the time and bedfast part of the time for seven years.  From then on we had help around much of the time and we took turns staying with Grandma Tullis.  Mother was a good reader, so after she became ill and couldn’t work anymore she would read stories to us while we worked.  In those days we had a lot of ironing to do.  Each of us wore one or two full underskirts with full ruffles, starched stiff.  It was hot tiresome work, with the cook stove burning good to keep the flat irons hot.  Someone else would be churning butter in a barrel churn and someone might be making cookies.  We could all work and enjoy the stories.  Some were continuing stories in the magazine “Comfort” which came once a month. Sometimes she would read an interesting book.

In the summer Eva, Florence and I did the milking.  We carried the stool and pail and sat down to milk wherever the cow was.  Sometimes we did a lot of moving.  We had one cow we called “Old Cranberry”.  Two of us could milk her at the same time, one on each side.  Dad did the milking in the winter.  

We lived on the farm in Liberty Township 2 years then Dad bought farm 225A in Union Township from Noah Carpenter. The Union Township Presbyterian Church was on the corner of it.  We moved there in wagons and buggy.  We girls drove the cattle and some men helped. The road was just a two-track path with grass growing in the middle.  It was flooded by DeRaad’s, west of Ed Dempster’s place a ways, but we got through.  

Mother seemed to be better for some time and got around on crutches.  Then Dad and she and Lillie and Clara went to Dakota by train to visit Aunt Clara and family.  They enjoyed the trip, the visit and fishing until Mother tripped and fell.  The fall caused quite a set back. She stayed at Grandma Tullis’ home in Merrill for a few weeks to be closer to the doctor.  Grandpa had died a couple of years after they moved to town so Grandma was alone. Mother died on July 12, 1911 at Grandma’s home, located 1 block north of the Methodist Church then 1 block east.  Her services were in the Merrill church and burial in the Merrill Cemetery.  I was nearly 14.  We grieved so deeply for my mother.  We were so sad, but tried to be good.  When the minister came to see us, we were on the porch coloring.  Later the minister said in public that we were unconcerned.  What a statement to make in public!  I’ve always held that against him as a bad thought and wondered why he did it.

In 1906 or 1907, while we lived in Liberty Township, Merle and Sarah Talbott came from Akron to spend the day.  They came in their new car and they gave us all rides.  What a thrill!  When we moved to Union in 1908, Dick Eyres had a car.  It wasn’t long until Tom and Wesley Eyres each had one.  They had no tops and no doors.  Dad’s first car was a second hand Reo, must have been in 1912 or 1913.  Florence and I learned to drive it.  It had to be cranked and the gearshift was on the running board.  When we needed to shift gears to get up the hill, I would stand on the running board to do the shifting while Florence took care of the clutch.  It was a wonder we ever got anywhere!

There was a little one room school house west of the Union Church, across from the house where Roger Dempster used to live.  My formal education was concluded there when I passed my 8th grade exams.  There was no high school there then.

Pearl went to summer school for two summers at Western Union College (which later became Westmar College).  The first fall she taught a small school in Lincoln Township.  She liked teaching and bought quite a few things for our home.  She spent one summer near Winner, South Dakota, helping Aunt Gertie while they had a new house built.  That is why they named their first girl Pearl.  When Pearl taught our school, our school had a picnic the last day of school.  We had a picnic dinner, then a program, followed by a ballgame with the school that was 2 miles north of our school.  Wes Eyres took care of the ball game.  He didn’t keep track of the innings and let the other team have one more, then ours as well.  They won the game.  We didn’t care.  We had fun! 

Pearl and Eva took music lessons when they were 10 or 12 years old.  What we did many evenings and on Sunday afternoons was sing around the piano while Pearl played.  The rest of us learned what we could from their books. 

The farm in Union Township had a row of tall walnut trees.  Dad put a pole between two of them, way high up, and made us a rope swing.  It was the longest swing I ever saw.  Could we swing high!  He also built one of the barns there.  Of course we had chores to do when Dad was in the field.  We cleaned the barn, fed and slopped the pigs and milked the cows, separated the milk and churned the butter. Before we had a cave, we put the butter and a jar of milk and what ever we wanted to keep cold, in a pail, tied a rope on the handle and hung it down the well. We also took care of the garden.  We picked the raspberries, plums, cherries and apples and helped in the field when needed.  We were tomboys.  We shocked grain, picked corn, and hoed morning glories in the cornfield while Dad was cultivating.  We played ball after the chores were done. With our mother gone, we became mothers to each other, except the younger ones.  We older ones mothered them. We had many friends, went to parties and just lived an ordinary farm life.

My father sold the farm once and bought it back, paying too much for it.  He ended up losing it.  It was later the May place and is now farmed by Wenzels.

The Eyres families had ice houses so they dammed the water in the creek in Wes Eyres pasture for cutting ice.  That made a real nice place for skating so we had lots of skating parties.  After they cut the ice, Tom Eyres made a pond in their pasture by ridging the dirt up and flooding.  We skated several times a week.  Sometimes we walked and sometimes we drove a team.  We had a sleigh party to LeMars one night when it was 19 degrees below zero.  Some of the girls weren’t used to being out doors and they almost froze.  We were used to being out so we walked 2 ½ miles home instead of waiting for the other sled to pick us up at Harvey’s.  Dad had the heating stove nice and warm, although it was 2 a.m.

One night when we were younger, Lillie, Clara and I were playing in the yard, about dark, when a horse and buggy came up to the gate.  We just stood and watched.  Pretty soon the minister came and looked in the buggy.  It was empty.  It was the buggy his daughter used while giving music lessons.  He gave the alarm to hunt for her.  Too late!  She had eloped with a young Catholic neighbor. There was a church party at Dick Eyres’ that night, so the news traveled fast. You can imagine the uproar.  They came back and were married in the Catholic Church and of course the minister moved.

 Pearl and Walter Grebner were married on March 27, 1912.  Eva and Henry Clarke were married September 11, 1912.  Florence spent most of her time at Eva’s helping cook for extra help on a large farm, so I had to be housekeeper for Dad, my two younger sisters (Lillie and Clara), and me.  Lillie and Clara attended Union Township Consolidated School.

I mentioned earlier that the Union Township Presbyterian Church was on the corner of our farm.  Our family has an interesting history with the church.  I learned these facts by going through the church records and through deed transfers at the Plymouth County Courthouse:

A group of citizens of Union Township had been holding Sunday Worship services and Sunday School classes in homes or school houses.  In 1890 they decided to organize the First Presbyterian Church of Union Township.  They purchased one acre of land on the southwest corner of section 16 from Noah and Nancy Carpenter for $50.00.  He gave them a deed but put specifications in it—If the church was used for anything except worship services or the fence wasn’t kept in good repair, it would go back to former owner.  The church board members (R. G. Smith, Conrad Kohl, Mida Inglett, and J. S. Smith) signed a contract agreeing to the terms.   

In 1898, when the church building was finished, they found they needed a half acre to build a manse.  So they paid Noah Carpenter $25.00 and he gave them a deed with the same specifications (exclusive church use of the property), but no contract.

In 1908 when my father, George H. Burrill, bought that farm he paid for the whole quarter section, including the acre and a half the church and manse occupied, and Mr. Carpenter gave him the contract.  He told my father if the church broke the contract that the land it occupied would be his.  In 1915 my father rented out the land and didn’t know what he was going to do.  He decided to give the contract to the clerk of the session. He cancelled the contract and gave it to Charles Eyres to be recorded in the church records that the church now had clear title to the land occupied by the church and the manse.

A few year later Mr. Herman May purchased the farm.  The realtor found that the half acre, occupied by the manse, had been used for purposes other than the church parsonage.  It had been rented out for income.  The realtor insisted the land should go to Mr. May since the terms of the contract had been broken.  The clerk of the session got in touch with my father and learned he had signed a deed giving the church a clear title to the property. 

In October 1932, at my father’s funeral in the Methodist Church in Merrill, the minister of the Union Presbyterian Church, Harold Smith, mentioned the fact that my father had given the church a clear title deed by giving them the cancelled contract.  If he had not cancelled the contract and signed the deed over to the church, there might not have been a centennial for the Church to celebrate.           

I met Henry Dempster at a neighbor’s on a Sunday evening in the spring of 1914.  I had walked to my friend Dena Johnson’s home (now the Cliff farm, currently farmed by Mark Rolling) and he was there.  (He was working for John Smith on what is now the Gil Schroeder farm north of Union School).  A few weeks later he came with his horse and buggy and asked me to go to the evening service at church with him.  After church we sat in our lawn swing and talked.  That was our first date.  After that we went to the young people’s parties and went to the movies in LeMars on Saturday night.  Never anything very exciting. We were married two years after we met on January 20, 1916 at the manse of the Union Township Presbyterian Church. I was 18 and Henry was 21.  My sister Lillian and Mrs. Schroeder, the pastor’s wife, were our witnesses. A few nights later the young people of the church came to shiveree us.  We gave them enough money to have an oyster supper which was held at the Tom Eyres home.  They also came to our home for a shower one evening.

We started out living east of Union Church with my father and my two younger sisters, Lillian and Clara.  They were in school yet.  Later, as adults, my younger sisters both moved out of the area.  Lillian went to Minnesota with Florence and her husband.  Clara hired out, doing house work, then moved to Colorado with Pearl and her husband.

My father was an elder and a trustee at Union Church.  He eventually remarried.  The woman he married was newly divorced with 2 young children.  She was a German woman from Merrill.  They lived in Sioux City and then Fort Morgan, Colorado.  He came back summers, finding work doing thrashing and other farm work.  She  divorced him and he came to live with us again.

The first of March we moved to a farm 1½ miles northwest of Merrill in Washington Township. That is where Lowell was born on May 4, 1917. We borrowed money to buy milk cows.  My father went to Wisconsin and bought 15 holsteins.  We milked them and hauled the milk in 10 gallons cans to Merrill every morning.  We bought a farm 4 miles west of Merrill in 1918 which made it farther to haul milk.  We lived there until Lowell was 2, then sold the farm and went back to the home place in Union Township.  Florence and her husband, Adam, had moved there after we were married.  They decided to move to LeMars so we went back to farm for Dad. That is where Thelma was born on July 18, 1920, on a Sunday morning.

Later we returned to the farm west of Merrill for a brief time. (The actual time and reason for moving back to Merrill is uncertain.  What we know for sure is that the fire described here happened at the farm previously bought and later sold west of Merrill, following a period at the Burrill farm in Union Township where Thelma was born.) While living there this time we had a near tragedy.  One morning when Lowell was around 4½ and Thelma was 1½ years old, Henry went to town early, I don’t remember why.  He left the milking of 2 cows for me.  When I finished milking and stepped out of the barn I saw the horses had come in from the field because a gate had been left open.  I got them back in the field and the gate closed when Lowell came screaming from the house.  I could see smoke coming out of the dining room door.  I had left them to play while I was out.  We had a big round heating stove in the dining room.  Lowell had rolled up a newspaper and opened the stove door and got it on fire.  He set the tablecloth on fire. A black plush coat that my sister Eva had given me to shorten for myself was hanging over a chair close to the table.  It was also burning.  Lowell then got scared and came calling me.  It took me a while to put the fire out.  Thelma was standing in a large cardboard box I had left her in.  She just stood there and looked at it.  Lowell has been afraid of fire ever since.  I saved enough of the coat to make Thelma a coat and cap.  I often think how much worse it could have been if they had set their clothes on fire.  I didn’t go out to do chores and leave them in the house again soon! 

My father had gone to Florida and purchased some land and encouraged us to sell out and go down there and farm it.  We went by train only to discover that the water was undrinkable and the soil unfarmable.  It was the kind that was burning under the surface.  My father had been swindled.  There was nothing for it but to come north again.

Next we moved to LeMars, where we lived for one year.  We lived in the 2nd house south of the stop signs at the intersection of 12th Street south and Central Avenue, on the west side of the street (1215 Central Avenue, SW).  Later we moved to Grace Miller’s house close to Aunt Em Alderson (my father’s aunt).  Henry did day work and helped on the old LeMars hospital building.  He hauled building materials to the building site with horse and wagon.  Lowell went to kindergarten in LeMars.

After a year in LeMars we moved to the first place west of the church, owned by Wes Eyres.  We lived on the Eyres place and farmed the Conrad Kohl place, 1 mile north.   Darrel was born on this farm on January 23, 1925.  One day when Darrel was little we were in a store in Sioux City.  He saw a little black boy with real curly hair.  He had never seen a black boy before and he said, “Let’s take him home with us.”

Thelma always loved to sing.  When she was 3 or 4 years old, if she didn’t know the words she would fill in with others.  One day while at (Henry’s sister) Bertha’s she was singing “When Love Shines In”.  She had forgotten some of the words and filled in with “back again you bet your boots”.   Bertha got quite a laugh out of it.

One day when Thelma was staying with (Henry’s sister) Lizzie while I went down town she was talking to herself.  Lizzie asked her what she said and Thelma replied, “I wasn’t talking at you.”

The next move was to the Steele place, 1 mile south and ½ mile west, by Fred Featherston (now the Plendl farm).  We farmed there a couple years then moved to the Dickman farm, (½ mile east and ½ mile south, now the Kessnick farm), where we farmed 400 acres.  We bought our first tractor in 1929.  We stayed there for 14 years.  While we were living there, my father, George Henry Burrill, died at his sister Em Alderson’s home in LeMars (414 2nd Ave. SW) on October 12, 1932.

Both Henry and I worked with the 4-H program for 22 years.  All three of our children participated.  We belonged to the Union Township Presbyterian Church and took part in all the activities.

After Lowell and Thelma had both married, we bought the Wesley Eyres farm in 1940, about 1 mile north. When Darrell married he worked the farm and we moved into the small house on the place.  We had always worked hard but we also enjoyed picnic dinners with friends and vacations to the lakes.  We purchased a cottage there and enjoyed it for a year before Henry died of a heart attack on March 24, 1963.

I married Calvin Eyres on January 28, 1967.  We lived on his farm, ½ mile north through a field, then in Kingsley.  I sold my farm and we moved to LeMars in 1977.  Cal and I enjoyed traveling and took many trips.  We visited Texas, Georgia, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Denver, Fort Collins, and the Black Hills.

Cal had problems with his legs and spent his last days in the nursing home in Kingsley.  He died on August 7, 1980 and is buried in Kingsley.

At the time of this writing I have 13 grandchildren, 28 great grandchildren, and 6 great great grandchildren.

Some special friends I remember were Amy and Wilbur Laux.  We had Sunday dinners together.  We took two vacations together, one to the Black Hills and one to Minneapolis.

Fred and Vin Featherston were really good neighbors when our family was growing up. Mrs. Wesley Eyres made dresses for Thelma and sent food when I was sick.

Lois and Melvin Bainbridge drove our car and took us to Sioux City and many places when Cal and I lived in Kingsley.

Others who have been special friends are Florence and Vera Eyres, Cassie and Art Koenig, Kathleen and Elmer Oetken, Ellen Hamilton and Mildred Morton.

Note:  At the age of 88, in 1985, Mary Faye Burrill Dempster Eyres was ordained as an elder of the Union Township Presbyterian Church, where she had been an attender at that time for 78 years, and a member for 71 years.  She also had fond memories of the early years of family picnics, serving as Sunday School librarian, assistant Sunday School organist, Christian Endeavor, and choir.  In later years she was active in Sunday School, Bible School, Missionary Aid and served on the Presbyterial Board.  The Mary Faye Circle is named in her honor.

After the death of her second husband, Faye moved to a condo on 4th Ave, NE in LeMars, Iowa. She remained surprisingly active for quite some time, attending the ladies’ meetings at her beloved Union Church and the Sunshine Club meetings with Myrtle Parks.  She lived there alone for several years before moving in with her son, Darrel.  Her health deteriorated and she died on July 30, 1996 at the age of 99.

Mary Faye Burrill Dempster Eyres
Born: 19 Jul 1897
Died: 30 Jul 1996

Link to the Burrill-Dempster family photos

(These memoirs represent the combination of three hand-written documents by Faye. Compiled by Viv Reeves, date: April 2002)





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