Historical reminiscences of the city of Des Moines, together with a full description of the city and county. H. B. Turrill, 1857 Transcribed by Ralph Leonard

The State of Iowa is attracting its hundreds and thousands of settlers, every year, who, leaving the over-crowded States at the East, emigrate to the mighty and generous West, to find room, riches, health, honors and happiness. Men of all classes—young, old, poor, affluent, ignorant, learned—fossilized bachelors, and hopeful, strong-headed husbands and fathers;— men of all professions, from the broken-down politician and quack doctor, up to the honest, industrious mechanic, and shrewd, enterprising business man; from the keen Connecticut clock-peddler, to the broad-faced German, just from “Der Faderland,” are incessantly crowding toward Iowa.

This book may fall into the hands of some whose inclinations have already wandered to the bright and ample domain of Iowa, and who meditate seriously on emigration. To afford reliable, and perhaps gratifying, information to such, we would present the claims of the Des Moines Valley, and endeavor to portray more particularly the inducements which Polk and contiguous counties offer to settlers of all classes and pursuits.

There are thousands of mechanics, farmers, and laboring men, in New England States, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, who, as they well know themselves, are drudging slowly along year after year, “living from hand to mouth,” and earning by severe toil, a pittance which procures only a bare subsistence. The mechanic often finds his dollar and a quarter a day a poor recompense for his skill and hard labor, providing him but sparingly with the ordinary comforts of life; and with, perhaps, a young family growing up around him, often realizes the pressing necessity of increasing, by some means, the wages from which it should (104)

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derive an adequate and comfortable support, and to accumulate something for a time of adversity or old age. How is he, under ordinary circumstances, to do this in the East? He knows, perhaps, but little beyond the bounds of his avocation, or if, luckily, prepared for more lucrative pursuits, lacks that master-key to success, that “sine qua non,” CAPITAL. In his business, he must work at the same terms as others, otherwise he will have no work at all. An almost unlimited competition and his own urgent necessities, compel him to labor for a sum which produces to himself and those dependent on him, scarcely more than the demands of life and decency absolutely require. From month to month, year to year, the same stereotyped routine occurs—the same toil, the same reward, the same struggles for respectability and enjoy-ment, and the same results.

In the West the mechanic’s chances for fortune are different. There is a vast amount of mechanical labor to be done, and to be done right away! An army of mechanics is needed in almost every county, and certainly in those which, from their position and consequent advantages, are fast increasing in wealth and population. Instead of a dollar and a quarter, per diem, from two to five dollars is the usual compensation. Houses, barns, fences, bridges, and the like, are needed; needed soon, and must be erected at whatever cost. Mills, manufactories, railroads, boats, and all the thousand and various wants of a new State, profusely endowed with natural advantages, and destined soon to occupy a high position in wealth and commercial importance among her sisters—must be built as soon as possible. There is plenty to do, and good pay for doing it. In the city of Des Moines, which has nearly doubled her population annually, for the last three years, and now contains about 5,000 inhabitants, no less than three hundred stores and dwellings were erected the past year (1856), some of them large and costly edifices, besides innumerable buildings for other purposes. The present season (1857), will

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see, no doubt, a greater number of buildings erected than the last. Carpenters, stone-cutters, brick-layers, painters, plasterers, and such other mechanics as are required in erecting and completing buildings, are in good demand. Millwrights, blacksmiths, wagon-makers, tanners, cabinet-makers, weavers, cloth-fullers, and all classes of useful mechanics are much needed in our city. Men who understand their business, can do well—of “botches,” there are as many here as will ever be required, and those of that description had better stay where their labors are better appreciated than here. More saw mills are needed, not only near the city, but at all points, where timber is plenty, throughout the country. The lumber business is as profitable as any other that can be engaged in. Brick making is also very remunerative. No department of manufactures is at all over-crowded, unless it be with business. Water power, to any extent, is afforded throughout the Des Moines valley; coal is abundant and cheap, and every inducement is here for the extensive employment of all kinds of machinery, which leads us to indulge the hope that in a few years at most, when the agricultural and mineral wealth of this region shall be fully developed, that our citizens shall be but very little dependent upon the East, unless as a market for their produce.

But the great and evident want of Des Moines is, the presence and results of intelligent and energetic farmers settled in the surrounding country. Towns cannot exist of themselves; they need a cultivated country around to sustain them. This desideratum we sadly lack. Though many improved tracts of land are to be seen in Polk county, there are few that deserve the name of farms; that name so suggestive of neatness, order, thrift and independence. As a consequence of this, produce has at times been extremely high, and this is the more to be regretted when we take into consideration the abundant harvests which the generous soil yields to the hand of the husbandman. Our country,

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to be sure, is new; only ten years from the possession of the Indians, and scarcely could be expected to exhibit model farms. The mania for speculation has caused many new settlers to invest in city lots all their available means, and induced the greater portion of the inhabitants to lend their influence to building up the city instead of improving the country. The enjoyment of social, religious and educational privileges has also contributed strongly to the same result; but the necessity of this no longer exists to any great extent.

At the present time, it is a reasonable estimate to say that not more than one sixteenth, or about 23,000 acres, of the land in Polk county is under any degree of cultivation. Part of the remainder is, of course, timber, which will be carefully kept, and the land it occupies not cleared for some time; but after making a deduction of one twelfth for it, there will remain 314,920 acres of unimproved prairie, at least 300,000 of which is susceptible of high cultivation. When the exhaustless fertility of this land is taken into consideration, and when it is remembered that no portion of it lies more than twenty-five miles distant from the permanent capital of the State, a city which is destined to be connected by railroads to all parts of the Union, within three years; which of itself consumes more than has hitherto been produced in the county, and is rapidly increasing in population, it seems unaccountable that these lands are not occupied and well cultivated. Those who embark early in the business will, if they are men of the right stamp, undoubtedly soon acquire fortunes by farming alone, without taking into account the undoubted rise in the price of their lands.

Beyond the confines of the city, beyond the influences of town-lot speculation, the price of land varies from three to thirty dollars per acre, according to its nature: whether timber or prairie, its degree of improvement, its proximity to saw mills, lines of railroad, or distance from Des Moines.

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These may seem high figures to some eastern men, whose ideas of Iowa are that it is almost a wilderness, and who, unconscious of their mistake, firmly believe that anywhere west of the Mississippi land can be bought at $1.25 per acre. Such a state of things did exist from ten to fifteen years ago, and until recently there has been considerable unentered land in the Fort Des Moines District. But the extensive tracts which Congress has donated within the past two or three years to sundry railroad companies, consumed it all, and the only public land in Iowa, subject to entry at the present time, lies in the north part of the State, and is on many accounts not desirable. The time for obtaining land at Congress prices has gone by; those who did not come soon enough to obtain them need not blame those who were before them, and stood the brunt of a frontier life, if by so doing they did make some fortunate purchases. But there is plenty of land to be bought on reasonable terms yet, although from individuals and not the government; and money to be made in cultivating it. These lands are not rocky steeps, cold, poor, or worn out, but rich, alluvial prairies, the soil abounding in every element necessary to render it productive.

Professor Owen, in his Geological Report made of Iowa and Minnesota, speaking of the nature of the soil in the valley of the Des Moines river, says:

“The prairie country, based on rocks belonging to the Devonian and carboniferous systems, extending up the valley of the Red Cedar, Iowa, and Des Moines as high as latitude 42°, 31', presents a body of arable land which, taken as a whole, for richness and organic elements, for amount of saline matter and due admixture of earthly silicates, affords a combination that belongs only to the most fertile upland plains. Throughout this district the general levelness of surface, interrupted only by gentle swells and moderate undulations, offers facilities for the introduction of all those aids which machinery is daily

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adding to diminish the labor of cultivation, and render easy and expeditious the collection of an abundant harvest.”

Farmers have since proved by experience the correctness of Dr. Owen’s scientific researches, and it is now a confirmed and indisputable fact that the valley of the Des Moines, the great inland river of the State, is unsurpassed in fertility by any in the world. “The whole valley watered by this river alternates with luxuriant prairie and heavy timber. Perhaps it may be comprehensively described, to those who have never seen it, as one grand prairie—smiling in the face of heaven with rich herbage, and the most gorgeous flowers—relieved at intervals with magnificent groves of the primeval forest. A prairie in full bloom is a most gorgeous and wildly beautiful sight, and when seen for the first time, impresses the beholder with the most agreeable sensations. The richness of such a soil must, of course, strike every mind. This garniture of glory is the type of the hidden wealth within its bosom. The soil is found to be from two to ten feet deep, averaging four feet, and is inexhaustible in fertility. It produces almost spontaneously every agricultural product, and requires an incredible small amount of labor to secure an abundant harvest. It yields from fifty to a hundred and twenty bushels of corn to the acre, say seventy-five on an average, and all other crops in the same proportion.”

The timber consists principally of oak, but black and white walnut, sugar maple, linn, hickory and ash are abundant. The Des Moines flows through a heavy growth of timber, from three to eight miles wide, and the streams which intersect it are well fringed with this indispensable article. On the uplands it is not so plenty, and of a dwarfish, knotty description.

Suppose that the farmer locating in Polk county pays the very highest price which we have given, thirty dollars, an acre, (and for that sum the choicest farms, well located and improved, may be obtained) this is still below the cost of

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much of the worn out and barren land of the Eastern States. Farmers will toil ten or fifteen years, to clear a farm in Ohio or Pennsylvania, and after that till it with great difficulty, covered as it must be with myriads of stumps. Suppose it originally could be bought for no more than five dollars per acre, it costs them at least fifty before it is even tolerably fit for cultivation. They take it, as the lawyers say, "with all its encumbrances,” and by the time they have wrought and delved upon it for half a life time, bitter experience is sure to awaken the thought, that "like the Indian’s gun, it costs more than it comes to.”

The prairies are natural farms, all ready for the plow-share. No trees, stumps, or roots to interfere with the progress of the black, loamy furrows, which the plow turns up, nothing but the thick-matted and tough sod, the growth of luxuriant and long undisturbed vegetation. The cost of breaking, or first plowing, is from two to three dollars per acre, and is accomplished by a large plow, drawn by several yokes of oxen, or team of horses. Good crops of corn are raised the first season, either by cutting holes in the sod with an axe after the plowing is finished; or by dropping the corn in every third furrow, while the plowing is being performed.

We have supposed an immigrant to pay thirty dollars an acre for land here, and have ventured the assertion that even at that price it would prove far more profitable than the vast majority of lands elsewhere. Not only is this land of the best quality, but in the case we have supposed, would be broken, fenced, and supplied with the necessary buildings, so that nothing would be requisite to render the land available, but putting in a crop, securing and marketing it. Now as to the market, many would be surprised to learn that Des Moines is a better market for produce of all kinds than Chicago, Cincinnati or New York. But such is undoubtedly the fact, and is caused by the large number of strangers continually arriving, the tendency of the population to settle

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in the town, for reasons before stated, and the little attention which agriculture has yet received. The following table will show the prices of produce. It is taken from the State Journal’s price current, and continues very nearly the same at all times of the year.

Des Moines, Feb. 27, 1857.

Flour, per cwt. $3.75
Corn Meal, per bushel, 1.00
Buckwheat Flour, per cwt. 4.00
Wheat,   per bushel, 90c@     1.00
Corn,        “        “ 70 @       .75
Potatoes   "         " 1.00
Butter, per lb. 28 @       .30
Eggs, per dozen, .25
Hay, per ton, $11.00 @   14.00
Wood, per cord, 4.00
Coal, per bushel, .15

Many would be surprised to learn that notwithstanding the facilities for raising any description of produce, a great deal of our flour comes from Illinois, our cheese from Ohio, and our butter from Vermont! Such, however, is the unmitigated fact. This country, the garden of the world, does not produce enough to feed its own inhabitants! But one reason is or can be assigned: the soil is not worked—the land is not cultivated—too many of the people are speculating, and consequetly (sic) flour is now (May, 1857,) worth $5 per hundred. In view of these facts, and facts they are beyond all confutation, does not Des Moines and the region surrounding it present superior attractions for farmers? Can flour, butter, cheese, etc., be produced elsewhere and transported here cheaper than skill and industry can afford to produce them in our midst?

But these prices may not continue; agricultural products may become lower in value! We hope so. Suppose they should. Farmers of the Des Moines Valley can better af-


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ford to sell a bushel of corn for 25 cts., than the farmers of the Hudson valley can for 50 cents! Taxes are lighter, land is cheaper, and the soil far more productive. A bushel of corn can be raised with less manual labor here than there. Their salt, plaster, guano, and various other manures, their draining and sub-soil plowing, and the thousand scientific and expensive aids which must be employed on poor land, are not needed here. Except for the cultivation of grasses manure is little used, and is no more needed than the ocean needs salt.

Let the prices fall—let them fall an hundred per cent., though at present there is little hope of it. This deterioration of prices can only be produced by vigorous competition among the farmers, by increasing their numbers and efforts. By the time this occurs the railroads will reach the Des Moines, and if more is raised than needed the superfluity can be sent to the less productive regions of the East, as balance due them for supplying us now.

Fencing is an important item in a prairie country, and causes some embarrassment to the farmer. In Polk county timber is sufficiently plenty for all such purposes. Fifty cents a rod is the usual price of fencing material, when it consists of rails; board fences cost more, but are more preferable. The cost of fencing forty acres would be nearly two hundred dollars. Suppose this to be done, and the forty acres planted in potatoes. A very ordinary result from one acre is from three to four hundred bushels. Take, however, only three hundred to the acre, which is sure to be produced, for if anything can be raised in Iowa it is potatoes. The result at the year's end would be twelve thousand bushels of potatoes. This article has not failed in the last five years in bringing $1 per bushel, some time in the season, and often much more. Falling again below the average, say these potatoes are sold at seventy-five cents per bushel. This would realize the handsome sum of nine thousand dollars. Fencing, labor, seed, marketing, land,

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everything, could be paid for from the results of one crop, and yet leave a larger salary for the farmer than members of Congress receive! Is there any inducement for the farmer to settle in Polk county? The reader can decide for himself—he has the facts with which to do so.

Gardening—raising vegetables for the city market—is also most lucrative, and a business which very few are engaged in. For several years the citizens of Des Moines have paid almost fabulous prices for radishes, peas, carrots, lettuce, cabbages, melons, and such other articles, which are usually classed under the head of “garden truck." In this business money can be made, and good gardens are much needed. Lands rent from $1.50 to $2.50 per acre, and an acre planted in vege-tables, well tended, will produce from fifty to two hundred dollars' worth, and even more, according to the season or the skill of the gardener.

To every department of labor Des Moines, and Polk county, presents superior attractions, and those who come with strong arms, hopeful hearts, and a determination to overcome such slight obstacles as are inevitably connected with a new country, cannot fail of ultimate, if not speedy success.

To men in all avocations we can only say, " Come to the West” Here the young man can begin life without finding every avenue to distinction closed up by the crowds that throng around it. Here the man advanced in years can secure a noble competency for the children whose future prosperity forms so large a portion of his care. Here is the place for the nature-loving or the dollar-loving man. Both can gratify their desires.

"There is something in the growing, glowing West, with her limitless prairies, her mighty rivers, her mountains of iron, the lavish richness of her bountiful soil, that expands the soul of man, and elevates him above the narrow, cramped and confined ideas of those who are accustomed only to the well-worn channels and small conventionalities

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of older hum-drum communities. There the “new man” is apt to find himself an unwelcome jostler, his intrusion received askance, his elbow room begrudged him, and his presence tolerated only upon condition of his accepting the procrustean system of hoary and respectable 'use and want; ’ unless, indeed, a position can be asserted and maintained by force of very superior talents, or unusual accidental advantages. But here all is new, plastic, and vigorous. Men are wanted here, and welcomed. And here is found, at once, a boundless and untrammeled field of enterprise, adequate to the elastic energies of ingenious youth or mature manhood.

Therefore, we repeat, let them come—old and young, men and women, boys and girls—with or without 'plunder.’ Let them flee from the tax-ridden and miserably governed Egypts in Pennsylvania and Ohio, to the Land of Promise, flowing with something better than milk and honey, and possessing capabilities such as they never dreamed of. Here they shall find welcome homes, and while they speedily help themselves to obtain better fortunes, they shall also have a hand in the proud labor of building up the mighty Empire of the Mississippi Valley.”


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