By A.J. Betten, Jr.
A reporter once wrote me: “In the fall of 1856 I lived in your county. At that time the land was still a part of Woodbury County . The first work there was carried out by me, Mr. Mills and a hunchbacked four-footer. We did not do anything but mow and stack hay. We have never decided who of us was the greatest ass.”
According to statistics there were 10 inhabitants in Sioux county in the year 1860: nine men and one woman. In the year 1865 this number increased to 20 and in 1869 the population amounted to more than one hundred souls. From the history of these early years very little is known, except that the so-called administrations issued quite a few debentures, which later settlers had to pay.
If you desire other information about the history of the pioneers in the first years of the colonization here, the limited length of this article and hardly do justice to this subject. It seems to me that this task could better be handled by one of the first pioneers who has been a witness (like the mother of the colony, Mrs. Vennema) from the beginning to all that has happened here to the Homesteaders. We should also pay attention to the fact that in those first years it could storm quite a bit, and that many things happened in those blizzards that now are lost to memory.
The writer of this piece settled here in the year 1871.
In this colony at that time there already lived 70 to 80 families. Many of those lived in fairly good frame houses. The others lived in sod huts, or so-called “dug-outs.” A small part of the land was already cleared. Wheat and potatoes had already been cultivated.
In 1870, Mr. Tjeerd Heemstra –to accommodate the pioneers – had begun a retail store. In October he was elected to the “Board of Supervisors.” On January 1, 1871 , he was elected by the Board to be their chairman.
In August of 1870 one of the first pioneers, Mr. Jelle Pelmulder (for whom the first frame house was built here) was appointed Clerk of the Court. In this office he served (by election) till 1887. He was also the first teacher in this colony. From December 1, 1870 until March 1, 1871 , he was the teacher of youth in the schoolhouse (illegible/ ….Twp. 95, R. 44.
In 1870 three deceased were mourned. The first one was the aged widow Rijsdam. She was interred on the homestead of the family.
In the family of Chris Nieuwendorp the first son was born; they called him Hendrik.
The first public worship service was held at the home of S.A. Sipma, Sec. 14, T. 95, R.44.
The place which was to be Orange City was laid out by a surveyor from Sioux City .
In the year 1870 a house and school building had been built there. The population consisted of three people: a carpenter (Mr. A.J. Lenderink) and his wife and son. The last named is our current County Auditor .
The first winter, except for the last week in December, had not been particularly cold.
The first colonists, when they arrived here, had already experience a year of difficulty.
As it seems to us, several of our settlers are fairly prosperous.
But with many this wealth consists of the rich soil, with the capital being the hope of a good harvest.
Mr. Henry Hospers, the leader and principal adviser in the matters of colonization, was still living in Pella . In the spring of 1871 he sent a builder here, Mr. Gleysteen (now a man of substance in Alton ), who constructed a store on the north side of the town square. When the building was almost completed it was swept from its fundamentals by a violent storm on a certain Sunday. It was put back in its place by the builder and it was very quickly completed.
That same Sunday, south of the town, a stable and a team of oxen were burnt on the homestead of Rijsdam.
Within a short time the newly constructed store did a brisk business. The first load of goods that came in consisted of edibles: grits, barley, rice, peas, flour, fish, coffee, sugar, syrup, etc. The agent, who probably did not have a large amount of capital at his disposal, or who did not really know what was demanded of such a new colony, did not give credit. Butter and eggs were exchanged for goods. Besides, many barely had a medium of exchange.
The owner of the store came here from Pella shortly after the store had opened for business, to settle here permanently. When he came into the store for the first time, some one said to this writer: “There is the Father of the colony, from now on everything will go well.” It did not last long or he found a new medium of exchange. He did not lack ink and paper. From time to time he filled the void by bringing into circulation the so-called “store orders,” which were just as saleable in Orange City as any other kind of “fractional currency.” The father of the colony generally took the ploughing of prairie land for these orders as payment. Further he had to see how he got his money.
The settlement expanded. The population steadily increased. In Orange City that summer about eight houses were built. In a short time the place was provided with a hotel, a smithy, shoemaker and barber. If one wanted to be served by a butcher or baker then one can be served a short distance out of town. Every farmer provided his yard with from one to five acres of trees. This was at that time a shelter against the fierce northwest wind and assured an exemption from payment of part of the tax. On homesteads more and more buildings were erected. The already cleared land appeared to be fruitful.
On a certain Sunday in June the Rev. Winter from Pella preached here in the school house. During the afternoon service a violent storm broke loose. The land was enriched by a mild rain.
July 12, 1871 , the First Reformed Church of Orange City was organized. In this same year the Dutch Chr. Ref. Church was also organized, with about thirteen families.
In Calliope (the county seat) the first issue of the Sioux County Herald was published.
The fall elections were at hand. The colonists were in close agreement with the pioneers of the neighboring settlements of the county. September 29 a convention was held. The candidates were nominated. The second Tuesday in October was election day. The sixteenth day of this month the Board of Supervisors met and declared the following persons as having been elected to the respective offices:
Henry Hospers, member of the Board of Supervisors
A.J. Betten, Jr., Auditor
J.W. Greattrax, Treasurer
T.J. Dunham, Sheriff
H. Jones, Surveyor
John Newell, Superintendent of Schools
J.O. Beals, Coroner
A severe winter set in. The homesteaders, who had to make long trips to get fuel, were often in danger in the blinding blizzards and severe cold.
In December the county clerk and the newly elected auditor went by foot to the county seat. It was a generally impassable road, covered with a deep layer of snow. It was only twenty-five miles. Now and then they tumbled up to their arms in the soft snowbed, yet then there was the opportunity to rest a bit, and the clerk at those moments smoked his big Dutch pipe. By star light they arrived at their destination. After a short stay they returned home again.
On the first of January 1872 , the newly elected officers with some of their friends went again to the county seat. The weather was quite cold. The Board was meeting. Mr. Hospers was allowed a seat as a member of the Board after the swearing in of the oath. (He kept this office until November 16, 1887, when he resigned because he had been elected representative.) The other elected officers did not enjoy the privilege of accepting their offices. Two members of the Board refused to give their approval to bonds they offered. On January 9 there was another meeting with the same result. The new “county father” tried to protest this treatment, but he had only one voice and the opposition had two. January 10 Klaas Jongewaard, with one of the prospective officers, went by sleigh to Orange City . They lost their way quickly and wandered around till midnight . They saw a haystack in the field where they took shelter and rested a bit. After having searched the surroundings they continued the journey and arrived – still unfrozen – at the house of a waggoner. The Board was adjourned till the 21 st of the month. Many people wanted to attend this meeting. A lawyer went along to plead the case. On January 22 a great number of colonists came to be present at the meeting. When no conclusion could be reached, Mr. Hospers returned home. The people thought that the disapproval of the bonds happened because of something unfavorable about the functioning officers. Later it was shown that this suspicion was not ungrounded. People met again. After an unanimous decision all books and appurtenances of the County were taken, loaded and brought to Orange City . It was late when they left. It was extraordinarily cold, and many had strange feelings in the nose or stiff ears. Some were so cold that they fainted when they warmed themselves too closely at the big fire. But with coffee and lunch such people revived again quickly. After some time the matter was set straight. A new law was passed, by which people could appeal to a higher court. They did appeal. After a while the newly elected officers were installed in the new offices.
January 12 is remembered by many as the day in which a heavy snow storm broke loose, which continued for three days. During this blizzard, in the humble cottage of the blacksmith, a son was born, who survived that storm and subsequent storms up to this day.
In a similar snowstorm, the county clerk almost got lost on his way home. He returned and arrived back in town with an ice and snow covered face. In that storm a widow in town went out and got lost. After an anxious search she was found near the manse (being built then) and saved in time. More such events could be recited, but they are all similar. Not withstanding these dangers, the colonists have been kept remarkably safe in all these feared and dangerous storms. In the first years not one of the perished because of them.
In the spring a large number of families settled here.
In this year the Sioux City and St. Paul railroad was built. This saved many a long trip, and the opportunity for the transport of grain and building materials, fuel, etc., improved vastly.
Number 50, volume 1, of the Sioux County Herald was published in Orange City and began to talk a little Dutch.
The field of the farmer appeared to be fruitful. His work was rewarded with a good crop.
The result of the election again was according to the wishes of the colonists.
On October 16 a meeting of the Circuit Court was held in Orange City for the first time, with the Hon. Addison Oliver as Judge.
On November 11 the Board of Supervisors met and declared by resolution – according to the results of the election – that Orange City was the county seat of Sioux County . After several days the books and appurtenances of the County were taken to Orange City .
Up to now there was steady progress. The pioneer still has limited means, but with thrift and industry there seem to be good prospects. There are still many privations which people face, but, speaking in general, they have a particular privilege: the peace that they enjoy. As it was form the beginning, there is much visiting, a bond of unity and the guarding of each other's interests. Even in the most humble cottage generosity and hospitality are always shown. Conflicts of a serious nature hardly ever arise anymore, and if they do arise, they are settled amicably most of the time. Each is ready with word and deed for the other. Lawsuits seldom occur.
From the beginning on, religion was a big thing for most of the people. The Book of books was considered to be an indispensable guide for life. Education and religion had a place in house and heart. Who cannot but appreciate these privileges.
The worship services were first held in private homes; they were led by laymen, unless a preacher was present from somewhere else. Later they met in the town schoolhouse.
On July 12, 1871 , the first Reformed congregation was organized. In time this congregation called a preacher, namely the Rev. S. Bolks, who accepted the call and moved here in the year 1872. He served the congregation till July 1878.
In the year 1872 a particular religious revival existed which lasted for a considerable time. Many chose “the good part,” and many were added to the congregation. The congregation had been organized by about forty members, and at the end of 1872 the membership had climbed to more than three hundred. Thus an imperishable good was received and enjoyed. Many hearts were strengthened by grace before the time of stress and trials began.
At the end of that year the population of this colony amounted to almost fifteen hundred souls.
On January 6, 1873 , the Board of Supervisors met in Orange City for the first time.
Mr. Henry Hospers was elected president of the Board.
On January 13 the District Court met for the first time in Orange City . The county was threatened with a suit for $10,000 for fraudulent debentures. It was contested and the loss averted.
In the spring the prospect of the farmer seemed to be favorable again. Until June the fruits grew luxuriantly. But in this month a winged army of eaters descended on the fields. They were grasshoppers. In their voracity they seemed to eat all the corn. Man is helpless against this army. There were days of depression and sadness. But they were also days of prayer. Not long after this plague was lifted. Very much was destroyed. But enough was left to thank the Giver for all good things.
On May 19, 1874 , there was an election about the question as to whether or not there should be a yearly tax of ten mills to pay off county debts. It was defeated by 194 to 117.
The First Reformed Church was given a sum which was large enough to begin the erection of a church building. They decided to build. Otto Rouwenhorst was the builder. The materials were taken to Orange City from East Orange by the people; the transportation was therefore free of charge.
On June 2, 1874 a new County Court House was put out to be contracted. It was built on the town square. Mr. Gerrit Dorsman was the builder.
The grasshoppers flew over us in numerous swarms. Now and then they descended in heaps and id intermittent damage.
On June 20 the first number of De Volksvriend came into print.
The third Sunday in July the grasshoppers in mass descended and covered the face of the land. On Thursday they ascended with much noise and disappeared even quicker than they came. Quite a bit was destroyed. There was much left, however. For many this catastrophe meant a time of depression. The damage was very uneven; for some it meant much damage, for others, little.
Another sad occurrence happened in the West Branch area on September 25. Two of the colonists (Kleuvers and Wesselink) had gone out for fire-wood. They crossed the Rock River in a dangerous spot and were drowned.
On October 13 the Herd law was accepted by popular vote.
In February 1875 requested aid was give to the distressed in a neighboring state.
There was talk of buying a section of land, to make it productive, and to use the yield for the establishment of an Academy in time. Some felt that we should wait to see whether more of those winged eaters would come.
From time to time there was talk about the building of a windmill. A meeting about this was in the Courthouse in March 1875. Eight hundred dollars for this purpose was inscribed. The cornmill was built southeast of town.
The field of the farmer bore rich fruits. Because of any abundance of rain and stormy weather much corn was damaged. In the fall much damage was done to the plants by rain.
Some seemed to think that the increase in mice in the fields was alarming.
In the beginning of October the first Sioux County Fair was held.
During the last part of the month the first exam in medical school was given.
Much damage occurred this fall in the form of prairie fires.
On January 6, 1876 , a premium of $2,000 was offered by the Board of Supervisors for discovery of coal in this county. Later this was increased to three thousand. The premium has not been demanded by anyone.
In this month an agricultural society was organized. They met on Saturday afternoon and debated various subjects. e.g.: “The elevator, a curse for the farmer”; “The wheat crop, the greatest advantage for the farmer”; “The pulpit exerts more influence than the printing press.”
During the winter months many youngsters amused themselves in the country spelling school.
A young men's society was organized with older men leading it.
In the month of May a free Christian congregation was organized.
The crops promised much, on June 13 a rumor was circulated that the redskins were coming. This caused much anxiety. They did not appear; the weapons were put away again.
Two weeks later the grasshoppers appeared in mass and stayed about 10 days. The damage was uneven; in some places much was damaged and I other areas hardly at all. Much corn was left. But for those who have been repeatedly hit this was a cause of pressure and discouragement.
From the north part of the county some of the people departed for elsewhere. Among our settlers there were a few who wanted to leave, yet everything possible was done to encourage them to stay. Only a few left.
“John Credit” played a large role meanwhile and was becoming troublesome.
The Board of Supervisors decided to build a prison. This was contracted by Jno. Sembke on September 6, 1876 .
The building of a poorhouse was contracted by W. S. Okey.
The barn on the seed-farm was contracted by A. J. Lenderink.
F. E. Hewitt was the first workhouse master. From this colony only one pauper was under their care.
The county was threatened with lawsuit of about $37,000 for fraudulent debentures. The Board delegated Mr. H. Hospers to go to Dubuque , Ia. , and he was able to settle the sum for a little more than seven hundred dollars. This matter had been repeatedly brought to court and had cost the county already much money and effort.
In May of 1877 two Reformed churches were organized; one in Alton and one in Sioux Center .
The grasshoppers of the previous year laid their eggs here, especially in the sod of the newly ploughed field. In the month of June the young grasshoppers appeared and did much damage. Various means were tried to destroy or drive them away, but there was much advice and little cure. The next month the grasshoppers from the north flew over and took with them the group from here. In spite of the eaters there was much left to harvest.
On November 15, 1877 , around 11:30 a.m. earth tremors were felt.
In the year of 1878 the farmers had a bad crop. Much damage was caused by an abundance of rain. Many were forced to mow the corn with the grass mower, to rake it together and put it together like haystacks. Because of the extraordinary heat and heavy rain storms part of the grain had been driven to the ground and could not be found. During the month of September the grasshoppers arrived. They did little damage. They left quite a few eggs.
In the month of October much damage occurred due to prairie fires. There was death among the cattle. Cause was, as one knows, smut in the corn.
The Brass Band, which had been organized here, received new instruments.
In the spring of 1879 there were complaints about drought.
In the month of May the Sioux County Bible Society was organized.
The young grasshoppers appeared and did much damage. All sorts of means were used to destroy them. It is a disheartening and difficult work, in which one was only partly successful.
On the last Sunday in June the Rev. A. Buursma (called by the First Reformed Church,) was installed by the Rev. J. W. Warshuis, with many attending.
During the last part of June and the early part of July, heavy storms and thunder caused much damage and calamity.
The small grains were continually ravaged by the destructive eaters. Not much was left of wheat and oats. During the last part of July the grasshoppers moved away.
The farmers met with the purpose of trying to find means to fight the spreading of glanders among horses.
In August a storm arose which raged like a hurricane. Wind and hail caused much damage over the West Branch and on the Rock River.
The harvest of corn and flax was a disappointment. Corn was a good crop for many.
During the last year that the plague visited this locality, much has been written about the grasshoppers. The observations varied a great deal. Some had painted it too light (according to some observers,) or painted it too dark (according to other observers.) Let it be. Despite the difficult and sorrowful years, the hand of the industrious has always been blessed. The tie of unity, the helpfulness to carry one another's burdens had been a great blessing. We are speaking in general, because there were exceptions.
We do not boast about the people. Because what does man have that he has not gotten first from a Higher Hand? Let us praise the Lord for His goodness. The expansion of this settlement, despite adversity, continued slowly yet steadily, so that the population of this colony amounted to three thousand souls at the end of the year 1879.