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"Prairies of Promise"

Story County

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Chapters One & Two

Iowa, "Beautiful Land" with her prairies of promise and her soil of rich black gold; prairies rich and wild in their virgin beauty which promised new hope, new life, health and wealth for old and young. A hard land and one for which men fought and worked their hearts out to make the wild and untamed prairies a glorious place to live.

In 1833, several families settled at Burlington where the first capital of Iowa Territory was established in 1838. The capital was moved from here to Iowa City and Iowa was admitted into the union as a State in 1846.

Ephraim Bowen, now a share cropper, a doctor and a teacher was getting very anxious to move into the new western country. So in the fall of 1852 he rode on horseback into Iowa to look over the land in the Eastern part of the State. The land here was all taken and as the Northwestern Railroad was surveyed through Story County, he decided to ride farther west to look over the prairie country and here he purchased his land at $1.00 per acre. He found beautiful unimproved rich black land. Some of it was wavy and undulating while some was flat and desirable for pasture and meadows. Timber was well distributed throughout the country and the climate was pleasant during the summer. The winters were like all prairie country, very severe and many blizzards caused much distress and suffering.

Ephriam returned to Indiana that same fall and in June 1853 he and Gillian [Johnson] and their six children, Jesse, 14 years of age, William 5, Aaron, Martha, Ruth, and Elizabeth started for the Prairies of Promise in three prairie schooners drawn by teams of oxen. Before starting, Gillian made many preparations for the trip. She roasted wheat and rolled it with an ear of corn to make it fine enough to use for coffee.

It was a new and thrilling adventure for the children and they enjoyed it more than their anxious hard working parents. Little Will sat in in the back of the wagon and strummed on an old banjo and sang in his small squeaky voice. The family dog trotted along back of the wagon. The journey was a hard one. They traveled all day long and camped by the road at nite, but the family knew from the start they would encounter many hardships and trials. The roads were merely trails and oft times were muddy and soggy and there were no bridges across the streams. They came by way of Bloomington, Ill., where they forded the Sagamon [Sangamon]. Upon reaching the Mississippi River, they crossed on flatt boats. It took them many hard days of traveling before they reached Iowa City where they bought supplies and then resumed their tiresome trek to their new prairie home. There were good days and bad ones along the journey. Many times it took all hands to push a wagon out of the mire. Some of the roads were simply a furrow made by a breaking team. It was easy to lose the way where the grass was tall, and these furrows served as a guide. A man on horseback would show very little above the high grass. A pioneer woman told of starting on a visit to here neighbors, but soon retraced her steps for fear of being lost in the tall grass. It took many, many days to travel from Indiana to Iowa and a month was considered good time. The old sway back schooners were heavy and a couple of miles per hour on a good road was a good rate with eighteen oxen leaning in their yokes. The wheels on these lumbersome wagons would become very dry and it was necessary to remove them and grease the axles. Consequently a grease bucket was hung on the rear of the wagon.

Travelers usually moved in caravans, mostly for safety. One day the Bowens passed a caravan of eighteen wagons which had stopped to rest. Ofttimes the schooners were drawn by six and some by four oxen.

After four weeks of tiresome, dirty travel, they reached a spot north and east Iowa Center, a very small but thriving trading center.

The family was enthralled with the wild beauty and loveliness of their new home. This year the landscape was gorgeous and the tall waving grass filled with wild native flowers of all colors was a sight they had not before seen. It was early July. This was a glorious and magnificent country, but this family knew that many hardships and privations were ahead of them. They knew they would be lonesome and homesick for their old home and friends, but this did not dampen their enthusiasm over their undertaking and they felt the prairies would ever keep their promise.

The first night they stayed at the Brouhard farm and on the following morning they made their camp on the Brouhard branch which ran along the Bowen's new land on the east. Here they camped on a small hillside.

Now they needed a house, so the older boys, Jesse and Aaron, and their father, together with the Vincent men and other neighbors, went to the timber where they cut and trimmed logs for the new cabin. They did this with broad axes; they split out shingles with a frow; they gathered stones for a huge fireplace and in it they swung a crane and beside the fireplace stood the fire tongs they brought from Indiana. After the cabin was finished, the family moved in with their few possessions. There was a table with checkered table cloth and the mantle with the clock on it. On a bench was a waterbucket with a long handled gourd for a dipper. The salt container was a round gourd with the top sawed off for a lid. A strong part of the vine was left on the lid to lift it by. Later on a frame addition was added to the log cabin, a large room for weaving and a kitchen. Then they built a smoke house and it was a grand treat for the children to peek in when Ephriam was adding some more hickory wood to the fire. The hams and the bacon could not be excelled.

When they found berries in the timber they put them up for winter and the bee trees furnished honey for bread "spreads" and pancakes. They also found wild plums and in the fall walnuts, hickory nuts, butternuts, and hazel nuts. There were deer and wild turkeys in numbers. Wild pigeons and grouse were plentiful. They found a great variety of trees such as sugar maple, basswood, hickory, elm, ash and many others. [black haw, red haw, wild crab apple, and choke cherry]

The family lived in the covered wagons until completion of the cabin. A baby girl named Rachel was born in this new cabin, but she died in infancy and was buried in the Mullen cemetary north of Iowa Center.

Besides farming, Ephriam continued his medical practice and traveled on horseback to visit his patients and minister to the sick. Many times Jesse rode his horse long distances to deliver medicine to the different patients. Ephriam also became Justice of the Peace and a Notary Public. He wanted his three boys to farm the land, but when each of them became older they wanted their father to divide the land and give each of them so many acres. This would not do as he wished to keep the original farm in tact.

West and north of the Bowen cabin and beyond the Vincent place or Wingerts, was a maple sugar mill which furnished many good times for the people surrounding.

Ruth and Elizabeth were beautiful girls and full of fun. Ruth used to dance gracefully about the room as she wound the yarn for weaving. Elizabeth played the fiddle as she danced. How busy the women were. They spun thread on a flax wheel by hand and then wove it on the big loom. They made their own candles. They planned and prepared food for the winter.

The men were also busy getting the land ready for crops which were planted by hand. It was no easy task to break the prairie land. Ofttimes, eighteen oxen and a prairie schooner hitch were used to turn the sod. The average price for this work was $3.50 per acre. It was a beautiful sight to see the long rolls of rich black earth turned towards the sky. They stored fuel and brought in wild game. Once Ephriam [?] went hunting and when he reached a place north and west of Vincent's place, he saw two deers standing close together out on a point of a hill. He fired one shot and killed both of them. It was around in this locality that the Bowens did most of their hunting and often carried meat and wild game home which lasted many days.

As the family grew up, each followed their own desires. Will at the age of fourteen left home and went to Pella, Iowa to learn the painter's trade. Later he married Annie Jackson and settled in Marshalltown, Iowa.

Aaron married Hester Fry, a belle of the Mullen settlement and they moved to Iowa Center, where he opened a blacksmith shop. They had three daughters, Hattie, Etta and Minnie. The family later moved to Maxwell where Aaron had his blacksmith shop. Ruth married Jim Wells and they later migrated to Pawnee City, Nebraska.

Elizabeth married Nathan Baumgardner and they lived in a second log cabin which was built south and east of the first one. They later migrated to the west by covered wagon as far as Council Bluffs, Iowa, where their baby became sick and died. Elizabeth stayed in Council Bluffs while her husband drove the wagons to Grant, Nebraska, near the Colorado border. She followed later by train.

Jesse stayed on the farm and helped his father. When the State Capital was moved to Des Moines from Iowa City, Jesse helped move the books over the old wagon trail. Some of the things were fastened on the wagon by a huge log chain which is now in the historical building at Des Moines.

Copyright © - 1999 Curt Larsen

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