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"Prairies of Promise"

Story County

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Chapter Three

Henry Wills was born in Hesse Cassel and came to America to fight in the Revolution for King George and was with the Hessians which were captured by Washington. They went with the colonists for sometime as prisoners of war and were treated so well that they took oath of allegiance to the colonists and fought through the balance of the Revolution with them and like all other Revolutionary soldiers, were given grants of land. Henry took his near New Market, Virginia. He served in the Revolutionary War as a sergeant in Lieut. Col. Berges Balls Co., 1st Va. Regiment, commanded by Col. Richard Parker. He enlisted to serve one year and his name is last borne on the roll of that organization for January 1779 without special remark relative to his services. Nothing further relative to this soldier has been found of record.

John Henry Wills, son of Henry Wills was born __________. He married Sarah Moyerhoffer and to them was born a son on June 13, 1818 and he was named James St. Clair Will. Sarah Moyerhoffer Will died in New Market and is buried in the St. Matthews (Old Emmanual) cemetary there. [Note: There are two Lutheran churches and two cemetaries in New Market, VA. One is the Emmanual the other is the Reformed Lutheran Church. The latter is near the site of the 1790 church and St. Matthews cemetary. There are a few Wills in each one, but we couldn't find Sarah Will. C.L. (1992)] In 1843, when James was 25 years old he migrated to Buckhannon, West Virginia.

Life in these early settlements was very restricted. Punishment for swearing, for pitching and playing on the sabbath and for not attending church was five shillings and sometimes ten, to be paid to the church for the poor of the parish.

Here in the quaint old town, cradled between the Blue Ridge and the Allegheny mountains, James S. Will became a merchant tailor and did a thriving business. He was a dapper, good looking young fellow in his broadcloth suit, high silk hat, a plaid shawl thrown over his shoulder and carrying his gold headed cane. He needed no other advertising of his ability as a worth while tailor than his own immaculate grooming. Once he made a visit to his brother John's home in Harrison County, Virginia and they attended a "sugar stirring." When he left for home, his nephew, Eck, went "a piece" with him. Eck rode a colt.

In Buckhannon there also lived a family by the name of Heavener. The first land grant to this family in the United States was to Nicholas Heavener of 600 acres on the South Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River in Pendleton County in the year 1755 and was signed by King George III.

James Will met Lavina Heavener, a very beautiful girl, and fell madly in love with her and on February 20, 1844 they were married by the Reverand Francis Reed. Their marriage is recorded in Lewis County, Virginia. To them were born three children, John in 1844, Mary Ellen on October 6, 1846, and Luther who died the same year he was born in 1848.

Here where the laurel, the holly and the mistletoe grew in profusion, the Wills lived a happy life until Lavina contracted tuberculosis and died in March 1850 when Mary Ellen was just four years old. Lavina was buried in the Heavener family cemetary in Buckhannon. James was grief stricken and his thoughts were all for the welfare of his children. Lavina's brothers and their wives had only boys in their families and they were anxious to have Mary Ellen live with them and this she did, her father paying for her "board and keep." She was badly spoiled by the families and all the colored servants. In those days, all little girls were taught to knit and sew, but Mary Ellen, spoiled child that she was, said she did not want to knit. To this her Aunt said, "Well, Mary Ellen, you do not have to knit." When the children were given carpet rags to sew, Mary Ellen suggested that they burn part of them, which they did. When she grew to be a young lady, she regretted very much not being able to knit and sew like all Southern girls did.

James and little son John, lived in a hotel after Lavina's death. He owned property in and a plantation near Buckhannon. These gentlemen farmers governed their land where wheat, corn, and tobacco were raised. They worshiped God, loved their neighbors and lived in peace and contentment. Thus they lived at the time of John Brown's raid.

A real estate dealer traded land in Missouri to James for his holdings in and near Buckhannon, but it was a fraudulent deal and he never saw the land he hoped to possess in the new country. James was a genteel, well to do Southern gentleman with very little knowledge of business transactions.

At this time, the favorite song of Virginia was "I'd offer thee this hand of mine, if I could love thee less."

James remained a widower until the latter part of 1851 when he married Kate Berlin, a school teacher and they established a home where John and Mary Ellen lived part of the time. Three children were born to the young couple, Alice in 1853, George in 1855, and Amanda in 1856. During an epidemic of black diphtheria this whole family of children contracted the disease and three of them died. Mary Ellen always claimed her recovery was due to the fact that she opened her window for fresh air and got up for a drink of cold water, much against orders.

At this time, the North and South were getting ever nearer to a conflict and this worried James a great deal. Added to this, Kate's parents, the Berlins, had migrated to the promising prairies and they were writing glowing letters about the beautiful county.

There was a mill on the 160 acres of land in Virginia, which was owned by James. The Federal troops burned this mill which embittered him to such an extent that he refused to pay taxes on the land. This property was sold to meet the taxes. (The Elkins estate later owned this land and found great quantities of cannel coal on it.)

In the spring of 1857, James and Kate Will and their two children, John 14 years of age and Mary Ellen eleven, started from Buckhannon, W. Va. to Story County, Iowa. They started with two covered wagons. A driver (Mr. ____) hauled the household furniture in one wagon and the family traveled in the other. Thus they journeyed as far as Parkersburg, Va. where they took a boat down the Ohio River to Cairo and thence up the Mississippi River to Keokuk.

Kate believed some in spiritualism and while on the boat she called Mary Ellen to her side and said she could see the spirits of her three little children hovering near James. This frightened Mary Ellen a great deal and she thought this step-mother very strange indeed.

Otherwise, their boat trip was uneventful and when they reached Keokuk and went ashore they stayed in a hotel or inn while their possessions were unloaded. While waiting, the children were looking out of the window and saw two men carrying a huge catfish. It was hanging from a rail which the men carried on their shoulders and the tail of the fish dragged on the ground. It was a sight that these two children never forgot.

James owned his wagon and team, a bay and a gray. He loaded the furniture and family in one wagon and they started across the prairies to their new home. They followed the old Boone wagon trail north through Keosauqua and Bonaparte and on to Des Moines and thence north. It was a beautiful time of year and the prairies were covered with green grass interspersed with blue, pink, yellow and orange flowers. Hundreds of acres of this beautiful land was around them and unoccupied. Most of it was still in the hands of speculators and was unfenced. Cows roamed at large, but generally had bells tied about their necks.

There was lots of rainy weather and thunder and lightning. At night the family stopped at farm houses, but ate their meals along the way and sometimes they traveled for miles without seeing a single house.

When they arrived in Story County, they went to Kate's parent's home west of Maxwell, Iowa, near Schuyler's Hill. The Berlins had a lovely hewed log house, one of the best houses in the country.

In about a month, James opened a tailor shop in Iowa Center and bought a home there. It was a small house located on a hill just south of Iowa Center and east of the road across Ruffle Creek. Here the yellow and white wild snap dragons (butter and eggs) grew in profusion and Mary Ellen thought it the loveliest spot in the whole world. Their nearest neighbors were William and Amelia Kline. (Mrs. Kline later married Mr. Pritchard of Maxwell.) Here the Will family lived until the close of the Civil War and here three of their children were born, James Frederick in 1859, Arthur Lee in 1861, and Carrie Kate in 1863. Carrie Kate died and was buried in the Iowa Center cemetary.

And so the Wills had reached the Prairies of Promise.

Copyright © - 1999 Curt Larsen

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