Winnebago County, IA
USGenWeb Project






As stated in a former chapter, the first white men to behold the State of Iowa, or to set foot upon her soil, were Marquette and Joliet, who visited some Indian villages in what is now Lee County in the summer of 1673.  The first white settlement within the present borders of the state was founded by Julien Dubuque in 1788, where the city bearing his name now stands.  Eight years later Louis Honore Tesson received from the Spanish authorities of Louisiana a grant of land at the head of the Des Moines Rapids of the Mississippi river, where the Town of Montrose in Lee County is now located.  The titles of Dubuque and Tesson were afterward confirmed by the United States Government, but with these exceptions no settlement was legally made in Iowa prior to June 1, 1833, when the title to the "Black Hawk Purchase" became fully vested in the United States.

A few French traders had established posts along the Des Moines and Mississippi rivers about the beginning of the Nineteenth Century; Fort Madison was built in 1808 by order of the Government, where the city of that name is now situated; a trading house was built and a small settlement was made upon the site of the present City of Keokuk in the early '20s, and Burlington was founded in the fall of 1832, soon after the lands of the Black Hawk Purchase were ceded to the United States.  But, with the possible exception of Fort Madison and the settlement at Dubuque, none of these settlements had the sanction of the United States, and from a legal view-point the occupants were trespassers upon the Indian lands.

On that first day of June, 1833, when the Black Hawk Purchase was thrown open to white settlement, hundreds were waiting on the east side of the Mississippi, and they lost no time in crossing over and selecting claims.  During the next ten years the settlements were extended rapidly westward and in 1843 Fort Des Moines was built upon the site now occupied by the city of that name.  A census taken in 1844 showed the population of Iowa to be 75,150.  The first counties—Dubuque and Des Moines—were authorized by an act of the Michigan Legislature in September, 1834.  The former included all that portion of the present State of Iowa lying north of a line drawn due westward from the foot of Rock Island, and the latter embraced all that part of the state lying south of the same line.  The present County of Winnebago was therefore originally a part of Dubuque County.  In many of the older counties of the state settlements were made before the boundaries of the county were defined or a name adopted.  Not so with Winnebago.  When the state was admitted into the Union in December, 1846, there were but few organized counties west of the Red Rock line established by the treaty of October 11, 1842.


As early as 1853 Leander Farlow, with a few companions, came into Winnebago County as a hunter and trapper, though no attempt was made to found a permanent settlement.  The next year came Philip Tennis on the same kind of a mission.  The reports of the country he carried back to Cerro Gordo County induced Thomas Bearse to bring his family to Winnebago with a view to making it his home.  He settled upon a tract of land belonging to John L. McMillan, of Mason City, early in 1855 and was doubtless the first actual settler.  However, Gue, in his History of Iowa, gives that credit to George W. Thomas, who came early in 1855, ''took a claim and opened a farm at Rice Lake."  Thomas Bearse located on the east side of Lime creek, about three-quarters of a mile east of where Forest City now stands and remained in the county until about 1867, when he removed to Hancock county.  In 1882 he returned to Winnebago and settled in Norway Township.

William Gilbert was another settler in the spring of 1855.  He settled in the southwest corner of what is now Mount Valley Township and lived there until about 1862 or 1863, when he went to Dakota.  In the fall of 1855 came John Maben, James C. Bonar and John Gilchrist, with their families, and all settled in the southeastern part of the county.  Mr. Maben was at one time the sheriff of Winnebago County.  Subsequently he removed to Hancock County, where he was elected to the office of county treasurer.  Mr. Bonar also removed to Hancock County and lived there for a few years, when he went to Minnesota.  In 1883 he went to Kansas and died there some years later.  Mr. Gilchrist was an Indianan and after a residence in Winnebago of about three years he returned to his native state.

The year 1856 saw quite an addition to the population of Winnebago County.  Among those who came in that year were Edward and Henry Allen, Thomas Andrews, John S. Blowers, Josiah T. Bray, Francis M. and John Byford, Robert Clark, Allen T. Cole, James L. Hitt, John Jeffords, John Lamm, Daniel Martin, Archibald Murray, Ira Plummer, Robert Stephens, Philip and Samuel Tennis.  The Allen brothers settled near Forest City, but they remained in the county only a short time.  John S. Blowers settled near the center of what is now Forest Township, where he lived for about eighteen months, when he removed to Forest City.  He was the first sheriff of Winnebago County and his son, George R. Blowers, was the first white child born in Winnebago County.  Josiah T. Bray, also located in Forest Township, where he lived for about three years.  He then turned over his farm to his father, Darius Bray, and went to Colorado. 
Robert Clark located a claim where Forest City now stands and laid out the town soon after his arrival.  He was the first county judge of Winnebago County and while serving in that capacity made the contract for the erection of a courthouse, which was never built.  He was also the first postmaster in the county and was one of the active and enterprising business men of Forest City.

Allen T. Cole was a native of Franklin County, Ohio, where he was born in December, 1833.  When he was five years old his parents removed to Adams County, Indiana, where he received a good common school education.  In July, 1855, he came to Iowa, first settling in Cerro Gordo County, and in March, 1856, came to Winnebago.  In 1862 he was elected one of the county supervisors, but in August of that year he enlisted as a private in Company B, Thirty-second Iowa Infantry, and served until July 7, 1865, when he was mustered out at Fort Tyler, Texas, being at the time a paroled prisoner.  Mr. Cole was a blacksmith by trade and was one of the early members of the Masonic Lodge at Forest City.

The two Byfords left the county after a short stay—one of them under a cloud.  He had formed a partnership with Mr. Blowers and was engaged in the mercantile business; collected all the cash he could and decamped, leaving his partner "to hold the sack."  James L. Hitt went to Nebraska after a few years, and John Lamm went to Missouri a few years after the close of the Civil War.  John Jeffords and Philip Tennis both laid claim to the same tract of land in Forest Township.  The contest was settled by arbitrators in favor of Mr. Jeffords and Mr. Tennis then located in the northern part of the county.  Robert Stephens returned to his native State of Indiana in 1858.

Other early settlers were:  Matthew Heath, John M. Furney, G. W. Campbell and Philip A. Pulver, all of whom came in 1856 and settled in or near Forest City.  Heath went back to Indiana after about a year; Furney went south in search of a more congenial climate; Campbell left after a residence of about one year, and Pulver left the county in 1859.  Charles D. Smith, William Porter and John Anderson all settled near the present Town of Lake Mills in the latter part of 1856.

Avery Baker, the Beebe family, Darius Bray, William Lackore, Charles and David Lutz, Martin Bumgardner and a few others came in the spring and summer of 1857.  About the same time several families of Norwegians settled in the northeastern part of the county.  Among them were Christian Anderson, John Iverson, John Johnson, H. J. Knudson, Colburn Larson, Louis Nelson and Oliver Peterson.

Martin Bumbardner [sic] was of German extraction and was born February 5, 1821.  Soon after he arrived in Winnebago County he married Miss Caroline E. Church, which was the first marriage to be solemnized in the county.  He built the first courthouse in Winnebago County and later removed to Hancock County.  His death occurred on January 30, 1884.  His widow is still living in Winnebago County.


The first cabin in the county was built by Philip Tennis in 1854, about half a mile east of Forest City.

The first white child born in the county was George R. Blowers, son of John S. Blowers and his wife, the date of birth having been May 7, 1857.

The first marriage was that of Martin Bumgardner to Miss Caroline E. Church in the spring of 1857.

The first death was that of Mrs. Louis Nelson, March 14, 1857.  She was buried in Norway Township.

The first sermon preached in the county was by a Methodist minister named Hankins, but the date when it was preached cannot be ascertained.

The first postoffice [sic] in the county was established at Forest City early in 1857, with Robert Clark as postmaster.

The first schoolhouse was built at Forest City in 1858 and Sarah Beadle taught the first school there.

The first justice of the peace in the county was C. W. Scott, who was appointed in the spring of 1857.

The first land entry was made by John B. Gilchrist on August 20, 1856—the west half of the northeast quarter and the east half of the northwest quarter, Section 26, Township 98, range 24.

The first ground was broken by Thomas Bearse in what is now Norway [t]ownship in 1855.

The first sawmill was erected at Forest City soon after the town was laid out in 1856.

The first deed recorded is dated May 25, 1857, whereby C. H. Day conveyed to G. W. Campbell the northwest quarter of Section 34, Township 98, Range 24.

The first mortgage recorded is dated September 4, 1857, and was given by J. B, Landis to John Lamm on the northeast quarter of Section 27, Township 98, Range 24, to secure a debt of $850.

The first train to run into Forest City was on the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad on December 10, 1879.

The first newspaper in the county was the Winnebago Press, which made its appearance on June 14, 1867.

The first resident physician was Dr. W. H. Jones, who located in Forest City on December 23, 1869.

The first lawyer was Jerry Murphy, who opened an office at Forest City in 1857.

The first term of the District Court in Winnebago County was held at Forest City in June, 1859.

The first fourth [sic] of July celebration was held at Forest City in 1859.


Compared with the conditions of the present day, the pioneers of Winnebago County encountered some actual hardships and a great many inconveniences.  One of the first problems with which the newcomer was confronted was to provide shelter for himself and family.  Most of the early settlers selected claims where timber could be obtained, and the first houses were log cabins.  Often the settler's only assistance in building his cabin was furnished by the members of his family.  In such cases small logs or poles, that could be easily handled, were selected, and the walls were not more than six feet in height.  Such a dwelling could hardly be called a "mansion," but it sheltered its inmates from the inclemencies of the weather.  Sometimes two or three families would come together, when one cabin would be hastily constructed, in which all would live until each settler could build a house of his own.  As the number of inhabitants increased the desire for better cabins grew, and the "house raising" became a social as well as an industrial event.  After the logs were cut into proper lengths and dragged to the site of the proposed cabin, the settler would send out invitations to his neighbors, some of whom probably lived several miles away, to attend the "raising."  These invitations were rarely declined, for the pioneers felt their dependence upon each other and were always ready to lend a helping hand.

When all were assembled four men would be selected to "carry up the corners," and took their stations at the four corners of the cabin.  Skilled in the use of the ax, as the logs were lifted up to them they shaped a "saddle" on the top and cut a notch in the underside of the next log to fit upon the "saddle."  By cutting the notches a little deeper in the "butt end" of the logs, and alternating the butt and top ends, the walls were carried up approximately level.  No plumb lines were used, the walls being kept perpendicular by the eyes of the cornermen.  Doors and windows were sawed out after the walls were up.  An opening was also made at one end for a fireplace.  Outside of this opening would be built a chimney of small logs, lined inside with clay to prevent its catching fire.  If stone was convenient a stone chimney would be constructed, and sometimes the chimney would be built of squares of sod, laid up as a mason lays a wall of bricks.  The roof of the cabin was of clapboards, split or rived with an implement called a frow, and the floor, if there was one, was of puncheons, that is, thin slabs of timber split as nearly the same thickness as possible, the upper surface being smoothed off with an adz after the floor was laid.

Hardware was a luxury in a new country, and many of the pioneer cabins were completed without a single article of iron being used in their construction.  The clapboards of the roof were held in place by "weight poles," which ran the full length of the cabin and were fastened to the end logs with wooden pins.  The door was made of thin puncheons, fastened together with wooden pins, hung on wooden hinges and provided with a wooden latch.  A thong of deerskin attached to the latch was passed through a small hole in the door and furnished the means of lifting the latch from the outside.  At night the thong could be drawn inside and the door was locked.  This custom gave rise to the expression:  "The latchstring is always out," signifying that a visitor would be welcome at any time.  The cracks between the logs were "chinked" with pieces of timber and plastered over with clay to keep out the cold.

The furniture was in keeping with the house, being usually of the "home-made" variety and of the simplest character.  In one corner was the bedstead, which was constructed in the following manner:  A small sapling, with two forks as nearly at right angles as could be found, was cut the proper length to reach from the floor to the joints overhead, the forks being about two feet from the floor.  The sapling was placed about the width of an ordinary bed from one wall and the length of the bed from the other.  Poles were then laid in the two forks, the other ends of the poles resting in a crack between the logs or in large auger holes.  Across the poles were then laid clapboards, upon which the housewife placed her straw tick, or a feather bed, if the family possessed one.  Such a bedstead was called a "prairie rascal."  Springs there were none, but "honest toil brought sweet repose" to the tired pioneer and he slept as soundly upon his "prairie rascal" as do many persons now upon more sumptuous couches.

Holes bored in the logs and fitted with strong pins served to support clapboards for a "china closet," the front of which was a curtain of some cheap cotton cloth, though in many homes the curtain was lacking.  Stools and benches took the places of chairs.  A table was made by battening together some clapboards to form a top, which was placed upon a pair of trestles.  When not in use the trestles were placed one upon the other and the top leaned against the wall to make more room in the cabin.  Stoves were almost unknown and the cooking was done at the great fireplace, an iron teakettle, a long-handled skillet, a big copper-bottomed coffee pot and a large iron kettle being the principal cooking utensils.  Bread was baked in the skillet, which was set upon a bed of live coals and more coals heaped upon the iron lid, so the bread would bake at both top and bottom.  The large iron kettle was used for preparing the "boiled dinner," which consisted of meat and two or three kinds of vegetables cooked together.  "Johnny cake" was made by speading [sic] a stiff dough of corn meal upon one side of a smooth board and propping it up in front of the fire.  When one side of the cake was baked sufficiently, the dough would be turned over to give the other side its inning.  Many times a generous supply of "johnny cake" and a bowl of fresh milk constituted the only supper of the pioneer, but it was a supper which no early settler would blush to set before an unexpected guest.  While preparing the meals the house-wife would nearly always wear a large "sunbonnet" to protect her face from the heat.

Somewhere in the cabin was the "gun rack," which was formed of two hooks, fashioned from the forks of small trees.  In these forks rested the long, heavy rifle of the settler, while suspended from the muzzle of the gun or from one of the forks were the bullet-pouch and powder-horn.  The rifle was depended upon in many instances to furnish the meat supply of the family, as game of all kinds abounded.  Deer were especially plentiful and it is related that at one time Thomas Bearse and Philip Tennis had as many as three hundred hanging on trees in the woods.  The animals were killed for their skins and the carcasses were left to the wolves.


In these days, with plenty of money in circulation and a bank in almost every village, when one needs assistance he can hire some one to come and help him.  When the first settlers came to Winnebago County money was exceedingly scarce and they overcame the difficulty by swapping work.  They assisted each other to build cabins in which to live; frequently ten or a dozen men would gather in a wheatfield, and while some would swing the cradle the others would bind the sheaves and place them in shocks.  When one field was finished the whole party would move on to another, where the wheat was ripest, and so on until the wheat crop of the entire neighborhood was made ready for threshing.

While the men were at work in the harvest field, the women folk would gather and prepare dinner, each one bringing from her own store some little delicacy which she thought the others might not be able to furnish.  Elk meat, bear meat and venison were common at such dinners.  The meal was often served out of doors, under the shade of the trees, and as each man brought with him a good appetite, when they arose from the table it looked "like a cyclone had struck it."

Matches were rare in the new settlements and a little fire was always kept burning somewhere on the premises "for seed."  During cold weather the fire was kept in the fireplace without trouble, but when the summer time came and fire in the house would render it uncomfortable, a small log heap was kept burning out of doors.  If by some mishap the fire was extinguished, one of the family would have to go to a neighbor to "borrow" a fresh supply.

How easy it is now to enter a dark room, turn a switch and flood the whole place with electric light.  But when the first settlers came to Winnebago County sixty years ago the electric light was unknown.  Even the kerosene lamp had not then been invented and the housewife improvised a lamp by using a shallow dish, which was partially filled with lard or some other kind of grease.  Into this dish was placed a loosely twisted cotton rag, one end of which projected over the side of the dish.  The projecting end was then lighted, and although the lamp emitted both smoke and odor that could hardly be tolerated by fastidious persons now, it answered the purpose then, affording enough light to enable the good woman to attend to her duties.  Next came the tallow candle, which was made by pouring molten tallow into molds of tin, a soft cotton wick having been previously drawn through the center of the mould [sic].  A set of candle moulds consisted of six or eight candle forms soldered together.  Often there was but one set of moulds in a new settlement, but they were willingly loaned by the owner and passed from house to house until all had a supply of candles laid away in a cool, dry place.  In the winter seasons the family would often sit around the fireplace with no light in the cabin except that of the roaring fire.

Nowadays with well stocked stores in every village and telephones in nearly every home, it is an easy matter to call up the grocer and ask him to "send up a sack of flour."  But in the days prior to the Civil War going to market was no slight affair.  The first settlers received their mail at Cedar Falls, in Black Hawk County, whither they made periodical trips to mill with an ox team, the one going to mill bringing back the mail for the neighborhood.  Then a mill was built and a postoffice [sic] established at Mason City, which brought these conveniences a little nearer to the pioneers of Winnebago County.  In 1857 a postoffice was established at Forest City and the next year a mail route was opened from Clear Lake to Algona.  This brought the mail, but going to mill was still something of a task.  No roads were opened, streams were not bridged, and travel was attended by many drawbacks.  Quite often a number of settlers would take their "turn of corn" or a few bushels of wheat to mill on the same day and wait until the grain could be ground.  While thus waiting they would while away the time in athletic sports, such as running foot-races, wrestling, shooting at a mark or pitching horseshoes.  McGregor or Dubuque was the nearest market for the product of the farmer.  With wheat selling for forty cents a bushel and dressed pork from two to three cents a pound, a wagon load of such produce would hardly pay the expense of taking it to market.  Yet the trip was made occasionally and the produce exchanged for a supply of the barest necessities, which was used with the greatest economy, for waste meant another long, dreary journey through the wilderness to the trading post.  Civilization gradually brought mills and markets closer to the people of Winnebago County and the pilgrimages to McGregor and Dubuque were abandoned.

"Store clothes" were practically unknown in those early days.  As soon as the wolves were driven out so that it was safe for the farmer to keep sheep, every pioneer had a small flock of those animals.  The housewife would card her wool by hand with a pair of broad-backed brushes, the wire teeth of which were all slightly bent in the same direction.  The rolls were then spun into yarn on the old-fashioned spinning wheel and woven into cloth upon the hand loom.  Garments were then cut and made with the needle, the sewing machine having not yet been brought into use.  A girl of sixteen years of age who could not manage a spinning wheel and turn out her "six cuts" a day, or who could not make her own dresses was a rarity in a new settlement.  How many of the girls who graduated from the various high schools of Winnebago County in 1917 know what the term "six cuts" means?  Or how many of them can cut and make their own gowns unassisted?


Although the pioneers had their hardships and privations, it must not be imagined for a moment that their lives were utterly devoid of relaxation and entertainment.  A popular social function in a new settlement was the "house-warming."  A new cabin was hardly considered fit to live in until it had been properly dedicated.  In almost every frontier settlement there was at least one man who could play the violin.  When the new house was ready for occupancy the "fiddler" was called into requisition and the cabin would give forth a "sound of revelry by night."  On these occasions no fox-trot, tango or hesitation waltz was seen, but the Virginia reel, the stately minuet or the old-fashioned cotillion, in which some one [sic] "called the figures" in a stentorian voice, were very much in evidence.  The music furnished may not have been classic, but the old-time fiddler could make his violin respond to such airs as “The Bowery Gals,” “Money Musk,” “Step Light Ladies,” and “Turkey in the Straw,” and what he lacked in scientific training he made up in the vigor of his execution.  It is doubtful whether the fashionable guests at a presidential inaugural ball ever derived more pleasure from the event than did these people of the frontier at a house-warming.  If the settler who owned the cabin had scruples against dancing, some other form of amusement was substituted, but the house had to be "warmed" by some sort of frolic before the family took possession.

Then there was the husking bee, commonly called a "corn shucking," in which pleasure and profit were combined.  After the invitations to the “shucking” were sent out, the farmer divided his corn into two piles, as nearly equal in size as possible.  When the guests arrived two of them would “choose up” and divide those present into two companies, the contest being to see which would first finish its pile of corn.  Both men and women took part and one of the rules was that the young man who found a red ear was permitted to kiss the young woman next to him in the circle.  “Many a merry laugh went round” when some one [sic] found a red ear and the lassie objected to being kissed.  The young men were not above playing an underhand game by passing the same red ear surreptitiously from one to another.

Women's clubs, such as exist at the present time, were then unknown, but the women had their quilting parties, when a number of them would take their needles and thimbles and gather at some house to unite in making a quilt.  Then there would be a friendly rivalry to see who could run the straightest line or make the neatest stitches.  Corn huskings and quiltings were frequently followed by a dance and the guests would pass an hour or two in “tripping the light fantastic toe,” though it must be admitted that the toes were not always light nor fantastic.

With the introduction of the public school system came the spelling school.  Upon the appointed evening the whole community—men, women and children—would gather at the school house to engage in a spelling contest.  As at the husking bee, two captains would “choose up” and the spellers were arranged upon two opposing sides.  The teacher, or some person agreed upon, would then “give out” the words, first to one side and then to the other.  If a speller missed a word he took his seat and the contest went on until only a single speller, the victor was left standing.  To “spell down” an entire school district was an achievement of which one could feel proud.

At the close of the spelling match the young men, with a quickened pulse for fear of “getting the mitten,” would approach the young women with the stereotyped formula:  "May I see you home?"  Sometimes an acquaintance thus begun ripened into an intimacy that ended in a wedding, which was followed by a charivari or, as it was pronounced on the frontier, a "shivaree."  The charivari was a serenade in which discordant noises took the place of harmony and was generally kept up until the bride and groom showed themselves.  The affair terminated all the more pleasantly if each of the serenaders was given a piece of wedding cake "to dream over."  Quite likely the young men of that period were no more superstitious than those of the present, but it is certain that many of them placed that morsel of wedding cake under their pillows upon retiring, firm in the belief that it would bring pleasant dreams that were destined to come true.

Such was the manner in which the first settlers of Winnebago County lived.  All things considered these pioneers are entitled to a place of honor in the memory of the present generation.  They braved the dangers of the frontier, brought the raw prairie under cultivation, drained the swamps, conquered the prowling wolf and savage red man, and amid adverse conditions overcame all obstacles, building up an empire in the wilderness.  Their life was hard and their reward meager, when measured by present day advantages, but their work was well done.  It was of such an environment as theirs that Robert Burns wrote:

“But buirdly chiels and clever hizzies
Are bred in sic a way as this is.”

A History of Winnebago County and Hancock County, Iowa. Vol. 2.  Chicago:  Pioneer Publishing Company, 1917.  87-97. Print.

Transcribed by Paul Nagy