From the Iowa Journal of History and Politics Volume 46 Issue 2 April 1948
Memoirs of Etta May Lacey Crowder written between 1930-1932
.........According to the Homestead Act of 1862 any citizen of the United States over twenty-one years of age could acquire 160 acres of land priced at $1.25 an acres or 80 acres of land on which the government price was $2.50 an acre if he lived on the homestead for five years and complied with other requirements.A later amendment provided that time spent in the military service of the United States was to be deducted from the five years required in ordinary cases, but the veteran still had to take up residence on his homestead and improve it. Father [Alvin Vosberg Lacey] and Mr. [Xenophon] Loomis decided to take up homesteads.
Father's first plan had been to take a homestead near Storm Lake in Buena Vista County, but when the breaking season was over he was influenced to change to Palo Alto County where a good many people he knew were now going. Father and Mr. Loomis went to the government land office at Fort Dodge and filed for their claims. Our new location was in Township 94 north, Range 33 west of the Fifth Principal Meridan.
The two men started across country to inspect their property, taking with them lumber for a little shanty to be built on Mr. Loomis's homestead. It took one day for them to erect the little shack, just a frame of two by fours at top and bottom, with boards running perpendicularly nailed to them, a roof sloping one way, a door, and two windows. Later a neighbor described it as a "lean-to without anything to lean to." When the men returned, the wagons were again loaded and we started on the last lap of the journey to our new home in Palo Alto County. After the many rains of the summer, every pond and slough was brimming full. There were no roads, only trails. In some places, where there were not even trails, we drove by compass. We now had two teams of mules. When we approached a slough the only thing we could do was to drive in and trust to luck or Providence to get out on the other side. One night we camped only three miles from our stopping place of the night before. In five days of constant effort we drove the fifty miles.
The "shanty" looked small, indeed, standing alone in the midst of those endless miles of prairie-not a tree or shrub to relieve the monotony. Mother said she was sure we had nearly reached the end of the world and that just a few miles farther on we should come to the "jumping-off place", but we moved in and were happy to think that at last we were going to be settled.
Grass there was in plenty and the men began at once to build shelters for the stock for the winter. We still had our cow and calf, now a husky six-months-old steer. A stable was built on our homestead with a framework of timbers brought from the Des Moines River, six miles distant. The walls and roof were of the long, coarse slough grass. It made a very warm, comfortable shelter for stock and for several years no other barn was built. When these sheds had been built on both homesteads the men turned their attention to getting up hay. In a few days more they had cut and stacked enough for the months of winter.
While the hay was being put up, mother and the two boys dug the cellar for our house. At a depth of about five or six feet, as I remember it, they came upon what seemed to be wood ashes. There was much speculation as to when and how those ashes came to be there. We had arrived in September, 1869, but it was the first of November by the time father was ready to commence work on our house. Lumber and other materials had to be hauled from Fort Dodge, a distance of some fifty miles, with no roads except the trails father and Mr. Loomis had made.
While father and Mr. Loomis were away on one of these trips, we had our first experience with a prairie fire. Mother had insisted that the men burn firebreaks before leaving, so they broke a couple of furrows a few rods apart to completely surround the buildings and the hay stacks and then burned off the grass between them. Just before noon after the men had gone, I noticed that the sunshine on the floor looked very yellow. "What makes the sunshine look so funny?", I asked. Mother looked around. "It's a prairie fire!", she exclaimed.
Soon the flames became visible. The fire was coming with racehorse speed, for the grass was long and heavy and a prairie fire always creates a strong wind. Great sheets of flame seemed to break off and go sailing through the air directly over the house and stables, but nothing inside the firebreaks was ignited and soon the danger was past. The burned-over prairie, however, was drearier than before.
A short distance from the house there was a stretch of bottom land with an outlet on the opposite side, called Beaver Creek. Muskrats had been very plentiful there and the creek was dotted with with their cone-shaped houses, built of the grass stems and weeds. These made fine fuel for the approaching fire and many of these houses smouldered for hours after the fire had passed. We hoped that the muskrats had escaped, as seemed possible since they always have one entrance to their house below the water line, for muskrat hides brought about ten cents apiece.
Construction was begun on our house at once. It was on a very pretentious scale for that locality, for it measured sixteen feet wide by eighteen feet long and was a story and a half high. Downstairs there was a living and general purpose room with a pantry and bedroom partitioned off one end. These two smaller rooms were separated by a stairway to the second floor. A door from the pantry opened into the cellar way which consisted of steps cut into the dirt wall. The cellar was used for our winter's supply of vegetables as well as for milk and butter. The upstairs was all in one room but was divided by curtains. This served as sleeping quarters for us children and for anyone else who chanced to pass by when night was approaching.
On the tenth of November, 1869, six months after leaving Howard County, we moved into our new house, although ther were as yet neither doors nor windows. Father's work bench was set up in the second story where I used to enjoy watching the curling shavings as he planed the lumber for the doors and window frames. Inside, the house was lined throughout with tarred paper; and on the outside it was banked with earth a foot or two above the bottom of the walls to prevent freezing in the cellar. About four feet from the house father laid a low wall of rocks found so abundantly on the prairies and the space between this and the house was filled with earth, forming a terrace.
Towns were far apart then and everyone's home was open to any traveler. This was particularly true of our place. People drove for miles to "get to Lacey's" to spend the night. Occasionally a stranger passing through would offer to pay for his accommodation, but by far the greater number were entertained as guests. Father would put the team in the barn and give them feed. The traveler was sent to the house for his meal which mother always seemed glad to get no matter what the hour.
This house stood for about ten years before it was torn down and replaced by one somewhat larger and much better built. The new house contained three rooms upstairs and all the rooms downstairs were larger. An additional closet under the stairs was an improvement, too. The house was very much on the same plan as the old one excepting that the stairs were partitioned off from one side of the living room and could be reached from an outside door as well as from the living room.
When we moved into our first house we had very little furniture. A couple of chairs, one Boston rocker (the best chair to rest in that has yet been made), a few dishes and some cooking utensils were about all we had. Father built a couple of benches to eke out our supply of seats. Later more chairs were bought. Father built three bedsteads of lumber. The one for himself and mother was strung with cord which took the place of the modern springs of which we had never heard. Those for the children were supplied with slats on which "ticks" were placed. These ticks were made at home and filled with fresh clean straw to serve as matresses. The two bedsteads upstairs were made very high to permit storage underneath them of seed corn, small tools, and even parts of the harness for which there was no suitable place in the sheds. Mother had comfortable pillows and a good feather bed which her mother had given her when she was married.
When father bought our cookstove in Fort Dodge he was very careful in selecting it. He knew that a large firebox in a stove took less fuel than a small one. Also he wanted to be able to see the fire so he took a chair and sat down before the stove to see whether the fire would show. His judgment was good; that stove was the best for all purposes of any for miles around. Our fuel was wood from the timber along the Des Moines River six miles distant and father and the boys made many trips for wood during the winter that followed. We were quite comfortable in spite of the fact taht our house with its board walls lined wit ha single layer of building paper stood on the open prairie with no shelter of any sort.
The winter of 1869-1870 was severe; storm followed storm. There was a great deal of snow and every little breeze lifted the snow in the air. Sometimes a slight thaw would melt the snow a little, but it would freeze again during the night so a thin crust of ice was formed, but the next high wind started it blowing again.
Later in the winter, father made one of his trips to Fort Dodge for much needed supplies. As soon as his business was transacted he started on the return trip, expecting to stop at the house of a friend over night and reach home the following day. During the night a furious storm arose and when he looked out in the morning he saw that the air was full of snow. Had there been any roads they would have been obliterated. It looked like a desperate undertaking but he decided to push on. He soon learned that he had no idea as to where he was going and he concluded that it was better to leave the direction entirely to the mules. Holding the lines loose in his hands he let them go where they would.
I well remember that day. Often mother went to the window, though it was impossible to see farther than ten feet on the lee side of the house. It was like looking at a wall of snow. Once I heard her say, "Oh, if he is out in this storm he will surely perish." About two in the afternoon, as she was looking out, she saw the tips of the mules' ears emerging from the flying snow. They had brought the wagon home across miles and miles of trackless prairie directly to the house. What guided them? I still wonder.
Enough snow had sifted into the stable to make it very uncomfortable for the stock. Father, a Mr. Bernard, who was a transient guest in our home, and the two boys started to shovel it out. The cow and the yearling were taken out and left on the sheltered side of the stable. The yearling passed around the corner of the stable out of sight of the cow but remained in the shelter of the shed. As soon as the cow missed him she started out to find him, following the course of the wind. When the men discovered that the cow was gone they tried to find her. They went as far as they dared, following ther tracks until these were covered by the blowing snow. Knowing it was not safe to go farther they turned back. Next day they started out again and found the cow just barely alive in a drift of snow, but she lived only a few minutes. The two best mules and a horse father had acquired had died from a contagious disease, so our small amount of stock was recuced by more than half. For years afterward this blizzard was referred to as "the March storm". Fortunately it was the last bad storm of that winter.
During these early years, as I have said, wood was our only fuel and had to be cut and hauled from the Des Moines River six miles away. Sometimes we were very short of fuel indeed. One evening mother was trying to get supper with so little fuel that it seemed impossible. Retta Richards, the teacher who was boarding with us, brought in some hay twisted into bundles about the size of a stick of stove wood and in a few minutes the fire was burning merrily and we soon had supper on the table.
Thsi was our first experience in burning hay, but it became our standby for fuel for the next three years. We learned that the tall, tough slough grass made the best fuel and many homesteaders put up that kind for the winter's supply. We were fortunate in having a cookstove with a large firebox so we got along nicely with it. Those with stoves having small fireboxes did not succeed so well. In the coldest weather a big armful of hay was brought into the house and there converted into bundles. The floor was pretty well littered in the process but it was "clean dirt" and was easily swept up with a broom.
About this time someone invented a cookstove for burning hay. This stove had a very large firebox into which the hay was stuffed. It was then held down by a weight which could be raised or lowered as necessary, forcing the hay to burn slowly with a steady flame. I believe these stoves were rather successful though we never tried one. In homes where these stoves were used there was always a pile of hay in one corner of the room which made a very comfortable lounging place for the boys of the family in the long winter evenings.
Mother had brought seeds which she had raised in Howard County. We children were all very much interested and to stimulate our industry and ambition, mother measured off a little patch of ground for each of us and told us we could raise anything we wanted in our individual gardens. One day mother, Frank, and I went to the edge of our farm and planted a row of sunflowers. Mother said they would shut off the view and relieve the monotony a little.
The planting of trees was begun early that first spring (1870). We took slips or cuttings from growing trees and stuck them in the ground, leaving a few buds at the tip to form leaves. They soon formed roots and in a few weeks the little switches began to grow. About the only trees available were willows and Lombardy poplars. Later we gathered maple seeds and planted them. The willows were used for hedges at the boundaries of the farms. Wild gooseberry and currant bushes and wild plum and crab trees were brought from the river banks and set out.
Once I complained to mother that those trees would never be like the trees I had been accustomed to in our home in Howard County. "But these will be all in nice straight rows", she told me. But those sedate, straight rows of trees did not look right to me; they were too artificial. Though many years have passed and I have seen many beautiful parks planned and completed by the hand of man, I still think natural planting cannot be improved upon.
That first fall we took pails, sacks, tubs, everything that would answer the purpose and went to the river to gather wild grapes and plums. We took lunch along and made a picnic of it. Sometimes several neighbors' families went together and made the trip a real affair. The fruit was dried, canned, or preserved to add to our winter's supplies. For several years the settlers depended upon gathering the wild fruits. Even though grapes, plums, and crabapples grew well along the river where they were protected by natural timber, many of the early settlers declared that fruit could never be raised in that locality. Later we were to learn that all fruits suited to that latitude would do well. We planted our orchard the second season on a sunny slope whre it was protected from the cold winds by the willow hedges but it was many years before we had fruit from it.
Some of the wild plants were also used for food. occasionally sheep sorrel was used for pies until rhubarb was grown. Lamb's quarter, dandelion, and red-root were used for greens.
Wild game, particularly wild fowl, was very plentiful. Whenever we went anywehre in the big lumber wagon the gun was taken along. Many meals were rounded out with the game brought in. The first winter in Palo Alto County more than forty wild ducks in addition to wild geese, brants, cranes, prairie chickens, and other wild fowl fell victims to our need for fresh meat. The whole country was a perfect wild birds' paradise and equally good hunting. After the ground was broken and crops put in the wild game used to feed on the ripening corn and grain. Some of the men and boys, my brothers among them, used to set traps to catch them.
As winter came on we would see the birds going south where food was more plentiful and the weather warmer. I remember the flocks of geese, flying in wedge formation, always led by an old gander who from time to time let out a honk to learn if all was well with the flock. An answering honk answered his query. Some of the flocks of blackbirds were so long that both the beginning and the end were hidden in the distance.
Sometimes birds were only slightly injured and we tried to tame them, but with little success. Once, however, we did succeed in hatching some wild duck eggs under a hen. The three little ducks became very tame, following us around and eating from our hands. but one day in the fall when wild game was migrating they must have heard "the call of the wild' and joined a flock going south; we could not find them and they were never seen again.
Planting and sowing in those early days were done in very primitive ways. When the sod had been broken the farmer, or his wife, followed a furrow and cut through the turned sod with an axe. The corn was dropped in and the ground pressed down by stepping on the hill. One of our neighbors had a hand planter which he had made. Two sharpened blades at the bottom were plunged into the turned sod and the corn dropped in at the same time. A little later father bought a couple of corn planters that were also carried by hand.
Small grain was sowed by hand. The farmer carried a sack suspended from a strap which passed over the right shoulder and under the left arm. As he walked across the field he scooped up handfuls of grain and scattered it before him with a swinging motion of the right arm. The birds, which were numerous, followed, picking up their share. For this reason the harrow followed as quickly as possible; then came the roller to crush the clods of soil and pack it around the seed.
Among the pests with which the farmer had to contend were hordes of ground squirrels, also called gophers, which followed the rows of newly planted corn and dug it up for their own food. The prairie was spotted with mounds of soft earth where they had burrowed. They always had two entrances to their burrows, so if they were molested from one entrance they immediately departed through the other. The farmers set traps or placed poisoned corn whre it might prove a temptation for them and boys and men sometimes poured water into the holes to bring the gophers out. In spite of all this, they multiplied fast enough to be a menace to the crows. Their color was protective, too. When they came out of their holes to reconnoiter, sitting on their haunches, their noses pointing upward, their elbows close to their sides, they looked like a piece of cornstalk.
Blackbirds were considered one of the worst pests, but it was proven later that they really lived principally on worms which would have destroyed the corn. A blackbird would pull up a blade of corn, eat the wireworm at its root, and leave the corn. Left alone, the worm would have destroyed the whole hill of corn and leave a multitude of descendants to take future crops. The farmers did not know they were making war on their best friends when they were destroying the birds. Mother used to interpret the blackbird's song something like this: "Plant corn, plant corn, plant corn and I'll pull it up, pull it up,pull it up and eat it, and eat it, and eat it. Gook, good, good, good, good!" As she said it, it very much resembled the blackbird's song.
When the grain was ripe it was cut with a "cradle" which consisted of a scythe with a sort of rack attached. The forward swing of the cradle caused the grain to fall into the rack as it was cut and with the backward swing it was dumped out in a nice, neat pile, if the cradler was sufficiently skillful. A man followed to bind the grain into bundles, making a band from a handful of grain. The bundles were then placed upright forming the shocks.
The first harvesting machine I remember was like a mower with a platform attached to the sickle bar whre the grain fell as it was cut. a man stood on this platofrm iwth a long handled rake and raked the grain off onto the ground as fast as enough was cut for a bundle. The machine was drawn by horses so a second man was needed to drive the team. More workers followed to bind the grain into bundles. The machine passed around the field and the circumference was divided into sections, each man binding in a certain section.
The next harvester I remember was one that had a revolving reel, one of the arms of the reel carrying a rake which pushed the grain from the table where it fell when cut. Then came the Marsh harvester. This machine carried the grain on a revolving belt to the table where two men stood to bind it as it came over. This machine met with some opposition from people who thought men would be thrown out of employment thereby, but the machines were used and so far as anyone could see, there was still plenty of work for all. The next setp in harvesters was the self-binder. On this machine there was a big needle which was threaded with coarse twine. The needle separated the grain for the bundle, wrapped the twine around it, tied it, and the bundle was then automatically kicked off. Two more men were supposedly out of employment, but there was always plenty of work for everyone to do.
Neighbors exchanged work during harvesting and threshing. Often it was made the occasion of a big dinner, the farmer's wives going along to help with the cooking. On the whole those neighborhood gatherings were very enjoyable affairs. They gave the farmer's wife an opportunity to form life-long friendships. When life consisted of work and work and more work, every day in the week, even a slight change was welcome.
The corn was gathered by hand. A wagon was driven through the field following a row of corn and crushing the stalks down as it went. That was called the "down row" and it was the duty of the boy, if there was one, to pick the corn from that row, since he didn't have to stoop so far as a man did to reach the corn. The only device to reduce the amount of labor was the husking peg, a bluntly pointed metal piece held in place by a strap around the middle finger. Used together with the thumb it tore the husks apart. Some of the husks were gathered up and braided into mats for the men to clean mud from their boots outside the door. Sometimes the soft inner husks were used in the ticks which took the place of the present-day mattresses. Very good beds they made, too.
In the old days the farmer and his wife arose at four in the morning and several hours were spent in taking care of the stock and milking the cows. Then came breakfast and the day's work in the field for the men and, sometimes, for the women, too. The children had their work to do as soon as it was possible for them to work. Brother Fred took a man's place from the time he was ten years old and Frank followed suit though he did have a little better chance for schooling since he attended a few spring terms.
The summer of 1874 brought the first visit we had from the grasshoppers. One day during the after noon recess at school, we remarked on how many grasshoppers there were. It was the beginning of a scourge that lasted intermittently for several years. In the fall grasshoppers deposited their eggs in holes which they bored in the ground. In many places the ground was thickly perforated with holes a little smaller than a lead pencil, each one containing many tiny eggs. There was a warm spell late one fall and the eggs began to hatch. People rejoiced, thinking that the winter would kill the grasshoppers. One of the neighbor boys caught several grasshoppers and shut them up in a bottle which he put out of doors during a freezing night. In the morning the grasshoppers were apparently frozen and rattled like grains of sand when the bottle was shaken, but when they thawed out they hopped about as lively as ever. One ingenious American invented a machine which could be run over the field to scare them up and catch them, much as one catches the clipped grass behind a lawnmower. They were then burned and in this way some of them were destroyed, but the full-grown ones came in veritable clouds that destroyed the crops.
Two years later the grasshoppers came again. They had come to within a few miles of us when a strong south wind halted them for a time. Since the grain was headed out and the corn in silk, the farmers waited in great anxiety, knowing well that the wind would probably change within a few days. For just a week the 'hoppers were held back. Then on Sunday a north wind brought them to us. The next morning we saw Fred looking a cross the cornfield. I can see that field now, so green and thrifty looking. "That field is not worth a dollar", he said. It was true; the 'hoppers had cut the silk from the undeveloped ears and that fall we had a fine crop of cobs. They had also cut off the heads of the grain so all we had was straw.
We had eight shoats to get through that winter in some way. Since there was no feed, the hogs were turned out to shift for themselves. In the haystacks they found some dry weeds which they had chewed and seemed to get some nourishment. Four had vitality enough to get through till spring; the other four died of starvation and cold. In the spring as soon as vegetation started and the fields were being cultivated the survivors were shut up and it became my duty to pull weeds for them. In this way they were kept alive until there was corn for them again.
When mother's brother, John, thought it was best to buy out the other heirs to grandfather's little farm in Illinois, father went back and bargained with him for $230 as mother's share. Mother took the money and put it into milch cows. From that time for several years she made butter for market. Butter was packed in one hundred pound firkins or smaller tubs and kept in the cellar until fall when it was hauled to Algona, the nearest market, thirty miles away, a three-day trip. Usually the money was used for winter clothing and supplies. Hogs were acquired to use the surplus milk and thus stock-raising became our principal farming industry. My parents planned to keep enough stock to use up the grain which the farm produced.
At that time people turned the stock out on the unfenced prairies, only watching them out of their own fields, so there was no lack of pasturage. Later a herd law was passed requiring owners to keep their stock off other people's property. Then the farmers combined and hired a herd boy jointly, each man paying him according to the number of head stock he had in the herd. cattle were then herded on public land or on uncultivated land owned by speculators.
Wheat was raised for flour for the family. It was taken thirty or forty miles to a mill, usually to Sioux Rapids. Corn was ground at the same place. Grain was for feeding rather than a cash crop as there was generally more money in stock. The principal crops were corn, oats, and some barley. As a general thing money from a farm was put into machinery which, in many cases, was left to rust out right where it had been used last.
During those early days most clothing was made at home and by hand. There were very few sewing machines in that locality. In fact, the first few years there was none in our neighborhood. Aunt Harriet Tressler obtained the agency for the Florence machine and sold a few and also got one for herself. At that time a clean calico dress was plenty good enough for church or Sunday school and a gingham or calico sunbonnet frequently took the place of a hat. I once heard a young lady remark that her mother had spent sixteen dollars on her one Saturday. That was worth boasting about.
Everyday wear for men usually consisted of a pair of overalls and a "wamus" or "roundabout". This was a short jacket gathered into a belt at the bottom and finished at the neck with a close fitting straight or turn-over collar. The sleeves were gathered into a cuff which buttoned tightly around the wrist. When these garments or any everyday clothing were bought ready-made the sewing was usually so poorly done that it must be done over at home.
One of the neighbors, whose wife was a victim of tuberculosis, thought to make the work easier for her and bought a pair of ready-made overalls. Next morning when he put them on and started to build the fire, he stooped over and the new overalls began to rip in the seams. The next day mother went to see this neighbor and found her sitting up in bed sewing on the overalls and wishing her thoughtful husband had bought the goods and let her make them outright.
The material used in overalls was the same as that used in grain sacks. Each farmer marked his grain sacks with his anme stencilled in large letters to identify them when they were borrowed. The whole neighborhood was amused when the waggish Schuyler Cummins appeared one day in a pair of overalls with A.V. Lacey printed on one hip and Philo Sanford on the other.
Wreaths of hair flowers, worsted flowers, and even seeds were made by the girls and women who had a taste for that sort of work. Mother had a very beautiful wreath made of different kinds of seeds, which she bought from the woman who made it. The frame for the wreath was covered with pine cones with a border at the inner edge of large kernels of corn and an outer edge of peach stones. Hair flower wreaths were made from the hair of the members of the family and of friends. I made one of these once on which I spent many hours that might better have been spent in improving my mind, but one had to have some recreation and there were no movies to attend!
Among the industries practiced at home in the early days was the making of straw hats. Not every one knew how to do this but mother was one who did. Before the first crops were raised hats were made from blue joint, a wild grass which then grew rather tall on the uplands and had a stem very much like that of wheat. It was stiff and hard to work with and as soon as possible wheat or oat straw was used. The straw was first plaited, four or more strands together, then sewn into shape. The hats were fitted to the heads as they were sewn, so the boys had to come into the house often and try them on. The hat was begun at the center of the crown, the braid sewed around and around until the required size was reached. Then it was turned by drawing the braid tighter and the crown was continued until the required height was reached. It was then turned again by sewing the braid more loosely and the brim was formed.
Knitting, which was done by most of the women, was usually confined to the necessities-socks, stockings, mittens, mufflers, and wristlets. A few did fancy knitting, such as lace edgings, chair tidies, and even bedspreads. These bedspreads were usually made from carpet warp, though I have seen a few that were made from the finer cottons. Crocheting was more popular for the tidies and laces, for it could be done more rapidly. ordinary sewing thread was ofent used, usually in white. Crocheted edgings were used on underwear, pillow slips, aprons, and especially on children's clothes.
The day of the spinning wheel had about passed at that time, though I have seen a few women spinning. The yarn for knitted hosiery and mittens was bought at the stores. Many knit their cotton stockings also. Some of these were very elaborate, being knit in "featherwork", "shellwork", or "oak leaf" patterns. When we wore those stockings showing the pattern which was continued fover the instep, we thought we were very much dressed up.
Frequently enough, while the men were learning to farm, the women and children actually supported the families. They raised chickens and eggs for the table, raised the vegetables and fruits, and made butter to sell in exchange for things not produced at home. The women were not unaware of this fact and were quite capable of scoring a point on occasion when masculine attitudes became too bumptious. One of the farmers sold his hogs for what he considered a very good price. He came home and told of the deal with a great show of self-satisfaction. With a swagger he picked up the pail to carry the feed out to the pigs. His wife stopped him right there. "You don't need to feed those pigs tonight. I've done it every time so far. They are to be fed just once more and I'm going to do it."
A chronicle of my recollections of those early days would be incomplete without some mention of the griefs and disappointments. The first death in the community was that of one of the Bernard family, a "blue baby" that lived to be over a year old. Father made the casket and the neighbors formed a procession and carried the little body out for burial on the farm.
Within three years after one of the families located in our neighborhood, a shocking tragedy occurred in their family. Two brothers of about fourteen and sixteen were out in the cornfield at work. They got into a dispute and the older boy struck his brother with a cornstalk. The younger boy ran to the wagon, picked up the gun brought along to shoot game, and shot his brother in the back of the head, killing him instantly.
But life had a lighter side. Evenings and rainy days we sometimes had a game of checkers at home. There were a few families in the neighborhood who played cards but this was frowned upon by my mother. Father would say, "Come, let's have a game of checkers. I think you can beat me this time." That was just what happened. Then perhaps he would say, "Now I think I am going to beat you." And it turned out that way. Father was an expert but he had little chance to really enjoy the game at home for none of us ever learned to be more than indifferent players. We also played "Authors" and some kind of history game which was fun for those who were good in history.
Father had a strong,true, and melodious voice and quite often he sat before the fire in the evening and sang for his own amusement. If company came, different ones would contribute to the entertainment by singing. Stephen C. Foster's songs were popular then. Those I best remember hearing are: "Nellie Was a Lady", "Old Folks at Home", "My Old Kentucky Home", "Massa's in de Cold, Cold Ground", and "Oh Susanna". "Dixie" was sung a great deal as were "The Red River Valley" and "The Little Mohee". Hymns that everybody knew were sung by the whole group. I also remember hearing my father sing, "I've Told Thee How Fair the Roses Are", "The Dying Californian", "The Soldier of the Rhine", and a great many war songs and comic songs of which he knew an inexhaustible number.
At that time doctors were few and far between. Every family had a "doctor book" which advised a treatment for every ill and injury to man and beast. Many wild plants were used as medicines, most of them steeped and drunk as tea. Among these were "Culver's root" taken "for the liver". The dandelion, both as extract and as wine, was used for the same purpose. Tonics were made from the butterfly weed, sweet flag root, sassafras bark, and boneset. Of course sulphur and molasses were taken nearly every spring. For colds, pennyroyal, prairie balm, and horse mint were popular remedies. Mullen was used externally for pleurisy. Mullen seeds were among those mother had brought with her from Howard County. Smartweed was used externally for boils. Cubeb berries were smoked for catarrh. Castile soap was used to cleanse wounds on stock as well as for hand and shaving soap. Dry baking soda was also applied to barbed wire cuts on the stock.
Mother's father had been a doctor and she had learned a great deal about caring for the sick. Within two years the whole neighborhood had come to depend on her and she was called upon in cases of sickness for more than thirty years. in the cases of childbirth the neighbors would just drive by and tell her when they wanted her, always taking it for granted that she would be there- and she always was. There was no charge; such service was merely one part of being a good neighbor. But her assistance was not unappreciated. I have a silver cream ladle which was given her by Mrs. Alexander, a Scotch woman who lived near Ayrshire, Iowa, and on one occasion a neighbor gave her a calico dress.
During the second winter in Palo Alto County (1870-1871), father and mother began to think of school for the children. There were enough children in the neighborhood to draw public money. In the srping father and Mr. Sanford led in orgainizing the school township, an area six miles square. There was no building but it was decided to use the upper half story of our house for school purposes. A Mrs. Wilson, a widow, was chosen as the teacher. With her came her little boy and a crippled sister. They bourght provisions and lived in our house. Teacher and pupils entered and passed through the living room and climbed the steep stairs to the upper room where there were already two beds besides anything that needed storage space. Father made a long bench and desk for the pupils and space was made at one side of the room under the sloping roof. The regular attendants were the three Bernard children, Cousin Kate, my two brothers (when not busy in the fields), and myself. Fred, oftener than Frank, had to be at work, but I was seldom asked, or permitted, to lose a day of school. It was hard for mother to have the children trooping through her living room, which was also dining room an kitchen, eight times a day, for we had recess both forenoon and afternoon as well as the noon hour. But she was willing to put up with any inconvenience for the sake of her children.
The following winter it was decided that school should be conducted in the Sanford home. Like us, the Sanfords were of the very few who had an upstairs room. Cousin Kate, Fred, Frank, and iIwere to take our provisions and bedding and stay there during the five school days, returning home for the weekends. The Sanfords had a large family of their own and we found this plan very uncomfortable in winter. Before long mother decided to teach us herself and we studied at home through the long winter evenings, sometimes by the light of the fire from the cookstove.
The next autumn we had another teacher, Maggie Martin, one of a family of teachers who devoted their summers and winters to teaching the children of the early settlers. Maggie conducted the second school which was held at our house. The following spring a little schoolhouse was erected and we had the same teacher again. We now had a few "real school desks" and a chair for the teacher in addition to the old desk and bench we had used before. The teacher "boarded around".
The schoolhouse was used for meetings of the township officers and whenever one of those meetings was to be held we had a holiday from school. Nearly all the men attending those meetings chewed tobacco and few of them considered it a duty to avoid bringing dirt into the house. Maggie said she believed the men would be more careful if they found the room immaculate when they came. She asked for volunteers among the girls to remain after school to help her clean the room. I was one of the volunteers. We scrubbed the floor, cleaned the one panel of blackboard, and draped wild morning glory over the box stove. We took off the lid to use the hole as a vase which we filled with wild sweet William, wild roses, and other prairie flowers. The result justified Maggie's judgment and we found the schoolhouse as clean as it could bery well be after such a meeting.
At the close of this term of school the little schoolhouse was hauled away to another district and we were again without a building for six months. The following spring (1874), school was again conducted in our house. Our teacher this time was Retta Richards, another of the well-known pioneer teachers. Retta boarded with us and thus avoided the exposure some of those early teachers were obliged to endure. I presume she paid a dollar or a dollar and a half a week, though I do not remember. Even in summer weather there was much danger of a soaking in a sudden shower and in the morning the long grass which met over the narrow road was always drenched with dew. It was impossible to walk abroad before ten in the morning and escape wet feet. Dresses were long and skirts were almost invariably wet to the knees. Some cases of tuberculosis were thought to be traced to colds contracted while walking to the schoolhouse through those heavy dews.
During the summer of 1874 our first permanent schoolhouse was built. The interior was a simple oblong, wainscotted about three feet above the floor and plastered above that and overhead. The woodwork was finished in oak graining. The painter's idea of a good job was to imitate as many knots and imprefections in the wood as he could find room for. It was our school, much the best we had ever had, and we were very proud of it.
A partition near one end formed an entrance hall where we left our wraps and lunches. During recess and noon hour, when the weather was too cold to go outside, we used to play there. One of the favorite games was "Blind Man's Bluff". There was a row of shelves at each end of the hall and one of the boys, Willie Young, a little wiry fellow, used to go up those shelves like a monkey. He would then stand on the top shelf dancing and singing while the "blind man" sought him frantically. Another game was "Hot Buttered Blue Beans", also known as "Hide the Thimble".
On Friday afternoons following the recess there was usually a program of recitations and a spelling match to close the day. As the last "scholar" started for his seat someone struck up the song "I Shall Never Learn to Spell". Everybody joined in the singing, which started with the following stanza:
Oh, dear! Oh, dear! I shall never learn to spell;
I shall always be a dunce, I know very well.
For the letters get mixed up in such a queer way
That I never can tell what they mean to say.
In those days there was little or no insubordination in our school. Most of the year meant drudgery on the farms, and school was a relief from hard work. We were looking forward to the time when we could leave the farm and do something else, perferably in a town or city, so there was a good deal of speculation the first day of school as to how much help the teacher was likely to be as a stepping stone to our ambition.
The last day of school there was always a sort of picnic. There was little or no studying or recitations and in the afternoon many of the parents came in and there were declamations and dialogues and sometimes an essay or two. The teacher read a report of the attendance, the work, and sometimes, the shortcomings of some whose work had not been up to the mark, for there were some of those, too. Then the teacher gave each pupil a picture card labeled "Reward of Merit". Usually there were prizes for the ones who had done the best work in certain branches. Some teachers gave an "Exhibition" at the close of the term. In one of the dialogues I was Miss Pickspiders, an old maid. In another I took the part of the Irish servant girl. As I look back now I can see that considerable talent was displayed in the acting, although we had never seen any plays and our stage properties consisted of sheets for curtains and furniture borrowed from the neighbors. Our own scanty wardrobes or borrowed clothers were the costumes.
The following paragraph taken from a report which brother Fred made while he was superintendent of hte North Des Moines schools still is, perhaps, a fair appraisal of the schools of our youth.
"Instruction was wholly individual. Whenever a pupil chose to present himself for admission in the schools, no matter what time in the year, he was received. His studies were determined by the books he brought....If he had been through Webster's "blue-back" speller twice and had finished the last column of the tenth page of the third round, the first column of the eleventh page would naturally be the first lesson his new teacher would give him. If a class already formed had just reached that page, he was put into that class. Otherwise he would probably form a new class. It was thus by no means uncommon to see a dozen classes in the same room studying from the same book, but at a dozen stages of advancement in it.
Such were the schools of our forefathers, the merits of which we frequently hear extolled. They produced many strong men. For the favored ones the advantages of such a school were manifest. But the majority made but little progress, either through sheer neglect of the teacher or because, with impartial treatment, the multiplicity of classes made it impossible for the teacher to give sufficient time to any class to enable his pupils to accomplish anything of real value... Instruction was essentially a matter of memorizing textbooks verbatim." (From Fred A. Lacey's Public Schools of North Des Moines, Iowa Talbott-Koch Printing Co., 1898 pp. 5,6.).
Memory was, indeed, the cornerstone of much of this education. Physiology, for example, was introduced in our school in 1874 and we learned to recite the name of every bone and muscle in the body. We knew little of the great world and its problems and our highest ambition was to qualify as teachers.
Parents were interested in giving their children an education, but they had little time to give to details. One of the early teachers in Palo Alto County recalls the following parody on "Johnny Stays Long at the Fair":
Parents Don't Visit the Schools
Oh, dear! what can the matter be?
Oh, dear! what can the matter be?
Oh, dear! what can the matter be?
Parents don't visit the schools.
They care for their houses, they care for their dollars,
They care for their laces and ribbons and collars,
But little we think they care for their scholars.
Now, why don't they visit the schools?
(The words of this song were learned from Jerry L. Martin, one of the early teachers of Palo Alto County. He was elected county superintendent of Palo Alto County in 1869, and was one of the two instructors at the first normal institute held at Emmetsburg in October, 1876.)
After our school became established there were regularly two terms in the year. The summer term began about the first of June and lasted from three to six months, according to local circumstances. The winter term began about the first of December and lasted three months, that being the time between the last of the corn-picking and athe first of spring plowing.
Mother's family were Baptists, in keeping with their Rhode Island origin. Grandfather's brother, Stutely Carr, was a Baptist clergyman at Greenfield Center, New York, and later at Springfield, Pennsylvania. Father's family belonged to the Methodist Episcopal Church. Mother was very religious. The letters exchanged between her and her sister usually contained something which revealed religious feeling as a family spirit. A customary closing I remember was, "Yours in the Lord". there wer other such phrases. Among mother's mementoes of her brother, Hiram, was a poem entitled, "Degenerate Man", which was a comment on the story of Cain and Abel in verse. Mother read the Bible to her own family a great deal. One custom which she carried on from her father's practice was to have each member of the family circle open the Bible at random on New Year's morning and read aloud the chapter to which he chanced to turn. There was supposed to be some special guidance for the reader to follow in the new year.
In the Protestant communities all the younger people who had no place to go and wanted something to do attended prayer meetings with their elders. The first prayer meeting I can remember was held at Sanford's at their invitation. There had been no religious services of any sort and I asked what a prayer meeting was. Mother explained that it was a gathering where everybody who wished to do so could take part by offering a prayer, making a talk, or singing a song as the spirit moved. When the question of attending this prayer meeting came up, at first father said we would not go. But when he went to the barn to do the chores mother followed him. When she came back she announced that we were going. " I knew I could persuade him" was all the explanation she gave. Later, the New year was begun by a week of prayer meetings, the families gathering in a different house each day. For the rest of they year such meetings came to be held every Thursday evening.
Great Oak Township bordered ours, Rush Lake, on the north. It was settled almost entirely by Irish Catholic families while the eastern part of Rush Lake and the western part of Ellington, the township to the east of us, was settled by "Dutch" (German) Catholics. Not infrequently people from these settlements attended the prayer meetings and other services of the Protestants, and occasionally the Protestants attended the Catholic services. On one such occasion a farmer who had driven a long way to attend a service fell asleep and snored loudly enough to be heard all over the room. Father Smith stopped in the midst of his sermon to say, "If that is a Protestant, wake him up gently, but if he is a Catholic, cast him out!"
There were no church buildings in the vicinity at that time except the Catholic church in Emmetsburg. A Baptist congregation was organized at our house on May 23, 1873, and the charter members included father and mother and twenty other persons. Religious services were held in a schoolhouse, the Methodists and Baptists using it on alternate Sundays. It was several years after Curlew was established before there was a "meeting house" as my mother called it.
The following event did not take place until after the close of the period I am describing in these notes, but it illustrates so perfectly the local attitudes as I recall them that it really belongs in the story. The first denomination to erect a building in the community was the Freewill Baptist. Later the Methodists put up a building, too. One of the neighbors, whose wife was a member of the Baptist Church, told the Methodists that if they would build their church ten feet higher than the Baptist church he would donate twenty-five dollars to their building fund. He was not a Methodist, but he did not want his wife to belong to any church. The Methodists built their steeple the stipulated ten feet higher than the Baptists' spire and collected the twenty-five dollars, but later that same summer that tall steeple was struck by lightning; people drew their own conclusions.
Probably through the connection of Elder Kettlewell of the Freewill Baptist Church, a library was donated to the Sunday school by a more prosperous church. Those books were a boon to us as to many others, for books were very rare. Novel reading was strictly forbidden in most of the families. I have since wondered where the line was drawn between those library books and the forbidden novels. One library book, which we all read, was Claude Duval, the story of the noted English highwayman and about as sensational as anything could be. But reading was scarce and we read everything we could get our hands on. Existence for us was pretty drab and I cannot see that a little excitement, even a stimulating book, harmed us at all.
Possibly as an outgrowth of the interest in this first small collection of books the time came when the people of the township decided that a public library would be a fine thing to have and some of the public money was set aside for that purpose. Aunt Harriet Tressler, father's sister, was a very intelligent woman and had good taste in literature, so she was chosen one of the committee to select the books. One of the good church members, Isaac Perry, objected strenuously to any novels, but Aunt Harriet used a little wholesome ridicule. She said she expected to find him behind the door reading the novels himself.
It was from this library that I obtained the first of Charles Dickens' books that I ever read, Little Dorrit and The Old Curiosity Shop. Some of the books were instructive, one of which, Sketches of Creation, I read with a great deal of interest. As the name indicates, it dealt with our earth, its origin, the changes through which it has passed, and its final occupation by man. Some of the books were historical and some were scientific. One of the most amusing of the books was a collection of stories by Porte Crayon (David Hunter Strother). The book included the story of a trip through Mammoth Cave and other interesting places.
Elder Kettlewell served the church without any stipulated salary but was paid by "donations" and an occasional contribution of money. The donation parties were held in the winter. An officer of the church would announce at a regular church servicd the time and place of the gathering. It was understood that everybody was to come. Some people came as far as ten miles. All brought pies, cakes, bread, cold meats, pickles, butter, cream - whatever they had or could make for a feast. For their donation to the preacher they brought sacks of grain and potatoes and whatever else they could spare from their farms. The older people and the small children came in the afternoon and had supper together. Usually a price of twenty-five cents was charged for the supper. The young people sometimes came later in the evening. A devoted young man might drive six miles to get his girl and then drive to the appointed place. Occasionally two or three boys would pick up a party of young people to come together in a bobsled.
The time was spent by the young people, particularly, with romping games such as "Volunteer" or "Weevily Wheat". "Volunteer" was the grand right and left figure of the square dance. The players stood in opposite rows facing each other instead of forming in sets as in the cotillion or quadrille. In this way all could take part. "Weevily Wheat" was sung to the tune of "Yankee Doodle". It was similar to "Volunteer" but had more changes. One stanza ran as follows:
I will have no weevily wheat;
I will have no barley:
I must have the best of wheat
To make a cake for Charley.
Dancing was frowned upon by the religious members of the community but these play party games were approved by the faithful, though, perhaps, with the tongue in the cheek. Many and heated were the debates as to which was worse, dancing or the "kissing" games that were so often indulged in. There were also the old-fashioned games like "Drop the Handkerchief", "Post Office", "Needle's Eye" and others, as well as charades, magic music, and a few calling for mental gymnastics.
Sometimes there was a "fish pond" or grab bag to which each member was supposed to contribute. Then the young people "fished" or "grabbed" at five cents a chance. They all hoped to get something worthwhile but not many of them ever did. Sometimes the articles were amusing and sometimes really very funny. it was all good entertainment for both old and young.
The first literary society or lyceum was organized when I was about eleven. The members were all farmers but some had been educated for the professions and were rather well informed. There was always a debate in which most of the members took part. The president of the lyceum announced the subject of the debate and the leaders of the opposing teams a week in advance. Each leader chose the others for his team. Everybody present was supposed to be on one or the other team.
One or two members edited a lyceum paper which purported to give the news and usually did give something witty or otherwise regarding each one of the members. Sometimes someone contributed a series of alphabetical rhymes, using the names of the members with more or less realism. But the jokes were always good natured and usually were understood that way. One or two members would be appointed to write essays and others recited selections from poets or prose writers. One essay by Schuyler Cummings, which he called "A Chapter in Chronicles', was written in the style of the Book of Chronicles and was a humorous account of a fight which occurred at a certain Fourth of July celebration held near Rush Lake. Brother Fred wrote a similar paper recounting an actual transaction by which our county relinquished all of the so-called swamp lands to one person for no consideration that anyone could discover.
In the winter of 1879 Fred organized a debating society. Most of the farmers, old and young, joined. The temperance question, the evil effects of tight lacing, which was common at the time, and many other questions of greater or less importance were discussed. A glee club provided music and essays and recitations made up the usual program. For many years the debating societies were feature of the winter months. Schuyler Cummings was one of the prominent debaters. He had been educated to be a lawyer but in some unexplained way he had drifted to an Iowa homestead. On the rostrum he was perfectly at ease, but on the farm he was the worst misfit imaginable.
The spelling school was a form of recreation as well as education. One school district would invite another to a spelling contest. Parents and children from both schools attended and took part. These matches were held occasionally by about all the schools, particularly in the winter term. One leader from each school was chosen. These took their places in the two corners of the room nearest the teacher's desk. They chose the "scholars" they wished to have on their respective teams. Each tried to select the best spellers. The words were pronounced by one of the teachers, passing across from one side to the others. When a word was missed the one missing it immediately sat down and was out of the running until another match was on. The one standing up the longest was highly honored, though his school shared the honors. When all had been spelled down a short recess of from fifteen minutes to half an hour was given. Then another match followed. If the same school won both matches that school was particularly hilarious.
Among the old settlers in Palo Alto County was a man named Williams who had a very good musical education, as had his wife also. Both were fine singers and Mrs. Williams played the organ very well. They thought the young people should have some education in music. Mr. Williams made it known that if the young people would meet with him at the schoolhouse in his school district every Sunday afternoon through the summer he would instruct them in vocal music free of charge. My brothers and I, as well as quite a number of the younger people, took advantage of the offer. That was my first music instruction.
The following winter Mr. Williams organized several classes, one in the Rush Lake School, one in the Center School, and a third in the Silver Lake School. He announced that any member of one class would be welcomed at any of the others. Emmet Barringer, the teacher of our school, boarded with us and was a member of the class at the Center School. He sang tenor, frank sang bass, and I soprano. We three used to practice at home and these evenings are among my most pleasant recollections. Some weeks we attended all three singing schools. We all enjoyed singing and the long rides in wagons or sleighs were no small inducement to our regular attendance. We had a home-made sleigh with two seats which we used when the crowd was not too large.
Two years later several of the neighbors, our family among them, bought organs and instrumental music was added to our accomplishments. Frank and I wished to become real musicians but teachers were few and far between and opportuniteis for practice was not much better. A little music for my own pleasure and the entertainment of intimate friends was as far as I ever went.
It must have been about the year 1873 that the first teachers' institute was held in Emmetsburg for one week. The conductor was Carrie Bassett, one of the leading educators in the State at that time. Fred, though only fifteen, attended to review the subjects in which he expected to be examined for a teacher's certificate. It was one of the big events of his live and was talked about for months afterward. Classes were supposed to be conducted along the lines of a model school. Topics of interest to educators were discussed, such as the best textbooks to use and the best methods of teaching them. From that time the teachers' institute was a regular event in the fall.
A few years later, at the age of fourteen, I was privileged to attend. This time there was a four weeks' course in teaching. Letty Kettlewell, Florence Bernard, and I shared a room with kitchen privileges for which we paid a dollar a week. We brought our supplies from home and prepared our own meals. I had a new calico dress and a supply of white aprons to last the month. This was the first time I had been away from home for so long and after two weeks mother came to see me. She thought my dress was getting soiled so she loaned me hers and wore mine home. Most of the other girls attending the institute were earning money and could dress better than I. However the lack of fine raiment did not detract from the pleasure and profit of the experience. New subjects were being introduced, one of which was drawing. It was here that I received my first lessons and though I never became proficient, it was encouraging to know that I had a certain amount of ability.
On May 1, 1877, Fred and I began our careers as teachers. I was past fifteen at the time and Fred past eighteen. He taught the "home school" and I a school about eight miles distant, in the township of Ellington. In his first school Fred must have enrolled about a dozen pupils. Whe nhe was over seventy he said he could remember how the fields looked as he walked home from school one day. AS he looked at the farmsteads he began to wonder why the boys and girls from these homes should learn so much that was unconnected with their present lives or the most obvious future for most of them. It was then and there that he began pioneering in education. When he was superintendent of schools for Page County he put into the couse of study "object lessons" in selecting, saving and cultivating seed. A large correspondence developed and educators came from all over to observe this innovation.
My father had depended on the coming of the railroad to increase the value of his land and its products by bringing them closer to the market. At the time he decided to locate in Palo Alto County instead of near Storm Lake, he thought he was going there only a short time ahead of the Des Moines and Fort Dodge Railroad which had already been surveyed through that part of the State. With that in view he began to accumulate land until, as he said, he was "land poor". The repeated invasions of the grasshoppers and an occasional crop failure together with the long delay in the coming of the railroad discouraged him. "This land will be valuable", he said, "but it will not be in my time." He then began getting rid of our land. Finally it was all gone but the original eighty-acre homestead.
It was not until 1882 that the railroad was built through our part of the county. Many of the farmers sold out and took their profit at once. Father said he had waited fifteen years for that road and he was not going to leave just when it came. With the coming of the railroad, the founding of a town, the building of a grain elevator, and the establishment of the post office, the pioneer period in our part of Palo Alto County came to a close.
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