Palo Alto Co, Iowa USGenWeb Project

Emmetsburg Democrat, Thursday, October 5, 1944

Mrs. Spies Gives 'Immigrant's' View of America in Early Days

(Editor's Note: The following paper was prepared by Mrs. J. A. Spies of Graettinger for the Graettinger Woman's Club program a year ago. A few weeks ago at the Old Settlers' picnic at High Lake the paper was read by Mrs. William Hossack, daughter of Mrs. Spies. This paper will be of interest to many Democrat readers. It is available here through the courtesy of Mrs. Spies and John J. Sullivan, editor and publisher of the Graettinger Times.)


By Mrs. J. A. Spies

Naturally, it is difficult for a German-American to write on the subject of immigration while everyone is distrustful of those born on the enemy's soil. I have been an American citizen for fifty-eight years and have no intention of changing this highly prized privilege. Just what is an immigrant? I consulted three or four Encyclopedias, but no definition was given. I heard my father-in-law, who made his home with us in his declining years, say that many like himself, were dissatisfied with the political conditions of their native country and immigrated. Others hoped to improve their station in life. Again there are the deserters shirking their military duties, etc. Neither of these cases fitted my cause. I shall relate my life's story very briefly to leave the decision to your good judgment.

I was born in a most beautiful spot in the Rhinepflaz near Bingen on the Rhine. My father was an influential man. He was a Master farmer, States representative of the Kingdom of Bavaria to the end of his life. He devoted most of his life to the promotion of schools and agricultural science. He was a kind father, giving us many opportunities for a good school education. Since you are not interested in German customs and history, I shall omit part of my paper, but relate an item which was of great consequence to my future life.

One Sunday afternoon, I returned with one of my friends from a concert given by some singing societies in a nearby forest, and found company at home. This was not unusual. Father introduced me to a sickly looking man, a relative from America, explaining that he was sick with malaria and his doctors in St. Louis sent him to Europe, hoping the change of climate would benefit him. As they could do nothing more for him and feared a fatal outcome, as Mr. Valier, his companion, whispered to us. My brother-in-law, an excellent physician, sent him to the springs in Kissingen, to drink the world renowned Racozie. After two months he returned much improved. The climate agreed with him, slowly his health was restored. He spoke of returning to his native country after a span of eighteen months. When the time for his departure came, he told me that I must come with him as his bride. I was dumb founded. It was impossible to leave my aged parents and the estate which I was supposed to take over. Everybody scorned the idea except my unselfish mother. She appreciated the excellent qualities of my husband to be. Our Lord said, "Love can move mountains." It certainly was true in my case, for in two years I sailed on the steamer Kronlan in company with my father-in-law to be and my friend, Mrs. Elsenbast, to the land of freedom and opportunities. It was a most serious step for a young, inexperienced girl, who enjoyed all the comforts of life in her homeland.

I want to mention that the man of my choice could not stay on his home place in southern Illinois. The malaria threatened to return. He was admitted to the bar and had planned to practice with the late Senator Sherman, but when his health failed, they had to abandon the plan. Instead, he came to our good productive State of Iowa, the state we all learned to love.

Several years before, his father purchased through an agent, a tract of land, originally school land, set aside by the government for the benefit of the University of Iowa, then in progress, but in it early states. When he arrived at Emmetsburg, Mr. Robbins, the land agent, took him to our town-to-be, and found a newly built railroad track and a neat little depot adjoining his father's land. The excellent black productive soil which grew grass higher than a man's head, looked good to him and he bought another section of land to be our future home.

We landed in New York on the thirteenth of June 1886.

My Romeo was to meet me at St. Louis and after a long journey we arrived there with great anxiety. Imagine our surprise. We could not find the man of my choice anywhere! We went to different depots and hotels and I came to Marine to the old home place, a much disappointed bride-to-be.

Mrs. Fahnestock whom most of you knew, was the first one to greet us. She, too, could not find any explanation for the absence of the bridegroom-to-be. However, it did not take long, and someone came rushing into the house with great velocity, and, in a few minutes, I was in his arms, to be sweethearts forever. We just missed each other at St. Louis and played hide and go seek. After a beautiful wedding, we spent a short time in St. Louis and went on our honeymoon trip to the prairies of Iowa. It was difficult indeed, to purchase a ticket to Graettinger, since it was a city without houses, save a depot and sod houses for the section men. Our town was named in honor of Dr. Graettinger, a well known physician from Milwaukee. He owned the land where the railroad was built and donated half of it for the right-of-way; hence the name of Graettinger.

I was much taken by surprise when I found a beautiful country and farm houses and groves here and there; the train so close by, a river like a silver band through the valley, and the prairie one bed of flowers, the June roses just being in bloom instead of sagebrush as I had expected.

All was nice and fine, until a flock of men came streaming in for supper with the announcement that there was no bread in the house and there was not much of anything else. Imagine my situation - a strange land, a strange place, eight to ten men for supper, nothing prepared, not even bread. Mr. Jacobson, who worked for us, came to my rescue. He went on horseback to his home and brought me some of the nice bread his wife had baked and we proceeded with the supper. I always remembered the Jacobsons for their kindness. The next day we found several loaves of good bread in the swill barrel. The housekeeper married a week before our arrival and one of the men acted as cook. A neighbor lady baked an ample supply at my husband's request, but the men expected fresh biscuits when the bride was coming. There was no baking powder nor yeast in the cupboard. We had to make our own yeast with hops and cornmeal. Such was the reception for a young couple starting out in life - an eventful life full of happiness and adversities as only a new country can offer, a country where the Indians roamed and hunted several years before.

It may interest some of my pioneer friends to mention some of the experiences of our early life. One Sunday late in the afternoon a crowd of Indians came storming in and demanded all kinds of food. Mrs. Elsenbast and I were home alone with little Agnes and we were frightened. We gathered up the different articles of food and clothing that they demanded, hurriedly, but when they asked to stay all night, I declined. Just then the men came home and the crowd left.

One day I looked over the prairie and noticed a little building resembling a one-sided chicken house we possessed. Little children were playing around and I noticed a lady on horseback. It was something new and I found that it was a schoolhouse without any floor; the lady was the teacher, Miss Anna Mahan. Later she became one of my best friends. They had moved this building from the other side of the river. Since we had no bridge except the railroad bridge the children had to cross the water as best they could. There were no busses to bring the children on paved roads to a well heated, ventilated school house. Miss Mahan came through wind and weather blizzard and sunshine.

She did not mind the howling of the coyotes. Often they came so close to our home that it was not unusual to find freshly killed animals in the barnyard, victims of the beasts.

Destruction was also caused by the prairie fires which swept over the country in great fury, fanned by the hot winds threatening buildings and groves.

Time does not permit me to refer to many of the hardships of the early settlers, but I must mention the first blizzard we encountered early in the fall during the first year. It had rained and the rain turned into snow. The ferocious wind had full sway over the prairie. Being alone at home, we were frightened. I went into the parlor and low and behold, it was filled with snow. The storm had blown the windows ajar. We went into the kitchen which was filled with ice and snow; the transom was blown open and could not be closed for several days. It stormed for three days. It blew over the chicken house and buried my nice chickens which I had raised under such difficulties. We dug them out from under the snow in April. No train was running for almost a week.

The amusements were very primitive and crude. One evening we were surprised by a large crowd of people, having a few fiddlers in their midst. They asked whether they could hold a dance in the house. Of course they could. We cleared out the large kitchen and a good time was had by all. At their request my husband gave them money for a cask of beer, although he himself was a temperate man. The fiddlers played and the crowd danced, and, since my husband was a poor dancer and drinker, he went to bed, and left me with the crowd as their hostess. I must not have been satisfactory, as they never returned.

When I speak of amusements, I must not forget a very amusing incident. Every time a new building was erected, a house-warming was a necessity. We heard so much about it, and became very inquisitive, as to how it was conducted. Very soon we received an invitation to a barn dance. There was my chance. As requested, we made our sandwiches; the boys filled the bobsled with nice straw and off we went to the frolic. At the bend of the road our vehicle tipped over and the contents were buried in the soft snow. Fortunately, the men brought a lantern on our journey. Imagine our surprise when we found at our arrival that the newly erected barn did not even have a floor! All who wanted to enjoy the sport of dancing had to climb the ladder to the haymow, which was nicely floored with rough boards. Needless to say, we did not stay long, but partook of the refreshments which we brought along, and returned home, one experience wiser.

For the first five years our town progressed very slowly. We were busy putting a thousand acre farm under cultivation, erecting necessary buildings and wells until one night Mr. Osher, the station agent at that time, informed us that our depot was to be moved to Osgood on the next morning. A settlement of very energetic farmers lived there. My husband got busy before dawn for it meant the removal of our town. He went to see the railroad officials, Mr. Goodell and Mr. Knapp, and laid down his plans. The depot was left and we were busy starting the town as promised. First, we had to build a bridge across the river. I entertained both the Emmet and Palo Alto supervisors in joint sessions and the bridge was built. Since the school director was from Osgood, also, the new schoolhouse was to be erected there. Again we entertained all the school directors in the county. As a result, a nice schoolhouse was built in town and I might mention that one of our early successful teachers was Mrs. E. S. George. One of the first enterprises was the creamery so important for a country town; we, ourselves, possessed sixty milk cows. Mr. and Mrs. Fahnestock built and operated this venture.

Since a house of worship is one of the first necessities in a community, my husband and father-in-law donated the block of ground for the Catholic church. Everyone was happy when Rev. Father Kelly, who was stationed in Estherville, conducted our first services in a little schoolhouse and served us for fifty-two years as our priest. The First Lutheran and Methodist churches were erected soon after. Everyone welcomed Mr. Axelton and his blacksmith shop, since the land was tilled entirely by horse and plow. It is needless to say that Spies Bros. meat market was a most necessary addition. My husband built an elevator and lumberyard; George Bros., a hardware store. My friend, George Zahn, completed two stores. He sold the first one to H. N. Osher. Mr. Lester started a weekly paper. Mrs. E. C. Kent was the first land agent and laid out the town lots to be sold.

A very amusing story was told by my husband, referring to his first auto trip with John Paulsen to take subscriptions for the first telephone company. They were very successful with the subscriptions, but less fortunate with the auto ride. Mr. Paulsen built the car himself; it was the first one in town. Late in the evening they returned on foot, but we were happy to get a telephone.

Thus was the beginning of our prosperous little town. It was pleasing to know that we were instrumental and helpful in building up town and country, taking part and promoting the nice things like Chautauqua, Lyceum courses, Farmers' Institutes, Parent and Teachers association and many other ventures.

Herder, one of our great poets, once said: "To find a beautiful soul, is a great blessing," and, according to my experience, I found the finest of souls in all nationalities and breeds in the grandest mansions as well as the most modest huts on our prairies.

And now, having arrived at the threshold of Eternity, it will be fitting for me to mention my favorite verse of the twenty-second psalm: "Though I should walk in the midst of the shadow if death, I will fear not evils; for Thou art with me, O Lord. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me."

I conclude with the wish and sincerest hope that the angel of peace may soon reign in our homes again. As Francis Scott Key wrote in the Star Spangled Banner, "And the star spangled banner in triumph shall wave, O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave."

 Submitted by Kathleen Puls

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