Palo Alto Co, Iowa USGenWeb Project

A Prairie Boyhood
By Bruce Bliven

The Palimpsest
Iowa City, Iowa
August, 1968
[Note: Bruce Bliven, the author, was born [1889] and reared in Emmetsburg,
Iowa. He attended Stanford and later [1923]  became editor of the New York
Newspaper, The New Republic. His recollections of Iowa boyhood give you the
general idea of what it was probably like for your ancestors growing up in
Iowa. Excerpts from "A Prairie Boyhood" follow.]

...It has become a platitude to point out that the world has changed more
since I was born [1889] than it had in all its previous history. To
anticipate a little, I remember when there were only a dozen or so
telephones in Emmetsburg and you told Central the name of the person you
wanted to speak to. When I was ten [1899], electric lights in the home were
still a rare novelty, though arc lights were used for street illumination.
Every few weeks somebody had to climb a ladder to push the carbon points
closer together as the tips were burned.
     My boyhood saw the beginnings of many things that are commonplace today. The
town's first phonograph belonged to one of my uncles. It had the big horn,
the fragile wax cylinder, and the handle to wind up the spring, that are
well-remembered today. Humorous monologues were more popular than music. The
favorite with us, as it was everywhere, was "Cohen on the Telephone."
     The town's first automobile was, I believe, a Winton, purchased by one of my
rich cousins. The high tonneau of the Winton was entered by a short flight
of steps in the middle of the rear. I remember the delicious terror of
moving at such a height, and at twenty miles an hour, along the dusty roads.
Most of the horses we met went into a panic; my cousin would pull off the
road, stop the car, get out, and lead the frightened animal past.
     Our first motion picture was not The Great Train Robbery, which I never saw
until it became a treasured antique. To Emmetsburg came a traveling lecturer
with a set of films which he narrated while cranking the projector. Folding
chairs were set up in the Masonic Hall, located upstairs over the drugstore,
and a thrilled audience saw such incredible spectacles as a train
approaching down a track, looking as though it were about to leap off the
screen, acrobats performing, and as a grand climax, a picture of Niagara
Rapids. The narrator told us that the night before he had shown his pictures
in Algona, and that someone in the audience said: "That certainly looks like
water." No doubt this was a standard joke told every night and attributed to
some nearby community.
     We never had a movie house while I lived in Emmetsburg. A theater was
finally built, in which touring companies occasionally played one night
stands. The first that I remember was a romantic comedy along the lines of
The Prisoner of Zenda. No experience with drama in later live ever equaled
the thrill of my first contact with live, professional actors.
     From time to time a traveling medicine show came to town and performed in a
vacant lot near the corner of Main Street and Broadway. I remember one
pitchman, a large, placid gentleman, who, of course, called himself
"doctor". He sold soap as well as bottled medicine, and to prove its purity
he calmly sliced off a good-sized hunk of soap, but how this trick was
performed, I still do not know. My chief admiration went to the perspiring
young man, the doctor's assistant, who set up the platform and the kerosene
torches, sand songs during the preliminary warmup, accompanying himself on
the banjo, did a trombone solo, walked on his hands, did back flips, and
sold bottles of medicine at the end of the show, making change with great
dexterity, and as far as I know with complete honesty.
    Once a year, the circus came to town and performed in a vacant lot a block
from our house. It traveled by road, in a series of huge red-and-gold
wagons, drawn by two, four or sometimes six horses. When they arrived,
usually about four o'clock in the morning, hardy, small boys were at the
grounds to meet them and to listen to the occasional growls of wild animals
from inside some of the boarded up wagons. I never got a chance at the
traditional task of carrying water to the elephants, but my family always
managed to scare up the price of admission. Since I lived so near, I saw the
morning parade assemble for its journey through town and break up after its
     Almost as exciting as the circus was the tent show of Uncle Tom's Cabin,
which played Emmetsburg now and then. For the scene in which Eliza is
pursued by bloodhounds, the show carried several huge mastiffs- far more
terrifying than real bloodhounds would have been. To my amazement, "Topsy"
turned out to have gone to school with my mother in Deerfield, and she came
to supper at our house. I was dumfounded to find that the incredibly
energetic fourteen-year-old, kinky-haired, black-faced Topsy was a quiet
white woman in her middle fifties, the wife of the owner of the show. I
began to realize the theater was a place of illusion.
...The greatest annual excitement of my early boyhood was the arrival
of the threshing machine and its crew. The huge contraption was drawn along
the road by its own steam engine, like a locomotive miraculously escaped
from the railroad, belching smoke and moving at a steady four or five miles
an hour amid an uproar like doomsday. Its steel wheels were cleated for
better traction and made broad to conquer the quagmires of mud sometimes
encountered along the dirt roads. It was the first self-propelled vehicle I
had ever seen, and like the bulls, it induced an unforgettable alarm.
     Our house was on the edge of town, close enough to the farm to permit
the threshing machine to function in the yard near our own huge barn. It was
a small operation by today's standards, half a dozen men, only two or three
of whom came with the rig; the others were local. The engine and the
threshing machine were now connected by a long, wide, endless belt. Team
after team drove up with shocks of grain. Into the hopper went the bundles
amid a fearful roar, and out came the grain in a golden stream, while the
strawstack reached higher and higher, seemingly to the sky.
     The air was full of dust; the men shouted to one another or to their
horses above the noise. When the rig shut down for noon dinner, the silence
was so sudden and so deep it was startling.
     Threshing was thirsty work, and the men drank water, when they could
snatch a moment, from gallon crockery jugs. They followed a set, time
honored ritual, by first removing the cork, picking up the jug in one hand,
swinging it to the shoulder, and lowering it almost to a horizontal
position. Only a greenhorn would use both hands to bring the jug up to the
level of his face.
     The noon dinner was an epochal feast. All morning my mother and the
hired girl worked furiously in the kitchen preparing vast platters of meat,
mashed potatoes, baked beans, two or three other vegetables, apple and
pumpkin pies and, of course, big tin pots of coffee. The men sat around a
sawhorse table and ate ravenously. There was little time for conversation.
The threshers were deeply sunburned except their foreheads which, when they
took off their hats, were a clammy white. Next day the rig and its crew
moved on to another job and I felt that a holiday was over.

...There was practically no juvenile delinquency in Emmetsburg, perhaps
because in our non-affluent society nobody ever had cause to complain that
he "had nothing to do." All children did some work from the age of ten or so.
On the farm the boys helped with the outdoor chores, and the girls learned
the details of cooking and sewing, and aided their mothers. On Halloween
high-spirited boys tipped over a few private privies or hoisted a buggy to a
roof. Usually the culprits were quickly identified and compelled to undo
their damage. "Trick or Treat" had not yet reached Iowa. The younger
children stayed at home and went to bed or attended early parties at which
they bobbed for apples and pulled taffy. Jack-o'-lanterns carved from
pumpkins and comic masks were a part of every Halloween.
     Palo Alto County had gone dry by local option many years earlier. Until
I left home at eighteen [1907], I had never seen a saloon, a drunken man in
the street, or any kind of alcoholic beverage served on a dinner table- or
for that matter, anywhere else.
     Unless there were goings on of which I was ignorant, we were still in
the grip of the Puritan tradition as to sex. When my friends and I were
turning adolescent, Freud's doctrines, which were eventually to crumble the
foundations of so much of our philosophy, were still unheard of. So was
birth control and the whole idea of "planned parenthood." I can remember
only one girl in my generation who "got into trouble" and if there were
shotgun marriages I did not know of them.
     Discipline in school was good; rarely did anybody need to be sent to
the principal's office, the only form of punishment employed. The principal
was a mild-mannered man whose small daughter grew up to be editor of The
Ladies' Home Journal. How he handled disciplinary problems I do not know,
for neither I nor any of my close friends was ever sent to him.

...I do not know how my classmates and I compared in scholarship with
children elsewhere. I do know that in the first grade we memorized the
alphabet and went on to pronounce syllables by phonics (a word not yet in
use). I am told nowadays taht the situation could not have been as good as I
remember. My recollection is that every child in town could soon read, with
little or no trouble. Nobody, to my knowledge, dropped out of school, though
the farm boys might be absent for a week or two now and then, to help with
spring plowing or at harvest time.
  ...By the turn of the century, the prairie was dotted with groves of
cottonwoods and willows, usually planted just north of the farm houses as a
windbreak. In town there were many buildings and trees to lessen the force
of a storm. Oldtimers told us that these were much less formidable than they
had been thirty years earlier, but even so, our three or four blizzards each
winter were terrifying. In the midst of one of them, my father left the
house in late afternoon to feed and water the stock in the barn, a hundred
yards away. The heavy snowfall was swirled in all directions by the full
gale that was blowing. With every landmark obliterated, father got confused
even on this short journey and wandered back and forth for a long quarter of
an hour, until he caught a glimpse of the lighted kerosene lamp in our
     The children of my day were a hardy lot. In my case, school was about a
half mile's walk from our house, and I cannot remember more than half a
dozen winter storms bad enough to keep me home. On very snowy days, I took
my lunch, in an old lard pail with a wire handle. Otherwise I walked back
and forth four times a day.
     In winter we skated on the lake. There was only one iceboat, but a
number of children, including myself, had skate sails. We got the thrill of
skimming along under windpower watching out for the tips of weeks sticking
up through the ice, which could send you sprawling.
     We had no "old swimming hole" for summer use by half-grown boys. The
lake was unpleasantly muddy and weedy, and the river was several miles away,
with transportation rarely available...
     Normally, as I have noted, the rising generation in Emmetsburg was kept
reasonably busy with odd jobs after school. We had no organized athletics,
though we played Run-Sheep-Run, One-Old-Cat, and rudimentary football. There
were never enough boys at one spot at one time for two teams of nine or
eleven. Winter evenings we played checkers, dominoes, crokinole, Authors,
another card game called Flinch, and, doubtless, others I have forgotten. On
mild Sunday afternoons we walked down to the Milwaukee station to see the
trains from Chicago come in. We had, of course, no movies, no radio, no
television, no cars for aimless driving around, but I cannot remember ever
feeling the restless malaise of the spirit that seems so conspicuous in the
younger generation in the 1960s.
     In the long hot summers, we lived under the threat of tornadoes, which
we called cyclones. Like most other people, we had a cyclone cellar a few
rods from the house, with a flight of wooden steps going down into a space
of forty or fifty square feet, the roof of heavy sod, the room deep enough
to let us stand upright. I cannot remember that we ever actually took refuge
in it. Part of each year it was used to store root vegetables. I do
remember, on at least one occasion, seeing a cyclone passing a few miles
away, from southwest to northeast, with its long slender, evil funnel cloud.
On another occasion we drove out into the country to see a farm house that
had been destroyed. It was almost perfectly flat, like a heap of trash that
had been carefully smoothed over a large area.


Palo Alto County, Iowa USGenWeb Project Scott County, Iowa Genealogy Celtic Cousins A Little Bit of Ireland The Irish in Iowa Joynt/Joint Family Chronicles Other Family Ties