updated 03/19/2017

Sand Cove
Iowa twp., Allamakee co. Iowa

"Where the Indians Camped"

Farmers Convert Sand into Fertile Corn Fields"

A Living Desert - 5 Acres is Iowa Version of Sand Environment"

Where the Indians Camped - Village Site Discovered on Allamakee's "Desert"
By Dr. Henry Paul Field

Many relics of prehistoric Indians have been discovered on the site of an ancient Indian village or camp, lying exposed by the shifting of sand dunes on the face of what is believed to be Iowa’s only desert, one of the most unusual regions in the northeastern corner of Iowa.

The "desert" lies three or four miles southwest of New Albin, Iowa, in the south-central portion of a small valley locally known as "Sand Cove." Everywhere in this valley, the soil is slightly sandy, but off toward the southern edge, the rich, sandy loam suddenly turns to pure sand. Although not as large as the better known professional deserts, such as the Sahara, this one does very well as an amateur. Several acres in the center of the "desert" show scarcely a blade of vegetation. Around its edges lies in wait a rank growth of sandburs, ready to scratch the ankles of all comers. The sun beats down more intensely because there is nothing to give any shade or obstruction to its rays. The sand gleams in hot.

On every side, Sand Cove is walled in by steep, high bluffs. Their slopes are well forested with oak and juniper. No doubt, before the advent of white settlers, most of the valley was heavily timbered. But the "desert" itself gives every indication of always having been a bare, treeless area. No doubt, the extreme dryness of the sand effectually prevented the growth of even the hardiest of trees. As a natural open space in a heavily forested region, the "desert" offered an excellent camping ground for the prehistoric Indian. No doubt, it proved especially desirable in the winter time, since it is warm and sunny the year around. Ringed about by high wooded bluffs, it is well protected from the furious blizzards of midwinter, which rage out on the level, open prairies of Iowa. In the winter time, when the sand was frozen motionless and the sun beamed down into its snug retreat, the "desert" must have seemed a hospitable and friendly place to wandering bands of redskins.

A few miles away to the east flows the Mississippi, formerly one of the great highways for traveling Indian tribes. The "desert" lies just near enough to the river to be easily accessible to friendly tribes, yet far enough away to be hidden from hostile marauders. In the summer time, the sand blows about, the dunes are always shifting and changing. They seem to be moving slowly in an easterly direction.

It is in the western portion of the "desert" that the most numerous indications of an ancient Indian camping ground have been discovered. Here the finer particles of sand, which for many years completely covered the ancient camp site with a thick, sandy blanket, have now been partially blown away. Among the coarser particles of gravel and stone which remain, lie exposed a multitude of evidences of the Redman’s habitation or this desert.

Apparently this identical spot was used for a village site by two or more different and distinct tribes, and, of course, as history and human nature make clear, not at the same time. This is indicated by the fact that at least two distinctly different types of pottery are found, now lying side by side. There are many pieces of strong, thick, well preserved and but slightly ornamented pottery, all made from clay into which has been mixed crushed clam shell. Equally numerous pieces of pottery of an indisputably older type may also be found. These are so old and weather-beaten and fragile that they fall to pieces at the slightest touch.

All of the more ancient pottery vessels are much thinner and more delicate than the later, thicker ones. They are invariably made of clay mixed with crushed granite instead of clam shell. Their form, also, is different, as one can reconstruct the general form from the "turn" of some of the larger pieces, especially the rims. These earliest vessels appear to have been wide mouthed and more nearly straight sided, while those mixed with clam shell were narrow mouthed with curving sides. Both types give evidence of having been well fired. The ancient pottery is nearly all more elaborately designed and decorated than the more recent pots and bowls.

Besides pottery, many flint weapons and implements have recently been discovered on this village site. Since flint is but slightly affected by age and weathering, it is difficult to determine the age of these implements, but no doubt some were made by the ancient tribes and others by the more recent Indians. At any rate, the arrow and spear heads are of many different colors and shapes. One small, perfect arrowhead is of a clear, almost transparent crystal white rock; some are pink; some pure white; one of a blackish stone; some gray, red, smoky blue, and so on. Many of the dozen arrowheads found are small arrow points, which were used for killing game such as quail, squirrel, rabbit and pigeon. These arrowheads were fashioned with skillful workmanship, of many forms and designs.

Among the implements which have been found on the "desert" this summer, besides the arrowheads, have been two medium sized spearheads, one of them red, the other brownish; a large, long-knife made from clear white rock crystal; a two-inch triangular flint scraper or flesher, and a large, oval, stone disc, with serrated edges, nearly eight inches long, which may have been used as a saw, for cutting saplings and poles.

A number of years ago, while walking across the "desert," Ed Sadd, who lives along the Mississippi River Scenic Highway, between Lansing and New Albin, discovered a copper awl about seven inches long and with a diameter about that of a common lead pencil, but tapering at both ends. This rather unusual and interesting example of the metal work of prehistoric Indians is now in the possession of Mr. Ellison Orr, well known archeologist, and president of the Allamakee County Historical and Archeological Society, who lives at Waukon, Iowa.

Besides the above mentioned articles of undoubted prehistoric Indian workmanship, many interesting and curious objects may be picked from among the pebbles of the "desert." Some of these may have been associated with the early Indians of pioneer days; others probably were lost by the pioneers themselves. Among this type of object were found several buckshot, large leaden bullets, clam shells and the bones of various birds, animals and fishes. A long, irregular tube of a material resembling glass also was discovered o protruding from the sand. This object may possibly be a fulgurite or tube of natural glass, formed by the fusing of the sand in the exact spot where it was struck by a bolt of lightning. Had the Indians chanced to come upon this curiosity, no doubt they would have considered it a valuable charm or talisman.

What tribe of Indians first pitched its tepees on this "desert," no one knows, but assuredly the camp site was first used hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ago. Later centuries saw other tribes come and go. It is recorded in history that Little Decorah, a Winnebago chief, established a village near the mouth of the Oneota or Upper Iowa River, in the year 1840. The exact location of this village appears to be in doubt. Perhaps it may have been located in the Sand Cove, which lies near the Upper Iowa and only a few miles from its mouth. If so, the Winnebagoes were the last to build their camp fires upon the sands of the "desert." Now it lies hot and burning under the summer suns, unused alike by red men and white. A gusty wind occasionally shifts a dune or two, and reveals more secrets of ancient days. But, buried deeper yet, under thick layers of white sand, what secrets may not the "desert" conceal?

~Wallaces' Farmer, October 4, 1929, pg. 9-10
~transcribed by Errin Wilker

New Albin Farmers Convert Sand into Fertile Corn Fields
By H.G. (Monk) Tyson, T-H Staff Writer

Sandy soil shown in the top photo can be turned into fertile ground that raises corn like that shown below, farmers in the Sand Cove, near New Albin, Ia., have learned. For many years farmers have produced excellent crops in tis area, comprising approximately two square miles.
(Telegraph-Herald Photos)

Sand is usually considered a source of cement, glass and numerous other materials. But in the Sand Cove area they raise farm crops on it. Careful soil practices in the Sand Cove, an area covering approximately two square miles, have for many years been the watchword of its optimistic farmers. Though experiments have been costly, the present generation has learned much about the peculiarities of the sandy soil.

Thomas and Harry O’Donnell and their nephew, Lawrence Winge, are some of the farmers here who have learned some of the tricks of rotation. Soybeans, corn and oats are their most important crops. While rotation is important on some of their bottom land near a small creek, they have found that no rotation is practical on high ground that is devoted exclusively to soybeans.

500 Acre Farm
Another young farmer in the Sand Cove area is Peter Colsch, whose farm consists of 500 acres. Since he started here five years ago he has learned, among various things, that the depth alfalfa is planted might mean the difference in success and failure. Another alfalfa planting trick involves the time it is planted and condition of the soil, he revealed.

Colsch plants alfalfa at least while those seeds are usually covered with about an inch of dirt on the average field. At one time he experimented by planting a bushel of alfalfa seed on March 19, when frost was still in the ground. As the ground thawed he planted another bushel of seed on March 22, another on March 24, and another on about the last day of the month, after all frost had left the ground.

“I harvested an excellent crop of alfalfa on the ground where I had planted on March 19, when frost was in the ground,” he declared. “The March 22 plot was below average, and as for the later planted alfalfa, I didn’t harvest enough to pay for the seed.” Like other Sand Cove farmers, Colsch plants most of his ground in soybeans. Although his soybeans were below average last year, prospects this year are good, he added.

Soil Building
He said his neighbor, Art Meyer, has also set an excellent example in building up soil in the Sand Cove. Meyer, he added, had spent many days hauling manure to a sandy patch on his farm. The plot, where only sand burrs grew at one time, is now producing corn at a record pace. By accident, Colsch discovered a method that might develop into a soil bonanza on his farm, which is located at the foot of a high hill. While excavating for a culvert on the edge of his soybean field, he threw soil from a lower layer into a pile. At that place, only a few sand burrs had grown in the past. A few days later, he noticed weeds and grass growing on the dark soil from the lower layer. The weeds and grass grew at an amazing pace.

Fertility Layer
“Next time I planted soybeans, I sunk my plow to a depth of about 16 inches and turned up some of that black, sandy dirt,” he said. “I'm still surprised at the way soybeans grew faster on the few rows that were plowed deep. Next year, I'm going to rig up a plow that will go about 20 inches deep. I believe there is enough fertility in that lower layer to produce a record crop.”

~Telegraph-Herald, Dubuque, IA, July 1948
~contributed by Errin Wilker

A Living Desert - 5 Acres is Iowa Version of Sand Environment
by Rita Seymour, Gazette Northeast Iowa Bureau

Clem Colsch, 1995

About five acres of Clem Colsch's farm land south of New Albin in Allamakee County have been tabbed the closest thing to a desert in the state. ~Gazette photo by Rita Seymour

New Albin - So it's another scorching hot day and people want to know if Clem Colsch, 71, feels like he's living in the middle of a desert. The question always generates hearty laughter from those who do the asking, and Colsch, a patient man, says he can appreciate the playful teasing.

That's why he nods and smiles and tries to be a good sport even though he's heard such comments hundreds of times before. Understandably, he said, people are intrigued by the fact he actually does live in a desert - sort of.

About five acres of Colsch's farm land south of New Albin in Allamakee County have been tabbed the closest thing to a desert in the state of Iowa. "If we're going to call it a desert, it needs to be with a small 'd'.

There isn't an official designation of desert," said John Fleckenstein of the Department of Natural Resources. Nevertheless, Fleckenstein said, the Colsch farm - which he himself has visited numerous times - is one of the most extensive areas in the state, "as far as a surfaced area of sand. I've not seen anything like it."

Vegetation is unable to grow on the five-acre site, and, by all accounts, Colsch's land looks and feels like a desert. "On really hot days, you can tell it's even hotter out here in the sand than right over there on the street," says Colsch.

The farm, located on Desert Drive - which is near his home on Sand Cove - has earned Colsch a nickname: Mayor of Sand Cove. "One of the guys in town started calling me that 25 years ago and it just stuck."

Colsch said he considers his farm a true desert and can't remember a day in his 71 years when the five acres was anything but sand. Nevertheless, he doesn't feel famous - "Oh, heck ... no, no, no," he says with a laught - and he finds it interesting that others continue to be intrigued by his desert. Every so often, Colsch said people stop their cars just to gawk. "They just stand there and look at it," he said. "One time, about 40 people from Ames came out here. They were 10 to 70 years old and you know they just stood there and stared. I don't believe they said a word ... just stood and stared like they had never seen anyting like it."

Though his desert has become a tourist attraction, Colsch said it serves just one other purpose: It's a great place for his cattle to stay dry. "My brother in Waukon says he'd like to have a couple acres of this sand for his cattle," Colsch said. "When cows are having calves, it's good for them to be in a dry place."

About the only trouble he's had was several years ago when kids tried to race 3-wheelers through his desert. "The kids love to get in here and play," he said. "But I had to put a stop to it - I put this fence up."

~Cedar Rapids Gazette clipping (included both photos), August 28, 1995, "Iowa Today" section.
~contributed by Audrey (Colsch) Berger, g-granddaughter of Nicholas Colsch


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