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Benton County, Iowa ~ Biography and Family Information

Henry La Tourette

Newspaper Article:
"Recalls Days When Benton Fields Were Literally Alive With Prairie Chickens"
(Special to The Gazette)

Shellsburg, Jan. 27  Henry La Tourette, 77, pioneer dealer in prairie
chickens and veteran grain buyer of Shellsburg, now living with his
daughter, Mrs. Charles McDaniel, 1057 Oakland Avenue, Cedar Rapids,
recently became reminiscent and told of the passing of the prairie
chicken and early grain days in Shellsburg.

   Mr. La Tourette came to Iowa in a covered wagon from Lafayette,
Indiana, with his widowed mother, his sister and brother and a small
company of relatives. They arrived here June 1, 1855 and settled near
Shellsburg. Their home was on an elevation facing the south from which
practically all that could be seen was miles and miles of prairie grass
waving in the wind. The prairie chicken and black rattlesnake were
their nearest neighbors. It was a common sight to see a flock of
prairie chickens rise to fly across the country. As they flew others
would join them until the flock numbered thousands: the flutter of
their wings making a rumbling, swishing sound. The wild chicks thrived
on wheat raised by the early settlers in the month of August thousands
of half-grown chicks weighing from two to three pounds could be seen in
the stubble searching for scattered grain shelled off in the cutting
and binding.

   Hunters from other towns brought their dogs here and in a single
day would kill enough chicks to fill a spring wagon  then their town
neighbors had a treat. Most people blamed the passing of the prairie
chicken to hunting and trapping, but that was not the only cause. The
filling and cultivating of the lowlands and sloughs where the fall
grass grew broke up the nesting places of these fowls.

   Then, prairie fires became more numerous as the population
increased and these fires destroyed thousands of eggs; nests containing
fifteen or sixteen eggs were often found not more than two rods apart.
When the smoke had subsided piles of blackened and cooked eggs
designated the spots where the mother hens had nested.

Used Home Made Traps

   Manufactured traps were not in existence, so home made affairs two
by four feet were built of lath, with a trap door on top to which was
fastened an ear of corn and a weight. As the chicken stepped on the
door it was lowered into the box, then the door swung back into place
to await the next victim. Occasionally the trap became so crowded with
the prisoners they would raise the box from the ground in their efforts
to escape. Decoy fodder shocks were often set up on the prairie where
traps were stationed and the top of a straw stack was an ideal place
for trapping which began in real earnest about 1867, when there sprang
up a market in eastern cities which enabled the shipper to pay from
three to six dollars a dozen. The market held steady and three years
later, Mr. La Tourette began shipping in carload lots. Most of the
consignments were made to Philadelphia and New York. To prepare for
shipment each frozen chicken was wrapped in paper; they were packed in
barrels and headed up. The freight car would be filled to the roof with
these barrels.

   A full sized chicken weighed five or six pounds; the male bird had
a bunch of black feathers on each side of his head, at times these
would stand out; the pouch on his neck would fill with air and he would
strut around like a turkey gobbler with tail feathers spread and making
a sound like distant thunder.

   In 1870 Mr. La Tourette built the first grain elevator in
Shellsburg. It was on the B. C. R. and M. railroad which had just been
laid through the town. He continued in this business thirty-two years,
having made and lost a small fortune during that period. Wheat was the
principal product here, followed by barley, oats and flaxseed. The
virgin soil required a number of grain crops before corn could be
successfully raised. Corn would grow but would not ear. During the
flourishing business years 800 cars of grain were shipped annually,
which is a strong contrast to the 1926 record with shows forty cars
were shipped.

   William D. Worst, well known passenger conductor on the Rock
Island, was a young man holding the position of brakeman on away
freight, during the years of grain prosperity and recalls the almost
daily orders to "set off cars at Shellsburg for Henry La Tourette."

   Older residents can remember when the crash came in 1885. Corn had
become king, and there was a bumper crop. Mr. La Tourette bought
125,000 bushels at 35 cents a bushel. Dozens of temporary cribs were
built south of the track to house the corn. Many were more than a block
long. All fall and winter farmers hauled corn to the elevator.
Sometimes a line two blocks long was waiting to drive on the scales,
all was hustle and bustle. The buyer anticipated an advance in price
and visioned substantial additions to his accounts in the Watson bank
at Vinton and the Bever bank in Cedar Rapids. The winter blizzards had
blown lots of snow into the corn. In February came two weeks of rain
followed by warm weather, fogs and cloudy days, and the corn began to
mold. They began shelling. Soon twenty-four loaded cars stood on the
track. The railroad was powerless to supply an engine to move the cars;
corn began to heat. Knowing delay meant disaster, Mr. La Tourette made
personal appeal to the Burlington railroad officials who gave their
consent for a North Western engine to use their track to Shellsburg. So
a North Western engine moved a train of corn to Chicago. Then came word
from the commission houses to hold future shipments as the corn was not
paying freight charges which were $55 a car. A final check of sales on
the twenty-four cars showed receipts lacking $165 of being enough to
cover the freight bill. The rest of the usable corn was sent to a
distillery at Peoria, and netted the owner 10 cents a bushel. So it
was, that in a few weeks a fortune of $50,000 slipped away.

   When the frame cribs were removed the heavy mold caused the corn to
stand intact; it was set on fire as a means of disposal and smoldered
for six months. The crib lumber was sold for second hand material. Mr.
La Tourette continued to operate on a small scale until 1902 when he
sold to Sam Miller.

   Though practically self-educated, Mr. La Tourette is a fluent and
entertaining conversationalist and is remembered as a leader in the
social life of the community. He still spends a goodly share of his
time in the old hometown. He has held membership in Shellsburg Masonic
Lodge No. 81 A. F. and A. M. for fifty-two years and is the only
survivor of a large class initiated in 1875.

Submitted by Tierney Lynch Ratti, September 2006



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