HARD TIMES IN 1859
The spring of 1859 found the pioneers of Iowa facing hard times, such as they had not heretofore met. The preceding wet year not only destroyed the growing crops, but as I have said, leaky granaries had spoiled nearly all the wheat garnered from the good crop of 1857. What little wheat not spoiled, was used for seed, this leaving only a small amount for bread. Those who had more than enough for seed for their own use generously supplied their neighbors who had none, this they did without considering the prospects of pay. It was a case of all standing together or all starving together. We had reached a period when bread was a serious question with scores of families. Corn had kept better than wheat or oats but there as a scarcity of that article of food. Economy was practiced to the limit for if a crop failure should come that year the wisest person could not tell what would be the result. But by dividing what was available for seed all were able to put in crops on all the tillable land. The season opened auspiciously, and a bumper crop was the prize all over the country. The struggle with most of the people was to tide over from spring until the gardens began to yield supplies. In the interim the faithful cow and hen were indispensible allies. Cornmeal mush and rich milk was a standard diet in every family, and in some the only food, except occasionally on a Sunday wheat bread was served as a luxury, yet all families could not have even that plain and palatable food. The housewives learned the art of making corn bread such as few now know how to do. No people ever worked harder or more anxiously. From dawn to dark they toiled, and watched every plant grow with a lump in the throat for fear some insurmountable turn in their progress might occur, for upon a successful crop hung the future. In short, the crop was a success which insured plenty to eat and revived hopes for the future. Indeed it was the turning point in the history of Iowa, for from that year until this not a backward step has been taken by the grand old state.
To solve the question of sweets, sorghum cane was introduced and planted generously. In the fall, J. M. Moss manufactured all the cane taken to his mill In Waverly, on the place where the Acken brick house now stands, in the northeast part of town. Jim could make good substitute molasses; but did not reach the art of making sugar. But the syrup filled the bill for sweets until better days came. For clothing in these trying days, all wore patched garments, or any old thing, for dress. Good health and grit tided us over, until a change came. But the present citizens and generation can never comprehend the real hardships borne by the pioneers of Bremer county. Those who went thru the days I have mentioned will testify that I have not magnified the trials and hardships.
My regret is so few are left, for as far as I know the survivors can be counted on the fingers of one's two hands. Some have removed to other communities but most of them sleep under the sod of the county they struggled so hard to make great.
My own experiences and struggles are better known by me than that of others and yet my knowledge and observation warranted me in saying, they differed from others only in detail.
I was not nearly so well fixed to maintain such a struggle as some of my neighbors, for they had a reserve to fall back upon while I had only my hands and good health, with a wife and two children dependent upon me. So when you have read my experience you have before you that of scores of others of the pioneers of Iowa. My school closed in early March and at once I began the spring work. I had 60 acres of fine land to plant to crops, but was handicapped for seed. John Wile, a neighbor, and one of the best men I ever knew, divided seed wheat with me so I sowed 20 acres to that crop, 10 acres to oats and reserved 25 acres for com and 5 for potatoes, beans and truck in general. From daylight until dark I worked to get the ground ready for the sowing of small grain which I accomplished in splendid condition. Then I tackled the job of making rails enough to fence a part of the ground, I made about 5000. On my timber tract were 61 large sugar maple trees, which wife and I decided should be used to help us out. I made, with an axe, sap troughs out of basswood trees, spiles out of sumac, all growing among the maples. I improvised a dirt furnace, borrowed three large kettles from my neighbors, and was ready for the manufacture of sugar by the time the sap would flow. I secured four 50-gallon barrels for storing sap, piled up a lot of wood and waited for the season to open. Our house was only a half mile from the timber and my work of making rails was very near the furnace I had built thus it will be seen I had all my work close together. My brave and faithful little wife decided she would move to camp during the day with our two boys, and tend the fires under the kettles.
When the time came I tapped the trees and the sap flowed in bounteous streams. She and the boys came to camp and the sugar making was on. I carried her rocking chair and some blankets to the camp. She kept the kettles roaring, I lugged the sap to the barrels as often as the troughs were filled, kept the wood pile replenished and she kept the fires going. In the intervals I kept at the rail making and by the time the sugar season closed I had all the rails I wanted. To this day is imprinted in my mind the picture of my heroic little wife setting quietly in her rocking chair, her fingers busy knitting stockings for our boys, with one foot she rocked a trough cradle I hewed out of a basswood log, while in it snugly ensconed was our baby boy of five months of age, now Hon. A. B. Lucas, of the Idaho legislature, and editor of the Meadows Eagle, her eyes watching the fires under the kettles. As she rocked back and forth I could hear her singing snatches of old hymns, or a lullaby for the baby. When the fires ran low she would lay aside the stocking, put more wood in the furnace, replenish ·the kettles with fresh sap and then drop into her .chair, pick up the knitting, resume her rocking the trough cradle and resume the singing which seemed to be a part of the play of the drama of life she was acting. Often would she turn her face toward me as I drove the iron wedges and wooden glut thru the big logs, producing rails to fence our field. The picture is crude and may not mean much, or anything, to the reader, but to me it is more attractive and precious than the best one ever painted upon the canvass by Angelo, Raphael or any other artist of fame or renown. It is a reminder of our mutual efforts to get a start in life. It is a reminder of the heroism of a plain and earnest woman to win a home and its comforts. Never a complaint or a sign of surrender to the difficulties with which we were contending. In the after years as we recounted our struggles we would end it all by agreeing that hard as they were, the happiest day of our lives were those which at the time seemed the darkest. Within a mile or so of the scene of what I have described she rests, awaiting a more "abundant life." To me the shrine of her rest is a sacred one and to it I bound by a golden thread of affection. The result of our sugar making was, we put away more than 300 pounds of grained sugar and 50 gallons of molasses. Later I traded 50 pounds of sugar to W. P. Harmon for 200 pounds of his best wheat flour and 50 pounds of buckwheat flour. From that day ever afterwards the spector of hunger and want disappeared from our home.
What happened.to us substantially happened to all our neighbors, while they did not make sugar, they did something else as valuable to help them in the way of prosperity and security against want. Here for the benefit of the fisherman in the Cedar river I will tell a fish story. Our house was located about fifteen rods from the bank of the river which was swarming with fish. I kept a rod and fish line resting against the stable. When we wanted a fish for dinner I would come from the field a half hour or so early, put out my team, grab the fish pole, strike for a deep hole in the river nearby, and as I went, pick up a grasshopper or two, of which there were plenty, bait the hook and when I reached the "hole,'' cast the line, haul out a fish. If it was a black bass of about two pounds, would strike for the house, if it happened to be a pike, pickerel or small bass, cast it back and reach for one of my choice. Rarely did I fail to get what I wanted on the second trial. We were such epicures we spurned all but black bass. In about fifteen or twenty minutes from the time I started for the river, a royal fish would be in the pan. I never thot then fish would be scarce in the Cedar. "Dutch" John Smith had a good deal to do with clearing the fish out of the river, for I suppose he caught more fish out of the Cedar than any one man in Bremer county, and he could catch fish when the ordinary .man could not get a nibble.
The very big crop of the fall of 1859 was a problem to the farmers because of no market. Many hauled loads of wheat to Dubuque, but thirty-five or forty cents was all they could get for it, and that in store pay, as no cash entered into such deals.
Theodore Hazlett conceived the project of feeding a bunch of cattle, and rented a part of the Hess farm, south of town, now known as the George R. Dean place (now W. W. Brooks), for feeding grounds. He had trusted about everybody during the hard times. To collect some of the sums 'due him he advertised to take cattle and hogs as well as corn, paying the difference in goods out of his store. In this way he assembled more than a hundred head of cattle and as many hogs. Corn poured in on him until he had to cut off all purchases and confine himself to his debtors. This enterprise of Mr. Hazlett enabled scores of people to pay their debts and get something besides for their surplus. It was the first thing of the kind ever attempted in Bremer county and resulted in relieving the farmers of debts and enabling Hazlett to collect long standing accounts. He had been a benefactor to the people; for he trusted people in distress when nobody else could do so, even if willing. I hauled 400 bushels of corn to his feed yards and paid a fifty dollar debt and got ten dollars' worth of goods from his store. It was the best thing that had struck the country for it was a home market. Scores of men paid debts and had corn, as well as cattle and hogs left. Mr. Hazlett did well with his fat cattle which were driven on foot to Dubuque, sold there and shipped to the Chicago market, the first products of Bremer county to enter the stock market.
Last updated 10/1/2015
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