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.

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Bremer County, Iowa
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Last updated 10/12/13
Pioneer Days of Bremer County -- Chapter I