HARMON MILLER CONTRIBUTES INTERESTING EXPERIENCES OF HIS BOYHOOD AND EARLY DAYS IN BREMER COUNTY
THE FIRST trip I made to Bremer county was with my parents, May 20, 1855. Our household goods were hauled from Dubuque by team. We bought the home of John Miles, a log house and a barn. We were never able to find among the transfer papers a blueprint of the house; the contractor may have it. I will give you some of the items of building material used in the rough log house, 16x24: Red elm joints in lower floor and same in upper floor; round logs, 8 inches in diameter, puncheon floor and shake roof. Perhaps I had better explain the floor and roof covering more fully for the benefit of young people. A puncheon floor is made from nice, second-growth bass-wood logs, 10 to 12 inches in diameter, split thru the center, with the round side at the ends sized down to three inches, and laid face side up on the pole joist. Shakes were made from nice straight-grained red oak logs, 2 to 3 feet in diameter, sawed in cuts 3 feet long and split in quarters, and with the use of a tool called a frow, these quarters were split in pieces inch thick by whatever width the block would make. The lower end of the shake rested on the top side wall log. The logs in the gables were beveled to a one-fourth pitch. Logs running lengthwise of the house were notched down to an even surface with the gables; this not only acted as a support to the gables, but being 21h feet apart, made a perfect bearing for the shakes, giving them a 6-inch lap. After shakes were laid, heavy green logs were placed over each row, and with wooden pins were fastened. It was a common occurence for snow to sift thru this roof onto your bed and into your hair. The cracks between the logs were first filled with split pieces of wood, according to size; the walls both inside and outside were pointed with wet clay, mixed with straw as a binder. The logs on all four sides of the house, as well as the roof logs, were not uniform in length; there were logs on all four corners projecting from 8 to 24 inches—very handy to hang a dressed hog on. On the outside this home presented anything but an inviting appearance, but it was our home for three years.
My father, John Miller, was the first justice of the peace in Lafayette township. The first couple he pronounced man and wife were William Payton and Miss Wood, and it was the first wedding I ever attended. Mr. Wood will be remembered as the first man to settle on the farm now owned by Otto Walther.
The first strangers that called on us were the Layton family. They had three covered wagons, prairie schooners, loaded with household effects, a crate of poultry, etc. Bedding was carried from the wagons to the house, where the women slept, while the men bunked in the wagons. The following day they reached their destination, New Bradford (not Old). Mrs. Hannah Medders, of our city, will, no doubt, remember the circumstance, as she was a member of the family.
The first justice court I attended was in the log house in 1855. Edward Parkhurst, living at Spring Lake, had a misunderstanding with his hired man relative to the price of a two-year-old heifer that the hired man was to take as part payment for his labor, and suit was brought before my father. This being the first lawsuit in the township, quite an interest was taken. The plaintiff and the defendant, with their witnesses, were on hand by 9:00 a. m. George W. Ruddick and G. C. Wright were the attorneys, and at that time both were single men. Wright called me to one side and said he would give me five cents if I would gather a pint of strawberries for him. I was 61/2 years old and it was the first opportunity I had ever had to earn five cents. Strawberry season was nearly over and the berries were hard to get. There were patches of hazel brush dotted promiscuously over the pasture, and around the border of these patches a few deep red or purple berries could be found. By noon I had a pint cup rounding full, and delivered it to Mr. Wright. He shoved his hand into his pants pocket and pulled out a handful of silver coin, but nothing smaller than a 25-cent piece, and you can imagine my feelings when he said he would hand it to me some other time. Four years after that, on the way to town with my mother, we met Mr. Wright, and I proposed asking him for the money. My good mother said, "No, if he isn't than enough to pay you, you are man enough to get along without it." Now, kind readers, if you obligate yourself to a child in any way, especially in the way of a monetary consideration, don't betray him, for while he lives he won't forget it. G. C. was naturally a good-hearted man, and, no doubt, forgot the five cents.
In the summer of 1856, the first frame schoolhouse was built in East Lafayette, which was all in one district. The directors were Darias Freeman, Edward Tyrrell, and John Miller. Freeman had the only frame house in the district, and lived on the farm now owned by G. G. Lindner. Mr. Tyrrell improved the farm now owned by John Donlon. The new schoolhouse was 30x42 feet, one-story, with ten windows having twelve 9x12 lights in each.
The first and most appreciated gift I ever received was from John Worthington, a good old uncle of Will and Charley Tyrrell and Mrs. James Conner. My father had only 15 acres of land broken, with a shanghai fence around it, and we raised 10 acres of corn on the Worthington farm, now the N. B. Marsh place. We were entitled to pasture the corn stalks, and it was my duty to drive our cow and yearling heifer to the stalk field each morning. I had no shoes, and the mornings were frosty. I would run out, start the cattle, stand in their warm nest with my bare feet until they were nearing the Worthington home, then run as fast as I could thru the glistening frost, open and close the bars, and then run and stick my feet under Aunty Worthington's stove. While I warmed my feet the kind old lady would give me a full slice of bread, with a first coat of golden yellow home-grown butter, and a second coat of extra C sugar. If you were ever a boy of 61/2 years, you can imagine how thankful I was. It was, I think, on the third morning, and there was more frost than usual, when Uncle John, having finished his breakfast, said to me, "My lad, it's pretty cold for bare feet. I have a pair of kip boots a little tight for me, and if you like, I will give them to you." The boots were thankfully received; I put them on and went home, the proudest lad that ever trod the soil of Lafayette township.
The first teacher we had in the new schoolhouse (in the winter of 1856) was a young man by the name of Bruer, from Vermont. He was a high-stepper and a genteel good-looker, and had all the ear-marks of a first-class dude. He was hired to teach the school four months at $16.00 a month, and "board around" among the scholars, the length of time at each home to be in proportion to the number of scholars from that home. Notwithstanding the fact that our log but was only 60 rods from the schoolhouse, Bruer boarded at Freeman's, John Elliott's, Geo. B. Miller's, Elias Wright's, and Harris Wallace's, all from to 11/2 miles away. These houses were all either frame or hewn logs, with sided gables, had shingle roofs, and presented a much better appearance than ours. My mother had sent Bruer different invitations to come to our house and board whenever it suited his convenience. She had learned that Bruer had made inquiries relative to our neatness and qualifications. I went home each noon to dinner, so he had no way of knowing whether we had ANYTHING to eat or not. The last invitation sent to him was just three weeks prior to the close of the term. He came home with me from school, stepped inside the cabin, cast his eyes to the whitewashed ceiling and walls, and remarked, "Your house is like a singed cat—better than it looks." He sat down to supper. I watched him closely; he ate four biscuits, a dish of home-made maple syrup, seven slices of home-made dried beef, a piece of raspberry pie, a dish of crabapple sauce lubricated with sugar and rich, sweet cream, and drank two cups of tea. I began to think the cooking suited him. When breakfast was ready, he was on hand and ate nine large, light, fluffy home-grown buckwheat cakes, with home-made sausage made from a 3-inch strip along either side of the backbone (including the tender loin, with other choice parts of the hog, seasoned with pepper, salt and sage, such as "mother used to make." He then started to school to look after the sweeping and the fire. I told my mother not to worry, he had a change of heart, and was coming to his appetite. After Bruer became accustomed to the ways and habits of the wild west he became sociable, and an all-around good fellow. He boarded at our house the rest of the term.
The large boys hauled and chopped wood on Saturdays for the winter's fuel. In this list were Butler, Alzathan and John Freeman, Frank and Nicholas Tyrrell, Joseph and Thomas Brown, Ben Skillen, J. M. Miller, John Walter, Joseph Campbell, Hugh Elliot and a man named Hill; and of the older girls there were Eveline, Mary, Phoebe and Permelia Wright, Mary and Mariah Brown, Mary Skillen, Jane Tyrrell, Elizabeth Miller, Mary Ann Baker, Mary Freeman, Lucretia and Jane Elliot. At the close of school an exhibition was given, a large stage having been erected, equipped with sliding curtains. By 8 o'clock p. m. the house was filled and standing room was at a premium. People came from miles around. There were speaking, dialogs, clog and jig dancing, and Ben Skillen represented a hardshell Baptist preacher, in his sermon, his attire, and his gestures, to a T. At the close the school "spelled down." Mary Skillen was the last to remain standing and she spelled ten additional words correctly and then took her seat.
Two boys north of Horton, whose names b do not recall, arranged with Charley Morris that the three couples would all go to the entertainment by the same conveyance. Morris and his lady were waiting at the roadside, and when the team came near, the whip was applied, the two couples drove on and left Morris and lady. Morris offered to hire a rig, if it cost ten dollars, rather than be disappointed. The lady said, "No, I don't care to associate with people so utterly devoid of principle, but you go and get even with them, if it takes you a year." Morris took a five-mile hike and was on the school ground within an hour and a half. All were interested in the program, so Morris unsnapped the lines, drew them from the harness of the Horton lad's team, tucked them under his coat and followed the back-track until opposite the James Andrews home, thru the yard, out into a cornfield, up a tree and tied the lines in the branches. He then returned to the schoolhouse. When he entered he noticed a broad smile on the faces of his betrayers. All went well until the close of the program, when the boys missed the lines. A hasty search was made thru the woodpile, but in vain. At that time fence wire and binding twine were not known, and slippery elm bark was frozen so hard it wouldn't peel. The mercury stood 15 below, the horses were cold and anxious for home. The departure of other teams made the animals almost unmanageable. So the boys each mounted a horse and rode them home. Morris had jumped into the sleigh, seated himself between the two ladies, adjusted the lap-robes and rode to his destination. He then thanked the girls for their company and the boys for their courteous treatment, and told them that when they had occasion to use the lines they could find them five miles south by sixty rods west, in the top of an oak tree on the Andrews farms The last time I saw Morris he told me it took ten years to get the sweet taste of revenge out of his mouth.
In the year 1867 the first sawmill was built in Lafayette township. The owners were Dr. Oscar Burbank and James Moss. Mr. Moss was the first settler on the place now owned by Geo. Leonard, of our city. The mill was operated by water power, an up-and-down saw, a pole and brush dam, located at a place called Yell City. The mill, the dam and the city have been gone for 55 years, and only an occasional yell is left. There was but very little lumber sawed at this mill. It was, I think, in 1860 that the river, during the spring freshet, cut a new channel to the east and left the old mill site, so far as water power was concerned, bone-dry.
In the fall of 1860, Geo. C. and Win. Stevenson made a proposition to the log cabin proprietors of Lafayette township that if the citizens would guarantee the delivery of 500 saw logs on the C. S. Colton timber lot by the first of February, 1861, the Stevensons would move their steam sawmill from Greenwood, Chickasaw county, to Lafayette township. A meeting was called and after the object of the meeting was announced, the 500-log contract was signed by all parties within an hour. Of the signers of the contract, but two are living—C. S. Colton, of our city, and Philip Cave, of Waterloo.
At that time there was no bridge spanning the river in that vicinity, there were no railroads in the county, and no truck wagons strong enough to carry a 120-horse-power boiler. But the Stevensons were mechanics and equal to the occasion. A large raft was constructed, the boiler was rolled onto the raft, and floated down the river during the spring freshet; and by the aid of boats and pike poles the raft was towed in and along a bayou to within 40 feet of its destination. A skidway was built and with the aid of a large block and falls, the boiler was rolled from the raft onto its foundation, and within ten days the mill was ready for business. When the first log was rolled onto the carriage to saw, there were 1200 logs in the mill yard. The mill did a good business and within three years the farmers that had opened up their farms had good frame houses and barns.
My father died in the spring of 1860, leaving my mother with five children to care for; I was eleven years old. At that time hogs at $1.75 per cwt., wheat at 40 cents a bushel, butter at 6 cents a pound, eggs at 4 cents a dozen, and wool at 18 cents a pound made it hard for us to keep the wolf from the door. The wool we had to spare was sold to 0. A. Strong, then in business in Cedar Falls. We bought a double-shovel corn plow, the first one I ever saw, and with it I raised seven acres of nice corn.
The first circus I attended in Waverly was 57 years ago this summer. I sold a dog pup for 35 cents, paid cash for a ticket, and went to the show. I had but one objection to the performance; it didn't last long enough.
The first girl I asked for her company home- from singing school said she had rather be excused, and I very reluctantly granted the excuse.
The first dozen eggs I sold went to Theodore Hazlett for 4 cents. I took a hank of black thread for 5 cents and went home 1 cent in debt. He asked me how many hens we had. I told him thirty. He told me to feed them flaxseed and run them up hill and I would get mare eggs. I went barefoot at the time, and I loosened a plum stub in a cow path, or a toe nail occasionally, and sometimes both, stuck thorn apple brads in the bottoms of my feet, and had an occasional boil, and I came to the conclusion that flaxseed was worth more to me as a poultice than as an egg-producer, so I did not use Mr. Hazlett's recipe.
The first live hogs we sold were driven to Janesville on foot, price $1.75 per cwt. These hogs were fed, watered and rested over and the following day were driven on to Cedar Falls, the then terminal of the I. C. railroad.
The first dozen of nicely dressed rabbits I sold went to John Dunn, price 25 cents in trade. Dunn had a one-story building standing on the corner now occupied by Mr. Sohle as a grocery store.
The first good, sound thrashing I got in school was given me by a man named McCord. He would come out on Monday mornings from Waverly, and bring a hickory switch about six feet long. Asel Wollis and the writer got into a punching match one day, and both were immediately "pinched" by the school master. We were asked what our plea would be. Wollis pleaded "not guilty" and I "self defense." Both were over-ruled and we got the full extent of the law and the full force and effect of the gad.
The first melon I stole was from Millard Potter. He had fastened a double-barreled shotgun to stakes in the patch, and a complete net-work of twine ran thruout the patch and fastened to the triggers of the gun, so that the least disturbance of the twine would discharge the gun. The boys from Lafayette considered this a challenge, and we formed a company of sixteen—no trouble to get volunteers. Matt Walter was a captain and William Breneber 1st lieutenant. Breneber lived in a log house out on the road, on the farm now owned by E. S. Weikert. We traveled across lots to avoid suspicion. Our captain halted us near the danger zone, and he, being not only a brave man but an old nimrod, slipped carefully over string after string, until he reached the breech end of the gun, grasped both gun locks in one hand and with the other removed both the gun caps, lowered the locks on the tubes, and quietly announced that the melon was ready to cut. We carried two grain sacks full of melons away without the loss of a man. We learned later that the gun was really intended for George Hunt, Henry Cretzmeyer and the Hullman boys.
The first apple I stole was from the first tree in bearing on the first farm opened in East Lafayette, owned by Henry Wollis, now a part of the Ohlendorf farm. There were thirteen fine apples, an unlucky number. Wollis was so anxious to bring these apples to maturity that he guyed the tree in four directions with cords. His boy Asel and I were equally anxious to sample the first-grown fruit. Young Wollis was not permitted to go near the tree. When the apples were nearly matured and of a deep red color and glistened in the sun, they would make any boy's mouth water. Young Wollis arranged for me to get two of the apples, one for each of us. My signal was that when the woodhouse door closed the dog would be shut in and Mr. Wollis at the supper table. I got two of the apples and gave Asel one. We both pronounced them A-1, but we did not mention their good qualities to the owner.
The first lady teacher we had in the district was Dora Downing. She taught a splendid school, and being an expert musician, taught numerous classes in music. She had a musical instrument of the melodian family, that was called a seraphine, and she gave her scholars a party and a musical at the close of the term. Dora was a sister of Fred Downing, and later became Mrs. H. L. Ware, the mother of Mrs. E. A. Dawson. Fred remarked recently that he would give a good deal for that old musical instrument as a relic.
The first and most enjoyable dance I attended was when I was 16 years old, and the affair occurred at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Levi Nichols. The lady who had refused my company one year before was my partner—must have changed her mind. At no other home in Bremer county at that time (nor since, as long as the host and hostesses lived) were people, young and old, more welcome or more royally entertained than at the home of Levi and Clarissa Nichols.
Three couples of us started for the dance in a sleigh, and while stuck in a snowdrift, the off horse broke a singletree, which was mended with a piece of hickory and the two rum straps. We got there a little late. A large crowd had gathered. We noted exceptionally broad smile on everyone's face. We soon learned the cause. A lady from somewhere in Iowa was there, the owner and possessor of a monstrous bustle, direct from Paris—the only one I ever saw, dead or alive. The gyrating by the owner in round dances and the right and left angles in the old square dances were amusing to us in those days. Finally, a good-natured cuss weighing about 200 pounds secured an introduction to the girl and invited her to dance. In the promenade her feet touched only the high places, and in the last change, which was lively, and while "promenading seats," the bustle lost its balance, left its moorings, struck on its rim, and rolled at a 2:40 clip across the hall toward the music stand. Sighting it with his eagle eye, Joe Russell sprang to his feet, pounded vigorously on the back of his violin and, at the top of his voice, shouted, "Runaway! Runaway! Clear the track! Clear the track!" Mrs. Nichols, who was nearby, seized a shawl, and smothering the bustle in its folds, hastened with it to the ladies' room. Mrs. Nichols immediately passed the supper plates in order to aid in allaying the mortification; then we danced a few more changes and went home.
The first Fourth of July celebration I attended was in a beautiful oak grove, on the farm now owned by Paul Mether. The settlers at that time lived along the edge-of the timber, on either side of the Shell Rock, the Cedar and the Wapsipinnicon. They came by ox and horse teams from Bremer and Butler counties. All the men brought their guns. William Mooney and Geo. B. Miller furnished the anvils. The men would form in line and, at the command of their captain, would fire volley after volley from their guns. The crack of firing pieces mingled with the roar of anvils kept up at intervals during the day.
The Declaration of Independence, as I remember, was read by Ben Skillen.
The uplifting and soul-cheering strains of martial music filled the air. A 35-foot pole swing was constructed, with box seat and foot rest. Two -cook stoves were set up, both ovens filled with roasting beef. On the top of one stove were cooking two wash boilers full of pared potatoes, and on the other four skillets kept busy frying eggs and smoked ham. By this time a large crowd had gathered—everybody glad to see everybody else. There were no family troubles; every man thought more of his own wife than of his neighbor's wife. There was only one grade of society, and that was the very best. Two tables 80 feet long had been constructed of posts and poles covered with boards. The good mothers brought dishes and table cloths. When the tables were loaded with good things to eat, boy-like I walked down the line, and I noticed pieplant, pumpkin, gooseberry, strawberry, blackberry, black and red raspberry pies, strung out down the center line of the tables, about three feet apart and cut in quarters. Some people think one must live near a grocery, a bakery and a meat market to get good things to eat; but give me the farm table. I have tried both. Among the various kinds of meat at that old celebration there were 10 smoked hams produced from hogs fed on roots, herbs, nuts and sweet bur-oak acorns, with a little corn, and smoked over a smudge of shell-bark hickory bark to a golden brown. When sliced and fried they had a flavor rich enough to flood with saliva the mouth of a Jewish rabbi.
Last updated 4/14/15
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