MORE ABOUT THE HARD WINTERS, AND SOME OTHER THINGS
To begin with, I shall rely upon any and all the living old settlers who passed thru those days as corroborating witnesses. If some of the events have faded from their recollection, when they read what I say I am certain they will recall the incidents very clearly and as fresh as if it was only last year they had the experiences.
I say I am certain they will recall the incidents very clearly and as fresh as if it was only last year they had the experiences.
The winters of 1855-56 and 1856-57 were the most severe and ' savage ones Iowa ever had in her history and the people were the least prepared to meet such hardshipi; as were forced upon them.
Prior to the winter of 1855-56 deer were plentiful, many herds existing· in or near the different groves or in the woods bordering the rivers, but after the spring, 1856, there were but few left.
During December, 1855, the snow had fallep. to a great depth and in January it became crusted just enough that it would not carry the deer, and in jumping in: the snow their limbs became quite sore so that when they had broken a path they refused to yield the right of way to the settlers and would put up a fight rather than leave the beaten path. Many of them were killed with clubs. Often the deer were slaughtered just for their hides. So reckless was the killing that when the spring of 1856 me, there were but few left, as stated before.
The winter of 1854-55 was a remarkably mild and pleasant one. Not very much snow fell and the temperature rarely fell below zero. In the timber the ground was not frozen hard enough to prevent the limba of falling trees from digging up fresh and unfrozen earth. The mildness and the beauty of that winter led the people to believe that they were located in a banana belt, and the story they told to new-comers misled them and put them at ease to climatic conditions. The result was that in their exceeding haste and anxiety to get homes built and preparations made for the coming year, to open up farnis, they did not make preparations to meet a hard and long winter. For it must not be forgotten that the country was a wilderness of expansive prairies, and all over them were dotted settler' homes built during the summer. Of course, they were crude and primitive in form and construction. The one thing that was plenty was hay. Most of the settlers were miles from timber, but because of the mild winter the year before, little attention was given to providing a good-sized wood-pile, for they reasoned that the matter of fuel would be about the only thing they would have to 13ok after during the winter, and that wouW be more of a picnic than a hard ship. Therefore, every day was used to complete the houses, to build sheds for their stock, and tidy up things about the home. About the middle of December, what is now denominated a blizzard swept over the whole northwest, preceded by a heavy and deep fall of snow.
The temperature dropped to 10 and 20 below zero, and the high winds drifted the snow, so all the low places were filled to a common level. When the storm subsided, the temperature rose above the freezing point for a day or so, which was followed by a light fall of warm rain. At the cessation of the rain, suddenly a drop of the ·temperature followed and froze the snow hard to the earth. The whole country was covered by a crust of hard snow, or ice, so that from that time till March, 1857, teams of all sorts travelled on a smooth, hard surface. The snow was deep enough, before freezing, to cover over all the fences, so people travelled on air lines. My father kept a thermometer hanging on the outside of the house, and a record of the temperature, which showed that for the last part of December, all of January and February, the temperature remained about zero, or below as far as 30 degrees all those days. One storm after another followed until about the last of February. The country was sparsely settled, houses far apart. It is a fact that many of the women did not see a neighbor woman for weeks at a stretch, and some who lived remote from neighbors did not see a woman outside of the family for three months. The savage winter discouraged many people and they repented of having come to the arctic regions. When spring came, in early May, many loaded up and lef t the country. About all who had not bought land left. Those who had started their homes decided to try the climate another year, and went to work with a vim that caused them to forget their trials, for the spring opened up fine, even if it was late. The crops in 1857 were fine; even sod planting yielded good crops.
That spring thousands of acres of prairie land were broken up, and in the fall the whole aspect of the country was changed, and the real foundation for the greatness of Bremer county was laid. One very noticeable thing was the planting of trees. Every farmer planted cottonwoods, and in five years tall groves were in evidence as far as the eye could see.
My father was reared in the forests of Ohio, and had a firm belief that a country Without trees was a failure. When he started from Indiana in the spring of 1856, he had an old-fashioned Pennsyl vania wagon with box bed that was about four feet deep. In it were stored plows, hoes, etc., with household articles. Among other things were two flour barrels filled with black walnuts, to be planted when he got a farm. On reaching the Cedar Valley and finding as fine walnut trees as he· had lef t in the Hoosier state, he was surprised, and his five boys had their own sport over "Dad's" "carrying coal to Newcastle." When we rallied him about the two barrels of walnuts he retorted, "These are not as good as mine are." He planted ten acres north and west of the old home, and in a few years he had a complete shelter from the northwest winds. With the walnuts he planted many forest trees taken from the banks of the Cedar river. The timber lot grew so dense it formed a harbor for rabbits, and they, in turn, peeled his fruit trees he had set in the protected space, until war was declared on the cotton-tails.
The great big wagon I mentioned above was hauled by five yoke of oxen all the way from Indiana, across Illinois, and from Davenport, where we crossed the "Father of the Waters," north to Waverly. The lead and wheel yokes were well broken, while the three middle yokes were young and wild fellows. To myself was assigned the job of driving this team and hauling what we boys called "Dad's ,steamboat ." For the first three or four days my outfit used all the road; sometimes I had a yoke of the youngsters down and dragged them, sometimes they would both be on the same side of the lead chain, and occasionally the yoke would get turned from the top of their necks to the bottom. But I soon learned to keep at a safe distance from the seething mass of young steers, for they had no respect for their drivers, and their driver had mighty little respect for them. On one occasion in a muss I had with them in a muddy flat in Cedar county (one' that was nearly impassable), I got tangled up in an effort to get one of the rebellious youngsters onto his feet to save him from drowning, I forgot that mother was in the carriage near by, a spectator of the struggle, and I swore in desparate earnest. Dear mother was so shocked that she reproved me, much to my chagrin. But at this time dad came to my relief and said, "Let him alone, Nancy, it is enough to make anybody swear to see oxen act so." But I got out safe and so did the ox, tho both of us were a mass of black mud.
The flat I speak of was about a mile wide and every immigrant who came that road had an experience in "Mud Flata." When we reached it about noon I am certain that there were at least fifty teams of all sorts, waiting to pass thru. A couple of men who lived nearby each had two yoke of strong, sturdy oxen, and they did a big business "ferrying teams over," for which they charged five dollars a trip. After I landed our party on high ground, I put my wild fellows into the work, and before I let them rest I had them tame and quite decent oxen. I pocketed twenty-five dollars for the afternoon's work, and best of all, I had good young oxen ever after that day. Some three or four years afterward I met a Mr. Wheeler, who lived on the Shell Rock river, near Waverly. He looked right at me and said, "Aren't you the young chap who pulled immigrants across 'Mud Flat' in Cedar county?" On being assured that I was the chap, he said, "I thought so, you pulled my load thru that mud hole." Ever after we were well .acquainted. He was the father of O. Wheeler, who lived in Waverly the last time I heard of him. Mr. Wheeler delighted in talking about the experience. He had a heavy load and only one small yoke of oxen, so he could not travel as fast as we did, but it proved he was headed for the same section as we were, and by chance we met years afterward to go over the incident.
Going back to our arrival in Bremer county, father decided to go into camp at Janesville long enough to look for a farm, which he did, and finally purchased the SW1/4 of Section 18, in Lafayette township, and located there and spent the winter of 1856-57 in a log house he built during the summer. I quit the ox driving business, and the second day after our arrival at Janesville I hired out to work for Matthew L. Stewart for a month on his farm and at his lime kiln in the Big Woods, near where Nick Kern had located. Mr. Stewart and his family were excellent people, and he was specially my friend as long as he lived. I never forgot his kindness and good advice. In our case one of those opportunities offered by which I was able to return in a small way a favor to him. In 1883 I went to Dakota, which was a wilderness of prairie. Thousands .of settlers covered the country on homesteads to make homes. Among others M. L. Stewart and his good wife were numbered. He located in Buffalo county, on the borders of an Indian reservation. Much of the land along the border was in the zone of disputed titles, and upon a quarter section of it Mr. Stewart had been located by an unscrupulous locator. For three years or so no question was raised by the Indian department as to titles.
Mr. Stewart had improved his land, built good buildings, and was dreaming of comfort and pleasure in his old age. Suddenly an order was issued for the abdication by the settle from all such disputed title land, which meant loss if not ruin to many of them. I was located at Chamberlain, in the next county south of Buffalo, and engaged in the locating and contesting business, in which I had a large practice.
I had not seen Stewart for a good many years and supposed, whenever I thought of him, that he was yet on the old homestead where I first knew him.
One evening he and Mrs. Stewart dropped into the hotel where I lived then and inquired for me. I heard his voice as he talked with the landlord, and instantly knew who he was. He told me his troubles and said, "I want help, or I am ruined." Fortunately, I was very familiar with the law and the practice in that class of cases. Suffice it to say, Matt won his case, and held his farm until his death.
The queer part of the story is how the whirligig of time brings about strange and unexpected things in our lives. Bread cast upon the waters often brings us to rich returns. He had done many favors for me when I was a boy trying to get a start in life, and he did so without the hope or expectation of fee or reward. This incident offered me the opportunity to repay him in a slight degree for his kindness.
The bond between the pioneers was a strong and unselfish one and could always be relied upon to furnish aid to one another when in need of help. --But I must go back to early days in Bremer county.
Last updated 10/1/2015
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