When The West Was Still Wild

By Lucy E. Curtis 06 May 1959 (Newspaper unknown, possibly Wheatland Gazette)

            When my father, Fuller Bond Curtis, was ten years old his father, Ephraim Curtis, of Lee Center, Mew York State, heeded the admonition of Horace Greeley to “Go west, young man,” and brought his family out to Iowa, settling on a farm about three miles west of the present site of Wheatland.  His deed to this farm was dated March First, 1857, and remained in the possession of the Curtis family until the death of Sarah Mabel Curtis Agnew when it was sold March 1st, 1957.

            Grandfather found no town and no railroad here when he arrived. Although he used oxen on his New York farm he brought none with home.  Instead he raided horses of racing stock, a very profitable adjunct to his cattle and wheat farming.  His cattle were never branded but were marked by an inverted V with a small round hole at the apex in the right ear.  Such a mark could be changed nor obliterated.

            “Wagon roads,” where they existed at all were deep in mud in the spring and during the heavy fall rains, and buried under huge drifts of snow in winter.  There was no paving, and no bulldozers to clear the way.  Roads were in deed in a primitive condition, the route to Davenport, the nearest wheat market, was a mere overland trail.

            Because of being necessarily isolated so much of the time each farm became a little empire in itself.  Farm machinery and tools were scarce and expensive.  Great conservation of them was imperative.  Grandfather’s farm, supported a complete blacksmith shop where horses were shod, machinery and tools repaired and sharpened and otherwise kept in working condition.  Harness was also repaired and new tugs made.  Bullets were molded for the guns and boys learned to shoot at a very early age.  Even the women could use a gun very effectively when occation demanded.

            Grandfather believed that the farm, first of all, should produce the family living.  He soon had a large orchard of fine apple trees, there were cherry and plum trees and many small fruits also flourished and there was a large vegetable garden.  A beautiful maple grove was planted to the west and north of the house and other buildings and furnished a fine windbreak in winter, shade in summer, sap for syrup and sugar and wood for the cook stove.

            Money was “tight” and seldom in hand.  People went to the nearest town to do their weekly or fortnightly trading of farm produce for salt, sugar, coffee, tea, flour, and dry goods, and sundries.  The general store merchants always tucked a bag of candy for the children into the box of groceries.

            Indians and gypsies roamed the countryside stealing corn, chickens, pigs, and anything portable they could lay a hand to.  But a much greater menace was the horse thieves, vicious and dangerous.  Horses then were a very valuable commodity, absolutely necessary to human existence, the only means of transportation except “shankes” pony.  Horses brought a hundred or a hundred and fifty dollars each, a fabulous sum in those days of low process.  A good matched team would sell for five hundred dollars.

            Doctors were scarce and far away.  Humans and animals too were treated very successfully right at home, using age-old-simple and tried remedies.  When cholera threatened to decimate his hog drove.  Grandfather concocted a potion which he put in to their drinking water and save then.  Vaccination was unheard of then. (May 6, 1959)

            As horses increased in value the horse thieves became bolder.  Whenever one was captured it was found impossible to secure a conviction in the Cedar County courts.  In self defense Vigilance Committees were formed, with headquarters at Big Rock, Iowa.  There were not so many honest men in the country then so my father and his pal, Jimmy Calter at the age of fourteen were sworn in as members and took their turn standing guard whenever word would come through the grapevine that the horse thieves were coming.  Good watchdogs were a must, and the guns-shotguns, rifles and revolvers were kept loaded and ready for instant use.

            One night when a thunderstorm was in noisy progress the dogs raised a fuss and Grandfather, Father, and Uncle David, and Uncle George rushed outdoors.  There is a little creek running across the farm near the stables.  Just as the lightening flashed a man was seen jumping across the creek.  Someone fired and the figure disappeared in the darkness.  They raced to the stables and found the horses safe and on Uncle George’s horse was a brand new saddle and bridle.  Although the owner was advertised for and urgently requested to return and claim his property he never did.  In after years when father related this thriller to my young cousins, my sisters and myself, he always ended it by saying, “Why couldn’t they have put the saddle and bridle on MY horse!”

            The Vigilantes finally caught three of the thieves and after an open-air hearing, hanged them to a tree in the woods south of Lowden, as courtroom justice had failed.  It was alleged that the Judge himself was the ringleader of the thieves.  At any rate he left hastily and in the night for parts unknown. None of my relatives were present at the hanging, but years afterwards we children roaming the woods in search of nuts saw the fateful tree on which a plaque explaining the tragic event had been placed and an iron railing erected around it to prevent morbid souvenir hunters from carrying it off piecemeal.

            The tree finally decayed and toppled over.  It was cut up and taken to Lowden for firewood but many superstitious persons refused to burn any of it.

            The vigorous action of the Vigilance Committees soon put the fear of God into the desperadoes, the menace of the horse thieves subsided when such crimes became dangerous and unprofitable so, their mission accomplished, the Committees gradually disbanded while other often with amusing and picturesque names were formed for social purposes. The Wapsie Rangers and the Regulators carried on in Clinton County for a time.

            Education among the early settlers here became of grime importance, schools were soon established, with emphasis on reading, writing and arithmetic, though history and literature were by no means neglected.  Father loved history, he read avidly and coul recite a great deal of “The Lady of the Lake.”  Two young lads in his school whittled out wooden swords and acted out the duel between Fitz-James and Rhoderick.

            In a region so horse conscious, horse shoe throwing was a popular game among the men and boys, riding and racing flourished and for other entertainment there were parties and dances in the homes which the entire family attended.  Baby sitters were unheard of.

            John Bennett, the founder of Wheatland, donated the ground for the Presbyterian Church which was founded in 1858 and the present building, still in active use, erected.  Popular opinion desired the town to be named for its founder, but Mr. Bennett vetoed this, and being a great admirer of President Buchanan whose home in Ohio, was called Wheatland insisted that this town be so named.

            Though it was neither North nor South the Civil War left its impact on this Western Region.  Uncle David at the age of sixteen slipped away and enlisted at Camp Jackson but was soon sent home with a king-sized case of typhoid fever.  There were no sulfa drugs, antibiotics, or penicillin then, only a strong and healthy constitution to pull him through.

            Men were men, and women were women in those days. Girls in blue jeans and flying shirttails were still very much in the future and none but the “painted ladies” wore rogue.  Little children said their prayers at their mother’s knee, and knew the meaning of “No.”  They loved, respected, and obeyed their parents and delinquency was just a word in the dictionary.

            But who would wish to return to the hardships and deprivations of Yesterday though we are eternally grateful for the rugged honesty, strength, courage, and faith in God, which laid a firm foundation for our World of Today.