Fremont County, Iowa

Aunt Dora's Memoirs

by Jerry Birkby

View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
Week of February 17, 2004

Evelyn Birkby called me, the other day, and said there was a shortage of "View From The Attic" columns and it was time for me to get off my lazy--. Well, she didnít phrase it in quite that manner, but I am attuned to tone and inference so that is what I heard. She also suggested Aunt Dora Birkbyís Memoirs would be a good subject.

When one is born late in life to someone who was the tenth of eleven children, he is bound to wind up with a good many aunts and uncles and even a few cousins that he does not remember at all. So it is with my Aunt Dora. She was born August 7, 1880 and died sometime in the late 1920ís or early 1930ís in California. She was born with three fingers of her right hand webbed together which left her slightly handicapped and she also seemed to have been highly intelligent. Perhaps for these reasons she was the only one of Thomas Birkbyís children to attend college.

In reading these memoirs, I am always struck by the prices she quotes. Having said that, I will let Dora speak for herself. Jerry Birkby


Memories of the Daughter of a Mid-West Farmer

My father, Thomas Birkby, eldest son of Captain John Birkby of Pontefract, England, and Elizabeth Pinder of London, was born at Leeds, England in 1837. The following year, the family sailed from Liverpool, and after a stormy voyage of six weeks, arrived in New York. After residing in New York for one year, they again set sail and after seven weeks arrived in New Orleans where they took a steamboat up the Mississippi to St Louis, and thence traveled by stage to Jacksonville, Illinois which was my fatherís home until his mid-twenties.

My mother, Mary Courtney, daughter of James Courtney of Kentucky, and Lily Bowen of Virginia, was born in Macoupin County, Illinois in 1843, her parents being farmers.

My parents were married in 1864, at the famous old Planterís Hotel in St Louis, and immediately boarded a steamboat going up the Missouri River to St Joseph, Missouri and then took a stage from St. Joseph to Fremont County, Iowa, to the farm that was their home so many years, and where I was born one Saturday morning, in 1880, on a hot August day. I was the eighth child of my parents, there being eleven of us, two dying in infancy. My parents had brought some money from Illinois to make a first payment on their new home. This money, a thousand-dollar bill, the bank and merchants of Sidney refused to have anything to do with as they had never seen a bill of so large a denomination and were afraid it was counterfeit. A couple of strangers in town followed my father from place-to-place offering suggestions until he became suspicious of them and, on the advice of friends, remained in town overnight.

Our first farm contained one hundred and seven acres which was purchased on September 10, 1864 for $1,200. One hundred acres were added on February 26, 1872 for $330 and Forty acres on November 10, 1875 for $280.

Our house, as I first remember it, consisted of one big room and a lean-to on the East for a kitchen. It was built of logs chinked with mortar of sand and clay. Our furniture was two beds with ticks filled with straw for sleeping, a day bed, some stool bottom chairs and a big heating stove with drum. Our most prized possession was an old Singer sewing machine. In our kitchen was another bed, a big Bismark cook stove, a wood box, a twelve-foot solid walnut dining table and kitchen utensils. This room had two small windows and an outside door which was almost level with the ground. My sister and I used to amuse ourselves on rainy days when our parents were out of the room by leaning out of this door and catching raindrops in our mouths.

About 1870, Father built a new barn to replace an old hay shed that had taken the place of a stable. This barn was neat and most wonderful to us children. It had places we could build our playhouses and it had cost $1,000, an immense sum in our childish minds.

The lumber was native sawed and all the big timbers were hued from logs and held together with wooden pins. The first story was built of brick with a row of stalls across each end and a large hallway in the middle. A stairway led from the hallway to the floor above where there were corn, oat and wheat bins and chutes leading to the lower floor to carry hay and grain to the horses. This floor was a big, roomy place and had a driveway graded up to it in the rear. Father often stored his buggy and farming tools on this floor.

The haymows were on the third floor and high up in the eaves were poles on which the ears of seed corn selected for the next yearís crop were hung for drying and protection from mice.

With its red paint and white shutters, the barn presented quite a contrast to our little, low, unpainted log cabin. One day my mother heard some people passing by say they bet a Dutch family lived there because they had a great big barn and a little bitty house. This remark greatly incensed my mother and she began to coax for a new house. Father compromised by building a bedroom on the North side of the living room.

High Cost of Cordwood

Story has it that the reason the sidewalk in front of Arbor Bank, Penn Drug and the other buildings on the South-west corner of the square is higher than the street is because after those buildings were built and the sidewalks poured, the City Fathers hired Frank Birkby to come in with a team and scraper and dig the street down to a level grade.

He is also said to have torn down an old mill, at Knox, and used the lumber to help build those six stucco houses on Filmore Street. I have heard that in the basement of one of those houses the old mill stone still supports a pillar.

During the fall and winter, some of the people who owned timber would cut it into cordwood. As soon as the Missouri River was frozen over and the ice strong enough to hold a team and loaded wagon, they would haul it to Nebraska City. Before daylight loads would begin to pass our place. On bitter cold and frosty mornings, the wagons could be heard for a long distance, creaking and singing. The drivers would be walking and clapping their hands to keep them from freezing. As it was ten miles from our place to Nebraska City, it would be dark again before these same haulers would pass on their way home. They could haul about a cord at a time and, for this long dayís work, were getting $2.50. When they would get $3.00 or $3.50 they felt like millionaires.

Frank hauled wood one winter, and, one day, when Grace and I were upstairs playing, we found a sack of flour in his room. We could not understand what it meant until in February he was married. Then we knew he had been hauling wood to earn money to get married. He was twenty years old and, although he had always worked very hard, had received only his room, board and his clothes for his work.

A young manís clothes at that time were not likely to bankrupt his parents, as I dare say $25.00 would cover the cost of them for a year. They paid about $8.00 or $10.00 for a Sunday suit and wore it a couple of years, or longer, if it would last. Young men had little spending money and my father did not spend a dollar a year on amusements for the eleven of us.


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