Fremont County, Iowa

Hand Hewn Logs
by Lona Lewis

View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
August 18, 2014

Imagine building a house in Fremont County in the 1840s. Some of the first settlers came into the County along the Missouri River and settled in what was known as the Civil Bend area. The river bottom was covered with large trees, mostly cottonwoods. In our museum collection is a picture of a cottonwood tree from that area. It was declared the largest of its kind in Iowa.

One of the exhibits in the museum is a hand-hewn log from the Platt Family home built in Civil Bend in the mid-1800s. The heavy timber estimated to weigh 65 pounds is only about four feet long. It has a notch at one end. The piece would have had to be used in a short wall maybe in the corner where the notch would have fit with other timbers with the other end helping make a window frame. We have large axe blades typical of the kind that would have been used to cut down the tree and fashion the log into a house timber. There is also a picture of the house which is much larger than most of the early log cabins.

Looking at the axe blade and the timber, what comes to mind is the strength it took to physically cut down the tree and then shape the timbers. There had to have been a lot of man power to help lift each timber in place. One last observation--though they had no machines to make a straight cut it is remarkably uniform in its width.

Lester Ward Platt and his wife Elvira Gaston Platt came from Oberlin, Ohio, in the 1840s and settled in the Civil Bend area. They were graduates of Oberlin College, the first federal grant college in the nation, and Elvira was one of its first women graduates. Their mission was to help the Pawnee Indians living in what is now the Bellevue, Nebraska area. They left a civilized Ohio to come to Fremont County that was still very primitive. Working with the Pawnees was not easy because they were constantly attack by the Lakota Sioux. The first year working with the Pawnees was reduced to helping them survive after their crops had been destroyed by the Sioux. The Platt’s dream of building a school had to be put on hold. It took a year to build and open the school only to have the Sioux constantly harass them. The couple came close to leaving and going back to Ohio during that very difficult time. Instead they stayed and eventually spent several years working with the Pawnees.

Lester worked in Nebraska running a trading post for the Native Americans. Elvira used her degree in agriculture to work with the Pawnees to grow better crops. In the warm weather they would live among the Native Americans and then come to Civil Bend to live in their house that included the timber we now display in the museum. In later years, the couple became very active in the Abolitionists movement and helped to establish Tabor College. Today their relatives still live in Fremont County.

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