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Harrison County Iowa History
Pioneer Memories of Oldtown

Oldtown Pioneer Writes of Life in Pioneer Times
By Meade Kirkland

As far as I know, I am the oldest pioneer in Harrison County, who has lived all of his life in this one county, in one township, and even in one school district for over 80 years. Born in 1858, I have lived in the only free time that has ever been. We could hunt deer, wild geese and wild turkey. We could do as we pleased, as long as we pleased to do right.
    My childhood was so unlike that of a boy of today that I think it might be interesting to compare the two.
    Oldtown (Old St. John's) was just one year old when I was born in 1858. Missouri Valley was not started until ten years later. At that time Oldtown was a busy little village with a dozen houses, five blacksmith shops and three brick kilns. Oldtown was then larger than Council Bluffs.
    There were ten in my family, and although we did not have the kind of good times young people have today, we were very happy.
    We were up at break of day and out in the fields to work with oxen to help us. There was only one horse in Oldtown at that time, and he belonged to the doctor. The oxen were very strong and could be trained.
    At noon our mother would call us for dinner. She had no clock to tell her when it was twelve o’clock, but as soon as the rays of sun reached a certain notch in the middle of our door sill, she would know it was time to eat. Having worked until sundown, we were tired and soon went to bed. We had no lanterns or candles. Our only light was a twisted cotton cloth set in a pie pan filled with grease. This was a poor light but then we had nothing to read so it made no difference.
    We did not have matches in our house when I was a boy. There were times when we had to get hot coals from the neighbors to start the fire in our own fireplace.
    I started to school 76 years ago and went until I was 21 years old. Now that may sound like I should be a pretty smart man, but when you consider that I only went to school from the time the corn was picked until March you can understand.
    My schooling began in the first school house in this part of the country. The teacher would hit on the side of the school to call us to classes, for there was no bell. Then the school would begin. We had one book, a McGuffey’s reader, for all of the pupils. In the beginning there were about a dozen boys and girls who went to school. There were benches for desks and seats. If we did not behave ourselves, the teacher would make us kneel on the floor with our noses touching the wall. Or perhaps she might make us stand on our desks.
    We had plenty of excitement in school in those days. Sometimes a string of Indians would go by and we would get to look out of the windows at them. Their line would be a quarter or a half mile long. The men would go first, the dogs next, and last of all the squaws leading the ponies that carried all their belongings. Sometimes the squaws would be carrying papooses on their backs. Although the Indians were lazy and sometimes mean, they never bothered us much around here. They made as good a playmate as any white child. I have seen Indian girls turn handsprings over a hay stack as well as any boy.
    I shall never forget one winter that some friends came to visit us. They had never seen an Indian camp. The Indians at that time had settled close to Oldtown se we took our friends to visit them. Inside the tents, they were asked to sit on what appeared to be frozen hogs. You can imagine their surprise when they found that there had been a cholera epidemic around Oldtown and that the Indians had gathered up the diseased hogs and were eating them. They had placed the hogs around the fire so that it would be easy for them to slice off a piece of pork when they got hungry.
    One of the most thrilling sights that we ever saw from our school house windows was a cavalry of soldiers on their way to the Dakotas where they had been called to fight the Indians who had staged a massacre there. We watched them on their horses hauling their canons through the tall grass.
    What excitement there always was when the stage coach came in. The driver would crack his whip and shoot his guns at the dogs who were madly barking at the horses. I can remember when the only form of travel for us in this part of the country was the wagon pulled by oxen. Later came the stage coach, the railroads, the automobile and now the airplane. Sometimes I can not help but wonder what new changes in transportation will be brought about in the next 80 years.
    For their school lunch, some of the children would have nothing but cornbread. Others who were in better circumstances would have more to eat. In the winter time our cornbread would freeze in the poorly heated school house, and it would get so solid that you could scarcely break it. I remember an incident that occurred which proves just how hard it got. There was one girl who was always making fun of us who had a meager lunch. One time she knocked a piece of cornbread from the hands of the boy who was eating it. Being very angry, he picked it up from the floor and threw it at her. Striking her in the back of the head, he knocked her unconscious. A short time later she died. Although her parents said that she died of lung fever, I shall always believe that it was the cornbread that killed her.
    Many times the prairie chickens would be so thick that they would cover the roof of the school house. We used to throw clods at them to scare them away.
    It was good sport for the older boys to get a pole, 15 or 16 feet long and have the younger boys climb to the top of it. They would see who could knock the little boys off the pole.
    The fishing enthusiasts of today would have had great sport sixty years ago. The Boyer river was a good place to fish then. I once caught three large catfish and I don’t know how many little ones on a throw line. There was also a 125 pound catfish caught in the Missouri river. The tallest man there put it over his shoulder to carry it and even then it dragged on the ground. Those were the days for the sportsmen. They could hunt and fish when and where they pleased without licenses.
    The boys of my time wore cotton jeans. The women knit wool socks and made us muslin shirts. As for underclothing -- I don’t believe I had any until I was twenty-one. Some of us used to have quite a time with our shoes. We had but one pair a year. The cobbler used to come around in the fall and take our measurements. That pair of shoes would have to do us for the entire year. If we wore them out, it was our own hard luck.
    In the fall we would round up the sheep and shear them. Then we would have the wool carded. The women had spinning wheels and would spin and weave the cloth. Some of our clothes were made from tow linen, which is the coarse part of the flax. Little pieces of the bark lift in the material would make you straighten up in a hurry if they happened to stick you in the right places.
    Although it doesn’t seem possible, I scarcely knew one piece of money from another before I was fifteen years old. Money was scarce then, but people were not so grasping as they are now.

Aged Oldtown Resident Writes Second Early Day Story
By Meade Kirkland

When George Stephenson built the first railroad engine, the Rocket, in 1814, people laughed at what appeared to be a foolish invention. As it was perfected, people began to realize the importance of the railroads not only as a means of transportation but also as a powere which would affect the lives of people, towns and cities.
    Let me recall the days before the railroad came through this part of the country. Oldtown was then a thriving little village and well on its way to future prosperity. The interests in this little community were many and diversified.
    It was in these early days that a number of Mormons made a settlement near Oldtown in what was then known as Tennessee Hollow. These people had got tired on their journey west and stopped here. Later they moved on, but their log cabins and tabernacle were here a long time after they were gone. One of these men had come from Tennessee. He had six wives that were from England. To the main room of his log cabin he build adjacen rooms, each one joining the other. Six of them -- one for each wife. But times got hard and some of his people were moving on, so he sold his wives at twenty-five dollars apiece. Not too much money for a business venture, but enough to start him on his way again.
    Of course, before we had the railroads around here, we had a stage coach, the ox and wagon, and as a last resort our feet. I can remember the stories my father told of his first trip from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Oldtown. He and his father and a small brother got as far as Council Bluffs by boat. But from Council Bluffs to Oldtown they had to walk, with father carrying the boy on his back. There were only a couple of log cabins in Council Bluffs at that time.
    Another story that he often told was of the time that the old settlers ran out of salt. Now salt was as important as tobacco. There was no place to get salt around here, so father walked to St. Joseph and brought back enough salt to last them awhile.
    When I spoke of tobacco as being a necessity to some of the men and old women, too, I recall the times when they would run out of smoking. If they had tobacco, they carried it loose in their pockets and naturally some of it mixed with perspiration from their bodies and stained the lining of their pockets. I have known these old fellows to cut out the cloth lining and chew on it until someone could get to Council Bluffs to buy more.
    Whether or not my father was the person responsible for bringing the hated cockleburs into this part of the country is debateable. He has always been blamed for it. However, the first time that those old pioneers had ever seen cockleburs was after my father had gone to St. Joseph to buy sheep. Of course he didn’t ship them here by train. He had to drive them back. And on the way they gathered many cockelburs in their wool.
    There was a time when we hauled cord wood to the Missouri river to sell. I would sit on the bank waiting for a boat to come along. When the captain saw me, he would call out, "Good wood for sale?" And I would answer that there was. Then while the captain was docking the boat, I would run and get my father, who would be near by, to come and measure the wood.
    People of Missouri Valley remember well the railroad strike of 1922. But I recall the strike of 1865 just as vividly. Although this strike, I am going to tell about, was amusing and of little importance; nevertheless, it was probably the first strike held around here. Reverent Blodgett, a Methodist minister from Sioux City, was holding a church meeting in the schoolhouse. People had come from all around to the service. We boys had been sitting quietly in our seats, but as the room began to fill, the minister asked us to sit on the platform. Soon the platform became so crowded that he asked us if we would mind going home to make room for the older people. It was cold outside and we couldn’t go home, for some of the boys lived several miles away. Something had to be done. Seeing the neatly piled wood for the school house stove gave us an idea. All of us grabbed a stick and began beating on the side of the building. What we had anticipated happened. Minister and congregation came trouping to the door to see what the trouble was. Our little strike was settled without the aid of a union, and we heard the rest of the sermon.
    We had many good times in those old days, and when the railroads came, we had something new to interest us. After attempting to run the railroad through Oldtown, the officials changed its course, and instead laid the line to the north and west.
    I can remember when the men -- they were mostly Irish -- came to lay the roadbed for the northwestern. My father and I sold them potatoes. I was but a boy at the time, but I’ll never forget the tall grass that they had to cut before they could begin work.
    The first passenger train that I remember seeing was filled with soldiers on their way to fight the Indians who had staged an uprising.
    After the coming of the railroads, the Oldtown stores were moved to Missouri Valley. The first street in Missouri Valley was from the depot north several blocks. Later Erie street was laid out.
    In the early days of Missouri Valley, the people buried the dead in the Oak Grove cemetery in Oldtown. Many years before that in 1858 my twin sister had been one of the very first persons to be buried in this cemetery.
    Finally it became necessary for the people of Missouri Valley to have a cemetery of their own. They cleared a place at the top of the present Third Street for the final resting place for their dead. But it was not long a resting place, for the cemetery was moved. Bodies were dug up and buried again in the present cemetery. These events are very clear in my mind for I was one of those who helped lay out the new cemetery. That was in 1884. I helped fill the graves after the bodies were moved. Rube Palmer and I made the first road around the cemetery. Not only that but it was Rube and I who made the road through Fifth Street hollow to Sixth Street. You should have seen us, awkward as we were, going through the brush, trees and stumps with Rube holding the plow while I drove the horses.
    In the early days of Missouri Valley, the Fourth of July was a day of great celebration. One memorable year, the towns people were in great spirits. They had carried a canon to the top of the bluffs on what is now known as Third Street. However, the canon did not make enough noise to please them. As old canon feeder of the Civil War, a Mr. McPherson, thought he knew how to make the canon report louder. He stuffed the ammunition in with grass and dirt. Then he set it off. A short time later we carried him down to the Town hall with one leg missing. Although there were doctors around here, they knew little to do under these circumstances and poor McPherson died from loss of blood after tring to make Missouri Valley’s celebration a noisy success

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Harrison County Iowa History
OldTown - Old St. John's
Contributed by Janette Lager