County Iowa History Pioneer Memories of Oldtown
JOHN'S ONCE LARGER THAN COUNCIL BLUFFS 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
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
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.
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
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.
YOUNG PIONEERS USED INITIATIVE IN ‘STRIKE’ 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
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
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
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