Palmer C. Tiffany (1809-1900) was a Henry County pioneer, settling in Mount Pleasant in 1838. He was a merchant, tavern owner and hotel keeper. For a brief time, Tiffany mined in California. In June and July of 1899, Tiffany wrote a series of articles sharing his memories and recollections of people and events of Mount Pleasant's beginnings. His series, titled "Reminiscences", was featured in "The Dial of Progress", an early newspaper managed by Rev. W.R. and C.T. Cole.

Part One“The Dial of Progress”, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, Thursday, June 15, 1899.

At ninety years of age, cut off from the interests of business and active participation in public affairs by impaired sight and hearing, I find my thoughts busy with the scenes of early days and the events of a life in its prime, before many “Free Press” readers were born. It will occupy the passing hours and relieve my mind from its constant retrospection to tell them of pioneer conditions and events which are as bright and clear to me now as at the time when they first transpired.

At thirty years of age on the first of May 1838, in company with my wife, her father, Mr. Penuel Cheney, his son Winthrop Cheney and his young son Winthrop P. Cheney, a ward of Mr. Penuel Cheney’s, Wealthy Buckingham, I left my native town of Southbridge, Mass., for the then almost unknown but illusioned region which is now known as the state of Iowa; then it was known as the territory of Wisconsin. Some adventurous spirit from the region of my nativity had made a claim near a place on the Des Moines River which was called “Sweet Home”, and had written back the glowing accounts of the country, its beauty and possibilities.

So, the party mentioned, decided to seek the discovered land of beauty and abundance. We came by stage as far as Albany, N.Y. having changed coaches at Springfield, Mass.

At Albany we took the then new and marvelous means of locomotion, the railroad, to its then terminus as far as Rochester. It may be of interest to the boy or girl who is as familiar today with the steel rail, the cars speeding a mile a minute, with telegraph and telephone and all the perfect machinery of the vestibuled palace sleepers as I was with the plodding ox and slow coach of my young days, to have a description of this early road and its coaches, crude and imperfect as they were, although at that time they were a source of the liveliest interest to us. At that time, 1838, there were but 1,843 miles of railroad in the United States. All these early roads were built on the English gauge of 4 feet 8.5 inches. They were constructed by laying wooden or stone cross-ties, to which were pinned longitudinal wooden rails, and upon these rails were fastened with spikes, flat bars of iron one-half and five-eighths of an inch in thickness, and two and one-half to four and one-half inches in width; the heads of the spikes being counter sunk in the iron. The method was a very dangerous one, the ends of the rails often starting and breaking and running through the bottom of the cars. Crude as it now seems, 60 years ago this was “rapid transit,” and the beginning of all commercial and passenger transportation in this country and in the world. This road took us only to Rochester in New York state, where the Erie Canal then received us as passengers, bag and baggage. It must be remembered as an interesting fact in the evolution of modern traffic, that up to the time of the introduction of the “steam carriage” the Erie Canal, crossing the great Empire State and connecting its capital, Albany on the Hudson, with Buffalo on Lake Erie, a distance of 363 miles was the crowning public enterprise of the entire country in opening a public highway or waterway rather, from the great lakes in the west to the Atlantic ocean in the east at New York City; the Hudson River from Albany, south completing the route. Accustomed as people are now to a time table which reckons it but thirty-six hours from New York City to Mount Pleasant, it requires a stretch of imagination to follow the slow, tortuous and plodding route of sixty years ago. Although this canal had been finished but 14 years at that time, it was considered the great and successful engineering work of the time. It cost the state of New York $7,602,000 and was largely due to the foresight and energy of Gov. DeWitt Clinton, who was governor of the state during the six years consumed in its construction, and will stand in history as a monument to the memory of his public spirit.

From Buffalo to Cleveland, O. we were then taken by steamboat, along Lake Erie, that beautiful gem among inland waters.

We then took passage on the Ohio Canal south across that state to Portsmouth on the Ohio River, this one part of our journey alone consisting of ten days. At this point we again boarded a steamboat which took us down the Ohio River to its junction with the “Father of Waters” and up to St. Louis, then little more than a frontier trading post. To compare the St. Louis of my pioneer trip, a village of not more than ten thousand inhabitants at the most, with the commanding position she occupies today as a commercial center, ranking probably not more than third in population, perhaps less, with any of the inland cities on this continent, is to see the emigrant’s most vivid dreams of his country’s greatness more than realized and his visions of his country’s possibilities more than (sic) Munchausened.

Before starting from Massachusetts, we had consulted the maps, had placed confidence in descriptions sent back by others and had expected to complete our journey to the city of “Sweet Home” by public conveyance, supposing the Des Moines a stream navigable for steam boats and that the town of our dreams was one of its important landing points. But, at St. Louis we learned to our discomforture that the Des Moines was not navigable except in high water and that a city called “Sweet Home” was unknown both to geographers and to commerce.

But, for “Sweet Home” we had started, and to “Sweet Home” we would go. So, we again embarked on the first upbound steam boat and were landed with our boxes at the mouth of the Des Moines River at the town of Warsaw, on the Ills. side of the river, then a veritable infant town, a mere stopping point for pioneer traffic from the rich prairie regions of Illinois with the river boats.

The first meal we ate after leaving Albany, New York except on a canal or a steamboat was at this point. By this time the entire party began to realize that in truth, the country and its condition were new and strange. Mrs. Tiffany’s appetite was highly revolted at the dirty, greasy table service and unkempt people. In short, she was homesick, but it was too late to turn back. Forward we must go and that quickly. A very primitive ferry, worked by horse power crossed the Mississippi at this point to the Missouri side. Flat boats were sent up the Des Moines River from Warsaw and upon one of these we chartered our boxes for “Sweet Home” and chanced our results; and securing a team and wagon from our landlord in Warsaw, his son for a driver, we started in quest of the town of our hopes.

As we cleared the Mississippi bluffs, high up comparatively speaking, we got our first view of a prairie. The vision was as one great expanse of- what? It looked a gorgeous dream of land; or sky and land. The time, remember, was late May, almost June. The absence of tree or stump, the waving grass and uncounted kinds of blossoms so mixed and mingled that the first view after our uncertainties and disappointments, was as indescribable as it was difficult to decide where the horizon merged land into sky, or whether the view was of earth or sea or heaven. No human being can imagine it who has not had a similar first early summer view of virgin prairie, guiltless of the touch of man’s hands. So vast, so wondrous in its beauty, so alive with a pulsing life indescribably its own. Like Moses on the mount, we could but realize that the “promised land” was not a myth. That our wanderings by land and water was not altogether in vain, that a “Sweet Home” was more than possible on this virgin soil, in this land, heretofore the “red man’s,” now to be preempted by the adventurous from all the nations of the earth, even if the town of our hopes was overshadowing us with a sense of its uncertainty.

Our driver was supposedly to know the route to our destination. Roads were mere trails. Landmarks there were none more than in mid ocean, and it was no wonder our young driver lost his way. Upon questioning a man on horseback that we opportunely met, we were told that we had passed our destination, and giving us our direction headed us for the timber of the Des Moines River.

A few miles through this upon the river bluffs and we drew up in front of an ordinary log cabin, where seated on various boxes, benches and stools were a half dozen or more men. To our inquiry of where is “Sweet Home”, one native removed his pipe from his mouth long enough to drawl out, “You-uns air right thar; this hyer is ‘Sweet Home’.” We looked about us in vain for other houses, but naught save a log stable met our sight. There were trees all about; trails, mere paths leading from we knew not where. But village! Alas! for the New Englander’s ideas of a town-of a village. White houses with green blinds, enclosed with spick and span white picket fences, with snug barns and woodsheds and well houses and stone walks and churches and school houses. But here, in the town for which we had traveled nearly thirty days at a cost of about five hundred dollars, we found a solitary single room log house, perhaps sixteen feet square, perhaps less, constituting the entire visible city. All else lay back in the fertile imagination of projectors and adventurers. As yet we had seen but the timber adjacent to the river and we started out to satisfy our longing for the clear, limpid, pebbly streams of our native state, as one of the attractions which had drawn us to the Des Moines River was the claim sent out that it was clear; had a pebbly beach and bottom; that it was wholly unlike other western streams which were muddy, dull, sluggish and without sloping banks. But the Des Moines was a truly eastern stream in its purity. Alas! Alas for imaginings. Mrs. Tiffany and Wealthy were by this time solemn and utterly forlorn with homesickness. No hotel-not a tent even-not even a “covered wagon” to call shelter and home.

That first night is one to be remembered for a long-life time. The squatters were hospitable; they allowed us to bunk upon their unspeakably dirty floor. The whiskey jug stowed under the family bed was often in evidence by the woman of the house as well as the men. But morning at last came and with it a testimony that we were in a frontier town, that it was a point, a center so to speak. Early in the morning, horsemen from we knew not where, Indians from what to us was unknown vastness, began to congregate. We found it was a place that drew people together if there was but one house, from miles around. A horse race was the attraction this time and from what we saw it probably was a place where all sorts were wont to congregate. Among the Indians the great chiefs Keokuk and Wapello were pointed out to us and with their red blankets, their type ponies, their unkempt hair, all made a lasting picture. We by this time knew that we were really “out west.” Our goods came the second day and finding just where “we were at” at this magical town, we arranged with the flat boat to take our boxes a few miles farther up the river to Farmington and with a squatter who “turned up” from “somewhere” to take the party of us to the same place. Here we found a few log houses; and one having a loft with a ladder to climb up by, a shanty outside to do cooking in which was a hotel. This was all palatial beside “Sweet Home”, so Winthrop Cheney and myself decided to leave father Cheney and the women and child, and start prospecting for a home indeed.

Next week, I will tell of our trip to Mount Pleasant and the appearance of the then town and people.

Resource provided by Henry County Heritage Trust; transcription done by Alex Olson, University of Northern Iowa Public History Field Experience Class, Fall 2022.

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