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 Three - “The Dial of Progress”, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, Thursday, June 29, 1899.

As I return to the beginning of our settlement, the mental pictures come to me more clearly than that of my face in the mirror today. I remember the men, young, vigorous, ambitious, alert with the possibilities of the country for the building of fortunes and fame, as well as homes. The first among them was Presley Saunders. I remember the morning after camping on bare boards in an empty house, which is the place we had come from, would have been considered worthy of apology as a shed, one of the first wants was for milk, for coffee for breakfast.

I also remember that Mrs. Skiles Viney, the landlady where we had stopped when we were here before, come with a generous basket of cooked breakfast for us, in true characteristic pioneer fashion. Of her we enquired for the milk, and she told us that there was a settler down in the grove by the name of Saunders, who kept a cow and she was certain we could get it there.

Taking a pail, we found the young man Saunders, whose presence for so long a time afterwards was familiar to Mt. Pleasant, and whose personality was most thoroughly identified with its development and progress.

“Yes, certainly we could have milk,” and it was milk with all the cream on it too. When I offered to pay for it, I well remember the look of indignation with which the money was rejected. He was really insulted at the offer. The idea of charging “new comers” for milk. I mention this incident and that of the breakfast as typical of the manner in which strangers were received and the informal methods of introduction to the hearts, homes, and even substance of those who were “old settlers”, if preceding others by even two weeks.

Nearly every settler was a squatter; it was essentially the squatter era in this country, when all the land belonged to Uncle Sam. The laws inviting emigration were generous, but the means of emigrating were, as a rule, the ox team and the “prairie schooner;” a lumber wagon with a canvass cover, which often served a whole family as house and home several months until the virgin sod was “broken” and a crop of corn- “sod corn” was planted; and often until late in the fall, when logs would be hauled from the timber of Skunk River, and a little house would be built. Often the man with the “schooner” would sell his claim of the season to some later comer for enough to help him sail farther toward the setting sun. The improvements for which he would get his pay would thus be his capital.

The people were mostly from the border - southern, and the southern states; some were from Indiana, but we were the first real live “Yankees” that any of them had seen.

Mrs. Tiffany was intensely amused upon making the acquaintance of a neighbor by the name of Jones, who was from North Carolina, telling her that she always supposed that Yankees were colored, and wholly ignorant, like the original or tribal men. The fashion of our clothes also caused comment, instead of the garb of barbarians, that it should exceed in fashion and fabric, that of those who had considered themselves superior in that respect, was a cause of comment and astonishment.

Of course, we were on the look-out for permanent location. At that time a new comer was an old citizen in forty-eight hours, always provided that someone else had moved in since he had. We soon found that every squatter was ready to sell his claim; it was only to pick and choose our site. We decided to purchase a quarter section, located where the hospital now stands. Martin Tucker, a pioneer from Kentucky, had built upon it and had forty acres of corn planted for the second season, up and ready for cultivation. For his squatter claim and improvements, we paid him seven hundred dollars in gold, and afterwards paid $1.25 per acre to the government. He was then the richest he had ever been or ever was afterwards.

Whether we staid more than a day or whether it might have been a week in the house we had rented in town, cannot say, but it was a very short time and we took possession of our “sweet home.”

We used boxes for tables and benches, which I made for chairs. I had brought a set of carpenter tools, knowing that we were going beyond the reach of shops and stores and knowing also that I could make primitive furniture with them, aided by natural Yankee gumption, that would serve us until we could do better.

I also made a large arm chair for Father Cheney, bottoming it with hickory bark, which made it a most comfortable affair. This chair was burned up as late as 1856, in the fire that consumed my big 3-story hotel on the corner where Bartlett’s store now is, thus going the way of all perishable things – everything goes to pieces and decays one way or other. This time a valuable keepsake went up in smoke. The memory of it and what it stood for, and this record being all that remains of it.

Another characteristic act of frontier helpfulness which impressed us with the feeling that men’s hearts grow larger with life on the great prairies, was when John H. Randolph, Virginian by birth, came to us when found we had bought a “forty in corn, ready for the plow” and no “critter” to cultivate with, to “go on the prairie and catch “old Dick” (his horse) and gear him up. He told us he was broken to drive with a single line, and to use him until we were done with cultivating.”

This we did, with the exception of driving with a single line. That was a Kentucky trick we were not up to; so, we rigged an extra rope for a second line. This was the beginning of a friendship which endured to the end of his life and will till the end of mine. His cabin was where the mayor’s office now is. I recollect that the well belonging to it was in the middle of Jefferson Street, after the town lines were straightened out later.

Before leaving Massachusetts, I had heard of the “stump speaker” of the west; that curious phase of political life, as crude as the other works of men in the country; but I had never seen him on his “stump.” As Winthrop and I were hard at work in our corn one morning, we heard the boom of guns and saw the whiffs of smoke arise over in town. All at once, it occurred to us that it was “The Fourth” was “Independence Day.” We decided to turn old Dick loose, forsake the plow and take ourselves to the scene of patriotic expression.

Where the Penn building now stands, on the north side of the square, was a hotel, a two-story frame house, which was run by Skiles Viney. In front of this house Payton Wilson was standing on an up turned wagon box, (sic) boding forth in a vociferous voice to a group of men gathered around.

The second legislature of the territory was held that year in Burlington, about the time we reached Mt. Pleasant. Of course, we knew nothing of that fact and had it to learn. This knowledge Peyton Wilson was struggling to impart and incidentally (?) to promote his own political ambitions. The subject of his talk was impressed upon my mind by his grandiloquent words and ambitious phrases, as he was from Kentucky and was a type of that blue grass region at that time. On that morning, he was talking about the county seat and was sure that it should be located on the banks of that “magnificent” stream, the Skunk. This went into a joke with us and I thus remember the circumstance very clearly. He lived not far from that river and was positive and enthusiastic in favor of his location. Meantime, Salem, New London and what is now Oakland Mills wanted it, but Mt. Pleasant men decided to have it and they got it.

Mt. Pleasant furnished her full share of members of the territorial legislature. About that time, Lawson B. Hughes, Jno. B. Lash, Wm. H. Wallace, Asbury B. Porter and others were in it and worked for this town as the seat of the territorial capital, as against Iowa City, but Iowa City won the plum only to lose it a few decades later to the central state point, Des Moines.

After this first stump speech, I heard many more, before public halls were of sufficient capacity to accommodate the listeners.

I recollect going soon after this to Burlington to visit the seat of government, Old Zion Church being the building occupied. What the particular “pull” was that took us down, I forget; but I know that I went across country with one of the Porter boys (I think it was Frank) who lived near Trenton, and was then considered a near neighbor.

I remember that William H. Wallace was speaker of the House of Representatives and presided with great dignity and fairness.

Later I was, without any solicitation on my part, made a candidate for the office of clerk of the council or senate, but I withdrew my name. Somehow politics was never in my line - always interested in this town and community.

But, to get away from our first “Fourth of July” in Iowa and the associated memories of the political and formative condition of the government and organization of the county of that summer, I will tell the housekeepers of 1899, what kind of floors the housekeepers of 1838 had under their feet and how they were taken care of.

Their floors were made of puncheons – when they had floors, for it took time and labor to get puncheons. The young reader will probably ask, “puncheons, what are puncheons?” Puncheons were split from logs with wedges and mauls; a thick chunk gotten off was then hewed with an adz, a tool looking something like a hoe, but sharp and strong. The work of thus smoothing was slow, and simply reduced extreme roughness and made harmless, the worst splinters. These planks, or puncheons, were laid down for floors and proud and comfortable indeed was the dweller of log houses with this promotion from dirt or earth floors.

I remember very distinctly that when Mrs. Tiffany and Wealthy made a thorough job of scrubbing, each puncheon was taken up by main force, carried by the two of them out of doors and thoroughly scrubbed. At this time, we only had well water and felt rich in the possession of that, for the getting of a well of water was an important matter.

To show with what curiosity everything pertaining to “them thar Yankees” was considered, I will mention a little circumstance that Mrs. Tiffany never forgot, the humor of it was a kind that staid with her. A couple of young ladies called shortly after we took possession of our cabin with curiosity sticking out at every eye. After asking questions about everything they could think of, they sidled up to the jamb of the big fire place where hung a pair of bellows that we brought, along with many other small utilities from our old home. After diligently examining them, they wanted to know if that “was a dulcimer and cant ye give us a tune?” Mrs. Tiffany carefully explained its uses.

There is no question but we were curiosities, but there is also no question but what the people about us struck us as being as odd as we did them.

We bought a yoke of oxen for $60.00 soon after moving onto our place, of Ezekiel Cooper, then living in a cabin just opposite where the Wiggins house now stands. He was the father of Geo. Cooper and Kate Cooper and was a good and faithful member of the primitive Methodist church, as well as a good citizen. This ox team was the means of our getting to mill. Hitching Buck and Bill to the front wheels of the wagon and hanging sacks of corn on the axle. There was a very primitive mill on Big Creek, at that time about where Barton’s mill stood for so many years afterward. The first time Winthrop and I went to mill, we managed to run our two wheeled rig into a stump, or tree, or something, so that one of us had to go quite a distance to get an axe and chop ourselves free from this obstruction. If I mistake not, we got this axe from Hutton.

We brought a stock of garden vegetable seeds with us, as did all pioneers; we also brought seed corn, the small, eight row variety, which grew about as large as a nubbin of Iowa corn. We planted some on the 19th day of June the first year and it matured before the corn that was up when we took possession. This corn we took to mill and those unfamiliar with it, were surprised at the sweetness and fine grain of bread made of it. It is a fact of some interest to know that repeated plantings of this variety in the rich soil and warmer climate developed another variety; larger cobs and more rows than when grown in the cold, clay soil of New England, where corn was doing well that got ready for hoeing early in July.

It was also a disappointment to us that beets and turnips and other vegetables lost in quality what they gained in size and quantity in this climate and soil. The sweetness and crispness were very much deteriorated by the wonderful growth.

A habit of the Southerners which struck us, who corked up every crack and crevice to keep the cold out of our cabin, was the practice of leaving their doors open, summer and winter. Go in the coldest days, and the outside door would be open for light. People would stand before the fire and warm one side, then turn the other to the blaze. Somebody suggested to one of them when he was complaining of the cold, that it would be warmer if the door was shut. Upon trying it, the man said “Polly, I wish you would remember that, it is a good thing.”

Another experience which gave Mrs. Tiffany and Wealthy trial and tribulation in their housekeeping, was the flies. Such flies and so many of them. Where we came from, house-flies were like vegetables; slow in coming and few when they got along. But it seemed as if every blade of grass was the home of a whole family of them, of all kinds, including the festive and musical night bird, the musquito, which was the subject of wonder on account of their size and viciousness. The sides of cattle would be almost black with them; and we came to see a reason for their “bunching together when upon the great prairie”. The constant swish, swish of their tails helped each other to disturb the flies. Cattle, I noticed then, usually stood head to heels; the tail of one thrashing the flies off the head of the other. But when for long years afterwards, the cattle run in herds in Mt. Pleasant streets and would bunch for the night near a house-ugh; the flies were a pest, too numerous to fight-something to be endured; although it was one person’s steady business during the entire summer to fight flies with a brush of some sort, while the other ate, somebody performing the office in turn for the one who had fought for the rest. Screens were unknown and undreamed of until forty years later. We say this that with now about one fly to the thousand, as when the soil was dank with ages of vegetable decay, where venomous as well as innocuous insects and reptiles hibernated, the house-keeper of today should feel thankful for improved conditions in this respect, as well as in others.

The settlers were mostly young men starting out in life, with much of the spirit of adventure; more of that as a rule, than of money, and many endured great privations and hardships for the lack of it at first. Until a good crop rewarded their labors, many were reduced to the greatest extremity.

Our nearest neighbors were Lambert and Christopher Heath, to the west and east, and Bowen to the southeast of us. They were true pioneers and fine neighbors.

An incident showing the extremity to which the beginners were sometimes reduced, follows:

Lambert Heath had been to Burlington for a load of necessities, such as a little wheat flour, meal, bacon, coffee and such things, when upon his return a few miles this side of Burlington he met Jacob Burge, a squatter who had taken up a claim, and with his wife and three little children were living in a log hut but one mile west of New London, where, by the way his widow is still living. Burge had had a hard time. He had fallen short of feed for his cattle the winter before and, one after another, his stock had died, until two oxen, very poor, were all he had left in the early spring. When Heath met him, these oxen had given out and he was in a most serious condition. He had in his wagon the hides of the cattle that had died, and an old gun, the only available stuff to market for food for his wife and babies.

Heath told him to turn his oxen lose and let them graze and fill up, as at that particular place grass was showing up pretty good, adding with grim humor, that they would not run away. So, they stacked the hides on the ground, put the gun on top, turned the wagon box over them and weighted it to keep the wolves from eating the hides up.

Meanwhile, Heath told Burge to stay by a day or so, stopping not far off at a squatter, to see that his oxen did not stray away. Heath went on at once to New London, reaching Burge’s place about dark. He asked Mrs. Burge if she could keep him all night. She told him he could stay all night, but that all the food she had in the house was a piece of cornbread which she must divide between her children in the morning. He gave her flour, meal, bacon and a little of the other things he had. This incident shows the trial and dangers to which the pioneers were subject and their mutual helpfulness.

What made the trials of the Burges more heart-trying was that she was eminent for motherhood sickness at any hour, with no neighbor within miles and physicians undreamed of. Burge returned next day to his family on foot and after two weeks went back for his oxen, found his hides all right and his team, so he got to Burlington and back with them. That same year, they sold a thousand bushels of corn at fifty cents per bushel to a number of Virginia Quaker emigrants who were locating in the then, well-known “Quaker settlement” at Salem.

This year also, Mrs. Heath (sic: Burge) received a bequest of $600.00 from her father’s estate. These two sums were invested in a large section of land right around them.

To show the money condition and how easy it was to be robbed of (sic) specie where there were no banks or any place of deposit, and where there were many desperate characters, this five-hundred dollars was put into a covered peck measure. The transaction in corn was well known, and it was also known that they must have the money by them, so when her husband started to go for her legacy, she took him as far as Burlington with the ox team, taking the money in the peck measure along, ostensibly to deposit. Meantime, before starting, the husband and wife had agreed that a hole should be dug under a certain puncheon, and the money buried there; the wife to take it back home with her.

To their consternation, one of the men who bore a suspicious character, presented himself as they were about starting for Burlington and asked to ride a ways with them. Upon her return, he came to the house. Mrs. Burge’s feelings can be better imagined than described, but she had already secreted the money.

When night came, she barricaded her cabin, took in her axe, determined to sell her life dearly if need be. But the night passed without further incident.

This shows how a successful crop would put the settler upon his feet and give him abundance where grim want had so recently showed at the door.

To show how the women helped in making homes, and how little they thought of hard work as being unhealthy, I will relate another incident as told me by an intimate friend of Mrs. Burge, Mrs. J.C. Allsup of this city, how the start was made and the foundation laid for the Burge home.

They would get up early in the morning, Mr. Burge going immediately to the timber to cut and split trees into rails; she would milk the cow, get breakfast, and gear up the oxen, and take her husband’s breakfast out to him, leaving her babies shut up in the cabin. Helping to load, and then bring back a load of rails.

Indians were plenty; more abundant and more dreaded than tramps to-day. Upon one of these occasions, as she was driving home with her load, some Indians in their guttural voices, cried out to her: “gee Buck: haw Bright,” and showed beside her. She says it was the worst scare she ever received. The gad in her hand shook with the trembling of her fear. The Indians saw it, gave a grunt and stalked away. When she reached her home, she found the Indians in her hut with the baby in the lap of one and the other little ones around them without fear; after getting something for them to eat (they always wanted something to eat) they left as unceremoniously as they came. This was their characteristic style.

The tribal relations of the Indians were not yet broken up as they were in the eastern portions of the continent; although the government had made a “purchase” and established an Indian agency west of here, at what is now known as Agency. This fact being what gave that town its name. The Indians had free range. I have heard Mrs. Presley Saunders and Mrs. Judge Palmer, who were daughters of Bowen, one of our nearest neighbors, say that they had been taught to give the Indians food whenever they demanded it, so as not to awaken their hostility. Little patches of corn were raised by the squaws along the branch west of town; one of the patches being between the place where James A. Throop’s house now stands and the little stream to the west of it, only a few rods from the door of Presley Saunders’ cabin and the “big spring”, the discovery of which decided him to locate here and near it.

I never cared to familiarize myself with the matter of tribes and all that; I was content to watch their decadence and know that they were emigrating to other hunting grounds; or were going further west at any rate. Indians, wolves and rattle snakes were three things I never had much love for; they were then in process of being dispossessed of their original ownership, and for several years-well up into the forties, they held certain points along the Skunk, especially as camping places.

Speaking of rattle snakes, reminds me of an experience I had with an immense big one after we came, which wound up in one of those standing jokes which will sometimes become traditional in a family, or neighborhood for years.

John M. Hanson and I were measuring off a piece of ground, a quarter section, by means of a cord a rod long, and a pocket compass. It was unbroken prairie. We ran onto an immense rattler and managed to kill it. I had heard the tradition that rattle snake oil was good for rheumatism; so, I tied an end of our string to his head and dragged it clear around that quarter section and home. I dressed and skinned it, as one would a rabbit, and hung it up before the fire to drip the oil into a dish set to catch it. Come to find out, I had thrown away the fat in throwing away the insides and the skin. But I got a little anyway, and concluded to grease a gun I had, instead of waiting for the rheumatism. I wiped off the dish with a bit of rag and wound the rag around the ram rod and left it in the gun. It rusted in, and I had to bore or blow or burn the thing out someway, weeks afterwards. I never heard the last of that rattle snake for the next fifty years.

The reader will pardon, if a reflection is now and then dropped into these reminiscences. The thought often occurs to me of what would have been the condition of the families and homes of those men, if the women had believed that to walk a mile, lift a bucket of water, wash, iron, bake, or brew, was unhealthy, and the question often arises, why, as a rule, did those women who endured with love and fidelity, hardships and privations that called for spartan courage live longer, maintain their mental vigor and physical strength to extreme old age, counting themselves the head, of often the fourth, and frequently the fifth generation. I am inclined to the belief that because they were calm, courageous, fearless and faithful, they were enabled to do the heroic deeds that were unrecorded by men. The daughters were taught that the proper gymnastics in connection with the attaining of “the three R’s-readin’, ritin’, and ‘rithmetic,” was to milk the cows, skim the milk, churn the butter, get breakfast, and wash or iron and do up the dishes “before school time.” It is a pity that the present and coming generations could not attain some of the industry and unselfishness of past generations, along with their Latin and Greek, higher mathematics, voice culture and art. If conditions, environment and state of civilization differ, it is no reason why the cardinal virtues, of belief in the dignity of self-helpfulness and mother-crowned wife-hood, should not be as much a part of the young matron’s every day religion to-day, as in the generations that are past. Hysteria would be at a discount, nervous prostration unknown, and the thousand and one new diseases, which are the product of fear of work, rather than because of it, would drop from human experience, along with “operations” and surgeon’s fees, did women have more faith in work and less fear of it. Let me say to you, girls, as I sit thinking of those splendid types of American womanhood of half a century and a century ago, what Uncle Tom in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” said to his mistress, when she was complaining to him that her troubles would kill her. “Oh laws, Missy! Trouble never kills anybody; it is frettin’ about it does it.”

So, I say to you, it is not honest, hard work that makes you sick; but lack of it and the belief that it would. Get that belief out of your head and you will be amazed at what you can bring to pass, and feel better for the doing of it.

Environments change. The young wife to-day, who has the courage to start in life with the man of her choice, would often gladly face the virgin prairie, if only there were untilled acres to pre-empt, instead of the uncertain day’s wages and rented home. Say what you please; for the making of individual homes in the best sense of the word, the period in American history between the years 1812 and the close of the rebellion in 1865, was the golden period; and the choicest and best, the very heart of it all, was to the Iowa pioneers between the years of 1830 and 1850.

There is no “career” a woman may chose, that calls for all the sterling virtues, as does the serious business of home-making.

Next week pioneer religious conditions will receive some notice.

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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