Chapter XLVI

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas



Ground Home Grists for Settlers

Origin of the Old Mill Race and Dam at Wapello…Winter Quarters of Rivermen


  Away back in the 40s when the writer was a boy his place of abode was in a hewed log cabin on the west bank of the Iowa river, about seven miles below the junction of the cedar and Iowa.  The meals at the time consisted of hog and hominy, and for a change, hog and corn cakes.  the nearest mill, for sometime was on the skunk river, a two days drive from our place.  Long creek emptied its water into the Iowa river, just below our farm.  During this period was the commencement of the development of the water power on the Iowa streams, and many of these little corn crackers were located on the creeks and rivers.  They were slow, but they did the work.  The miller would require the farmers to register their names on his book, and then take their turns.  The farmers would go into camp around the mill, and a man would frequently be compelled to wait several days to get his meal.  One of the first attempts to develop the water power on a large scale, was made near Wapello by a man named Sterrett.  He came from the state of Ohio, and brought some money with him.  He told the people around there that what they needed to make them prosperous, was mills operated by water power.  His proposition was to dig a canal from Wapello to Long Creek, a distance of seven miles. It was regarded as a wild, visionary project, and a waste of money, but Sterrett went to work and made the ditch, paying the bills as he went along.  When the canal was finished he threw a dam across Long Creek to turn the water into his canal.  He found that he had sufficient fall and head to roll the wheels at Wapello, where he built and put in operation a saw mill and a woolen mill.  The farmers brought their logs and their wool, and business went along in good shape until the dry months, when Sterrett discovered that Long Creek did not furnish sufficient water to supply the canal.  He was not only short of water but short of money, but he had the grit, and would not let go.  He wrote to a nephew back in Ohio, named Semple, telling him that he had a good thing in Iowa.  All that it needed was some more money to back it.  Semple came to Wapello.  Sterrett transferred all of the property to him, advised him to push the project, then went to Oregon and never returned.  Semple was a fine specimen of manhood.  He was nearly seven foot high and correctly built, from the ground up.  He was also a quiet peaceable gentleman, and a member of the church, and had enormous strength.  I have seen him lift a load which three ordinary men could not raise from the ground.  I also distinctly remember that the rounders and bad men of that section who were hunting trouble, never went to Semple the second time.  He played with them like a child would play with a toy.

  Semple found that in the attempt to develop the water power, his uncle made two serious mistakes.  That he had made the canal too small, and that he should have used the Iowa river as a feeder for the canal, instead of the creek.  So at the Wapello end of the canal Semple built a powerful dredge boat, and with this dug his way to Long Creek, then down Long creek, some three or four miles to the Iowa River. There, just below the mouth of the creek, he built a dam across the river about 600 feet in length.  This work forced the water up the creek and down through the canal.  The canal was now about 100 feet in width, of sufficient depth to carry a large volume of water, and give him a good head at Wapello.  So he abandoned the old saw mill and the woolen mill, and built a large flouring mill.  It was five stories high operated five run of burrs, four for wheat and one for corn.  The Semple mill did a large business for many years.  Then came the development of the coal veins, other parties became interested in the mill, the water power was abandoned and steam power took its place.  Later on the big merchant mill put the Wapello mill out of business, the building went into decay, and was finally torn down.  We have been a progressive people, but in this matter of water power we are now going back to the starting point.  The increased cost of coal and wood, as well as labor, and the use of electricity is driving us back to the cheap water power, which our fathers used in operating the meal mills.  At this date, more than 60 years after the time of Semple and Sterrett, a power company had discovered that this place in old Louisa county is a valuable power site.  They have purchased some land up there and are preparing to use it.  The lapse of time has brought many changes and created new conditions.  Sterrett was not insane in the 40s as many believed him to be, simply ahead of the age in the ideas on the power question. 

  River men, as a rule, selected the smaller town as a place of residence, living expenses were much less there than in the cities and they preferred them for many reasons.  In Savanna, Guttenberg, Le Claire, Buffalo and Montrose were the winter quarters of many of these men.  A pilot employed on one of the four packets, then operating between Davenport and Montrose, made his winter home in Buffalo.  He had lived there from boyhood, knew everybody in and around there, and always had a good word for his home town, as everybody should have.  As the packet was approaching Buffalo, the captain thought to have some fun with the pilot,  he started a general roast on the town, calling it all manner of mean names.  Now, the captain did not know this pilot as well as some of the rest of us.  He was a good fellow, but he had a temper.  If one wanted a controversy with him, he could easily get it by making some disparaging remark about Buffalo. He would not stand for it.  So on this occasion, he handed it out to the captain so strong that it made the latter gentleman sore.  The captain started the racket, but the contest between the two developed the fact, that the commander of the boat could not stand a roast.  They had some hot talk between Buffalo and Davenport and at the latter place the pilot was paid off and discharged.  I have thought that this was a mean thing for the captain to do.  The pilot is still living but he is not in Buffalo.  If the captain is still with us, I think he will concede that he was wrong, and he ought to send a letter of apology to this former pilot, now an old man.   


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