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~ Waterloo Courier, August, 1906 ~


Early in April, 1853, in company with A. W. Barber, James Hempseed, and P.S. Canfield, I started from the little hamlet of Cherry Valley, Illinois, for the then far west Iowa. We traveled with the iron horse to its western terminus, a distance of eight miles, to the village of Rockford, Illinois, then by stage and back to Savannah, Illinois. We crossed the Father of Waters the first time on an old rotten horse ferry and landed in Sabula, Iowa. From there we had to strike out on foot.


We took a northwesterly course up the Wapsie, through Anamosa, Maquoketa, Quasqueton, Independence, etc. By the time we reached Quasqueton our feet were badly blistered and very sore. A physician told us to pour alcohol into our boots and it would cure our feet. Well, we did so, and if ever four boys did a jig, we were the ones. We tried to find the doctor, but he had suddenly left town.

Our entrance into Black Hawk County was christened with a good soaking in the Wapsie. The water was very high and we had only a small canoe to cross with. It would only carry two, so A. W. Barber and myself took first passage. When we reached the opposite bank I caught some bushes to stop the canoe and it went bottom side up in a hurry and we were floundering in about six feet of water, but by a lively amount of kicking and squirming we reached shore safely, but the grip containing our change of clothing gracefully floated downstream.


Well, we had all we wanted of the canoe and neither of us would venture back for the others. We finally got a man by the name of Logan Bright, who happened to live about eight rods away and the only resident on the west bank of the Wapsie at that time between Independence and Lester Township , to come to our assistance with a team and wagon. The boys boasted then that they would cross with dry clothing, but the water was so high that he dare not drive across, so he took one horse and carried them over that way. The horses had to swim about fifty feet, so they were about as wet as we were.

We got to Lester Township about noon to a Mr. McDowell’s, where the little town of Dunkerton is located. We got dinner and then crossed on a small raft, too little to carry two and by the time we would get across the raft would be sunk down so we would be in the water up to our arms, so that was the second ducking and the second time of stripping and ringing out our clothes.


We finally located on Sections 4, 5, 8, and 9, and went back by way of Dubuque to enter our land. Mr. Barber built a house during the summer, the first frame house built in Lester, and it is in fair repair and is occupied by William Magee on Section 4, Mr. Barber, J. R. Owen, P.S. Canfield, and families all moved into it in September, 1853, four miles from the nearest neighbors.


During the winter we cut logs and in the spring of 1854, J. R. Owen and P.S. Canfield built log houses.


Meat was plenty, such as deer, rabbits, raccoons, prairie chickens, etc. It was not an uncommon sight to see as many as 25 deer in one grove.


Our first milling was done at Quasqueton, 30 miles away, a 3 days trip for a yoke of oxen. There was no roads, no bridges, only a trail, and in case of high water we had to chain our wagon to the reach, lay a couple of poles on the end gates, pile our grist onto them, and drive in. The trusty oxen would always land us safely on the other shore. It was only ten miles to our nearest post office, and we frequently went on foot rather than drive the oxen.


In the winter and spring of ’55 there were several log house built by Enos Wood, Pardy Wood, John Carncross, Thomas Titus, A. B. McIntosh, John Cook, W. W. Beal, and some others. I drove oxen to break the first ground for the first public highway in Lester Township.


My first vote was cast for the location of the courthouse on the ease or west side of Waterloo. Well, it was located on the east side and everybody knows where and a good many old settlers know why it was located down the river. But it served the county well for 46 years and now Black Hawk County has a magnificent new courthouse erected at a cost of nearly $150,000 and who can tell why it is located in such an unsightly spot?


We saw hard times the first few years. The panic of ’57 and the wildcat money, good one day and worthless the next. Then came the flooded season of 1858 and the final windup about the first of August with an awful flood, hail storm and high wind, laying everything flat to the earth. 1902 has been a repetition of it, but we were a great deal better prepared for it in the way of bridges, highways, railroads, drainage, etc.


The first few years we had plenty of rattlesnakes to contend with. Both men and cattle were bitten frequently, but we had a never-failing remedy. It was a sure cure in every case for both man and beast. As it may benefit someone, I will give the recipe: one part sprits of ammonia and two parts sweet oil. Two or three applications to the wound and all is well.

In 1854 there was an Indian scare in Iowa and for several nights we would all gather at one house with our rifles loaded for business, for it soon blew over and all was calm on the Wapsipinicon.

The wet season of 1858 we had to go to Fairbank to mill, a distance of seven miles. Had to go on foot and back for our flour. We always went in a gang of five or six for safety. We had a boat to take our flour and clothes over the streams and we boys would swim or wade through. My brother Eli and myself are the only living ones out of that crowd.

Our first taxes were paid at Cedar Falls and had to be paid in gold and silver, and sometimes it was pretty hard work to get it. Then we had the Iowa State Bank currency receivable at home for taxes, which was a great help for us.

In 1861 the War of the Rebellion was thrust upon us and gold and silver disappeared. Lester Township furnished its quota of volunteers and a good many never lived to return home. Money became scarce and there were hard times for awhile, but the war was a great benefit to the country in two ways at least. First, it created the national greenback and made it legal tender for both public and private debts. It is worth its face value in gold or silver and is good anywhere in the United States, and we have the best money of any nation on earth, backed up by the gold standard, which ought to satisfy anybody.


Second, it wiped the curse of slavery out of existence on every foot of soil belonging to the United States, and now we are a free nation and a reunited nation, and the most enlightened and powerful nation of the face of the earth.


Henry Owen

~ transcribed and contributed David Owen for the Iowa History Project

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