IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
Years ago, before her death at the age of 86, my Mother, Irene Odell Miller, sat down and wrote the following:
STORIES OF THE FAMILY
JOHN ODELL AND
LUCY YORK ODELL
I have gone through material written by Laura and Cleve Odell,
brother and sister of a family of ten children.
I have sorted and put together this material in book form.
This material is from memories of their family life in the Nineteenth
Lee, who is mentioned so often in these stories, was the oldest of ten children. His real name was Levi. He was my father. Next oldest was Luke, then Laura, Cleve, Maggie, Harold (Pete) who passed away at the age of nineteen, Alvah who died shortly after birth, then Mary, Maude and Dean.
The first part of this book is from the memories of Cleve. His first memories are from their home called the Parson Place in Toolesboro, Iowa.
Irene Odell Miller
THE PARSON PLACE
By: Cleve Odell
Papa farmed part of the land and in the fall and winter had a log and wood business north of the Indian Mound near Toolesboro, Iowa. He got the profit from the wood, lumber and logs taken from the land for five years. He fenced in a tract of it hog-tight, using the un-cleared portion for stock pasture. He hired one or two men the year around for farm work. He hired several more in the fall and winter for corn shucking and timber work. He carried on a profitable business at the same time furnishing employment for several people.
He also bought and operated the grocery store for a short time, then sold it to William Mayne who operated it for many years.
In Toolesboro we had a two room school with two and sometimes three teachers with classes from one to eighth grade. I do not remember at what age the other children started to school, but I started when I was four years old. I could read both the primer and the first reader upside down. The reason was that the older children held the book with the top toward me, when they taught me to read. Try reading that way some time. In a short while I could read properly.
We were all eager and able to learn, which was a good thing because later we moved to Bay Island and could not attend school for four years.
Grandma Coffield lived very close, west of the schoolhouse. Between her house and the school was a small tract she used for a cow pasture. She had one cow, very cross and afraid of strangers, probably caused by being teased by the older pupils. One morning several boys were sitting on the board fence which separated the school yard from the pasture when the cow ran and butted his head against the fence very hard. Several of the boys fell from the fence but got back to the school yard safely.
Grandma must have loved children. Quite often she would call some of us over after school and share with us stick candy, which she would take from a large glass jar which seemed to always be full.
We older kids used to go up to the “Lease” as it was called. This was where a lot of farm activities went on and where we found lots of fun and excitement. One day while we were there Vern Willard was separating hogs and a large snake bit him. They applied tobacco juice to the wound and gave him a large quantity of whiskey inwardly. The result? No harm done by the snake, and old Vern was all smiles.
Another time several of us (men and boys) were cutting sorghum cane. George Sellers spotted a covey of quail. They were some distance away so he flushed them out and shot into them with his shotgun. He got several of them and also Oliver Odell who was working in the line of the buckshot. From his person they had to take out several shots with the aid of a pocket knife and tweezers.
My memory goes back to when I was two and a half or three years old. I remember our old dog Towser. I remember an old chicken called Spec. Mama would put as many as one hundred chicks with her at a time to take care of. There was a large lilac bush in the back yard near which was a large chicken coop. Here this hen would keep her brood, never working away and would raise the whole brood with little loss.
There was a ravine which could not be farmed across, just a short distance south of our house. This had grown up in small trees. In the spring there were beautiful flowers to be found there and in the fall great big horse weeds. We would make bows of the small trees and arrows from the tall tough weeds and play cowboys and Indians. In the spring and summer we would spend many hours there.
and Grandpa Odell
was of Holland Dutch nationality and kept an immaculately clean house - even on
judged her neighbors by their wash. When
new people moved into their area she waited for their first washing to be hung
on the line. If they put up a good
straight line and put out a nice white washing, hung properly, they were judged
nice folks. But if they put up a
sloppy line, a dingy wash and hung them every which way, they were no good.
Grandma would say with a stern look and sniff, “You youngin’s stay
away from those folks. They are
when Grandma lived on the farm she had a room called the parlor.
No one was allowed to enter except on special occasions.
It was reserved for quality company.
The preacher, his wife, church ladies and high toned relatives.
We kids would have to sit quietly on a chair if we were allowed to go in
and you could only go in when Grandma invited you because it was kept locked.
She had a lot of nice French furniture in it.
I can remember the chairs. They
were Louis number something or other. There
were two lovely settees and a number of other rockers and occasional chairs all
covered with beautiful needlepoint.
in particular I just loved and when I was older Grandma would give me a nice
white cheese cloth and let me dust it. It
was covered with beautiful cream colored satin damask with big crimson roses in
needlepoint. Grandma did not permit
any furniture polish on her furniture, only elbow grease.
can remember other little incidents of going to Grandma’s house.
She would give us a big thick slice of fragrant warm homemade bread.
I remember one Sunday when I was visiting them.
Grandpa was sitting behind the old heating stove in the sitting dining
room sort of hugging the stove as if he were chilly.
It was late fall and the days were getting cool, but now I realize
Grandpas was chilly a lot of the time.
said emphatically, “Oliver Perry, you go right now and clean up.
The ladies will be coming home from church any minute now and some of
them are dropping in and you look like the wrath of God”.
Grandpa said, “Aw, mother, I’m clean, just ain’t dressed up.
Don’t make me put on that old stiff shirt”.
But Grandma was adamant, and poor old Grandpa had to go in and dress up.
I felt sorry for him and begged Grandma not to make him put on that old
stiff shirt. I said, “Why can’t
Grandpa wear his old clothes”? Those
days the dress up shirts had a stiff bosom and a stiff starched collar and both
were polished with the iron until they shined and believe me, Grandma was a
Grandpa dressed up, but said he darned if he would wear the collar and Grandma
let him off on that one. I thought
it was stiff enough anyhow without that darned collar.
Grandma always talked to me like she would to an adult, and I really did understand like an adult too. She said “Your Grandpa’s folks are aristocrat and mine are only good old hard working Holland Dutch and I’m not going to have them think your Grandpa married common trash”.
1870’s – 1880’s
By: Laura Odell
When I went to school, we lived in a little town called Toolesboro. It was an interesting little place. Everyone worked on farms or fished for a living unless they had a job with the county or were Civil War veterans on pensions or retired farmers. Looking back now, I realize there must have been carpenters, brick layers, and builders of all sorts, but I am sure they had to supplement their income with farm work for a living.
Toolesboro had a few comfortable old homes of retired farmers and veterans of the Civil War who lived on their pensions. There were rental houses, a general store, a nice little Methodist Church, a two room school house with grades taught up to ninth, a number of homes for families, but no taverns. Those were on top of the hill.
Under the hill along the Iowa River was another mixed population. Some very nice families with pretty homes, some fishermen and some mixed and colored families who came here with their masters after and during the Civil War. They had settled in homes of their own under the hill. They were employed by the white folks. They were good people colored or not. They were good Christians and good neighbors. Most of them were mullatto or quadrooms, some mighty nice looking people. I remember one pretty little negro girl named Nellie, who worked for mama when there were new babies. She was a sweet child, pretty complexion, dark curly hair, not kinky. Mama use to take some of her nice old dresses and make them over for Nellie and she looked very pretty. I used to run off and go down to Nellie’s home under the hill. They would spoil me badly. They would sit me up on the table and curl my hair, feed me anything I wanted. Years later I heard Nellie had gone to a new farming community and met and married a nice white farmer and had a lovely family. She was so well liked in the community the ones that knew wouldn’t tell anyone she had colored blood in her nor let anyone else tell. As far as I know, it has never shown up in any of her ancestors.
The village also had a couple of large Indian Mounds.
In the last few years they have yielded many Indian relics.
Toolesboro is now a historical landmark.
A CIRCUS IN
Mama started us off right sending us to Sunday school and church. Even Papa joined the church when he was first married. , but somehow we drifted away and went back later in life. I thought they had some snobs in that little Toolesboro church and they hurt my sensitive feelings turning up their noses because I wasn’t always dressed as nice as the well to do families.
For a while we loved to go. Mama and we kids sang just as loud as anyone. But Luke, who tried to help raise his sister just right tugged at Mama’s dress one day and said “Mama, do you hear how Laura is singing that song? She says I will guide thee with my knife”. I couldn’t see how you could guide with an eye. You would have to have something to point with.
Another song we sang a lot was “The Consecrated Cross I’ll Bear”, and it irked Luke to no end because I always sang it “The Consecrated Cross Eyed Bear”.
I believe it was about this time that Papa began to “kick at the traces”. He worked awfully hard and had been doing so well, but probably the family coming so fast, and heavy responsibilities developing before he had gotten thoroughly adjusted to parenthood frightened him. Anyway, he began drinking a little, gambling a little, and flirting a little with the pretty women of the neighborhood who would flirt. It may have been because he was going around with a neighbor who did all these things. I think he and Mama were well mated and understood one another well or there might have been some serious trouble.
One time there was a circus coming to
This particular morning, Mama asked Papa if we were going to the circus.
Papa said, “Hell no”. How
could he go? The weeds were taking
the corn and due to too much rain he still had a lot of planting and in
Mama didn’t say a word, but began to round us up and bathe and comb our hair and put on our best clothes. She made me sit on a chair after she got me dressed up so I wouldn’t get dirty again by the time we got started. Then she packed a big basket of food she had prepared the day before. She had baked chicken, pies and bread. I must have heard that little bird tell Mama something because I seemed to know what it was all about.
In a little while Papa came rushing in, went into the little bedroom and
started shaving in an awful hurry. Mama
said “John, have you decided to go to the circus after all?”
Papa said, “Well, I have got to get a few plow shares sharpened before
I can plow any more, so I thought I might as well go to
In the meantime she had sent Lee out to put the basket of food in the spring wagon and start hitching the horses up. When Papa came hurrying out, we were all in the spring wagon, meek as a lamb, and Lee had the team and traces ready to hitch up. Papa had the funniest look on his face. He looked at the team and at us sort of puzzled and then here came Mama out in a nice print dress. She looked rather fat and I thought now I know she is pregnant. Everyone got in and we started.
We drove up and around the big hill and by the store and there at the top of the hill stood Libby Sprague. She was a pretty blonde housewife with her cute little blonde daughter, Stella. Libby was a young wife of a civil war veteran much older than she and her husband was also an alcoholic. In those days they were just called plain drunkards. I could see Papa had a hard time keeping his eyes off her. She was just so pretty. I jumped up, leaned over Mama’s back and whispered, “Let me out, I’ll scratch her eyes out”. Mama said, “You sit back down there and behave yourself. I’ll handle this”. Well, Mama gave Papa a stern, mischievous, sort of triumphant look and Papa gave a sort of sheepish apologetic grin and looked down. Libby gave a kind of high silly laugh and said, “I was hoping someone would come by so I could get a ride to the circus. Do you folks have room?” Mama said high wide and handsome, “Certainly Lib, there’s plenty of room. Climb right in”. So they got in the back seat of the wagon, but Lib had to hold Stella o her lap all the way. I knew then that things were all right if Mama thought so.
We all spent the night with Uncle Jess and Aunt Addie York and everyone went to the circus the next day. When we got to the circus Mama put out her hand and Papa sheepishly put plenty of money in it. I think for the first time in our lives we saw and heard everything a circus has to offer.
That wasn’t the finish of the day. We came home late and of course cold and hungry. We were a sleepy, cross bunch of kids. While Papa was outside putting up the horses and feeding them, Mama hurried to build a great fire in the kitchen stove, undressed her sleepy brood and fixed us a bite to eat.
When Mama built that fire in the stove she didn’t know that a couple of half grown kittens had crawled in the oven while we were gone. They had probably crawled in there to keep warm and Mama didn’t know when she closed the oven door. We smelled something burning. Mama opened the oven door and those poor kittens were burned to a crisp. We loved those kittens, especially Luke because he was a real animal lover. Poor Mama. She felt so terrible
Mama left us with my brother Lee sometimes when she went to church and he entertained us so we wouldn’t miss her. He would make us whistles of willow limbs and the cutest monkey jumping jacks strung so you could pull the string and they would perform on the trapeze.
When I was about 6 years old, Lee made me a playhouse in the old grainery while it was empty. It was a lovely playhouse. The rooms were all white pine, put together very compact to keep the wheat and oats from spilling out and also to keep the rodents that liked grain from coming in. The floors were also lovely white pine, and Lee made a nice cupboard and other furniture, and as a last lovely thought, a piano.
The piano was made of nice boards with a long stack and rod from a wagon and placed it all along the front for the keyboard between two grooves at each end. He hunted until he found enough horse shoes to make the full octaves of a piano. He locked and turned until he found enough notes to make a full keyboard. Then he found four long slender bolts to use as hammers and we could both play at once. Believe it or not, we made good music. Lee would play the tap notes and I would play the low notes, tapping them out with our slender steel bolts. We played “Nearer My God to Thee”, “Go Down Moses”, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, Old Black Joe” and all the old songs.
I remember Mama and Mrs. Parsons standing outside the grainery listening and Mrs. Parsons shook her head and said “I never heard anything like it”.
Grandpa (Lee Odell)
By: Lee Miller
If I may be permitted I would like to add the following regarding our Grandfather Levi (Lee) Odell who is mentioned above.
Through unfortunate circumstances, none of which were my parents fault, in the late 1940’s we lost our home. Grandma and Grandpa Odell were kind enough to take us in until my father could fine another home.
Our family at that time consisted of my father, mother, the writer and one brother, Ron. I was about 8 years old when we moved into Grandma and Grandpa’s house, and Ron was about 3. We lived with Grandma and Grandpa for about one year before our father found another home. Actually, it was an old houseboat that had been converted into a home. The previous owner had built an extension on the back that contained a bedroom and bathroom. We were really moving up in the world, because we had an inside toilet, and all Grandma and Grandpa had was an outhouse.
Our new home was just diagonal and across the street from Grandma and Grandpa’s house. What we called “catty-wampus”. So, my brother Ron and I were never far from their house.
In 1949, another brother was born, and my parents named him James Edward or (Jimmy) as we called him. In 1958, a sister Cynthia (Cindy) was born. Unfortunately, Cindy was born one year after our Grandpa died, and never had a chance to know him
Grandma and Grandpa had a big family. Seven children including 6 girls and 1 boy, and we had a lot of family get-togethers. Grandpa was very talented. He seemed to have a gift for music. He played the piano and the fiddle. Whenever we had a family get-together there was always music and singing.
Grandpa had a large garden behind his house and raised all his own vegetables. He also had blackberry and raspberry bushes and a large Concord grape vine that ran the full width of his garden. I still remember those grapes as the biggest juiciest grapes I have ever eaten. He also had a very large yard that bordered to the left of his home. All we had back in those days was a push mower. And I mean ‘push’. As you pushed it, the wheels would turn rotating blades, and you usually had to push it back and forth several times to cut one small patch of grass. Grandpa was as particular about his yard as he was about his garden. Since he was getting older I usually got the job of mowing. But Grandpas was too proud to admit that cutting grass was getting too hard for him. One day I noticed Grandpa was working on the lawn mower back near the shed. When I went to see what he was doing I noticed an old washing machine that Grandma used to use sitting next to the lawn mower. He had taken the motor out of the washing machine and had somehow mounted it on top of the lawn mower. It was a belt driven motor and the belt was wrapped around a pulley that he had installed around the shaft of the rotating blades. It took some doing, but it wasn’t long before he had that thing working. The rotating blades were so stiff you had to tilt the mower back and hold it in that position until the blades were spinning real fast. Then slowly lower the mower and you could mow a pretty good swath of grass before you had to tilt it back again. But it worked! I believe Grandpa may have had the very first power mower in Muscatine. Too bad he didn’t get a patent on it. I could have been writing this from some lovely island in the Caribbean.
Grandpa also had another very distinct talent. Eating peas off a knife! He would use his fork and roll the peas onto the blade of his knife. Then in one swift movement, lift the knife and the peas would roll off the blade into his mouth, without dropping one pea. My brother Ron and I would watch this in amazement. Of course we had to try it. We couldn’t even get the peas to stay on the knife blade, let alone get them to our mouths. When we did manage to get a couple of peas to stay on the blade, they would fly off as soon as we tried lifting them to our mouths. I still remember Grandpa’s sly little grin as he watched us try.
Grandpa was always very quiet and I don’t remember him ever raising his voice in anger. Except one time. He and my Grandma were very fond of fried carp, so he and I spent a lot of time in the summer fishing the Mississippi River behind the Alcohol Plant which was a short walk from their house. We always used Grandpa’s special formula dough balls. To this day, I don’t know what that special formula was, but the carp couldn’t resist them. The dough balls were so thick and gooey that even in the heavy current of the river, they would stick to the hook. One day Grandpa and I were sitting along the river bank fishing. Grandpa always took along sticks that he cut from tree limbs with a fork on one end. We would shove the stick in the bank near the river, then throw out our lines and lay the rod through the fork. That way, we could sit back and watch our rod tips. When the rod tip bent and started jerking up and down we knew we had a fish on our line. Anyway, the fish weren’t biting too good that day and I was getting bored, so I stood up and started throwing rocks and more or less day dreaming. Grandpa warned me more than once, “now Lee, watch that rod”. The Mississippi has a very heavy current and when a carp struck your line and got the hook in its mouth, it would start swimming downstream with the current. They are fast and powerful. The next thing I knew Grandpa was yelling at me again, “Lee, your rod”! I turned and saw the rod sliding into the river. It was too late. The carp had pulled the rod into the river and it was gone. I still remember Grandpa looking me directly in the face and yelling, “Damit Lee, that was my best rod”! That was the first time Grandpa had ever raised his voice at me, and the first time I had ever heard him curse, and I was devastated. When we packed up our gear and started walking home Grandpa put his arm around me and said “Don’t worry about the rod Lee, we can always get another one.” I knew then that he felt worse than I did. Not because I had lost his best rod, but because he had yelled at me.
By: Laura Odell
There is an interesting story about how Papa floated his logs to market when he was in the logging business.
The men would sort logs all winter long and haul them to the riverbank (Mississippi River) where they would make a raft. In the spring after the rise of the river receded and after the ice had melted and gone, they would begin building the logs into a raft. I can’t tell you exactly how they made the raft but they bored big holes in the ends of certain end logs of the raft and made big wooden pegs to hold the raft together, with the long poles, ropes and wires. Sometimes it seemed a quarter of a mile long. A groove was built at each end to hold a big homemade oar, and a man was stationed on each end to guide it when it was ready to float. A platform of boards were tied to the middle of the raft. There were some pads for the men to lie on when they could. A little tent, camp stove and some food, and a skiff to use when they were ready to shove off. Whoever took the raft down to the market in Burlington, Iowa just lived on it until the logs were delivered.
Their river home on the raft was tough in some places those days. There were rowdy’s and bums on every part of the riverfront. Gambling and red light districts were connected with most of them and a lot of bad people loafed around. Now days they are called gangsters.
I remember one night Papa had a hard time getting home alive and keeping his money. I remember that time well because I bawled to go along. It looked like such fun camping out on a raft that way and floating down past all those big streamers, and cooking and eating on a raft.
This time Lee went along. I think Luke went too. I bawled because boy’s had all the fun, but of course they could not take me.
The floated the raft down to Burlington, and after Papa cashed in his
logs and got his money, quite a pocket full too because in those days payment
was usually paid in cash. They put
up in a hotel overnight. Papa had to
return to the boar and raft for something he had forgotten and he went alone.
He knew there was danger because he was carrying all that money so he was
especially alert and watched closely. But
in spite of his caution, a couple of thugs darted out from behind something and
swung a sand bag at his head. It hit
him with a glancing blow in spite of his ducking and knocked him over the river
bank. He said he landed on his feet
and just started running as fast as his feet would carry him.
Down the bank a ways he circled around and came back to town calling for
the constable, but of course he was no where around.
Papa said he bet he broke the record for running and jumping.
Anyway, Papa and the boys got home safe and sound with the money.
LUCY YORK ODELL
Mama had a beautiful voice and sang a lot while working or rocking her babies. I could always feel when she was troubled or unhappy by the way she sang. She would let her voice soar out and sing all the old songs of her singing school days and of her youth.
Mama didn’t have a happy childhood as her own children had. Her mother died when she was twelve years old. Grandpa tried hard to keep his family together and raise them right, but Mama was the only girl at home with a family of five or six boys. The oldest child, Aunt Ellen, was married at that time and had a family of her own to care for and not much of a man for a husband.
At Grandpa’s home, being a bachelor establishment, boys just naturally gravitated to it. Mama tried hard to keep house for them but Grandpa got worried about not raising her right or having other women around. He looked around for a nice home and some woman to raise her carefully. Finally, he found a nice family to take her.
Mama didn’t know how Grandpa paid them or what terms they made but they were supposed to send her to grade school until she graduated, teach her music, and train her to be a lady. In return, she was supposed to be taught to work, cook, and help them at all times.
They were a nice Christian family living on a farm outside Aledo, Illinois. Their name was Frew. They had two daughters named Sarah and Mary. Both were old maids. Each had been given a good education. Mary was a school teacher. Sarah was a music teacher. Mama said the old lady was just an ordinary hard worker, nice to live with and often taking her part when Sarah got cranky. The old gentleman was a cultured, well educated man. Very kind and good. Mary was nice too, and supervised her lessons. But Sarah was a cranky frustrated, downright mean old maid and wouldn’t teach her a thing or let her touch her lovely piano. But the old lady would sometimes let her go in and practice and she would watch and warn her when Sarah was coming. She got no music lessons at home but they did send her to singing school and she learned to sing beautifully.
In those days, every year of session of singing was held in the schools and a singing master conducted classes for a modest salary. The community was very music conscious and they had some good concerts. They also had spelling bees all winter long, usually on Saturday night. There were writing classes which nearly all of the children attended and also some adults. I remember we use to have all of these things in Toolesboro and Lee, Cleve and I attended them. I never did learn to write legibly but Lee learned to write beautifully and could head all his pages with beautifully drawn birds, flowers and scrolls. Luke learned to write nicely too, and even Cleve, as young as he was, could write nice, although he wrote back-handed.
The Frew family kept their part of the bargain getting Mama thru school and normal school so she could teach. But she disappointed them by going over to see Grandpa and the boys and meeting Papa and falling in love. That was the end of the teaching period.
I remember one time playing outside the house by the front fence and Mrs. Elizabeth Parsons was walking pas the house very slowly listening to Mama singing inside. Mama was really letting her voice soar out in that lovely old song “Gone with the Roses”. She was troubled or unhappy about something. I could always tell by the way she sang. Mrs. Parsons stopped and listened for a minute and said to me, “Laura, your mother has a beautiful voice. It is a great pity it hasn’t been trained or used”.
I guess when Pete was born Mama was tired of using family and bible names and decided to give him a pretty one, so she named him Harold Ray. Papa hooted at such a sissy name. Pete was a lively little baby and papa used to fold his little fists up and call him Pete Hauntis. Pete Hauntis was a great fighter in those days so Papa called him that and the name stuck.
As Pete grew older, he himself scorned the sissy name of Harold, so Pete it was for the rest of his life. Pete was the only one in the family that had straight hair. Mama’s was straight, but curly on the ends and black as an Indians. Pete was an ambitious fellow. He walked young, talked young and was a little tag-a-long of his older brothers. He thought he was just as adult as his brothers Lee and Luke. He was good enough to play the fiddle to dance by when he was fourteen years old. He could dance as good as any young man when he was twelve or thirteen and we girls liked to dance with him.
Pete and Johnny Sloan were about the same age and pals. Both were good dancers. They felt as big as the older boys and girls and would buy a number and be expected to be treated as adults. Most of us girls were amused by their sincerity. We had one girl that was suppose to be the belle. A dark haired pretty girl, she was an only child and spoiled as the dickens. She would turn up her nose when asked to dance. They always bowed and said, “May I have this dance please”? When they asked Dell she would say scornfully, “I don’t dance with children”! Dell hurt their feeling so the little scamps put their heads together to get even and finally get revenge. Most of our dances were quadrilles with a good waltz or two-step in between. So the boys stationed themselves in a corner. We had to pass rather close at their corner to “Allemande Left” and when Dell passed they would spit on her shoes. Dell got mad and went home and Papa Sloan threatened to tan their hides if they did it again, but privately we all nearly died laughing. She had it coming.
When Pete was about seventeen or eighteen years old, Papa let him claim an old race horse we had. Pete always had a soft spot in his heart for anything ailing or deformed and he loved old Attie all the more for her handicap. Attie had been a good race horse in her day but had some kind of accident that knocked one of her hips down, leaving one quite higher than the other. It didn’t seem to affect her running, and she could still out run most horses, handicapped as she was.
Pete used to take Attie to the local races and put her to betters or odds. Pete always dressed like a Rub and acted dumb. But believe me, Pete was no fool. He was usually a neat dresser. Pete would draw out some money and offer the fellows odds on their horses and that usually got a lot of winks and big ha ha’s, but they would put up their money. The Pete would act greener then ever and bet wilder and wilder. All the kids from our vicinity were in on it and they liked Pete anyway and cashed a pretty penny themselves. When the race started and Pete got on old Attie it got another big horse laugh. He who laughs last laughs best and Pete usually had the last laugh because old Attie could run, and almost always won and Pete usually had the money in his pockets.
For all his courage, liveliness and wit, he didn’t live long. He began to run a course of chills and fever. The local doctor and the family didn’t recognize it for what it was. We thought it was malaria, but it was tuberclerosis, and it had gone on too long. It was too late to save him. It was a real blow to all of us but it hit Papa worse. For the first time in many years he got out the old Bible and tried to get some consolation from it.
I remember the day of Pete’s funeral. Papa hitched old Daisy and Nellie to our buggy. Papa and the women folk rode in this one. Daisy and Nellie got scared at something along the road and reared and tried to run. Papa could hardly hold them although we didn’t see a thing for them to be scared of. Papa said after the funeral, “Some of the rest of us will follow soon”.
About a year later, Papa had an accident and died. I think it was old Attie that caused his death. Papa was planting corn and was a little short of horses. He didn’t usually hitch old Attie up with his good horses, as horses, like people, are cruel to their own kind if they are crippled or handicapped will try to bite or kick them. Old Nellie resented being hitched up with Attie and was trying to bite the old thing. Attie threw her head sideways hard and hit Papa on the side of his head with such force it knocked him to his knees. Mama saw the accident from the window and ran out but said Papa got up, put his hand to his head and said, “Gosh that could kill a fellow”. But he finished putting the shelled corn into the wagon and drove out to the field. Buck Hester was helping Papa and he said Papa got out and was adjusting the wire for the rows and bent over and he saw him fall. He waited for a second for him to get up and saw something was wrong. He ran over to him and he was unconscious and looked like he was dead. He knew he could not carry him all that distance so he ran to the house and got the buggy and hollered to Mama that Papa was down with a stroke or something. Buck hurried as fast as he could but Mama did not wait for him. She ran all the way to the field and when she got there she put Papa’s head in her lap. She said her dress was sopping wet with sweat. Together they got Papa in the buggy and took him home and tried to revive him after calling the doctor. The doctor told them he was dead when he fell. A brain hemorrhage resulting from the blow.
It seems we always had good neighbors. Even old Granny Coffield was a good neighbor, although I guess you would call her a character. She came from County Cork Ireland, and had lived a while in the big city. I wondered so many times how she came to be way out in the little town of Toolesboro, so far from the big cities.
She dressed like a little old Irish woman. She always had on two or three petticoats, each one a little longer than the other, and they were usually woolen or flannel. She had a real Irish brogue.
Sometimes our pigs would root a hole under the fence and get into her potato patch. The she would come storming over to our house and shake her fist under Papa’s nose and say, “Damn you Johnny Odell, your pigs are in my potato patch again! I’m gonna kill every damn one of em”! Papa would pat her on the back and say sympathetically, “Mrs. Coffield, I don’t blame you a bit. If you catch those pigs in your garden, you go right ahead and kill them. It will serve them right”. She would say, “Damn you Johnny Odell, you old blarney. You’re as bad as your pigs”. She would go home laughing, but she knew Papa would get something to fix those fences right away.
Tom Coffield, her son, was a lively, rather wild boy, usually mixed up in every joke or mischief in the village. He didn’t seem to like farming, but learned to be a brick mason and a builder. He loafed a great deal as a boy and would sneak off and go hunting. Granny used to worry about Tom and wanted him to help her more. One day she got really mad and told him she would fix it so he would have to stay home. She went and gathered all his shotgun shells and said, “I’ll burn the damn things”! Of course it blew the whole top off the stove but apparently didn’t hurt anyone. God takes care of children and helpless people, and people of little wit.
Speaking of good neighbors, reminds me that I almost stole something one time. We had some neighbors named Sillick who had a lovely little home nearby. They were a retired couple, but I don’t remember if he was a veteran or a farmer. They had a beautiful yard full of flowers and a lot of beautiful peonies. They were so beautiful and fragrant, I just loved them. We always had so many kids at our house it was impossible to have flowers and a nice yard. This particular time I remember, I was walking slowly past the front picket fence of their home and enjoying the beautiful flowers and fragrance. One peony was peeking through the fence at me. I looked all around and was just getting ready to pick it when Mrs. Sillick called out “Good morning, Laura. Aren’t the peonies lovely today”? Everyone called them ‘pineys’ in those days. She must have been watching me from the house. “Would you like to take some home to your Mama”? I just beamed. I walked home sniffing and enjoying them so much. Mrs. Sillick never intimidated that I was about to steal. I have never forgotten all though that was at least seventy years ago.
I remember once, when I was older, driving home from Wapello with Papa in our horse drawn buggy and we passed a farm home. There were big lilac bushes in full bloom just across the fence. The fragrance was so beautiful, I said “Papa, don’t you just love lilacs”? Papa got a dreamy look on his face and said “Yes Laura. I don’t believe there is any flower that smells as nice as lilacs. I remember the first time I kissed your Mama was under a lilac bush and I’ve never forgotten that lovely smell.” Then Papa added as an after-thought. “You’re Mama was an awfully nice girl Laura.” I was thrilled pink to realize Mama and Papa had their romance too.
time when Papa, Lee and Luke were out hunting they found two little baby
raccoons and brought them home. We
spoon-fed the little things until they learned to feed themselves.
If you think little kittens are cute, you should see baby raccoons.
They are the roundest, plumpest, soft furry little things you ever saw.
They have the cutest faces, little ears that perk up, prettiest eyes, and
the babiest little faces and paws.
they were old enough to feed themselves, they wouldn’t eat their food without
washing it first in clean water. If
we would forget to put a pan of water down for them to dip their food in they
would hunt around and find the water bucket or something you didn’t want them
to use, so we tried to always sit a pan of water by their food.
They sat up on their hind quarters to eat and daintily pick up a morsel,
dip it in the water two or three times, and holding it in their paws, eat it
like a real lady. They were as
playful as kittens. They were a lot
of trouble for Mama, and she would like to have gotten rid of them, but
wouldn’t consent, and anyway she and Papa got a kick out of them too.
they got older they got into everything. Mama
didn’t dare leave the dishes stacked and unwashed overnight.
Those coons would take those plates in their paws, lick to clean, slide
it off, do the next one the same way, and slide it off.
The funny thing was they would slide them on top of each other with only
a few scattered around, so you would guess they had been washed if you didn’t
know better because they were so clean.
was no use putting them outdoors because they had found a way to get into the
attic over the kitchen and come down back of the kitchen stove, where due to so
much wood being piled in the wood box, there was always an area where the
plaster and lathe were knocked off and they would come in through there. They
always went outside to the toilet though. Coons
are clean things.
they would make a swing out of Mama’s living room lace curtains.
They would run back a ways, make a fast run, and just jump and swing on
them. They swung on those things
until they reduced those curtains to ribbons and Mama just quit using curtains
until the coons were gone.
of the coons was a male. He was
darker tan and had darker stripes on his tail.
The other was a female and was more blonde and daintier, more feminine.
They did so many quite destructive things that I can’t remember them
time the female got sick. We thought
someone had tried to poison her and we didn’t see anything of either of them
for a couple of days. Then one
morning while we were eating breakfast, the male came down through that hole in
the wood box. We always had some
food and water out for them, and he ate some food, and got a big mouth full, and
went back through that hole in the wall. In
a little while he was back for more and took that up too.
For a week or two he made
regular trips carrying food up to his mate.
We had no way of getting up there so we couldn’t help in any way.
morning while we were eating breakfast, we heard a scrabble and here came that
coon right through the wall helping the little female through.
She was so thin you could count her ribs and so weak she still wobbled a
little. But you should have seen
that little brother as he actually pranced with happiness, led her to food, took
morsels and dipped them for her and watched her eat.
He was just bursting with happiness.
He didn’t touch his own food until she was completely finished.
After they finished they came over and looked up at us with as much as a
grin as a human and as if they knew we were happy to see them together again.
After they had rested awhile, he escorted her back to the hole in the
wall and watched her as anxiously as a human being as she was climbing through.
poor coons came to a tragic end. I
expected they were a nuisance to the neighbors - to the Coleman’s anyway.
They told us they were catching their young chickens.
One day we noticed the coons hadn’t been coming for their food.
We called them and called and hunted but couldn’t find them.
We never saw them again. Papa
said they had probably gone back to their own kind and were living in the woods.
We wept a little and gave them up for gone but not forgotten.
night Mama left me with the Coleman’s overnight for some reason.
I was put to bed in the attic. It
was a lonely but clean place to sleep with wonderful beds and I loved it.
But in the morning, I noticed two coon skins stretched over some boards
and hanging up. One was dark tan and
the other was blonde tan, just like our little coons.
We were so mad we didn’t speak to the Coleman boys for ever so long.
Papa and Mama tried to tell us we were
wrong. We knew better and I suspect
those boys took those coons with Papa and Mama’s consent.
The fiddle, or violin as most people call it, was made by a man who played for the James Brothers and the Coles to dance by. All the family knew the James and the Coles. They used this area for their stronghold and these people didn’t regard them as bandits but rather as southern patriots. They robbed from rich Yankees and gave to poor southerners.
Well, Lee was a natural musician and he fell in love with this grand old fiddle. It was made of special wood and had been scraped and rubbed until it was paper thin and was put together by a special process. It was resonant and musical and for good measure he had dried rattles of a big rattlesnake inside it. Believe you me it was a wonderful fiddle.
Papa bought it for Lee and he played it beautifully. He played any kind of music – dance tunes, classics, and anything you wanted to hear. He would improvise dreamy, lovely music. He had that violin for years.
Later on he had an orchestra of his own. Cleve played the guitar and piano accompaniment.
Lee loved that fiddle. It finally got busted and the whole family mourned for Lee. He was never able to find another one to compare with its beautiful resonant tone.
A German gentleman by the name of Mr. Boepple started the button business in Muscatine. This gave us kids a chance to earn some pin money. They were beginning to make pearl buttons out of clam shells.
Mr. Boepple had made them in Germany and he opened a factory and started digging clam shells to make them. Before too long a number of other people started button factories. Soon everyone along the river had boats filled up for clamming and Papa fixed himself one too. He, Lee, and Luke went out at odd times and fished for clams. The boat was fixed with long trout lines and a lot of big hooks. They would go out on the river sandbars and drop the lines and drag them along the bottom of the river. When they drew them up they usually had clams on every hook. When they had a boat load they would go in, unload and go back for more.
My younger brother, Cleve and I would take a skiff and row out on the sandbars and get out and wade around and feel them with our toes. We flushed them out that way and got a lot of them.
Papa built a big vat with a furnace underneath it on the river bank, a good deal like the one we used to cook molasses in. After we had piled up huge mounds of shells, we would build a big fire under the furnace, fill it with water and shovel the shells in. We cooked them a few minutes until they opened. Then Papa would shovel them out and the whole family, equipped with knives, would open them and clean them out. He washed them and put them in boxes to haul to the factory. Sometimes we found pearls and beautiful slugs which we sold too. Each childs shells were weighed by Papa and we individually got the money from them when they were sold. We nearly always had some pin money in the summertime. Something very few farmers children had.
Years later when I was training as a nurse at Bellview Hospital in Muscatine, I nursed Mr. Boepple, the originator of the button factory in Muscatine. He had a serious liver ailment from contacting malaria when he fished for, and bought muscle shells in the deep south in the Mississippi. He was a patient for a long time and finally died there. He became something of a mental patient, and became very stubborn and difficult to manage. He had made a fortune for himself and lost it by being stubborn and not cooperating with the other factory owners. He would not adapt to modern methods and machinery and they were continually discovering newer, faster, and better methods. He was left far behind and eventually became bankrupt, even though the other factory owners begged him to join them. They seemed to regret terribly the fact that he was going broke because they felt they owed their own success to him.
When he died, the other factory owners paid all his hospital bills and gave him a lovely funeral. I heard for a while that they gave a small pension to his survivors.
LUKE AND NELLIE
By: Laura Odell
Nellie Sloan and Luke Odell got married in 1904. The Sloan’s gave them a beautiful wedding. Mrs. Sloan made Nellie a lovely wedding dress and a lovely going away suit and other garments. They had the most wonderful dinner and wedding cake. We all helped beat the batter. Those days cake batter was something you beat and stirred for ever so long.
Of course at the ceremony Mama and Mrs. Sloan cried a little and Maudie just wailed. When the girls asked Maudie why she was crying so hard, she wailed, “I don’t like weddings, they are too much like funerals, and Mama and Mrs. Sloan are crying too.” So we told her that was because the family was starting to break up and it was hard on mothers.
Luke and Nellie had a nice home to move to.
He had rented the Hiram Hays place and bought all the furniture as it
was. He bought all the stock, cows,
hogs and everything. They set up
housekeeping in style. Of course it
was on the installment plan, but Luke and Nellie always did have a lot of
LEE AND EMMA
When we lived on the Hoffman place, Lee and Emma fell in love. Levi P. Odell and Emma Ella Smith.
Our house had a big yard and it was set way back away from the road on a sandy knoll. The yard was nice in wet weather, but not so nice in dry weather. All along the lane in front of the house were rows of tall cottonwood trees on each side. They were so tall they arched over the lane. About three fourths of a mile down the lane was a nice little rustic bridge. This was one of the places where Lee and Emma courted.
Lee and Emma met and fell in love while we lived there.
They started going together and some Sundays Lee would bring her to our
house and they would take long walks down this beautiful lane.
Lee’s little brothers and sisters, Pete, Mary and Maude would tag along
and peek and giggle and tease about kissing.
They made up a parody to the tune of “The Old Apple Tree”.
It went something like this:
In the shade of the old cottonwood tree
Where Emmy was waiting for Lee
And the sweet voice I heard
Like the song of a bird
Seemed to whisper sweet music to me.
I could bear the dull buzz of the bee
Mid the blossoms as she said to Lee
With a heart that is true
I’ll be waiting for you
In the shade of the old cottonwood tree.
This was a real love match and Lee and Emma got married. They had a nice home wedding. It was a big wedding with the whole family there. I made her a wedding dress and she looked lovely. She was almost tall, blue eyed, and slim. Yes, she was very slim then, but they say happiness makes you grow stout. So in a few years she began to grow stout – but not too much. She always had a good ‘figger’.
We kidded Lee a lot because his knees actually shook when he and Emma stood to be married. Emma was a little excited but not nervous.
I think in spite of the hard work, hard times and large family (seven children), they were happy ever after. They were a happily married couple and lived to celebrate their golden anniversary.
MY SISTER MARY
AND THE OZARKS
When we lived in the Ozarks Maude was just a baby. Our sister Mary thought the baby was awfully nice. We always had a baby at our house. Mary would share everything with Maude and if you didn’t watch out the baby would likely be eating anything from bread and meat to candy.
Mary was always an independent kid. She never like being made over. When she was learning to walk, if you would run to pick her up and help when she fell, she would say, “No” and push you away and insist on pulling herself up and doing her own walking. She could stand on her own two feet and darned if she didn’t too.
I guess being so independent is why she ran off so much. If Mama scolded her she ran off. If Mama paddled her, she ran off. If any of us picked on her or teased her, she ran off and you couldn’t call her back either. You couldn’t soft soap Mary. She would keep right on going to “Kingdom Come”.
I remember one time Mama had paddled her for some reason and she ran off. She started down the road on her sturdy little legs, mad as a wet hen. We were afraid she would run off some time and really get lost. Our house was right in the deep woods with three or four roads going in different directions and all of them thru deep woods and ravines. Mama told me to follow her keeping out of sight and let her go far enough to get a good scare. I ducked along the sides of the road and down in the ravine keeping her in sight and even making some sounds like a wild animal once in a while to frighten her. But Mary couldn’t be scared. I don’t believe she would be afraid of the old devil himself when she had a mad on. She just kept trudging sturdily on until I was afraid I was going to be lost myself. We had not lived there long yet. I was beginning to lose my bearings in the woods. I finally came out of the ravine and got hold of Mary and carried her back kicking and screaming and scratching. I told Mama she wouldn’t have stopped until she crossed the border into Arkansas. Anyway we watched her a lot more closely after that.
We had a lot of neighbors scattered through those woods. I can remember only a few of their names. Kanes, from Peoria, Illinois. They had two bachelor sons. We became bosom friends and later made the trek back to Illinois with them and were neighbors in New Boston. There were the Deitricks, Westermans, Chambers and Dodson’s.
Everyone raised large families in those days and every third Papa was a moon shiner and had a distillery hidden in a ravine or a hollow. They called them stills. The people seemed to live good although they did very little farming, it was so rocky. Everyone seemed to be very happy and contented.
Of course Papa got acquainted with those stills. Those men were pretty smart. They got Papa and the boys to help move one of the stills with our teams and wagons when the revenuers were on their trail. Then of course they were safe and we couldn’t tell on them as we were accessories, not that we would have because we liked our neighbors. They were friendly people and besides they couldn’t see why we didn’t have as much right to make whiskey as Uncle Sam. He was a damn Yankee anyhow. They used their own corn and grain they raised themselves and they were still dyed in wool rebels. Anything they could do to get ahead of the Yankees was legitimate to their nation.
One time Papa brought a jug of moon shine home. I heard them talk so much about it I decided to taste it. First I poured some out and it ran thick like castor oil. Then I tasted it to see why the dickens men liked it so much. It tasted like castor oil too. I didn’t see anything about that moon shine to be crazy about.
Those days’ people made their own entertainment and people had lots of parties and dances in their homes for the young people. The old people went too and enjoyed them as much as the young. Shortly after we moved there we were invited to a dance and Lee took me. I had never been to a dance before and was green as a gourd about everything. I was dressed pretty though because I was wearing a beautiful voile dress cousin Mollie Ryan, who was an expert dress maker had made for me. Mollie sewed for all the Swells in Muscatine and charged like the dickens but, of course, she didn’t charge “Uncle Johnny” so much. Papa and Mama had Mollie make me two beautiful little dresses before our trek. One was a lovely little blue silk with dots and trimmed in wide cream colored lace. The other was a kind of rose color, made plainer and I know now it was more suitable. I was just turning fifteen years old. I wore that dress and was very popular that night being a strange girl in a strange place. There were two very attractive boys in that crowd about sixteen or seventeen years old who made a race for me every dance, and finally each made me a promise to dance the next dance with him way ahead. The boys looked a lot alike being cousins and I could hardly tell them apart. I got them mixed up, so when one of the skipped up and led me out I thought he was the one, and then the other one came over and said I had promised that dance to him. They had an argument and were just ready to fight it out and I was just getting ready to weep, when the sister of one of them came to my rescue. The dance was being held at her house and she told them they should be ashamed. Then she told me confidentially that they had been sampling their Ma and Pa’s moonshine. I didn’t care. I sort of enjoyed them fighting over me.
One of the boys called on me the next Sunday. That particular Sunday Mama and Papa had gone visiting somewhere and left me home to get dinner for the kids. If I tell you I wasn’t much of a cook that is putting in lightly. I have never been a good cook. Our house wasn’t finished yet and we were still sort of camping out. Our house was just a skeleton inside. The walls weren’t finished. We had a long bench along one side of the kitchen where we kept the water bucket and wash pans, roller towels and so forth. On the next side were the stove, cupboards and cooking utensils. Around the corner of the bench was a big flour box, big enough to hold tow or three sacks of flour. There was a straight board across the back at the top and a sloping lid hinged onto this we opened to get the flour. Somehow a bar of soap got on top of the flour box but with six or seven kids, mostly boys washing there at every meal, you can guess how the soap got into the flour box. Anyway, I had to make biscuits and of course my beau stayed for diner. When Lee and Luke started in on those biscuits, they tasted a while with a funny look on their faces and started to grin. When I tasted the biscuits they tasted like soap. I was never so mortified in my life. Those Missouri women were wonderful cooks and housekeepers and when the boy’s got to giggling I left the table. I knew it wasn’t mannerly but I didn’t care. I didn’t want to ever see that boy again. I just wanted him to go home and never come back. I guess he didn’t enjoy soapy biscuits either because he never did come back.
The boys had me at their mercy for a long time. All they had to do to make me come to terms was to tell about my attempt at making biscuits.
Folks made mistakes in the 1800’s just as they do today. Papa wanted to make some money so he and Tom Coffield bought up a lot of cattle from Texas to fatten up and sell. A bad drought was on in Texas and they could buy them cheap. They had to borrow the money and take a mortgage. I don’t know what went wrong, but they lost out. Papa had to scrimp and save for years to pay off that mortgage, but Tom took advantage of the bankruptcy law and came out ahead. Papa was too honest to do that and it took him all those years to pay off his and Tom’s debts because Papa had taken Tom’s security.
Tom on the contrary was able to buy a home, a nice piano for his little girl and got a new start. Papa never did seem to hold it against Tom, and they remained friends the same as before. But Tom had troubles later. They lost their beautiful little blonde child. It nearly broke their hearts.
I don’t remember much about our move from Toolesboro to Bay Island. I do remember we did pretty well financially after we got settled. Papa had built that big log house with the big lean too kitchen and also a big cave to keep our fruits and vegetables in. We were comfortable. The cave was built on top of the ground, because if it hadn’t been the water would seep in when we had high water. The cave had a round top.
Sometimes the caves were made with a wooden roof covered with dirt so the vegetables and fruits wouldn’t freeze in the winter and would be cool all summer. Sometimes the cabbage, turnips and potatoes were buried underground until needed. They would dig a deep trench and put a lot of straw or hay in the bottom, then the vegetables, then more straw and cover it up several feet under dirt. When they needed it in the winter, they would dig out several bushels at a time.
After a while, Papa built a saw mill nearby. We sawed some of his logs into lumber and built a nice big barn and some shelters for the hogs and cattle. He always employed a number of men, some with families. During the winter he cut logs, posts and cord wood which he sold. People burned wood mostly to heat their homes. We had a number of log cabins scattered through the woods for the ones with families. The bachelors usually bunked together in one or more of the cabins and did their own cooking. They usually got some of the other men’s wives to do their washing and ironing.
Some of the woodsmen were our cousins. Big handsome men full of mischief and devilment. They were a lively, rather wild bunch of boys. All those bachelors were stinkers. They had a darned good time. They gambled, drank, swiped chickens and turkeys from inland farmers and had big feeds. They did a lot of mischievous things. Sometimes they would sneak girls in their cabins. Mama raised the roof when she found out but Papa just laughed and said “Now Mama, boys will be boys”.
They settled down
eventually and married nice girls and made nice husbands and Papas.
The place we lived in called the Hoffman place was right along the
Muscatine Slough and only a mile from the old
The home had four large bedrooms up-stairs; a long hallway extended the full length of these. It had an attic, plenty of closets and downstairs a parlor, sitting room, bedroom and another big room we used for a double bedroom.
There was a long dining room and a long kitchen with an opening partition between them. We could just hand food and things through this opening from the kitchen to the dining room and this saved us a lot of walking. There was a long front porch and a smaller porch on each side in the back.
MY SISTER ELFA
When we left New Boston, we rented a farm in Iowa across the Iowa River from Toolesboro and just a few miles from Oakville. I was sixteen then. Luke was 18 and Lee was 20. Cleve is about eighteen months younger than me. Mama lost a baby between Maggie and Pete so there was five years between Maggie and Pete. Then Mary and then Maude. Little Elfa was born on this place called the Spitznogle place. Elfa was really named Elva, but Maude was too small to pronounce Elva so she called her Elfa. So we finally named her Elfa.
Elfa was a little brown wren of a baby. As she grew she had silky golden hair. Not as curly as the others but soft and wavy. Solemn big brown eyes and was a soft loving little thing. She wasn’t really sturdy, but wasn’t sickly either. She smiled at you when you played with her, but wasn’t as full of spirit as Maude was. She was a good little thing but never spoiled although we made over him a lot. She was very bright but she died at the age of eleven months.
I’ll never forget the night the little thing died. We had all had a bout with the flu. Those days they called it the Spanish Influenza because in our war with Spain there was a serious epidemic of influenza. None of the rest of us was very sick but Elfa contracted pneumonia and became very ill. Mama sat up and nursed her every night. We all helped in the daytime. She kept getting worse and Mama was so tired I said, “Mama, let me watch Elfa for a while and you nap a little. I’ll call you if she looks the least bit worse.”
Mama was so exhausted she lay down on the bed by Elfa and fell into a deep sleep. I made Papa sit up with me because I was so ignorant an afraid. Poor Papa, he always worked so hard and slept like a log at night but he really tried to stay awake. He sat in a straight chair and his poor old head kept bobbing so I told him to go on to bed. He said he wouldn’t leave me alone so he laid down flat on that hard floor and went to sleep. Along about midnight there was a distinct knock at the door. The bedroom we were in was right next to the sitting room. I guess I was awfully jittery that night and I was afraid to go to the door. So I waited and it came again. Knock-Knock-Knock. Three good firm knocks on the front door. I still hesitated, and Luke who slept upstairs with all the others called down crossly, “Laura, someone’s knocking. Go see who it is.” I felt a little braver knowing someone else was awake in the house. Anyway, I was never afraid when Luke was around because he was as brave as a lion. So I took the lamp and went to the door. It was bright moonlight outside and as light as daylight, so I stepped outside with the lamp and looked up and down the roads and didn’t see a sign of anything. I went back inside and hollered to Luke, “There isn’t anyone out there.” “No, I expect they got tired of waiting for you to open the door and went on.” I said, “There was no one on the road.” I went back in and sat down by Elfa again and started to watch her closely and then it came again. Knock-Knock-Knock. I was braver this time. Luke was awake. So I took the lamp and went to the front door. No one was there so I stepped way out, looked up and down the roads, and looked down the side of the house and across the fields and the outbuildings. I couldn’t see a horse or a buggy so I went back in. Luke hollered, “Who is it?” I said, “No one.” I was all over being afraid. The one thing that puzzled me was usually a lamp flickers when exposed to the open air and I was outside carrying that lamp everywhere. They usually flicker and blow out, but that flame never even flickered. It was just like it was in a vacuum.
I was all over my nervousness and sat down and watched the baby more carefully. About three o’clock I noticed a change in her face and I noticed she wasn’t breathing right so I shook Mama on the shoulder. Mama jumped up quick and lifted the little thing up and turned her face down and lowered her head and began patting her on the back. Elfa gave out a big gasp and some mucus came out of her throat and nostrils and she was gone. I hurried to call the doctor while Mama worked with Elfa, and of course Papa was on his feet instantly. We called the big boys, Luke was still awake. And that was that. The baby was gone. It still strikes me strange that those loud knocks and Luke and I calling at each other didn’t wake any of the folks. It was almost as if we were in a vacuum too.
OUR MOVE TO
It seemed we were doing so good when Papa wanted to start wondering. We had a good place of two hundred fifty acres, comfortable living quarters and good money making resources. But Papa wanted to sell our place and move to Oklahoma.
I remember when the young man that bought the place and his lawyer came to our place making up the sales papers. Mama refused to sign at first and tried to talk Papa out of it. They always argued about the school situation. Mama was great for education and Papa didn’t seem to care much. Mama wanted to rent a small house or apartment in New Boston and take the children to school at least during the winter months, going home over the weekends, keeping them in school until they built one in our district. But Papa wouldn’t hear of that. I remember her telling Papa that in another year we would have a school in the district because so many families were moving in.
Finally, the lawyer almost forced her to sign. “She said, “I’m doing this because Johnny insists, but I object most strongly”. Selling that place was the most foolish thing Papa ever did in his life.
Maude was born that fall. She was the most beautiful little baby only weighing about 4 pounds. She looked a lot like Maggie when she was a baby. Perfect with cute curly hair, dark eyes and long lashes. Maude had a lighter complexion and had a more curved mouth. She was very happy, sunshiny little thing and very playful. She was six weeks old when we started our move and would lie for hours in the bed of the covered wagon smiling and cooing and looking up at the shadow of the leaves on the top of the wagon.
We had two covered wagons. Papa built a platform on top of each wagon bed, we placed bed springs and mattresses on them so the little kids could lie down anytime they wanted to. There was a lot of space under the beds so that they could hold a number of trunks and boxes. The big one was arranged so that Mama would have plenty of cupboards. There were boxes for the children and baby clothes. There was also a covered five gallon can of water and towels and wash cloths.
The other wagon carried the men’s things. A camp stove, small tent, an old iron cook pot with an iron lid, groceries, a coop of chickens and some chicken feed. We also had a good old milk cow tied behind the wagon so we always had milk.
Along the way we camped out and did outside cooking most of the time. Sometimes we stayed at family hotels in rainy weather.
We had a wonderful old dog named Prince who came along. We always let the chickens out at night when we camped. We rounded them up and put them back in the coop in the morning. The boys would have Prince help them round up the chickens.
We ended up stopping in the Ozarks instead of going all the way to Oklahoma. Mama loved the Ozarks, but soon she and Papa and the whole family got to missing home so much Papa decided to move back to New Boston.
After we lived in Bay Island for awhile we and our neighbors discovered each other and the place did not seem so lonely.
What seemed strange to me was the cabin boats were nearly always occupied by families of two to four children and the cabins on land were nearly always occupied by bachelors. There were generally children for us to play with, but most of these people would only stay a short time at one location. They were timber workers, loggers, rafters, fishermen, and some just floaters, but all were friendly and wonderful people.
In our four years in Bay Island we did not attend school. Our nearest school was 7 miles away. However, our schooling was not entirely neglected. Our fall and winter months after cold weather came brought on our “school days”.
Our house had a skeleton stairway (steps without risers). We could sit on one step and use the step above as a desk. In this way we kids put in most of our winter months with our school books. Our library consisted of school books of every grade. Three or four of what we called classics ( Comfort, Home Companion) a few of Youth’s Companion, Codeys Lady Book, a dictionary and whatever contemporary literature we considered worth keeping that came into our possession. We had very interesting stud periods with help from Lee and Mama in case of tough problems.
I remember when John Stone from Minnesota who spent two winters and one
summer with us. He lived in our
house while he was building a cabin. He
was about fifty years of age, wore a long beard, peculiar clothes.
I always thought that was for disguise.
He was adverse to close association with other persons except for his own
choosing. But I considered him
intelligent and highly educated and religious, and he was all of these.
He could help us on any problem of our school work.
He had a deep regard and respect for religion and was well versed in the
bible, especially the prophesies. How
well I can remember what he could tell me regarding the prophesies of the bible.
Some of which I was so impressed that they still remain so plain in my
Within one hundred years, or that
within my lifetime, in man’s search for scientific knowledge great changes in
religion, in social and political power that would replace “steam”, making
it possible for every “vehicle”, large and small to be
“self-propelling”. With the
final result “horseless buggy and wagons, and ships that would fly around the
world”. And in this search would
continue until man by some method would try to search for the heavens.
Lastly, a religious war. Because
of man’s unrighteousness, there would be an end.
Some kind of “atmospheric explosion” and that this would be necessary
because of the wickedness of the world. When I think of John Stone and his
peculiarities, I sometimes wonder if he was not really a prophet. In the bible,
Elijah was strange in his way. He
wore a mantle which seemed different than others, and lived a lonely life.
John lived “beyond Jordan”, dressed in camel’s hair, and lived on
locusts and honey. Elijah was
translated, John was beheaded, but I don’t know what happened to John Stone.
We were prosperous and happy in our new home except for sickness and sometimes loneliness. The dreaded malaria was always present. I will give a little history in regard to this subject:
About 1855, the Midwest draining and farming of what we call second bottomland along the Mississippi and tributaries began. The draining and plowing of the land was accompanied by malaria fever and ague in the northern states, and yellow fever and ague in the south, reaching the epidemic degree to where there was from one to several deaths in nearly every family. Then a dryer weather cycle came and disease gradually declined until those in the drainage land suffered very little from malaria.
After four years on Bay Island, although we were prosperous, most of us were continually sick. The work was heavy and the responsibilities great, and there was much loneliness. Mama had no near neighbor or any kind of social life at all, the care of so many children with two or three sick at a time. She finally became sick herself and Dr. Stafford advised a change of climate and environment, or she could have a complete breakdown physically or worse.
Oklahoma was being settled by free homesteads. Milt Delphy and his family lived across the river from us on “Turkey Island”. In reading the news and talking to others regarding Oklahoma, Papa and Milt got the “Oklahoma fever”. After the sale of the land and the public sale of livestock and other property, with the exception of six horses and one cow two wagons and six sets of harnesses, and the purchase of a large tent, two wagon covers, a camp stove and other camp equipment, we loaded bedding, clothes, kitchen utensils, dishes, tools and whatever else we could find room for, we made the start from Bay Island to Oklahoma.
On the advice of the Immigration Bureau, the route was to be the river road to Hannibal, Missouri, then cross country to the Missouri River to Jefferson City, then to Fort Smith, Arkansas, then to the final stop in Oklahoma.
About Thanksgiving time, we with two loaded wagons, six horses, and a cow (the cow part of the time being driven by the boys and the rest tied to a halter to the back of the wagon) began our long journey, a slow tedious uneventful journey, yet pleasant, full of thrills, which lasted until nearly Christmas time. But our trip was not like the journeys of many who were poorly equipped and without means. Some of those we had to pass and leave behind and some we met returning.
We finally crossed the Missouri River at McKitteric, Missouri and moved on through Rolla and on into the heart of the Ozarks. Near Raymondville we made camp one night. Everyone was getting weary, except, of course, the kids. It was discovered that our wagons needed repaired and the horses needed rest before continuing. The place where we camped was a “beauty spot” in the scenic section of the Ozark hills, and here we were to stay until our horses and the wagons were repaired. Here we made, or Mama made, what I have always called the great discovery. That discovery which shows the intuitiveness or wise perception of an ordinary woman (except to her husband and kids).
In our travel we must have passed many other immigrants and got well acquainted with their problems and their life history. Our own problem, a change for the sake of better health, or just the pioneering spirit of a restless husband and father.
When we were ready to move on again, Mama expressed herself. The effects of the journey and environment had made a great change in the general health of the entire family. She was well and the kids were well. The beauty of the hills and valleys here seemed to her like paradise. After a summary of every situation she loved this place. She loved the natives here and everything was rejuvenating. Why not stop here, at least temporarily. Her expression of the situation was exactly the same as our family and the Delphy’s. Papa and Milt said they also had been cured of the “Oklahoma fever”.
Each family soon had a home in the hills. Papa bought one hundred and twenty acres, built a nice house and other buildings which we were living in before spring came. The same was true of the Delphy’s. Papa rented and extra eighty acres from a man named Milton Diedrick and farmed it in connection with the timber work and business of his tract of pine lumber.
The Delphy’s did well, but the call of the Mississippi River seemed too great. After a years vacation of real satisfaction and pleasurable recreation in this land of paradise, we again made sale of the land, crops and cattle and the Odell’s and the Delphy’s accompanied by Matt and Dan Kane and their mother’s, make the trek back over the same route to New Boston, Illinois.
When we returned the epidemic of malaria had subsided and we all retained our general good health and since that time, malaria has nearly disappeared, even in the lowlands of the Mississippi.
Submitted by Lee Miller
Iowa History Project