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Our Iowa, Its Beginning and Growth

Herbert L. Moeller and Hugh C. Mueller

New York, Newsom and Company


Transcribed by Debbie Gerischer & Kaylee Bopp




The covered wagon in which the early settlers came was usually the first home that they had in Iowa.  The women and children slept in the wagon; the men and older boys, on the ground in the open.  The weather was often cold when they arrived and, if so, a rough shelter was usually built first.  An "open-faced" camp, as it was called, was common.  Three walls of logs were put up, with a roof of split logs and brush.  A big fire was built across the open side.  A camp of this kind could quickly be built by two or three men or boys.


The early settlers always looked for a place that was heavily timbered.  Although it took time and work to clear fields for planting in such a location, the pioneers preferred it because they needed the logs to build the cabins and the wood for fuel.

The home of the early settler was a one-room log cabin, which was built as soon as possible.  No nails, no hammers, and no saws were used.  Axes, froes, augers, and large jack-knives were the only tools they had.  The cabin was heated by a fireplace at one end of the room.  Before breakfast the pioneer boy went to the spring, or creek, to wash his hands and face.

To build a log cabin was no small task.  First the trees had to be cut down, trimmed, and notched.  Some of the logs were split into rough boards.  This was done with a froe, which was a kind of iron wedge.  A log chain was fastened around the end of a log.  Horses then dragged the log to the place where the house was to be built.

As soon as enough logs had been dragged together the neighbors gathered for a "house raising."  Four walls with two gables were quickly put up.  It took strong men to roll or lift the logs and fit them into place.  Roof logs were laid from gable to gable.  Clapboards were laid on these like long shingles.  Weight-poles were then laid across the clapboards and fastened with wooden pins to hold the roof in place.

The logs in the gables were held in place by long wooden pegs driven into holes drilled with a large auger.  The largest clapboards were used to make a door, which was hung on wooden hinges.  Spaces between the logs were filled with chips and daubed with clay.

A fireplace, made of small logs, stones, and clay, was built across one end of the house.  The chimney was built o flogs and lined with clay.  The floor was made of clay, which was pounded until it was hard and smooth.  For a window, a small hole was cut in one of the log walls and oiled paper was used instead of glass.

Sometimes the pioneer families improved their homes later by getting a door that was made of sawed boards; by putting in two or three larger windows of glass, and, by laying a puncheon, or split log floor.

In northwestern Iowa the earliest homes were made of sod.  This was because timber was scarce and sod plentiful.  The sod was got by using a breaking plow with which a furrow was made.  The sod was then cut into sections and these were laid, one on top of the other, like brick.  For the roof, prairie hay was placed on poles and then sod was put on top of the hay.


The furnishings of the home were as simple as the cabin itself.  Sometimes there were not enough plates to go around for all of the family.  The father, mother, and oldest boys ate first at a small round table.  The smaller children ate at a second or even a third table.  Over the door there hung a rifle with powder horn.

A few heavy iron pots and pans were all the cooking utensils of the early home.  All cooking was done over the open fireplace.  Dough for bread was put into an iron pan with a heavy iron lid over it.  Then it was shoved into the fire and buried in hot ashes until it was baked.

There were no carpets or rugs in the early homes and but very little furniture.  It is said that when one settler called on a newly-married pair he found them sitting on the earthen floor of their shack, eating mush out of an iron pot with one spoon between them.

A shed was built for the livestock.  Two rows of posts were driven into the ground and hay stuffed in between them.  The roof was made by putting hay on poles.  One side of the shed, usually the one to the south, was often left open.

After a few years the pioneer families often could afford to get a few more things.  They might add another room to the house or build a larger and better house.

In spite of all the hardships and inconveniences, the early settlers tell us that they enjoyed their homes and were happy.  Perhaps that was because they had to build the houses themselves and had to make the furniture.  They appreciated what they had because they had to work so hard to get it.


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