EDITED BY John C. Parish
Copyright 1922 by the State Historical Society of Iowa
(Transcribed by Debbie Clough Gerischer)
Lost in an Iowa Blizzard
The setting down of this experience of the earlier years of
Reuben and David Williams has sprung from a desire to place on record, while
they may yet be told by one of the participants, the details of what has always
been, in our immediate family circle an exceedingly thrilling incident of my
father's boyhood days. The dates, places, and other facts of the story are
historically accurate David Williams is now 76 years old and, retired, lives in
Gridley, California. Reuben Williams died in October, 1898, at Trosky,
Minnesota, in his 62nd year. Halfway across Iowa and back by
team in the middle of winter in those days was a long trip and a hard and
indefinite task. Even Mrs. Green did not know when he might return. Green's
going left her and Reuben to take care of things and look after the stock, and
although Reuben was man-grown, I think eighteen or nineteen, he had his hands
more than full, I was only twelve years old, but was fully accustomed to doing
outdoor work, so I went over to help until Mr. Green came back.
The vast grassy prairies of northern Iowa which have since made it famous
as an agricultural State, were at first shunned by the early settlers No doubt
the chief reasons for avoiding the prairies was the difficulty of obtaining
fuel, and the absence of protection against the cold winds of winter As
settlements became closer, the more venturesome began to establish prairie homes
across the miles of bleak plain, then essentially destitute of obstruction of
any kind, the winds had opportunity to gain their full force. In winter the
deeply drifted snow obliterated all landmarks. Travel from one point to another
was often possible only on snow-shoes, although at times the solid icy crust of
the snow would carry the weight of a horse.
Blizzards were of common occurrence and fatalities not infrequent. In the
face of a blinding whirl of snow all familiar objects vanished. Dependence on
sheer Indian instinct, an intuitive sense of distance and direction, was often
the only chance of safety, And especially real was the danger if night came on.
Reliance on native instinct, however, was, not always, assurance of a safe
return to shelter. From these early days have come down vivid accounts of
suffering endured and lives lost. The story that follows, however, is of two
boys who passed a night in the teeth of a bewildering snowstorm and yet escaped
with their lives. I have heard it told by my father many times and I give the
details here in his own words.
IRA A. WILLIAMS
PORTLAND, OREGON DECEMBER, 1920
The winter of 1856-57 was the hardest the settlers then in Iowa had ever
seen. Father had a large family and was poor. We boys all had to work at
whatever we could get to do, Reuben, who was the oldest, had hired out to Mr.
Horace Green for a few months. Green lived over on Willow Creek some three miles
from our place and about four miles northwest of Masonic Grove (now Mason City).
Willow Creek is the outlet to Clear Lake and runs through Mason City. Mr. Green
kept a lot of cattle and always had several pairs of big oxen. His house was on
the open prairie, without a sign of a tree or other windbreak for protection.
Nor had he yet even been able to build any sheds for his cattle.
It was late in December and Mr. Green had gone to Dubuque to get a load of
We had had some real hard blizzards before that and there was lots of snow.
One of our biggest jobs was watering the cattle. The house was on a spring
branch some distance from where this stream joined the main Willow Creek. There
had been plenty of water here all along, but the snow had finally drifted in so
deeply that it became impossible to keep it open longer for the stock to get
down to drink.
I had been there a few days. It was December 28, 1856, The sun rose bright
that morning and the atmosphere was as clear as a bell. It was cold but there
was no reason whatever for us to expect any great change before night. Reuben
and I did up the chores and along about 11 o'clock Mrs. Green said she thought
it would be best to take the cattle across to Willow Creek to water them that
day. The old watering hole in the yard was drifted full and, as the day was
pleasant, we would save time and easily be back by noon, we thought.
To get to the creek we had to go down the branch a way and then ,over the
point of a ridge between the two streams. This ridge was covered with new
breaking and the snow on it was not very deep. We got the cattle across all
right and, after a half hour's hard shoveling and chopping, had a large hole in
the ice open where they could get down to the water. Naturally, busy as we were,
we paid no attention to the sky nor thought anything about the weather. We were
out of sight from the buildings yet not over one half or three quarters of a
mile from the house. We had worked hard and were nearly through watering the
last of four or five calves that were in the herd. It must have been about one
o'clock in the afternoon. Reuben was down dipping out water for the calves with
a pail we had carried with us. Without warning of any kind the storm burst upon
us. A blast of wind swept down, the bank behind which we were working and in a
second we were completely enveloped in the whirling snow that filled the air
full. This didn't frighten us any for it was a common enough experience. Our
first thought was to get the cattle back to the house. Buttoning tight our short
coats and picking up the shovel and ax, we tried to drive them back the way they
had come. It was straight against the wind, which was already so stiff we could
scarcely stand in the face of it, and penetratingly cold. They refused to go. We
knew that if only some of the big steers would make a start towards home, the
rest would follow. But each time we managed to get them headed about they would
veer this way and that, and finally come to a determined standstill, their tails
to the wind.
If there had been a nice warm barn at home; or even a shed awaiting them,
it would have been different. But outside of the low, hay-covered stable where
Green kept his horses there was nothing there to break the force of the wind in
the least. Behind this and in the lee of a small hay stack they were in the
habit of huddling together, though little more protected than in the open field.
An incentive for the animals to face the cutting wind across the bare field in
the direction of home was, therefore, all but lacking. With shelter ahead of him
a steer will put his head down and buck almost any kind of a wind that does not
actually blow him backwards. But to convince them to move against their
inclinations proved quite another matter.
Next we undertook to get the oxen started. They were well-broken and
valuable animals. To let them stray, of all times in Mr. Green's absence, was
certainly the last thing to be thought of. Obedient and willing brutes though
they were in the yoke, our commands in the face of the blinding blizzard went
entirely unheeded. It seemed like hours that we toiled with those cattle. Reuben
had been left in charge of the stock and felt all of a man's responsibility for
their safety. He was determined to take them back to shelter. So we kept
doggedly at it until we were both tired completely out. It was of no use. The
cattle became so badly scattered and the intensity of the storm had increased so
much that we were compelled to give up. It had also rapidly grown colder. We
were blinded by the snow, and pieces of ice blown from the old snow crust cut
our faces like a knife. So we struck the ax and shovel in the snow and left
them. They were found afterwards out there on the breaking. From there I am
certain we could have made our way against the storm to the house. I urged
Reuben to go home and let the cattle take care of themselves. But he wouldn't
hear to going back without them.
A short distance down the other side of the creek from where we had watered
the stock was a small grove of crabapple trees, underbrush and willows. We knew
we could get to this and there be protected from the wind. In the hope that the
storm might soon break so that we could go out and round up the cattle before
night, we made for this crabapple thicket. To reach it we crossed the main road
running between Masonic Grove and Clear Lake. It was plainly marked in the
otherwise unbroken white by the clanking lines of weeds whose tops still showed
above the snow. When we came to the road I again remonstrated. Knowing that
Reuben in his present frame of mind could not be persuaded to face Mrs. Green
without the stock, I suggested following the road to Masonic Grove to wait until
the blizzard eased up somewhat. I was getting fearfully cold. He said "No", that
we would be all right, still intending, he confessed, to make another trial with
the cattle as soon as we warmed up a bit in the shelter of the grove. Within the
thicket the air was quiet, and by "strapping" our hands and jumping about we
were soon warm enough. I suppose it was at least three or four o'clock in the
afternoon by this time. The storm continued to increase in violence outside. To
think of venturing out again after the stock would be clearly foolhardy, yet I
could not gain Reuben's consent to go back without them. It had not occurred to
either of us then that we ourselves might be in any danger. Hours passed,
daylight began to fade and we knew that night was coming on. The wind did not
reach us, but to keep up circulation in the biting cold we started a path in the
snow around a clump of trees in the center of the thicket. It was perhaps three
or four rods round the circle. We took turns. First one, then the other, would
take the path and walk, or trot, or run, till our blood tingled. Between times
we squatted in the snow, back against a tree, until beginning numbness warned us
it was time to run again.
After darkness came on we could tell little about the progress of the storm
.An occasional trip to the edge of the thicket, however, was sufficient to
assure us of the unabated fury of the wind, and we thought the temperature was
still going down. Reuben was finally compelled to abandon hope of getting any of
the stock back before morning. What with our continued exercises and
intermittent breathing spells, we kept ourselves quite comfortable, and the soft
snow was soon packed solid in our little circuit. We did not know the time, but
it must have been about midnight when the stars shone out straight above us, and
it looked as if the clouds were clearing away. Within our friendly shelter we
could have securely spent the rest of the night. But at the farthest the house
was not over a mile away, and we knew Mrs. Green would be exceedingly anxious
over our long absence. So Reuben decided that we should leave the grove, the
thought that we might not be able to go straight to the Green's house not
entering either of our minds. We were warm to start, had our directions true,
and knew every inch of the ground.
As I recall it now, I think I begged Reuben to stay where we were until
daylight He was obdurate and we started out. No doubt discomfiture over the loss
of the cattle still rankled within him. Outside of the thicket was a raging
snowstorm. Confident of our course, we foundered through the drifts, at the
start, square against the storm; the sharp hurtling scales of ice cutting our
faces and the floury snow filling our nostrils and eyes. On we pushed towards
where Mrs. Green's kindly beacon should have guided us to safety. This way and
that we turned in the darkness, the sense of our exact whereabouts growing more
and more vague, yet certain in the hope that intuition would soon point us to
the door. We were lost.
Failing to find the house, our next thought was, of course, to return to
the crabapple thicket. But it, too, was not to be found. The wild blackness of
the night had swallowed it up. Once voluntarily scorning its kindly protection,
it now eluded us; and we were left to fight alone our one-sided battle with the
It was almost impossible for us to realize that we were actually lost. Here
we were in a region, every foot of which was familiar ground in time of calm.
And yet, so completely was the recognition of all familiar landmarks closed to
us that, in our bewilderment, we knew neither north, south, east, nor west. The
realization, however, that shelter must be found was not slow in coming, for the
exertion of merely keeping in motion was rapidly telling on me, and the gripping
cold was sinking to the marrow. To stop anywhere within the sweep of the wind we
knew must mean certain death. To go aimlessly on and on in the face of the storm
was equally certain to mean pure physical exhaustion, and then —but although
Reuben's maturer mind may have sensed already the tragic possibility, through
his cheering encouragement no thought of such an ending came to me.
We went with the storm. Long, long we blundered ahead. Reuben half dragged,
half carried me on. One step the snow bore our weight, the next we floundered in
it. At last, after what seemed miles, we tumbled down a steep bank. I had been
begging Reuben to let me stop. I was tired out, cold and sleepy. Only too well
did my big brother recognize these symptoms. He had urged me on, talked to me,
chaffed me, dragged and pushed me along, all but kicked and pummeled me,
anything to ward off and stay the progress of the cold which was slowly but
surely stiffening my very blood.
Behind the bank where we had fallen the wind did not reach with its full
fury. I told Reuben I was going to rest here, I could go no further. All of his
arguments were of no avail. My feet were numb. I was completely exhausted. I
could not walk, and he, though strong as an ox, saw disaster ahead for both of
us if he undertook to carry me. I wanted to go to sleep.
Out of the wind a little I lay down in the snow. All the way along Reuben
had clung to me with first one hand then the other. I do not think I had any
mittens. I know I tried to keep my hands from freezing by walking with them in
my pockets. Reuben's hands were bare. While he was dipping water for the calves
he had soaked two fingers of the glove on his left hand and they had frozen
stiff. He took his gloves off while we were in the crabapple thicket and stuck
them up in the crotch of a tree. We found them there afterwards where he had
I do not know how long I lay there. The snow quickly drifted over me.
Reuben did not give up, but kept moving all night long. He paced back and forth
in the snow. I can only recall that he constantly talked to me. So long as I
would answer, he knew I was awake. We had heard of persons saving their lives by
burrowing into the snow out of the biting wind. In my benumbed condition I did
not reason. But I am certain that Reuben was thoroughly conscious of the danger
of this. It was plainly now a drawn battle for our lives. Chagrin over the loss
of the cattle had nerved rather than weakened him for the struggle. And an
indomitable pride of responsibility for me bore him up against the almost
irresistible desire to rest and to sleep that now beset him. Throughout the
night his vigil did not cease, I must have fallen asleep. It seemed to me I was
warm and comfortable. The snow had covered me over completely, only the toe of
one of my boots remaining in sight to show where I lay buried. They were new
boots with red tops that my uncle had given me when I started to walk to Iowa
from our old home in Illinois the summer before.
Daylight slowly came. As surroundings began to be visible, the place
appeared more and more familiar. Yet it was not until near sunrise that Reuben
could make out that we were within calling distance of one of the houses in
Masonic Grove (now Mason City). It was fully four miles back to the little
crab-apple grove, though how much farther we had wandered since leaving it we
would never know.
I was brought back to a drowsy consciousness by being pulled out of the
snow by Reuben. The air was so old it seemed fairly blue, and its cutting
bitterness struck into my flesh like steel. The rising sun shone large and the
guardian sun-dogs, one on either side, betokened the keenness of the opening
day. I tried to walk, but my feet were dead. As if wooden, my benumbed body
refused to respond to a still more feeble will. Reuben's efforts to get me
towards the house were fruitless. The last I recall was hearing him shout to
When I came to I was in bed. My hands were being rubbed with snow. My new
leather boots had been cut from my feet which now rested in melting ice. As full
consciousness returned, I learned how we had at first been taken for Indians;
and how, when it was known that we were actually in distress, Mr. James Jenkins
and Mr. Tenure had come out and carried me in. Dr. Huntley had been at once sent
for. Reuben had followed me into the house and had gone straight to the fire.
Both of his hands were frozen stiff, as were mine, and his feet were clumps of
ice. I have heard him say that he never again suffered such anguish as the
soul-crazing pangs of returning feeling that racked his chilled body while he
stood there beginning to thaw out. All attention was at first given to me, of
course, and it was only after I was seen to be out of danger that it appeared to
any one that Reuben might be at all badly frozen. The torpid pallor of pain and
exhaustion already showed in his twitching face and he reeled at every step. The
doctor at once applied ice to his hands and feet. Though belated, this measure
probably saved to him the use of these members. Casings of solid ice formed
around our feet, then slowly melted away as the blood sluggishly gained its way
into them again.
It was hours before the frost was all drawn out. Much of this time I was in
a partial stupor. I think neither of us suffered much severe pain after the
first aching paroxysms were over. But the very joy of relaxation after the
terrible strain of the past night was in itself overpowering. I roused
repeatedly from a disturbed sleep in which I was again struggling with the
raging storm, again going through, in all its horror, the frightful experience
of the night before.
Word was at once sent to Mrs. Green
that we were safe. She was thus prepared to break the news to mother and father
who happened to drive over early that morning It had been one of the hardest
storms of the winter and they, knowing that Mr. Green was away, had come to see
how we boys were getting on. As he unfastened the ox team, father jokingly
called out, "Don't see anything of the boys this morning; frozen up, are they?"
"Guess they must be", Mrs. Green replied, in the same bantering tone, "They've
been since eleven o'clock yesterday morning watering the stock over on the
Willow, and they're only four miles away in Masonic Grove now". Even she was not
then aware of how perilous an experience traversing that four miles had been to
So father at once came on down expecting to take us back to Green's to hunt
up the lost cattle. Mrs. Green's anxiety was one of genuine motherly interest in
us boys, as much as of responsibility for the security of her husband's
property. She told mother that morning how she had kept a light in the window
the night through, and of how she rang the old cow-bell for us. When darkness
came on and we did not return, she knew we were in trouble. All through that
wild night she kept up the vigil. She had gone out into the storm and clanged
the old bell until out of breath, and until the sting of the frigid blast drove
her back to the fireside. Over and over, and as long as strength held out had
the plucky woman kept it up We have never wondered that its feeble tones failed
to reach our ears in the howling storm, though how close to its call we may
really have been we shall never know.
The days that followed were languishing ones, but physically sturdy as we
were, recovery was fairly rapid. Medical attention was of course necessary.
Although present day anesthetics were then unknown and surgical instruments
crude, we have never attributed to their absence the fact that we found
ourselves crippled for the rest of our days. The ministrations of a devoted
mother through the long days of convalescence, and encouragement and care from a
father of stern but devoutly religious temperament, were the inspiring
influences which made seem so much worth while the life that had been spared us.
Early Cabins in Iowa
A creaking, canvas-covered wagon slowly came to a halt as
the oxen, tired from the long journey,
ceased straining at the yoke. The driver looked about him at the expanse of
prairie, unbroken except for the timber which fringed an occasional water
course. Far behind lay his old home. Days before he had crossed the Mississippi,
and leaving the busy river town had pushed westward until he had passed all
signs of habitation and reached this virgin prairie. Nowhere was a sheltering
roof to be seen except the covered wagon whose protection was given to the women
and children. The only table upon which to partake of the plain meals of corn
bread and bacon was the green earth.
But this sketch is not biographical; nor does it deal with the unique. All
up and down the Iowa frontier this scene was being repeated. Sometimes a lonely
wagon made its way to the edge of the unknown; sometimes a group of neighbors or
related families made the venture together. In every case the pioneer's first
thought was to prepare a home. It would be a dwelling place for his family, a
fortress against the Indians, a nucleus for civilization Under these conditions
building the cabin came to be an event of great importance and produced a thrill
of pleasure that could hardly be understood by those who had never suffered the
The first home was necessarily a simple affair. In the prairie country
where wood was scarce and sod was plentiful, the easiest house to build was the
sod shanty. The materials were procured by taking the breaking plow into the low
land where the sod was heavy and plowing a furrow from sixteen to eighteen
inches in width. This was cut into sections, eighteen to twenty inches long,
which were then laid like brick. The roof was usually made of large rafters
covered with prairie hay or grass and covered again with sod. Often the
structure had a board floor, and usually one door and one window. It is
surprising the amount of genius that could be expended in the construction of a
sod shanty. For this reason, there was great difference in the appearance and
arrangement of these cabins. Some had an air of comfort, convenience, and even
neatness, which gave them a genuine homelike appearance. Others remained as they
were at first—simply holes in the ground.
Even in the wooded districts finished lumber was not to be had and labor
was dear. As a result the architecture of the home entered very little into the
thoughts of the early settlers—it was shelter they wanted, and protection from
the stress of weather The settler had neither the money nor the mechanical
appliances for building himself a modern house: he was content in most instances
to have a mere cabin.
Of dwellings made of timber, perhaps the most primitive were the "three
faced" camps. These structures—sometimes called "cat faced" sheds or "wickeups"—consisted
of three walls made of logs in their rough state—the fourth side being left
open. The first settler in a community who had to build his cabin without
assistance selected small logs that he could raise to the walls alone, but after
neighbors came larger logs were used. Across these walls, poles were laid at a
distance of about three feet apart, and on these was placed a roof of clapboards
which were kept in position by weight-poles. The only floor in the camp was the
earth, and the structure required neither door, window, nor chimney' for the
open side answered all these purposes. Immediately in front of the cabin was
built a huge log fire which served for warmth and for cooking purposes. These
"three-faced camps", built apparently in a hurry to afford a resting place for a
family without a home, were temporary in most cases and were soon supplanted by
more complete dwelling places.
The claim cabins proper, which followed these first buildings, required
some help and a good deal of labor to build. House railings were frequent and
became social as well as industrial events. After the logs had been cut into the
desired length according to the dimensions of the house, they were dragged to
the building place by horses. The neighbors were then called upon to assist.
Four men were selected to "carry up the corners", and the work began. As the
logs were lifted up a "saddle" was hewn upon the top of one log and a notch cut
in the underside of the next to fit upon the saddle. By cutting the notches in
the larger end of the log a little deeper and alternating the butt and top ends
the walls of the cabin were carried up approximately level. At first the logs
were put together with the bark on. As the idea of decoration and elegance
increased a place was chipped along two sides of each log. Finally the inside
and outside of the cabin walls were hewn so as to present a fiat surface.
When the house walls had reached a height of seven or eight feet, two
gables were formed by shortening the logs gradually at each end of the building
near the top, and fastening each log to the one below or to the roof logs. The
roof was made by laying very straight small logs or stout poles from gable to
gable at regular intervals and on these were fastened the clapboards very much
in the same manner as modern shingles, only with fewer courses, as the
clapboards were perhaps four feet long and generally about two and a half feet
to the weather. Weight poles were laid over the whole and were secured by long
wooden pins, driven into auger holes, which kept them from slipping down toward
the lower edge of the roof.
When this sheltering roof was completed the small cracks between the wall
logs were stopped with "chinking". The spaces were filled in with split sticks
of wood, called "chinks"` and then daubed over, both inside and outside, with
mortar made of clay which had straw or hay mixed with it to keep it from
crumbling and falling out. In this way the cabin was made comfortably warm
during the long cold winter.
Sometimes an opening was left for a door when the logs were laid, but
usually the door space was made by cutting an aperture of the required size in
one side of the room. The doorway was not always provided immediately with a
door, but instead the most simple contrivances that would serve the purpose were
brought into requisition. In some cases a quilt, blanket, or skin was spared for
the purpose of guarding the entrance. There is an instance in which a table is
said to have served as a door also, being taken down and used for a table, and
rehung as a door after meals. As soon as convenient a shutter of some kind was
provided. Sometimes this was a thatched frame work, but more often it consisted
of two large clapboards or puncheons, pinned together with cross pieces and
wooden pins. The door was hung on wooden hinges and held shut by a wooden catch.
Through a hole above the latch a buckskin thong passed which when pulled lifted
the wooden bar thus allowing the door to open. For security at night this latch
string could be drawn in, hence, as an expression of welcome, there arose the
saying: "The latch string is always hanging out".
Frequently there was no window at first. Later when duties became less
pressing, a hole about two feet long was cut out of one of the wall logs.
Whenever possible the window was on the south side and could be left open during
the summer at least. Greased or oiled paper pasted over sticks crossed in the
shape of a sash was often used as a substitute for window glass. It admitted the
light and excluded the air, but of course lacked the transparency. Even greased
deer hide was sometimes used.
The chimney of the western pioneer's cabin was not built of stone or brick,
but in most cases of split sticks of wood and mortar made of clay. Space was
provided by leaving in the original building a large open place in the wall, or
more often perhaps, by cutting one after the structure was up. The fireplace—at
least six feet wide and frequently of such dimensions as to occupy nearly the
whole width of the house—was constructed in this opening. It was planked on the
outside by butts of wood notched together to stay it. The back and sides were
built of stone, of wood lined with stone, or of stone and earth, the stone-work
facing into the room. A large flat rock in front of it, called a hearth stone,
was placed level with the floor to protect the puncheons from brands that might
roll out of the fire. For a chimney, or flue, any contrivance that would conduct
the smoke upward would do. Some flues consisted of squares of sod, laid as a
mason lays a wall of bricks and plastered on the inside with clay. Perhaps the
more common type was that known as the "cat and clay" chimney. It was built of
small split sticks, two and a half or three feet in length, carried a little
distance above the roof, and plastered, both inside and outside, with a thick
covering of clay. Built as they were the burning of a chimney was a frequent
occurrence in cold weather.
Other accessories were added as soon as possible. The clay which had
previously served as a floor and which had been beaten hard and smooth by this
time was overlaid with a "puncheon" floor consisting of slabs hewn from logs.
After the door was laid the upper surface would be smoothed off with an adz. As
a final touch of elegance a few more logs were sometimes put on the building
making an upstairs or loft which was reached by a ladder secured to the wall.
Other families built a better roof or an additional room.
During all of this building process there was ordinarily no sound of
hammering of nails or rasping of the saw, only the dull thud of the ax. The
pioneer was often forced to build his cabin without nails, screws, bolts, bars,
or iron of any description. Wooden pegs were hewn from the logs; the hinges and
even the catch for the door were wooden.
The living room was of good size, for usually it served the purpose of
kitchen, bedroom, parlor, and arsenal. In
other words the loom, spinning wheel, chairs, beds, cooking utensils, and other
furniture were all arranged as snugly as possible in this one room. With an ax
and an auger the pioneer met all pressing needs. The furniture varied in
proportion to the ingenuity of the occupants, except in the rare instances where
settlers brought with them their old household supply.
The articles used in the kitchen were few and simple. Lacking the
convenience of a cook stove, the work was done in and about the big fireplace.
The utensils of a well furnished kitchen included an iron pot, a long-handled
frying pan, a skillet, and sometimes a coffee pot. Often a later improvement was
found in the shape of an iron crane swinging from the side of the chimney and
carrying on its "pot hook" the kettles or iron pots used in cooking. Sometimes a
mantel shelf was made by placing clapboards across strong wooden pins fitted
into holes bored in the wall logs. This shelf might hold kitchen or table-ware,
the candlestick with its deer tallow candle and possibly an old clock. If the
family were lucky enough to have an abundance of table-ware, a series of shelves
with perhaps a cheap cotton cloth as a curtain might be built for a china
The necessity of finding a more convenient and comfortable place than the
ground upon which to sleep, produced the "prairie bunk". This "one legged"
bedstead, now a piece of furniture of the past, was improvised by the pioneer in
a unique manner. A forked stake was driven into the ground at a proper distance
from the corner of the room and upon it poles, usually of hickory, were laid
reaching from each wall. These poles where they touched the walls rested in the
openings between the logs or were driven into auger holes. Upon these poles
slats of clapboard were placed, or linden bark was interwoven from pole to pole.
Sometimes an old fashioned "cord bed" was made by using basswood bark for the
cord. On this framework the housewife spread her straw tick, or piled the
luxurious mound of her home-made feather bed. Such a sleeping place was usually
known as a "prairie bedstead", but sometimes it was called a "prairie rascal ".
Beds of this sort, however, were for the grownups. Children were stowed away for
the night either in low, dark attics, among the horns of elk and deer, or in
trundle beds which would slip under the larger bedstead in the daytime.
It was easy enough to improvise tables, bureaus, and chairs. Often a
packing box answered the purposes of the first two, while smaller boxes of the
same kind served as chairs. Real chairs were seldom seen in the early cabins;
but in their place long benches and stools were made out of hewn planks. These
stools were often three-legged because of the difficulty of making four legs so
that all would touch the uneven door at the same time. The benches were but hewn
slabs with a couple of stakes driven slantingly into each end on the under side;
and the tables, in some instances were simply larger and higher benches.
In one corner were the loom and other implements used in the manufacture of
clothing; while the clothing itself was suspended from pegs driven in the logs.
As there was no storehouse, flitches of bacon and rings of dried pumpkin were
suspended from the rafters. Over the door was usually hung the rifle and with it
the powder horn and hunting pouch. Luxuries were rare even among well to do
people and seldom was there so much as a strip of rag carpet on their floors
although they might have large tracts of land, numerous head of stock and many
bushels of corn. Occasionally one found on
the frontier a cabin with more complete and comfortable furnishings. Mrs. Semira
A. Phillips describes as follows her uncle's cabin in Mahaska County: Their
cabin had but one room, but that room was larger than cabins generally were. I
think now it was eighteen feet wide and twenty feet long. I know they had in it
four ordinary sized beds, and a trundle-bed which was kept under one of the big
beds in the daytime and drawn out at night for the children. The style of
bedstead used then was so high from the floor to the bed rail that there was
ample room under a bed to store many trunks and chests and boxes and bundles. It
was customary to hang a valance around which hid all these unsightly things.
Women in that day and stage of the country's history learned how to manage and
utilize room. My uncle's cabin had a very large fire-place, six feet wide at
least. That fire-place was built up, back and jambs with stone and mud. The top
of the chimney was of mud and split staves or sticks. The floor was puncheon and
the roof clap-boards. There was a door in the south, a small window in the west
end by the fire-place, and another small window in the north. My aunt had a loom
and all other necessaries for making cloth. While the weather was warm the loom
was kept in a shed at the back of the house. That shed had a clap-board roof,
and the floor was of elm tree bark laid flat on the ground with the rough side
up. My uncle and aunt were both good managers and could make the best of their
Another account tells of a big cabin with a single immense room below, with
whitewashed walls and carefully scrubbed puncheon floor, and a room above for
sleeping purposes. An interesting feature of this home is described as follows:
A little way from that big log house was another of less pretensions which was
used as a kitchen and dining room. There was a big wide fireplace with crane and
hooks and a long table covered with a snowy cloth.
It is interesting to note that the first three United States Senators from
Iowa spent part of their lives in log cabins. George W. Jones came out to
Sinsinawa Mound in what is now southwestern Wisconsin in 1827. Returning the
next spring, he slept under his wagon one night and the next morning set the ten
or twelve men whom he had hired, at work chopping down trees. Two days later he
slept in the log cabin that had been completed in that time. He carried up two
corners of the house himself—the first manual labor he had ever done. The cabin
was forty-nine by seventeen feet, having an entry of fifteen by seventeen feet.
Each room had one door and one window only. The flooring was of planks brought
from St. Genevieve, Missouri. When Augustus Caesar Dodge was a boy the Dodge
family lived for eight years in a rude log cabin. This home was built entirely
from hewn timbers, without a particle of sawed lumber, and was equipped with a
puncheon floor and a clapboard roof.
James Harlan, the third United States Senator from Iowa, has given us a
description of his boyhood home in Indiana and the account is typical of the
methods of house building throughout the Middle West. Their first cabin was made
largely from a single tree. The trunk of this tree was five or six feet in
diameter, and when the tree was felled, served as the back of the "camp". A few
feet in front two forked branches were driven into the ground, a beam placed
across the forks, and smaller poles were laid from this beam to the trunk of the
tree. This structure was then covered with strips of bark, several feet in
length, overlapping like shingles, and the sides were hung with bed-clothing.
This makeshift was replaced in about a week by the more typical log cabin. This
must have been a busy week for in that time the father of Harlan had not only
collected the materials from the forest and with the assistance of six neighbors
raised the walls; but he had completed the further tasks of chinking the logs,
building the fireplace, and constructing a stairway to the loft.
When Robert Lucas, first Governor of the Territory of Iowa, visited Iowa
City in 1839, the most commodious cabin in the town served as his headquarters.
It boasted of an attic for a lodging room, and into this loft one must climb, by
means of a primitive ladder, through a very small opening in the upper floor.
Among the historic cabins of Iowa which are still existing, that of Antoine
Le Claire is perhaps the most memorable because of the events that transpired
there. At the signing of the treaty with the Sac Indians in 1832, the section of
land on which the treaty was signed was set aside and given to Le Claire on
condition that he build his home thereon. Soon after, while there still was no
city of Davenport, Le Claire erected what was then a most pretentious home. The
house was built of hewn logs, boarded over. It was a story and a half high with
three gables. Today the house stands at the
rear of 420 West Fifth Street in Davenport. After it was moved, a second story
was added and the roof replaced. This building might not be recognized as a log
cabin but for the fact that here and there the siding has been torn off
revealing the logs of the first story.
The old log cabins of the early settlers in Iowa have now all but
disappeared. They have been replaced by less picturesque though more practical
dwellings. Once in a while a vacated cabin is to be found among the trees along
the river or on the sheltered slope of a prairie hill. In some cases, the old
houses are still seen among the farm buildings, somewhat away from the present
house and now used as summer kitchens or work shops. Others, after three
quarters of a century, are still occupied —standing as a mute testimony of work
MILDRED J. SHARP