IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
“When Rafters Ruled”
The Career of Capt. Jerome E. Short
A graphic story of his 55 years of service on the Upper Mississippi. Edited and copyrighted, 1933 by Captain Fred A. Bill, St. Paul, Minnesota
About a year after I was born in the log house near Thomason my father moved to Albany where he engaged in teaming and farming what land he could rent that he could handle. My mother saved in every possible way in which to assist in getting a livelihood.
My boyhood was much the same as that of other boys; we all had work to do and in many instances that work was beyond our years. The steamboats appealed to me and the captain of one of these “great monsters” drew a great deal more water than the president of the United States!
My first attempt at improved boating was not wholly a success. My father had a very nice skiff, or rowboat, and I was eternally after him to let me have it so I could make it a side wheeler. Finally he consented and told me to go ahead and see what I could do, so I started on the job.
The first move was to get material. This I did by gathering all the lumber and timbers that could be found along the shore of the rivers above and below Albany for some distance. It took me some time to get the necessary material together but at least I was ready for work and had as tools a saw and hammer. Of course I was not able to work continuously but did it at odd times. The top of the skiff was decked over and there was very little guard forward and aft of the wheels. The wheel frame was made out of saplings about three inches in diameter. Having no way to make it exactly square I had to use my eye-and was fairly well satisfied. The two shafts were made of round sticks about one and one-half inches in diameter, to which the wheel arms that carried the four buckets on each wheel were fastened. The engineer sat in the hold of the skiff with good splash boards between him and the wheels. The captain pilot and engineer were in one person. The crew was Wallace Wilson who I had induced to make the trial trip with me.
When all was ready the captain issued orders to let go and we backed out slowly, the engineer at the crank of each wheel. After we got clear and straightened up we came ahead slowly and having checked the backward speed came ahead strong. After three or four revolutions both wheels dropped into the river! The crew was ordered to take the headline and jump in the water, wade ashore and make the boat fast. He obeyed orders to some extent but unfortunately took both ends of the line with him and I was adrift
without oars, compass or pole. For a little while I thought my time had come and that I was due to be wrecked or starved but fortunately Dave Byer saw my trouble an came out in a skiff and rescued me. My reply was that a sidewheel boat did not need oars! That was my last attempt at boat construction.
In the early days the question of getting a living was one of no small proportions and every opportunity to get something in the line of eating that showed up was made the most of. One means that possibly might be called “natural” was getting the benefit of the efforts of the humble bee. Wild bees-that is, those not under “home influence’-were quite plentiful and Beaver Island, immediately opposite Albany was a recognized home for them and “bee trees” thereon were numerous. My father was quite successful in locating these trees and one time he took me along with him. First he prepared the bait by mixing some sugar and syrup in a pan that could be covered by a wooden paddle, which he also carried.
In this connection I must not omit mention of the favorite lunch of my father on this, as well as many other occasions when it was necessary to be away from home. It consisted of good bread, that my mother made, onion and salt pork-no butter. He would take a slice of bread, cut a thin piece of salt pork with his pocket knife place it on the bread and then a piece of bread and he had a sandwich fit for a king! At least it looked that way to me as I watched him eat and thoroughly enjoy it. It looked so good at this time that I asked for some and he gave me a small piece. One bite was sufficient for when the juice from that salt pork got down my throat it nearly choked me to death but I survived – but no more salt pork sandwich!
But to return to the bee hunt. We went up what was known as Crapple slough, in the island, about quarter of a mile and farther began looking for bees at work. He soon spied one which he lightly brushed with his paddle. After a little time he removed the paddle and if the bee had gotten enough sweet for a trip he would come out, circle around a few times and strike out in a line for his home.
Father would get the direction and take after him as fast as he could, examining every tree en route that looked as though it had room for bees. If he was unsuccessful in locating the tree it would probably be because he had varied from a straight line and then he would hunt another bee and do the same stunt again until a tree was found. When one was found he would put a certain mark upon it and it was a custom that the tree was his and no one would molest it nor contest his rights. I remember well one tree he cut one night. The tree was felled, the bees smoked out and the tree split so we could get at the honey. How many pounds were secured I do not know but we carried home two washtubs and one clothes boiler full of as fine honey as bees could make. My mother would strain the honey through cheese cloth and later, when the sediment had settled, strain it again and put it to different uses. Some would be for table use, some would go through fermentation and made a fine drink called metheglin. The comb would be made into beeswax and not a bit would be lost. In fact a bee tree was of great value to a family in those days for the sweet was much more wholesome than sugar which itself was often scarce.
Among the many jobs I had in early life to help out my people was as chore boy at a hotel run by Alfred Slocomb. He had three daughters, Caroline, Sarah and Celia. I lived with them for some time and these girls were always making a monkey out of me. One night they were along when I was ready to go so they got some comforters and a pillow and made a bed in the corner of the living room and hung a quilt in front of it and told me I could sleep there! Would I go to bed with them in the room? Not on your life.
So they took me, got my pants off which left me with only my shirt on and that was pretty short and put me to bed. This was a terrible fix for me and I lay there and cried while they kept plaguing me by calling me a cry baby and all kinds of similar names. Next morning I was too ashamed to go to breakfast with them and kept out of their way for a long time.
Another of the many temporary jobs had when a boy was “shucking” corn for a widow named Sweet, who had a farm not from Albany. The scheme was that a team of horses hitched to a wagon with high side boards would straddle one row of corn and a man on each side of the tam would take the ears of corn from two rows. Leaving this kid to take care of the single row that was more or less tramped down by the team and the wagon. In that way five rows were gathered at each trip. One day the weather was very cold and as I was thinly clad I took cold and after supper was pretty well done up. During the night I awoke with a very high fever and soon became delirious. How or when I got home I never knew but it seems I was attended by the community doctor, Booth, who after doing all he could gave up the case and said I had a severe case of lung fever and could not live. That blessed mother of mine stuck to me night and day and after the doctor had given up tried all the remedies she had ever heard of and at last determined to sweat it out of me with hot packs, plenty of comforts and a feather bed on top of me she got the perspiration started, the fever broken and at last I came out of it and fully recovered in due time. It was my first close call and I knew my mother had saved my life and that nothing I could ever do for her would pay that debt-to say nothing of many others I owed her.
One of the early day pilgrimages we used to make, as fresh in my mind as then, was “going to the mill” there was a water power grist mill on Rock creek at Unionville some twelve miles from Albany to which my father and I made many trips. We would leave Albany early in the morning generally by day-break. With a two horse team over roads, either bad or worse, depending on the weather, with whatever grain we had to be ground. Sometimes we would exchange our grain for something already ground and be able to start home early but generally we were obliged to wait our turn, for it was a case of first come first served. Then again many people preferred to have the product of their own grain so in most instances we would not leave before late in the afternoon or early in the evening and frequently would not get to Albany before midnight, with our horses about petered out.
We would put the horses in the stable blanket them in the winter, give them hay and then mother would give us a good hot supper after which we gave the horses grain and water, put them to bed and were certainly ready for that place ourselves.
In July 1932, I saw that same old mill and was told that it is still in operation. If so it is a wonderful record.
There were few strictly flouring mills then and they were located in the larger places. In those early days a site that would furnish a water poser on any stream was in demand and a primitive saw or grist mill-sometimes both was established as soon as the surrounding country was sufficiently settled to warrant the enterprise. Both classes of mills depended on custom work and generally did the work on “toll” which meant taking a certain share of the products. From Postmaster Berry of Morrison Ill. we learn that: “The mill is a three story building of solid stone construction and stands on the west bank of Rock creek about 100 feet south of the Lincoln highway and one mile west of Morrison Construction began in 1858 and grinding in 1860. It was in the William Annan family from the time it was built until 1929 when it was sold to George Hartman who put in some new water wheels and more up to date grinding machinery and is still in operation using water power. The mill is in Union Grove Township and the little cluster of houses, together with the church, store, school and blacksmith shop built up around it, was once called
Unionville, although the place was never incorporated nor did it have a post office. When the railroad was built and Morrison station established practically all of “Unionville.” Except the mill, moved over to the new town.”
(We are pleased to take the space to describe this old mill as it is an historical curiosity in that it I still being operated by water power. There are many old time mills still on the original site that are in operation but the original power-was long ago eliminating and little Rock creek deserves a medal for being able to furnish power to turn wheels all these years. ) F.A.B.
And so my early childhood went on. Times were often hard but there was a good bunch of boys in the village and I had my share of fun. My mother was a good Christian woman; kept the Bible constantly in sight and red it regularly. Come what would we three children-the there older brothers had gone “on their own” some years previously-were kept in Sunday school and she certainly did all any woman could do to raise honest, honorable and conscientious children. If any of us fell short of that at any time it was not her fault.
In the spring of 1862 I got my first employment outside of the village, on the farm of one Harrington and it brought $11 a month for the summer and that was a great help to our family.
In the spring of 1863 my father got the gold fever and started for Pikes Peak with a first class outfit of horses, wagon, tent and full camp equipment. Boy like I wanted to go with him but my mother rebelled and father said I could do more good my remaining at home and looking after mother. So on March 14, 1863, he started off, with our collie dog in the lead, promising to write and keep us posted as to his movements. That was the last any member of our family ever saw of him. My blessed mother was left with three children on her hands. At a time when I should have been in school I was obliged to get to work in real earnest. Fortunately I had received some instruction in the three “R’s” could figure a little and read and write fairly well for the amount of time I had been in school.
(Note: - Jerome was then 14 years of age. Charles about 10 and Anna about six. The prospect the mother faced with little or no resources except such as came in form day to day, was by no means a pleasant one. Jerome was her sheet anchor and, for the sake of her children, she faced the future with the courage exhibited by many a woman during that period of war and hardship. Nothing to do in town so Jerome went back to farmer Harrington who was glad to give him employment for eight months at $14 a month every dollar of which went to the mother, between whom and the son an unusually strong bond existed.)
(That his work was satisfactory is evidenced by the fact that he got the job again in 1864 for the same time and for the same wages. When not engaged on the farm he sought work at all times wherever it could be found and was generally successful for he was dependable and a god worker.)
(All the time the river was looking good to him and in the spring of 1865 he decided to try it. - F.A. B.)
Transcribed by Georgeann McClure