RECOLLECTIONS OF EARLY PIONEER LIFE
By Nicholas Besser
The boys of today as well as myself will envy Mr. J. N. Richardson the good times he had catching prairie chickens and quails the winter of the deep snow.  Having an industrious father and mother, well qualified as early settlers to provide for their family, his lot was far different than in our side of the prairie.

I presume he is too modest to give the real depth of that snow for fear the present generation might doubt his veracity.  In one of my previous letters I stated where three neighbors with three yoke of oxen had failed to get more than a mile while the snow was not yet drifted nor packed solid.

The Kramers, always putting off the most needed work for better days or for some one less able to do it, got caught with less than 100 bushels of corn in the crib.  After two days of continual snowing in the early part of December, we tried to break a road to the corn field, a distance of about 1/4 of a mile.  Having no sled, we hitched two yoke of oxen to a light Linden log, dragging it along to make a path.  It took us four hours to make this trip.  Soon more snow fell and drifted, and when we started out again, the entire cornfield was from 5 to 6 feet deep in snow, not an ear of corn could we see.  On the level prairie the snow was four feet deep.  Sometime in January a soft wind and a few days of sunshine settled the snow and melted it some away from the corn stalks; then it was that multitudes of prairie chickens would alight in the cornfield and in reaching downward very easily picked the corn.  A northwestern blizzard froze the snow into a solid mass, enabling a man to walk on it, unless you happened to strike a place where tall grass and brush were beneath

Early in November a pack of wolves one stormy night attacked the horses on the "late burn," their grazing place.  A 4 year old Morgan and a 2 year old Hambletonian mare, two fine horses belonging to the Schuster family and a grand 9 months old horse colt belonging to me, started for our place.  In crossing the creek this colt slipped; having the sideling side, the wolves cut its ham strings and ate a portion of its hams while it was alive. This happened within 100 yards of home and safety.  Our dogs, we thought had run them off, they had killed two or three wolves before this and were well trained, all they lacked was speed.

Mr. Gabbert had two fine large grayhounds but the family had moved over toward Lancaster.  A Mr. Scharnhorst who recently had moved from his place, now owned by Mr. Mathis Biewen, onto a claim on German Creek, nearer to his son-in-laws Louis and John Schnakenberg, had a fine large young grayhound, for which we offered to trade him a breed sow.  The old man and his son Christian came over the latter part of November closed the trade and took the hog home and left the hound.

In running after some game the dog must have lost "his bearing" he did not come back but found his way to his former home. 

The moving and fixing up their cabin for the winter and then the deep snow prevented Sharnhorsts from coming over or us from going there.  Sometime in the latter part of January some afternoon about three o'clock I started out for Scharnhorsts to get our hound.  This came very near proving a game of "freeze out" for me.

I had to go about 5 miles north and some west on the trail to Clemen's Grove, then to intersect the Washington road, passing what is now Lafayette Center this led, south and west to a ford below where John Smith No. 1 now lives.  When I got as far north as where Harper is now located I left the trail and took a due west course as this would shorten my route about two miles. The wind was blowing furious from the north west and before I advanced many hundred yards over a hill I suddenly broke through in some 7 or 8 feet deep snow to the bottom of a brush patch.  In my struggle to break the hard crust of snow above me to get to the surface again, the inside of my clothes got pretty well filled with snow, and having on no underwear, the chilling effect may be imagined.  I concluded that the farthest way by the trail would prove the shortest route to my destination.  I turned back to the trail.  It was turning colder every minute; my eyes began to water and lumps of ice as large as hickory nuts were hanging to my eyelids.  Turning my back to the wind and taking off my mittens I managed to clear my eyes so that I could follow the trail for stepping out of it and onto underlaying grass or hazelbrush would invariably mean a breaking through and materially impede progress.  Had I possessed more sense and less grit I should have returned home, but I did not.  I determined to risk the balance of the way, about five miles more.  I finally arrived on the divide where a few trees stood near the path.  I stepped in shelter behind the biggest, to rest a few minutes and to harvest the crop of icicles from my eyes.  I gradually commenced to feel very comfortable, the sting cold did not seem to effect me any more, but I got rather sleepy.  The howling of a wolf some miles away and the recollections of reading about the danger of the sleepy symptoms in the reports of North Pole explorers, roused me up.  I wanted to march on but my knees refused to act, but I managed to get down into a steep ravine or hollow, near where Nick Leinen now lives, and there I pounded my knees and arms to work up a circulation of the blood.  I followed this ravine in a southerly direction to the next hollow leading straight west.  By this time the "three suns" had gone down.  The wind was also calmed.  I got into the heavy timber and got along pretty well then, reaching Scharnhorsts all O. K. about half an hour after dark.  These people had not seen any body for a month, except when one of their son-in-laws had come to see how they were getting along.  A sack full of unbolted buckwheat flour was all they had to live on then, this was sifted, mixed up like corn meal put into a Dutch oven, baked like a loaf of corn bread,- the oven being set onto some coals and coals also placed on the cast iron lid.  This oven was the "range" of that day, it was used for baking, stewing, warming up, etc.  The first bite I took of this bread came near choking me but I soon learned to take small bites and do lots of chewing, there- by thoroughly mixing it with saliva strictly, in accordance with latter day instructions in hygiene.  It was not the most palatable supper I ever ate, but it was the best they had.  This happened to be the coldest night of that extremely cold winter. A Muscatine Journal stated that the thermometer registered 36 below zero, 32 at night and 36 the next morning.  Mr. Sharnhorst went out to saw one stick of wood in two, coming in after a few minutes, his cheek and nose were frozen white. I rushed towards him when he came in the door to keep him from coming up to the fire, before he had rubbed his face well with snow.  The old mother then said that Christian, who was a year older that myself, would have to go over to his brother-in-laws, to borrow an ax, as their own was broken, reasoning, that, if Nicholas can come ten miles after a dog, Christian could risk a mile or two to get the ax.

This fine grayhound had been starved and frozen.  Christian told me that an ear of corn was his daily feed.  The wolves had whipped him from the hay stack, forcing him to take up his lodging in front of the door, his backbone had become rainbow shaped, and he had he come utterly worthless.  If there was a wolf in sight he could not be induced to go ten steps towards it, not even when Mile and Turk were trying their best to catch it.

The only consolation I got out of the trip was when going home I took another route, stopping at Mr. David Beinhart's, a young married couple, who were well provided with eatables.  I got five biscuits, ham, eggs and good coffee for dinner and the loan of the "World's History" in German, a book as large as a big Bible.  This gave me good and instructive reading matter for the rest of the winter, and I started for home as happy as a lark in springtime.  And how happy we boys were the next spring after the snow had melted, to hear the Prairie chickens a cooing; the wild turkeys early at day light gobbling, the birds of all kinds, a hundred different varieties around us enjoying the new life.  Brother John discovered that spring that the mysterious imitation of distant thunder was made by a male Pheasant on a hole of a hollow tree, making a peculiar noise and flapping his wings.

Contributed by Kim Icenhower. Thank you Kim!

Reference: Kim Icenhower: "I am the great great granddaughter of Nicholas Besser.  My Grandmother, Irma (Striegel) Haag, the daughter of Mary (Besser) Striegel had copies of these stories, which were handed down to her children.  I was told they were factual accounts of his early life in Iowa."

 

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