By Nicholas Besser

Farming in an early day was not very remunerative, but the desire to get rich quick was inherent in the human breast then as much as now.  This was the trouble with the two older Kramer brothers. In the spring of 1848 Peter Joseph tried his hand at prairie breaking.  Having only twenty acres in cultivation, it was necessary to increase the acreage.  We started with four Yoke of excellent oxen and a big breaking plow.  This man, who had not the least idea about managing any kind of a plow run the breaker, from eight to ten inches deep, otherwise it would either twist out of the ground or not turn the furrow in spite of all he could do.  This was killing the oxen and wore me out hollowing and whipping the poor brutes to keep them moving.  Stepfather then tried his hand at setting the plow share and we got along somewhat better.

After getting about ten acres turned, this enterprise was abandoned.  Another "bonanza" with more glittering prospects was embarked in.  The balance of the summer was spent in putting up a large building out of white oak logs on the bank of Clear Creek and a long bridge over the creek.  The building was intended for a distillery.  Three yoke of oxen were traded off for a double set of copper distilling apparatus.  Just about the time when everything was ready to start up the distillery a terrible cloud burst caused a regular Johnstown flood on Clear Creek, sweeping everything in its course.  Some of the logs of the building had lodged in the timber lower down the creek and were gathered up again, some new logs cut and another building, considerable smaller than the first, erected on higher ground away from the Creek.  Gottlieb Schilling was hired, a well dug near the new building, a smaller copper kettle had been installed, and once more we were ready to commence making whisky.  After getting the fire pretty well agoing, stepfather went to the house leaving the boys to keep up the fire, which they did so well and faithful that when he returned in order to put on to the kettle the copper "worm" the apparatus which condenses and collects the escaping steam- as high wine- the greatest part of it had already escaped into the air as steam.  Only about three gallons of rather weak whiskey was the result of the first run. This disgusted the entire family and the whiskey making business was voted down as a promoter of our future welfare and prosperity.

Farming had been neglected, hay was put up too late in the season to contain much nourishment, stock got very poor, and corn had to be bought until finally our means were exhausted. About the first of April stepmother Polly advised the two Kramer brothers that they had better go to Burlington and work at their trade- brick laying and stone masonry that she with us children would try to raise a crop and "keep the wolf from the door."  When they left we had $2.50 in money and one sack full of oats left after seeding. One yoke of oxen, the same that father had bought; one balky mare and an old big plug horse.  The oxen had to make their living by picking the tender sprouts and buds from trees and brush and eating the old dead grass until new grass came in May. On this kind of feed they were not able to do much work; still we managed to plow about half a day with them and the other half with the plug horses.  After marking out the ground with a single shovel plow, the horses were allowed to pick grass, while we planted by hand with a hoe in the afternoon.  In this way we got ten acres planted and five more plowed during the month of May.

About the first of June I had bought two bushels of corn from John Stroup, taking it to the Black Hawk Mills to have it ground.  Shelling it with great care at the mill, it was scant 1-1/2 bushels, I had paid 75 cent per bushel for it.  Mr. Wm. Shockley, the miller, then said to me:  You tell Stroup to give you the other half bushel, that will feed your team a few days then you can finish your plowing, by that time I will have your corn ground into meal- he was then getting his burr ready for business.  We stopped at Mr. Stroup's, Brother Peter, although four years younger, going on his twelfth year, who had more cheek than myself, asked Mr. Stroup for the other half bushel and got the answer, "I am selling shelled corn at $1.00 per bushel, "I ask the indulgence of the kind readers, for narrating this seeming trivial matter, but our further experience with this "thrifty" Pioneer neighbor, will show, why I particularize. 

One fine warm Monday morning, mother Polly suggested that Peter and John hunt up the oxen and go after the corn meal, telling the boys that they might enjoy themselves awhile at the river fishing.  She would drop the seed (we were not quite done with planting corn) While I was drawing the furrows sister Kate would cover the corn with a hoe, until I had marked out enough for the days work.  The cattle had wandered to the head of the creek, feeding on slough grass, hurrying them home the boys yoked them up and hitched them to the hind part of the running gear of the wagon, making a convenient cart for those days. Getting started late- near eleven o'clock- they made good time to reach the mill, where they spent most of the afternoon waiting for their grist.

On the way home the oxen, being warm- ran into a hog wallow pond near Stroup's pasture, to drink and cool off.  The one ox, Jake, got his hind legs twisted and mired down. The boys had to leave him, coming home at nine o'clock in the evening with one ox and a little corn meal the Miller had loaned them.

About day brake I brought in the horses from the grass and Peter and myself started out to where the ox was left.  The night being warm, the ox seemed to have taken his lodging in the water fairly comfortable.  Peter walked into the water with the last gallon of oats in our possession, in a bucket.  Old Jake, the ox, had not lost any of his appetite; he evidently relished the "sample" and seemed to be ready for full feed of it. We put a chain around his horns and tried to pull him out with the horses, but did not succeed.  It seemed so cruel too. Peter tossed off his shoes and little jacket and started on "a mile heat" to Goodhart's place.  A big stout man was coming out of the yard with two yoke of oxen.  "Are you Mr. Goodhart?" "I am." "Will you be so good hearted then to help us poor boys to get our ox out of the mire?" Mr. Goodhart called his hired man to bring another chain and they arrived in a very short time.  A chain was put around the body of the ox and a steady pull made by the well trained ox team. Mr. Goodhart waded in, took hold of the ox's tail near the rump and applied his giant strength lifting, while the team was pulling.  The old ox was eventually landed on THE DRY without being hurt, but his legs being numb, was not able to stand up. We thanked Mr. Goodhart for his kindness and then set to work washing and rubbing the ox's legs, and then we started home for dinner and to get advice what to do now. After dinner Mr. Berg, Mr. Wendel Horras and Mr. Paul Peiffer, three noble and sympathizing men, went with us to see what could be done.

The old ox was sunning himself, but made no effort to get up and failed to get onto his feet in spite of all our assistance.  About six o'clock Mr. Stroup and his hired man- Wm. Fowler- came down to see what was going on.  I asked Mr. Fowler if he would give the ox some corn that evening and next morning, which he promised to do, then I asked Mr. Stroup to measure out a half bushel, telling him I had no money.  Evidently thinking that I referred to the shortage before spoken of, Mr. Stroup flatly refused.  Stepping off a rod or two, he motioned to his man Fowler to come to him.  Peter Besser, the little scamp, slipped behind Fowler to listen, and soon returned, reporting that Stroup had said to offer the boys a half a dollar for the chance, saying grass will bring the ox out all right.  He evidently based his proposition on my lamenting that it was too bad the faithful old beast had to die of starvation.  I refused his unprecedented generosity of fifty cents for the steer, putting the blame onto Peter for driving too fast.  Peter however said "I will take the fifty cents."  It was now nearly sundown, and we had four miles to go, taking our friends home on the running gear of the wagon. Very little was said on the way but the few words uttered were not flattering to the business tactics of the "thrifty" Mr. Stroup.  Mr. Goodhart, while looking for his stock shortly after, saw the ox nibbling grass some twenty rods from Stroup’s pasture with the fence double staked and ridered and a lock put on the gate and further that the steer had been offered to a mover for a fresh cow.

On going to bed that Saturday night, we asked Mother to call us early next morning as I wanted to go and consult Julius Heider about repleving the steer, at the same time Peter was instructed to keep the pony and the mare in the stable.  About 9 o'clock mother came to our room with sheets and linen changes for Sunday morning.  We were to all appearance sound asleep.  As soon as she retired, we slipped out noiselessly, got on to the horses and started for Stroup's pasture, carefully avoiding riding the road so as to make no tracks.

Arriving at the south side of the pasture Peter had to hold the horses while I crawled up a slough towards the corn crib near the house.  A watch dog gave a bark, the door at the house was opened and the dog jumped toward the corn crib.  This scared the horses and cattle there, and, me too.  Laying flat on my belly I saw old Jake, the ox, trotting south to get out of the way of the horses.  When passing within a few rods from me, I took my hat, letting on I had salt in it, I crawled toward him calling his name and recognizing my voice he followed me down to the fence, which was opened for him.  After passing out, the fence was layed up again with the exception of the top rail. "Jake" marched on in the middle of the road and we rode on the side of the road in the dry grass to avoid being tracked.

Going about two miles this way we left the steer and passed on home to get some sleep, expecting the steer to stop at Berg's.

When mother got up next morning old Jake had arrived.  Calling us boys she said, "Jake has come home."  Feigning ignorance, I asked, "Your brother Jacob?"  When I got out I saw the two oxen lying side by side as if they were yoked together, poor fellow! He would not have to starve again the next winter.

Keeping mother fully in ignorance, proved the best policy in this plot. I started to Heiders. Peter and John went hunting.

About 10 o'clock a.m. Mr. Stroup and his man Fowler put in their appearance, asking mother if she had seen the ox, they had bought from her boy?  She told them she did! "Did you hire anybody to turn him out?"  "No sir!" "Have you any objections to us taking him back?" "Certainly I have.  When my husband comes home, he will pay you for pasture, corn, and the fifty cents. 

"This did not satisfy Stroup, he very much doubted what she said, and when he asked about us boys getting the steer out, her answer was a positive "No sir."  Still he was shaking his head in doubt.  Doubting her veracity aroused Polly's ire, stepping up to Stroup with her sleeves rolled up, her fist close to Stroup's nose, the very picture of an insulted and enraged Amazon, she told the avaricious wretch: "I dare you to doubt my word. I have no brother here just now, but I am able to protect myself against your insults."

Stroup did not lose any time backing away out of her reach and leaving the premises.  Sister Katy, who was present, related to me on my return what had happened. 

Well we raised a splendid crop, that season, some fifteen acres of corn, some ten acres of very fair seed corn and five acres of spring wheat, which, cut with a grass scythe, putting a bow on the snath, leaning the cut grain against the uncut.  Sister Katy and Peter with sickles picked it into bundles, ready for me to bind. A neighbor stacked it for us.  Then Pa Kramer returned from Burlington, a sick man. We children, I the oldest not yet sixteen years old, put up 50 tons of hay that season.  I doing all the mowing and part of the shocking, and yet, that was my happiest season during my stay at home.

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."

These pages were designed and are maintained by IAGenWeb solely for the  use and benefit of the  IAGenWeb Project, a part of the USGenWeb Project.
Copyright © 1997 by IAGenWeb & Other Contributors        
Please read the IAGenWeb Terms, Conditions, & Disclaimer  --all of which apply to Keokuk Co.

Back to top of page                             Return to Keokuk Co. IAGenWeb                             Back to top of page

Photo background collage is made from penny postcards of Keokuk County, donated to the USGenWeb Archives