USGenWeb Project Linn County Banner IAGenWeb Project

Pioneer Life
In and Around Cedar Rapids, Iowa from 1839 to 1849
Rev. George R. Carroll

- Chapter X (continued) -

(pages 82 - 99)


Mr. and Mrs. John L. Shearer.

Mr. and Mrs. John L. Shearer came to Cedar Rapids in 1842. They first lived in the log house built by Mr. John Young, on the river between fourth and fifth avenues.

Mr. and Mrs. Shearer, with their family, we regarded as valuable acquisitions to our community. They were the first family who became permanent settlers of Cedar Rapids, that of Mr. Shepherd, of course, being regarded as transient and temporary. Mr. Shearer was a man of intelligence, and he always had a hearty welcome for his friends wherever he met them, either at his own house or elsewhere. He was very industrious and persevering in whatever he undertook. One of the first frame houses in Cedar Rapids was built by him on the lot now occupied by the Grand Hotel, on First avenue and Third street. The studding and rafters were made of poles or small trees which he worked out with chalk line and broad-ax, with his own hands. As lumber was still so scarce, it was no easy matter to build a house, even of moderate dimensions; but Mr. Shearer persevered till he had his dwelling completed and ready for occupancy. For some years he served the town in the honorable capacity of Justice of the peace, he being the first to hold that office in Cedar Rapids. He and his wife became highly esteemed members of the First Presbyterian church, after its formation, and rendered valuable aid during its early struggles for existence. Mr. Shearer held for many years, and up to the time of his death, which occurred Feb. 20, 1859, the office of ruling elder of the church.

Mrs. Shearer was a woman of sterling worth in our community. She was possessed of a fine intellect and a tender sympathizing heart. In time of sickness or trouble of any kind, she could always be relied upon to give counsel and help such as few women are capable of rendering. She knew very well from experience what the hardships and trials of a new country meant, but she bore them with a courage that was little less than heroic.

She was one of the few women who knew how to adapt herself to her environments, and to be mistress of the situation however trying it might be. She had many warm friends among the early settlers, and her society was sought as one who was a safe adviser and a true friend.

She was one of those characters that always adds to a community something better than wealth, whose coming is welcomed as a benediction, and whose departure is mourned with sincere regret.

She survived her husband only a few months, and on the 9th of December, 1859, she ceased from her earthly toils and sorrows, to enter upon the rest and reward of the redeemed.

Mr. and Mrs. Shearer were the parents of seven children, three of whom died in infancy. Cynthia died at the age of ten years at Canton, Ill. Of the three who lived to mature years, Mary M. died Jan. 20, 1890, in Patterson, N.J.

For several years she was an honored and successful teacher in our public schools. For this vocation she seemed eminently fitted. Even in her childhood her tastes seemed to run in that direction, and her favorite employment was to gather about her, her younger companions of the neighborhood and form them into a school and teach them. Her health, however, was never very firm, and after some years of active service in the school-room, her bodily strength gave way, and she was compelled to abandon her work that she loved so much. She, however, was spared a number of years after this, exhibiting a character of rare excellence, and of most earnest and active piety.

Elizabeth J., who was for some years actively engaged in the work of city missions in the East, is now a resident of this city, her home being with her aunt, Mrs. Daniels.

John W., the youngest of the family, who is a practical printer by trade, is connected with the Daily Republican of this city.

Mr. Shearer was born in Palmer, Mass., February 12, 1804. Mrs. Shearer was born in Derby Line, Vt., April 11, 1812. They were united in marriage at Otsego, Mich., May 3, 1836.

The following extract from a letter written by Mr. Shearer, from Bloomington, (now Muscatine), Muscatine county, Iowa Territory, February 25, 1839, will show how things appeared to him in that early day. The letter is addressed to his brother-in-law, Henry Weare, at Allegan, Mich. After expressing some regrets at not hearing from the home friends, he says:

“We are al enjoying good health and spirits and hope soon to receive the same intelligence from our friends in Allegan.

The prospects of this place bid fair to make this one of the most essential points in this country, owing to its location on the river, and the fact that it is surrounded with a soil surpassed by none in the western country; likewise the seat of government for the future State of Iowa is to be located about the first of May next within the limits of Johnson county, which will be about twenty-five or thirty miles from this place, and this will be by far the nearest point to the Mississippi river. That county is now thinly inhabited, and there is yet a broad filed for improvement. Should you think of coming to this country, the sooner you come the better, as the country is fast filling up.

I have a claim of a half section of land about three miles from this place which is not yet market, where I intend making improvements as soon as the ground is sufficiently settled.

The Mississippi river was closed over with ice as early as the 15th of December last, sufficient to be crossed by teams, but a thaw commenced about the middle of this month, and about the 20th the ice started in the river, and is now entirely broken up, and the inhabitants are daily looking for steamboats to arrive from St. Louis and the country below.”

The letter is folded in the usual way of those early days and sealed with a wafer, and the suggestive .25 on the upper right-hand corner, indicating the amount of postage which was then charged.

Mr. John Vardy.

In July of the year 1841, Mr. John Vardy came to Cedar Rapids. Of his birth-place I am not appraised, but I think it was in the State of Virginia. He was a cabinet-maker by trade, but was proficient In any kind of carpentry, as he built his own house in 1842, which was the first frame building erected in the town, and it stood on the corner of Third street and Sixth avenue.

Mr. Vardy had a wife and several children, Martha, afterwards Mrs. J. G. McLeod, and Henry, now living in Texas, being all that I can recall.

Mr. and Mrs. Vardy were Christian people, and when the First Presbyterian church was organized in 1847, they were numbered among its charter members.

The first Presbyterian preaching ever conducted in the town was by the Rev. William Rankin, in the fall or winter of 1842, at Mr. Vardy’s house.

Here, too, the first Sabbath school was organized in 1843 or 1844. Mr. Vardy acting a part of the time as superintendent, and Mr. Joseph Greene, Mr. Alex. L. Ely and Mr. Barnet Lutz, also serving at different times in that capacity.

In the same year the first school ever opened in Cedar Rapids, was taught in this house, Mrs. Vardy being the teacher.

This good woman died in June, 1846, having served her family, her community and her God well.

In 1849 Mr. Vardy was married a second time, and in 1856 the family moved to Texas, with the exception of the eldest daughter, Martha, who was at that time the wife of Mr. John G. McLeod, of whom mention has been made elsewhere.

She is now the wife of Mr. J. A. Malum, and their home is in Eustis, Florida. It is from her that these dates are principally gathered.

It will readily be seen from this brief outline that, while this family were plain, unpretentious people, they were nevertheless made of the right kind of material, and they were very useful members of the community, and did their full share in the way of setting right examples, and instilling right principles in the minds of the young, and in laying the foundations deep and strong for our city’s future prosperity.

Mr. N. B. Brown.

The first and most prominent figure that stands out before us in the matter of improving the water power of our city, is that of Mr. Nicholas B. Brown. He came to this place in 1840, and purchased the land which contained the original plat of Cedar Rapids. It was not until sometime during the summer of 1841 that he began active operations towards the improvement of the water power. The first dam was a very weak and temporary affair, made of brush or small trees with stone piled upon them. The brush and trees were brought down the river on flat boats from the neighboring islands, and the stone was quarried from the river bottom on the rapids. It was a long and tedious job to build it, and when completed, it was a poor make shift, and always caused trouble whenever there was a rise in the river. However, it answered for a beginning, and when the saw-mill was completed in 1842, and the waters of the Cedar began to make its machinery hum, it was the beginning of a new period for our town and the harbinger of better days to come.

Mr. Brown’s means were limited, and it was with much difficulty that he could procure the money with which to pay the faithful toilers who had helped him in this new enterprise.

A grist mill was added in due time, and later, in 1846-7, I believe, the woolen factory was built.

The one dominant characteristic of Mr. Brown was his great tenacity of purpose. He was not an aggressive man, but rather the reverse. But he had the gift of hanging on, and this, doubtless, was what brought him his fortune at last. His loose business habits involved him in endless litigation and caused him an immense amount of needless trouble.

There can be but little doubt that many a shrewd business man, standing in his place, and possessing his rare advantages, would have made vastly more out of the splendid property which he controlled. However, it must be admitted by all, that Mr. Brown did some excellent work as a pioneer settler, in making a beginning in a new country, and under many adverse circumstances.

In my personal relations with Mr. Brown, I always found him courteous and gentlemanly. In the later years of his life, I seldom met him, not being a resident of this city during that period.

But I am told that a decided change came over his life a number of years previous to his death, and that he became a member of the Methodist church, and a regular and interested attendant upon its stated meetings, and a liberal contributor towards its support.

He was born in New Jersey in 1814.

A few years before coming to this state, he had resided in Kentucky. His death occurred Sept. 16, 1880. 

His first wife was Miss Catherine Craig, who died many years ago. His second wife’s maiden name was Miss Susan Emery. Her home is still in the city, although, much of the time she is absent. She is a woman of irreproachable character, and is, and always has been, conspicuous in works of benevolence and charity. Few can show a better record.

She is a member of the Methodist church, and for many years has been one of its most faithful workers.

Mr. Robert Ellis – The Oldest Settler.

The oldest settler now living in this section of country, is Mr. Robert Ellis. He was born in Westmoreland county, Penn., Jan. 20, 1817. He and Mr. O. S. Bowling came to Iowa together, but Mr. Bowling stopped for a time in Cedar county, and Mr. Ellis came on alone to Cedar Rapids.

While stopping in Cedar county for a short time, Mr. Ellis heard of a few settlers further up the river, and so he decided to extend his explorations to that new region.

After spending the night with Mr. Michael Donahoo, at Sugar Grove, on the morning of May 8, 1838, Mr. Ellis started on foot to follow the trail up the river. Reaching the bend in the river at the point now known as “the narrows,” he found that the water was so high that the trail was covered, and he was obliged to make his way through the woods and brush, and over the hills as best he could. At length he reached a high point where he caught sight of the broad, beautiful expanse of rolling prairie, where the future city of Cedar Rapids was to be built, but of whose present magnitude and importance he had not yet the slightest conception.

Descending from the hill, he came in sight of a little bark-covered hut, near the spot where now stands the old reaper works. As he drew near the rude habitation he could discover no sign of life within. Following a well-beaten path towards the river, he soon discovered the prostrate form of a man, whom, at first sight, he supposed to be dead, his face being hidden from view. Startled at the sight in the midst of the silence and solitude that surrounded him, Mr. Ellis hardly knew which way to turn. But he finally raised such a shout as made the hills echo with the sound. In an instant the apparently dead man stood upon his feet, more startled than his discoverer had ever thought of being. For a moment he probably thought that his end was at hand and that the Indians were about to take his scalp. It must have been a pleasant surprise when he made the discovery that it was only a white man like himself, who although a stranger, he could nevertheless welcome as a brother of the same race and language.

Certain it was that Mr. Ellis was more than delighted to find that the lone stranger in the wilderness, was a live man and not a lifeless body.

This man’s name was Philip Hull.  It seemed that he had spaded up a little piece of ground near the river and was planting a few garden seeds that he had brought with him, and becoming tired, he laid down on the ground and fell asleep, where he remained until aroused by the young adventurer who had just arrived.

Mr. Ellis remained with him a few days and then crossed the river and made his claim a mile and a quarter above the point where now stands the First avenue bridge.

This has been his home ever since, although he spent some time during the first decade in the Minnesota pineries and several years in California.

A little after they first met, the two men entered into partnership and bought a breaking team of four yoke of oxen, and a large plow, of Mr. William Abbe. Neither of the young men had any ready cash to pay over to Mr. Abbe, and not a dollar in money passed between the contracting parties. The agreed, however, as an equivalent for the team, to split ten thousand rails, and to break up seventy-five acres of prairie.  Those who know anything about the breaking up of new ground, understand that a plow-share will soon get dull in the new ground where it encounters so many roots. In order to keep it sharp a file is carried along and every few rounds the share is turned up and filed. But with constant wear, it finally becomes so dull and blunt that it has to be heated and hammered out thin by a blacksmith. But there was no blacksmith shop here at that time, and so our young pioneers had to invent some way of their own. There being plenty of dry elm limbs at hand, which make a very hot fire, they proceeded to heat the steel share, and then hammer it down to the requisite thinness, using for an anvil an iron wedge driven into a log.  This was probably the first blacksmithing ever done in this part of the country.

It seems now almost incredible, as we look out upon our wide-awake city with every trade represented many times over, and listen to the ceaseless hum of the hundreds of factory wheels, and hear the constant din of business life, that the man still lives in comparative health and vigor, with the flush of youth scarcely faded from his cheek, who participated in scenes like that which I have just described. And yet such is the fact, as all those who know Mr. Ellis can testify.

Mr. Ellis has always been a thorough-going business man, and has been engaged in many different branches of industry. His life has been a very busy one.

He built flat-boats, in an early day, and shipped wheat to St. Louis and New Orleans. The statement has gained currency that these boats were built in 1841, and probably the error will be perpetuated down through the years to come. This date, however, was prior to the erection of mills in this region, and although Mr. Ellis has always been regarded as a man of great enterprise, he would have hardly undertaken to build three or four flat-boats without lumber.  The true date was 1846, according to his own statement.

O. S. Bowling.

Sometime during the summer of 1838, Mr. O. S. Bowling came into the county and located on the west side of the river, opposite the present site of the famous T. M. Sinclair Packing House.

He was born in 1812, in Westmorland county, Pennsylvania, a region of country which, as will appear from this record, has furnished some of our most substantial and honored citizens.

Mr. Bowling was a man of dark complexion, with keen, black eyes, and of a stature somewhat above that of ordinary men.

He was one of those persons that cared but little for the fashions and foibles of this over-critical age in which we now live, deeming it, no doubt, of far greater importance to look after the inner rather than the outer man.

He was a man of a good deal of intelligence, and was always regarded as an honest and highly respected citizen.  He was the first man, I believe, that ever held the office of constable in this community, and in later years he held various offices of public trust, in all of which, he performed the duties imposed upon him with conscientious fidelity.

He secured quite a large tract of land, and held on to it till it became very valuable, a portion of it being laid out into lots upon which the southern part of this city is built. He had the gift of continuance. Having located his claim, he remained upon it the rest of his life.

Although Mr. Bowling was not a member of any church, so far as I know, yet his high moral character and honesty of purpose were never questioned. He was always regarded as one of our most substantial farmers.

His death occurred December 25, 1883.

In 1849 Mr. Bowling was married to Miss Frazee. It was never my pleasure to be personally acquainted with Mrs. Bowling, nor with any of her five children. But their reputation is quite in keeping with that of the honored husband and father.

Thomas Gainor and David W. King arrived in Cedar Rapids on the 18th of June, 1839, and located on the west side of the river, Mr. King on the bank of the river opposite the island, and Mr. Gainor on the rolling prairie a half mile further back. The former was from Westmoreland county, Pennsylvania, and the latter from Michigan.

Mr. David W. King.

Mr. King was an energetic and intelligent man, and, although he was afflicted with a kind of hip disease that rendered him very lame, he showed himself to be a man of pluck and determination. He established the first ferry across the river which he operated for many years, and until the erection of the first bridge rendered it no longer necessary.

The town on the west side of the river for many years bore the name of Kingston, in honor of its first settler.

Mr. King was for some time justice of the peace, an office which he seemed well qualified to fill. He lived to see great improvements on both sides of the river, and by his industry and the wise management of his business affairs, he was able to secure a very comfortable competence of this world’s goods.

He and his wife were members of the Methodist church. He died in the autumn of 1854, leaving behind him the record of an honest man and a good citizen.

Mrs. King, venerable with years and highly honored and esteemed by all who know here, still survives, and makes her home with her son, Mr. William King, who is a prominent business man on the west side of the river.

Mr. Thomas Gainor.

Among the good, honest farmers of an early day, we mention Mr. Thomas Gainor. He was a man of great tenacity of purpose, and he always clung to the home where he first located till near the close of his life, when the infirmities of advancing years made it necessary for him to retire from the arduous labors which a farmer’s occupation demand.

He was somewhat old-fashioned and non-aggressive in his character and habits of life, but he was always considered one of our good, substantial men, such as the pioneers were glad to welcome among their number. He appeared to be a man of strong constitution, and seemed to be well adapted to meet the trials and hardships of a new country.

A great bereavement came to his home at a time and under circumstances that made it peculiarly hard to bear. His wife, after giving birth to a little girl in May following her arrival here, was, a few days later, called to exchange her new home in this world for one beyond the boundaries of earth. It was the first death in this region of country among the white settlers, and it cast a gloom over the whole community.

The little child for whose life she had laid down her own, was the first to be born in this vicinity. It survived, however, but a few months and then followed its mother to the grave.

Mr. Gainor and his wife were honored members of the Methodist church.

For his second wife he married one of the sisters of Mr. Levi Lewis, of whom mention has already been made.  Mr. Gainor’s last years were spent in retirement at his home within the city limits on the west side of the river where, at a good old age, he passed away a few years ago.

The Listebarger Brothers.

About the first of April, 1839, there came from Pennsylvania, Westmoreland county, two brothers, John and Joseph Listebarger by name, who settled on the west side of the river. Later in the season an older brother, Isaac Listebarger, came, and he also located on the west side.

John and Joseph had a little cabin located above, and Isaac afterwards built one below, where the dam was built in after years.

They all had claims, and all did something in the way of farming. Isaac and Joseph, however, being carpenters and joiners, worked a good deal of the time at that business. They were the first carpenters to locate in Cedar Rapids. They were all good, honest men, and had the utmost confidence and respect of their fellow citizens.

Isaac and his wife became charter members of the First Presbyterian church in this place when it was formed in 1847.

John and Joseph here members of the Methodist church, and all of them were men whom any church might gladly welcome to its communion.

Isaac Listebarger died about the year 1853, and John passed away in 1861, on his farm in Fairfax township, where he had lived for many years.

Only a few years ago Joseph, the last of the brothers, departed this life at his home a mile and a quarter west of the river, on the Vinton road.

Mr. Farnum Colby.

Mr. Farnum Colby came to the place in 1839, and made his claim on the south side of the bluff on the west side of the river, a mile north of First avenue bridge. His land probably included a part of the town now known as “Time Check.” Of his nativity I am not apprised, but he was probably from Pennsylvania.  He, too, was a member of the Methodist church and, I believe, was a candid, good man. He left here in an early day and located in Jones county, near Olin, where he died a few years since.

Source: Pioneer Life In and Around Cedar Rapids from 1839 to 1949 by Rev. George R. Carroll. Pub. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Times Printing and Binding House, 1895.

Transcribed by Terry Carlson for the IAGenWeb. For research only. Some errors in transcription may have occurred.


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