Reminisces of William S. Wilkinson 

(aka Uncle Sidney), Early Settler of

 Madison County, Iowa

Paper by W. S. Wilkinson, read by him at the Meeting of Madison County Historical Society on April 28th, 1901 and reprinted in the Winterset News March 30 & April 6, 1906.

Transcribed by Pat Hochstetler, May 2017.


Coordinator's note: William Sidney Wilkinson arrived in Madison County in 1848 at age 11, just two years after the first white settlers arrived. This made him well positioned to observe the earliest growth of the County and to experience pioneer life as it began with unbroken prairie,  and heavily forested river bottoms, which then morphed over time to well kept farmsteads and small thriving towns. Uncle Sidney, as he came to be known, grew to be a prominent citizen, serving in the Civil War and serving his fellow citizens as a school teacher before starting a farm. He was a very active member and supporter of the Madison County Historical Society. You can get a good background of Uncle Sidney by reading his obituary and biography.



Madison County During the Time of 1848.

W. S. Wilkinson Writes History

An Abundance of Rattlesnakes.  Settlers Endured Many Hardships But Won Out.  Schools and Sunday Schools In That Day Were Not Plentiful.  As a Boy Saw It.


When we were young and supple

    We formed a little plan

To cross the Mississippi

     And take ourselves some land.


We’d leave our sweetheart with her Ma

     When we went out to roam;

But “no” said she “Twill never do,

     I’ll help to make that home.”

“I’ll spin the flax and card the wool

     And make our garments too;

While you are working on the farm

     As other men will do.”


“And when the busy day is done

     And we’ve nothing more to do;

“We’’ sit around the fire and talk

     And it will be just me and you.”

Early in the spring of 1847 my oldest brother, Alfred, came from Davis county, Iowa, with one horse to Des Moines and rented twenty acres of land from Mr. Lamb, about where the starch factory now stands in Des Moines.  He planted it in corn, paying one half cent.

About the first of June my father and the rest of the family followed, but being stopped by high water, we remained in Marion county for some time and did not reach the neighborhood of “The Forks,” as the union of the Coon and Des Moines rivers was then usually called, until towards fall.  We lived that fall and winter upon Four Mile creek, about six miles northeast of The Forks.  The reports came back to us there that winter of this country up here, that it was a fine place, good soil, nice rolling prairies, plenty of stone, an abundance of fine, flowing springs, plenty of good timber along the streams and that the principal undergrowth was rattlesnakes.  When we came we found plenty of the undergrowth.

Early in the spring of 1848 my father and my brother, Thomas, came up here and located a claim and built a cabin within a few steps of a nice spring, just one and one-half miles north of the center of Scott township.  They covered the cabin in the usual way, with clapboards and weight poles, but running short of boards, they covered a small patch with elm bark.  They laid half the floor with puncheons split from linn logs and smoothed with a broad ax; the other half they laid with bark placed flat on the ground.  They built a stick and mud chimney with stone back-wall and jams for a fire place.  They then came back and moved the family from Polk county as soon as the stock could live on the grass.  We started from Polk county with our cows, sheep, hogs, chickens and one pair of geese about the 20th of April, 1848.  We arrived at our new home just after dark, (I think it was on Friday) April 23rd.  The next day we unloaded our wagon and fixed things for housekeeping, while our stock grazed on the grass.  The next day being Sunday we rested and viewed the landscape o’er.  On Monday morning we went to work clearing a piece of timber land to plant in corn, our horse team not being able to turn the prairie sod.  We put in about eight or ten acres of corn and after that we plowed up and planted a good patch of potatoes, cabbage and other vegetables, and later on some turnips.  Truck grew nicely so that in the fall we had a nice supply of vegetables, and our corn, when cut up, made a fine lot of feed, but the grain was not well matured on account of being late planted.

After the crops were tended the settlers began to pay some attention to a school for the children.  They got together and built a log cabin for a school house just east of Buffalo mill, in what is now Eli Wright’s field, and hired James Thornburgh to teach a term of school.   He commenced sometime in August and taught for six weeks.  The fall work coming on, he closed the school until winter but the snow as so deep that winter the children could not go so he never finished the term.  That was the first school taught in the county.  The persons attending that term as well as I can remember were:  Absolum Daniel, Thomas Aaron, Ann and Emeline McKinzie, Louisa, Rebecca and Joseph Thornburgh, James and Anna Crawford, Will Butler, Miles Casebeer, Thomas, Margaret, David and Sid Wilkinson.  I think likely two or three others that I cannot call to mind now.  Of those only two are still living in this county, Henry Evans and myself.  Two are living in Kansas; one in Washington; two others in Washington or Oregon and one in Rock Island, Illinois.  Two or three years later some school districts were marked off and the Rogers school house was built and Mrs. Danforth, mother of Challen and Wm. Danforth, taught the first school there.

That fall my father and some of the neighbors went on a bee hunt northwest up the Coon river.  They found and cut over eighty bee trees.  They brought home a fine lot of honey and after straining it, they hauled it to St. Joseph, Missouri and sold it and bought their winter groceries, and if they had not got them that way I don’t know how they would have got them.  They returned from St. Joseph at night of December 2nd and the next morning the snow as about three or four inches deep and snowing rapidly and by night it must have been eighteen or twenty inches deep.  It continued to snow until it got to be a big snow, the deepest I ever saw.  It must have been at least three feet on a level.  Some said more.  I don’t know.  The settlers could not keep the roads broke through that snow, not even to the mill.  They kept tracks broke from house to house so they could go on horseback and their milling was done in that way.

During the summer of 1848 Hart and Binkley built a little grist mill on the site where the Buffalo mill afterwards stood; they started it sometime in the fall.  It was a small affair but it answered the settlers’ purpose well that winter of the deep snow.  I don’t know how they could have got along without it.  They could grind nothing but corn but there was nothing else to grind that winter.  The next season I think they had some buckwheat and possibly a very little wheat to grind.  The millers got some kind of a screen to sieve their buckwheat through; they called it a “Sarse.”  I don’t know what it was like.  Probably the real name was “Sarcenet,” a hand bolt made of Sarcenet silk.  Of course we did not get good flour but it was a change from corn bread.

I think the first Sunday School in the county was organized that summer, (1848), at the house of Levi Bishop, with Sam Fleener as superintendent and Mrs. Bishop as principal teacher.  They did not confine their instructions to the Scriptures alone but taught the little folks spelling and reading.  The books used were the spelling books and Scriptures or Testament.  I learned several little tricks at that school.

The prairies of this county were like most of the prairies of the state.  They were beautiful of course, but here they were thickly spotted with the bones and horns of the buffalo, elk and deer and other animals that had been slain for their flesh and pelts.  Early spring you could not go many rods in any direction on Hoosier prairie without coming onto the whitened bones of some of these animals.  When the prairies were covered with the fresh green grass they were most beautiful but the time of their greatest beauty was perhaps in the month of June when the lilies and sweet Williams and the prairie rose were in full bloom, and around the edges of the timber the lady slipper and wild tiger lily, but they are all gone.  Nor were the woods without their enchantment.  Those beautiful sugar maples, those splendid black walnuts, those noble cottonwoods that used to line our streams, but they are gone—gone never to return.  Now I am an old man; my eyesight is growing dim.  I would like once more to see the trees standing and the springs flowing as they did when my mother used to turn me over her knee to the tune of Yankee Doodle.

In an early day some families settled along up Clanton creek, Rhyno’s and Johnson’s among them, and went to raising cattle and were quite successful but they could raise cattle faster than they could subdue the prairie sod and raise grain and in some of those hard winters in an early day they lost sometimes pretty heavily of cattle.  When an animal died its hide was taken off to help along the hide trade.  They frequently joked each other about their misfortunes.  One hard winter, about 1855 or ’56, they were losing quite heavily.  They told a story on Jeff Rhyno that he turned off a hand because he couldn’t keep up the skinning; he said he couldn’t skin but fifteen a day.

As to amusements I think there was not so great a variety as now, but such as they had were engaged in with fully as much interest then as now.  During the fall and winter the young people would get together of evenings, first at one house and then another.  At such times they would sometimes discuss questions that had been proposed, such as art and nature and many others.  There were usually some of the older men present to act as judges and give encouragement while the young folks engaged in the discussion.  At other times they would have a spelling match, and at all these meetings they had perfect good order.  Farther on toward spring would come the rail splittings and sometimes log rolling and at these the young folks usually had a party at night.  Later on would come the corn planting; of course that was done by hand.  When one man would get a piece of ground ready to plant his near neighbor would turn in and help him plant it.  After that would come the flax pullings and harvest, and later on the corn cuttings.  The old settlers were very sociable and those meetings were prized for the good feeling and fellowship they created.  And there were the house raisings at all times of the year and they were as much of a picnic as any.  Men used to often go ten miles to a raising.

How the courting was done in an early day might come under this head.  Now according to one writes the process has not materially changed for several hundred years, but the conveniences change.  In those days they had no nice parlors and drawing rooms to get off into.  The whole house was in one room, a log cabin sixteen or eighteen feet square.  In one end was a large fire place that would take in a stick four or five feet long and in the corners on each side is where the courting was usually done.  Across the other end of the house stood two high, old fashioned bedsteads, one for pap and mother and the other for our big sisters to sleep in, and there were two trundle beds.  They were slipped under in daytime and drawn out at night, these were for the little folks to sleep in, hence they were called trundle bed stock; we larger boys usually slept in the loft in winter.  The loft was laid with loose clapboards, and of Sunday evenings when our big sisters had company, we would slip over to a crack and peep down, and that’s the way the boy saw it.  And then if a girl said “yes” she said “yes,” and you could depend on it, and if she said “no” she said “no” and you would see the young man go like a dog in high rye for he knew there was decision there.  And then if a young couple were going together and concluded to quit, they quit and that was all that there was to it, but now, according to the court docket, if they don’t mean business they had better keep their mouths shut.  Then if a young couple were going together and the old folks opposed the match they were not easily balked.  The would get up some Sunday afternoon or perhaps at the hour of midnight and run off down to Missouri and there hunt up a good minister that would tie the knot so well that it would never come undone, and then the girl would write a note to her parents something like this:  “Well, pap and mother, we are married.  When you can recognize John as your son-in-law, we will return.  We await your decision.”  And that’s the way the girl saw it.  And there was another difference.  That of expense.  If a young man had a suit of blue or mixed jeans with a row of brass buttons down each side of his coat front, that was all that was required, and if a girl had a clean, new calico dress, that was all that was necessary.  Then they did not have to pay some preacher five or ten dollars for tying the knot, that duty was usually performed free of charge, and counting the good dinner they got, they counted themselves a little ahead anyway.  Yes, it was the same as the whiskey in those days.  It was cheap but pure.

In an early day the work was all done in a primitive way.  The cooking was done by the fire place, they had no stoves.  The bread was baked in the skillet, which was heated and the lid, which covered it, was also heated, then the skillet was placed on coals on the hearth, the dough put in and the hot lid placed over it and live coals put on the lid to keep up the heat.  This skillet was shallow and used for biscuits, etc., but the Dutch oven was used for baking light bread and pones, pies, etc.  The oven was several inches deeper than the skillet, but used in the same way with the lid.  The coffee was boiled in the coffee pot on the coals drawn out on the hearth.  The pots were boiled over the fire.  Many fire places had a crane placed in the jam to place the pots on and made adjustable to suit circumstances.  Some used the Johnny Cake board.  That made the most delicious corn bread.  Meat was sometimes hung before the fire and roasted which was considered very good.  The clothing was made in the home.  The old settlers had their flock of sheep from which to obtain the wool for their winter clothing.  The wool was washed and picked to clean out all burrs and then carded by hand and spun into yarn and woven into jeans, linseys and flannels.  The summer wear was made from flax.  The flax was sown early in the spring like small grain.

They pulled, bound in bundles and shocked to dry.  Then the seed was whipped off and afterwards put in water to rot the stem so it would separate from the lint, then spread out to dry and afterwards broken on a flax brake and swingled with a wooden swingling knife, the flax being held over the top of a swingling board with one hand and the knife wielded with the other.  Then it was drawn through the hackle to take out the shives and tow.  The best of the town was used to make course garments of which we shall speak later.

After the material was prepared it was spun into yarn on hand spinning wheels and dyed when necessary and then taken to the family loom.  This loom was made the same as those carpet looms we sometimes see at the present with different reeds and pedals and shuttles, in fact the gearing was arranged for each kind of cloth to be made.  After the threads were spun they were run into hanks on the reel and then the hanks were placed on the winding blades and run onto large spools and from that onto the warping bars into warp.  The warp was then run onto the large beam of the loom.  One end of the warp was then drawn through the beadles and on through the reed in the batton to the front of the loom and tied on a bar and brought over the breast beam down to the cloth beam.  The filling was run on quills and placed in the shuttle which was passed through the warp which was opened by the headless by tramping of the treadles and this filling was beaten up by the batton which held the reed, or “slay” as it was also called.

The best of the tow was often used to make coarse garments for little boys; there was the tow pants and the long tow shirt.  The long tow shirt was quite a novelty being worn without pants.  It was nice and cool in summer weather and answered the purpose it was intended for very well but it would be a little embarrassing sometimes when the material had run a little short and there were visitors around.  Many a time we have run around the house and hid in the chimney corner when we saw visitors coming and if they stayed too long we would seek some more secure hiding place until we could get word to mother for some additional garments.  It is not uncommon now for people to tuck up their dress a little on the arrival of visitors.  How well I remember those long tow shirts.

The farming tools of an early day were very plain.  The first plow that I plowed with was a wooden mouldboard plow with a metal lay and bar welded together at the point.  The Diamond plow came into use about that time but we used the wooden mouldboard for several years.  Our harrows, handrakes and pitchforks were made of wood.  The old settlers worked hard and lived plain and were usually healthy.  If a man got sick he got well again.  That was before the doctors came, and now sometimes a man gets well in spite of two or three doctors.

The early settlers used to make their own ropes out of flax or hemp.  Hemp is probably the best for ropes but both were used.  After the twine was spun it was stretched in a home made “rope-works” and twisted into a rope.  The home made rope-works was on the same general principle as the factories we have today.  They ran the twist into the ropes just the same as the ropes we get today, and a man could make a rope-works in half a day.

The first bridge built across Middle river in this county was built where the Indianola road crossed that stream east of town in Scott township in the fall and winter of 1854-55, now known as Hollowell bridge.  The county paid John McCartney five hundred dollars for building it.  The bridge was a forty foot span with a framed approach at each end.  It was purely a frame bridge with double bents at each end of the span twenty-two feet high.  The timbers of this bridge were hewn and were sixteen inches square.  The stringers of the main span were forty-four feet long to lap at the end on the bents.  The frames approaches at each end were twenty feet long.  This bridge was finished early in the spring of 1855.

W. S. Wilkinson