MUSCATINE COUNTY IOWA|
Source: REGISTER OF OLD SETTLERS , BOOK One, page 152, 155
submitted by Neal Carter, Sept. 28, 2007
A VIEW OF MUSCATINE FORTY YEARS AGO
An Interesting Paper, Read before the Academy of Science, by Hon. John A. Parvin
(From the Muscatine Weekly News, March 6.)
The benefit we derive by comparing a prosperous city with what it was a generation ago, is to bring to view the aggregate amount of industry, energy, capital and perseverance which have produced the change. The man advanced in years who has lived all his life in one city, does not fully realize the amount of improvement since he was a boy. To him it has been gradual; but let the young man leave his native place and sojourn in distant lands, until he becomes old, then return to his birthplace and he will appreciate the change. He will scarcely recognize his old home. Everything is different. If Gallileo could now visit our globe, instead of being arrested as a criminal for saying “the earth moves around the sun,” the people would only reply “of course it does.”
In giving a view of our beautiful city we wish to describe things just as they were at the time of which we speak.
The 18th day of April, 1839, was the day we first had the privilege of beholding what is now the flourishing city of Muscatine – then the town of Bloomington, but it scarcely deserved the name of town. There was nothing inviting. A rough piece of ground; a few frame houses; a number of log cabins; in all between thirty or forty; with about 100 inhabitants; stumps of trees in the principal streets and alleys, with large trees still growing on the greater part of the town site. Such was Muscatine at that time. There was not a brick house in the town and very few chimneys that were adorned with a single brick. Sticks and mud took the place of brick and motar. No public buildings of any kind. No school, Sunday school, or organized Christian society. But two young ladies graced our social meetings, for they were all the unmarried women that lived in the town. A day school and Sunday school were commenced in May of that year. The teacher rented a log cabin at $4.00 per month for his school room, and furnished it with seats. As for the Sunday school it was held in any place that could be secured.
A few frame dwellings were in the process of erection and where they could get one of those houses they made temporary seats of boards and blocks, then notify the few children where to go for Sunday school. We recollect more than once, when on Sunday morning we had to hunt for a house for our school. Battling with these difficulties a few persons who believed in the necessity of moral training of the children persevered, and every Sabbath the “little folks” were gathered together, and spent a few hours in giving and receiving instructions.
In July the M. E. Church organized a society consisting of seven members. Three of them are still living. The church, like the school, had no house but held their meetings wherever they could secure a place. At one time the meeting was in a dwelling house on Second street, between the Avenue and Chestnut, partly finished only and as the day was warm, the minister took his station in the door, part of the audience being in the yard. While he was explaining the “word of God” one of the distinguished citizens, to show his contempt for all “sacred things,” sat within a few feet of the preacher and read a newspaper. Moral principle was at a discount, and but few persons wished to be considered as members of any church. Although the word preached appeared to fall among thorns, yet some fell on good ground and brought forth good fruit, for the man who thus read the newspaper was in a few years seen to bow before the King of Heaven and became a member of the church of Christ. Swearing, drinking and gambling were common, and a praying man the exception. Here is an example. Where the bank of Cook, Musser & Co. now stands, there was a small frame house, kept as a boarding house, saloon and hotel, all together. As poor whisky, of which the landlord kept a large supply, was more called for than bread and butter, the result was quarreling, swearing and fighting was almost a daily occurrence. The landlord was perhaps as good a customer in the whisky line as any of his friends, and on one day when he had imbibed freely, a difficulty occurred in the house and in his wrath he stepped out of the door, and gesticulating, declared in a low voice that he would make blood run knee deep on that floor unless the fuss stopped.
While similar conduct was not uncommon there were a number of good citizens who, acting from Christian principles, labored for a better state of society.
The latter part of the summer of 1839 was very unhealthy. Almost every person was ill with the bilious fever or ague and fever. Some deaths. There was no female help to be hired, and men who were too unwell to sit up all day, in some instances helped their wives to do their weekly washing.
We have said that trees and stumps graced the most of the city. This was particularly the case n Mad Creek bottom, extending from Oak street to the Bluff on the east, being covered with Elm, Maple, &c. Two persons went to prepare the corpse of a Mr. Lockwood for burial, who died in a cabin on the bluff east of the creek, and they crossed the stream by walking on a log. The only bridge. Mrs. Lockwood, widow of the deceased, was the same lady known as Mrs. Fales, of Washington, D. C., who with Mrs. Wittenmeyer, both former citizens of Iowa, visited the hospitals in the South, and as ministering angles, relieved the sick, cheered the despondent, and smoothed the bed of the dying. They took the first steps to organize the “Sanitary Commission” which rendered so much relief to the sick and wounded during the rebellion. Iowa may well boast of such noble spirits among her “Old Settlers.”
As there was no public house in the town the first District Court was held in a frame house that was enclosed and a loose floor laid on joists. It stood on Front street, on the upper side of Iowa Avenue. Seats were erected in frontier style and court conducted with dignity. The weather being warm, a number of people stood by the door, outside, smoking and chatting, among them an attorney. A pet pig unconscious of the distinguished part he was to play, came grunting along and one of the by-standers caught hold of it. The lawyer jokingly, said “put it in the court house.” The request was immediately complied with. The commotion of the audience and the grunting of the pig attracted the attention of the Judge, who ordered the sheriff to arrest the person who put the pig in the house and bring the offender into court. The order was promptly obeyed and the young man fined five dollars for his fun, the Judge holding it to be a contempt of court.
About this time a few of the citizens started a subscription to build a “Town House.” The building was finished the winter following. It was afterwards called the house of the “Bloomington Educational Society.” It stood on the west side of the Avenue, near Third street. That house was used for court house, church, school house and Sunday school, for a number of years. While the court was one day in session two of the attorneys had a quarrel and one knocked the other down. For this little amusement “His Honor” charged the knocker five dollars, to be paid into the public treasury. The judge would not permit such boys’ play in the presence of the court. The next church that organized into membership was the Presbyterian, but in a few years they divided on the old and new school question. Other denominations soon followed by holding separate meetings. The Sunday school mentioned was for a number of years a Union school. As Christian denominations met in the name of their common Saviour and assisted to build up this part of the grand temple of universal Christendom.
Emigrants from different states were rushing to Iowa and Bloomington received her full share; some of the best citizens and some – well – a little mixed. One man in particular was suspected of coining and passing counterfeit quarters and half dollars. As there was but very little money in circulation almost anything that had the appearance of coin would pass. The suspected person was of fine appearance and very witty. On one occasion when a citizen was conversing with him on the subject without trying to deny the counterfeiting he laughingly said “Well the times are hard, money is scarce, and if I make it good enough to go into the Land Office, I think no one should complain.” He was so noted a character in that peculiar line of business that some called him “King of Bogus.” He was one day brought into court, as a witness, to prove that a certain $20.00 bill received by one of our citizens was counterfeit. After being sworn and having carefully examined the note he was asked if it was worth anything. Holding the bill in his hand and turning it over, as if to scrutinize it carefully, he coolly replied “well, that depends on who has it, a flat, or a sharp, and whether he is traveling east or west.” He was asked to explain what he meant by these terms, flat and sharp, east or west. He deliberately replied “a sharp is one who understands what a counterfeit is, he is used to them. A flat is one who sees but little money and does not know genuine from bogus. A man going east must take good money for the people there understand it; if he is going west he may pass some bad money, perhaps, they are not so particular as at the east.” Well, asked the attorney, what is your opinion of the note? Is it genuine or counterfeit? “Is it counterfeit, sir,” he said.
The Missouri war was commenced and ended in the fall of 1839. In this, as in a later and more serious affair, the people of Muscatine county, showed that they were ready to shoulder arms and meet the foe in defense of Iowa or the nation, at a moment’s notice. Bloomington at once equipped her soldiers for the battle field. Arms were furnished, supplies of every kind, particularly some barrels of whisky were accumulated, horses snorting for the battle, were ready, drums and fifes played, husbands, fathers, sons and brothers took the parting kiss and bade the final farewell, and started for the seat of war. They marched to Burlington – and came back again. The rations were much reduced, especially the whisky part, one drum was rendered useless, but no powder was burned. The call for troops on both sides was unwise, unnecessary, contemptible. The whole cause of the difficulty could have been settled amicably by a surveyor and a commission to determine a certain point in the boundary of Missouri.
An act was committed at this important part of the history of said city, which at other times would be considered a crime, but then considered a good joke. There was a log hut, nearly opposite where the ferry landing now is, laid on blocks, that brought it so high above the ground that a man could crawl under the shanty. The floor was what was known as “puncheon floor,” without spikes or nails. Into this little cabin a barrel of whisky was stored, late in the fall, to remain until spring. The owner did not live in the town. The door was locked and everything supposed to be secure. Three of our enterprising citizens knowing the delicious beverage was there adopted the following shrewd way to help themselves without emptying the cask. They crawled under the cabin, raised one or more of the puncheons, got into the room, tapped the barrel, filled their bottle with whisky, then went out the floor they entered and replaced the floor so that all looked safe. When their bottle was emptied they filled it with water, returned to their favorite barrel the same way as before, poured the water in at the bung and filled it from the spigot with the exciting beverage. So they continued through the winter, pouring in water at the bung and drawing out the mixture at the spigot. In the spring when the owner came for his whisky he found everything …
*** continued on page 155 ***
…apparently secure about the hut and the barrel full, but instead of the “pure stuff,” it was what the boys called weak grog.
Not withstanding so much intoxicating drink was disposed of in the old fashioned way, there were persons who saw the evil tendency and corrupting influence of such a course, especially on the young men of the town. So in October, 1840, a temperance society was organized in the house of the Bloomington Educational Society, and among the members were all three of those men who procured the whisky so clandestinely, as above stated. This temperance movement was continued under the same organization for many years and had a good influence with the community. In all about 200 signed the pledge. A large per centage of them have gone to eternity. Those who were opposed to all temperance movements then, as now, sought to ridicule the movement, and as a reproach called the members “Iron Jackets,” but the cause flourished and its beneficial influence and good results remain to this day.
In jurisprudence Bloomington was always prominent. Our Justice of the Peace, realizing the responsibilities of the high office, did not feel himself bound by the decision of other courts, but made decisions to suit himself, and in one case set aside all common law on the subject of crime and criminals. Two of our citizens were accused of some crime before his honor, the Justice. They were arraigned and plead not guilty. The prosecution having but little evidence against them, they rested the case, expecting to be discharged, but the court took a different view of the case, and looking as wise as a Marshall or a Kent, told them that had been accused of a crime and had not proven themselves innocent, therefore he should bind them over to the District Court, and ordered them into custody of the constable.
We have thus faithfully given you a view of Muscatine city, physically, morally, socially and legally, as it appeared forty years ago. Permit us for a few minutes to contrast the city now with what it was at that time. A generation has passed away. Behold the change. Now, instead of a few streets, through which the lonely driver could with difficulty drive his team, for trees and stumps, we have miles of graded streets, nicely macadamized, with beautiful sidewalks, adorned with hydrants, which are supplied from a reservoir filled from the “father of waters,” sufficient to throw water to the highest building in the city, with our different enterprising and efficient fire companies, and the whole city nightly lighted with gas from the gas works.
Then, about 100 inhabitants, now, about 12,000 or 15,000. Then, a few log cabins, with chimneys made of mud and sticks. Now, as fine and substantial brick residences and business houses as the traveler will often see. Now, instead of one school teacher, renting a log cabin for his school room at $4.00 per month, then laboring day after day with fifteen or twenty children, whose parents were responsible for the expense of their instruction, we now have public school houses, free for all, which for beauty of architecture and adaptability for the purpose of thorough education, will favorably compare with houses for education in the largest cities; and these palaces are daily filled with hundreds of joyful children who are taught by scores of teachers, laboring to instill into the young minds, not only the enlightening of the head, but also the equally necessary education of the heart. And these instructions are free for all. Here, we are proud to say, the children of the poorest man in the city has equal rights and privileges with the children of the most wealthy. Muscatine has done nobly in the cause of education. With these institutions of learning scattered all over our glorious republic as they are in our city – when all the youths of the country shall receive that instruction which is necessary to qualify them for the duties of life, this with the influence of Christian churches, in which the principles of justice, righteousness and truth shall be learned, and that great precept taught by our Saviour, “to do as you would have others do to you” shall be engraved on every heart, then and not till then, can patriots exclaim, our nation is safe. Then will philanthropists rejoice. A republic built on the foundation of intelligence is like the mighty oak, whose roots run deep into the fertile and compact earth, too strong to be uprooted by the fiercest blast. The free school system, with the influence of churches, will save our nation, for demagogues, corrupt politicians, bigots and despots will fall before art-enlightened, virtuous people.
“Fear not the sceptic’s puny hands,
While near the school the church spire stands;
Nor dread the blinded bigot’s rule,
While near the church spire stands the school.”
Forty years ago all the manufacturing establishments in Bloomington were a blacksmith’s and a cabinet maker’s shop. All our home-manufactured articles consisted in horse shoes and coffins; not a bushel of corn could be ground in the place. Now our manufactories amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Among them stream saw mills, flouring mills, oat meal manufacture, canning factory and many others, in all of which are employed about 1,000 workmen.
Forty years ago there was no railroad within some hundreds of miles of the State of Iowa. Now Muscatine city has two railroads starting from here, the county has between seventy and eighty miles, and the whole State is checkered with these inter-State avenues of commerce.
Then there was no organized Christian church within our limits. Now our beautiful city is dotted all over with substantial churches, where the praises of a Redeemer are sang, and where the preacher can preach the “unsearchable riches of Christ” without being insulted by persons reading newspapers in the public congregation.
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