HOLLANDERS OF IOWA
JACOB VAN DER ZEE
Submitted by Gayle Harper
Home - Table of Contents - Next Chapter
LOCUST RAVAGES AND YEARS OF HARDSHIP
MOST memorable in the minds of the Dutch pioneers of Sioux County are the years from 1873 to 1879 inclusive - a period which introduced the Hollanders to one of the worst pests of the whole trans-Mississippi region and revealed once more the ox-like patience so characteristic of their nation. A review of that period, so deeply burned into the memories of many of the people still living in the northwestern counties of Iowa, will show how disastrous were the depredations committed by insects which were at one time more common than they are today.
Occupying the greater portion of three townships, the Hollanders spent the first spring months of 1870 preparing small areas of their widely scattered homesteads for cultivation. They hastened to transform the prairie into fields. And so in the autumn of 1870 the Hollanders of Sioux County gathered from their fresh-plowed acres a goodly harvest of wheat, "sod corn", potatoes, and vegetables sufficient for themselves and the needs of their live stock. Where but a few months before there had been no sign of a human habitation, in August the little pioneer houses of wood and prairie sod met the eye everywhere: hundreds of acres of the wild but beautiful prairie soil had been broken, and much of it had been planted. Many of the new settlers were men with means sufficient to make good improvements. They had brought many head of horses, cattle and hogs, farm implements, and household goods; but most of them had barely enough to make a start in the world. The energy, however, which all displayed during those early months clearly indicated their intention to build up a rich and prosperous agricultural community.
Success crowned their industry with more bountiful crops in the harvest months of the years 1871 and 1872. The uninhabited, uncultivated prairies of 1869 had now been made to blossom: for the use of man. Once without roads, without railroads, without human habitations, within two brief years the Hollanders had all of these improvements, even though they were crude and primitive. The first settlers had each year welcomed fresh accessions of their fellow-countrymen from Pella, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and The Netherlands. With only a few exceptions these new colonists were men of very limited means. But in one season they expected to bring from forty to eighty acres under cultivation, and thus lay the foundation. for the achievement of what they had reason to believe would soon be a state of financial independence. To plow and otherwise prepare and sow and harvest their acres they needed capital for the purchase of horses and harness, wagons, plows, and harrows, and all the other implements necessary to the farmer's calling.
The settlers, therefore, bought their machinery and stock on credit - an evil unavoidably bound up with the desire to cultivate land which lent itself so easily to improvement. The abundant yield of harvests in 1870, 1871, and 1872 warranted the purchase of such necessities, and also naturally induced many to go into debt to obtain articles which were not necessary for present purposes. Merchants and agents who solicited- orders for agricultural implements gladly sold on credit and accepted notes because they had no doubts of the honesty of their Dutch customers or of the possibilities of Sioux County farms.(139)
In the spring of the year 1873, many Dutch pioneers entertained hopes and plans for the improvement of their homes and farm buildings. Those who still lived in sod houses felt the need of better, more sanitary dwellings. Thus far they had succeeded. On the strength of an experience covering the past three years and with dreams of future prosperity many rebuilt their houses, and others made extensive repairs. Early in the summer they feasted their eyes upon luxuriant fields of wheat, flax, corn, and oats. Such a glorious sight seemed to warrant the building of new granaries.
The colonists had already denied themselves and their families many things; but now they felt justified in buying necessary clothing for their wives and children - the harvest would pay for all. Indeed, dealers in merchandise and lumber and farm implements - all eagerly sold on credit, for the Dutch farmer generally kept his word. And finally, some of these colonist land owners acquired a taste for speculation. "Would it not be a pity", they argued, "if we miss this fine chance to buy quarter-sections of excellent railway land adjacent to our own homesteads?" Surely the opportunity to invest in railroad lands which had just been placed on the market appealed to many. And so they bought on credit at a very low figure, rather than run the risk of being compelled later on to buy from speculators. Thus again they subscribed their names to promissory notes. Debtor and creditor alike were ready to look upon those promising fields of grain as security sufficient to satisfy all obligations.
Then destruction, sure and swift, came to blast their hopes. The Hollanders had counted their bear skins too soon. They had been building air-castles; for like a clap of thunder out of a clear sky, myriads of locusts flying southwestward from the ravaged corn-fields of Minnesota descended like large flakes of snow upon the gardens, haylands, and grain-fields of the settlers. Within a few days they devoured in some instances entire fields of grain, vegetables, and even weeds and leaves of trees and shrubbery; and when it seemed as if hardly a blade of grass would remain to appease their insatiable hunger they took flight and left behind them a veritable desert. In some fields they had not been so ravenous as in others, for they had been rather unevenly distributed upon the surface of the country. Nevertheless, the Hollanders spent many melancholy days, "days of sadness but also days of prayer", and when they had gathered in the harvest of 1873 they had scarcely enough to supply their needs. The hard labor of the year had been swept away as by a breath, and the reward for which they had endured privation was snatched out of their very hands.
Although some were not as hard hit as others, the colonists gathered on an average only one-fourth of a crop. This, coupled with low prices, resulted in extremely straitened circumstances. The loss fell most heavily on those who were least able to bear it - homesteaders who were raising their first crop and were entirely dependent upon it for support. A great many were rendered destitute: they were without clothing or food sufficient for a month's supply. Others had barely sufficient to carry them through the winter, much less to tide them over till another harvest.
Reports of their deplorable condition were telegraphed from Sioux City to various parts of the country, and although considerably exaggerated, they fairly revealed the destitution which prevailed in the northwestern counties of Iowa. In December N. B. Baker, Adjutant-General of the State of Iowa, visited Sioux County in person to investigate the condition of the settlers. Later he distributed to them money and clothing which had been collected and received everywhere throughout the State by local homesteaders' relief committees. The Hollanders of Pella sent thousands of bushels of corn and several carloads of coal.(140)
Henry Hospers, chairman of the Sioux County board of supervisors, sent out letters asking for "provisions, money, clothing (even half-worn clothing), ladies' and childrens' wear, and blankets", especially for settlers in the northern and western parts of the county where the suffering was most marked. Although a Sioux City newspaper inveighed against this policy, pronouncing "it a swindle on the people of Iowa, and a disgrace to the independent yeomanry of Sioux County to have Mr. Hospers begging for them, while they live in Sioux County, a land of plenty, and have the right and lawful authority to help themselves", conditions in all of northwestern Iowa were really so bad that the State as well as the people of Iowa contributed many thousands of dollars to enable the unfortunate settlers to purchase the necessities of life and to secure seed for spring sowing.(141)
Both houses of the General Assembly of the State of Iowa considered the question of the destitution in the northwestern counties. Governor Carpenter placed before them all the facts relative to the condition of the people, including a resolution of the board of supervisors of Sioux County and a letter from Mr. Hospers.(142)
A committee of five legislators, appointed to investigate the reports of destitution, performed their work thoroughly, as is shown by their excellent report:
Then follow brief reports on the history and finances of Sioux, Osceola, O'Brien, and Lyon counties:
The Committee then referred to the unexpected devastation of the fields of the settlers, and continued:
The Committee reported that the land in northwestern Iowa was certainly as good as any in the State, and that the settlers had "unbounded confidence in their ability to succeed". To enable these people to seed their lands, to defray the expense of purchasing, transporting, and distributing the seed, and to provide feed for their teams (generally reduced in flesh and unable to perform the required labor without grain), an appropriation to the amount of $190,000 was recommended, the committee suggesting that this amount be offered in the form of a loan, a policy most acceptable to the settlers, as they emphatically stated they did not desire a donation. The recommendation was made "not simply as a matter of humanity, not simply as a matter of duty to a suffering people; but as a matter of justice to men who are engaged in the work of reducing one of the fairest portions of Iowa from the wilderness - as a matter of profit to the State at large." (143) Accordingly, in the month of February, 1874, the General. Assembly appropriated $50,000 for the purchase of seed, grain, and vegetables, and provided for the appointment of commissioners to distribute articles of relief and disburse the money.(144)
Though some of the Dutch settlers had lost more heavily than others, it is reported that when promissory notes became due, even those who had not suffered severely from the locust visitation invented pitiful grasshopper stories as a means of stalling their creditors. Undoubtedly the grasshopper never had more debts loaded upon him than in the year 1873. All alike hoped that the next harvest .would provide, and so the payment of debts was postponed till that better time should arrive.
The ardor of the Dutch farmers was not cooled by the disaster of 1873. They proceeded to break more prairie, for the railroad lands which they had bought needed to be plowed. In the spring of 1874 they purchased as much farm machinery as at any previous time. They sowed thousands of acres with wheat, and in June, as in the year before, they anticipated a tremendous return for their toil.
One Sunday morning in July, while the settlers were at church, a north wind again bore countless millions of locusts from Minnesota. Millions on millions of the insects poured down upon a strip of country estimated at from forty to sixty miles in length. They covered the earth so thickly that it seemed as if every vestige of vegetation would be destroyed at once. With the exception of oats and early wheat which had been reaped, one pioneer declared that "by Monday morning all our crops were stripped and gone". On Thursday morning when the sky was cleared of clouds and a wind sprang up from the north, the swarming myriads of locusts took wing for the south, and disappeared almost entirely within two hours.
Reports of this visit of the locusts were despatched from East Orange and Hospers in Sioux County, and although the loss entailed was not so great as that of the previous year, and although some fields were entirely unmolested, hardly one-half of the crop was harvested. Indian corn produced an average yield of five bushels to the acre. This loss, together with the low market prices paid for farm products, pressed so hard upon the Hollanders that some gave up in discouragement and departed, while others were ready and eager to sell their lands for a merely nominal sum of money. An old settler subsequently related that "in one instance a man got so disgusted that he sold his 80 acres for $225, throwing in a span of mules, wagon, and cow."(145)
The devastations wrought by the Colorado or Rocky Mountain locusts, as they were called, were so widespread in certain Iowa and Minnesota counties that Congress passed an act which made it lawful for homestead and preemption settlers to leave and be absent from their lands in those counties until May 1, 1875, "under such regulations as to proof of the same as the Commissioner of the General Land Office may prescribe." The act further provided that during such absence no adverse rights should attach to the lands, and settlers should be allowed "to resume and perfect their settlements as though no such absence had been enjoyed or allowed ", an exemption which was extended "to those making settlements in 1874, and suffering the same destruction of crops as those making settlement of 1873, or any previous year." (146)
Referring to the exodus from Kansas and Nebraska, which was witnessed every day on the public thoroughfares, as abundant evidence of the discouragement of many citizens in those States and in parts of Iowa and Minnesota, an editorial writer in one of the leading newspapers of Iowa concluded as follows:
Discouragement was so epidemic among the Hollanders of Sioux County in the fall of 1874 that, had it not been for the wise counsel and cheerfulness of Henry Hospers, Rev. Seine Bolks, and other influential men, the colony would probably have disappeared as a Dutch community. During those days of gloom there appeared in Hospers' Dutch newspaper a lengthy editorial, the purpose of which was to counteract the bad effects of the locust scourge and to exhort the people not to lose courage. "Present conditions", wrote the editor, "do not detract from the indisputable and generally recognized truth that we have received here a bit of soil which cannot be surpassed in richness and fertility, in healthfulness of climate, and in its suitability for Hollanders. Neither grasshoppers nor inevitable debt which now oppresses us can belie this."
Then Hospers proceeded to draw a picture of the progress of the community:
And in conclusion the writer asked:
Hospers also strongly urged all his fellow-colonists to deal honestly, carefully, and judiciously and to pay off their debts as rapidly as possible. He suggested that they should first look after the needs of their families and their live stock, and buy seed for the next year's crop; then pay what they owed their neighbors in town and country; and lastly remove their written promises to pay for farm machinery. Early in the year 1.875, to show that they were not the only sufferers, Sioux County Hollanders were requested to donate what they could to alleviate distress among the Hollanders in Kansas. (148)
In 1875 the Hollanders were blessed with a splendid harvest, although considerable grain, especially wheat, was destroyed by storms and heavy rains. Additional loss was occasioned by prairie fires which often spread into stubble fields consuming stacks of grain. Farmers were thus taught not to burn their prairie grass, not only on account of the danger of property loss and punishment according to law, but also because "it makes our prairie hills look so barren - besides grass catches snow and prevents robberies, and snow-covered prairies are healthier and warmer." Though the hated, omnivorous grasshoppers were hatched from eggs deposited in the land in 1874, they did not cause much damage in the summer of 1875. The era of better times served to cheer the population as nothing else could, but it also made creditors more clamorous. Newspapers in the colony contained numerous notices not only requesting the payment of debts but also advertising sheriff's sales of land for unpaid taxes.
Discouragement still prevailed in many quarters, and an Orange City editor advised farmers not to dispose of their homes too hurriedly, adding: "In a year or two you will have the best land that sun ever shone upon, particularly in the northern part of the county. Our land is just beginning to receive attention from Eastern homeseekers, and soon this raw, wild land will be converted into miniature gardens. Churches and schools will also come to you in a little while. Only live so that your name will not appear upon every slip of paper - we mean a note - so that you will not be forced to sell your wheat until you can get a good price, and then you will be happy and prosperous." (149)
Hope was at low ebb, however, among the Dutch pioneers during the winter of 1875. Once more in the spring and early summer of 1876 they had visions of an abundant harvest, when once more in June a plague of locusts settled as a blight upon their fields. For ten days they ravaged the farms, playing havoc with the crops of some settlers while scarcely touching the fields of others. So serious was the damage done that settlers in the northern part of Sioux County emigrated to escape forever a pest which had recurred too often. Everything possible was done to inspire the disaffected Hollanders with courage and patience, but very often without avail.
In June, 1877, the locust eggs which had been laid in the soil the year before had hatched so plentifully that practically all small grain crops were destroyed. Driven to desperation some Hollanders tried every reasonable means to exterminate the pest, but without success. They constructed a sort of large sheet-iron pan sixteen feet long, three feet wide, with one side two feet high, and into it they poured tar and petroleum. As this apparatus was drawn over the surface of the fields, millions of grasshoppers flew into it and were killed, and yet the pest was not appreciably diminished. Despite wide-spread devastations in 1877, the Hollanders were thankful to have enough left to supply their immediate needs.
In 1878 the hopes and labors of the pioneers of Sioux County were rewarded with a heavy crop, although considerable damage had been done by violent rain storms which flattened out many fields of grain so that reaping and harvesting had to be effected by means of grass-mowers and hay rakes. When the dreaded locusts arrived again for their annual visit in September, little harm could be done the worst they could do was to deposit their eggs. When the drouth of 1879 had successfully hatched these, and after furious storms had caused much loss in June and July, the deadly enemy had left little of wheat, oats, and other small grain crops. Following the departure of this locust brood, there came a terrific hurricane to cap the climax of the season's direful destruction. (150)
Such a gauntlet of years of bad fortune tried the mettle of the Hollanders and required nothing short of heroism. To the present generation it appears as if those Hollanders who survived the terrible ordeal and clung to their homesteads possessed superhuman patience. Their descendants and the farmers of to-day who have never undergone such harrowing pioneer experiences can perhaps never fully realize how human beings could steel their hearts to endure such stinging defeats for a series of years and not surrender. To be sure, many of the settlers did not resist the temptation to sell their homesteads for a trifle, and very many who remained did so only because they could do nothing else. Farmers hopelessly in debt, business men with thousands of dollars credited upon the pages of their books of account, and money borrowed at extortionate rates of interest upon the best security - such were some of the f acts which characterized the first years of financial stringency among the Dutch Pioneers of the Orange City colony.
The present generation of farmers in that prosperous community will never know how much their fathers owed to those few sturdy business men who labored hard, kept their community from starvation, and maintained their own credit. Had it not been for the ministrations of such leaders as the pastor of the colony, Rev. Bolks, and their principal financial agent, Henry Hospers, very many Hollanders who later prospered would have surrendered their holdings in disgust and sought homes elsewhere.
During the first decade of its history, therefore, the Dutch colonists in Sioux County passed through a period of trials and tribulations such as few pioneers have been called upon to bear. They saw their population dwindling in numbers, but their leaders never lost faith in the quality of their soil and believed that God would yet bless them with rich harvests: their judgment. was vindicated. Those who endured the locust depredations as they came, and remained upon their farms have never since found any reason to regret it. On the contrary, they or their children are now the proud possessors of lands which money can hardly buy, and many who left Sioux County then to seek better fortune elsewhere bewail the fact that they did not stay to invest their labor and capital in land which has come to be the most valuable in the State of Iowa.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
(139) For agricultural statistics of the townships of Sioux County in 1872 see Census of Iowa, 1873, p. 58; and for a general review of the early years see Mr. Betten's article in De Volksvriend, September 19, 1895.
(140) In the Agricultural Report (Iowa), 1873, there are no returns from Sioux County, but the `report of conditions in Plymouth, O'Brien, and Lyon counties applies with equal force to conditions in Sioux County. As to the locust depredations of 1873 see pp. 25-28, 438, and 439; and also the Report of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, 1873, pp. 155, 156. The Historical Atlas of Sioux County contains articles by Rev. James de Pree, Wm. Dealy, A. van der Meide, and D. Gleysteen, to all of whom the writer is indebted for much of the material embodied in this chapter. For an account of donations by Pella, see Pella's Weekblad, December 27, 1873, and January 3, 17, and 24, 1874.
(141) The Sioux City Weekly Times, December 6, 1873, pp. 1 and 4. That Henry Hospers aided the colonists very much at this time is apparent from a news item --in the Iowa State Register, October 31, 1873: "On the evening of the 20th the people of the young city called on Mr. Hospers and made a public presentation to him of a gold-headed cane. The cane was a handsome ebony cane with a large gold head, on which is inscribed, very neatly, the following: `To our benefactor, Henry Hospers, from his Sioux County colonists, 1873'. "
(142) Shambaugh's Messages and Proclamations o f the Governors of Iowa, Vol. IV, pp. 99, 228.
(143) Legislative Documents (Iowa), 1874, Vol. 2, No. 31.
(144) Private, Local and Temporary Laws of Iowa, 1874, pp. 11, 12.
(145) Sioux City Journal, July 9, 1874; Census of Iowa, 1875, pp. 119, 178; The Historical Atlas of Sioux County; Agricultural Report (Iowa), 1874, pp. 436, 437, 440; and the Report o f the U. S. Department o f Agriculture, 1874, pp. 125, 126.
(146) The Congressional Record, Forty-third Congress, First Session, Vol. 2, Part 5, p. 4438.
(147) Iowa State Register, October 30, 1874.
(148) De Volksvriend, July 30, October 29, and November 5. 1874, and February 13, 1875.
(149) The Sioux County Herald,
November 25, and January 27, 1876; and De Volksvriend, November
(150) For accounts of the years 1876-78 see De Volksvriend, September 19, 1895; The Historical Atlas of Sioux County; and the Agricultural Report (Iowa), 1876, pp. 8, 9, 441; 1877, pp. 442, 443; and 1879, pp. 24, 26. In these agricultural reports Sioux County scarcely receives mention-no one seems to have reported conditions there, but the state of affairs in neighboring counties was practically the same.
Copyright 2003. These electronic pages are posted for the benefit of individuals only who are researching their family histories. These electronic pages may NOT be reproduced in any format for profit or presentation by any other organization or persons. Persons or organizations desiring to use this material, must obtain the written consent of the contributor, or the legal representative of the submitter, and contact the Sioux County Coordinator with proof of this consent.