In this chapter it is the design to present some of the interesting and peculiar phases of frontier life. It is not the purpose to here portray conditions and circumstances that apply to every case, but to pick out from the mass of material some of the most extreme cases, and belonging properly to the extreme frontier. While as a means of variety here and there, are stated occurrences and conditions, which have existed up to within a very recent day. It is impossible to single out Tama county as an isolated case in the description of pioneer life, for it finds its parallel in almost every county in the State and throughout the entire west. And it is, on the other hand, just as impossible to limit the portrayed so as to just precisely fit and cover given cases, and territory.

Pioneer life must be taken as a whole, and as it existed a third of a century ago in the west. Some of the illustrations may not apply to the exact manner in which this or that particular settler got along, nor is it the intention that it should, but it is attempted to show what has been done in the early development of the Great West.

But a little more than a third of a century ago Tama county was not in existence; the territory comprising it was as wild and desolate as the Indians who inhabited it; and there was not a white settler within its boundaries. When the Wilkinsons, the Ashers, and the Vandorins, first among the determined pioneers settled here they found an unbroken, uncultivated and uninhabited prairie. Wild beasts, and but little less wild savages roamed at will over the prairie, through the groves and trees and along the waters of the Iowa river, their domain knowing no bounds. The miniature forests skirting the prairies were to be felled, cabins erected, homes prepared, mills built, and the river and creeks made to labor for the benefit of mankind. The beautiful prairies were to be robbed of their natural ornaments, and the hand of art was to assist in their decoration. Who was to undertake this work? What will be the effect of their labors upon future generations?

Tama county pioneers had many difficulties to contend with, not the least of which was the journey from civilization to their prairie homes. The route lay for the most part through a rough country; swamps and marshes were crossed with great exertion and fatigue; rivers, were forded with difficulty and danger; nights were passed on open prairies, with the sod for a couch and the heavens for a shelter; long, weary days and weeks of travel were endured, but finally “the promised land” was reached.

The young men and women of to-day have little conception of the mode of life among the early settlers of the country. One can hardly conceive how great a change has taken place in so short a time.

In a new country, far removed from the conveniences of civilization, where all are compelled to build their own houses, make their own clothing and procure for themselves the means of subsistence, it is to be expected that their dwellings and garments will be rude. These were matters controlled by surrounding circumstances and the means at their disposal.

Some few of the earliest settlers constructed what were called “three-faced camps” or in other words, three walls leaving one side open; but this was, in reality only resorted to by some of the transient squatters who only remained long enough to find a purchaser for their claim to the land, and then move on farther west to repeat the process. These “three-faced camps are described as follows: The walls were built seven feet high, when poles were laid across at a distance of about three feet, and on these a roof of clapboards was laid, which were kept in place by weight poles placed on them. The clapboards were about four feet in length and from five to eight inches in width, split out of white oak timber. No floor was laid in the “camp.” The structure required neither door, window, or chimney. The one side left out of the cabin, answered all these purposes. In front of the open side was built a large log heap, which served for warmth in cold weather and for cooking purposes in all seasons. Of course there was an abundance of light, and on either side of the fire, space to enter in.

They were probably more easily constructed than the ordinary cabin, but in this region very few are remembered, as having been built. A more common place of abode was what might be called a “four faced camp.” This was constructed in a good deal the same manner except that it had four sides.

The cabin was a material advance for comfort, in home life. This was built of logs, the spaces between the logs being filled in with split sticks of wood called “chinks,” and daubed over both inside and out, with mortar made of clay. The floor, sometimes, was nothing more than earth tramped hard and smooth, but it was commonly made of “puncheons,” or split logs with the split side turned upward. The roof was made by gradually drawing the top to the ridge pole, on cross pieces, laying the “clapboards, “ which being several feet in length, instead of being nailed were held in place or kept from rolling off by “knees” placed against the one below, which served as a prop. For a fire-place, a space was cut out of the logs on one side of the room, usually about six feet in length, and three sides were built up of logs, making an offset in the wall. This was lined with stone, if convenient; if not, then earth. The flue, or upper part of the chimney, was built of small split sticks, two and a half or three feet in length, carried a little space above the roof, and plastered over with clay; when finished it was called a “cat and clay” chimney. To describe it more minutely, the sticks are laid just as bricks are, with mortar; the clay is mixed with cut straw or grass to prevent it from crumbling, and then the outside and inside were plastered with the clay and rubbed smooth with the hands. The door was made by cutting a space in one side of the room of the required size, the door itself being made of clapboards secured by wooden pins to two crosspieces. The hinges were also sometimes of wood, while the fastenings consisted of a wooden latch catching on a hook of the same material. To open the door from the outside, a strip of buckskin or leather was tied to the latch and drawn through a hole a few inches above the latch-bar, so that on pulling the string the latch was lifted from the catch or hook, and the door was opened without further trouble. To lock the door, it was only necessary to pull the string through the hole to the inside. Here the family lived, and here the guest and wayfarer were made welcome. The living room was of good size, but to a large extent it was all – Kitchen, bed-room, parlor and arsenal, with flitches of bacon and sometimes rings of dried pumpkin suspended from the rafters.

Sometimes in the more extreme cases a pioneer’s cabin was erected of poles that one man could lay together; without “notching,” after reaching about the height of a man, it would be covered with the bark taken from some Indian’s abandoned “Wick-e-up,” the cracks filled with prairie grass, and skin hung upon the inside and outside to keep the wind from blowing out the grass. The skins thus used were wolf, bear, deer, elk, and frequently buffalo. The fire was built on the ground and a hole left in the roof for smoke to escape. No floor was had until the season came to “peel Linn bark.” A door would be made, almost always in these extreme cases, of an elk skin. In cases of this kind the beds were made of prairie hay, spread on the ground floor. Sometimes, a forked stake would be driven into the ground at an equal distance from two walls, which were at right angles, and poles laid through the fork to the walls. On this would be laid “shakes” and brush until quite a fair bed stead would be the result. For bed clothes, when quilts were wanting, skins and robes would make up the deficiency, and in cases like those just mentioned, skins were almost wholly used. In a great many instances all of the household furniture was home-made, block being used for chairs, and rude benches, which were made form “shakes” with the “easy side up,” holes bored in the bottom and rude legs inserted. A place for cooking utensils was made by boring holes in the wall, placing smooth shake upon pegs which had been driven in, and a shelf was complete. In these extreme cases the pioneers usually had a few knives and forks and plates, but there were many who had neither. Rev. S. W. Ingham, who was the pioneer Methodist preacher in this part of the State, told the writer that he had many times, notwithstanding he was given the best, sat upon a rude block, which he doubted not conformed to the usual rule of “easy side up,” and in eating, cut his venison upon a piece of bark laid on his knees, using his own jack-knife. It is difficult to describe some of the tables used, they were of all shapes and sizes, sometimes a “shelf” would be made upon which the victuals were served. Sometimes a box or two in which the clothing was stored, pegs would be driven into the log walls and clothing hung upon them. Books were very seldom found in these extreme cases, except probably a fraction of a book here and there, which was well thumbed. In one corner was placed the trusty rifle, and just above it were hung the powder horn, shot flask and hunting pouch. Often a loft was made to the cabin for a sleeping place and the storage of “traps” and articles not in common use. This was reached by a ladder secured to the wall. Sometimes the bed rooms wee separated by sheets and blankets suspended from the rafters, but until the means of making these partitions were ample, they all lived and slept in the same room. Familiarity with this mode of living did away with much of the discomfort, but as soon as improvement could be made, there was occasionally added to the cabin and additional room, or a “double log cabin,” being substantially a “three faced camp,” but generally the old cabin was replaced by a better one.

The furniture in the cabin corresponded with the house itself. The articles used in the kitchen were as few and simple as can be imagined. A dutch oven,” or skillet, a long-handled frying pan, an iron pot or kettle, and sometimes a coffee pot, constituted the utensils of the best furnished kitchen. A little later, when stone formed the base of the chimney, a long iron “crane” swung in the chimney place, which on its “pot-hoot” carried the boiling kettle or heavy iron pot. The cooking was all done o the fire-place and at the fire, and the style of cooking was as simple as the utensils. Indian, or corn meal, was the common flour, which was made into “pone” or “corn-dodger, “ or “hoe-cake,” as the occasion or variety demanded. The “pone” and the “dodger” was baked in the Dutch oven, which was first set on a bed of glowing coals. When the oven was filled with the dough, the lid, already heated on the fire, was placed on the oven and covered with red hot coals. When the bread was done it was taken from the oven and placed near the fire to keep warm while some other food was being prepared in the same “oven” for the forthcoming meal. The “hoe-cake” was prepared in the same way as the dodger – that is, a stiff dough was made of the meal and water, and taking as much as could conveniently be held in both hands, it was moulded into the desired shape by being tossed from hand to hand, then laid on a board or flat stone placed at an angle before the fire and patted down to the required thickness on the “johnny cake board.” In the fall and early winter, cooked pumpkin was sometimes added to the meal dough, giving a flavor and richness to the bread not attained by the modern methods. In the oven from which the bread was taken, the venison or ham was then fried, and in winter, lye hominy, made form the unbroken grains of corn, added to the frugal meal. The woods abounded in honey, and of this in pioneer times, the early settlers had an abundance the year round. For some years after the very first settlement, corn meal formed the staple commodity for bread; but as soon as the settlers began trading at Cedar Rapids, flour could be obtained more easily than corn meal, for the reason that it was easier to grind.

These simple cabins were inhabited by a kind and true-hearted people. They were strangers to mock-modesty, and the traveler seeking lodgings for the night, or desirous of spending a few days in the community, if willing to accept the rude offerings, was always welcome, although how they were disposed of at night the reader may not easily imagine; for, as describe, often a single room would be made to serve the purpose of a kitchen, dining-room, sitting room and parlor, and many families consisted of six or eight persons.

The character of the pioneers of Tama county falls properly within the range of the historian. They lived in a region of exuberance and fertility, where Nature had scattered her blessings with a liberal hand. The fair supply of timber, the fertile prairie, and the many improvements constantly going forward, with the bright prospect for a glorious future in everything that renders life pleasant, combined to deeply impress their character to give them a spirit of enterprise, an independence of feeling, a joyousness of hope. They were a thorough admixture of many nations, characters, languages, conditions and opinions. There was scarcely a State in the Union that was not represented among the early settlers. All the various religious sects had their advocates. All now form one society. Says an early writer: “Men must cleave to their kind, and must be dependent upon each other. Pride and jealousy give way to the natural yearnings of the human heart for society. They begin to rub off the neutral prejudices; one takes a step and then the other; they meet half way and embrace; and the society thus newly organized and constituted is more liberal, enlarged, unprejudiced, and, of course, more affectionate, than a society of people of like birth and character, who bring all their early prejudices as a common stock to be transmitted as an inheritance to posterity.”

They were bound together by a feeling that all were equal and were laboring and striving for a common end. They had all left more or less comfortable homes in the eastern States, and cast their lot in a country where there was nothing save the intrinsic merit of the location. Here they were all on equal footing; riches could give no advantage, even had they existed, and the absence of the aristocratic element that is now so painfully apparent in society, must alone have been a great source of comfort to the pioneers. They all felt an equal interest in the improvement and development of the country, and to the softening and smoothing over of the rough edged disadvantages against which they had to contend. Everyone was thought of and treated as a brother. Their public gatherings were like the reunion of a parted family, and the fact that there was no rivalry, made the occasions doubly joyous. Their hospitality knew no bounds. If a traveler pulled the latch string, it was considered that, as a matter of course, he should receive an equal share with the rest of the household, be it much or little.

In this respect the settlers differed considerably, but were dressed as a rule as plain and simple, as their houses were built. Necessity compelled it to be in conformity to the strictest economy. The clothes which the early settlers brought with them were worn smooth, and darned until it was impossible to tell from what material the garment was originally made sometimes, and in fact in the cases of squatters, almost always, the men were dressed as much in skins as anything else. In summer, nearly all persons, both male and female, went barefooted. Boys and most men, never thought of wearing anything on their feet, except during months of the coldest weather, when buckskin moccasins were worn. These useful articles were made by taking a tanned piece of skin, cutting it after a pattern to the right size, then it would be stitched and puckered with deer sinew. The latter came from the neck of the deer, and was small enough to run through a darning needle, yet strong enough to “hang a man.” The moccasins were very common until the settlement was quite well advanced. It is a fact that Rev. S. W. Ingham, who for many years traveled this region as the pioneer Methodist preacher, was ordained elder with moccasins on his feet.

Clothing was but one of the many things in which the pioneers stinted themselves. Every move they made was hindered by some advantage, which constantly reminded them of labor to be performed and time which must pass to evolve comfort and convenience from the former condition of affairs. It is well for “young America” to look back on those early days. It involved a life of toil and hardship, but it was the life that made men of character. Tama county to-day has no better men than the immediate descendants of those who labored thus, and the actors themselves have not yet all passed away. One who had passed through pioneer life in the eastern portion of the State, wrote that “ the boys were required to do their share of the hard labor of the cleaning up the farm, for much of the country now under the plow was at one time heavily timbered, or was covered with a dense thicket of hazel and young timer. Or visits were made with ox teams, and we walked, or rode on horse-back, or in wagons, to ‘meeting.’ The boys ‘pulled,’ ‘broke’ and ‘hackled’ flax, wore tow shirts and indulged aristocratic feeling in fringed ‘hunting-shirts’ and ‘coon-skin caps,’ ‘picked’ and ‘carded’ wool by hand, and ‘spooled’ and ‘quilled’ yarn for the weaving till the back ached.”

Industry such as this, supported by an economy and frugality from which there was then no escapes, necessarily brought its own reward. Change and alterations were to be expected, but the reality has distanced the wildest conjuncture; and stranger still, multitudes are still living who witnessed not only the face of nature undergoing a change about them, but the manners, customs, and industries of a whole people almost wholly changed. Many an old pioneer sits by his fireside in his easy chair with closed eyes, and dreams of the long ago, in sympathy with the poet describing eastern pioneer life, and seeing here and there strains that are parallel to his own experience.

“The voice of Natures’ very self drops low,
As though she whispered of the long ago,
When down the wandering stream the rude canoe
Of some lone trapper glided into view,
And loitered down the watery path that led
Thro’ forest depths, that only knew the tread
Of savage beasts and wild barbarians,
That skulked about with blood upon their hands,
And murder in their hearts. The light of day
Might barely pierce the gloominess that lay
Like some dark pall across the water’s face,
And folded all the land in its embrace,
The panther’s screaming, and bear’s low growl,
The snake’s sharp rattle, and the wolf’s wild howl,
The owl’s grim chuckle, as it rose and fell
In alternation with the Indian’s yell.
Made fitting prelude for the gory plays
That were enacted in the early days.
“Now, o’er the vision, like a miracle, falls
The old log cabin with its dingy walls,
And crippled chimney, with the crutch-like prop
Beneath, a sagging shoulder at the top.
The ‘coon skin, battened fast on either side,
The wisps of leaf tobacco, cut and dried,
The yellow stands of quartered apples hung
In rich festoons that tangle in among
The morning glory vines that clamber o’er
The little clapboard roof above the door;
Again, thro’mists of memory arise
The simple scenes of home before the eyes;
The happy mother humming with her wheel;
The dear old melodies that used to steal
So drowsily upon the summer air,
The house dog hid his bone, forgot his care
And nestled at her feet, to dream, perchance,
Some cooling dream of summer-time romance.
The square of sunshine through the open door
That notched it edge across the puncheon floor,
And made the golden coverlet whereon
The god of slumber had, a picture drawn
Of babyhood, in all the loveliness
Of dimpled cheek, and limb, and linsey dress.
The bough-filled fire-place and the mantle wide,
Its fire-scorched ankles stretched on either side,
Where, perchance upon its shoulders ‘neath the joist,
The old clock hiccoughed, harsh and husky voiced;
Tomatoes, red and yellow, in a row,
Preserved not them for diet, but for show;
The jars of jelly, with their dainty tops’
Bunches of pennayroyal and cordial drops,
The flask of camphor and vial of squills,
The box of buttons, garden seeds and pills.
And thus the pioneer and helpsone aged wife
Reflectively reviews the scenes of early life.”

In early days more mischief was done by wolves than by any other wild animal, and no small part of their mischief consisted in their almost constant barking at night which always seemed menacing and frightful to the settlers. Like mosquitos the noise they made appeared to be about as dreadful as the real depredations they committed. The most effectual, as well as the most exciting, method of ridding the country of these hateful pests, was that known as the circular wolf hunt, by which all the men and boys would turn out on an appointed day, in a kind of circle comprising many square miles of territory, with horses and dogs, and then close up toward the center field of operation, gathering, not only wolves, but also deer and many smaller “varmint.” Five, ten or more wolves, by this means, would be killed in a single day. The men would be organized with as much system as a small army, every one being posted in the meaning of every signal and application of every rule. Guns were scarcely ever allowed to be brought on such occasions, as their use would be unavoidably dangerous. The dogs were depended upon for the final slaughter. The dogs, by the way, had all to be held in check by a cord in the hands of their keepers until the final signal was given to let them loose, when away they would all go the the center of battle, and a more exciting scene would follow than can easily be described.

This plan was frequently adopted in most of the neighboring counties; but not a single instance of such a hunt has been found in Tama county, by the historian.

This wild recreation was a peculiar one and many a sturdy pioneer gloried in excelling in this art. He would carefully watch a bee as it filled itself with the product of some sweet flower or leaf bud, or water and notice particularly the direction taken by it as it struck a “bee-line” for its home, which, when found, would generally by high up in the hollow of some tree. The tree would be marked, and in the fall a party would go and cut down the tree and capture the honey as quick as they could before it wasted away through the broken walls in which it had been so carefully stowed by the busy little bee. Several gallons would often be taken from a single tree, and by a very little work, and pleasant at that, the early settlers could keep themselves in honey the year round. By the time the honey was a year old it would turn white and granulate, yet be as good and healthful as when fresh. This was called by some “can-died” honey.

Another plan of finding the nest was to take a little honey in a box, and burn it a little, so that it would scent the air. This never failed to draw bees if there were any near. Then the box would be put away and the bee followed. Every now and then the hunter would make some mark with his foot so that if he lost the bee he could “take a sight,’ and by following exactly the direction of the bee could find the honey; for the bees fly as straight as a bullet.

In pioneer times snakes were numerous, such as the rattlesnake, massasauga, many varieties of large _______snake, garter, water snake and others. A few rattlesnakes were found in this region, and some very large ones, but they were not very numerous. The massasauga, which is often confused with the rattlesnake, were very plenty. They are an ugly looking snake, from eighteen inches to two feet in length, clumsy, and of a dirty brown color. They have three or four rattles, which they use as a warning. They are poisonous, but it was very seldom, if ever, that their bites proved fatal, or even resulted in much inconvenience to the unfortunate. A weed called “Indigo Weed,” which grows in this country was much used for the bites, the recipe having been learned from an old Indian. Others found it just as effectual a cure to bury the foot – if that was the part bitten- in the cold mud for half an hour, pouring water upon it to keep up the moisture.

The religious element in the life of the pioneer, was such as to attract the attention of those living in more favored places. The pioneer was no hypocrite. If he believed in horse-racing, whisky-drinking, card-playing, or anything of like character, practiced them openly and above board. If he was of a religious turn of mind, he was not ashamed to won it. He could truthfully sing “I’m not ashamed to own my Lord, Or blush to speak his name.”

But the pioneer clung of the faith of his fathers, for a time, at least. If he was a Presbyterian he was not ashamed of it, but rather prided himself on being one of the elect. If a Methodist, he was one to the fullest extent. He prayed long and loud, if the spirit moved him, and cared nothing for the empty form of religion.

In the earlier settlement of this section, ponds, marshes and swamps abounded, where to-day are found cultivated and fertile fields. The low and flat places were avoided for the higher grounds not only on account of the wetness, but for sanitary reason. Agricultural implements and the mode of tilling the soil were necessarily much more rude than at the present day.

In the cultivation of wheat the land was planted the same as to-day, then it was often harrowed with a wooden-toothed harrow, or smoothed by dragging over the ground a heavy brush, weighed down, if necessary, with a stick of timber. It was then sown broadcast by hand, at the rate of about a bushel and quarter to the acre, and harrowed in with the brush. The implement used to cut the wheat was either the sickle or the cradle. The sickle was almost identical with the “grass hook” in use, and cradle was a scythe fastened to a frame of wood with long, bending teeth, or strips of wood, for cutting and laying the grain in swaths. There were few farmers who did not know how to swing the scythe or cradle, and there was no more pleasant picture on a farm than a gang of workmen in the harvest field, nor a more hilarious crowd. Three cradles would cut about ten acres a day. One binder was expected to keep up with the cradle. Barns for the storage of the unthreshed grain are comparatively a “modern invention,” and as soon as the shock was supposed to be sufficiently cured, it was hauled to some place on the farm convenient for threshing, and there put in stack. The threshing was performed in one of the two ways, by flail or tramping with horses. The flail was used in stormy weather, on the sheltered floor, or when the farm work was not pressing; the threshing by tramping commonly in clear weather, on a level and well tramped clay floor. The bundles were piled in a circle of about fifteen to twenty feet in diameter, and four to six horses ridden over the straw. One or two hands turned over and kept the straw in place. When sufficiently tramped the straw was thrown into a rick or stack, and wheat cleared by a “fanning mill,” and before fanning mills were introduced, by letting it fall from the height of ten or twelve feet, subjected to the action of the wind, when it was supposed to be ready for the mill or market.

During the first few years of the early settlement of this country, the United States government encouraged the claim system. This induced many speculators to turn their eyes toward the western states. It furnished lucrative business for many who had been hovering between civilization and barbarism. Their plan was to keep just beyond the line of settlement and pick out the best claims, holding them until some actual settler or speculator would come, then they would sell out and again move westward to repeat the same. The law provided that the land should be sold to the highest bidder, but not for less than $1.25 per acre, and it was seldom sold for any more than this. It was generally understood, and in fact enforced, that those who had selected a certain piece of land should have it. One township of land was sold each day. The sales took place in Des Moines. When the day set for the sale of a township came, all those who had established claims in the township in question were present. As soon as the bid reached $1.25 per acre, the hammer came down instantly. If a rash speculator did now and then get in a bid for a little more, sometimes no attention was paid to him by the auctioneer, and the land would be knocked down to the claimant, but the person who did bid against the actual settler would be “laid hold of,” and would receive a sever ducking in the river. In some cases like this the obnoxious bidders have been almost killed by the “settlers rights men.”

Tama Co. Home Page Table of Contents Biography List Portrait List Certificates Chapter VIII