PERSONAL REMINISCENCES OF THE DISBROW FAMILY.
[By H. A. Disbrow ]
Like all other men I have some history -- that is, I was born. My parents were both natives of Jefferson county, New York State. My father's family are of Welch, and mother's of French origin. My mother's grandfather was a French Huguenot who fled from France to Arcadia and was driven from there by the British, when they wrested that country from the French. Grandfather Disbrow moved his family with an ox team to Lorain county, Ohio in the summer of 1825, grandfather Langdon, my mother's father, moved his family to the same county in Ohio, in the spring or summer of 1833. Then, that part of the county was a dense forest of timber. The mill and market place was Cleveland, about thirty miles away and grandfather Disbrow used to make the trip to mill with his oxen, leaving two weeks provisions at home, allowing himself that time in which to make the trip. They had the usual experience of early settlers in those days who opened the way for a more enlightened civilization. On one occasion my grandfather encountered and wrestled with a black bear and came near being disemboweled but was saved by the timely appearance of his large black mastiff. On another occasion he and grandmother started on foot to church, some two and a half or three miles distant, through the forest. A large tree had fallen across their path; they separated, one went on one side of the tree, and the other on the other side, neither spoke but each went his own way, getting lost but not knowing it until suddenly they came upon their own house. The children of those early settlers grew to man and womanhood, learned the double rule of three, how to cook, spin and weave linen and woolen cloth, loved, got married and settled down in the immediate neighborhood of their fathers. The natural situation made every man sober, and necessity made him industrious. These things combined to produce a strong, hardy and prolific race. The families of the second generation were as a rule large and by this time the country was thickly settled and land very dear. The question of "what to do with the boys" was cussed and discussed by anxious parents who saw enough of mental and physical force being spent and wasted, that if rightly applied would civilize a continent or subdue a kingdom. My parents were married September 4, 1836. I being the fifth child was born March 11, 1844, in the log house which father built and in which they commenced life in that heavily timbered country. For mental training I had such advantages as could be derived from a subscription school, which was sustained by lean purses. I was thirteen years old, when my father sold his farm and moved his family to Cass county, Iowa. The breaking up of the old home in Ohio was a sore trial, but a mother's love for her children wanted to see them own land and be settled in business close to her. So her counsel prevailed, and in April, 1857, two covered wagons loaded with household goods, each wagon being drawn by a span horse, attracted the attention of a large neighborhood. My father and mother had grown from early childhood with their neighbors to mature man and womanhood, and it was the breaking up of a large family bound together by strong ties of friendship, when our wagons slowly and heavily moved away. We went to Cleveland and loaded on the cars for Chicago. From the latter place we moved on with the teams and wagons. It was in early spring--the last of April, and all Illinois was a sea of mud and water. To get mired, unload and double teams and pull out was the regular daily exercise until we get as far west as Rock Island. There was less of mud and water on the more undulating prairies of Iowa. The weather had become settled and the warmth of spring was bringing into life every form of vegetation. As we drew toward the west part of the State the settlements grew more sparse. There were scarcely any houses or farms along the stage road except the stage stations. There were no such groves as you now see planted all over the prairies. Nor were there school houses, light houses on the coast of a higher intelligence, now scattered all over this land, but everywhere was a broad expanse of the beautiful, unbroken prairie. We arrived in Lewis about eleven o'clock a. m., the 19th day of May, 1857. The first object to attract the attention of people coming in from the east was the sign of Keyes, Peck & Co., on the front end of their store building, the same house which is now occupied, by Uncle Jerre Bradshaw as a residence in Lewis. There was one other store in the place kept by Bartlett Bros'. But the most prominent place in the county, that which was most widely known and most talked about was the Henderson House. That was the stage station. Now and then would come along an official of the Stage Company, a kind of God-send to break the monotony, and his presence and general bearing was noted with utmost precision.
Here, too, assembled the chivalrous knights of the rein; who, like Robinson Crusoe, were monarchs of all they surveyed. For these were days in which-- "the fellows that could out-run, out- jump, chew more tobacco, drink more whisky and stand up the longest, was the best man in the crowd." The early settler looks back with some feelings of pride to the time when his neighbor was a neighbor, when generosity and kindness of heart made it easy for a resident to share his chimney corner and last roast potato with one who needed it. Nor was there such universal looseness of morals as the above would seem to indicate. The soil was thin, but father Hitchcock would, each Lord's day, stand up in his place in the court room, and instruct his people from the parables and beatitudes.
There were at that time some four or five schools taught in the county, but there was but one school house and that at Grove City. The other schools were taught in such places as could be provided at the time. Upon our arrival in Lewis, the only place of shelter for us was an old log cabin situated on the east bank of the Nishnabotana River, on the road to Council Bluffs, but west of Lewis.
Father rented ground in different places in the neighborhood, and we raised our first crop of corn, but I don't believe there were five bushels of sound corn in the whole crop, as the early frosts made it all soft.
Fortunately we lived on the State road, so that all the great western emigration passed by our door. From two to four times a day the ponderous stage coach, loaded inside and out, and drawn by four good horses, passed by. In that summer of 1857, five hundred Mormon emigrants passed through Lewis en-route to Salt Lake. They took up their line of march at Iowa City and expected to make the whole journey to Salt Lake City on foot, and draw all their worldly effects on a small hand cart. Men, women and children plodded along in their bare feet, and being otherwise miserably clad, they endured hunger, and fatigue, and want, in an hundred different forms, for what is commonly called conscience sake.
During the summer, by the assistance of a friend, Mr. T. B. Johnson, father pre-empted one hundred and sixty acres in sections 8 and 17, township 76, range 36, being situated immediately south of Atlantic. In the spring of 1862, father built a cabin on his land and moved his family into it and commenced to open up a farm. My oldest brother was married and off for himself; my two brothers next older than myself, were in the gold regions in Colorado, having gone there the previous year in company with father and brother, William. During their absence, I managed the rented farm upon which we were then living, and succeeded reasonably well, as farming was done in those days.
The war came on, when young and old were being solicited to enlist in the army and go south to fight for the Union. I had hired out to Judge L. L. Alexander to work on his farm for one month. I was working in the field alone hoeing corn, when John Keyes, the sheriff of the county and J. H. Coe, afterwards my captain, rode in and urged me to enlist. I was at that time my father's only help. Like thousands of other boys the consciousness of my obligations to father was smothered by feelings of patriotism, carried by youthful ardor and the glory of battles fought and won. But the other side of the terrible picture was hidden from my view. I enlisted on the 23d of July, 1862; was mustered into the service as a member of company I, 23d regiment, Iowa Infantry Volunteers. We were moved south in the fall, I think in October, to St. Louis, Missouri. After remaining there a few days in barracks, we were sent out for active service. Up to this time to be a soldier was a nice thing--new clothes, new accouterments, dress parade, good provisions, with rides on steamboats and cars, made the service a perpetual holiday. But the darkest days were drawing nigh. We were organized with the thirteenth army corps commanded by McClernand. We spent the winter of 1862 among the Ozark mountains of Missouri, and moved down to Milliken's Bend opposite Vicksburg in the early spring. We witnessed the magnificent sight of a fight between the Union gunboats and the Confederate batteries at Grand Gulf. The battle lasted all day. We marched across the peninsula and crossed the Mississippi river the next morning just below Grand Gulf, at Bruin's Landing. Our regiment was the van guard of that great army of seventy-five thousand men commanded by that greatest general, U. S. Grant. We set out on a line of march from Bruin's Landing at about noon. Our regiment certainly did not look like an army so soon to be engaged in battle. We thought we were going only a short distance back from the river and then camp. We were ordered to take three days rations, which were issued; but instead of issuing to each man his share on the spot, the commissary sergeants with some help, shouldered the cracker boxes and carried the sides of bacon on their bayonets over their shoulders. But the march continued, and the rations were distributed to each man his share. At midnight we came upon the enemy in force. We were soon subjected to the fire of grape and cannister from the enemies batteries, who had anticipated our approach. We marched off to the left and lay under cover of a hill, on our arms till morning. All night the heavy roll of the artillery, the clicking of the cavalry sabers and the silent tread of the infantry, told us that an army was in motion, and what else no one but our great commander knew. The following morning was the first of May, and the pun shone large and red, as if to foretell the work to be done upon that field that day.
The battle of Port Gibson opened at seven A. M., and lasted until dark. Our regiments charged upon the enemy three times with fixed bayonets, and were under fire all day. I was at this time one of the regimental color guards, and consequently absent from my company, but present with the regiment. We lost several men in killed and wounded, and among them was my comrade and friend, Frank R. Howard. Following this battle were those of Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill, and Black River Bridge. I was also present and played a full hand in the siege of Spanish Fort, Alabama, which lasted eleven days. I was discharged as sergeant at the close of the war with my regiment at Harrisburg, Texas, August 25, 1865. Daring the war I resolved that, if I lived to get home, I would give myself the benefit of an education which I had not, as less than six months would cover all the time I had spent in school since my father brought us from Ohio in 1857. In the fall after the close of the war, I accordingly commenced studying away down in the elementary principles of the common branches, in the public schools in Lewis. That winter I studied again, in a district school in my father's neighborhood. The following spring I went to Tabor and there commenced the foundation of a collegiate course, which I afterwards completed in June, of 1873, graduating with a class of seven--two ladies and five gentlemen. I worked my way through as I had very little means to begin with. I boarded the whole time with a widow lady, Mrs. Sarah Neill, too whom I am indebted very much, for whatever I may have accomplished. I paid her for my board and washing in work during term time, and during the long vacations I taught, or worked at such jobs as I could find to do, carefully saving the little money earned, to provide the necessaries of the next term. I do not think that there was anything of particular interest about my course of study to mention here. I was a member of one of the literary societies, and perhaps was as prominent in the exercises as any of my fellows. Some of the debates were hotly contested, lasting to the small hours, which was sufficient cause for alarm to the good folks of the village. After I left college I entered immediately upon the study of law, in the office of Brown and Churchill, at Atlantic. Mr. Brown is my present law partner. I again taught a term of school in my father's neighborhood, during the winter, and was admitted to practice in all the courts of the State, in March, 1874. Not feeling quite satisfied with the preparation I had made, and desiring a more thorough knowledge of the practice before entering upon it, I sought and obtained a situation in the office of Montgomery and Scott, attorneys at Council Bluffs, Iowa, where I remained six months, during which time I was admitted to practice in the Supreme court of the State. At the expiration of six months I returned to Atlantic and opened a law office. The following fall, 1875, I was elected county superintendent of schools, and entered upon the duties of that office, January 1, 1876. It is an old adage that "no book or story is complete without the character of a woman written in it." And this must not be an exception. During my course of study at Tabor, I had met and loved Marietta Day, the principal of the ladies' department, who was my instructor in Latin, and many of the higher mathematics. We became engaged before she left Tabor in 1871, to go to her parents, who resided at Sheffield, Lorain county, Ohio, and were in feeble health. On the 14th of October 1875, we were married at the residence of her father. Judge, William Day, at Sheffield, Ohio, by James Fairchill, D. D., president of Oberlin College. We came to Atlantic and commenced housekeeping in the west part of town. In the spring of 1877 we built the home where we now reside, on South Chestnut street. I was re-elected that fall without opposition, to the office of superintendent. In July, 1878, our little Greta was born. In three and two years following, respectively, Ruth and Albert were born, which make up the family. In May, 1879, I was appointed postmaster at this place for four years. My administration of the affairs of that office was fraught with wars and wiry contentions, and if my opponents are satisfied with the result I am. After the expiration of my term as postmaster, I remained quietly at home with my family till January 1, 1884, when I engaged in a partnership with Mr. J. W. Brown, my former law preceptor, for the practice of law in this place. As a recreation as well as profit I am interested in farming and stock raising. I take not a little pride in my Galloway cattle, Jersey Red swine, and Cotswold sheep. The foregoing is a hasty review of my life, and although I have not achieved much of the world's honors or riches, yet by a struggle, I have probably succeeded in giving to myself some advantages and privileges which others more favorably situated in the beginning of life failed to acquire. If there shall be some suggestion in this that will be a help to any young men situated as I was, to do a better thing for him or the world, I shall be satisfied.
Contributed by Lisa Varnes-Rex from "History of Cass County, Iowa. Together With Sketches of its Towns, Villages and Townships, Educational, Civil, Military and Political History: Portraits of Prominent Persons, and Biographies of Old Settlers and Representative Citizens." Springfield, Ill.: Continental Historical Company, 1884, pg. 291-295.