Polk Township History
EARLY HISTORY OF POLK TOWNSHIP
By Orrin H. Gillett
When the whites arrived, the north and east half was mostly prairie. The southeast half was timber, mostly black oak, elm, hickory, walnut and white or burr oak. Along the skirts or edge of timber were crab apple, wild cherry, plum, hawthorne, sumac, dogwood or witch hazel and hazel brush. The prairie part was covered with prairie grass on the elevated and rolling ground, and was known as blue stem. It grew from six to twelve inches high and shot up to a seed stalk from two to three feet high. In the sloughs the grass was called slough grass and grew from three to five feet high.. On what was known as level land were basins of water which remained full of water most of the year round and wild geese, ducks and other wild water fowl congregated around them on their migration to and from the north. The sloughs were located in the depressions between the hills, now deep washed. We could cross them anywhere with a wagon. The larger streams had what was called sink holes from three to ten feet deep. It was a great place for the boys to bathe and fish. The writer has caught fish a foot long on a pin hook. That is a bent pin so as to make a hook with a string tied below the head and the other end of the string tied to a pole. An angel worm was used for bait. The early settlers settled in the timber or along the edge of timber.
Daniel Morris was the first settler and was here before the Indians left. The township was open for settlement the first day of May, 1843. That year, L.T. Gillett, Isaac Campbell, Joseph Price, Benjamin Robinson, Mary McVey, A.P. Penn and Mathew Spurlock and his family settled in this township. Later came Clewson Campbell, James Harris, David Smith, Samuel Downey, Archibald Downey, Isaac Peters and his sons, David and John, George Kness, Christopher Poffinbarger, W.F. Latta, Henry Ramey, Jacob Ramey, Hugh Harrison, Simon Scott, Christopher Sears and John Campbell. Still later came James Jones, Wilson Gobble, Thomas McCulloch, James Thompson, John Townsend, George Gobble, Benjamin and James Snyder, David Mowery and Robert Davis.
The first cabins in the township were built near the south line of Polk township in the timber near Smith Creek. The cabins were located near the stream so as to be handy to water and in the timber as protection from the northwest storms and to be handy to fuel.
The first school was built on Christopher Poffinbarger’s place, three fourths of a mile west of L.T. Gillett’s house. L.T. Gillett, Benjamin Robinson and Isaac Campbell took a very active part in securing the erection of this school house, which was a log house and was used for school purposes until the winter of 1864 , when it caught fire from the flue and burned, together with all the school books. It was known as the Gillett school house and when replaced by a new one, the new school was built on L.T. Gillett’s farm. Fred O’Donnell was the teacher when the house burned. The first school taught in this house was in the winter of 1847-48. The teacher was Wm. T. Smith. He afterwards practiced law in Oskaloosa, IA.
The first church was built in Abingdon by the Christian denomination in 1830. The first saw mill was built by John Gobble, a son of George Gobble, on what was known as Spring Branch, east of Abingdon.
The first cemetery was located on the farm of Isaac Campbell and is now known as the Myers cemetery since Mr. Myers owned the land. Never was a distillery operated in the township. The only grist mill ever built, was built by Gabriel Snyder on Spring Branch, east of Abingdon and as burned soon after it was erected.
Abingdon was the first village laid out in the township. It was laid out by Col. Thomas McCulloch in 1848. Abingdon was so named my Mr. McCulloch in commemoration of his old home town in Virginia.
The first laid out road was called a state road and entered the township near Abingdon. It ran northwest through Abingdon and left the township two miles northwest of Abingdon. A country road was started near Hurley’s mill on Blue Point. The next road was a stage road running across the northeast corner of the township. There was little fencing to prevent people from traveling where they chose and the most convenient way was that one taken. There were few streams that could not be forded. They followed trails from one settlement to another. The means of communication were either on horseback or in the farm wagon. Some had horses and some had to take the ox team, and those who had neither, took it afoot.
The cabins of the old settlement were mostly of logs laid up without being hewed and were covered with clapboards, with what was known as puncheon floors, if there was a floor. The clapboards were made by sawing logs three feet long and splitting them into sections and then re-splitting them into boards by an instrument called a froe. The puncheons were made by splitting logs and laying them flat side up. The chimneys were made of sticks and mud. The doors were made of clapboards. Stoves were not in use. While the farmer’s wife might be the possessor of a calico dress, most of the clothing was made either from the fleece of the sheep or from flax. The farming implements consisted of a breaking plow, usually using three of four yoke of oxen to the plow. The plow had a wooden beam about six inches by eight or ten inches in size and about ten feet long, fixed with an axle so as to use the wheels of a wagon. The front wheel was to run the unbroken sod and the hind wheel to run in the furrow. Then we had what was called the horse plow for stirring the soil after the sod had rotted sufficiently. Also an "A" shaped harrow, single cultivator and a hoe. For harvesting, they had the sickle or reap hook, the cradle and mowing scythe, the hand rake and the pitch fork. Products of the farm were corn, wheat, oats, rye and flax. The garden vegetables were potatoes, cabbage, beans and peas, pumpkins, squashes, onions, beets, turnips and parsnips. Fruits were crab apples, plums, blackberry, strawberry, gooseberry, elderberry and wild cherry. These all grew wild.
The price of produce fluctuated more than it does now. If there was a surplus there was no market as the means for transportation were very limited. If a scarcity occurred from any cause there was no means for importing and consequently prices were high. The domestic animals were horses, cattle, hogs and sheep. Poultry did not count in the income of the farm.
The social customs consisted of house raising, corn husking, horse racing and shooting matches. There were quilting bees, wool pickings and spelling schools. Farmers and their wives visited their neighbors more than they do now, for there were few church privileges and Sunday was more of a holiday than a day of worship. What religious privileges we had was by meeting at private homes. There were no Sunday school for their children until after the school houses were built and only a few of them held sessions. Picnics were not heard of. Occasionally there would be a social dance in which all joined, both young and old.
The Summer of 1844 was a very wet season. In 1851 crops were almost a failure. In 1858 there was a grand failure of crops from excessive rain, but no calling for aid from abroad. This township has never been visited by any very destructive storms. The winter of 1848 and 1849 was long spoken of as the winter of the deep snow. In the early settlement of the township, we contended with ague and malaria fevers. There were times when there were hardly well ones enough to care for the sick. In the summer of 1853 an epidemic of scarlet fever visited our township. I remember one man who buried four of his children, two in one grave all dying of scarlet fever.
The local streams are Competine, which just touches the township on the west; Coon Creek headed close to the north line of the township and empties into Cedar Creek in Locust Grove township; Smith Creek rises in the north part of the township and empties into Coon Creek in Locust township, and is said to have been so named because a man by the name of Smith loaned the settlers along that stream the money to enter their land.
Occasionally a straggling panther or link (sic) was killed. Deer were seen quite frequently in herds of five or six. Wolves were numerous. Foxes were also seen. A ground hog was occasionally seen. Coons were plentiful along Coon Creek. Possum, fox squirrel and gray squirrel, also chipmunk were plentiful. Skunks, minks, rabbits and weasels were numerous. The bull snake was considered the largest snake. The blue racer was also here. The rattle snake, viper, copperhead and water moccasin were considered the most poisonous. Garter snake, joint snake, house snake and grass snake were also numerous.
Wild geese, ducks and many other water fowl were numerous in the fall and springs as they migrated north and south. The wild turkey and wild pigeons were plentiful.
Sweet William covered the prairie in early June. Tiger lilies were numerous in the tall grass of the sloughs. Lobelia was also plentiful; golden rod and wild asters in abundance. L.T. Gillett sent to KY for blue grass and timothy seed and threshed and marketed the first timothy seed that was sent from this township in the fall of 1850. In was threshed by an old chaff piler thresher, run through the fanning mill and then gifted through a common meal sieve and was ready for market.
The farms were fenced with rails split and hauled from the timber. Those who lived on the prairie had to haul them several miles. The fencing of their farm kept the farmers busy during the winter months. They had no time to lounge around stores and swap lies of gossip about their neighbors. The dry goods box loafer was not know in those days.
The only pauper that ever was sold on this township was Crosby Young. He was sold to the lowest bidder in the fall of 1845, purchased by L.T. Gillett. He was not particularly sick, but born tired. L.T. Gillett set him to shaving shingles and after he had shaved so many, he was permitted to go hunting. His task was gradually increased, but he also found time to go hunting. One day after a light fall of snow, Mr. Gillett sent his hired man with Mr. Young hunting. When they returned in the evening, the hired man was tired out. Young jumped on a log and crowed and said "he had gone farther than that some days." After this he was convinced that he was able to support himself.
The Indians had been removed from this township before the white settlers came. The only Indians ever seen here after the whites came were roving bands fishing, hunting and begging.
Isaac Campbell brought a small, yellow dent corn, which was called Campbell corn. It was an early variety. He brought it here from Ohio. David Smith brought a white dent corn from Indians. It was known as the Smith corn. There was a variety of spring wheat which L.T. Gillett introduced which was long known as the Gillett "rat tail."
Wages of farm hands were from 25 cents to 50 cents per day. Where they were hired by the month, they were paid from eight to 12 dollars per month. Did not hear of any strikes in those days. Board was generally included in those prices for labor. Girls who were hired to work in families got from 50 cents to one dollar one week.
He was a native of Hartford County, CT. His wife’s name was Elzan Riley. He was a farmer and for several years was a resident of Know County IL. With his wife and children, they emigrated to Jefferson County IA, May 1, 1843.
He located on a tract of land in Section 36, township 73, range 11 (Polk township) and at once commenced improving his farm and engaged in farming and stock raising. Both husband and wife are deceased.
They had 11 children, James T., the third child, dying and leaving no wife or issue; Ellen, married E.M. Stockton, who is now deceased; Penelope, married James B. McCoy, both of whom are dead and left no children; Orlin H. married Miss Elizabeth S. Moore and they and their children reside near Packwood on part of the old Gillett farm, engaged in farming and stock raising; Eliza married J.M. Pollock, who has since died, she residing at Packwood, IA; Lachary, married Mary E. Mowery and they reside at Sterling, CO; Jeannette, married Wm. Wells, a farmer, now residing southeast of Packwood; W. Riley, married Eunice Ulery and they reside near Fostoria, IA; John, married Emma Wells and now lives on a farm near Jamesport, MO; Edward, married Annie Rowe and resides at Sterling CO; Lester, married Mary Ulery and lives at Claremont, CA.
The Fairfield Tribune,
Sept. 20, 1899, p. 7, col. 1.
DEATH OF J.B. MCCOY. He died at his home in Salida CO on Sept. 15 of pneumonia. Mr. McCoy was a long time resident of this town and county, but left here a number of years ago. His mother, now Mrs. Peter McReynolds, is still living, her home being in Polk Township. He was married to Penelope Gillett, a sister of C.H. and Z.T. Gillett of Packwood. There were two boys and we believe a daughter. One of her sons, Charles, now lives at Lake Charles LA and the other is CO. (Note: "History of Jefferson County, Iowa" published 1879, p. 511, gives names of the then living children as Chas. A, Taylor J. and Gertrude.)
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