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Recollections of Early Pioneer Life
by Nicholas Besser

The boys of today as well as myself will envy Mr. J. N. Richardson the good times he had catching prairie chickens and quails the winter of the deep snow. Having an industrious father and mother, well qualified as early settlers to provide for their family, his lot was far different than in our side of the prairie.

I presume he is too modest to give the real depth of that snow for fear the present generation might doubt his veracity. In one of my previous letters I stated where three neighbors with three yoke of oxen had failed to get more than a mile while the snow was not yet drifted nor packed solid.

The Kramers, always putting off the most needed work for better days or for some one less able to do it, got caught with less than 100 bushels of corn in the crib. After two days of continual snowing in the early part of December, we tried to break a road to the corn field, a distance of about 1/4 of a mile. Having no sled, we hitched two yoke of oxen to a light Linden log, dragging it along to make a path. It took us four hours to make this trip. Soon more snow fell and drifted, and when we started out again, the entire cornfield was from 5 to 6 feet deep in snow, not an ear of corn could we see. On the level prairie the snow was four feet deep. Sometime in January a soft wind and a few days of sunshine settled the snow and melted it some away from the corn stalks; then it was that multitudes of prairie chickens would alight in the cornfield and in reaching downward very easily picked the corn. A
northwestern blizzard froze the snow into a solid mass, enabling a man to walk on it, unless you happened to strike a place where tall grass and brush were beneath.

Early in November a pack of wolves one stormy night attacked the horses on the "late burn," their grazing place. A 4 year old Morgan and a 2 year old Hambletonian mare, two fine horses belonging to the Schuster family and a grand 9 months old horse colt belonging to me, started for our place. In crossing the creek this colt slipped; having the sideling side, the wolves cut its ham strings and ate a portion of its hams while it was alive. This
happened within 100 yards of home and safety. Our dogs, we thought had run them off, they had killed two or three wolves before this and were well trained, all they lacked was speed.

Mr. Gabbert had two fine large grayhounds but the family had moved over toward Lancaster. A Mr. Scharnhorst who recently had moved from his place, now owned by Mr. Mathis Biewen, onto a claim on German Creek, nearer to his son-in-laws Louis and John Schnakenberg, had a fine large young grayhound, for which we offered to trade him a breed sow. The old man and his son Christian came over the latter part of November closed the trade and took the hog home and left the hound.

In running after some game the dog must have lost "his bearing" he did not come back but found his way to his former home.

The moving and fixing up their cabin for the winter and then the deep snow prevented Sharnhorsts from coming over or us from going there. Sometime in the latter part of January some afternoon about three o'clock I started out for Scharnhorsts to get our hound. This came very near proving a game of "freeze out" for me.

I had to go about 5 miles north and some west on the trail to Clemen's Grove, then to intersect the Washington road, passing what is now Lafayette Center this led, south and west to a ford below where John Smith No. 1 now lives. When I got as far north as where Harper is now located I left the trail and took a due west course as this would shorten my route about two miles. The wind was blowing furious from the north west and before I advanced many hundred yards over a hill I suddenly broke through in some 7 or 8 feet deep snow to the bottom of a brush patch. In my struggle to break the hard crust of snow above me to get to the surface again, the inside of my clothes got pretty well filled with snow, and having on no underwear, the chilling effect may be imagined. I concluded that the farthest way by the trail would prove the shortest route to my destination. I turned back to the trail. It was turning colder every minute; my eyes began to water and lumps of ice as large as hickory nuts were hanging to my eyelids. Turning my back to the wind and taking off my mittens I managed to clear my eyes so that I could follow the trail for stepping out of it and onto underlaying grass or hazelbrush would invariably mean a breaking through and materially impede progress. Had I possessed more sense and less grit I should have returned home, but I did not. I determined to  risk the balance of the way, about five miles more. I finally arrived on the divide where a few trees stood near the path. I stepped in shelter behind the biggest, to rest a few minutes and to harvest the crop of icicles from my eyes. I gradually commenced to feel very comfortable, the sting cold did not seem to effect me any more, but I got rather sleepy. The howling of a wolf some miles away and the recollections of reading about the danger of the sleepy symptoms in the reports of North Pole explorers, roused me up. I wanted to march on but my knees refused to act, but I managed to get down into a steep ravine or hollow, near where Nick Leinen now lives, and there I pounded my knees and arms to work up a circulation of the blood. I followed this ravine in a southerly direction to the next hollow leading straight west. By this time the "three suns" had gone down. The wind was also calmed. I got into the heavy timber and got along pretty well then, reaching Scharnhorsts all O. K. about half an hour after dark. These people had not seen any body for a month, except when one of their son-in-laws had come to see how they were getting along. A sack full of unbolted buckwheat flour was all they had to live on then, this was sifted, mixed up like corn meal put into a Dutch oven, baked like a loaf of corn bread, the oven being set onto some coals and coals also placed on the cast iron lid. This oven was the "range" of that day, it was used for baking, stewing, warming up, etc. The first bite I took of this bread came near choking me but I soon learned to take small bites and do lots of chewing, there- by thoroughly mixing it with saliva strictly, in accordance with latter day instructions in hygiene. It was not the most palatable supper I ever ate, but it was the best they had. This happened to be the coldest night of that extremely cold winter. A Muscatine Journal stated that the thermometer registered 36 below zero, 32 at night and 36 the next morning. Mr. Sharnhorst went out to saw one stick of wood in two, coming in after a few minutes, his cheek and nose were frozen white. I rushed towards him when he came in the door to keep him from coming up to the fire, before he had rubbed his face well with snow. The old mother then said that Christian, who was a year older that myself, would have to go over to his brother-in-laws, to borrow an ax, as their own was broken, reasoning, that, if Nicholas can come ten miles after a dog, Christian could risk a mile or two to get the ax.

This fine grayhound had been starved and frozen. Christian told me that an ear of corn was his daily feed. The wolves had whipped him from the hay stack, forcing him to take up his lodging in front of the door, his backbone had become rainbow shaped, and he had he come utterly worthless. If there
was a wolf in sight he could not be induced to go ten steps towards it, not even when Mile and Turk were trying their best to catch it.

The only consolation I got out of the trip was when going home I took another route, stopping at Mr. David Beinhart's, a young married couple, who were well provided with eatables. I got five biscuits, ham, eggs and good coffee for dinner and the loan of the "World's History" in German, a book as large as a big Bible. This gave me good and instructive reading matter for the rest of the winter, and I started for home as happy as a lark in springtime. And how happy we boys were the next spring after the snow had melted, to hear the Prairie chickens a cooing; the wild turkeys early at day light gobbling, the birds of all kinds, a hundred different varieties around us enjoying the new life. Brother John discovered that spring that the mysterious imitation of distant thunder was made by a male Pheasant on a hole of a hollow tree, making a peculiar noise and flapping his wings.

On the 4th of July, 1890, I was sent to Sigourney after 50 lbs of salt.  On my way there I overtook Mr. and Mrs. Berg, who were horseback and on the way to Herr Blaise's from where they intended to go to a picknick and celebration.  Arriving at B's., we found the Misses Katy and Eva Blaise- the latter was married later to Mr. Phil Michel- and they and their brother were preparing to go to Charles Bakehouse's where a celebration had been arranged.  I went with them.  An arbor and a round shady place had been fixed up out of green young trees for ornament and a shelter against the burning sun.  The ladies were busy arranging dishes and eatables on a long table for the dinner.  I went on to Sigourney, bought my salt at a little 14 x 16 grocery store kept by James Bowen, the popular sale crier in later years.  At about two o'clock I got back to the picknick grounds.  The crowd was at work with shovels and picks, leveling and polishing a piece of ground to hold a dance on, waxed floors were not in vogue at that time.

Mr. Bakehouse noticing me, said something to a lady near him, who thereupon motioned for me to come to the table, where in a few minutes a splendid dinner was ready for me.  A flaxen haired, blue eyed little girl stood beside the lady- her mother.  When the latter left to attend to other duties, the little one came nearer and we soon became friends.  She said she was six years old.

Toward evening John Hartmann arrived, he was the band and orchestra combined- of that day- being an expert French harp or harmonica player,- and then the dancing commenced.

Everybody seemed happy and enjoyed himself, prospects for the future welfare were bright, eatables plenty, and taxes below zero.

People had adapted themselves to rely on their own resources for clothing, and new comers were helped; nobody had to suffer like those who came 5 or 7 years earlier.  Those that had plenty of chickens and stock freely shared with others in need, what they could spare.  "It is more pleasant to give than to take" was not an idle phrase in those days.

Only a short while after the above, a dark gloom was cast over that settlement. Mrs. Bakehouse sent her daughter, this flaxen haired little maiden, one afternoon on an errand to her aunt- Mrs. Christian Duensing.  She was accompanied by the trusty dog.  As it was getting towards evening, Mrs. Duensing hesitated to let the child go home, but she told her aunt, that Mother had told her if it got dark, just to follow the dog, he would bring her home.  She never found her home here on earth.  For three days the entire neighborhood was hunting for the lost child.  People from far and near searched in vain for a trace of the little girl.  It was said that Mr. Bakehouse had followed some white men or Indians as far as Des Moines on the presumption that the child had been abducted.  Having to cross the main Sigourney road on her way home, led the searchers astray.  A long time afterwards the mystery was solved by a 9 year old boy- August Klett- who had been hunting work-oxen and was driving them towards the Stoermer place. In a brush patch near where the branch which comes from the north-west empties into German Creek, some of the steers sniffed the air and bellowed in an excited manner.  August went to the spot to ascertain the cause, and discovered there a skull with some flaxen hair on it and some torn clothing led to the identification of the remains of the lost child.  The dog in this case proved an unreliable guide.  It is to be presumed that the child mistook the path leading to Fred Runges for her own, and when finding that she was in the wrong road, followed some cattle trail down the branch toward German Creek, over two miles east of Duensings place.  Nobody knows how far she may have wandered during that night.

My humble opinion is, that in that thicket a number of the half wild hogs of those days congregated, which made an attack upon the dog and when it got out of the way tore up the child.

This sad occurrence and some others were hardly ever mentioned during the lifetime of those people.  It had a most depressing effect upon not only the parents, but also upon the whole community.  Years passed before we heard of another frolic in that neighborhood.

Bakehouses lived a very secluded life, when I was at their house the next time.  It was in 1855.  Goodhart sent me one Sunday to take $30.00 over to Charles Bakehouse, which the latter loaned him a few months before without interest.  A meeting was held there by some Missionary, who had come to consult the settlers in regard to establishing a Lutheran church and congregation, to ascertain the prospects of raising the necessary funds for the erection of a house of worship, and also to collect some funds for some ecclesiastical or synodal college somewhere in the east.

A vote was taken concerning the organization of a congregation and the engagement of a permanent minister.

The collection turned out very liveral as Mr. Bakehouse tendered money to those who were not prepared for such an occasion. Wm. Mohme got on his cay horse and rode home in a gallop, soon returning with more funds to help out.  A fine Brick Church was built on the hill west of German Creek on the northwest corner of the Seger farm, who donated several acres of land for the site.  It was quite a commodious building for those days.  For 50 years it stood there a monument to the religious spirit and fervency of those early pioneers.

Among those of the early settlers of the northern part of German Township not mentioned heretofore were: Joel Long, Geo. Payton, Shanafelt, John House, Mathias Blaise, Robert Mann, W. Kinney, Squire Dicky, Morre, S. Richardson, Storm, Blacks, Jerry Garrett, W. Trotter, W. H. Clary, Jessup Jackson, Leander DeLong, Claus Ehlen, John Witten, Scharnhurst, Chris. Crawford, etc. In the southern and eastern part were:- Mertens, Kohlhaas, Wm. Jugenheimer, etc., all these came here during the forties.

We lived then not as close together as today, and yet, how much closer to each others hearts.  In the course of these many years, we have moved from the hovel to the palace, but the noble spirit of those early days, which "made all human kin," it has not moved, it stayed in the hovel.

Farming in an early day was not very remunerative, but the desire to get rich quick was inherent in the human breast then as much as now.  This was the trouble with the two older Kramer brothers. In the spring of 1848 Peter Joseph tried his hand at prairie breaking.  Having only twenty acres in cultivation, it was necessary to increase the acreage.  We started with four Yoke of excellent oxen and a big breaking plow.  This man, who had not the least idea about managing any kind of a plow run the breaker, from eight to ten inches deep, otherwise it would either twist out of the ground or not turn the furrow in spite of all he could do.  This was killing the oxen and wore me out hollowing and whipping the poor brutes to keep them moving.  Stepfather then tried his hand at setting the plow share and we got along somewhat better.

After getting about ten acres turned, this enterprise was abandoned.  Another "bonanza" with more glittering prospects was embarked in.  The balance of the summer was spent in putting up a large building out of white oak logs on the bank of Clear Creek and a long bridge over the creek.  The building was intended for a distillery.  Three yoke of oxen were traded off for a double set of copper distilling apparatus.  Just about the time when everything was ready to start up the distillery a terrible cloud burst caused a regular Johnstown flood on Clear Creek, sweeping everything in its course.  Some of the logs of the building had lodged in the timber lower down the creek and were gathered up again, some new logs cut and another building, considerable smaller than the first, erected on higher ground away from the Creek.  Gottlieb Schilling was hired, a well dug near the new building, a smaller copper kettle had been installed, and once more we were ready to commence making whisky.  After getting the fire pretty well agoing, stepfather went to the house leaving the boys to keep up the fire, which they did so well and faithful that when he returned in order to put on to the kettle the copper "worm" the apparatus which condenses and collects the escaping steam- as high wine- the greatest part of it had already escaped into the air as steam.  Only about three gallons of rather weak whiskey was the result of the first run. This disgusted the entire family and the whiskey making business was voted down as a promoter of our future welfare and prosperity.

Farming had been neglected, hay was put up too late in the season to contain much nourishment, stock got very poor, and corn had to be bought until finally our means were exhausted. About the first of April stepmother Polly advised the two Kramer brothers that they had better go to Burlington and work at their trade- brick laying and stone masonry that she with us children would try to raise a crop and "keep the wolf from the door."  When they left we had $2.50 in money and one sack full of oats left after seeding. One yoke of oxen, the same that father had bought; one balky mare and an old big plug horse.  The oxen had to make their living by picking the tender sprouts and buds from trees and brush and eating the old dead grass until new grass came in May. On this kind of feed they were not able to do much work; still we managed to plow about half a day with them and the other half with the plug horses.  After marking out the ground with a single shovel plow, the horses were allowed to pick grass, while we planted by hand with a hoe in the afternoon.  In this way we got ten acres planted and five more plowed during the month of May.

About the first of June I had bought two bushels of corn from John Stroup, taking it to the Black Hawk Mills to have it ground.  Shelling it with great care at the mill, it was scant 1-1/2 bushels, I had paid 75 cent per bushel for it.  Mr. Wm. Shockley, the miller, then said to me:  You tell Stroup to give you the other half bushel, that will feed your team a few days then you can finish your plowing, by that time I will have your corn ground into meal- he was then getting his burr ready for business.  We stopped at Mr. Stroup's, Brother Peter, although four years younger, going on his twelfth year, who had more cheek than myself, asked Mr. Stroup for the other half bushel and got the answer, "I am selling shelled corn at $1.00 per bushel, "I ask the indulgence of the kind readers, for narrating this seeming trivial matter, but our further experience with this "thrifty" Pioneer neighbor, will show, why I particularize.

One fine warm Monday morning, mother Polly suggested that Peter and John hunt up the oxen and go after the corn meal, telling the boys that they might enjoy themselves awhile at the river fishing.  She would drop the seed (we were not quite done with planting corn) While I was drawing the furrows sister Kate would cover the corn with a hoe, until I had marked out enough for the days work.  The cattle had wandered to the head of the creek, feeding on slough grass, hurrying them home the boys yoked them up and hitched them to the hind part of the running gear of the wagon, making a convenient cart for those days. Getting started late- near eleven o'clock- they made good time to reach the mill, where they spent most of the afternoon waiting for their grist.

On the way home the oxen, being warm- ran into a hog wallow pond near Stroup's pasture, to drink and cool off.  The one ox, Jake, got his hind legs twisted and mired down. The boys had to leave him, coming home at nine o'clock in the evening with one ox and a little corn meal the Miller had loaned them.

About day brake I brought in the horses from the grass and Peter and myself started out to where the ox was left.  The night being warm, the ox seemed to have taken his lodging in the water fairly comfortable.  Peter walked into the water with the last gallon of oats in our possession, in a bucket.  Old Jake, the ox, had not lost any of his appetite; he evidently relished the "sample" and seemed to be ready for full feed of it. We put a chain around his horns and tried to pull him out with the horses, but did not succeed.  It seemed so cruel too. Peter tossed off his shoes and little jacket and started on "a mile heat" to Goodhart's place.  A big stout man was coming out of the yard with two yoke of oxen.  "Are you Mr. Goodhart?" "I am." "Will you be so good hearted then to help us poor boys to get our ox out of the mire?" Mr. Goodhart called his hired man to bring another chain and they arrived in a very short time.  A chain was put around the body of the ox and a steady pull made by the well trained ox team. Mr. Goodhart waded in, took hold of the ox's tail near the rump and applied his giant strength lifting, while the team was pulling.  The old ox was eventually landed on THE DRY without being hurt, but his legs being numb, was not able to stand up. We thanked Mr. Goodhart for his kindness and then set to work washing and rubbing the ox's legs, and then we started home for dinner and to get advice what to do now. After dinner Mr. Berg, Mr. Wendel Horras and Mr. Paul Peiffer, three noble and sympathizing men, went with us to see what could be done.

The old ox was sunning himself, but made no effort to get up and failed to get onto his feet in spite of all our assistance.  About six o'clock Mr. Stroup and his hired man- Wm. Fowler- came down to see what was going on.  I asked Mr. Fowler if he would give the ox some corn that evening and next morning, which he promised to do, then I asked Mr. Stroup to measure out a half bushel, telling him I had no money.  Evidently thinking that I referred to the shortage before spoken of, Mr. Stroup flatly refused.  Stepping off a rod or two, he motioned to his man Fowler to come to him.  Peter Besser, the little scamp, slipped behind Fowler to listen, and soon returned, reporting that Stroup had said to offer the boys a half a dollar for the chance, saying grass will bring the ox out all right.  He evidently based his proposition on my lamenting that it was too bad the faithful old beast had to die of starvation.  I refused his unprecedented generosity of fifty cents for the steer, putting the blame onto Peter for driving too fast.  Peter however said "I will take the fifty cents."  It was now nearly sundown, and we had four miles to go, taking our friends home on the running gear of the wagon. Very little was said on the way but the few words uttered were not flattering to the business tactics of the "thrifty" Mr. Stroup.  Mr. Goodhart, while looking for his stock shortly after, saw the ox nibbling grass some twenty rods from Stroup’s pasture with the fence double staked and ridered and a lock put on the gate and further that the steer had been offered to a mover for a fresh cow.

On going to bed that Saturday night, we asked Mother to call us early next morning as I wanted to go and consult Julius Heider about repleving the steer, at the same time Peter was instructed to keep the pony and the mare in the stable.  About 9 o'clock mother came to our room with sheets and linen changes for Sunday morning.  We were to all appearance sound asleep.  As soon as she retired, we slipped out noiselessly, got on to the horses and started for Stroup's pasture, carefully avoiding riding the road so as to make no tracks.

Arriving at the south side of the pasture Peter had to hold the horses while I crawled up a slough towards the corn crib near the house.  A watch dog gave a bark, the door at the house was opened and the dog jumped toward the corn crib.  This scared the horses and cattle there, and, me too.  Laying flat on my belly I saw old Jake, the ox, trotting south to get out of the way of the horses.  When passing within a few rods from me, I took my hat, letting on I had salt in it, I crawled toward him calling his name and recognizing my voice he followed me down to the fence, which was opened for him.  After passing out, the fence was layed up again with the exception of the top rail. "Jake" marched on in the middle of the road and we rode on the side of the road in the dry grass to avoid being tracked.

Going about two miles this way we left the steer and passed on home to get some sleep, expecting the steer to stop at Berg's.

When mother got up next morning old Jake had arrived.  Calling us boys she said, "Jake has come home."  Feigning ignorance, I asked, "Your brother Jacob?"  When I got out I saw the two oxen lying side by side as if they were yoked together, poor fellow! He would not have to starve again the next winter.

Keeping mother fully in ignorance, proved the best policy in this plot. I started to Heiders. Peter and John went hunting.

About 10 o'clock a.m. Mr. Stroup and his man Fowler put in their appearance, asking mother if she had seen the ox, they had bought from her boy?  She told them she did! "Did you hire anybody to turn him out?"  "No sir!" "Have you any objections to us taking him back?" "Certainly I have.  When my husband comes home, he will pay you for pasture, corn, and the fifty cents.

"This did not satisfy Stroup, he very much doubted what she said, and when he asked about us boys getting the steer out, her answer was a positive "No sir."  Still he was shaking his head in doubt.  Doubting her veracity aroused Polly's ire, stepping up to Stroup with her sleeves rolled up, her fist close to Stroup's nose, the very picture of an insulted and enraged Amazon, she told the avaricious wretch: "I dare you to doubt my word. I have no brother here just now, but I am able to protect myself against your insults."

Stroup did not lose any time backing away out of her reach and leaving the premises.  Sister Katy, who was present, related to me on my return what had happened.

Well we raised a splendid crop, that season, some fifteen acres of corn, some ten acres of very fair seed corn and five acres of spring wheat, which, cut with a grass scythe, putting a bow on the snath, leaning the cut grain against the uncut.  Sister Katy and Peter with sickles picked it into bundles, ready for me to bind. A neighbor stacked it for us.  Then Pa Kramer returned from Burlington, a sick man. We children, I the oldest not yet sixteen years old, put up 50 tons of hay that season.  I doing all the mowing and part of the shocking, and yet, that was my happiest season during my stay at home.

Source: Contributed by Kim Icenhower.

"I am the great great granddaughter of Nicholas Besser.  My Grandmother, Irma (Striegel) Haag,
the daughter of Mary (Besser) Striegel had copies of these stories, which were handed down to her children.
I was told they were factual accounts of his early life in Iowa."

Thank you Kim!

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