John W. Houck Has Lived Longest in Adams County, Iowa
(Transcribed by Pat O'Dell: )
Article from Adams County Free Press, Corning, Iowa, Thursday, February 19, 1931

John Houck moved to Adams County in July, 1853. While most of us have little patience with the doctrine of the "good old days," yet sometimes it is not a bad idea to open the door of the past and take a peek at those so-called good old days. Perhaps some of us will be better satisfied with the present day condtions, even taking into consideration the hard times about which we talk and think so continuously. The only way to get a true picture of those days is to talk with those who have lived them, and it won't be long now until this history will have to come from the files of old newspapers or from sketchily written books, and the knowledge will be limited. What tales these old timers can tell, and what a privilege it is to talk with them of the history making days of this county!

It is believe that John W. Houck is the man who holds the record for having lived the greatest length of time in Adams county and he adds his testimony to other old timers to prove that we of today know nothing at all about hard times. His story is simply but seriously told. He was born August 19, 1844, at Dearborn county, Indiana, and came to Marion county, Iowa, in October, 1849. After living there four years the family came to Adams county, July 8th, 1853, with his parents and brothers, William, Henry, Ben, Albert and Joe. They came in a covered wagon with three horses and some cattle. Friendly neighbors, the proud possessors of a one-room cabin, took them in for several weeks until the Houck cabin was finished. This cabin was a 16x22 log house, with a leanto built later. Before the cabin was chinked with mud, little Henry was teasing a gander on the outside, when Mr. Gander reached through the cracks and grabbed the nose of Henry. Not much protection from such enemies - that house.

However, with all its shortcomings, it was home, and was located on the same site that the Frank Houck house now stands on. The second year the Houck family decided to build another cabin more pretentious then the first but the winter was so severe they couldn't get out to get fuel so had to burn the lumber used in the almost completed building. The roof of the first cabin was so open that the snow had to be swept out of the house after severe snow storms (take note, you men who hate to shovel snow from the front walk). A fireplace and a Dutch oven for baking were the only heating facilities they had. In these days of comfort in our homes it seems incredible that these pioneers often found their cups frozen to the table before the meal was finished.

The Houck family came too late to plant a crop and the first year the most they had to eat was corn bread made with grated corn and mixed with hot water. Mr. Houck has gone modern, however, for he wants his corn bread made with eggs, sour cream and "gobs" of butter. In those days they had some sugar, some coffee, but very little flour, and molasses for sweetening. Prairie chickens, turkeys, squirrels, deer and rabbits helped out the bill of fare. The first year Mr. Houck caught 240 prairie chickens and his brother almost as many, and they found that salted and dried, the meat was fine. The first winter John and his father drove to Savannah (Missouri) for provisions. It took eight days to go to St Joseph (Missouri) so a trip to town was no Saturday night affair, but usually only once a year. They had no place to keep their potatoes and part of them would be buried, the others left out to freeze. If these frozen potatoes were put in cold water for cooking while frozen, they were not hurt in the least.

While you mothers are debating the question of time for bride, clubs, P.T.A., or the reading circle, just imagine the duties of these pioneer mothers. Mrs Houck had nine boys and two girls and she spun the wool and pounded out the flax threads for their clothes, towels, blankets, sheets and tablecloths. Besides that she knit all the stockings for her children and made the clothes from the material she had manufactured. The knitting could be done just as well in the dark as in the light and much of it was done that way. One winter she sold seventy pounds of butter from one cow. It was shipped to Denver in a firkin and brought seven cents a pound.

The first corn the Houck family planted cost them $5.00 a bushel, and at the same time they were paying $1.25 an acre for their land. Some ratio in the matter of prices, as compared with prices today! The father sold hogs for $1.65 a hundred after driving them to Grant. Once he dressed and cured 17 hogs and took them to Council Bluffs but could sell only the hams and was compelled to bring the rest of the meat back. Many times after corn became plentiful they sold it at the side of the main road for 10 cents a bushel.

The more personal part of the story we will tell in Mr Houck's own words: "I started to school when I was 15 years old and went four weeks to school in Carbon and six weeks in Quincy. I then went to school in a sod shanty and later to a school just north of Carbon. All together I attended school just 18 months and quit when I was 20. In spite of this scanty schooling, I was the champion speller and could work all the problems in my arithmetic. One of my teachers was Jake Bixler, who lived at Middle Valley and walked to the school north of Carbon. His wages were $15 a month and he paid me 50 cents a month to build his fires.

I earned my first money gathering hazel nuts and sold two bushels in St Joseph for 50 cents a bushel. One year I gathered 22 bushels of walnuts and sold four bushels for 20 cents a bushel, but couldn't sell any more at any price and used the rest of them for fuel.

In '59 when I was fifteen, father and I and a man name Hommon started out west to search for gold. We had two yokes of oxen and two cows and traveled in a covered wagon. I drove and the men would hunt during the day. One day they were successful in bringing down a buffalo. We got as far as Colorado Springs but saw very little gold, though we were there from May until October. Father went west again the next spring and was gone 15 months. He worked his way back driving a government team.

When I was about twenty, spelling bees were all the rage and no night was too cold for us to walk, ride or drive any distance to one. Charivaries were also a great diversion. Another form of sport was the practical joke of "belling people out." Fences were not good and we like to get cowbells and wander around in someone's cornfield to make him think the cows were in his field. One night we kept a particularly lazy man out all night.

March 4, 1875, I was married to Sarah Jane Falconer by Reverend Mr Duffield, at Quincy. We rode to Quincy in a new wagon behind a span of mules. The mules cost me $525 and the wagon cost $105. Such a turn-out was something of which any bridgegroom might feel proud in those days. My wedding suit was made by Jake Loch, a tailor of those days."

Then came the fight of these two fine people against the odds which beset the pioneers who first sought to wrest a living from the soil of Adams county. Fish were caught in the winter by cutting a hole in the ice, then letting it freeze over, cutting a smaller hole and dipping up the fish with a basket. Plum butter was made with wild plums and molasses. Wild crabapples were stewed in brown sugar molasses and that was the best brand of applesause. Brown sugar was the only kind of sugar and only one barrel of that for the year. Chinch bugs were a great menace and fifty-eight years ago they laid the corn flat. Grasshoppers, too, had to be reckoned with and at one time took Mr Houck's corn when ripe, and with only ten bushels garnered.

In those days men could buy land by breaking the sod and Mr Houck cited the case of Zacarias Lawrence, father of Perry Lawrence, who gave the father of Will Chalfont an acre of land for every acre he broke for him.

Mr Houck was proably the first coal miner in the county, although he never worked at a coal mine. Just the same, for several years he made a business of getting and selling coal. He damned the river and then with a crowbar and wedge as his only tools he took out great slabs of coal from the bed of the river on his father's place. Sometimes these slabs were as large as a wagon bed. He sold this coal for twenty cents a bushel. This was not his real job, however, just a partime while he was resting from farm dtuies. He said he could average about 75 bushels a day. One damning would last two weeks and then the river would be allowed to run again.

These may have been days of hard times but most people paid their debts, for Mr Houck states that in his father's store at Quincy, with a stock of goods of about $10,000, they lost less than $500 on their credit business during the 12 years he was in business. Mr Houck says the winter of '53 was just like this one, with little snow and very little freezing weather.

When Mr Houck bought the place near Carl, now owned by Ed Parrish, he paid $13.50 an acre, buying it at public auction, but had to pay 23 % interest in order to get the money to pay for it. He says interest as high as 35% was paid at times.

Talk about hard times! This pioneer gentleman never had a pair of mittens until he was twenty-four years old and didn't know the luxury of an overcoat or overshoes until much older. In fact, he has little use for an overcoat yet. He has yet to take his first smoke, drink or chew of tobacco. He is 86 years old and reads without glasses and is well and strong. He is not the least bit troubled about the youth of today and approves the modern means of transportation. Two years ago he had his first airplane ride and enjoyed it much more than riding oxen or mules.

Mr Houck's wife died May 14, 1919. One son died in infancy and a son, Harry, died in 1918. One daughter, Mrs. Daisy A. Reese, with whom he makes his home, lives in Creston. Two other daughters are Mrs Joy G. Hardisty of Corning and Mrs Nettie E. Neill of Nodaway.