Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick

Simplicity Unlocks Many Doors

For many historians, the close of the Pioneer Period in Iowa came in 1870. By that time the entire state had been settled and there were no more frontiers. It also marked a time when transportation changed. The Des Moines River was declared impossible to navigate, so steamboats would not be seen again on this stream.

According to Thomas H. Benton, "there was not a better population on the face of the earth" than the Iowa pioneers. They were of the best blood and ranked among the best sons this country produced. He described them as young, strong, energetic, hardy, courageous and adventurous.

Most of them came with a purpose. The broad rich prairies of Iowa somehow seemed to widen their views and fertilize their ideas. The frontier environment marked an influence on politics. Men were freed of traditions and became more progressive-minded.

Life had been very tough on the frontier. Each cabin had a fireplace where bread was baked in a Dutch oven or "bake pan" by heaping coals around and on top of the container. Corn bread or "dodger" was made of coarse corn meal and could be baked in a covered skillet over the coals. Meat and "flap jack" pancakes were fried in a long-handled skillet held over the fire. Turkey, venison or pork cooked by a different method. These pieces were hung over the fire on a twisted string. The meat slowly turned and browned while the fat fell into a pan placed on the hearth, called a "dripping pan." Upsetting the pan meant "getting the fat in the fire" as an explosion of flame burst upward for a few minutes and could set things on fire that were too close to the hearth.

Later, when stoves were introduced, a whole new way of cooking emerged, which meant that the pioneer housewife could add a wider variety of foods to her cooking agenda.

The frontier lacked schools. If possible, children learned basics in the home as best their parents could provide, but many of the parents could not read and write. The frontier also usually lacked churches until towns were well established. Many pioneer families kept God alive in their homes with their own prayer meetings and Bible readings while other people lived and survived with very little knowledge about the Lord.

An early religious service was held just north of Pittsburg in August, 1837 and was attended by the Duffields, among other settlers. George Duffield described the open air meeting under "the Old Church Tree" and said that he seldom passed by the old elm tree without being reminded of Reverend Hill screaming, "Oh sinner, look! Look!"

He bent with his hands nearly touching the ground, then continued as he got everyone's attention. "Look, while I take off the hatch of Hell!" With long, bony fingers he acted out lifting a heavy iron manhole cover while writhing his body to demonstrate the tortures of the damned."

Simplicity and fervor were emphasized in religious meetings and revivals on the prairie. I recently heard a minister take each major denomination--Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran--and describe how far each had gone away from the principles of their founders. People like Wesley, Calvin, Smythe, and Martin Luther would not recognize many of the groups that claim to be following in their footsteps.

The pioneer period came to a close and ushered in the modern period with a new way of doing everything, including worship. A western preacher once visited a New England church and pointed at the organ and said, "There's your wooden god, the organ." "Bellowing up in the gallery a few dandified singers do it all (the choir) as the congregation won't sing, and when you pray, you sit instead of kneeling." He rocked them to the core.

I'm not advocating a complete return to the struggles of frontier life, but I do think that getting back to basics can help us establish a better connection with life in general, as well as with God. The pioneer period may be closed, but we can still learn a lot from the people who fashioned civilization for us on the prairie, during what history calls the pioneer period. Simplicity is the key that unlocks many doors.

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick