Early History Of Milton And Van Buren County As Told By A Pioneer Resident

From the Milton Herald, December 27,1928 Extends By John C. Holland

As I am the oldest resident of this part of the country, I have often been asked to write some incidents that had to do with the early settling of this part of Iowa. Having been of tender years when my parents came to this vicinity, many of the earlier happenings, which I shall relate, must, of necessity, be those that I heard from my elders. Also, be it known that the names and incidents herein have been recovered from the halls of memory, as I have no records I can refer. Furthermore, what I shall attempt to relate will, of necessity, be more or less the doings of my own family, and the immediate neighbors with which they were associated.

My parents, as many of the early settlers, were natives of Sussex County, Delaware. An interesting tradition, which I shall relate, has to do with the coming of the tribe of Holland into that part of Delaware. Delaware and the eastern part of Maryland, were originally settled by English people. Early in the 17th century, a family of Holland's settled on what is now known as the " Eastern Shore " region of Maryland, bordering on Chesapeake Bay. The country, at that time, was in a primitive state, many of the inlets of the Bay being rendezvous for outlaws and pirates . Tradition has it that two of the Holland's were caught in the final cleanup, and summarily dealt with. Then, as now, Eastern plantation owners followed the chase, during April and October, fox hunting being the principles sport. During one chase, a man named John Holland followed a fox over into Sussex County, Delaware, where he was overtaken by nightfall, and asked shelter at a plantation, where there was a " Mill seat. "Also, in this house was an only daughter, to whom John was attracted. Later visits-not after foxes-resulted in love and marriage, and later, John became owner of the plantation. History does not state whether he ever got the fox, but he was never known to regret the results of the chase. Generations followed, until, in 1809, William Waller Holland, my father, was born. At that time in the history of Delaware, the old English law of " primogenitor " obtained, whereby the oldest male child inherited the landed estate. My father, being younger, was left without landed inheritance, and early in life began dreaming and planning to go to the then new country, where land was plentiful and without cost, and where a house to be wrested from nature by the work of his hands. With this end in view, he contracted to work on a neighboring farm for the meager salary of $3 per month, and keep. At the end of the year, he had saved just $36 toward his goal. Years followed, always with steady work, and just as steady economy, until enough had been accumulated to make possible the taking of Horace Greeley's advise :" Go west and grow with the country, " in the meantime, he had been married to Sarah C. Robbins, and four children had come, one of whom died in infancy .The other three John C., Mary F., and Hannah E. accompanied their parents to the new country.

In 1840, my father, in company with a man named John White, started west to " spy out the land, " and to select a place to build homes. They went by water to Philadelphia; thence to Pittsburgh by stage, and then struck out across the country afoot. Imagine if you can, what a brave spirit possessed these men to undertake such a journey, on foot, through a sparsely settled country, without definite knowledge of the route to be followed. The settlements being far between, they were often compelled to stop early in the day, and at other times, travel far into the night, to find the shelter of a settler's cabin. Thus they traveled, until what is now western Indiana was reached, when they bought an Indian pony, and proceeded to " ride and tie " till they came to this vicinity. My father selected 360 acres which comprises the old Holland homestead a part of which is included in the now town of Milton. On the way home, entry of the land was made at Burlington, then a trading post and government land office, now a thriving city.

In 1842, he and his family, and company with five other families, set sail for the " land of promise. " His glowing tales of the beautiful prairies, fine timber, fertility of the soil, and cheapness of the land, induced these others to cast their lot with him, in quest of homes. The names of these other heads of families were Jonathan Downes, Samuel P. Rowland, Wm. R. King, Asbury Conwell, and Wm. Craig. In 1846 three other families came, John Lank, John Russell, and Robert R. Russell. Mr. Lank returned to his native state the next year. In 1847 other families came, Kendall B. Atkins, Notter Rogers, and Peter Lank (who also returned home). In the immediate neighborhood, families from other states were Wm. Gray, Newton McManis, John Hale Sr., John Hale Jr., Wm. Hale, Joseph Hale, Elisha Price, Elisha Harmon, George McManis, Dr. Logan Wallace, Charles Wandel, Wm. Webb and Wm. Kennedy.

There were also a number of families that came from Kent county, Delaware, early in the "forties". They were John Knight, James Price, George Pennington, Timothy Allison, Wm. Russell, Foster Collins, Thomas Hollingsworth, Catherine Hollingsworth, Vinson Stubbs, Joseph Beauchamp, Wm. L. Hargrove, and Daniel Collins. Of the entire number of early comers, only two survive to this date (December 1928), Hannah E. Hargrove and the writer.

Prior to our coming, a few families had erected cabins, the first of which was built by Bushrod Craven on land now owned by Roulette Hagler, formerly known as the Grey farm.

To give an account of the slow, tedious days of travel stretching over three weeks, from Delaware to Iowa would be impossible for me, due to my extreme youth at the time the trip was made. The route was by sailing vessel, from the Delaware coast to Philadelphia, thence to Pittsburgh by canal boat, over an artificial waterway some 8 feet wide and half as deep-- the boat, being drawn by horses traveling the "tow path", and driven by boys. Leaving Pittsburgh, we embarked upon a river boat, and sailed down the beautiful Ohio to it's confluence with the Mississippi; thence up stream to Alexandria, Mo., at the mouth of our own Des Moines, where ox teams and wagons were bought, and the rest of the journey made overland. A baby was born to Mrs. Craig on the Ohio river boat, and she, being too ill to continue the wagon journey, was left at Alexandria until cabins could be built here. Strange to think of the difference in method and time of travel, then and now. From three weeks to less than three days, by train, and a few hours by air.

All the early settlers located land near the streams and branches. Fuel must be had; rails for fences, water for house use and for the stock; and safety from fires that annually swept across the prairie land--all these things induced them to pass by what is now the best farm land.

Just how they managed to protect themselves and we children from the inclement weather, while homes were being built, I cannot say. It was in the month of April, when we arrived at the claim, with a dreary rain falling. As stated above, a few adventurous spirits had crossed the big river and had cabins up, in one of which we found shelter, while our house was being built. Ten, in all, living in a tiny cabin made of round logs chinked with mud. Soon, however, we were safely housed and comfortable in our own house of hewn logs, situated on the north part of the farm now owned by Harry Atkins. 16 x 18 feet, one story, with loft reached by ladder; open porch on south; door on south end; fireplace in other end; one window; two beds; no carpet; a temporary table, that was set outside to make room, when not in use; stools in place of chairs, roughly hand made; puncheon floor, to keep out snakes, and all furnished with a few kitchen utensils brought out from the homeland. Here is a list of them; a spider, waffle tongs, Dutch oven, griddle, iron tea kettle, boiling kettle suspended over the fireplace, pot hooks to hand high or low, as occasion required. When all was done, my father was heard to say: "I have a good wife and fine children; a good tract of land of my own; a yoke of oxen; a horse and a healthy body. I would not trade places with the king of England."

I suppose some arrangement had been made, beforehand, for food. How, the writer knowth not. Wild game was plentiful, and all the pioneers knew how to handle the rifle. Deer, wild turkey, prairie chicken, grouse, wild pigeons abounded everywhere, wild fruits and nuts were plentiful in season and the hogs lived on acorns, making what folks called "mast fed" pork, which was soft and not nearly so good to the taste as that produced from corn.

The first year was a time of grueling toil and hardship, both indoors and out. Fields had to be wrested from the wilderness for the next year's crop, rails split and fences built, to keep out wild game and other folk's stock, which all ran at large. The ground, after being grubbed and cleared, was plowed with a four yoke team, with large plow attached to the front wheels of a wagon. No machinery was at hand, as now-a-days, to prepare the ground for the seed, which entailed much hard hand labor. To make rows for planting the corn, the fields were marked both ways, with a single shovel plow, the corn being dropped in the intersections, and covered with a hoe. Later a "skip jack' was used for covering purposes. I remember seeing a man planting corn in tough sod, using a long handled hatchet to chop a hole into the soil, and dropping the corn into the hole, covering it with his foot.

When harvest time came, the sickle was first used. A skillful man could harvest 25 dozen bundles in a day. Soon the scythe and cradle came into use, and were hailed as a great invention.

The first threshing floor I ever saw was a circular piece of ground, well cleaned. The wheat bundles were laid thereon, with the heads on top and a yoke of oxen driven over it until the grain was freed from the straw. The straw was then removed with forks, and the chaff removed from the grain in the breeze. Dirt and other obnoxious materials were removed by hand, and the grain ground on a horse mill. The bread from this flour was of a decidedly dark "complexion," to say the least. Later, threshing was done by a machine, called a "chaff-piler," consisting of a cylinder driven by horsepower. Straw, chaff and grain was dumped out together, and hand separation completed the process. This was a great advantage, in cleanliness, over the ox method.

The first flourmills were built on Fox creek, but soon larger ones were erected on the Des Moines, entailing longer trips to "mill." Two days were consumed, in getting to mill, waiting your turn, and getting home. A room with bunks, was provided in the mill, where customers, with their quilts brought along, could spend a comfortable night. Toll was one bushel in eight. We often went to the small mills horseback. It has been told that the grain was put in one end of the sack and a rock in the other, but nothing like that happened, to my knowledge. Concerning the bill of fare, on the early day farms, memory fails to bring it all back. We had "Johnny cake" and milk for breakfast; "hominy," "mush and milk," "plate cake," "board cake," "waffles," "firmity" and many other home made dishes made up the ration, during our early years. Not as great a variety as folks seem to require, these days, but we grew and thrived upon it. Sausage was prepared by chopping meat with a hatchet, or a chopper made for the purpose. An all days job for a little sausage and the product was quite coarse. Tied up in corn shucks, and hung up for future use, it served to help fill up a bunch of hungry boys and girls.

Trading and buying was in a primitive state. Money was scarce, so settlers had to trade something they had produced for additional food and clothing. Markets were far distant, entailing long trips to trading points, with much exposure in bad weather. Most of the clothing was hand made in the homes. The wool, as it came from the sheep, was scoured, dried, picked and made into rolls, by the ladies of the family, ready for the spinning wheel. When spun into yarn, it was warped and woven into cloth, on the hand looms, and made into clothing for the various members of the family. Flax was raised, rotted, broken, scrunched, releasing the fiber, which was converted into thread on the little spinning wheel, and made into summer clothing. All the wives and daughters knew how to perform all these operations. Just how they could find time for it all, I know not, but they did and we children were always warmly clothed, albeit not clad in what you might call fancy garments.

Some idea of the dangers and inconveniences to which the early settlers were put, can be given by the following incident. On one occasion my father was in Keosauqua on business, and called at the Post Office for mail. Two letters were there, for each of which there was posted of 25 cents, payable at the receiving end. Having no means to pay, he was compelled to find a friend to lend him the amount. He told Mother that evening, that he had rather than Delaware folks would not write, as it costs too much for postage. This however, lasted but a short time, until postage was reduced to 10 cents, and the post office for this district was removed to String Town. At another time, he had business north of the Fox Creek. A heavy rain caused a sudden rise in the creek, then he found the ford a raging torrent. The horse became excited, went under, and the saddle, which had no girth, floated downstream. He cut across a bend, plunged in and recovered his precious saddle, and returned to find the horse waiting for him. By means of a fallen tree, he succeeded in getting aboard, and reached home after nightfall to find Mother worrying about him. On another occasion, a neighbor needed some medicine for a member of his family. The local doctor could not supply it, so he was compelled to go to Keosauqua on horseback for it. The river was high, so he swam across, making his wants known to a man who lived on the other side, who went the rest of the way for the medicine, and the neighbor returned by the same route. The writer has heard of the other adventures of a similar nature, but memory fails me as to details.

I remember one of the first the funeral processions I ever saw, proceeding on horseback, due to the conditions of the road. A neighbor living on the farm now owned by W.H. Roby, lost a little child. There were but two people in the procession, the father-in-law, with the tiny homemade casket carried on his horse, and the father following. So far as I know no one was in the cemetery to assist them. The cemetery, like many others of the pioneer days, is now pasture land.

And, now about the schools. Naturally, they were of the most simple kind-the three " R's ", Reading, Riting, Rithmatic holding sway. Our first schoolhouse, situated near were Bert Wilson now lives, was 16 by 18 ft. in size, with two windows, covered, originally with greased paper, but later with glass; seats of slabs, flat side up, too high for the smaller pupils so their feet had to hang; fools cap writing paper, with the ink made from maple bark, and later from ink powder; pens made of goose quills, which the teacher sharpened when needed. Teachers were severe in government, sparing not the rod, for fear of spoiling the child. My first teacher was a man named John Ellis, followed by Grant Toncy, who instituted birch rod rule. (Mr. Ellis, by the way, died in the City of Mexico, having gone as a soldier in the Mexican War.) The second day of school, Mr. Toncy brought a wicked looking birch rod with him. We all wondered who would get the first introduction. The writer's turn came sooner than expected. Water was obtained from a water hole, some distance from the school house. If one wished to leave the room, for water, or for other reasons, a small wooden hook hung by the side of the door. The one leaving the room took this hook with him, and no other requests for absence were granted until the hook was returned. In this way, only one was absent at a time. About five years after school was started here, the district was divided into Egypt and Milton, and other houses built. The teacher's salary was $15.00 to $30.00, and board around among the patrons. Thus was the foundation for our present school system laid, a system that reflects great credit upon the generations that have carried on the work through all the years.

The first religious society was formed in 1842 in the same schoolhouse. It was a Methodist society, with seven members, Wm. Kirkpatrick being the first pastor. People mostly walked to church, the schoolhouses being used for church until about 1866, when the first church was built. Camp meetings were frequent, and largely attended, bringing many converts into the church.

The first "Class" was organized by the Rev. Moses Shin. The charter members were John C. Hagler and wife; Mrs. Rowland; Wm. Craig and wife; Wm. R. King and wife; Mrs. Edith Hale; Thos. H. Hollingsworth and wife; and J.C. Hagler, who was leader with Wm. R. King, as exhorter. Rev. Samuel Clark was the next pastor. He was the father of Sam Clark, editor of the "Gate City." The old pioneers have nearly all passed to the Great Beyond. For the most part, their work was well done, and we of this generation owe them a deep debt of gratitude. Taken from his former home, and dropped down in the wilderness changed his habits, and in many cases, his disposition. As in all new countries, sports such as horse racing and hunting became prevalent.

Booze was abundant, cheap, and always present. It's influence, then as now, was to encourage the meaner side of men, resulting in much betting at races; fights, etc. Many of the pioneers were rough in their exterior, but always ready to help a deserving and needy neighbor, and they kept open house to travelers-doubtless remembering the not distant time when they, themselves, were pilgrims.

These reminiscences would not be complete without a word of appreciation for the pioneer mothers, who braved the dangers and inconveniences oftimes the poverty-of a new country, to assist in making the new home, and in bringing up the family. They did not vote-nor wanted to-but the "Hand that rocked the cradle ruled the world," then as now. All over this fair land are men and women, in middle life and younger, who revere the woman hood who stood for the best things of life, while doing without the many things that would have made their lives more pleasant.

Iowa, magnificent Iowa. Surely, if there was ever a place especially prepared for the abode of man, it is here in our own Iowa.

"I sat beside a brook one day,
And this is what it seemed to say;
And if from God my spirit comes
I know, in God, it will find a home."

IAGenWeb Project
©2000 - Contributed by Fran Hunt solely for the use and benefit of the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project,
a part of the USGenWeb Project.