Homesteading in the early 1870's

Recovered from a dusty cardboard box in my garage was an old photocopy of handwritten notes on lined paper. The writings were those of my grandfather’s brother, Alvin Barnett Cook. With some minor exceptions, the transcribed text (below) is intended to preserve the author’s understanding of grammar and spelling. Alvin’s writing style may also reveal a trace of his family’s Quaker heritage. Where some of Alvin’s written words may be indiscernible, brackets [ ] will contain either my best guess or be marked as [illegible]. At the conclusion of the text are various photos intended to aid the reader’s imagery of the people and events of that time. It is not known when Alvin actually wrote these notes.
Alvin died in 1958 in Banner, Kansas at the age of 93.

Homesteading in the early 1870’s

written by

Alvin B. Cook



In the Spring of 1871.  I think in April.  My Father John R. Cook decided to move from Earlham Iowa & file on a Homestead in Lyon Co.  Two or Three other families also in Company with us made the trip.  The Lure for free land & a home being the main factor in the emagration.

One day on the Road I was driving the gentle Team my Bro. Robert beside me.  Mother in the back part of the covered wagon with Bro. Irvin in her arms.  Father for a short time was riding in one of the other wagons.  When some way Robert tumbled out Head first onto the Double Tree and then down to the ground.  I was only six yrs of age but pulled on the lines & called out “Whoa” to the Team & the scream from Mother stoped the Procession Pronto.  But Robert was between the wheels unhurt & loaded back into the wagon & the march resumed.  If the Wheel had struck Him the Result could hardly been other than Death.  Or Broken Bones.  & us away out from help.  Miles out on the Broad Prairies.

One morning the Horses all broke loose someone guess that they had gone for enough.  At any rate they Started on the back trail for Home apparently.  So one man mounted the only Horse left and started in pursuit of the Deserters.



I can recall yet the utter sense of loneliness that came over me as I saw the last Horse disappear in the distance.  & my Boyish fancy pictured not finding the Runaways & us starving for food & water on the great expanse of grassy plains.  Not a tree or Building in Sight anywhere.  But after several hours of suspense waiting the Horses were returned some missing & the Journey continued.  And we arrived in the neighborhood of Gov. Claims.  80 acres to the Head of a Family unless to Soldier where it was 160 acres.  Father filed on the South ½ of the N.E. Qr.[quarter] Sec. 24 Dale Twp. The latter being the S.E. corner of Lyon Co Iowa.

A crude sod house was constructed 12’ x 14’ for our Summer Home.  Father went to the Big Rock River some 20 or more miles distant for timber to make the Rafters.  These were covered with willow poles & grass on the willows & the grass covered with plowed chunks of sod.  Some land was plowed or broken (in the vernacular of the day).  Some few bus [bushels] of good potatoes were grown.  Some inconvenience of course.  It was 40 miles to P.O.  But the R.R. was building & the Survey was only about 3 miles from us (& later a town was



Established about 4 miles away) is now Ashton.*  As the Autumn drew on the folk concluded it wise to return to [illegible] to Iowa to spend the winter.  The trip back of near 175 miles was accomplished with no great mishap that I can recall Save One.  Young as I was I greatly desired the Possession of a gun.  So one afternoon as the wagons sauntered along my Uncle Joseph C. Cook took his gun intending to try to get a buck or Prairie chicken near the Road & I was permitted to accompany him.  He failed to get the game.  But in the meanwhile we had fell some distance behind the wagons and I was feeling somewhat weary in our attempt to overtake them.  When Uncle Joe C as we called him complained of feeling sick a Happy thot struck me.  “Would he get worse.”  Yes He spoke of it again.  This is my time I soliloquized so rather seriously.  “Say Uncle Joe C.  If thee should die can I have thy gun.”  His answer blasted all my hopes.  When with suspicion of a smile He said, “O, I guess its not so bad as that.”  Many years later he remembered the incident and laughed about it.  So that Winter of 71 and 72 we camped on the Bank of the Racoon River

(* was first St. Gilman)



in some hastily made dugouts & the men cut wood & hurried to market.  Some of the time driving the teams on the ice on the River.

The Spring of 72 we were again on the Road back to the claim.  The grass was starting well & we late at night arrived at the House of El Huff a neighbor some 3 miles from our Claim.  The wind came up from the north and was very cold. The clouds increased and in a short time was snowing rapidly & we were getting our introduction to a N.W. Ia blizzard.  The men ran the wagons end to end South of the House & turned the Horses loose in the enclosure fearing they might Perish if tied up close with no exercise.  The House rather large for the country was only a one room affair and 3 or 4 families and 2 or 3 Bachelers to make beds for.  The bedding was put down along the walls.  Man & wife then the youngsters (no kids then) coming next to those of another Family.  Then man & wife.  In this way the Process could go indefinitely excepting the capacity of the building.  At last all were down.  Joe Reagan a man of over 300 lbs wanted another feather under his hip.  Another wanted Joe to please move over ¾ inch to give room



as he was a Small Man.  The wind howled.  The Horses squealed and hobbled.  Gnawed on the weather boarding of the House.  It was a night long to be Remembered.  But the next P.M. the wind had fallen.  The snow melted so we drove over to the little Soddy on the Claim.  One of the first things Father did was to dig into the Potato Pit where the fall before we had left them for this special time.  And we were rejoiced to find most them O.K.  Just a few on top were frosted.  This time we had a few chickens with us.  (Just one crower as Grand Mother Newlin would say) but one day in some way his leg was broken.  So to save him if possible, Father set and splinted the leg & so far as I know was a success & Chanticleer filled his day of Roosterhood creditably. 

Some time I think later a Hen one night was killed & partly eaten.  This was serious.  A [illegible] chicken cottage to add to the danger.  So Father got some steel Traps, attached them to a log chain that encircled the dead Hen.  Next morning a large Horned owl was in the trap.  No more chickens were taken near the time.

The winter of 72 & 3 we wintered with Uncle Martin Cook living with them in their commodious dugout. 

One day Father went over to Uncle Joseph C Cooks Home on an errand near a mile and a half or more from Uncle Marts.  The day was just near ideal for winter.  But near the time when Father should have been half way home here came the wind & clouds & in a few minutes a blizzard was on & a bad one too.  Father was coming home walking with the wind.  A dim road was soon obscured by the snow & the air so full of fine Powered snow that visability was little more than 10 ft.  Mother was well nigh frantic fearing Father might pass the Dugout unaware of it & be lost.  So she asked John Howard Cook (5 yr old boy) (my cousin) to go often to the door & shout hoping to make Father hear.  & as he went again Mother said Call louder & this time a faint call in ans [answer] clear past the door.  Then Johnnie needed no urging to scream.  So with a lusty call & oft repeated Father was guided back to the Dugout Door.  So Mother was saved from Widowhood & some small boys were not Orphaned.  For I think that Storm lasted three days & nights extremely cold & Father could not have found shelter in miles & humanly imposable to save himself in such weather so long & no food.  No Guardian angel did you say?  Well, we will agree that facts are never changed by Statement.



One day when Father & I were out (a hot day & a long way from water) we came to where some one had camped & dug a well in some low ground some 6 or 7 feet in depth.  But no pail.  No rope.  No cup.  But we were very thirsty.  The water looked nice & clear.  The case was rather urgent.  So Father turned my old wool hat wrong side out, took me by the heels, let me down head first.  Being rather slim any way I made a fairly good excuse for a well rope & by Father kneeling down and my arms extended down I was drawn back to the surface with the hat full of water & I must say was good.  Seldom quaffed a better draught.

Then for two or three years the grasshoppers were a burden.  They came thousands & millions & I think Billions & Trillions unknown miles of them.  In looking up near the Sun they looked like snow flakes.  In the early A.M. they looked like columns of smoke rising in the N.W. and soon were settling on the crops by the acres.  The ground would be brown in the bare hard spots.  They would cut holes in clothing.  Gnaw a pitch fork handle till it was rough to use in comfort. 



Alighting on a wheat field just turning ripe the wheat heads would be cut off close to the head & fall to the ground.  Corn stalks in silk.  The silks and end of the young ear would be eaten down.  The leaves striped & the stalk left standing sometimes a soft velvety cob would form with not a grain on it.  Tassels eaten, not a grain would form on the cob.  But at last the years brot no hoppers.  Or not in numbers to ruin the crops.  & the virgin soil produced abundantly. 

I remember one Harvest in later years when our neighbor Joshua Hadly bought what they termed a Marsh Harvester.  This machine resembled the Self Binder of later date.  The grain came up the same.  Only two men were supposed to stand on the platform & bind the grain as it was elevated to them each binding a sheet while the other was getting the one following.  Well Dos came over (as he was called) and I & Cousin Levi R. Cook were to do the binding.  The gate was heavy near waist high & we could not bind as fast as the machine would bring it up to us so we got my Bro. Robert to get up & help us.



And even then we had hard work to keep up.  Dos would call out Tobe Charley to his team and the way that or “those” oats rolled up to us was powerful.  Father chaffed us somewhat for our inability to do the Binding & not get Strawed.  Parlance in those days why said he I could bind up alone as far as speed is concerned.  Of course I should not want to keep it up too long at a time.  Well we were not from Mo [Missouri].  But we wished to be shown just the same.  So we three climbed down (we thot we were men too) & Father took his lace alone on the Harvester.  Dos encouraged Tobe (Tob) & Charley to action & the oats began to roll up as before.  But Father with a single band bound a bundle (rising oats of course for a band) was ready for the second & the next & so on till we had to acknowledge his ability to do the job faster than we could try as we would. 

Father had planted out a lot of young Trees on the Claim.  Neighbor Joe Reagan one day said to Father “If I had put out trees as you did I might now have some nice shade trees.  As it is you have shade & a nice grove while I have neither.” 



But one row of trees.  Soft Maple.  I helped Father put out on the east line of the Homestead proved to be off the line mostly at one end nearly 2 feet and but a few inches at the North end near to the buildings.  When Father discovered the mistake the trees were 4 to 6 ft high.  But said He we  must move them to the line.  I well knowing the amount of work it would take to do the job made some modest remonstrance because of the task of such an undertaking.  No he said I’ll not have my grandchildren laughing at how the old man put out a crooked row of trees (& moved they were tho it took us days to do it.)  I thot he looked ahead unnecessarily long as I was the “Elder Bro.” & perhaps 12 or 13 years of age. 

Merely characteristic of Father he sold no barley on the market.  Why!  Well about 95% of the barley sold went to make beer at the Milwaukee Brewerys.  Father would not contribute to beer manufacture.  He owned a colt that developed speed as a Pacer.  He was offered a very high price for Blaze.  But the would be Purchaser did not know the man he was trying to deal with.  & so the man intimated something of the potential winnings on the race track.  And Blaze was later sold to our Family Dr. but at a much lower price.


(Second section)
Homesteading in the 70’s continued


The Pioneer of those early days had problems to solve in plenty.  To keep from freezing being not the least of them.

A Mr. Hall who lived some miles from us went with his son (a young man) after a load of wood.  While returning they were overtaken by a severe snow storm & very cold which increased so fast they felt compelled to leave the sled & load.  So loosing the oxen they started on.  Walking behind the oxen still yoked together and dragging the ever present log chain.  They had gone some distance when in the blinding snow the son discovered his Father was missing.  Stoping the team he shouted many times well knowing the danger if he should fail to make him hear.  But at last he was forced to start on alone & let the oxen choose the way.  But soon found he was in danger of the cattle leaving him.  So stoping them he hooked the chain securely around his body & again started on but still walking.  Later cold & numb he fell & the oxen dragged him the rest of the way home.  By the House the Family saw them, got him in, & he recovered tho hands & feet frosted.  Next Spring the dog carried home Mr. Hall’s hand.  The snow was melting & the Body found.



Some years later a Mr. Gilcrest with his two sisters (young women) were returning to their home in a sled.  Some kind of breakdown forced Mr. Gilcrest to leave the Girls in the sled intending to return in a short time with a way to take them on home.  But even before he could do so a sudden [Storm] came up.  Snow & cold both incurred so rapidly that the Girls were not found till next morning.  The [Storm] Had abated.  The wind had stoped.  The sun peeped over the horizon clear & bright at 40 below zero….  The Sisters had one quilt.  They were found in each others arms.  The body of one was still warm.  But too late to save them.  In this same storm a young Mr. Hurd in going home from School was caught out before he could reach home.  Was found next morning frozen to death & hardly 80 rods from his Fathers house.  I was acquainted with both Mr. Gilcrest & Mr. Hurd’s brother.  One of modern times can hardly imagine what those Blizzards were like.  The snow was whipped so fine & filled the air so full that as I remember in looking thru the window, visibility was reduced to 2 or 3 steps.



The winter of 72 & 3 I think it was we lived with Uncle Martin Cooks Family one of those storms came up in the nite.  In the Big Dugout we did not suffer, but after while the children became restless.  Would day light ever come?  At last Father got up and went to the door (in the little Ell) made for it & opened [outside].  He made a push on the door but only opened some two inches or little more.  Well we are snowed in said Father. ( [Whittiers] snow bound was not so bad) I thot.  Will we ever get out of here?  But Father called for a broom & took the handle & pushed it up at the top of the door thru the snow.  As he withdrew the broom handle a streak of day light came thru the opening & I could get a full breath.  For we are not buried alive after all.

Then the fuel problem was soon a serious question.  The timber in two or three years was mostly gone.  Tis said necessity is the mother of invention.  At any rate the Settlers went to burning Hay.  The long low land grass proved to be the best for this purpose.  By doubling the long grass & twisting the ends & winding the



top of the grass around the Twist of Hay & tucking the ends, twist the parts twisted, a fairly respectable Stove [Stok] resulted.  Mother did the washing & ironing.  Baked Bread [x.x.x]  But the pile of ashes to be carried out was nearly as remarkable as the pile of hay to be carried in.  My Bro. Irvin says his first assignment of chores each evening was so many twists of hay to make.  One Hazzard to be reconed with was the prairie fire.  At least in the Autumn.  And if any grass was left in the spring as well.  Fire guards must be made around hay stacks & homes & stables.  The latter made of poles & straw & the litter near it made [       ] good bait for the Fire Monster.  I knew two different men who saw there was no escape from a head fire almost upon them lay down on the ground in the lowest spot possible & let the fire pass over them with coats over their heads to keep from inhaling the heat.  They came thru alive without serious injury.  The wind driving the fire so very fast perhaps made it possible.  But it took about as much nerve as it did to dig into a snow bank to live a day or two or three when in a blizzard.  But a few men did and saved themselves from freezing.



There was one danger we feared that as time rolled on proved groundless in our part of the Country in the 70s.  The stories that the Indians were coming did reach us & caused some anxiety in the first years.  Father had gone!  One nite at dusk Mother noticed a form (some distance from the little old sode house) still & silent of course.  Our first thot was Indians.  As twilight deepened he faded from view tho still seemed motionless.  Mother knew if she tried to escape in the darkness the very effort if it might increase the Hazzard.  If it was an Indian.  So at last hearing nothing, Mother I think with a Prayer for Protection at last retired.  We children slept.  I think Mother never told how much she slept – – – but next morning no Indian was in sight.  No tracks that [illegible] of a red mans presence could be found.  Later, Mother concluded our Indian was a lone hill of corn growing above – the dusk of evening had been to blame for our fears.

Now, it is common to hear When do we eat.  Then, it was how will we obtain something to eat.  The Eat was a great problem.  Many a family proved Franklin correct.  Taking out of the meal barrel and putting nothing in would soon find the Bottom. 



At one time we had found the Bottom of the Family larder allmost nothing for the next meal.  I think Father walked to a little store a Mr. Shaw had put in before the town sites were laid off.  At the time Father had no funds to buy with.  After the situation was explained to Mr. Shaw, tho a Stranger, let the goods go that evening.  We had a meal to impress my mind so as to remember it.  We had some real store tea & some bacon fried also some sugar & from a small sift of flour (wheat flour) Mother made some luscioius biscuits and with gravy from the meat we dined sumptuously.

I think some time later Mother told us they had been married 10 yrs that day.  & She cooked dried apples plenty and gave us boys all the stewed dried apples we could eat.  & I never forgot the incident as it was a treat to us. 

One first day, as the old Friends (or Quakers) called at my cousins folk and my folk were invited to Dinner after church (or meeting).  As they went, Cousin Jessie went with me part our place to do some chore.  Then we started for Uncle Johnny Harrison.  All told some 3 miles to walk at 3 P.M. or later.  We arrived there hungry enough.  We set down to the table.  No bread of any kind.  But all the sugar & saur kraut that we could eat.  No damage resulted.



Not all the little episodes of Frontier Life were of the somber hue.  Many were the little incidents taking place which the most sedate were hardly impervious to.

The voice of Nature called in times hardly to be ignored by even the most careless mind.  The Sweet Williams bloomed near an acre in a place allmost a solid pink in the distance.  With close observation now & then one white with a pink eye would be found.  Or one with a lavender cast or other variation.  & All with their fragrance not to be forgotten.  The Wild Roses in shades of near white to red in their June sweetnesses.  Countless numbers where we gathered great bunches of them  & the Lily just here & there one But so delicate the little black spots on the petals and a fragrance most exquisite & clear beyond description.  Then toward autumn what we called “Bluebells” were sparsely blooming in the upland Blue Stem grass.  Not to mention many other flowers that sent their oder to laden the gentle breeze of the Iowa Prairie in Summertime.  In Spring time the Honk Honk of the wild Canadian Goose could be often heard.  Wild ducks in countless numbers would come into the fields toward evening time.  The “corrack” of the long billed [Curlew]. 



The rather harsh call of the Jack Snipe “Wackety Wackety” oft repeated.  The distant whistle of the Plover.  The Black Birds chatter.  A plaintive note of a Blue Bird.  The near perfect emulation of the cat bird after our Trees attained a little size.  Many other warbles joined in the chorus.  The names of some I never learned.  One we used to think said “Chinn Chinn Chilly” oft repeated with rising inflection on the last note & would keep it up by the hour.  Among the first harbangers of Spring that we hailed with delight was the Song of the well known Meadow Lark on a warm tho crisp Spring morning.  When we heard that first “Gee Haw Whitticker” as a variation of “Adel Tea Table.”  Then rushing into the house “O Mother!  We heard a Meadow Lark.  Spring is here!”  Then the indescribable flutter of the tongue of the Sand Hill Crane flying high over head in great wedge shape flocks mostly in migration to more Northern cresting grounds tho a few did nest in our part of the country.  I routed up a young crane once.  He could not quite fly.  As I gave chase with all speed possible he was taking great leaps aided by his wings, I was fast losing ground.  But suddenly he turned and with open mouth made directly for me.  I stoped. He did not.  So.  With a lucky grab I got his neck, the other hand got his legs.  & then he flopped me plenty.  He soon gave up & I captured my first crane.



Some of the little incidents of a more ludicrous trend were not entirely wanting.

One nite Father took sick.  Mother wanted some medicine at Grand Father Barnett some ¾ mile distant.  So I being the Elder Son, was called to make the trip on foot.  But when returning & nearing home, I discovered some object in the road approaching me. We both halted with three or four steps between us.  Then I could plainly make out the visage of a neighbors big Bull Dog.  To say I was afraid would seem to mild a term.  I feared pursuit if I tried to run.  A bluff seemed all I could think of.  So making a great Spring directly at the dog & let out a yell calculated to bring terror to even a savage Bull Dog.  & it worked.  He leaped aside & made off in the darkness & I was soon safely at home with the medicine.

My Mother one fall at Threshing time had the help of a neighbor girl Vennie Hanson near 16.  As there would be seven or eight [illegible] to cook for, at supper I think it was.  Mother had both Butter milk and Sweet milk for those who wished as well as the coffee.  My Bro. Robert, a boy of 7 or 8, looked up a bit surprised as Vennie asked him Robby what kind of milk does thee want & He ans “I want cows milk.” (& he got that kind.)



One warm Summer day my Bro Irving & a neighbor Seth Wilson were returning from the town of Sheldon.  Father had a new well & pump lately put in.  The old style wood pump with wood spout.  Irvin insisted that Seth come in & get a good drink from the new well.  As he had to go a ways farther, he excepted the invitation.  At the pump Irvin pumped out some so as to have the water good & cold.  Then Seth took the big dipper, held it under the spout to fill.  But at the same instant one of those little [illegible] puppys wriggled out into the dipper.  Seth cleared his throat, “Ahem.  Ahem.  Guess I don’t want a drink.”

We had one neighbor, a Mr. Conner, a very quiet man.  I do not recall hearing him laugh outright.  He seldom smiled.  & like the darky who with others was enjoined to Secrecy, he ans. “This person can hold Hush”  But one Spring much to Fathers and Irvins surprise Mr. Conner came over and asked Irvin to go with him on a fishing trip some 50 miles each to furnish a horse.  Father gave consent.  Irvin went over in early morn.  The team hitched to the wagon, Irvin started to hand the lines to Mr. Conner – but he declined so positively that Irvin took the lines



and the start made. but quietly.  But after a time Irvins horse would lag behind the other.  So Irvin thot I’ll wake old “Tige” up and show Mr. Conner I want any horse to do his part.  Then drawing up a good length of the line to strike with and calling out sharply to the horse at the same time “Conner.”  Mr. Conner startled, turned & looked at his driver with a look of “have you gone crazy,” then settled back & they rode on in silence & the subject never mentioned to each other.  They had the outing together just the same.  Tho if I recall rightly only a few fish were taken at the Lakes of Sprit & Okoboji  by [illegible]