Jones logo
Clay Mills Memories
by Faye Sagers
Submitted by Phillip Ralph Owen, who notes that Dave Owen found Faye’s memories in a box of stuff from Craig/Camilla. Faye Sagers was 7 seven years older but a close friend of Ralph Owen. Faye and his wife moved to Clay Mills when the Hiland Owen family moved out in 1930. Faye’s father owned the farmland and house in Clay Mills where Hiland Owen and his family lived from 1922–1930.

You can watch a brief recent video of Clay Mills on You Tube.

This is the story of Clay Mills as I remember it from the time of my childhood to the present time.
First, I will relate what I know and have been told about the history of the town. At it's peak, the town furnished income for 22 families. There was a water powered mill, a saw mill, cooper shop, school, general store, Odd Fellows Hall, post office, lime kiln, and stone quarry. There was a tract of virgin timber, which was owned by the Oxford Hay loader company of Oxford Junction; They used the timber to make hay-loaders.
Clay Mills is located in Jones County, Iowa, four miles up the river (west) from Canton. There were three roads into Clay Mills, one from the east, one from the north, and one from the south. There were three bridges, one river bridge on the South Fork of the Maquoketa River, and two creek bridges in the the town. The creek bridges crossed Farm Creek, which emptied into the South Fork of the Maquoketa River, approximately 80 rods from Clay Mills.
Clay Mills was a plotted town, with a main street and was surrounded by bluffs and hills on all sides except the south side. There the hills were about 80 rods away, across the river.
I have heard conflicting dates as to the first residents, so I won't mention any definite dates. I think with the information I have, it would be in the early part of the eighteen hundreds. The house we lived in for 12 years is at least 140 years old. Without doubt, it is the oldest of all the houses. The part next to Main Street is built like no other house I have ever heard of. It was built with two inch plank, vertical up and down construction, with two layers. Each plank covers a crack on the other side, like shingles. The planks are up and down and nailed at the bottom to the sills, and at the top to 4x4s. There were 4x4s in all the corners inside the house. The lathe and plaster were nailed to the siding inside. The siding was nailed horizontally to the plank on the outside.
There isn't much information in the Jones County history about Clay Mills. I know of at least one account that states that the water powered mill was located on the South Fork of the Maquoketa River, when it was accualy at the foot of the hill coming into Clay Mills from the east. You can look across Farm Creek and see the dike that formed the lake to provide water to run the mill. You can also see some of the huge rocks that were a part of the dam in the bottom of the creek.
The lime kiln was located on the south side of the road, leading into Clay Mills. It is about half way down the hill and the stone quarry is directly across from it.
There were two old bachelors who lived in a tar-paper shack on the hill and made their living by taking care of the Oxford Hay loader timber and raising truck garden. This is what they related to me on the kiln's operation. On the back end of the kiln, there was a deep shaft and at the bottom, a huge set of grates. Under the grates was an air space, leading under the floor of the kiln. It led to an air shaft that came out under the hill, The next level consisted of a floor where the lime was taken out of the kiln and conveyed to an air tight building on the side next to the road, where the lime was put into barrels for delivery to all places within range of team and wagon.
Three to four wagons could be loaded at one time. The iron rings where the horses were tied are still embedded in the wall. The lime was hauled as far as Dubuque. There is an account by El and Charley Hovey of a full load of lime in barrels that was headed for Dubuque. Somewhere along the way, the back tailgate came out on a steep hill and the barrels slid out and rolled down the hill.
The top floor was a frame structure built on the huge rock wall. I remember a part on the south end that was a black smith shop with a forge and a lot of tools of the trade. This was when I was a small kid. The rest of the building over the top floor had long since decayed. According to the Hovey's account, the top floor was fixed so that teams and wagons loaded with cord-wood could drive onto it and drop the wood through a door in the floor. Down below where it was fed into the kiln, it got to be a huge fire with tremendous heat. That underground air shaft provided a blow torch effect up through the rock that had been pilled, so the heat could circulate to the top. At the peak of the heat in the kiln they could burn green cordwood. They could tell when it was burned enough for lime by a red glow far above the kiln. It was taken out of the kiln and put in an air tight building where it was put in barrels for delivery.
The quarry across from the kiln had huge stone up to two foot thick. Our barn at Clay Mills was made with that stone; so was the kiln. The Hoveys said that the belfry tower at Temple Hill Church was made of Clay Mills quarry stone. The New Mallery Monastery near Dubuque,, used Clay Mills stone.
The holes for the powder charges that split the rock away from the wall so it could be dressed to size were drilled by sharp steel bars that were propelled up and down by muscle power. A line of shallow holes were made in a straight line in the thick rock. Iron wedges were driven in each hole; then they hammered each one of the wedges from one end to the other, back and forth until it would break in the line of the holes. Thin rock could be broken with a heavy sledge hammer that had one end that was sharp to cut the lines that would eventually break.
The drill was turned as it was propelled up and down so it wouldn't hit in the same place. Eventually there would be enough cuttings accumulate so the drill would not reach the bottom. Then the hole had to be cleaned out. This was done by finding a tough ironwood branch. Put the big end in a vise close to the butt end and hammer it until the end was all frizzed up. The more it was frizzed up the better. Then you would put the frizzed up end in a pail of water; then put it down to the bottom of the hole and turn it around a few times; then take it out and clean out the cuttings that had stuck to the frizzed up end. The process was repeated until the cuttings were removed.
I know for a fact that this drill process works. In the 30s my wife's father made me a drill out of an old Ford drive shaft. He tempered it and widened the blade end slightly larger than the drill shaft. I used this to drill holes for dynamite on the Clay Mills hill in the 1930s. We widened the rocky hill down into Clay Mills from the east. Before the manufacture of dynamite they used blasting powder.
The post office was in the lower part of the two story house next to where we lived. It was discontinued in the early part of the nineteen hundreds. The mail was delivered by motor cycle at this time. At one time there was telephone service into Clay Mills! I don't know the date of this service.
Clay Mills was a self-sufficient town in the early days. There was plenty of timber and rock from the quarry to provide employment and income for all the residents there until the development and manufacture of cement. This, without a doubt, started the decline of Clay Mills as a town. It can't be said that the decline of timber had anything to do with it, because there is still an ample amount of it up and down the river, but not the virgin timber like the huge white oaks that were in the Oxford Hay loader timber tract.
During the time we have owned 253 acres east of Clay Mills; we have had two crops of timber marketed. After being marked for cut and bid sheets being sent out to the main dealers and processors of the state, informing them of the estimated board feet of lumber in each species of tree; also the total of all; there were dates of each sale by sealed bids at our residence and we received over $40,000 from these sales.
We moved to Clay Mills in 1930, the fourth day of March. In those days all of the rural roads were so called mud roads, which was a good name for them, especially in the month of March when there were lots of freezing and thawing days. It was one of those thawing days when we moved to Clay Mills with two teams of horses and two wagon loads of the bare necessities to set up housekeeping such as one cook stove, one heating stove, two beds with two straw ticks filled with all the straw we could push into them from a straw stack at home. Now these straw ticks could be hazardous to your health. If you got them too full, it was like sleeping on top of a mountain. If you were sleeping alone, you were apt to roll out onto the floor from either side of the bed as it did come to a peak in the center. If two of you were sleeping in the same bed, it was hard to make contact, due to the two way slope. However, after a few days it would flatten out somewhat. Then you could give the tick a few judo licks at the spot where you wanted your posterior anchored and you could sleep safely until next threshing time because by that time it would be as flat as a pancake and a lot harder.
Ralph Owens drove one of the teams. After 14 miles of mud roads, some hub deep and through the Benedict road, we arrived at Clay Mills late in the afternoon, tired, especially the horses. The teams had to be fed and their harnesses taken off. The stoves were set up and fires started because the house was cold and after the sun went down it would be freezing cold. Then we put up the beds and got something to eat. Then we retired for the night, being real tired.
The next day Ralph Owens drove one team back home and brought another load the following day. While I am talking about Ralph Owens, I think I should relate that he helped us a lot, especially by helping grub a patch of ground on the east end of the place.
We used a grubbing machine. This was a powerful machine composed of a big heavy cast iron drum on which the 3/4 inch cable was wound powered by a team of horses on the end of a long wood sweep. The team was driven in a circle, thus turning the cable and drum. ', and eventually pulling the stump. You needed to be sure that your anchor cable was over the top of a stump larger than the one you' were pulling and that it was secure, or it might slip off the anchor stump and crush your legs. It did that one day when Ralph and I were grubbing. Luckily the machine didn't hit either one of us. Once in a while a big steel hook or cable would break and you'd better not be in the line when this happened or it might be your last day of grubbing.
At this point I think I should mention the Owens family. They lived at Clay Mills for a number of years up to the time we moved there. They were a fine family and my acquaintance with them then and now has been a pleasure.
The Henry Smith family was the first family I remember living there. I remember two big boiling vats with a shed and roof for making sorghum. Also I remember plank board walks from where we lived to the house on the corner. There were a number of people who lived on the hill and in our house down below, but I didn't get acquainted with them.
There was one family that I remember that moved into the house on the hill after it was built. My father and cousin Frank built the house and made the cistern. They plastered the house in freezing weather. Mr. Dean promised to keep a fire so it wouldn't freeze. He went to a dance that night and let the plaster freeze, it came off and had to be redone. It was said that he had a team of horses that he left tied in the shed until they died from neglect.
My father built the house for people who grubbed the land to live in. The house still stands, but would remind you of some of the houses in the movie, The Grapes of Wrath. My brother, Paul, wrote a poem on the north wall of the downstairs. This is the poem: "This house was built with nickels and dimes. But it has gone to hell with the rest of the times." I think this poem can still be read on the wall.
We lived in this house one summer to try to raise some chickens, We didn't do very well because of predators such as rats and foxes.
There was an incident that I think I should mention at this time. Our daughter, Dolly, had a cat named Binder that was very intelligent. She was trained to let Dolly dress her up in doll clothes. One time she got away with the doll clothes on. Dolly cried because she was afraid she would get hung in a fence and die. After a while Binder came back with no clothes on. At the time we moved on the hill, Binder had kittens. Before we got moved into the house on the hill, here came Binder carrying a kitten by the nape of the neck. She went back and forth until she had all of the kittens moved.
There was another resident of the house on the hill that I remember. His name was Dave Gilbert. We found out later that he was making moonshine, sometimes called hooch—really pure alcohol. He drank so much of it that he went blind for a while.
As a kid, I remember seeing the blinds closed to all the windows. He couldn't stand the light. He was making the moonshine on what was the Hamilton 40. At that time the land owners were liable for heavy fines or jail sentences; sometimes both. The still came to an end when Al Hamilton, the land owner, came with a team and wagon to cut a load of posts. He found the still in a small cave and he promptly put an ax through it, rendering it useless for the manufacture of this very potent juice which sometimes caused death from vertigrease, a poison that would accumulate on the copper coils if they were not cleaned properly. Then he loaded it into his wagon and started back home; but he was met by Dave Gilbert. This took place at the T going to the old house off the main road going into Clay Mills from the east. Dave had a shotgun and told Al to unload the still, but Al kept going right on down the hill. Dave went back home and got on a horse and followed Al as far as the neighbors across the river. He got off his horse and went in the neighbor's house, asking to use their phone. When they asked ,"What for?" he said,"Because somebody is running off with my still and I want to call the sheriff."
Later on, we bought the Hamilton 40 for $5.00 per acre. We bought a saw mill and built a portable wood saw.
The wood saw had a Chrysler motor on it for power. We bought a big Russel Climax tractor to power the saw mill. This tractor was the same as the first two Russel Climax road tractors bought by Jones County. Before these big tractors, the county used horse power to pull the road graders. Many people paid their poll taxes by using their own horses to pull the road grader to grade the roads. (Poll tax was a tax of fixed amount per person levied on adults.) Three Ostert families lived in Clay Mills. We all operated the road grader at different times with our own horses. We bought the saw mill of Leon Carpenter, who lived across the river from Clay Mills. In the deal we were to saw up a large pile of logs for Leon. That was the sticker. The wood in the track and husk of the mill was badly rotted. Also in the deal, Leon Carpenter was to help saw the logs. He only put in 4 to 5 hours a day in super low gear, most of the time propping up the track and so forth, due to the rotting wood. I think Leon Carpenter without a doubt, was the only man in the world who could keep that mill going. Of course it wasn’t going most of the time, but that didn't bother Leon; he had all the time in the world.
I should mention that Zelma's brother, James Edwards, was an important part of the timber operation and in most cases when the word," we", is used it includes him.
When the magneto on this huge tractor wore out, we had to buy another tractor for the magneto because you couldn't get parts for these old timers any more. The motors were made in Clinton, Iowa by the Climax Engineering Company. The tractor was made in Canada. It had a real large motor with 4 cylinders as big as a gallon pail. Five gallons of gas didn't last long, so it became impractical to run. During the war they needed all the metals they could get so both old tractors were scrapped. Each one weighed 4 tons. I often wished we had saved them, because they would be worth a small fortune now. I have been to a lot of antique engine shows and have never seen one of these tractors.
The saw mill was also made in Canada. It was a large heavy type mill with a 52 inch blade. We eventually got the mill set up and the portable wood saw built and proceeded to cut and saw the timber and make oak posts with the excellent help of Zelma's brother, James. On the Hamilton 40 we hired most of the cord wood cut, but cut and split most of the posts ourselves. We got $10 each for the posts and $30 per thousand board feet of lumber delivered. Glen Dutton did all of the trucking. We hired the logs down the river logged as it took one of the best teams in the country to get them out.
We sawed wood for the neighbors for $4 per hour. This was good wages at that time. The saw was mounted on an automobile running gear and pulled by a team of horses. It was powered by a six cylinder Chrysler motor with a steam engine governer It had a sliding table to put the wood on to push it into the saw. The saw was covered except when the wood was fed into it. The table was mounted on roller bearings which made it easy to push the wood into the saw, no matter how heavy. I have seen many saw outfits and this was the slickest I have ever seen.
Back to the subject of the Hamilton 40; when we got title to it, there was no abstract. We got a patent from the Hamiltons that their first ancestors got from the government. When they settled near Onslow, it was a prairie country with no trees, so the government gave them a patent to 40 acres on the south fork of the Maquoketa River.
My father acquired 177 acres at Clay Mills by saving money from his law practice and raising calves. I used to go with him in the spring, going from place to place where people usually sold their calves. He usually raised 12 or more each year. He had a unique way of raising these calves. He would warm milk on the old wood burning stove, brake up a piece of cornbread for each calf and add 1 raw egg for each pail. He would add the eggs and cornbread after all of the milk was heated and divided out in individual pails for each calf. He said this way of feeding calves prevented scours and made the calves slick. It seemed to work for him.
I could go into detail on the number of parcels of land in the 177 acres and who it was purchased from; number of acres and so forth; from our abstract. Due to the fact that this would be a long story in itself, I will just say that the number of acres in each parcel was all the way from 40 acres down to a town lot. The remaining acres from 177 to 253 were acquired first by the closing of all three roads-north, east, and south. Two creek bridges and one river bridge was eliminated. We were paid damages and this was used to to buy sell and trade, making the middle of the road the line. No one wanted to run a new fence down the middle of the road, so the fences on the old line still stand today and probably will stay there. We acquired most of the Oxford Hay loader land, some creek and river land. The Schnoor estate acquired the stone quarry and a small patch of land west and south of the house we lived in down in Clay Mills. We retained the right to the use of the quarry.
Before I get off the subject of bridges and roads, I know of two creek bridges that were taken out by high water and I think two river bridges were taken out by high water. I don't know the exact dates they were washed out. I do know of one bridge that was put in and had to be raised because some of the old timers knew how much silt accumulation there was and how many feet it had raised the surface of the land along the river and creek. Bill Ostert thought we should get up a petition to present to the board of supervisors, asking them to raise the bridge. After a while we had a sizable number of signitures on the petition and a small number of us who had circulated the petition, went to Anamosa to present it to the board of supervisors. I must confess that most of the petitioners, including myself, didn't believe that they would even consider the petition because the bridge was already across the river.
Now if some of you readers knew Bill Ostert, you will understand what I am writing about. When he was confronted with a difficult situation such as this, he would square his shoulders and say," We'll see once," and then walk away. That is what he said and did this time. He was a very determined man and what he set out to do, he generally got done. We journeyed to Anamosa, the county seat, and presented our petition to the board of supervisors. They wanted to send the county engineer down to do a survey. We wanted a state man and stuck to it. They finally gave in and agreed to get a state man and did. He found that it needed to be raised , I believe five feet, or it would go out just like the other bridges had. The bridge was raised and didn't go out, but when the roads were condemned and closed, it was moved to another river crossing. I have forgotten where the crossing was.
While on the subject of the river bridge, I think I should relate a frightening experience involving Zelma, Dolly, Leon, and I. It was in the mid 30's; I think we had gone to Onslow and came home on the old narrow road to the river bridge from the south. There had been a period of heavy rains and the river was out over the bottom land that the road crossed. We attempted to drive across through the water, but the water was so deep it stalled the motor. We left the car and proceeded on foot. The road across the river bottom was put to a grade of about five feet above the river bottom and the river was all over it. We decided that we would try and wade across to the bridge. It was a little below hip depth on an average and we got to the bridge. The county had been putting a new floor on the bridge, but only had it partially done. As I remember, there was a narrow two plank wide cat-walk for quite a distance. This looked pretty frightening because of the swift flood waters below, especially since I was carrying Leon and Zelma was carrying Dolly. We had carried them on the flooded road across the bottom; so it was either carry them back across the flooded road or walk the catwalk. We walked the cat-walk and made it home. I think back of that experience. We could of easily walked off that narrow road and been swept away by the river or when we walked the cat-walk, watching the raging waters below, we might of gotten dizzy and fell into the river. Our chances of survival would have been small.
Our daughter, Dolly, remembers that night. She thinks it was around 11 o clock when we finally got home. She can remember having a hard time keeping her feet out .of the water when her mother was carrying her through the flood waters.
My thoughts now are of younger days when Zelma and I were young and strong and of older days, the present; we are old and weak, I will be 80 years old the 14th of July, 1987 and still do some work each day and so does Zelma. I can thank the Lord for that, but to attempt a repeat of this flood expreience, our chances of survival would be zero.
While we are talking about the river, I remember one spring when the ice went out. It left an average of 6 feet of ice on the creek bottom. The weight of the ice settled many fence posts to a foot above the ground.
Then there was another river experience involving high water. The county had been putting new plank on the river bridge when high water took the whole floor with two large piles of new loose plank on each end of the bridge floor. It floated down to the lower end of the river bottom, where it hung up on something. Bill Ostert came over and asked me to go down the river and and help tie the loose plank to to the main floor of the bridge. Bill, Hank, and Louie Ostert came down the creek in a flat bottom boat with a roll of new barbed wire to tie the plank to the main floor of the bridge so that the .loose plank wouldn't float away. I walked over the hill and down to the river where the bridge floor had stuck on some kind of obstruction. It looked like it might brake loose at any time because there were no trees there. About 100 yards down the river there was a line of trees from the river to the hillside. If the bridge floor had broken loose while we were on it, it would of floated on the raging waters until it hit the line of trees. Then it probably would of turned on its side, spilling us into the raging waters. If this had happened, our chances of survival would have been slim and some of those thoughts were going through my mind as I saw the boat coming to pick me up and take me over to the floor of the bridge. It took some hard paddling for the three men to paddle the flat bottom boat to the hillside to pick me up. When they reached the hillside it was some distance downstream, so we had to take the boat upstream far enough so so we would have a reasonable chance to reach the bridge floor and tie the boat to it. Luckily we did reach the floor of the bridge, tie the boat to it, and climb on top where the piles of loose plank were.
We didn't lose any time tying the piles down with the new barbed wire, because we knew there was a good possibility that the whole thing might break lose and we would be afloat. We faced the possibility of being dumped into the river, but this didn't happen and we saved all of the plank.
I should mention the buildings that were there when we moved there March 4, 1930. The house where we lived for 12 years that I have described elsewhere in this story was located on Main Street of Clay Mills, Jones County, Iowa, Clay Township.
There was a large barn with a stone wall dug into the side of the hill. The huge stones in the wall were from the quarry across from the lime kiln. This served as a basement horse and cattle barn. There was a large hay barn above the basement with a platform in the east gable end for the fiddlers when they had barn dances there. There was a large shed on the north side and a chicken house joined by a wall on the north west side of the barn. There was a corncrib with a roofed drive through to unload corn by a device called a scoop shovel which was powered by arm and back muscles, of which you needed plenty. There was another small chicken house close to the creek and a hog house east of the barn. I think that Owen’s had built it; I'm not sure. North of the house was the two story house that had been the post office below and the residence above. The last mail was delivered by motorcycle in the early nineteen hundreds. Then there was the big house on the corner at the foot of the hill that we bought from Fred Kuhlman. This house was a large picturesque house that served as a residence. Also there were numerous dances held there and moon shine sold over the bar. There was an account of one such dance, relating to a drunken fight that led to several men deciding to kill one so called trouble maker. The man who told me this story, helped the endangered man escape out an upstairs window. I will not reveal any names as some of these men are still alive.
Then there was another incident told to me by El and Charley Hovey. A man by the name of Sam Lusyeir who lived in the house at the foot of the hill was making moon shine whiskey and had several barrels of mash fermenting. A bunch of boys thought it would be fun to play a trick on Sam, so they circulated a story that the revenue officers were going to raid his operation. Most of the night Sam carried mash to the creek bridge, where he dumped it into the creek. There was a trail of mash from the barrels hidden upstairs to the creek. The next morning, the boys circulated the story that it was just a joke. When Sam heard that, he swore that if he found out who was responsible he would kill them.
This is an account of the burning of the big barn at the same time as the Monticello Fair was going on, sometime in the mid-thirties. People saw the red glow in the sky from 15 to 20 miles away. The barn was full of hay, including a lot of oat hay with the grain still in the hay. This made a terrific fire. The cause of the fire was lightning. We had what was without a doubt the worst electrical storm that I have ever witnessed. There were two electrical storms; one coming up the creek and another coming down the creek. The sky was ablaze up and down the creek with terrific flashes of lightning, accompanied by the roar of thunder, each time getting closer until it struck the barn with a tremendous flash and roar that really got out of bed and in high gear. We were both in a state of shock by the time we got into our clothes and to the windows. The barn was a fire from top to bottom. The lightning had struck the steal hay track that we put in to pull the hay up from the wagon and into the barn. It struck on the east end and bolted out the west end; knocking out a portion of the west gable end. Some of the pieces were found across the creek, approximately 200 feet away. After we got outside, Zelma went to save the chickens and I went to the basement part of the barn to try and save the horses and calves.
First the horses. When I opened the doors to the horse barn I could see the hay afire in front of the horses. The fire had come down the hay chute. The first thing I did was take the halters off the horses, turning them loose, but they wouldn't go outside. They just ran back and forth in a panic because the burning hay in front of them and the awful roar of a big barn full of hay overhead, all burning at once.
Outside there was a dense smoky deep red glow where ever you looked. I had one awful time getting them out, but finally did. Then my next thought was to save the calves that were in the other end of the basement. I went outside to get to the doors where the calves were; never thinking of the new set of harness that, my folks had bought us. It was hanging on pegs where I could of grabbed it on the way out. I had the same trouble getting the calves out. I finally had to push each one out. I don't know how I did it, but I finally got them all out.
Finally the Osterts came over and we carried water from the big cement tank down by the creek and kept the chicken house from burning. Some old hens with baby chicks were shut individual steel houses to keep the rats from eating the chicks. They were in upper part of the barn. They all burned up as did the new harness, the barn, and the barn full of hay. We didn't have any insurance and my folks didn't have much insurance on the barn. After the fire, a shed was built over the basement wall of the barn.
This is a short account of the dwellings of the Ostert families who lived in Clay Mills when we did. There were three Ostert families, Bill and his two sons Hank and Louie and their families. Then there was the school house where Dolly and Leon went to school. Teachers I can remember are Delberta Sutton, Lulla Logan, Melvin Leslie, Maxine Denlinger, Wendel Smith, and Glatha Heide. I should mention that Zelma's brother got acquainted with Maxine while she was boarding at our house, when she taught school at Clay Mills. They later got married.
Bill Ostert owned over 300 acres including the Oxford Hay loader land, which we acquired part of when the roads were closed. He later sold the land to Louis Wolf, who gave the houses and school to relatives. They tore them down for the lumber. Bill Ostert's two sons helped in the farming operation. Hank Ostert was an accomplished watch repairman. This is a short account of people who stayed with us and helped at one time or another, two old men who helped for their board were Arlo Hayes, and Earl McLaughlin. Zelma's sisters, Bernice, Netty, Wilma, Grace, and Stella and brothers Glen, James, and Kenny (all except Bernie) stayed with us at different times. They were all good help and their company was indeed a pleasure.
I will relate to some of the brothers and sisters of some of the incidents that I remember; especially James, because I think he was with us the longest length of time. He was a party to the cutting and sawing off the Hamilton 40 acres. He was an important part of it because he was a first rate mechanic, and dependable help. He had a creative mind, with the ability to carry out his ideas. This is when he got acquainted with Maxine Denlinger when she was teaching our school at Clay Mills. They were eventually married. Then there was Kenny. He stayed with us off and on and was good help. He was the one who persuaded us to take over the home place. He was concerned that his parents were getting old and there was a debt on the place and they might lose it. Zelma's father had said the same to her and asked us to take it over and pay off the debt, which we did. We moved here in 1942 from Clay Mills, where we had lived for 12 years. We still live here Dec. 15,1986.
At one time while Kenny was staying at our place, the school teacher named Lulla Logan was boarding at our place. She had a crush on Kenny. One day we decided to butcher a hog, country style; kill the hog and stick it so it will bleed, and after getting an ample supply of boiling water heated in a big iron kettle to scald the hog in so the hair would scrape off instead of skinning it. The hog had to be stuck after it was killed so it would bleed good. Our iron kettle was supported by a green pole through the bale and we propped it up on each end with whatever we could find high enough to put the kettle above the fire. Now Lulla didn’t know a thing about butchering, but she was game to help and she was eager to make a good impression on Kenny. This was the compelling motive. After the killing and scalding, we were all trying to push and pull the hog inside for scraping. Lulla was pushing on the rear end of the hog, when her finger slipped into something she wasn’t figuring on. When she looked at her finger all covered with pig manure, the world's stinkiest stink; she was one embarrassed school marm. Kenny laughed until I thought he would bust a gut.
This was an incident involving Berniece and Zelma in which they cooked up a trick on me. I’d call it a dirty trick, but instead I'll let you be the judge after you read this story. I remember,I had been somewhere working and had came in for dinner. The first thing I saw when I came in the house was Berniece at the wood burning cook stove, cooking a pan of chicken guts. She greeted me with," Hello Fay, You damned old pup; I'm cooking your dinner." Now things started to circulate through my mind, such as this is a bit unusual and what the hell is going on here? Then I looked at the other side of the room and saw the wine that I was making in crocks, setting on top of a table. Upon examination I saw that a substantial amount was missing. I thought, Holly smoke, if she drank all that it was no wonder she was acting drunk. She wouldn’t know the difference between chicken guts and noodles. Anyhow,it was only a joke. I wasn’t too happy for a while, but as I look back now on those days in the 30's, there was a need for some humor. Berniece and Zelma had provided an ample amount for that day.
Then there was Zelma's sister Netty and my brother Paul. Paul helped us off and on and all in all he helped us a lot. At times he stayed with us a few days and nights. It was one of those times that Netty was staying with us and Paul was there to help us with something. They got acquainted and like James and Maxine, they got married. I don't remember the date. I remember one time Paul came up with a tractor [I think it was an old Fordson and an Oxford hay loader, the old type with wood rakers. He helped us put up our hay. He had a bad case of sinus infection at time. At that time most of the virgin timber owned by the Oxford Hay loader Company was there. Only the timber they took off for making hay loaders was cut. I think this was the only virgin timber in the county and likely in the state of Iowa. When the Oxford Hay loader company of Oxford Junction, Iowa converted the loader to all steel construction, they didn't need the tract of timber any more. They sold it to Edd Danks of Monmouth. He promptly cut all of the salable timber and now we own most of the Hay loader land; the Schnoor Estate owns the rest.
I recall another time when Paul and I went on an archeology dig down the river. We came to an overhanging shelter where a huge rock had fallen from above and created a space behind the rock for cooking and shelter for one or two Indians. In front and behind was burnt red from many fires; probably many years of use for cooking and shelter, also heat for the cold of winter. The way the big rock in front created the space behind it was an ideal place for all of these uses. The rest of the space in the front above the fallen rock could have been covered by animal hides fastened to poles reaching to the top of the shelter. This was a common practice of cliff dwellers. We didn’t dig very deep or very much until we found a lot of big pieces of pottery from two big pots, but not enough to put one whole one together. This was a very interesting dig; just one of many digs Brother Paul and I enjoyed together.
Then there was a funny incident involving Netty when she was staying a few days with us. One day she was either washing out some clothes or taking a bath. She went to the door to throw out the big pan of wash water. Dressed only in her underwear, she opened the door to throw the water, and there stood Ell Hovey a few feet away. Surprised, she threw the water on him instead. At that instant, I imagine there was one surprised Elmer Hovey.
Ell and Charley Hovey were two bachelors who lived on the hill in a small one room shack. They took care of the Oxford Hay loader timber and did the cutting when they needed lumber for their hay loaders. They were also successful truck farmers and made a living at it. They raised watermelons, muskmelons, potatoes, and onions. They had a shed and a cave where they could store the vegetables and melons.
Zelma's brother, Glen and his first wife, Freida, and Hank Green stayed awhile with us while they picked shock corn down on the river bottom when the weather was fit. One day when the weather was bad and the roads not fit for travel, we ran out of provisions. We knew there was a large flock of pigeons in Bill Ostert's barn. Glen went over and got permission from Bill to shoot some pigeons. We lived on pigeons for four days. Berney never stayed at our place, though he left home at an early age to shift for himself.
Grace stayed at our place for a while. So did Bernadine and Virginia. I remember one funny incident when Virginia was upstairs making some kind of a Tarzan yell. The upstairs window was open and Bernadine told James to throw water through the window onto Virginia, which he did. That stopped the Tarzan yell or whatever it was. She came downstairs, cussing us all out. She then went out and climbed the big soft maple in front of the house. James then threw more cold water on her and she cussed some more. Anyhow she finally came down and went to bed. It seemed funny at the time, but it probably wasn’t funny to her.
I will relate the story of the escaped convict, alias Dan Dodge—real name Dan Furry. I was plowing corn with a horse drawn riding cultivator down on the river bottom. A young man came up over the river bank, wet and evidently in a weakened condition. He said that he had been with a picnic party up the river and they had all went home and left him. He had been without food for several days. I told him to get on the plow and we would go to the house and get something to eat. Zelma fed him, but he had been without food for so long that he couldn't eat more than a few bites. He said that he wanted to get to Dubuque where he had relatives. We told him that we had a neighbor who went to Dubuque each week and we made arrangements for him to ride to Dubuque with the neighbor. We told him that he could stay at our place until the weekend, which he did. He worked every day fixing fence and at the end of the week he went to Dubuque with the neighbor. After a few days he came back and I noticed that he was wet almost to the waist like he had been, wading in the river. I thought funny about that, but he went back to work fixing fence where he had left off and worked every day until the sheriff came and questioned him, but left telling him that he seemed to be in the clear. That evening, I think it was Zelma's brother Glen and wife came and we all went to Maquoketa. Dan didn’t want to go. On the way to Maquoketa Glen said, "That guy is a convict." When we came home from the evening in Maquoketa, Dan was gone. The police from Anamosa came and got him. He had been doing dishes and listening to big Atwater Kent Radio with the big crooked horn on top. He left the dish towel and a note by the radio, saying he was sorry. He said he was not Dan Dodge, but Dan Furry and thanked us for all we had done for him. He had been a trustee and was due for parole in a few days, but they hadn’t told him that. One day out on the prison farm he had a chance to escape and the temptation was to much and he walked from Anamosa to Clay Mills. He waded the river to confuse the blood hounds following his scent. He had been raised by what some people would call a river rat family. His crime was entering an old deserted building along the Mississippi for which he got 5 years in Anamosa, then he had to serve 5 more years for escaping. During his stay in our home, he was a perfect gentleman. He was allowed to use our car to get the mail and was allowed to use our repeating rifle. When I think back, I think of how fortunate we were. We were not robbed or murdered, but he just wasn’t that kind of person.
We kept in touch with Dan during his stay at Anamosa and a few years after his release he moved to Clinton, Iowa where he found a job and bought a home. The last we heard from him or his family, he was doing fine.
Making maple syrup was a rugged job, especially when you have 80 trees tapped, which is what we tapped each spring for a number of years. We would start tapping the trees the last part of February and the amount of sap run depended on the freezing and thawing. The more there was of each, the more sap. We had five 50 gallon barrels and at times when the sap run real heavy I would boil at night. We had a 50 gallon sap pan on top of a dug out place on the side hill. It was lined with rock and the cracks were plastered with a mortar consisting of clay and water. This would withstand the terrific heat. At the back end of the arch there was a heavy piece of sheet metal with a stove pipe on it to carry the smoke above the pan. There' were; several heavy metal bars to hold up the weight of the pan full of sap. The sides were resting on the wall approximately 6 inches on each side. Then each side had to be plastered with clay and water; then some sap put in the pan and a slow fire started in the arch under the pan until the clay was baked and all the cracks were plugged so that no smoke came out to run up and over the pan. Then more sap was added to the pan to within about 13 inches of the top of the pan. Slowly the fire was built up until the sap came to a boil, then kept boiling until about 10 gallons were left in the pan. At this stage the thin syrup was taken to the house and finished in a small copper boiler on a wood burning stove. Then at a certain stage several egg whites were added to the syrup to clearify it. When thick enough it would be put in quart jars. On an average the thickness of the syrup we made required one barrel of sap and a large amount of wood to boil it down to syrup.
I recall one night the barrels were all full. I had to boil all night. It came up a heavy snow storm. That truly was a rugged night as well, as a lonesome one. The hoot owls didn't help any as they kept up a continual hooter tooter mating call all night. They sounded like they were lonesome too.
I think I should describe how the spiles were made because they now have plastic ones that can be driven into the trees where holes have been bored with a brace and bit or an auger rotary bit. First you needed to find a sumac tree that has a pith or a pith center. It must be the right size to fit the hole in the tree. It must be cut the right length to accommodate the size of the pail hanging on it. Some of the bigger pails had to be set on the ground because of the weight. The average length was 8 to 10 inches long. The next step was to build a good hot fire in the wood burning cook stove and get a big bed of red hot coals. Then cut a length of number nine brace wire, 2 or 3 feet long with a bent handle on the end you are going to hang on to. You also need a heavy pair of gloves or mittens to keep from burning your hands. When all these things are finished, you open the front door of the cook stove where you put in the wood, insert the wire in the red hot coals and when it is red hot, hold the spile close to the door of the stove so the smoke will go in the stove. Otherwise you soon have the house full of smoke. Then push the red hot wire through the pith of the spile. This will burn out the pith. The end of the spile that is driven into the tree must be tapered all the way around so that when it is driven into the tree it will be tight. The other end should be split to about half way the length of the spile. After sawing to the center half way up on the spile, then split the upper half off to the center of the pith. Dig this part of the pith out with a sharp knife. Then cut a notch on the outer end of the spile to hang the pail on. This works well if done right.
Then I think I should write another chapter on qualifications in case someone reading this story might want to try making maple syrup. First you must be in good physical condition, the more muscular the better. You must be able to walk up and down hill in all kinds of weather; snow and ice being the worst. In case of ice you use ice creepers and in case of snow which is most always the case at this time of the year, it’s a slip sliding situation, up and downhill and worse downhill. Often you will slide 5 or 10 feet, then fall, rocks scraping and bruising your posterior, spilling sap all over you. This would most always freeze your clothes stiff. You could figure on being wet to your knees most of the time and consider yourself lucky if it wasn’t higher than that. In the case of a blizzard you probably would be wet from head to toe. This happened .once". to me and believe me that was one time too many. Also after each boiling the pan had to be scoured with a brick down to the bare metal. If this is not done the next batch will have a strong flavor.
We made maple syrup in the '30s at Clay Mills where we lived for 12 years from 1930 to 1942. This was the great depression years but during those years that we made maple syrup, each morning we had raised buckwheat pancakes and maple syrup along, with pork and eggs. This was really a breakfast fit for a king. The Pierce murder happened in the mid '30s as near as I can remember. At the time none of our close neighbors had telephones. Some had radios. We had a big Atwater kent with a big crooked horn on the top. We first heard of the murder from the Hoveys, El and Charley. They were most always in touch with the news for several miles around. This murder happened about 5 miles from Clay Mills. The first report was that there was a murderer on the loose in the neighborhood and to be on the lookout. Also the sheriff and law officers were conducting a search. The story was that the murderer entered their home and tied Mr. Pierce to a chair and killed him and then robbed them of what money they had. The son and Mrs. Pierce were bruised on parts of their bodies by the murderer according to their story. However after a week or so of search and investigation with no leads, the Pierces were questioned at Anamosa by the sheriff and other officials. This resulted in a confession from the son and Mrs. Pierce that they had killed Mr. Pierce on the way home from Cascade. When they got home they had tied Mr. Pierce in a chair and inflicted bruises on each other to make their stories realistic . Later they changed their story saying that they had been pressured into the confession by the police and county officials. Later on they were released and I cannot relate to anything that happened after that because we moved from Clay Mills to where we live now, 3 miles north of Iron Hill in 1942.
Then there is another story resulting from the Pierce murder. It happened during the time they were searching for the murderer and it happened in Clay Mills. During this time most of our neighbors were in a very nervous state of tension, including me. One night there came a loud cry of terror from the house that Henry Ostert lived in, saying," There's a bum up here." It was loud enough to wake up the whole town. Of course the first thing I thought of was that it was the murderer of Mr. Pierce looking for a place to hide or worse yet, commit another murder and robbery. We all met on the north side of the north creek bridge rather quickly. Most of us were armed with shotguns and rifles. We searched every building but didn’t find the bum as Hank called him. Later on Hank told me rather sheepishly, I found out what caused the noise that scared the s--t out of me." He showed me the back of the house where it was dug into the side hill next to the bluff. The roof was close enough to the ground to permit their dog to jump on the roof and walk around causing the same sound as someone walking around upstairs. He had investigated after hearing the sound during the day and saw the dog walking on the roof. There is more to this story but due to the fact that some of these people are still alive I will write no more on the subject.
Due to the length of this story I will in most cases just mention the name of each family that was neighbors to us unless there is a story that has a connecting interest to the Clay Mills story.
There were three Ostert families, the two Hoveys (El and Charley), the Bodenhofferes, Jimmy Moran family, Jim Ralston family, John Barney family, two Carr families, Carpenter family, Meades, Betzers, Dimp Sinkey family, Grover Browns, Wallrofs, the three Brariy families (Hum, Howard, and Morris), Al sSinkey and wife, John Bradies, Coppesses, Wallaces, Lallaces, Barney Rioneybaum, and Jimmy Gavin family.

It all began when Roy Bodenhoffer bought the saw timber from Charley Mead. There was 80 acres and he hired Nick Merefeldt to set up a saw mill and saw the lumber. The trouble was that Nick knew nothing about a saw mill. Having heard that I had some experience with a sawmill, he came to see if he could hire to help him run the mill and saw out the lumber. I agreed because this was in the depression years of the '30s and most everyone was short of money. It was long hard days of work for little pay for both of us. Under pressure, Nick got to sawing up to almost dark and sometimes after dark. I kept telling him he shouldn’t do it, but he didn’t pay any attention. Finally one night something got on the carriage that he couldn’t see because it was dark. This caused the carriage to run off the track. The steel bunk hit the saw; it being a solid tooth saw took off a good 1/4 inch of the teeth all the way around. It was a real rugged job getting that saw back in shape. The mill was powered by a big Rumley Oil Pull tractor.
Roy Bodenhoffer built himself a real nice house with the lumber from the mill. His father also built him and his wife a small house. He roofed it with split shingles, split from a big butternut tree close by; Roy's father doing the splitting and making the shingles and also the roof.
Then one day we took off a day of sawing lumber to cut Nick's small field of oats. We started around the field cutting the swath, Nick driving the Oil Pull tractor and I was riding the binder, when suddenly the big tractor and Nick plunged straight down. Luckily he had put a new tongue in the binder. It held up the back end of the tractor, after anchoring itself in the ditch bank by the weight of the binder. If the tongue had broken we would of both probably been killed, the tractor and binder both upside down in the ditch. As it was Nick was thrown from the tractor away from the scalding cooling oil and wasn’t seriously hurt.
Then there was another incident that happened when I was walking home from work at the sawmill. I got to the wire gate to Bill Ostert's feed yard. At he time he was feeding approximately 75 head of steers. He would put the ground feed in the feed bunks and then open the wire gate, letting the steers into the feed in the bunks. I could see that he was having difficulty opening the gate, in fact he was having difficulty standing up. He had been to Maquoketa and had one too many, in fact many too many. I knew that I had to get around the big herd of cattle and get him away from the gate and from in front of that herd of hungry cattle in a hurry to get to their feed. If he had gotten the gate open he was'nt in any shape to get out of their way. He would of been trampled by the cattle, probably to death. I got to him in time and got him away from the gate and let the cattle in. Then I helped him to the house. He was really glad that I had came along at the right time.
Arlene Edwards stayed at our place for awhile and went to school. Arlene was the daughter of Zelma's brother, Glen and Freida Edwards. Then there was an invite to a hanging. It was an incident concerning some of our close neighbors that caused the uproar. I think most of the neighbors thought there were two sides to the incident that didn't add up to a lynch mob. Anyhow I was told of a settlement between the parties involved. This would be an interesting story if I dared to tell the rest of the story; however due to the fact that there are people still alive, close relatives or both of the families involved, I'd better end the story here. Then there was the flood that put 3 to 4 feet of water in the barnyard and lower part of the barn. At that time we had a chicken house down by the creek. I got ahead of my story. Bill Ostert was the one who alerted us that dark and stormy night by hollering,"If you have anything that you want to save from the flood, you’d better get it." So we got up and got to it and in the process of wading out barefoot, to get the chickens, I stepped on a jaw bone that flipped over an cut the top of my foot. This caused a painful case of blood poisoning. I was told that at one time high water reached up to the front porch of the house. I am not sure if that was the time that the Manchester dam went out or not.
One day I was walking down the creek when I saw a most unusual sight. It was a big black snake, a good 5 foot long, swallowing a baby squirrel. The snake was balanced on the top barbed wire of the fence along the creek. This would have been one for "Ripley's Believe It Or Not."
I am going to shorten the details of these stories from now on, because this Clay Mills story is becoming much too long. This does not mean that the stories are of less importance.
These were the days of the great depression, with little money to be had anywhere. If you had a few cows, hogs and chickens you could survive by taking your eggs and cream to town and get enough to by groceries until the next Saturday night. It was also a night to socialize with your neighbor, shoot the breeze, so to speak. We were fortunate—we had a few cows from my folks when we moved to Clay Mill. They helped us what they could to get started. Zelma's folks helped what they could but they had their hands more than full trying to survive these difficult times. We finally secured a government loan of $500 to get the neccesities required for mere survival. We had no electricity, telephone or running water, only Farm creek near by. We had a sand point well down by the creek and an outside toilet a short ways from the house. We had a tin water bucket for drinking water and a tin dipper to dip and drink water out of. Many a morning I got up to find the dipper froze fast in the bucket.
At one time I worked for a neighbor across the river by the week, staying there Monday through Saturday. Then I would home for the Weekend. This was a hard life from daylight to dark with little pay as when I worked in the sawmill up the creek. It was another hard job with little pay and long hours, but it gave us added income which was badly needed. In those depression days anyone with an added income was indeed fortunate.
My brother, Paul, helped us quite a lot. He had an Oxford hayloader and an old Fordson steel wheel tractor. This was a great help putting up the hay.
I remember one time my folks bought us a new team harness. When the barn burned, it burned along with a barn full of hay. We had no insurance.
I think I should mention the Donald Heinrichs family. They were always willing to help us in times of need. Donald was found dead in the barn. An ambulance was called and after the ambulance driver loaded Donald into the ambulance, he also dropped dead beside the ambulance. This was a tragedy for the family. Donald was also missed by the neighbors.
This story wouldn't be complete without mentioning some of our pets we had while living at Clay Mills for 12 years, 1930 to 1942. First, we had some young foxes that were really cute. After a while they grew out of their cute stage and we turned them loose. They went up into the bluffs above the house. Every night when we milked the cows we would pour some milk in a pan and call them. They would wait until we were out of sight. Then they would come down and drink the milk. This went on for some time before they stopped coming for their milk.
We had a pet squirrel that we raised from a real small baby. It was the cutest pet we ever had. We kept her in the house and after she got old enough to run around, she had the run of the house. Every evening at a certain time she would climb the stairs to her nest in an old bathrobe pocket, that she had lined with fur plucked from the outside of the bathrobe. She would crawl in, curl her tail over her head and go to sleep. When we would come up to bed she would stick her head out of the pocket and cuss us out for waking her up. If she got cold, she would crawl in bed between us , turn on her back with all four feet sticking up , go to sleep and snore. As she got older she grew restless so we would let her out during the day. One day there was an icy rain and snow that came up and at dusk she hadn't came back. I went looking for her and would call every so often. Finally she came, soaking wet shivering, and shaking. She was so glad to get back in the house. After a time she didn't come back. I would like to think that she found a mate and raised a family of cute little squirrels.
I was going to finish this by describing the sounds of the various birds of the day and night, the hoot of the barred owl, the swak of the blue heron, the chatter of the king fisher and the call of the whippoorwill; however I will not because the late Ralph Owens has described this in his story of life at Clay Mills better than I could ever hope to. Then I thought of writing a poem of our life at Clay Mills from 1930 to 1942, the hardships, love of the land and nature, and experiences while living there. These will always be pleasant memories to me as long as I live. Ralph has described his boyhood during his life at Clay Mills along with his brothers and sisters, mother and father; a wonderful family that through the love of the land, love of each other as a family, united in hard work to survive those depression years, still a loving, united family. Ralph was a dear friend to me. I shall miss him as I know that each an everyone who knew him will.
Then I should mention that if it hadn't been for our daughter, Dolly McClaflin's suggestion that I write a story about Clay Mills, This story probably would never have been written. It is my hope that all who read this story will enjoy it. I could write more, but this story has become rather long, so I will bring this story to an end by expressing my love for this place as many others do as far away as Washington, D.C. It is nature at it's best, also its rich in historic reminders of long ago.
By Faye Sagers
August 31, 1987
Age 80 years

[space] [to home] [space] image

© Copyright 1997-2013, The Art Department, © Copyright 2014-2020, Richard Harrison.
Last updated on Friday, 16-Apr-2021 16:54:39 MST