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Pioneer Life in Jones Co.
This article by O. J. Felton, Cedar Rapids, Iowa was originally published in The Iowa Journal of History and Politics,
Benjamin F. Shambaugh, Editor, Vol. 29, No. 2, (April 1931). Copyright 1931,
State Historical Society of Iowa. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

The issue of the Iowa Journal of History and Politics in which this article appears is available in its original format. If you would like to purchase an issue (available in limited quantity), please remit $2 (per issue) to State Historical Society of Iowa, Publication Sales, 402 Iowa Avenue, Iowa City, Iowa 52240-1806. Be sure to indicate which issue you would like to purchase.

By the time threshing was over the corn was ready for cribbing. The last year’s rail pen was overhauled and a bottom of rails made so the ears would not drop through. A hog was killed for meat, a little wood cut, and the husking began. The father took two rows on one side, the oldest boy at home two rows on the other, and a smaller boy the down row. Every silk and husk must be removed from the ears before they were thrown into the wagon and the father kept watch for missed ears. When the box—usually just a wagon box holding about fifteen or twenty bushels—was filled, the wagon was driven to the crib where all picked the ears out of the hind end by hand until the scoop could be used.

The most likely looking ears were picked out, carried to the house, and stored in the garret next to the chimney for next year’s seed. We seldom had any poor seed, but one year it was found that much of the corn saved for seed was worthless. Railroads were far apart and there were no regular dealers any place; but the resourceful Yankee farmers, my father among them, found that one side of an ear might be good but the other poor. They picked the best looking ears and shelled them. then they put the kernels in a tub of warm water and in twelve hours the good kernels which showed growth were picked out and planted, care being used to put moist dirt on each hill.

In this way he got a good stand or corn and good quality in the fall. It was an awful job to handle the seed, for it kept growing and the sprouts tangled up so it was hard to pick out and drop the kernels. If there had been larger fields to plant it would have required lots of labor. The more fortunate who had friends in the East had seed sent them, mostly from Pennsylvania. That seed, however, not being acclimated, did not get ripe or fill out well; but in the course of years this corn mixed with the home grown and made a good improvement.

After the corn was picked, the visiting commenced and lasted intermittently until spring. The men, having such hard work all summer and no labor saving machines, were ready for a rest. There was usually snow and the families went in the sled in a wagon box partly filled with straw, with bed quilts for cover on the trip. On week days the groups usually included only the children not of school age—from one to three. The women sewed or quilted, and the men talked and chewed tobacco, spitting in the hearth of the stove or on the floor. Neither was counted out of order for both chewing ands spitting were the common custom. The general conversation was neighborhood news of new babies, sickness, or the stock on the farm, but mostly religion, for our neighborhood was pious.

The nearest market for grain down to 1872 was at Lowden, on the North Western Railroad, twenty-five miles south. The small grain, mostly wheat, was sacked in stark A bags with every man’s name on his bags and was drawn in wagons. Some of them were made in the local towns but most of them were Schuttler wagons from Chicago having skein or metal bearings with Fraser axle grease for lubrication. The old tar wooden spindles were mostly gone, only the poor men using them. The trip back lasted from two o’clock in the morning until midnight. Food for the horses and for the men was carried along. Muddy sloughs, creeks, and the Wapsipinicon River had to be forded.

The usual price was a dollar a bushel for wheat, and about twenty-five cents for oats. Wheat ran from twenty-five to thirty-five bushels per load.

The houses were strongly built. First a frame of native hard wood was put up, strong enough for a fort. The half inch pine siding was nailed directly to the studding. The roof sheeting was of oak and was covered with oak shingles that warped badly. While this roof turned water, sifting snow would come through and had to be removed or it would spoil the plaster which was lime and hair. The finish—casing, sash, molding, doors—was all made on the ground. A thin strip, called a bat, was sometimes laid under each crack in the floors.

The houses were nearly all rebuilt during the Civil War and for the time were very good, although they had no modern improvements. A first quality house was usually ell-shaped with the main part a story and a half high. The ell was one story and contained a kitchen and a bedroom. In the main part was a large parlor with a spare bedroom and an enclosed stairway next to the buttery or pantry, as the people called it, from which the cellar was reached from the inside. The upstairs had two rooms where the older children slept. There was usually a cellar under the kitchen with an outside entrance, for there was much to store in it.

The most important piece of furniture was a common four-cap cook stove in the kitchen—the main workshop and living quarters for the family—and unless sickness or visitors came, this was the only fire in the house. The bedroom had a four-poster corded bedstead under which, in the daytime was a four-poster trundle bed which was drawn out for the smaller children that needed care during the night. A tick filled with straw was the mattress, with sometimes a feather bed on top of this. One sheet, one or more heavy cotton comforts, a cotton homemade quilt, and pillows of goose or duck feathers furnished the parents’ bed. Hen feather pillows might serve for the children. The parlor had a heating stove, usually a rag carpet, and homemade curtains, but no shades. The house was lighted by candles or one smoky oil lamp but that must be used very sparingly and not at all by the children; they had a grease lamp, simply a common tea saucer full of hog fat with a cotton string sticking over one edge.

There were no barns until about the middle 70’s, although farmers built sheds for their stock, if they could. Crotches—that is large timbers with a fork—were set in the ground in rows about nine feet apart, so a ten-foot rail would span the distance. Three rows were thus set with the middle row the highest. Rails formed the framework of the roof, resting on the crotches, with cross pieces to hold up the slough grass or wild hay which formed the roof. The north, west, and east sides were usually stockaded with rails. Sometimes the south side of the east end was large enough to shelter two teams of work horses and was entirely enclosed. When the threshing was done the sides were often completely covered with straw. The bulk of the straw was left in the stack at the west end. In the winter all the young stock, the cows, the sheep, and even the chickens were sheltered in these sheds. Some poles near the top furnished roosts for the chickens when it got too cold for them to roost outside.

Here the milking was done. The cows ran loose but not very many of them were kept and usually none were milking during the cold months of December, January, February, and March. The farmers seldom had any winter calves or pigs. As a consequence, most people were out of milk during the first three months of the year and I have known people to go miles for buttermilk or to buy butter, but they all had plenty of lard and pork.

Some packed butter for winter. It had but little value, since it was sold for from six to fifteen cents per pound. There were no eggs from September to March. during the summer months eggs sold for from five to seven cents per dozen in trade. Orleans sugar was ten cents per pound; coffee, forty; Young Hyson tea, eighty; calico, ten cents a yard; Kentucky jeans, forty cents per yard; hickory shirting, twenty cents; and boots for men, four dollars. Men did not wear shoes. in the winter the small boys had boots or shoes of common cowhide with red or yellow tops in front and a copper plate at the toe. As we had so much snow in the winter and dews and rain in the fall and spring the leather would shrink and the boots or shoes had to be kicked on in the morning and this tended to ruin them. In the morning you could hear the boys kicking on the mop boards-base boards, they call them now, since they have carpets and don’t mop every day- to get their shoes on.

All the clothing for the entire household was made at home and until about 1870 all by hand. There was little wool except for mittens and hose, which were knit at home. Goods absolutely needed and not made at home were usually bought in the fall when the grain was sold. Boots, shoes, and gaiters were needed for the family. The children’s feet owing to going barefoot, grew very fast and shoes were often too small and had to be exchanged. Then there was trouble, for we boys feared that if the shoes were taken back there would be no return.

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