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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.

Prairie chickens were thick. In the months of March and April, the writer has seen two large trees with every space on the limbs full of prairie chickens and the ground for an acre space as thick as they could stand, but no hunter could get with gunshot of them. Before you accuse me of exaggeration, ask any man or woman over fifty who lived in eastern Iowa for verification. Now you can drive all over the state and never see one. In the month of July their nests could, with a little care, be found in grass on almost any hill. They had from twelve to sixteen eggs in a setting. These eggs were about the same size as those of guinea chickens, but were plain white.

On the Slocum quarter section next east of our old home there was a buffalo wallow. We called it a buffalo den. The buffalo had been gone fifty years before the land was settled but his den in the sixties was still bare of grass on its sides and was about one acre in area. There was a circular opening on the south slope on a gradually sloping hill. The banks were about eight feet deep and very straight up on three sides. It is still plainly visible but in the early seventies the blue grass came in the country and the sides were soon covered with it. The hole is still there. It is on the northwest quarter of the southeast quarter of Section 11, Township 84, west of the Fifth Principal Meridian, Madison Township, Jones County.

As in all new countries, the people married young. When a young man attained his majority his work with his father was ended and he usually went to work for a neighbor by the month, for that was about all the work there was. A good strong man got twenty dollars per month from March first till corn was gathered in November following, with only the Fourth of July out. Most men got less than this.

The wardrobe of a farm hand consisted of one store suit, a pair of fine boots with heels as high as the women wear them now, one white, starched-bosom shirt, and a box of paper collars. This was for Sunday. For every day he had two homemade hickory cloth shirts, a blouse and two pairs of overalls, plow boots, two pairs of coarse cotton hose and an old hat or winter cap. This was the average; some had more, many less.

He got room and board with the family and washing. If his employer had no cash he was obliged to wait until something was sold in the fall but he could usually buy his tobacco and other little things from the village merchant on time.

The work consisted of chores and wood cutting, breaking colts and the like till the ground was ready for planting, which usually lasted from the last of March through April and May. Then there was plowing corn till harvest and after harvest, threshing, hauling manure, fall plowing, and husking. Many of the hired men saved the greater part of their earnings and as soon as they had the price of a team and wagon they were ready to get married and start farming for themselves.

The more thrifty fathers of the boys coming of age gave them such outfits and they married at once. The bride was expected to have one year’s clothing, furniture for one bedroom, and a stove with the necessary utensils for cooking, and if her parents were of average standing, a cow and a calf worth about twenty dollars. The rest of the relatives usually got them some chickens and other small things. This equipment was the best, many had much less. The wedding was a small affair with only a few friends present and a substantial supper. A charivari was considered almost a necessity, and a couple felt slighted unless the boys put one on. Boys from twelve years old up and all the men turned out with everything that would make a noise and with much prairie lung power. They gave one blast. If there was no response they repeated this, until the groom came forth with the bride and a treat of apples, candy, or tobacco.


Of course we had our schools. Father was the first director of No. 1, known as the Wasson school, because one John Wasson lived near it, a Scotchman by birth and a generation older than the rest of the people in that district. This house was a frame building, fourteen by eighteen feet, one story high and built the same as the dwellings. It faced the east. Along each wall were three desks large enough for two people, the front of one serving as the back of the seat in front. The desks in the center were large enough for four pupils. One long bench along the entire rear wall formed the seat for the back row of desks. These desks were all of white pine without paint or varnish.

In one corner of the front of the room was the teacher’s desk. The floor here was raised about six inches as a mark of distinction. The front of the side desks and one long desk opposite the teacher’s desk were used for recitations although the pupils often stood for class work. A large wood stove was in the center of the front of the room. A blackboard of boards painted black completed the equipment. Three windows on each side gave light.

The boys were usually seated along the north side—that being the colder in the winter—and the girls on the south. The little ones sat in front or in the center section with older brothers or sisters.

We all carried our dinner in pails made for the purpose. The dinners consisted mostly of bread and butter, although some had mince pie or doughnuts or occasionally an apple. There were no warm lunches.

We used McGuffey’s readers and spellers, Monteith’s geographys, and Ray’s arithmetics and this was about all the books in use. When I was five years old I went to the summer term which commenced in May and lasted three and one-half months. The teacher got sixteen dollars per month and boarded around and usually liked it best where there were fewest children. I came from a family very apt in books, but I learned very slowly. It was hard for me to learn the letters or to pronounce words, and owing to my being the cowboy, I have gone through life a poor speller and writer.

My first teacher was a Miss Waker. She was a small woman, from Dubuque, Iowa, blind of one eye and no longer young, probably thirty-five, but a kind Christian woman. The pupils were: O. J. Felton, A. N. Felton, Joseph Wasson—the biggest boy, Maggie Ransom, Allie Dockstader, Clary Heimbaugh, Addie Organ, Anna Lincoln, and Alpha Clark, Eve Abrams, Ida Homer, and Lester Gilbert. Most of them are still living but Joseph Wasson is the only one still in the district. He lives in Onslow and is an old man. In the winter Levi Coder was the teacher and the school was full of the same names but at that session the pupils were the older boys and girls. I did not go much, for the winter was cold and the house crowded.

In 1872 two railroads came through the country and two little towns sprang up. Onslow on the east took our school and the building was sold to Nelson Reade. A few years ago it was still in use as a granary. Then we went to No. 2, known as North Madison. In those days we were all declaimers and committed to memory many of the master pieces. Any visitor who could not recite some prose or poetry selection when visiting a neighborhood school was considered dumb. We had speaking on the last day and ended with spelling school in which the best speller won. I never won but my oldest sister, Maggie, and one brother, A. N., were never worsted. The rule was words in the McGuffey speller and none other but finally any word in our language.

Our games were Mumble Peg, played with a knife, the loser to pull a wooden peg from the ground with his teeth and lose it so no one could find it. Killdeer, or Fox and Geese, was played in the snow around a home base in the center with four spokes running out as avenues connected at the outer ends with a circular path. One player, chosen by lot, was required to catch and hold any he could and pat them three times. Those caught were then helpers till all were caught. No one could be caught while in home base and I have seen some pretty rough work at the last with one of the big boys, but usually the combined efforts would get him. I Spy and Two Old Cat were other games.

There were no coaches or other frills and we did not need them.

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