Growing Up With Iowa: Episodes in a Life of a Hundred Years

(ALTHOUGH Ames Township rather boasts of having led Athens County in the matter of establishing libraries and schools, the educational advantages of the community in the early fifties were not such as to have greatly impressed Grandmother Brown’s small sons, when they reached school age. ‘ When Charlie came home from his first day at school,’ said she, ‘I asked him what he thought of it. “I like it,” he answered, “but I would n’t be a teacher for anything.” “Why not?” “My temper’d fly up and I’d kill some of them and then I’d have to be hung,” he answered.’

The Harvard influence so strong in the Ames schools of early day — praised by Judge Cutler for their ‘elevated character’ — seems to have waned a bit by this time. Also, the customs of the people would seem to have become somewhat less decorous during their half century of struggle with the wilderness. According to Judge Cutler, the early settlers had ‘entered into an agreement not to use ardent spirits at elections, or the fourth of July, at social parties, raisings, logging-bees, or any public occasion, and to this engagement they strictly adhered for many years.’ But by the time Daniel and Maria Brown took up their residence in Amesville, this self-denying ordinance against ‘ardent spirits’ had been forgotten. Whiskey was freely dispensed in every village store. According to Walker, even the clergy were active in transporting it, indeed in profiting by it. The lower settlement in Ames Township enjoyed, indeed, the services of a circuit-riding Free Will Baptist, one Elder Asa Stearns, who preached to the people once a month and received in pay three barrels of whiskey.

In the meantime, Maria Brown was attending to her home and family, and the firm of Brown and Dickey was pursuing industriously the difficult and delicate art of merchandising.)


When Dan’l went into business with Austin Dickey at Ames (said Grandmother Brown), they dealt in all kinds of food and grain, dry goods and hardware. Their store occupied the lower floor of a corner on Amesville’s one street. Gradually they built on additions, until finally it covered a whole block. Their most important addition was a big smokehouse. Raising hogs proved profitable. While hogs, unlike horses and cattle, could n’t be driven a long distance to market, they could be fattened at home on soaked wheat and sold as pork and bacon to the Southern plantations. Then Dan’l had lofts and barns where wool and hides could be stored, so he used to buy sheep, shear them, pack the wool into sacks, tan the hides and hang them up in his barns, feeding the carcasses to the hogs.

In the fall, Dan’l and his partner used to go into the tall timber, about a mile from the store, cut down logs, and have the carpenters build them in Federal Creek a scow or flatboat. This they stored with grain, bacon, wool, tobacco, dried fruits. They’d have oxen to load the boat, pulling their goods through the mire. Then they waited for the spring freshets to raise the creek and float them into the Hocking River. Sometimes the waters would come with a rush before Dan’l was ready to go, before the boat was fully outfitted. I can remember the tense excitement of such days.

Dan’l could never sleep when he was waiting for the spring flood. In the meantime, Kate and I would be making biscuits and doughnuts all night long, expecting any moment to hear the rush of waters.

Since the timbers have been cut, that old creek does n’t rise any more at all. But in those days it was a thrilling thing to see the boat swing off down the creek, knowing it would be carried into the stream of the Hocking, next into the flow of the Ohio, and finally into the channel of the Mississippi. Propelled by oars and poles, swinging and turning, it swept on its way, irresistibly, to far-away New Orleans.

At points along the way, Dan’l and his partner stopped to trade off their wares. At Cincinnati they got rid of some grain and tobacco. At plantations along the lower Mississippi they exchanged bacon for molasses. The negroes used to come to their boat to barter with them. At New Orleans they exchanged that plantation molasses for refined sugar.

That New Orleans sugar was shipped in hogsheads up to the mouth of the Hocking River. Dan’l then hauled it sixteen miles to the store. It was white and in sugar-loaf form, covered first with white paper and then with purple. We’d save the purple paper for coloring. I remember that I dyed white silk gloves with it.

At New Orleans Dan’l always sold the boat, took the cash returns of the enterprise in the form of Mexican silver, put the money into axe-head boxes, packed those into a small black horsehair trunk, — one does n’t see such trunks any more, — and brought the trunk into the stateroom of the steamboat on which he took passage for home. They always tried to act as though the trunk was light; and one person always lay around the stateroom guarding the trunk when the other wandered about the boat.

The profits of this venture were usually about $2000. With this money In their possession, they would go to Pittsburgh to invest in hardware or push on to Philadelphia to buy general merchandise, — dry goods and household furniture and farming implements, — all of which was later brought over the mountains to them by freighters. This was the long and laborious process by which the products of the Northern soil were collected and bartered through the South for money which was spent in the East for merchandise needed by the farmers of the Northwest Territory. The merchandising of goods was a complicated thing in those days — most of it done directly without the help of the banker.

I remember how exciting it used to be when the freighters drove in with their big wagons of goods. ‘Pennsylvania schooners’ we called them — immense wagons, each with six horses, each with a canvas top hooped and drawn in with ropes. The driver used to ride on the horse at the right next to the wagon. He carried a long whip, and with a whirl of it could hit the front horse. They did n’t undertake to move fast, but it was an exciting business just the same—seeing things opened at the store when the boxes of muslins and delaines were brought in. At the end of the first year we had lost a good deal of money, but Dan’l borrowed some more and went ahead, and after that ‘the gilt began to stick to our fingers,’ as he used to say.


We lived in Amesville eleven years. Then we sold out and joined the Western migration. We bought a farm in Iowa and moved there in the summer of 1856.

Dan’l had got the Western fever, and I was willing to go to any place where I thought we might better our fortunes. A cousin of Dan’l’s who had been in California, going out by land and returning around the Horn, visited us in ’55 and told interesting tales of his experience. Dan’l himself had made two trips to the West, looking for land. He thought of settling in Geneseo, Illinois, where cousins had established themselves. But he went on into Iowa, where another cousin named Oliver Brown was living, and came back saying he had bought a farm across the road from Oliver’s.

Brown and Dickey sold their business for $10,000, each getting $5000 in cash. The price of our Iowa farm was $3500 in gold. The rest of our money went to buy a fine team of mares, a new wagon, and a new carriage, all of which had taken prizes at the county fair. We sold the bulk of our household goods, but I managed to have the cherry dresser packed for transportation; also a big roll of Brussels carpet.

It was a considerable undertaking, in those days, to move one’s family from Ohio to Iowa. There were no railroads to carry us across country, and we had to go by steamboat down the Hocking River to the Ohio, down the Ohio to St. Louis, and then up the Mississippi River to Keokuk, and overland the rest of the way by carriage. We were twenty days on the journey. But compared with what our grandparents had had to overcome in moving from Massachusetts to New York and Vermont, and from those places on to Ohio, it was nothing. And then I never thought about its being hard. I was used to things being hard.

I was very busy, those last days in Amesville, getting myself and the children ready for the journey. You may be sure that I fixed my children up so they looked nice. Will and Charlie were nine and seven years old by this time, Lizzie past four, and Gus two. Gus was old enough to be weaned, but, knowing that we were likely to move, I had kept on nursing him, anxious not to change his food before we got to our journey’s end. So they were all rosy and in fine condition. Will and Charlie had such pretty little suits — long trousers with little roundabout coats and hats with visors. I made them ruffled linen collars that were very becoming with their suits, and I did those collars up on the boat, so that the boys looked fresh and clean all the way.

Whenever I stopped to think, my heart was heavy at the thought of leaving Ohio and going to such a far, strange country. But I did n’t have much time for thinking. And one thing made it easier — my mother was going along. Mr. Hatch had died not long after he came home from the Mexican War, and my mother was going West to visit Brother John, who had settled in Minnesota, where his fatherin-law was a land agent for the Government. Dan’l’s father, Grandpa Brown, also joined us, and a cousin, Will Foster, so we were a company of nine people when gathered at the mouth of the Hocking, looking for a steamboat to carry us towards our new home in the West.

Our journey West began with three days of tedious waiting at the mouth of the Hocking River. One boat after another refused to carry us, because we were too many in numbers or our freight too bulky for accommodation. But the Lord was watching over us, because one of those steamers that refused us was wrecked soon after it left us and all lives on board were lost.

We spent those three days at the Hoyt Williams House. What interested our children most at that place was two parrots. One of them could only say, ‘Oh, Hoyt!’ but the other was quite conversational. This parrot ate at the second table with the children, pecking away at a plate of things very politely. One morning after breakfast, coming out on the porch with Gus in my arms and the other children following along, I found that this smart parrot was very sick. He was vomiting at the railing and kept screaming, ‘Polly drank too much! Polly drank too much!’ Willie regarded him with considerable awe. ‘Seems to me, Mother,’ he said, ‘a bird that can talk like that just ought to have a soul.’

Finally we were off. The boats of those days were interesting places, carrying all kinds of human beings, black and white. The rough work was done by colored roustabouts. Some of the passengers were quite fashionable. There was dancing every night to music furnished by a band made up of colored waiters. There was card playing, too. Indeed, the boat was infested with blackleg gamblers. Every evening after dinner the card tables were set out. There was a bar, too, where you could get anything you’d a mind to pay for.

Our boat was a side-wheeler, and was loaded to the guards with freight. It moved very slowly. I got so tired before the journey was ended. I had my children’s clothes to wash and iron every day, but I did n’t have much anxiety about the children themselves. All of them kept well. I felt so sorry for a lady who had a baby about the age of Gus. She had weaned him, and said it was such a mistake. The baby cried and she walked the deck with him night after night. Will and Charlie were obedient little boys and never wandered far from my sight. Naturally they were all eyes.

They never saw a railroad train until we came near Cairo, Illinois. To most of the passengers it was a curiosity. The people rushed to that side of the boat to watch it go by. Look at the difference now, seventy years after. I’ve heard Dan’l tell about some of those first railroads in the East, that they were just stone abutments with timbers laid on top and spiked down. Travel over them had a tendency to loosen the timbers, and sometimes the ends actually ran up into the car and endangered the people there. What an advance has been made in railroad travel! Just look now at the smooth performances of the Santa Fe! When first I heard people talking about railroads, I thought they meant roads made of fence rails laid across the mud to keep the wheels from sinking into the soft ground! Well, to continue: when we got to St. Louis there was a half mile of boats headed in at the wharf, and we had to wait a long time before we could land. we stopped in St. Louis long enough to buy some dishes and a cookstove. It was a good stove; there never was a better. Made by Bridge, Beech and Company and called the ‘Golden Era.’ Those were the years of the California gold excitement, and every door of the stove had the picture of a gold piece on it.

Finally we reached Keokuk, ‘the head of navigation’ in those days. We could n’t go above the rapids in the river, there being no canal as yet. So we landed at Keokuk, and Ma and I with baby and Lizzie were put into our fine new carriage, with Grandpa Brown and Cousin Will Foster to drive us to our farm. That was eight miles from Fort Madison, and twelve miles from Burlington, which were towns of considerable size. Dan’l stayed behind in Keokuk with the little boys to look after the landing of our goods.

After several hours’ driving we arrived at Oliver Brown’s house. We were welcomed with great excitement, for Oliver had begun to be awfully uneasy, fearing that Dan’l had been robbed and murdered for his money. The care of that money had been our main concern all through the trip. Dan’l had the paper money in a belt around his waist — I have that old belt yet, that and Dan’l’s tuning fork (it’s a C). The gold for the farm was left with me. The gold pieces were wrapped separately in paper and put in a sack of linen bird’s-eye which had been woven by Dan’l’s mother (I gave that little sack to Lizzie, not long ago, thinking that she might like to have a piece of her Grandmother Brown’s weaving). This sack of gold I kept in a carpetbag where I had the children’s soiled clothes. We did not, of course, want to give the impression that we had any quantity of money with us. I felt deeply the responsibility of looking after it.

As we were leaving Keokuk, Dan’l brought the carpetbag and, depositing it at my feet, said cheerfully, ‘There, Mother! There’s your farm!’ Then off we drove.

There were so many of us that we could not all be accommodated, that first night, at Oliver Brown’s. Ma and I went up the road with the little ones to sleep at the home of a cousin named Tom Stephenson. ‘Where shall I leave the carpetbag?’ I asked Oliver Brown’s wife. ‘Why, put it in the room where Oliver and Will will sleep. Put it behind the door,’ she said. And so I went peacefully to bed.

But the next morning, when I looked for my gold in the carpetbag, it was gone. Oh, I shall never forget the horror of the next few hours. I thought I should lose my mind. The gold simply was n’t there. Oliver and Will had risen early and started with a wagon and team back to Keokuk to help Dan’l move our things. Of course we thought that they might have moved the gold, which was, in fact, what they had done, having taken it out of the carpetbag and locked it in Oliver’s desk before they set out that morning. But they neglected to tell anyone that they had moved it. I kept remembering how Dan’l had called out at Keokuk, when he put the gold at my feet, ‘There, Mother! There’s your farm!’ And I imagined that some thief, hanging about, had overheard, followed us, and robbed us in the night. Tom Stephenson got out his horse and rode off in haste to meet the party coming from Keokuk to announce to them the misfortune that had befallen us. In the meantime I walked the floor. The fruits of ten years’ work and saving entrusted to my care and lost in a single night! Oh, why had I, at the very last, let that carpetbag from my sight? My hair turned gray early; I think it must have started to turn that day when I thought that our farm had been lost, and lost through me.

In the meantime the folks coming up the road from Keokuk were having a little excitement of their own. Oliver Brown and Will Foster had joined them with a team of farm horses, but one of the horses took a notion to balk.

They could n’t move him. There they stuck. And then, just in the nick of time, came Tom Stephenson pounding down the road, his horse all lathered, waving his arms and shouting: ‘The gold’s gone!’ But Oliver Brown and Will Foster knew where the gold was and naturally could n’t be excited about it. ‘Oh, the gold’s safe,’ was all they said. ‘It’s in Oliver’s desk. Get off your horse, Tom.’ And they took Tom’s horse, all covered with foam as it was, put him in harness in place of the balky one, and they all moved forward again. It seemed very exciting and dramatic to the small boys, and they would have called it a drama of ‘The Balky Horse,’I suppose, whereas to me it was a tragedy of ‘The Lost Gold.’


And so it was that the Brown family came to Iowa.

When I got over my excitement about the gold and looked around me, my heart sank. ‘Don’t let’s unpack our goods,’ I said to Dan’l. ‘It looks so wild here. Let’s go home.’ But we had bought the farm and there we were.

We lived there fourteen years, and I was never reconciled to it. I had never lived in the country before. The drudgery was unending. The isolation was worse. In time, we knew a few families with whom we had friendly relations, but they were very few. At first we had the Oliver Browns across the way. They were always great readers, were educated, and sent their children away to school. But they were frontiersmen by nature, always moving west, and a couple of years after we came to Lowa they sold their farm and moved on.

We had a good farm of rich black soil. But it is people that really make a country, not soil. Those who had settled in that neighborhood were of American stock, but it was poor in quality. I like to be with people who know something, who want something. One of our neighbors let three years go by before she came to see us. ’I woulda come before,’ she said, ‘but I heard you had Brussels carpet on the floor!’ Why, she should have come to see what it was like!

The nearest town to us was Augusta. It was about two miles away on Skunk River, a narrow winding little stream not entirely without beauty.

There was a bridge across the river, a bridge that Dan’l helped pay for. The old flour mills that stood there once and the miller in his white suit are gone.

Oh, Augusta once showed some signs of life, though not a very cultivated life. It had two mills and two blacksmith shops, several stores. Things don’t look as prosperous out that way now as they did fifty years ago.

The road past our farm, which was once a main highway, is now a bypath only. Where a double row of shade trees ran along the road a half century ago, one sees now only rows of stumps. We had three bearing orchards when we left and a fourth coming on. Where are they now? To be sure, we knew nothing then of the pests that prey on fruit trees now. But nowadays one sees few flowers and gardens about the houses. And the fields seem deserted. Of course, with all the new machines not so many men are needed to work the fields. But it does seem as if all people care for out here now is to get the crop. There is less pride in the way things look. Perhaps the bad Iowa roads have something to do with it. But the road that runs past Denmark — which the railroads have missed all these years — is part of the system of permanent State roads, and perhaps in time this part of the world may look like something again.

Denmark was a pretty village, a really charming town in some respects. It had an air of refinement. It had been settled by educated people from the East. They had a fine academy and a good church there. But it was five miles from us, and five miles in days of bad roads was a real barrier. We could not often spare the time or use the horses to drive so far to church. The first Sunday we were at the farm we drove to the poor little church on Lost Creek.

It used to have two front doors; men went in one and women in the other. When a man and wife from town came in and sat beside each other, the children giggled.

And what a woodsy congregation it was! Lizzie kept whispering that first Sunday: ‘Oh, Mother, I’d rather be in Ohio. I’d rather hear Aunt Ann sing!’ It brought tears to my eyes and a homesick lump to my throat to hear her carry on so. It was just the way I felt.

From our immediate community around Lost Creek and Skunk River so little inspiration was to be drawn that it took constant assertion of character to keep from going backward. When Ma took leave of me after seeing us settled on the farm, she said to me, rather solemnly, ‘Now, Maria, you’ll be tempted to grow careless, living off here away from everybody. People who live in the country seldom change their dress in the afternoon, as you’ve been brought up to do. Now keep on doing the way you’ve done all your life. After dinner, take a bath and clean up and keep yourself nice, even if there’s no one to see you.’ And so I always did. Coming in, Oliver Brown would say: ‘Going some place?’ ‘No.’ ‘Company coming?’ ‘No.’ They learned, after a while, that it was my way. I could sew and I could wash and iron, and so I was independent always in the matter of wardrobe. I always had plenty of clean white wrappers and fresh cuffs and collars. I can’t help but think that children have more respect for a tidy mother than for a ‘clatty’ one. Webster says a ‘slut’ is a careless, dirty woman, or a female dog.

And it took the same sort of watchfulness to keep from sliding backward in other ways. The work of the farm interfered with regular family worship, but Dan’l always asked the blessing. I had been brought up to keep the Sabbath Day holy, and it seemed to me that my children should be taught to do so also. On our farm were many acres of hazel nuts. The boys gathered them and laid them out on top of the woodhouse to dry. Charlie wanted to climb up there and shell them out on Sunday. ‘Can’t I shell them out on Sunday, Mother, if I sing a hymn all the while?’ he teased. ‘Seems to me I’d have let him do it,’ Sister Libbie said. But I would n’t. I’ll not compromise when I think a thing is wrong.

Our land was virgin soil. Much of it had never been broken, but the farm was twenty years old when we bought it. Dan’l paid $17.50 an acre for that farm. There were 202 acres, which was about the average size of the farms in the neighborhood. The two acres were thrown in extra. Eighty of the 202 acres were timber land, a grove of walnut trees on Skunk River. The timber had been used most wastefully. The best logs had been cut. There was an old log house on the place that had a siding of walnut boards and a roofing an inch thick made out of walnut logs. The granary and barn were also made of wide walnut boards. Such wastefulness!

Just think, if Dan’l had only been a financier, those eighty acres of walnut trees would have enabled him to die a rich man. But then, what’s the use of fretting about it now? We lived and worked and had our being, and burned that nice walnut wood in our stoves and kept our house warm and comfortable. Otherwise, there was no wastefulness in that house of ours. Four rooms with cellar and attic were all we got. It was a well-built, good house, painted white, but without a single extra thing. No shutters; no porch; no closets. Not even a nail to hang a dish rag on! Just house!

All about the house, at first, was a tangle of hazel brush. It grew so close about us that the cows could n’t get between it and the house.

Yes, it was wild enough when we first came there. But when we left, after fourteen years, it was pretty much all under cultivation. All our stock was under shelter. At first we had only a log barn, but later we built two new barns, one with a fine stone basement with room for our carriage and with five stalls for horses. Once we had reached the farm we had very little use for our carriage and for our silver-mounted harness — a rarity in Iowa. One of the first things that Dan’l did was to get me some muslin in Fort Madison, and I made a cover for that beautiful carriage. We set it away on the threshing floor and kept it clean and bright until we had a chance to sell it in later years.


In time the place came to look rather nice. No amount of cultivation could make it beautiful in the sense that the hills around Athens are beautiful. It was doomed to be flat and uninteresting by comparison. On the farm one could see a mile in every direction. The first morning there Lizzie looked about her and exclaimed, ‘Oh, Mother, is n’t this a wide town!’

Our road drove in past an orchard which was half grown when we came there. Later we planted others and had a nice selection of fruit. At the left of the barn grew a clump of jack oaks — they have one smooth leaf, you know, not the leaf with scalloped edges like the big oak. There we had a box for the martins. And there was a rather pretty tree near the house, a silver poplar with white leaves that were always shaking. In the hazel brush the wild violets were as thick as could be. How Gus loved to gather them! He would come with his fat little hands full of the blossoms, and Ma would put them in water for him; he was so fond of her, and Lizzie would be jealous, because she was fond of Grandma, too, and wanted her attentions.

We had so many more birds then than we have now. One time I shall never forget. I was washing outdoors on the shady side of the house and I heard a bird with an unfamiliar note. I left my washing and followed it into the orchard, where I saw it quite plainly. I rushed into the house and consulted the Bird Book I had bought for my children. A Baltimore oriole! They build their nests of thread. Is n’t it wonderful how a bird can do that — take thread and weave a nest for its babies and line it soft and nice with feathers from its own breast?

At night it used to make me so lonesome, sitting at the front door in the dusk, — we had supper at five o’clock, — to hear the prairie chickens calling over the meadow, ‘Boo-hoo! Boo-hoo! Boo-hoo!’ Charlie could make a noise exactly like their three calls.

’T was sufficiently settled up in Iowa by the time we got there so that there were no prairie wolves about. It was n’t like Chicago when my cousin, Mary Harper, went to live there — she was Aunt Lucinda’s daughter. I have heard her tell how one time, when Mr. Harper lay very sick, the wolves howled about the house all night. But I did see three wolves go past our house once — just once — on the lope. They went the length of our farm as far as I could see. I don’t know where they were going and I guess they did n’t know, either.

We were too late for the Indians also. They too had gone before we came. But once, driving home from Fort Madison, Dan’l did overtake two braves. He asked them to ride. When he reached home they sat down under a tree in the yard. I fixed up a big trayful of good things to eat and sent it out to them. There they squatted in paint and feathers, showing their whole nakedness as they ate. They were the first Indians I ever saw.

Outside, in the fields, the men folks had their full share of trials before our farm was well under cultivation. To begin with, soon after we arrived Dan’l began shaking with fever and ague, having got infected on the river as we came here. I myself never had a chill in my life, but Dan’l suffered one season terribly. He always claimed that he cured himself eating wild plums.

Then the weather was very trying during our first years on the farm. The summer of ’57 was terribly wet. Soon after came a summer that was just as terribly dry. The grass actually crackled when we walked over it and the corn shriveled and dried up in the stalk. Then the winters of ’58 and ’59 were unheard of in their severity. For months the snow was knee-deep between the house and the outhouses. To cultivate and develop a farm in a new country when the weather is unfavorable is no easy task.

The first piece of ground Dan’l undertook to break was a twenty-acre piece that proved to be full of bumblebees. One boy always had to follow along behind the team with a shovel, smothering the bees with earth wherever the plough turned them up. The horses used to get panicky. Old Sal wanted to run off, and our sober Bob was so scared by the bees that he jumped and cut his foot on the plough. Grandpa advised us to buy a yoke of oxen. We did so, but they’d twist their tails when the bumblebees flew out about them and run almost as fast as the horses did. People used to say that clover would n’t grow unless there were bumblebees about to carry the pollen.

Dan’l was looking out for any kind of help he could get, to do the farming. He bought the first mowing machine I ever saw, one of the first lot ever shipped west of the Mississippi. It was made by Walter A. Wood and Company and cost about sixty-five dollars. The first hay put up in Iowa was cut with a scythe. We did n’t have much meadowland on our farm — not more than about three acres — because of the difficulty of cutting it with a scythe. A traveling man who had met the agent for the mowing machine told Dan’l about it. ‘If there’s a machine like that, I’m going to have one,’ said Dan’l. It only cut four feet wide. The mowers nowadays cut six or seven feet.

in Ohio, where the soil is very stumpy, we had used cast-iron ploughs. In Iowa, steel ploughs made in Moline were considered the best. But they were not polished — were made of raw black steel. We had to polish them ourselves — go into the road and drag them up and down. It used to take a week to get them so they’d work.

The first farmers of our Middle West ploughed the land too much. They loosened the ground so thoroughly that it would n’t hold the moisture. When the rains came, the good deep soil ran off and left the clay banks. And then, they had no idea at that time of rotation of crops.

We did n’t have any reapers until a year or two before Charlie married. The first was a Buckeye reaper and mower combined. McCormick put out a harvester about the same time, but it was no good for mowing.

The Atkinson self-raker we had when we came to Iowa. That raked, but did not bind. We had to bind by hand.

In Ohio, folks used a threshing machine that was a ‘chaff piler’ — that is, it ran the grain through the machine all together, scattering the wheat and oats about. After the machine was gone, it was necessary to take a fanning mill and run the grain through it to get it clean. For threshing buckwheat they used a hickory flail. In Iowa, we first tried to thresh with a treadmill. It did n’t work very well, because Jule and Sal, the horses, got rebellious. I don’t blame ’em!

We finally attached the horses to poles and drove them round and round. That was threshing by so-called ’horse power.’ Of course no motors were dreamed of in those days.

We had a good deal of stock at times. We kept sheep for a while. Always we had hogs which we butchered ourselves and sold. We always saved enough hogs for our own use. Fine hams and shoulders came out of our smokehouses — not hams like the soft white things these present-day ones are. Dan’l used to drive a wagonload of his hams and shoulders up to Burlington. Or perhaps he would drive the hogs up there on foot.

In the fifties, there were no railroads in Iowa. It was some years after we came to Iowa before there was a bridge across the Mississippi or even a railway between Fort Madison and Burlington. In disposing of farm products we were not much beyond the period of barter and exchange that we had known at Amesville. Dan’l was more of a trader than he was a farmer. When our boys had raised things, he could drive a bargain with them.


Schooling! That was the great mistake in our moving West. There were no educational facilities on Skunk River that could compare with those in Athens or Amesville, and even such as there were my children could not take full advantage of.

There was a little white schoolhouse a mile up the road from us where children could receive instruction three months of the year. I remember only once when there was a four-months term. Our children went to school there, when Dan’l did n’t have something on the farm for them to do. If there was any work going on in the fields or orchards at which the children could help, Dan’l seemed to have no scruples about keeping them out of school to do it. It is a very poor way to educate children. The work of the farm always seemed to Dan’l more important than that of the schools. Nothing I said could change him. I never could understand why he was so blind on this one subject. Generally speaking, too, the Browns were a bookish lot and set great store by education. That was one thing I liked about Oliver Brown. He sent his children away to school.

Yes, Dan’l believed in education, but he had the idea that if a person had it in him to profit by any particular kind of training he’d reach for it himself.

He thought it was not necessary to force on a child anything beyond the ability to read and write and cipher. The rest he could get for himself if he wanted it badly enough, and if he did n’t want it why waste education on him anyway? The pioneering, selfmade man was the hero of Dan’l’s day, the typical American of that time. Dan’l himself had a logical, active mind and a natural faculty for reasoning out a problem. He used to say that he could solve any mathematical problem he ever heard of by the Rule of Three. Fact was, he could think straight, straighter than most of the young men around Athens or Ames whom he had to cope with, including those who had been to college, and I think he knew it, modest as he was. He could write a better letter than any of them, and he was an easy talker, too, and could beat them in an argument if he set about it. He was interested in public questions and that was one reason he liked to keep a store. The general store in those days was the village club. And yet Dan’l never belonged to lodges or societies or organizations. Nothing but the Republican Party and the Baptist or Presbyterian Church. He was a good mixer, Dan’l was, and enjoyed drawing people together under his roof in a group for sociability’s sake. He felt equipped to meet the life of his time. He honestly thought he did his children a service by forcing them to stand on their own feet at an early age. He did n’t realize that times were changing and his children would have to meet competition in a very different world from the pioneer society he had helped to make — a new world where technical information would be at a premium.

He did n’t realize it, and I could n’t make him. But I must say this for Dan’l: he felt differently late in life — after his own children were grown up and gone. He was eager to do for Lizzie’s children what he never thought necessary for his own. He saw, too, that his own boys were resentful of the way he had let them scramble for an education or go without, and it hurt him. He grieved over it a good bit at the last, especially over Herbert, who was having a hard struggle about the time Dan’l died.

I know, too, that Dan’l did n’t feel things just the way some of the children did and so he could n’t understand, because when he was a boy he had n’t wanted the kind of things some of them wanted. But I knew that Willie wanted to make music the way I had wanted to make pictures when I was a little girl. And I knew that he loved birds and bugs too the way I did, and would have liked to study about them. And Herbie was crazy over machinery of all kinds and should have had an engineer’s education. All my sons are better mechanics than Dan’l was. They got that faculty from me. I always liked to invent ways of simplifying my work. For instance, long before I ever saw an egg beater for sale in a store I had made one for myself. I took heavy wire and bent it into the shape of a spoon, and bound it together with lighter wire. If there was any tinkering to be done about the house, ’t was I who did it. Dan’l was n’t so much interested in finding out ways to make things run slick and smooth. But my boys were. Charlie always contrived to have everything conveniently arranged where he was working. While selling sewing machines, Will invented a ruffler that another man patented and made a fortune out of. In the paper mill Gus invented a machine for putting up paper in rolls instead of packages. He got a patent on it and made a good many thousand dollars out of it until someone invented a better machine. At another time he invented a machine for working over leather scraps. Frank has experimented with numerous devices to facilitate the work around the ice plant, and Herbie began when he was just a child to work out mechanical short cuts of one kind and another. Why, I remember, when he was n’t more than ten years old, how he rigged up a piece of old board with some burlap and wire and hitched it to the back of the lawn mower to save himself the trouble of raking the lawn. A few years later he built himself a snowplough. To this he hitched his pony, and so he saved himself the work of shoveling off the walks. And when he began to use a typewriter he worked out a touch system of his own — a new thing then — that made him very proficient. Oh, my children all had special talents that nowadays parents would delight to develop.

The Denmark Academy was probably as good as any school in Ohio, but we were not so situated as to be able to take advantage of it. Mr. H. K. Edson, the man who was principal of the Academy, was a remarkable person, and some well-known men came from that Academy. At one time they had an enrollment of several hundred, the children of Illinois and Iowa farmers. The people of Denmark were unusual, too, known far and wide as abolitionists. Denmark was famous as a station on the underground railway in the days before the war. Unfortunately we did n’t live in Denmark, but five miles from it, and the roads of those days were often almost impassable.


Oh, those were busy days! Besides the everyday routine of cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, and baby tending, there were many things to be done that nowadays women might consider extras. I never did any gardening — that was thought to be men’s work in our house — and I never milked any cows or made the cheese. But I looked after the chickens and eggs and butter.

I often did the washing, with and without help. There was no running water in the house in those days. Still, we women had it pretty convenient with a well on the porch and a good cistern. In summer we washed under the cherry trees.

There was always enough cooking to be done, and at threshing time we had to lay in unusual quantities of food to feed the extra hands. The men of the countryside helped each other in their harvesting, and the neighbor women took turns helping each other feed the men. Often, at those times, Dan’l would let Charlie come in the house to help me. Until Lizzie was twelve years old, Charlie was my chief assistant in ironing and making pies. He would take the moulding board down cellar where it was cool and where flies did n’t bother him, and would roll out as fine a batch of pies as threshers ever ate.

And the sewing we had to do! We could get almost nothing ready-made, and sewing machines had not been invented. Men’s shirts and underwear, as well as women’s clothes, had to be made at home by hand. I think I had more faculty for that sort of thing than most women have, but, goodness knows, it was hard enough for the most skillful of us. Probably it was I who made the first knit underwear for babies. At least I used to feel very proud of the beautiful gauzelike shirts I’d make for my babies out of the tops of my old white cotton stockings, and I never knew any other woman who thought of doing it.

I even made the men’s clothes at times. Dan’l came home from Fort Madison, one day, bringing cloth for a suit. ‘Why, Dan’l, I never cut out a man’s coat,’ I told him. ‘Well, if you can cut a coat for the boys, why not for me? ’ he asked. Emma Farnsworth was to come and help me; her mother had been a tailoress. She was amazed. ‘ You don’t mean to tell me you cut out this coat!’ she exclaimed. ‘Are all these chalk marks yours? Why, he’d have sold a cow before he would have done that himself.’ I suppose I was a big simpleton to do such work. Oh, no — I guess it was right. It did n’t hurt me and it saved money. We got ahead.

Such a way of living is hard, hard, HARD. The only thing that can make it endurable for a woman is love and plenty of it. I remember one day on the farm when Dan’l was going up to Burlington. I remember that before he left he kissed me, kissed me and my little sick baby lying so white on her pillow. I had many things to do that day. But my, how the work flew under my hands! What a difference a kiss can make!

When everything else was disposed of, we women always had knitting to do. Everybody’s stockings had to be knitted by hand, and so a ball of wool with the knitting needles stuck through it was carried around in one’s apron pocket or set up on the kitchen window sill ready to be taken up when one had a moment free from more pressing duties. Mrs. Glazier in Amesville told me that in Ireland it was the men who did the knitting, the women the sewing. That seems to me like a fair division of labor. Of course the men were pretty tired in the evening after a day in the field, but the women were just as tired after a day of cooking and ironing.

Our work had to go on after dark by light that was none too good. We had only candles on the farm at first. I had an iron candlestick with a hook on it that I hung on the back of my chair, so I could get light on my work. The wicks of those candles were as thick as your little finger.

Making the candles was part of our work too — winter’s work, for candles must be made in cold weather. I remember that once we dipped four hundred candles in four hours. We brought our candle rods with us from Ohio. First, we laid down paper to keep the drips off the floor. Then we brought in the scantling and set it up in rows. Next the wash boiler, with hot water in the bottom and hot tallow on top. We took up a candle rod with wick hanging from it, dipped it once, straightened the wick, dipped again, and laid on the scantling. After a while the tallow grew thin. Then we poured in beeswax and moulded the candles in candle moulds. A dozen at a time. We laid them away in the coldest part of the cellar.

The first lamp I ever saw Will brought home from Denmark when he was a young man. It was made of glass, and it exploded. Dan’l and I had gone to bed when Lizzie came downstairs into the sitting room carrying the lamp in her hand. I heard a pop and an exclamation. I rushed to the door and saw her still holding the lamp in her hand. The wick had blown out over the top and half the oil was gone, but scattered in so fine a spray that we could n’t see any shadow of oil in the room.

Just think what I have seen in my lifetime in the way of development in illumination! When I was a child, the only kind of lantern known was the tin can with holes punched in it to allow the checkered candlelight to shine through. Lanterns, candles, oil lamps, electric incandescents — I have seen them all.

(The concluding chapters of Grandmother Brown’s life story will appear in the November issue)

  1. Earlier chapters of these reminiscences were published in August and September. — EDITOR