A FORGOTTEN CHARACTER

 

By E. Frank Brockway

 

                                                          

 

In state-making during the pioneer period, the historian is not always present to record incidents of interest. They linger for a time, however, in the memories of old settlers, then disappear and are lost.

 

There is a type of the early pioneer fast fading from memory, to whom I wish to give a small nitch in history.  He is the "Prairie Breaker."  I refer to the first settler and his sturdy sons. “Breaking Prairies" was the first important work of the pioneer. Sometimes he began even before his cabin was built, and if he came in the fall, the first ploughing was his fire-break.  His task was not finished until the last of Iowa's virgin soil was turned.  His work began in 1834 and was only fairly finished by 1900.  He was as much of a character as the cowboy of the plains. He was not so wild and reck­less as the "broncho buster” but equally as good a rider, He was usually a man from 18 to 27 years of age - but permit me to describe one with whom I was well acquainted.

He was nearly six feet in height, broad shouldered and bronzed by the sun and wind - a picture of health and endurance. He is not a "dude” but had an honest pride in his personal appearance and business.  He wore plain clothes, a broad brimmed hat and a leather belt.  He was an expert with cattle.  In a few days he would train a team of five or six yoke of wild oxen to obey his voice and that long, cruel lash of buckskin until they would move off like clockwork, drawing the great breaking plow, cutting the tough prairie-sod from 24 to 36 inches wide, turning over three acres a day for which task he generally received three dollars per acre.  He was proud of his skill and with his great whip would often be seen cutting off prairie flowers for practice.  He prided himself on being able to pick a large fly off the leaders without touching a hair. He was at home in canoe or skiff and often swam his cattle and horse across wild streams.  He was fond of hunting and fishing, but had little time for relaxation.  If there was a school at the log schoolhouse in the winter, he was found there.  If there was no school, he found plenty to do chopping wood or splitting rails.  He was most at home with his horse and team of oxen.

 

This young fellow had taken a job far back on the prairie and with an old wagon and a dozen boards had fixed up a camp. It is morning; he has just crawled out of his primitive shed and for want of better company talks to his horse--and to himself.

 

Good morning, Charley!  All tangled up in that rope?  All right old boy, I’ll fix it. We must “light out”!  No steere in sight! No bell in hearing! Don't like a tight girth?  I do.  Getting red in the East and here we go. My! Isn't this fine? Nothing sweeter than this wild-rose scented air! Flowers everywhere, knee deep!

 

The cattle have stuck for home -- five miles!  We can't start the plow until it's blistering hot.  There's a trail in the wet grass--only a pesky wolf.  Those pesky cattle got homesick. They should have stood it if we could -- two of us and ten of them!  But you would have gone too, Charley, if you'd been loose.  Lots of fun, this sleeping on a straw mattress on the ground under the shed and eating bread four days old. Well, I'll surprise ‘em at home this morning--eat breakfast with them and take back some fresh grubDon't jump so Charley! Only a deer.  You've seen lots of  'em.  The suns just up. Down there half a mile is the good old home.  Off to the left are the cattle. A smoke at the house and breakfast ready.

 

Hello Sis!  How's mother?  Of course I'll stay to breakfast and take something to eat back with me and save you a long ride.  Tell mother I rather like this job. I fancy I am sort of a middleman between the creator of these great prairies and the man I am breaking for.  No other plow but mine has ever stirred this ground and now this land will go on raising grain forever and ever.  But here's father and Tom and Will. My ain't this breakfast nice?  It beats cooking out at my hotel and I hate to go back there even the cattle get lonesome.  How long do you think this prairie breaking will last, father? "Twenty years. All of that, and the boys here will have their share of it. Then I suppose we'll lay aside the big whip, ox-yoke, plow and chains; and you, mother, can put in your spinning wheel and we'll have the foundation of a great museum, for the people of the next century to stare at. Then we'll raise beef cattle for all world.”

 

He called to his sister to hand up the basket of food, after he mounted his horse, then leaned down and whispered   "You and I are going to school this fall, sister, be ready," and he smiled down into her puzzled face.

 

“Yes we are, sure! But I have not decided where yet, so I wouldn't say anything about it if I were you.  Yes, I’ve talked with father.  He says he will pay your expenses and will be glad if we can go.  But father has his hands full and I want to do something for you that you will remember.” "Dear brother!” was all she could say, but the day was a happy one for her. Nearly every acre of the millions are broken now.  The prairie-breaker's job in the Middle West is finished.  He is a character of the past--almost forgotten. He was just the man for the time and place.  Not one of the present generation could handle that great whip, and they would wonder at the ox-yoke and the great plow. Why not have the implements of this great industry preserved?  There should be no missing link in Iowa’s history. (Today this could be Living History Farms in Des Moines, IA)

 

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Our old friend, Mr. Aristarcus Cone or Muscatine county, a Connecticut Yankee and a pioneer of one of the first settlements in Iowa, built himself a little log cabin to live in at first, and, later, prospering, built a fine brick house, ornamented the grounds around it and planted many pine trees that grew to great size and hung over it, their spicy fragrance filling the air.  Then he cleaned up the old log cabin and gathered together all his pioneer treasures, everything that had been used on the farm or in his home, and arranged them in it.  Then he had a museum indeed, in just the right setting.  People from far and near came to see it and it was the delight of its owner. Finally, one night the fire-fiend found and destroyed it, and only a pile of ashes told here those pioneer treasures were once housed and cared for.

 

 

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