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settlers' life

My sisters and I sometimes joke that our hometown newspaper prints more news from the past than it does from the present.
This summer, though, it printed a recounting from one of the Dorr family relatives, told to the public in 1928 about life on the Iowa prairie in the 1800s.
Today, we hear a lot about homesteading and raising animals and different kinds of farming. But it's good to remember what that really looked like, just how difficult it was, and then how far we've come in agriculture, how our farmer ancestors were already analyzing bovine diets and trying different methods to get rid of insects, even in 1870.

And now, Mrs. Elizabeth Dorr's words:

"Mr. Dorr and myself came to America in 1865. We located in Illinois, living there two years. In 1869, we moved out here in a covered wagon with the journey taking over four weeks. The roads were vastly differently from today--there being no roads or bridges, just prairies. When we came to a river or smaller stream, we had to try to cross it the best way we could and got stuck or mired down many times. Finally, we found our home in what was later called Amherst Township. Here we located on our homestead of 80 acres.

After arriving here, Mr. Dorr and his brother, Adam Dorr, unloaded their breaking plow and started to break a small plot from which sods, about three feet long, to build a sod house. For a roof, the men went to the well known Whiskey Creek and cut poles for rafters, which they covered with long slough grass cut with the scythe. Later we built a one room house 14 feet by 20 feet. This house was built of rough boards with tar paper on the outside to over the cracks. It had no plaster for several years. After living through a fierce winter this way, we decided to dig out under the house enough to let down into the ground 6 feet so the next winter would not hurt us so bad. After two or three years we raised the house out of the ground again.

Next came the grasshoppers! They ate the tar paper off the house besides devouring the crops which consisted of but a few acres. These grasshoppers came in clouds--darkening the sky and when the wind calmed down, these pests would settle down and eat everything they could. Inside of two hours, everything was eaten up, and as soon as the wind was raised, they took to flight. These grasshoppers came four years in succession, taking the crops.
It was hard to buy seed for the next year. Farmers arranged to catch these grasshoppers by taking a few 16-foot boards and tin and rigging it up with a wheel at both ends and hitching a horse to it. With this device, they went over the small grain fields and caught several bushels a day. Mr. Wireman Miller caught 100 bushels of these pests one year. They were buried in a hole in the ground like a well 8-10 feet down. So we plowed the ground and sowed turnips for our milk cows. These, with the prairie hay that was often destroyed by prairie fires, made up the feed for our stock. The prairie hay was cut down with a scythe."

Next up: coyotes, wolves and blizzards!


  1. Wow! I suddenly feel like I live a very decadent life.

    1. I hear you! And here I was annoyed when grasshoppers landed on me while mowing this weekend. Suddenly that doesn't seem so bad.


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