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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Iowa As It Is in 1856

N. Howe Parker

Chicago and Philadelphia, 1856

The text is in the public domain.

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Chapter 3
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 p20  Chapter II

The Climate

We have, generally, an unbroken winter from the middle of November till January, when we are almost invariably visited with a "January thaw;" after which the weather is generally mild, and gradually merges into spring. We are free from the sudden changes of New-England, and from the long drizzling rains and foggy weather of portions of the Middle States. Our storms are from the east; our showers from the west.

This State is located in the healthiest latitude of our continent; reaching only to latitude 43°30′ on its northern boundary. Its winters are comparatively mild and pleasant, and is summers free from the long scorching rays of a southern sun and the epidemics so common in such climates.​1 By the medical journals, Iowa is ranked as  p21 second only in point of health; and no doubt it will be first, when she has a settled and acclimated population, as free from toil, privations, and exposure as other states.

One of the peculiarities of this climate is the dryness of its summers and autumns. A drought often commences in August, which, with the exception of a few showers towards the close of that month, continues, with little interruption, throughout the fall season. The autumnal months are almost invariably clear, warm, and dry. The immense mass of vegetation with which this fertile soil loads itself during the summer is suddenly withered, and the whole earth is covered with combustible materials. This is especially true of those portions where grass grows from two to ten feet high, and is exposed to sun and wind, becoming thoroughly dried. A single spark of fire, falling upon the prairie at such a time, instantly kindles a blaze that spreads on every side, and continues its destructive course as long as it finds fuel. These fires sweep along with great power and rapidity, and frequently extend across a wide prairie and advance in a long line. No sight can be more sublime than a stream of fire, beheld at night, several miles in  p22 breadth, advancing across the plains, leaving behind it a background of dense black smoke, throwing before it a vivid glare, which lights up the whole landscape for miles with the brilliancy of noonday. The progress of the fire is so slow, and the heat so intense, that every combustible in its course is consumed. The roots of the prairie-grass, and several species of flowers, however, by some peculiar adaptation of nature, are spared.

A narrow strip of bare ground, or a beaten road, the width of a common wagon-track, will prevent the fire from extending beyond it; yet careless, thoughtless farmers, sometimes suffer tall grass to connect their fields of corn and fences with the wild prairie, and forfeit their year's toil as a penalty for their slothfulness!

The Author's Note:

1 Dr. Updegraff, a correspondent of the Ohio Farmer, thus alludes to our climate, &c.:

"Of all other considerations respecting a new country, the most important is as to its healthiness.

"In this respect, Iowa has the advantage of most new countries. An open prairie country, almost universally rolling, or even hilly, it is more favorable to health than flat prairie or level woodland. The streams are mostly fresh running water, with sandy or gravel beds. The scarcity of timber-land, and the annual fires that pass over the prairies, prevent, to a great degree, the decomposition of vegetable matter; which is, in most new countries, the great source of disease. With some local exceptions, there does not seem to be any natural reason why this State, even in its early settlement, should not enjoy as high an average of healthiness as Ohio now does. Such I believe to be the fact, after making proper deductions for change of climate, mode of life, exposure, and unusual exertion. To observe the exertion and exposure, often reckless and unnecessary, to which most new settlers subject themselves, it becomes a matter of surprise that disease and mortality are not much more usual than they are."

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