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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 6

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 8
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 p33  Chapter VII


To the farmer from the forests of any of the Middle or Eastern States, who has spent years of most laborious and painful drudgery in "clearing up" his land, and with whom the most desirable object has been the destruction of timber, the scarcity of it here seems an evil without a remedy. But we contend that that which appears to the superficial  p34 observer as a defect, is, in truth, one of the greatest sources of prosperity in our country.

Let us contrast life in "the wooden country" with a life here upon the wide prairie. The labor of clearing woodland is the most arduous task to which the farmer is subjected; and frequently the new-comer from the East, who settles in the forests of Ohio and Kentucky, consumes years of painful toil, and wastes the prime of his life, before he sees the fruits of his labor. Besides, the industry and trade of the country are not enhanced, because those who are clearing new land cannot for years produce anything for market. Again, the clearing of new lands suddenly exposes the vegetable deposits of ages to the glaring beams of the sun; which, with the thousands of fallen and rotting trees, fill the air with noxious exhalations, producing diseases of the most malignant character.

Quite different is the case in our open prairie country. The settler may always select upon the prairie, land as fertile as the richest river-bottoms; and, by settling on the edge of the timber, combine every advantage afforded by the latter. The land being already cleared, he has only to enclose and break it. The sod (described in another section) is turned over with a heavy plow and strong team. The corn is dropped in the furrows, covered with a hoe, and thus left to be gathered. Several other modes of corn-planting may be worthy of mention; one of which is performed by striking an axe into the sod and dropping the corn into the crevice; another, by dropping the corn in every fourth row in plowing, which is covered by the  p35 plowing of the fifth. Thus, while the overturned sod is undergoing decomposition, and becoming mellow by exposing fibrous roots to the sun, it is also affording nourishment to the growing corn. Neither the yield nor the grain is very good the first season; but sufficient to reward amply the labor of planting and gathering. By the ensuing spring, the roots of the wild grass are completely rotted, and the rich, light mould, unencumbered with rocks and stumps, is fit for all the purposes of husbandry. The plow, running easily through the rich, loamy soil, can be as well managed by a half-grown boy as the strongest plowman.

Thus, it is seen, the difference in the greater facility of working prairie-lands, the saving in the wear of farming utensils, the economy of time, and greater degree of certainty in the farmer's calculations, and the enjoyment of health, more than outweigh any inconvenience which can possibly be experienced in this country from the want of timber, even under the most unfavorable circumstances.

"According to the most reliable estimates, about one-tenth of Iowa is timber-land. Of this a considerable portion is of inferior quality; and the supply of the finest growth of timber, such as we find in Ohio, is comparatively small. Yet along the streams there are thousands of acres covered with an excellent growth of oak, walnut, ash, linn, maple, hickory, elm, and cotton-wood. These varieties differ in different localities. Along the Iowa and Cedar Rivers, there is a large amount of oak of all varieties; and the valleys of the Des Moines are abundantly supplied with walnut. Hickory and walnut are abundant on the Iowa,  p36 Skunk, Cedar, and other rivers. Besides the full-grown timber, there are thousands of acres of a vigorous young growth, that has at last conquered the prairie fires, and is now rapidly coming to maturity. In addition to these, there is a vast amount of locust being cultivated. This grows here with a rapidity that is seldom equalled elsewhere. I have seen trees at the age of ten years that would make eight posts of sufficient size for fencing. Thus there is an abundance of timber for present purposes, and it is believed by those best informed, that, notwithstanding the constant demand, the supply is every day increasing, both from natural and cultivated sources.

"The unequal distribution of the wooded land is a greater objection than its actual quantity. Sometimes the prairies are from twenty to forty miles in width, thus making timber inconvenient. These, however, are rare cases, and, at the worst, are bearable, compared to the life-long drudgery of woodland pioneering.

"The large amount of coal that is now discovered in the various sections of the State obviate, to a great extent, the limited supply of timber-land. The rapidly-increasing facilities for inter-communication are also fast equalizing the advantages of different localities. It is not the economy of nature that any one spot should monopolize all natural advantages; but some portions of this appear to combine as many as are often found harmonizing."

The portion of Iowa most deficient in timber is north of latitude 42° — especially on dividing ridges. North of this latitude, between the head-waters of Three and Grand  p37 Rivers, there are distances of ten and fifteen miles without any timber; while between the waters of Grand River, Nodaway, and the Nishnabotna, the open prairie is often twenty miles wide, without a bush to be seen higher than the wild indigo and the compass plant.

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Page updated: 19 Jun 11