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Copyright 1999-2013,
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Story of Nevin (Iowa)

by J. Loran Ellis (1901)


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Chapter II, 1856 - 1857 (continued)

A Queer Accident || A Pioneer Cabin || Lo! Spring Approaches || Spring Doings || Laying Out the Town


One day during the winter, a very singular accident happened at the mill.  The men had been digging a broad dry well just between the mill and the river, and had gotten it to the depth of about twenty feet.  Coming on a thick snowfall at noon, they laid poles over the well and covered them with slough hay to keep out the snow, and then went to their dinners.  An hour or two later, some of the men returning, found that "Old Jerry," one of the mill oxen, had been along and had fallen into the well.    There he was at the bottom, standing up eating the hay that he had taken down with him. But he was not permitted to remain there very long.  The men all came to help.   They took the main belt from the mill, attached it to him and to the windlass, and soon had him hoisted out.  With the exception of a few slight bruises, he was quite unhurt.

This dry well at the river bank was designed to be filled with water from the running river, to furnish a reservoir of water for the needs of the mill.  The water was let in through a pipe set in the ground just below the surface, the well being filled at flush times of water.  There was a low gravelly dam just below, placed there to raise the slack water above.


The shanty that Mr. Austin had built, in August, 1856, into which the family had moved at that time, was "squatted" near a few scattering trees on the edge of the prairie, nearly half a mile south of the present Dunlap-Hurlbut house.  It was built of small logs, rather hastily put up.  It was about 12x18 feet square, about 4 1-2 feet high on one side, and 6 3-4 feet on the opposite side.  The roof was of boards (from Johnson's mill), put on leanto, or slanting one way.  An opening was left in the logs at one south-end corner, about 3 feet wide and 5 high, for an entrance.     There was no proper door, but instead, there was a square piece of carpeting nailed at one edge to the log above the opening and hanging down loose, to keep out cold and snow, and which was pushed to one side on one's wishing to enter.  There was no floor, other than some boards placed where they would do the most good.   Carpets brought from the east with them, were fastened up under the roof boards to keep out cold, and to protect the stove and beds from filtering snow when the winds blew.   Sods cut from the nearby prairie, were placed outside against the logs on three sides of the cabin, as high as the top logs.  A cook stove at one side, having a pipe, was utilized in warming the room and in preparing the family food.


During the wintery evening of February 13th, as the people in the vicinity of Hazel Green were retiring to rest for the night, they were agreeably surprised to see vivid flashes of lightning in the southwestern sky, followed by peals of thunder that awakened all.  The land lay covered deep with the accumulated snows of the past ten and one-half weeks; there had not been a thaw all winter.  Now the men knew that there was going to be a change very soon.  And there was; for the weather moderated right along from this time.

By the 25th of the month, the rivers were bank full of water from the thawing snow.     March 21st the water was still higher and two days later the rushing streams and floating ice carried off most, if not all, of the few bridges in the two counties.   A week later still, the snow and ice were about gone, and the rivers all free.

Mr. Austin, who, after the December sale of his mill interest, to Messrs. Turner and Smith, had been employed during good weather, in freighting provisions and other things from Winterset to Hazel Green; now turned his attention, as did Mr. Ellis, to having bills of lumber frame sawed at the mill, now in operation.  This lumber was for the dwellings that they planned to build this spring in Nevin.  In the meantime they hewed the needed oak sills for their house frames.

The spring opened quite rapidly.  The snow-covered sheltered places were soon devoid of frost.  Mr. Joseph Dunlap was replowing his previous year's hazel-brush land breaking, east of his house, before March was entirely gone; but, by reason of a deficiency of hay for teams, settlers in the vicinity generally did but little farming until after the grass grew.

The extensive prairie fires of the previous autumn had burned much of the stacked hay, and the long, hard winter had used the most of the unburned hay.  Consequently the teams were now thin in flesh, and were weak.  There was absolutely no hay nor straw (of course there were no corn stalks) for cows or young cattle after the first of March.     Such stock was, in some cases, driven off to browse from the branchletts of elm, linn and maple trees, felled for that purpose; to keep them from threatened starvation, until the sheltered wet ravines and sloughs should be made greenish with starting grass and early weeds; upon which they then could preserve life.


Spring having arrived, Messrs. Austin and Ellis now commenced the hauling of their lumber and frame to build their houses in Nevin.  Mr. Austin, who commenced first to haul, found no serious difficulty in reaching his newly selected farm (Mr. Turner had acceded to his wish, giving him 3-4 of 160-acre lot No. 7 in the 1857 Nevin plan, in exchange for his former No. 5 in the 1856 plan).  Having taken a more northerly route for his first load, he reached the stream at a small grove just northwest of his land.     This stream he managed in some way to ford; later he placed a low slab-bridge at that point, for his convenience in teaming to his farm.

Mr. Ellis, on the other hand, had no end of trouble in his first attempt to reach his small lot in the centre; perhaps because he was not so well posted in the habits of wet bottoms and sloughs of the west, as was his neighbor, who had lived in the west a year or two.  Mr. Ellis on the morning of April 4th, using the mill team, loaded in 600 feet of unseasoned linn boards and started out from the mill.  Having to cross a small run, just out of the woods, he got stuck and had to unload half his lumber before the oxen could pull out.  Then he had to pick up those boards, carry them by hand across, and reload his wagon.

About a mile further on, in crossing a wet slough his team again was stalled, and he had to repeat the process of carrying a part of his load over the wet place and loading it on again on firmer ground.

Awhile after this he got badly floundered in trying to cross another slough, and this time he was obliged to throw off three-fourths of the load before the team would haul the wagon through to solid land.  Then he carried over the surplus loading and loaded up once more.  Having from this on a divide that he could follow, he drove on till he reached the bottom land bordering the stream that is about a mile west of the present day Nevin village.  Essaying to drive on, he soon got his tired oxen as far as they could go, where the young man, without reserve, threw the whole 600 feet off in a pile.     Then he himself walked on to the bank of the stream to look for a low bridge that the colony men had placed there the summer previous, and was supposed to be there still.   But there was no bridge, it having been burned or washed away, since the September previous.

We tremble when we think of what might have happened to our Yankee Nova Scotian, in case that that low bridge had been found there all right, and that he had tried to carry all that lumber by hand, across the wide bottoms on both sides of the stream, to firm ground beyond; then to have gotten his team across some way, loading up again and hauling it to his village lot; and after that to have returned to Hazel Green that night with the team alive.  However, after viewing the unbridged river, he took the team and at once retraced his track homeward, where he arrived at about half past nine in the evening, about as tired as he ever was.

Soon after this, Messrs. Ellis and Austin took loads of bridge material, drove out again, and built a temporary bridge across the stream, at a point about 60 rods north, or up stream, from the present day river bridge.

The next load of house building lumber that Mr. Ellis took to Nevin lands, he had to leave standing near the old 1856 school house site, while with the aid of a pocket compass, he paced off east and then north, to find out about where his building lot would be; finding that it was going to be badly cut up with small sloughs, he then and there selected a site on the east part of block I, where he unloaded, and where the house was eventually built.

From this time, the prospects of Nevin improved right along, -- lumber being abundant at the mill, and colonists in the vicinity being cheered by reports coming from the east that many new settlers might be expected here as soon as a house or two and store, were completed.  The spring birds in the trees were singing and the frogs in the pools were croaking with joy.  the green grass began to show in places.  There was quite an abundance of prairie hens.  The deer and wild turkey, so plentiful the year before, were now quite  scarce, the severe winter evidently had driven them to a warmer climate.


Early in April, the big lithograph maps of the new, or 1857, of Nevin lots were received at Fontanelle, with orders from Turner and Smith to Messrs. Ellis and Nichols, to have the land run out as soon as possible, into lots and streets to accord with the new maps.

On May 7th, Mr. D. W. Valentine, surveyor, from Fontanelle, finished his job of surveying and laying out the relocated central area of Nevin.  The 360 acres relocated was staked into 128 lots of 2 1-2 acres each, and 14 blocks of the same size, which were divided into smaller lots and alleys, with the common in the centre.  The streets and lots as planned December, and then drawn by Mr. Ellis, were retained  and embraced in the maps used.

The surveyor's work was inscribed on two of those big 28x30 inch lithograph maps, one of which was filed for record at Fontanelle, on May 18th, the other one was filed for record at Quincy, on May 20th, 1857.  The doings of surveyor Graham in the 1856 survey were never put on the county records.  But, the plats of Nevin with Surveyor Valentine's survey notes, filed at Fontanelle August 17th, and at Quincy August 20th, 1857, were what gave validity to all Turner and Smith deeds.



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