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Story of Nevin (Iowa)

by J. Loran Ellis (1901)


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Chapter I, 1855 - 1856 (continued)

A Journey West || Trials and Labors || Trying to Farm || Building a School-house


On Wednesday the 16th day of April, 1856, a party consisting of the following named men left Boston for the "promised land":  James P. Jordan, carpenter, and James McDougall, farmer, both married and both from Gorham; James Thomas, painter, he also from Gorham; John Jewett, farmer, married, from Whitefield; J. P. Moore, from Gardiner, and Alden B. Smith, single, ship-carpenter from Litchfield; all of Maine.

These six prospective settlers, attended by Solomon Brown, the agent of Turner and Smith the land proprietors, journeying by way of a fast through railroad train, soon left their native homes and Boston far in the rear.  Before getting as far as Cleveland, Mr. Brown induced one Mr. J. Breen, whom he met on the train, to join them.  They arrived safely at the Mississippi opposite Burlington, the end of the railroad.  The ferry landed them in Burlington on Sunday, the 20th.  Here they bought a two-horse team and needed stores, a keg of whisky, at the suggestion of Mr. Brown, was also bought     for emergencies.

The first day on the road they reached Mt. Pleasant, putting up for the night at a log house, where their bed was a pile of hay.  The next day they arrived at Fairfield, where they met a Rev. Gates, whom Mr. Brown persuaded to go along, with the intention of becoming a fellow-settler in the proposed new Yankee town in southwestern Iowa.

The party had good weather and fairly good roads till they got to "Myers" place, some 16 miles southeast from the Nevin lands, where recent rains had so raised the streams that they were compelled to tarry for one day.  The following day leaving Myers, they reached a branch of the Little Platte, where they found the bridge was several feet under the moving water.  They succeeded in crossing, however, and at noon, the 8th day of May, they arrived at the house of Samuel Riggs, at what was called "Riggs's" grove.  Finding that the Riggs house was full of previous arrivals, they had to proceed on.  On reaching the West Platte, near by, at a point on the Union and Adams county line, nearly four miles south of the present Cromwell, they found it so high that fording was impossible.  To add to their trouble, rain was now falling.

After consultation, it was decided to build a tree-bridge.  A narrow foot bridge was constructed by felling a large tree across the stream for a foundation, over which their baggage was carried by hand, among which was a heavy tool chest weighing some 200 pounds, a keg of nails, a grindstone, etc., to say nothing of the keg of whiskey.     They swam the horses across, floating and hauling the wagon over; loaded up again and then went on.

About forty rods farther, they found a slough, which came near being the "slough of despond," as was Christian's in "Pilgrim's Progress."  Here they were obliged again to unload and carry their baggage over.  Here, also, their provisions gave out.  Being wearied and worn, the keg of whisky was now for the first time resorted to, and as the spirits in the keg decreased, the spirits in the men seemed to increase.

Again they started, with renewed courage; and after repeatedly unloading, they arrived at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Wm. Whipple, some eight miles south of Nevin village of today.  No place was ever more welcome to its occupants than was the sight of this house to these weary emigrants.  Here they passed a comfortable night.  This house was low and of but one story, three sides were built up of sod; the south side was boarded.  There was no floor except boards under the beds.

The day following most of the party proceeded on their way to find the town.     They were accompanied by Mr. Whipple as guide; but Mr. McDougall, who was sick, and Mr. Thomas, who took charge of the team, were left behind at the house.    Messrs. Gates and Brown had remained at Afton to rest.  The "Nevin seekers" went northwesterly until they struck a branch of the East Nodaway, at what was then "Barnett's grove."  The banks were overflowed and bottom lands nearly covered with water.  They waded to the bank of the creek, then up stream until they came to a tree on the opposite bank that leaned over the stream.  Here they felled a tree on their side, lodging it in the tree on the opposite bank.  Their guide then returned to his home, and the party with their guns and axes crossed on the trees and waded ashore.

At this time there was no house nearer than six miles to the Colony lands, and it was no wonder that the men took a wrong direction, as they did.  After wandering almost all day they came in sight of a log house in the edge of the Middle Nodaway timber, which proved to be that of Mr. Richard Davis, in the McCall neighborhood.  Here the men were kindly received and were kept over night.  In the morning Mr. Davis went out in company with them to the Colony lands, going as far as near where Mr. Nick Steele now lives.  Mr. Davis then returned home and the travelers took a southwestern direction to a grove in sight.  This grove was then called "Elliott's grove," later "Chamberlain's grove."  Here they decided to build themselves a cabin amongst its trees.

That afternoon they went to Chapman's grove, in Adair county, to meet Messrs. Brown and Gates.

The dwelling of the J. Chapman family, on the south slope of this fine hill-grove, was a small, one story log structure, with a board addition on the rear.  At a later day the house disappeared, Mr. Chapman building on the open land west of the stream (Middle Nodaway).  The stream at this place had the best gravelly bed crossing that was to be found on the stream within miles.  Here was where the Mormon emigration of some previous years had crossed in coming west from "Pisgah" in Union county; where some of them had tarried and farmed several years before resuming their journey to Council Bluffs and Plattsmouth, and later to the Salt Lake valley in Utah.

On the top of this Chapman's grove hill just at the edge of the trees, and alongside of their trail, was a small graveyard with its rude enclosure, within which were a number of Mormon graves.  (Many years ago Mr. John Bixby exhibited in Nevin certain skulls from these graves.)

The next day after the arrival of the travelers was Sunday.  Rev. Gates preached to the company present at the Chapman house, he and Brown having arrived there from Afton a day or so before, by way of the Mormon trail route.  The day being rainy all were willing to remain indoors and hear a religious sermon -- the first ever preached in Adair county by a Congregational minister.


On Monday morning, May 12th, the party from Boston held a conference.  They had completed their eventful trip from Yankeedom to the new "wonder" of Nevin.     The alluring stories of Turner and Smith -- not to mention Nevin and Brown -- had (in their views at least), been stripped of their tinsel and flowers of speech.   The many trials and disappointments to which these men had even already been subjected, discouraged them to that degree that they now thought to abandon the whole project and return east.  But the entreaties and promises of Mr. Brown finally prevailed and they were persuaded to remain, by the promise of one hundred dollars each.   (Probably Turner and Smith did, later on, allow a credit of that sum each in making payments on lots that they bought.)

So the Colony party returned during the day to Elliott's grove, taking along some raw pork and corn bread for their dinner.  What was left after eating they put in the forks of a tree for future needs.  Here they proceeded to build them a cabin.     They first felled a tall tree down the incline of the hill, with the butt-end remaining on the top of the high stump, and lodging the tree top in between two diverging trees, to hold it in place.  This tree body thus formed the top of the opening to the cabin, from the warmer south side.  They then built their rude hut against this cross-tree, using logs, old and new, forked stakes, etc.

At night they returned to the Whipple place, where they had left their team some days previous.  During that evening Mrs. Whipple baked them a good pot of pork and beans.     Messrs. Brown and Gates, who had that day visited the Colony lands, also passed the night at the Whipple home.

Next day Mr. Brown started back for Boston, and Rev. Gates, realizing that he was rather ahead of time for a Nevin church pulpit, returned to eastern Iowa, and the others with their team started for the grove cabin.  The stream at the Barrett grove having gone down largely, they built a low bridge to cross on.  They next came to a branch southeast of their camp where they swam their horses across; then, hitching a rope to the wagon tongue they hauled the loaded wagon over, or rather into, the stream, carried the contents of the wagon along the wagon tongue to the opposite bank, and then the wagon was hauled out and reloaded.  They then drove to the cabin not far away.  After eating from their pot of pork and beans, they finished the cabin, and slept therein that night.  A somnific fiend would be excused for wondering what their dreams were as they slept.

The fine black walnut and elm grove, where the party was now squatting, was owned by Mr. Josiah Elliott of Union county.  Its location was on the southwest 1-4 of northwest 1-4 of section 15, township 73, range 32, Adams county.  The trees have all long since disappeared.

The following morning Mr. Jewett was sent with the team in quest of provisions.     He crossed the stream to the west and drove northwest till he came to the Winterset to Quincy route of travel, then but little more than a trail.  He followed this to the "Sprague" farm, within a mile or two of the present "Homan" Baptist church.  Here he bought potatoes, corn, pork, meat, etc. for their present needs.  Before getting back to camp, he lost his way; but was finally heard and discovered by his camp-mates, in some hazel brush near camp crossing, and rescued, late in the evening.  One wonders if that pot of pork and beans did meal duty all day at the cabin.


Having now shelter and food supply, our New England friends found time to consider the prospective needs of the future.  They decided to try their hands at agriculture; and, since they had no plow, "Brother" Jewett was sent to Winterset for the needed implement.  Finding none there, he continued his journey on to Des Moines, where he bought a breaking plow, also a stove.  While the team was gone to Winterset and Des Moines, the men left at camp happened to think of Turner and Brown's advertised "school-house."  So they laid aside the hoe and mattock, and went to work felling trees, then hewing them to proper size and form for building purposes.  Mr. Jordan and Mr. Smith, just from the wooded state of Maine, were very expert  in handling the axe and the broad-axe and much progress was made for a while.

Upon the return of Mr. Jewett the building project was dropped for the present, and the attention of the men was again turned to farming.  They commenced to plow, or rather to break prairie, on the east side of 160-acre lots Nos. 26 and 27 (of 1857 plat).     The north one was for Mr. Jewett and the other one for Mr. McDougall.    They soon found that their pair of horses were unable to do good breaking, then they were exchanged for work-oxen.  The prairie-breaking now went on better.    They broke about twelve acres on farm 27, and six or eight acres on farm 26.    They also did some breaking on 160-acre lot No. 42 for Mr. Jordan.  This last was the farm next north of the McKeen farm.  The other men of this first company did not, as yet, aspire to owning any big farm here.

The colonists planted some of their breaking to corn; some to potatoes, and some to garden truck.  The season later on was rather dry for sod corn, moreover the seed corn proved defective, so they grew no corn.  Their potatoe-planting, however, turned out fair; there was a half-wagon load dug in October by some one from "Hazel Green."

As the summer advanced the prairies became too dry for further breaking and their farming for 1856 closed; except that along in July they mowed slough grass and put up about fifteen tons of hay in stack for winter feeding.

Along in June Messrs. Breen and Moore had concluded that they were too far west.     They were completely discouraged and in their view the colony scheme was a complete failure.  Accordingly they packed up and started off for the east.    Those left behind bade them a sad farewell, and with longing eyes watched their receding forms till they were lost in the distance.  And they scarcely knew why they themselves remained; for in their inmost hearts they envied those who were on their way home.  They, by hard effort, however, stuck to their purpose to keep at work where they were.


The farming being now about over, the men once more turned attention to the building of the school house.  The hewn timbers for the frame were finished and hauled to Nevin lands.  They decided to have it erected on the southeast corner of section 3, at a point about five rods north from the corner.  (It will appear that the west half of section 2 was not at this time owned by Turner and Smith).  This site was the southeast part of 10-acre lot No. 105, as developed in the 1857 plat of Nevin.  The school house was to stand about sixty-five rods west of the present Mrs. Nancy Jewett's dwelling.  The bottom and wall frame was put up and boarded in, except an opening at the south end.  The lumber used had been hauled from the Johnson water power saw-mill, on the west branch of the Middle Nodaway, twelve miles northwest.  In order to have a shelter therein while some shingles were being made, the men put loose timbers or poles across from plate to plate, and covered them with slough grass to keep the rain out; and then they moved in.  The building was about 16x24 feet in size.  They had laid a floor in the north part, where they placed their stove and sleeping appliances.     "Here," says an early writer, "we have a clue as to the character of the first settlers--the school house first; even before they had provided houses for their families, they took care to provide for the instruction of their children.  Noble men! worthy descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers."

Bystander, however, while giving all credit to their good intentions, and to their persistent stick-to-it-ness under unusual difficulties, cynically suggests that the building was called a school house, because Turner and Smith had agreed to build one, and had so advertised in the Boston papers.  Now they could say to credulous inquirers that a school house was already built in Nevin.

About this time the men were gladdened by the coming into their midst of Messrs. Calvin Jordan and Daniel L. Smith, from the east, brothers of our colonists Jordan and Smith.     Their stay, however, was rather short; they were unmarried and having no children of their own to be educated in the new school house, they lost interest in the place.   Mr. Smith remained awhile with his brother, and then abandoning a village lot he had bought from Turner and Smith of Boston, he went to Winterset and taught school there a term or more, after which he went back to his Maine home.  Mr. Calvin Jordan returned east that fall.  Neither of them ever came back.  The Smith brothers have left no record of their saw-mill building in the west, as reported in Massachusetts, that they were going to do.



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