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Story of Nevin (Iowa)

by J. Loran Ellis (1901)


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Chapter II, 1856 - 1857 (continued)

The Great Snow-Storm || Mr. Turner's Visit || Wintering at the Mill


On the 2nd of December, 1856, occurred the greatest snow-storm and blizzard ever known within the memory of the oldest inhabitant.  It had been snowing from the northeast without intermission, since the morning of the preceding day.  Towards night of the second day the storm attained its climax.  The snow came down fast and fine.     The piercing cold wind blew a perfect gale, sending the snow flying and swirling along in blinding fury.  Cattle exposed to the storm, went off bellowing before the blast to the nearest timber--in some instances there or four miles from home.     Stables, of poles and hay, were literally filled with snow.

At Matthew Clark's stage station, one mile east of the later Greenfield, four stage horses were buried in their frail pole and hay stable, and had to be shoveled out next morning.  One horse was dead; the others were badly bruised, in their efforts to get away during the night.

At Fontanelle, a party of seven men--Mr. Ballard, Mr. Ellis, and Mr. Clary among the number--in attempting at about 4:45 p. m. to go from Mr. Ballard's small store opposite the west end of the public square, diagonally northeasterly across the corner of the square, to Mr. James C. Gibbs log boarding house, some twenty or twenty-five rods distant, became lost.  The fact that the wind had veered a little to the right during the three hours that they had been in the store, had not been noticed by them.  So, after locking up the store for the night, they scampered off, running and laughing, and soon after shouting, for the Gibbs house.  On they rushed until they thought they had gone far enough to be there.  But no house was to be found--within sight or hearing--as they stood in doubt and called for a response from somebody.

Then it dawned upon their minds that they were lost in a snow storm, upon the trackless prairie, with nothing to indicate just where they were.  What to do, they knew not.     Night with its terrible cold was fast coming on.  The suspense was distracting.  They knew that to sleep out of doors that night was certain death.

After running frantically about here and there, they fortunately hit upon the liberty pole, which was about two-thirds of the distance from the store to the boarding house, and a few rods to the right of a direct course.  This find allayed their excitement somewhat.

An attempt was then made by Mr. Ellis and Mr. Ballard to rally the rest of the party to an organized effort to find the house.  The plan was:  To form a line from the pole, each man to place himself just in sight of the next inner man, then the extended line of men to swing around the pole as a centre, believing that the outer man by this method would come within sound of those at the house.

In the meantime, two of the men in their impatience had broken away, made a run before the wind, and found the store, into which they dashed through the window, and where they remained over night.  Those at the pole could not be held to carry out the swing-around-the-pole plan.  Fortunately, however, just at this time, Mr. A. B. Smith, who was out from the hotel looking for another man (Mr. Valentine), happened to come within hearing of our five lost men, who then succeeded in finding the Gibb's house; into which they rushed, a thankful set of men.  Their faces, heads and clothes cased in snow and ice, were soon relieved; some were minus hats or caps, that had blown away during the twenty or so, minutes that they were out.

After getting warmed and dried, the whole party at the hotel ate their suppers.     Late in the evening the four beds in the loft were brought down out of the snow, and were placed close side by side on the floor of the main room, before the warm stove.   There all the men slept well and long, until the clear morning sun shone into the room, showing that the great snow-storm was over.


On December 15th, Mr. R. W. Turner, from Boston, made his appearance at Fontanelle, and at the Hazel Green mill; his first trip to Iowa since the March previous.  He is now on an urgent business mission, which seemed to be much heeded, in order to hold the few remaining colonists in the neighborhood, to the work of endeavoring to survive the failures of 1856, and to encourage them in trying again, the coming year, to make settlement at the now vacant Nevin.

During his ten days' visit, he bought out the interest of Mr. Austin in the steam mill plant; and in company with Mr. Ellis and Mr. Jordan, visited the Nevin lands to look up a site for small lots and a central square.  They finally decided that the proper place for such central lots was on the southwest quarter of section 2, township 73, range 32.     It developed that Turner and Smith had in June, 1856, bought the "Carr and Quimby" land in Nevin.  This consisted of the west half of said section 2, and the northwest quarter of section 11, in the same township, the purchase price being $1,440 for the three quarter sections.  The deed, however, was not recorded at Quincy till in January, 1857.

Having decided upon the new arrangement of lots, Mr. Turner then employed Mr. Ellis to draw the proposed new plan of the town, as soon as possible, and to forward his document to Boston for lithographing.

Mr. Turner also agreed to build a store building on a certain named village lot in the 1857 Nevin, and employed Mr. Nichols to construct and finish it as soon as the first of June.  Consideration $400.  Mr. Turner, before returning east, bargained to Mr. Ellis 160-acre lot No. 46, and 2 1-2 acre lot No. 125 in the 1857 plan of Nevin; at the price of $480, half in five months and half in two years, less a credit of $100 on the first half.  This $100 was allowed Mr. Ellis for damages he had sustained in the matter of the misrepresentations of Mr. Turner about the water-fall at the mill.  Mr. Ellis, on his part agreed to build a small house, of given dimensions, on one of the bargained lots, within five months, and then to keep it as a boarding house, to accommodate the expected 1857 settlers, until they could build houses for themselves, or to board elsewhere.

Soon after Mr. Turner (Dec. 26, 1856), returned to Boston, he and Mr. R. B. Smith completed the purchase of the Secor 200 acres of timber land, at the Hazel Green mill, for the previous agreed upon price of $1,500.

By the close of 1856, Mr. Ellis had finished the plat of the 1857 Nevin, and had sent it to Mr. Turner.  This plat left off the four forties lying south of the four mile square body of land.  So the new plan or plat contained only fifty-three lots of 160 acres each; twenty-three lots of forty acres each; 108 lots of ten acres each; and 128 lots of 2 1-2 acres each.  There were also fourteen blocks containing 2 1-2 acres each, each block being divided into smaller building or business lots.  in the centre, there was an oblong common, or public square, of five acres.  All the 2 1-2 acre lots, the block lots, and common, were bordered with streets on two or four sides; the land for which was taken from the lots or sizes named.


The new year, 1857, opened with cold weather and deep snow.  The great snow-storm of December 2nd, previous, was followed with almost continuous, solid winter for months.     The work of setting up the saw-mill and getting things ready for future sawing, was continued by Mr. Jordan and his assistants as fast as the severe cold permitted.

Mr. McDougall came from Mystic early in January and Mr. Ellis from Fontanelle about the same time.  These two men were employed by Mr. Jordan to do the needed chopping and hauling of saw-logs to the mill from the different 40-'s strung along by the river, comprising the mill timber.  The logs from the two lower 40's were hauled to the mill along the surface of ice in the crooked stream, with oxen.  Messrs. Jordan, Clark and Thomas were employed, themselves, exclusively in and about the mill.

One cold night, soon after the mill steamed up for the first time, the water in the steam chest froze and broke the "cooler," compelling the men to send to Des Moines for a new one.  About the first week in February they began to saw lumber, and then they soon had materials for building purposes; so they soon got a covering over the mill plant, and they built a boarding cabin close by where they lodged, and boarded themselves from this on;  Messrs. Ellis and McDougall, however, continued to lodge and eat at "Dunlap's" until spring.  There being no women in the mill crowd, the men were compelled to do their own clothes washing, as well as their mending and sewing, or to go without.  It was nearly a year later when Mr. S. Pierce and family came from Nevin to work at the mill, that they had a woman to cook for them.

Aside from the mill men and the Austin and Dunlap families not far away, there were some settlers wintering in their homes in the rather more distant neighborhood.  The two McCall families -- James and John, -- Mr. and Mrs. John Boyd, C. C. Cutler and family, Mr. Jack Cade and family, and Richard Davis and family, were occupying their log dwellings in the timber within two miles of the mill.  There were a few scattering settlers along all the timbered streams, in both Adair and Adams counties.

Previous to the summer and fall of 1857, the country outside of the stage stations and county seats, afforded the settlers but few of what eastern people regarded as necessaries of life.  They had corn bread, pork, or bacon, and coffee, with a sack of wheat flour from Winterset, occasionally, to make hot biscuit for visitors, or on Sundays.



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