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Story of Nevin (Iowa)

by J. Loran Ellis (1901)


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Chapter I, 1855 - 1856 (continued)

A Thunder Storm || New Arrivals || Discouragements || Surveying the Land || Colonists Scattered || Prairie Fires


The colonists in their new school house home, were surprised on the night of July 4th, 1857, by a violent thunder, wind and rain storm.  The frail shell of a building yielded to its terrific force.  The sleeping inmates were aroused as the thing came tumbling down.  Those nearest the opening made a quick and easy exit.  Not so, however, with those in the farther end;  Messrs. Thomas and Smith escaped with slight injuries but Mr. Jewett (who had tarried to put on his coat and boots) was a little late in starting.  Just before he reached the door he fell across a tool-chest, and was held fast to it by the falling roof, in such a way that he was wholly unable to free himself.  The others released him, but he was unable to stand and it was soon found that he was badly injured.  There was no physician to be had.  It was dark; they could not see a thing.  It blew so hard that one man could not stand alone.  Yet there they were obliged to stay until morning, holding their disabled comrade.

As soon as it was light they cleared the ruins from the stove and tool-chest to get matches.  The stove was found to be broken; but they managed to set it up outside, and cooked some needed food.  Again they rallied and built a cabin from the ruins of the structure, in which they could sleep, doing their cooking out of doors.


On July 21st Mr. Charles E. Austin, with his wife, Amanda, and their daughter Martha, also their nephew, Joseph Ballou, arrived on the grounds with their two teams, one drawn with oxen, the other with horses.  They came from Illinois, to which state they two years before had emigrated from Berkshire county, Mass.

Mr. and Mrs. Austin, it appeared, had noticed in their religious paper, the "Boston Recorder," during April and May, very florid statements of the proposed New England Colony of Iowa.  They were attracted thereby, thinking that the idea was just the thing for them.  So, Mr. Austin by correspondence with Dr. Nevin and Mr. Turner, bought 160-acre lot No. 5, of the 1856 plan of the town, made preparation and then drove overland to the much boomed place.  They of course on arrival were greatly disappointed as to Nevin and its unimproved condition.  Coming as they did, in July, through eastern Iowa with its fine soil and promising crops, the outlook was quite encouraging to them.  They decided that the state was naturally fine for farming, all right.  Mr. Austin, therefore, was not dismayed by their situation.  They were now here to stay.

Someone, remarking to the Austins in explanation of those alluring advertisements that they had read, said, that "the hotel and school house were, it is true, not as described in the Recorder, but growing -- where the Almighty planted them; that the railroad that was 'under contract' had not yet gotten above it, and was likely to remain 'under' for some time to come; and that the two railroads that were to pass near, have been eagerly looked for, but have not been seen to 'pass' since then."

To some, personally, it had been stated in Boston, that fifty families were already on the ground.

It may be remarked here that Mrs. Austin and daughter, Martha, were the first white women that ever set foot on Nevin lands.

The Austins remained encamped a week or so, while looking around to find a wintering place.  Then they went to near the "Dunlap" farm at what was locally called "Hazel Green," where Mr. Austin built them a rude cabin to live in over winter and until Nevin should be laid out into lots.

The pluck of the Austins, seemed at first to stimulate the colonists at the school house ruins cabin, to try, for something better in which they might winter also.     They went to the "South" grove, a mile or more to the east from Elliott's grove, where they felled trees and hewed the logs on two sides, with which to build them a log house.  These logs were then hauled across the stream, to near a spring some forty rods westward form the latter-day Hunter--McKercher house, on the northwestern part of section 14.  This stimulation, however, did not last the fast disappearing colonists very long; for the present writer discovered those logs, scattered around the place, still un-laid-up in April following.


The Colony men in 1856, patronized the "Adair" post-office in part, and the Fontanelle office in part.  Each were at least ten miles away.  The former, which was the oldest established office in Adair county, was kept by Mr. Johnson, in his log house near his water power saw-mill.  It was supplied from Afton; the carrier passing three miles north of the Colony camp.

The inconvenience the men experienced in their mail facilities, induced them in June, to ask the department for an office in their midst, and that their J. P. Jordan be the postmaster.  But their request was not granted.  Another discouragement was that Mr. Jewett, so much needed in the place, was still lame from the 4th of July accident, and unable to work, and withall was half sick.  Believing that it was best for him to leave, he on July 27th, started east, for his home in Maine.  At this time they were almost out of food -- for several days living on "johnny-cake" and water.     When Mr. Jewett left they divided with him, giving him half -- which was a piece as large as one's hand.  (This he kept in his pocket until he reached his home.)   With no other food provision than this, he started on his long return journey, sick at heart, and expecting to walk to the railroad terminus, then at Mt. Pleasant.  But fortunately, after going a few miles, he found a chance to ride to Afton, and then on homeward where he arrived safely.

Soon after Mr. Jewett had left the colony band, the redoubtable Mr. Solomon Brown again came, just from Boston, to bring assurance to the desponding settlers, and to see about having the Nevin land surveyed and laid out into lots, as had been proposed and promised by Turner and Smith, for months past.


About the middle of August, Mr. Brown secured County Surveyor "Graham," from Quincy, who surveyed the entire Colony lands, and set the proper stakes indicating the quarter section corners, or the 160-acre lot corners; as well as 40-acre subdivisions inside of the 1856 plan of 160-acre lots.  The 10-acre, 2 1-2 acre and public ground lots, shown on that plan, were not corner staked.  These smaller lot corners were not established, from the reason that the way the plan had been drawn by Turner and Smith, these small sized lots and the public grounds would be put on rough and small-slough land.     The present expectation was that the proprietors would decide to make a new plan, or plat, locating the smaller lots and common on the better land, about 240 rods south and 120 rods east of the 1856 centre.

The native grass in the sloughs and ravines was high and abundant, making the finding of the old government survey corners and stakes quite difficult in many places; and many stakes were down, missing, or burned.  The surveying job of Mr. Graham was quite badly done; some of the government corners were found, but more were not found; and so, consequently, some of the new corners were afterwards found to be quite astray.

This 1856 plan had fifty-four lots of 160 acres each; twenty-eight lots of 40 acres; 108 lots of 10 acres, and 140 lots of 2 1-2 acres each; with a 10 acre tract in the centre (on the county line) for a common or public ground.  The whole formed a square, four miles on a side; with one extra 160-acre lot on the south out-side; three extra 160-acre lots on the west out-side; and two extra 160-acre lots on the north out-side, borders.

The portion of Nevin lands in Adair county was about half a section greater than the Adams county portion.

Soon after the survey, Mr. Solomon Brown -- "Agent" went back east.  He never came to Nevin again.


The Nevin colonists of 1856, remaining on the ground during the survey, soon after left Nevin lands entirely; or, at least, for the winter.  Mr. McDougall went to Mr. Whipple's to live; Mr. Jordan took the team and their cabin things and the tools of the party, going to Hazel Green to hunt business, Mr. Thomas, the teamster, went there with him, Mr. Alden B. Smith, the broad-axe man, went to Fontanelle, where he a year or two later built himself a house.  Later in life he removed to Winterset and was in business there with Mr. Ballard, once of Fontanelle.  Mr. Smith died there -- so did Mr. Ballard, later on.


The prairie grass of 1856, dried quite early in the fall.  On October 11th, the prairie fires, driven with a strong wind from the southwest, swept over the abandoned lands of Nevin, and the surrounding country.  The first wave of fire licked up the leavings of the scattered settlers; the stacks of hay, the camp in the grove and the most of the school house cabin, all went up.



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