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OPINION

Common things to be thankful for

Steve Lekwa
Naturally Speaking

I have done some reading lately on the earliest days of settlement in our area. The pioneer families who came here settled land that was full of promise, but very much “in the raw.”  Their possessions were few, and included basic farming tools and household goods, very basic foods like corn meal, and a change or two of clothing. A gun (muzzle-loading rifle or shotgun), a brace of oxen or horses and some seed for the first crop rounded out their entire set of resources. A few “more wealthy” families might have had a milk cow. It all had to fit in a small covered wagon, and whatever didn’t fit there had to walk or be carried by hand.

The nearest trade centers were many miles and days of hard travel behind them in the 1850s when our area was first settled. The “raw” land they chose to homestead still had to provide the necessities that all life needs to survive. In wildlife terms we say that habitat (the land) must provide food, water and cover, and so it was for the pioneers. 

Game was a critical food resource to sustain pioneer families in their first years here, as were wild fruits and other edible wild plants. It would be months, maybe more than a year, before their own garden and crops could begin to provide some food. It took several years for industry to catch up with the pioneer front. The first few grain crops had to be ground at mills that were several day’s travel away. Few modern Iowans are more than a half hour from stores to supply all of their needs.

Steve Lekwa, the retired director of Story County Conservation poses for a photo at McFarland Park in Ames.

We don’t even think about what a critical resource water is as we turn on the tap and watch it flow. The pioneers needed a daily water source from the first day they arrived.  Streams of the day were clear and clean enough to drink from much of the time. That should be no surprise since surface runoff was well filtered by an unbroken blanket of prairie and wooded valleys. 

The water table under the undrained land was much higher than today, and most of the water flowing in streams of that time came from numerous springs. Locating near a spring was a big plus. Shallow wells could be hand-dug, too. It was 1872 before Torkel Henryson, one of Story City’s original Norwegians, drilled the first of what would be many deeper artesian, or flowing, wells that the area became somewhat famous for.  Nearly every farm along and west of the Skunk River from Story City to northwest of Ames had one or more flowing wells by 1900.  Water is still bubbling from a few of those old “flows” with no assistance from a pump.

Shelter meant building a home in which a family could survive long Iowa winters. Wooded valleys provided logs for building cabins and a simple barn for the stock. The valleys also provided some shelter from prairie fires. Cutting trees for the cabin served a second purpose: the cleared areas became the first farm fields. 

We become frustrated when we can’t find enough room to store our “stuff” even in homes with garages, multiple rooms and basements. The pioneer’s cabin was often a single room with maybe a sleeping loft up under the roof. 

We pull on wonderful sweaters, down vests, and Gore-tex lined coats to keep warm and dry outdoors. The pioneer family might have resorted to some itchy woolen underwear and outerwear. 

We just crank up the thermostat another degree or two if we’re chilly indoors. Hand-cut and split wood was the only source of heat for homes and cooking until well after the Civil War. Early prairie farms had to travel to their “wood lots” (small wooded tracts in the valleys acquired along with a prairie farm) to cut their fuel and building materials.

My writing station is in our basement, and is often a bit cooler than the more comfortable upstairs. I am wearing a down vest as I write this morning, over my soft, comfortable cotton clothing. I’m thankful that I don’t have to wear itchy wool next to my skin to keep me from freezing. There’s a pot of hot tea upstairs and multiple choices of what I might eat in the refrigerator and freezer. My chainsaw cut the firewood in my wood rack in the back yard, but I hand-split most of it. We use it for “recreational fires” in the living room fireplace. I’m thankful that I didn’t have to hand-cut and split a year’s supply just to survive. 

I can call my doctor and usually get to see him in a day or two if I’m sick. Pioneers were their own doctors with limited “medicines” they gleaned from the land, just as the Native Americans who lived here before them. There were no video calls to distant relatives “back east,” and only a few letters might be exchanged in a year. 

We may not be feeling too thankful in this most unusual year. Although life was very hard for pioneer families, they were still thankful, hopeful, and believed that the future would be better. We have much to be thankful for in spite of today’s problems, and I believe that the future will, indeed, be better.