Where Did They Come From?– Iowa Pioneers

The month of May means the school year is coming to an end and summer is right around the corner. But for some, like myself, it means picking up a few summer classes. I needed one more course to fill my history requirement and after looking through a variety of online classes I found one that seems to capture my interest perfectly—Iowa History.

Now if you enjoy learning about our past and how things came to be then you will understand my excitement when I stumbled upon this course. For the past couple of years now, I have been trying to track my ancestor’s history and how they came to settle in the state of Iowa. My grandmother has told me many stories of my ancestor’s travels, but after the first week of this course I am finally able to envision the journey myself. Each farm family has a story of how they came to this land, and with that here is the story of the Cook Farm and the history of the pioneers that came before us.

My ancestor’s history begins with a heritage farm, known as the Cook Farm, located up in the Northeast corner of Iowa. What is a heritage farm, you may ask? Well, a heritage farm is a farmstead that has been in ownership of the family for more than 150 years. Some of you may be familiar with the ceremony at the Iowa State Fair that recognizes families for century farms—farms that have been in the ownership of the family for 100 years. If you think about it, a lot of life events can happen in 100 years that can test a family’s strength in keeping a farm around for the next generation. Luckily, my family has been able to pass this farm on from generation to generation, but it still amazes me what these pioneers had to go through to leave that legacy behind.

cook farm barn

The Cook Farm barn and the garden that is planted every year by my grandparents. The garden sits where the cattle lot used to be many years ago, making for rich and fertile soil.

My family’s journey begins all the way back to the 1840s when my ancestors came over from Bavaria, Germany. For the first 20 years in America, my Great-Great-Great Grandfather Henry Cook worked as a baker in Cincinnati, OH and later became a citizen of the United States. He later married and started a family and around that time they were calling for settlers to move out West. To start their journey to Iowa, they acquired land through the Homestead Act of 1862. This act stated that an individual could obtain a track of land consisting of 160 acres and own the land after two years of living and working off of it. By the end of the Civil war, 15,000 homestead claims had been established, and more followed in the postwar years. Throughout Henry’s years he acquired more land—either by buying from soldiers who fought in the Civil War and were paid with acres of land for their service or from neighboring pioneer families who decided to continue moving out west.

Now in the first week of this Iowa history course we have been learning about the challenges these pioneers faced when venturing out West. The first that was noted was the environment and the climate. On the East Coast, trees lined the shores for miles inland and were a great source to build houses and start fires. Well, Iowa was not known for dense forests but for the never-ending prairies that stretched across the land. Some settlers noted that the prairie grass was over 7 to 8 feet tall and it was very easy to lose livestock or even children on the journey through the waves of tall grass.

Since there were not many trees around, settlers had to adapt to the resources in their new environment. Sod houses became an iconic image for the New Frontier. These homes were constructed by disassembling the pioneer’s covered wagon and using the wood boards and tarp as a foundation for the house walls and roof and then lay strips of prairie sod on top and around to finish it off. These sod homes made great insulation and warmth for the cold winter months and were cool for the hot summer months—perfect for Iowa’s climate and seasons.

Prairie fires were another challenge to overcome. To fight the fires, pioneers created prairie strips around the boarder of their homes in an act to stop or divert the fires away. They also purposely set the prairie on fire, that way they could control the size of the fire, the direction, and when the fires occurred– this is known as a prescribed fire today. That way it wasn’t a surprise and they weren’t in a rush of time to control the fire. In one of my history books, it claimed pioneers would sleep with one eye open all the time to watch for prairie fires starting up.

The last main challenge pioneers faced was that of disease. There were not doctors, let alone towns for miles. This was partially why you saw such big farm families. Not only were children seen as hands on the farm, but also life expectancy was not the highest. My grandmother stated Henry and Mary Cook had 11 children in 22 years and three of the children died as infants from disease that came through the area.

It wasn’t the best or glorious life one could have out on the open prairie, but the chances these settlers took not only lead to the future of their family farm but to the future of this state. Without them Iowa wouldn’t be what it is today. So, my question for you is, do you have what it takes to be a pioneer and if so where would your journey take you?

For lessons and educational materials on Iowa History check out our lesson, History of Iowa Agriculture or our website for more lessons.

Also check out these videos that explain rural farm life in the early 20th century.


Cook Farm Gang and House

Henry Cook first built a sod house on the Cook Farm land and later built a log cabin. The house in the background was the last farm house built by Henry’s son, Andrew Cook. This farm house was also the first home in Clayton county to have electricity, running water, and a working telephone.


Why Do They Do That? – Burning Fields and Ditches

This time of year you may see billowing plumes of smoke rising up across Iowa. Menacing blazes are seen by motorists traveling the state roads. Ditches are being burned and in some cases entire fields get burned. But, why?

Seventy-one years of Smokey the Bear have ingrained in us that fires are bad. We see their destructive power when they level a house or destroy a forest. But, throughout history fires have been an essential tool in land management.

042115_Burn_Meier1Each spring farmers and other land managers use controlled burns (also called prescribed burns) to put nutrients back into the soil and revitalize the land. These intentionally set fires serve a valuable purpose. At the end of the growing season plants will leave a lot of dead matter above the ground where it does not easily decompose. Fire breaks down that plant matter and releases the nutrients so they are available to the soil and can help promote future plant growth. These prescribed burns are often applied to road side ditches where dead plant matter can build up quickly.

Fires can also help seed new plants. Many seeds have a thick outer shell that needs to be broken before the seed will start to germinate. Fire can break this shell and then the seed ends up laying in a nutrient rich bed to start growing. Healthy soil is the primary goal of using fire as a tool. Secondary goals of prescribed burn include brush and weed control. Fires can even help control ticks and parasitic worms that might infect livestock that graze on the land.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANative Americans also used prescribed burns to manage grasslands long before we started farming in Iowa. Native Americans saw the improved plant growth after a fire and how the animals they hunted gravitated to this new growth. They used fire to manage the grasslands and ensure the herd health of the animals they hunted.

Farmers Take Great Care

stelprdb5294229Prescribed burns or controlled burns are effective because they are controlled. Land managers set fires in the spring when the ground is still wet and there is high humidity. This makes the fire easy to control and direct. It is also important to pick a day with very little wind. Too much wind can make the fire large and uncontrollable.

Land owners doing prescribed burns are careful to never leave them unattended. They carefully monitor the fire in progress. They often work with the local fire department to ensure the fire stays under control. And of course they are sure to obtain the appropriate permissions and permits necessary to do prescribed burns.

grassWhile fire might initially cause ugly, charred pieces of land, it is an important tool to create lush, rich vegetation.

– Will