Early Flora and Fauna of Jones County
Written by Miss H. A. Cunningham and published in The Anamosa Eureka, Anamosa IA,
Centennial Edition of August 18, 1938, 100 years after Anamosa became a town,
100 years after the Iowa Territory began, and 100 ½ years after Jones County began.
When one of Anamosa’s young pioneers started out from the little log cabin on the prairie to look over his “eighty” while his bride prepared breakfast that crisp March morning of 1851, he little dreamed of the long train of discoveries his surprise “find” would inspire.
On a little raise of ground lying to the south where the sun had melted the snows, he spied a great path of lavender tinted flowers, each one standing erect in the brown bent-over prairie grass, its golden center answering back to the warm rays of the rising sun. He was seeing for the first time, the starry flowers of the Western Anenome whose exquisite beauty so charmed the Scotch Grove emigrants from the Selkirk country.
Stooping down, the young man gathered one lovely blossom with its fringe of furry leaves about its throat to protect it from sharp winds, and bore it to his wife. Placing it in her hand, he said “Abbie, we have come to a wonderful country where the flowers bloom beside the snowbanks.” This Pasque or Easter Flower is to this day known as the first flower of spring, although there are others that bloom earlier. This was the one that attracted popular attention. It is not common now because like many another prairie flower, the plow has ended its existence and it rarely bears transplanting.
Marsh Flowers Gone
The brilliant marsh flowers and delicate white orchids formerly growing in the swamps are gone because their habitats have been drained and plowed for field crops. The rare wood orchids, Indian pipe and wood lilies, triliums and other blossoms that carpeted the forest have faded away as the woodsman’s axe has deprived them of the shade and sustenance so necessary to their lives.
There is scarcely one of the early writers in this new country that did not write enthusiastically of the multi-form and great variety of wood and prairie flowers. From the Pasque flower through a long succession of bluets, hepaticas, blood roots, dutchmen’s breeches, violets, buttercups, columbine, shooting stars, lady slippers, bell warts, may apples, indian paint brush or “fire balls”, meadow rue, Joe Pye, iron root, milk weeds and brown-eyed Susans, into autumn with its golden rods, wild asters and gentians, the native flowers of every color and form have trooped over Iowa-land in charming array.
To our State park officials, Conservation and Garden clubs, wild Flower Protection society and individual guardians of our plant life all thanks for keeping this rapidly vanishing race from disappearing entirely from the earth.
Commissioners Guard Plants
In several states both in the east and far west, the highway commissioners have taken particular pains to guard the native plant life bordering the roadways. They have realized that the majority of tourists so love the cool greens and beautiful colors that characterize a state’s native plant life that they avoid the hot, congested city streets for these parkways through the open country and the little towns, restfully inviting with their __ing trees and fragrant roadside gardens.
The railroads of this country have served as the chief protector of our wild flowers and many of our birds that nest among them because allowed to live there on their right of way. The “last stand” of shooting stars, blue bottle gentians and others of the less common species may be seen along the Milwaukee railway track between Anamosa and Monticello.
”On either side the track is a goodly breadth given over to nature,” says William Quayle in “Along a Railroad Track in June.” The railroad calls to the homeless garden of nature, “I will give you room” and makes good the cordial invitation.
There are flag and cattail and swamp grasses which flourish in the ditch waters at the foot of the embankments, hospitable home sites for the red wing blackbird and song sparrow. Wild roses ___ the banks and turn their delicately flushed faces to the speeding motorist with a beckoning smile.
Haven Kept Here
There are several wild flower havens on private grounds in this locality. Perhaps the one planted and cared for by Miss Eva Byerly is one of the most attractive and complete from early spring to late fall.
Miss Byerly’s thorough knowledge of botany, together with her keen appreciation of the need for conserving the “remnants” of plant life her pioneer parents found here, have inspired her to this constructive work of wild flower preservation.
Wild fruits were the reliance and comfort of the early settlers and the true harbingers of the orchards and fruit farms of today. Best of all the wild fruits, perhaps, was the wild strawberry. Usually they grew in greatest profusion under the clumps of sumacs at the edge of the prairie sloping to the south. Whoever has tasted the wild strawberry, either from the long stems gathered in his hands or as rich red preserves, can never forget the flavor of this ambrosial fruit.
There were the thickets of wild plums yielding a bountiful harvest of fruit to be dried or preserved for winter. Blackberrying time was the occasion for a neighborhood picnic as well, and yielded “Whole washtubs full”, to quote a participant of some of these parties over in the Big Woods or up the Buffalo. A fresh blackberry pie, or later the dried berries sprinkled through a steamed pudding or baked “Injun” pudding, were far more delectable than anything a Waldorf-Astoria chef could create with the same ingredients today.
In the fall the wild grapes were gathered for wine and jelly, elderberries for pies and wine, and wild black cherries and even choke cherries were dried for use in winter. But best of all, wild crab apples, after the frost had mellowed and yellowed them, were gathered and made into apple sauce.
Wild Crab Delicious
To one who has known the wild crab apple from the time in May that it has blossomed into fragrant pink clouds of loveliness until it yields its yellow-green fruit, still carrying its springtime aroma in autumn, there is no wonder that Henry Thoreau thought it worthy of a separate chapter after he was in southern Minnesota. The reader will recall that he said, “One crab apple is worth more to scent your handkerchief with than any perfume which they sell in the shops.”
But no one who has ever tasted wild crab apple sauce prepared by steaming with a little soda in the water to lessen the intense acid taste then mashing to remove cores, afterward cooking them with brown sugar over a slow fire until a slight jellied consistency, can ever forget the delicious flavor and wild zestful tang of that pioneer fruit.
An old farmer who always selected the right word said that the “wild crab had a kind of bow-arrow tang”. It touched the spot for the taste that was up to them. It takes a healthy out-of-doors appetite to relish wild fruits as the pioneers did.
Much has been said recently on the question of whether there were ever buffaloes in Iowa. Very little doubt as to their actual presence here in the early days can remain after reading the journal kept by a United States Dragoon in 1835 and published by the State Historical Society of Iowa, July, 1909.
”On the banks of the Ioway, a small stream 30 yards broad, we camped and saw our first herd of buffalo. We killed five or six. This day was spent in eating buffalo meat and sleeping.”
Other accounts describe them seen in other parts of the state. The last record of a herd in Iowa was of one seen in Blackhawk county in 1852 by a settler at Hudson, who killed three buffalo and a calf from a herd of 28.
There is no question but that Buffalo river derived its name from the buffalo that drank of its waters unmolested before _____.
Deer were plentiful to a much later date. Edmund Booth describes a herd of them, 25 or more, in number resting and feeding in the prairie grass that covered what was later the Anamosa fairgrounds.
Elk were numerous in Jones county until 1853. Olin was first named Elkford for the elk that forded the river there. Beaver, otter, mink, brown bears, wild cats, red and grey foxes were also plentiful. There seems to be no truer picture of the prairie wolf than that drawn by the late Bishop Quayle in this book, “The Prairie and the Sea.” His swinging gallop with head thrown back waggishly over his shoulder, is as free as the blowing of winter winds. He is not moral. He cares for no works on ethics. He looks out for no one in which lucrative employment, both on and off the prairie, many are engaged. Many is the night when I have lain awake listening to the eerie barking of the wolf. It is like the laughter of a maniac, repetitional, meaningless, remorseless, a wandering voice of the prairie disappearing and reappearing among the billows of the rolling prairie grass.”
There were, of course, the raccoons and opossums, red and gray squirrels, rabbits, ground hogs and prairie dogs and other lesser furry folk, who made their homes and hunted their food in wooded tracts or open prairies. A few of these remain to keep us acquainted with their species. The biologist has discovered for us that many of these predatory animals and birds served a real purpose in keeping the balance of nature more stable. Man, by his wholesale slaughter of many of these creatures because they seemed destructive to others of their kind, has thrown a monkey-wrench into Mother Nature’s machine which she was better able to run alone.
It is well known to ornithologists that the great bird artist, the first in the world of any importance, John James Audubon, came as far north as Iowa early in the last century to observe and paint some of the species so plentiful here.
Among the common ones then numerous and now totally extinct, were the Passenger pigeons which came in the spring in great flocks, often a mile or two long and so massed that they darkened the sun.
The early settlers of Jones county have described these migrations as taking place as late as 1858. They would settle on the low trees along the Wapsie to rest and feed, bending the branches to the ground by their weight. The settlers would kill them with clubs and stones, fill their wagon boxes with their bodies, and because they did not have use for so many they would bury them as fertilizer in the corn hills of this already fertile soil. They doubtless reasoned that as fish were used to enrich the sandy wastes of Cape Cod for garden purposes, these pigeons were so needed here.
The Passenger pigeons were beautiful shapely birds of iridescent plumage, greys and browns and blues predominating, touched with rose and gold by the sunlight. The last pair known to be alive died in a park in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1906.
A small bird of this same family, the Mourning dove, is with us still in considerable numbers. During the last few years the “Rock” pigeon, a species of semi-domesticated pigeons, has been nesting in the quarries at Stone City. This seems to be a reversal to type and manner of living of the common pigeon that one time found his home in a church tower or steeple.
The Paroquet, a species of parrot once common here is now few in number and is restricted to Florida. Loons, grebes, ducks and geese pervaded our streams and ponds during the spring and fall immigrations. As late as 1900, these birds could be seen on the Buffalo above the dam that was then in place. From among the sheltering reeds and marsh plants along its borders, coots and different kinds of rails were flushed.
Over the prairies, inland gulls and terns circled, often alighting to follow the settler’s plow for the rich provender the upturned soil revealed. Woodcock and snipe were as common as robins are now.
Prairie Grouse Plentiful
A century ago, rough and prairie grouse, prairie hens and wild turkeys were far more plentiful than quail are today. The turkey buzzard was common and served well as Nature’s needed scavenger. Golden and bald eagles, the latter America’s prophetic symbol of independent flight and vision, nested on the highest crags of our bluffs. Ivory billed and pileated woodpeckers, largest of the family on the continent, carved their homes in the tall trees of the primeval forests.
Among the perching birds, the strikingly beautiful yellow headed blackbird built his home by that of his red-winged cousin in the cat tails of the pond near Riverside cemetery. Towhees nested in numbers in the ravines in the state park while they called to one another, “Drink-your-tea-a” where now the golf balls whiz.
Blue birds in early March would settle in flocks on the hillsides by the river like patches of blue sky among the white clouds of lingering snow banks. As recently as February 23, 1906, such a sight was personally observed at the end of South Garnavillo street. The organ toned notes of the wood thrush in the dewy morning or dusky evening could be heard from the depths of every thicket and ravine, along the roads and even in our sheltered dooryards. Very rarely now do we see or hear that sweet “hymn singer” of the birds. Only in memory does “the sound of a voice that is still” come back to comfort us.
Decrease In Species
A comparison of recorded species covering a period of 38 years in this locality reveals a 15 to 20 per cent decrease in that time, both in the varieties of species and the number of a given kind. There have been changes in permanent residence of several species during this time. Among these, the cardinal first recorded up the Buffalo in 1897 and not seen again for seven years, is now a year around resident.
A more recent arrival than the cardinal is the Carolina woodpecker who visited here first in 1905, stayed during the winters from then on and disappeared every summer. 1938 marks the first all around year residence of this handsome woodpecker in the bird retreat on Sales street. The black capped titmouse is another winter bird that has fed at the bird stations in town only in recent years.
The active and persistent efforts of conservation clubs, bird and nature study groups and public school classes are beginning to yield practical results. More birds are nesting around our homes and in our state and city parks and a large number of fledglings seem to have escaped the jaws of their arch enemy, the house cat. It is to be hoped that this increase continues each succeeding year.
The “little feathered brother” heads the list of all creatures on earth for his companionship and blessing to mankind and for economic, scientific and aesthetic worth. He is the only form of animate nature, including man, that has succeeded in growing wings through a long evolutionary process. It would, indeed, be interesting to know a century hence what birds shall have survived and so, successfully adapted themselves to the changes advancing civilization brings.
Geologically, according to latest research and discoveries, Iowa (especially in its eastern part and therefore Jones county) is one of the Paleozoic era (ancient life) and Mississippian system of rocks. A widespread invasion of the sea in the central part of North America resulted in the development of thick marine limestone containing numerous coral reefs and the carboniferous Brachiopod Productus.
Specimens of fossil coral are still plentiful along the Maquoketa river east of Monticello. Several varieties of echinoderms (marine animals in shape of cup or calyx) were once commonly found in rocks along the Wapsipinicon river. At the time of the digging of the “deep well” for Anamosa Waterworks company, some fine specimens of cystids and crinoids of this group were unearthed.
The great advance which geology has made during the twentieth century appears to be due largely to: Increasing value of the metals, coal, oil and stone, and the appreciation of the scientific interpretations of scenery; and the development of geochemistry and geophysics or study of chemical composition and physical forces of the earth. As an agricultural state, Iowa is particularly dependent on these lasts two studies. It may be interesting to recall that in 1564, the earth was thought to be 4004 years old, in 1760 it was considered 75,000 years old, and in 1932 Einstein reckoned its age to be 10,000,000,000 years old.
Trees of Jones County
Among the most entrancing chapters of the Book of the Earth, are the ones which describe its forests.
The immortal line of Joyce Kilmer, “Only God can make a tree,” is not only poetry expressing the wonder and mystery of its creation; but the statement of a profound fact that calls for man’s thoughtful investment of the tree’s uses and protective interest in its growth and preservation. Probably there were between 50 and 60 different species of trees in Jones county a century ago. Of that number it would be possible to find 50 kinds today although most of them are greatly depleted in numbers.
The white pine once grew here, but it cannot come again on a tract that has been devastated by fire. The prairie fires that swept over Iowa in the early days were death to them. A few native white pines remain in sheltered spots such as Back Bone state park. It is the tallest, most stately and beautiful of all the conifers. But no one pine is ever so beautiful as a grove of pines. The extensive plantings of this tree in Wapsipinicon state park have added materially to the attractiveness of the hillsides. They lend shelter to bird and beat as well as to man from winter’s cold and summer’s heat.
The American larch or tamarack is another tree that has disappeared from our country. It likes to grow in the deep muck that borders an old pond or slough. There are few such favorable spots left for them now. The wood of the Red Cedar is so valuable and has been cut so closely that trees of any age or size are becoming rare. The Red or River birch, the only native of that family in the country, is also becoming scarce. The oak is the most valuable and majestic of our native trees. They are long lived trees if left to grow. The life of some species of oak is believed to reach a thousand years in England and other countries where they are protected.
Oaks on Matsell Farm
The finest groves of oak in this vicinity were found on the famous Matsell farm until a few years ago when many of them were cut down. Probably 150 years is the span of the oldest bur, red or black oak in Jones county.
At the time the larger bur oaks were cut down to make room for the new court house, two of them were found to be 125 years old by counting the rings. The two oaks at the northwest corner of the school yard are believed to be celebrating their centennial with the town and the county this year.
The Hackberry tree on Cleveland street in front of the W. H. Prentice home is considered an unusually fine tree of the species.
The American elm grows more rapidly than the oak. It varies from 60 to 120 feet in height. A few here and there in the country may have passed the century mark. The Black walnut growing alone is one of the grandest and most massive trees of all. Its wood supplied the pioneer with his best furniture and often was used for doors and other wood work in his cabin.
The first settlers planted groves of soft maples as wind breaks and lines of willow to mark their boundaries. Poplars and other fast growing trees were also used in this way. Hard or sugar maples are natives here, as is also the lovely Scarlet maple of our swamps, but the latter is now very scarce.
Driving through the country today, the age of a farm may be judged by the species and size of the trees about the dooryard. Many of these came from “back east”. Some of them, such as the hemlock and pines, came from the very door yards of their childhood homes.
”He that planteth a tree is a servant of God,
He provideth a kindness for many generations,
And faces that he hath not seen Shall bless him.” Henry Van Dyke. end.