The early settlers of Monroe County were
composed mainly of people from Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Virginia,
Kentucky, Missouri, and Pennsylvania. There are today probably a greater number
from Indiana than from any other State; and there are no doubt more people in
the county today from the States of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio than from all
the other states in the Union.
The Missourians never showed much partiality for Monroe County, nor to the State at large, for during that period when the migration of settlers from adjoining States was at its highest point, the breach which was gradually widening between the North and South seems to have placed a check on Northern emigration as early as the period of Buchanan's administration.
Later, the intense sectional hatred aroused by the border warfare still further impeded emigration from Missouri, and the term "border ruffians" seems, even at this late day, to occasionally stir up a long dormant feeling of reproach in the recollections of the pioneers of southern Iowa.
It is probable that the enactment of the famous Kansas Nebraska Bill also had something to do towards discouraging emigration from Missouri to Iowa. On the enactment of this bill, Missouri poured a flood of emigration westward, for the purpose of augmenting the pro slavery sentiment in Kansas and Nebraska, and also of acquiring homes.
The "Sucker" of Illinois was lured here by the magnificent stretches of prairie. In going from east to west, one first encounters the border of the great prairie region of the continent in western Illinois and Iowa. This transition is very marked in Monroe County. To the east of Monroe, the Des Moines and Mississippi valleys interrupt the uniformity of the surface by their broad wooded valleys and the narrow ridges between their innumerable tributaries.
To the west of Monroe, a complete change takes place. The river valleys are narrower and shallower, and the upland tracts of timber disappear. The prairie region then rolls away unbroken to the Rocky Mountains.
A line drawn north and south through Monroe
County presents much the same characteristic. From the rolling prairies of
Mahaska County to the grassy steppes of Minnesota and the Dominion territory is
one expanse of prairie.
Our southern neighbor, Appanoose County, with her wooded ridges and brushy pastures, may be said to define the physical limits or mark the boundaries, in a physical sense, of the North and South. The surface of Missouri is broken by the Chariton, Grand, Nodaway, Missouri, and other rivers; and, indeed, this line of demarcation may be located six or eight miles south of Albia, on Soap Creek. From that point south to the Gulf there are no natural prairies of any considerable extent.
It will seem strange at this day that the beautiful prairies (the word "prairie" in French means "meadows") of Monroe County, growing in grass and studded with wild sweet williams, asters, and golden rod, and a profusion of other flowers, should for several years remain untenanted by those who had come here to acquire homes.
Those who were a little slow about making choice (?) selections of claims were obliged finally to settle on prairie tracts like what is now the farm of Hon. O. P. Rowles, and that of John Collins, a few miles south of Albia, and other magnificent estates within the county.
The ox team and the break plow were the two most potent factors of pioneer civilization. The plow was constructed as follows: the settler would remove the two front wheels from his wagon and place them on a rudely constructed axle made from an oak sapling 6 or 8 inches in diameter and about the length of an ordinary wagon axle; the plow, which had a very long moldboard and a prodigious wooden beam, was partially suspended between the two
wheels of the trucks by an upright frame resting on the axle; a
long lever extended from the front end of the plow beam back to the upright
frame, where it was secured by a wooden pin; there was a series of auger holes
in the upright frame, and the depth of the furrow could be regulated by simply
removing the adjusting pin from one of the holes and lifting or bearing down on
the lever. There has never been a plow manufactured since then so suitable for
turning under wild sod and hazel brush as this rudely constructed break plow of
our fathers. It could not rise out of the furrow when it struck a root; it could
be set to any desired depth, and it would stay there; with two or three yoke of
oxen attached, it would cleave its way through almost anything; when it
encountered a "running oak," it did not "pass by on the other
side," like the Levite, but it went through it and turned it under.
When the county was first settled there was little underbrush. The hazel, which some year later became so abundant on the prairies, grew very sparsely. Prairie fires for ages had swept the prairie whenever vegetation was in condition to burn, and these kept down hazel and other shrubbery; but when the settlers began to take precautions against the ravages of fire, a dense growth of oak and other varieties of trees began to grow into low upland thickets, much to the detriment of the farmers in after years.
In the early days of Monroe County the forests supplied an abundance of fine saw timber, and even at the present day there are several good bodies of white oak in Urbana Township, in the vicinity of Elisha Leech's saw mill.
There were originally, along the streams, many magnificent walnut trees, which at the present day would have yielded a handsome profit by shipping them to Eastern cities. They were thoughtlessly chopped down and split into fence rails or sawed into planks.
The oak predominates in this county, and there are at least eight different varieties - white oak, red oak, black jack, yellow oak, post oak, burr oak, and a low shrub variety, known as chincapin oak, or running oak. There are also a few chestnut oak, which grow more plentifully along the streams in western Iowa.
The white oak and burr oak are the most valued for lumber and building purposes, owing to their greater lasting qualities. Yellow oak decays in a short time. Red oak, while
not quite so lasting as white oak or burr oak, makes good saw
lumber, owing to its straight growth. Black jack is more abundant throughout the
county than all the other varieties combined. The tree does not grow as large as
some of the other varieties and it is of little value for lumber or building.
The chestnut oak is closely allied to the burr oak, and is rarely found within the county.
The post oak grows on the uplands and occurs in dense thickets. This variety seldom attains a greater diameter than 6 inches.
The running oak is in the form of a shrub; and also grows on the uplands. It is a great annoyance to the plowman, since its roots are hard to remove. It bears a nutritious acorn.
There are two varieties of elm, the slippery elm and the water elm. The former is nearly as lasting as oak if kept above ground; the latter is absolutely worthless for any purpose.
There are also two varieties of hickory, the shell bark and the soft shell, or pig nut.
The black walnut is the only native variety of walnut within the county. When growing on the uplands it does not attain a great height, but in the valleys its growth is very exuberant.
There are two varieties of maple. The soft wood maple is found occasionally along streams in a native state, and when planted as a shade tree, grows rapidly, and may be seen on nearly every farm in the county. The other variety is a dwarfed variety, growing on low ground, and commonly called box wood or swamp maple.
The white ash also grows in the forests of the county. Like the maple, it is not largely distributed. The hackberry is a rough barked tree, which is occasionally found solitary in the woods.
The poisonous buckeye, or horse chestnut, is frequently met with along the creeks. Its wood is of little or no value.
The soft linden, or lind, as it is commonly called, is another tree growing almost everywhere. It is a handsome tree, and is much used for making "caps" for coal props. It is also used to some extent in the manufacture of cheese-
boxes. It blooms twice in a season, and the bloom yields
considerable food for the honey bee.
The aspen is the stateliest tree of the Monroe County forest. It is of rapid growth, but its lumber is always more or less "wind shaken," and, when green, contains a greater proportion of water than other wood; for this reason it warps badly and splits when sawn into lumber.
There are also two varieties of locust. The black locust occurs both on uplands and in valleys, but never attains a larger size than about 16 inches in diameter. On the uplands it does not live long, as the worms infest the wood and in a few years kill the tree. The black locust lasts longest of any native wood in the county, especially when underground. The honey locust is much less numerous.
There are also several varieties of willows and poplars, besides crab apples, white thorn, etc.