Red Oak Township History
RED OAK TOWNSHIP, CEDAR COUNTY, IOWA
In the settlement of Cedar County, Iowa, Red Oak Township from the beginning attracted white men to its land due to the considerable grove of red oak timber situated in it and from which the township derives its name.
The first permanent white settler of the township was Washington A. Rigby, who came in October of 1836. His descendants are yet within the county. He built his cabin on land now included in the Safley farm. When the land was surveyed the site was found to be a part of the Safley land so Mr. Rigby relinquished it, taking a claim in Section 13.
A single man 22 years of age, a native of Knox County, Ohio, Mr. Rigby looked about him for a wife which he found in Lydia Barr, daughter of the James Oaks family who had settled on the edge of the timber in the south edge of the township. In the spring of 1837 they went in a lumber wagon to Muscatine, then Bloomington, to be married. On the way there a wheel came off of the wagon. Nothing daunted, the bridal party cut a sapling which they tied to the front axle and used it as a skid. Thus they limped into the then new frontier village and got the wheel replaced at a local blacksmith shop while the wedding ceremony was going on.
Mr. Rigby induced his mother, then a widow, to come to Iowa with her family. The Rigby family is a most substantial element of our population. A number are still resident in the county, including B. J. Maxwell, Judge of the District Court. Judge Maxwell says that his great-grandmother brought the family fortune to Cedar County in a money belt that she wore around her waist under several layers of skirts. As an extra precaution the family had her drive the last wagon in the group that came west so that if they were held up by desperadoes she would escape, for robbers would not be liable to hold up an older woman driving a team.
The Rigbys were strong Methodists. Methodism owes its early origin and strength to this family. In fact, Washington Rigby in 1858 endowed a scholarship in Cornell College, Mount Vernon, that is still operative. The original certificate of the scholarship as well as a number of receipts for taxes paid by Washington Rigby, some of then going back to 1843, are preserved by a great-grandson, Edward Rigby, of Stanwood.
We read in the 1878 Cedar County History as follows:
ARRIVALS IN 1837 – April – John Ferguson filed a claim on the south half of Section 12, Township 81 Range 3, west – Red Oak Township. He lived on that claim about twenty years. Charles Dallas settled in Red Oak, and commenced to improve the farm now owned by John Dorcas. John Safley settled on the farm he now occupies. William Coutts settled on the west half of the southeast quarter of Section 14, in the same township range. John Chappell settled on the south half of the south half of the southwest quarter of Section 10, same town and range.
“The Winter of 1836-7 commenced early, the last of November snow fell to the depth of eighteen inches, and its depth increased as the winter advanced. It did not melt away, as the people have seen it melt almost every winter since, but shut in the settlers and almost completely interrupted neighborly intercourse until the middle of April. The snow melted away before the last-named date, and the streams were swollen to impassable torrents, their banks were overflowed, and the lands adjoining became quagmires. Provisions became exhausted, sickness came upon many families, and the general condition of affairs was deplorable to contemplate. Stock died from sheer starvation, and the people themselves began to think that they would be forced to share the same fate.
THE SPRING FRESHET OF 1837 – The deep snow of the winter of 1836-7, with the spring rains, caused a freshet the like of which has seldom, if ever, been equaled in the country. The banks of all the streams were overflowed, and the prairies were flooded. When occasion required the settlers to go from one cabin to another, they were obliged to cross the streams that happened to run between. If the occasion of the visit was not too pressing, it was deferred until the waters subsided. If of a pressing nature, they must either swim across or head the source of the stream by going around. The last alternative involved a jaunt of many miles. At one time, in the spring of 1837, Washington A. Rigby and Chesman, son of James M. Oaks, with whom Rigby boarded, were engaged in cutting house logs on the opposite side of Rock Creek from the Oaks cabin. When they crossed the creek in the morning, going to work, the water was at an ordinary stage, and they had no apprehensions of a rise. Their work was some distance away from the creek, entirely out of sight of it, and they worked away until about 5 in the evening, never dreaming that Rock Creek was rapidly becoming a sea, overspreading its banks, and completely flooding the low lands on either side. When the shades of evening began to fall, they started for home and were surprised to find themselves entirely cut off from the foot log on which they crossed to their work in the morning. The creek was a roaring, maddened torrent. There was but one alternative presented, and that was to head the stream, or at least follow it up until they could find a place sufficiently shallow to allow them to wade it. This, however, proved a long and a weary undertaking. On and on they went, in the midst of darkness and water. Rigby cut a small staff with which to feel the depth of the water as they plodded along. The night was cold, and the water began to chill and cover with mush ice. The boy became chill and numb, and it was with the utmost difficulty that Mr. Rigby could keep him moving. Artifice, persuasion and threats were used in turn. Tired, hungry, cold, discouraged, despondent, the boy dragged himself until at last they found a place where the water was so shallow they could wade across, when they turned their course and headed toward home, and reached the Oaks’ cabin a little after midnight, having traveled about twenty-five miles, the most of the distance through water knee deep. Mr. Oaks was absent from home at the time, and Rigby and his boy companion appeared to Mrs. Oaks, who had not gone to bed, more like persons risen from the dead than living beings, as she had confidently believed they had been drowned. When she noticed the creek beginning to rise in the morning, she went to the bank and tried to alarm Rigby and her son, but her voice failed to reach them. The creek rose rapidly, her fears increased with the rise of the flood, and when darkness set in she gave up all hope of ever seeing them again, at least until their bodies should be found after the flood had gone down. Neither Rigby nor the boy experienced any serious consequences from their watery tramp, but it was an occasion that has never been forgotten.
The opening of the spring of 1837 was the temporal salvation of the settlers of the year previous. To no people, in any part of the country, was the melting away of the ice and snows of Winter, the subsidence of floods, the return of birds, the blooming of flowers, and the genial smile of the sun, ever more welcome or received with greater joy than was that spring to the pioneers who commenced the settlement of that part of Iowa whose history we are writing. When the frosted king retreated north, hope revived, and the languishing spirits of the people were reanimated. With the rigid experience of the ‘reign of terror’ fresh in memory, they set about preparing for the coming winter with a zeal that plainly evinced their determination to never again be subjected to similar trials and exposures.
With the coming of the spring and summer months of 1837 there came a general rush of immigrants, and ere the first snows of the winter fell the whole of the timbered sections of the county were interspersed with cabins and settlers. A large part of the lands bearing timber, and the smaller groves, were claimed, if not occupied, while the prairie, for the most part, was left untouched and unsought. The prairie land was regarded as worthless for purposes of agriculture, and considered as a useless waste. There were hundreds of men who honestly believed it would never be occupied. If any of the settlers of 1836 and 1837 had located a claim out on the prairie, he would have been regarded as extremely visionary, if not absolutely crazy. As a rule, the prairies were left undisturbed until about 1850, when they began to be occupied, and at the close of 1854 not a single acre was left as belonging to the Government.”
John Safley was a Highland Scotchman born in Edinburgh in 1806. He came to the United States in 1834. In company with John Ferguson and Charles Dallas and their wives started from Indiana in the fall of 1836 for the Iowa Territory. After 28 days of travel they crossed the Mississippi River on September 10. They intended to spend the winter in the timber along the Cedar River, two miles below Moscow. There the group was taken sick and a prairie fire burned the hay they had cut for winter feed for the stock. So they retreated onto Illinois finding a house near Hendersonville where the group spent the winter. In April,1837 they re-crossed the river, arriving in Red Oak Grove in April. Mr. Safley settled on the farm entering it from the Government at $1.25 per acre cost, which has ever since been owned by the Safley family. For 110 years no one but Safleys farmed the ground. The house on the farm was erected in 1858.
John Ferguson was another Scotchman born in 1804 and came to the United States in 1831; as above related he came to Iowa in 1836 but was driven across the Mississippi River by adverse circumstances. In January, 1837 he re-crossed the river and came to Red Oak Grove where he located three claims to land paying 25 cents each to have them recorded. In April, 1837 in company with Mr. Safley and Charles Dallas they came and located on their claims. Mr. Ferguson has descendants yet resident in the county. Charles Dallas lived here for a number of years and then moved to California. The Dallases of Cedar County lost contact with that family for a number of years, but in 1968 contact through correspondence was reestablished.
Other arrivals in 1837 should be noted. John Chappell, another Scotchman, born in Aberdeenshire in 1805 coming to the U.S. in 1833, started with William Coutts on foot from Indiana and walked all the way here. They arrived here March 28. Mr. Chappell never married, but lived out his life on the farm he entered in Section 15 from the Government.
William Coutts, another Scotchman, born in 1812 came to the U.S. in 1834. With John Chappell he came on foot from Indiana, arriving in April, 1837. Mr. Coutts was a prosperous man, being connected later with banking interests in Tipton.
Samuel Yule was another 1837 settler, arriving on August 8, 1837, settling in Section 10. He was married twice, children of the second marriage including Mildred Yule Phelps and Anna Zimmerman, just passed away in 1962 and 1963 respectively.
Mention should also be made of Elza Carl and his wife Sarah Dallas Carl, who came to Red Oak neighborhood in 1839. (Ed. note: Sarah arrived 1837) John Goodrich, an Englishman, arrived in Red Oak Grove In November, 1838 with a gun, a carpet bag and $20 in cash. The first winter he was here he split 3000 fence rails for his board. He began farming in 1839. A New England school teacher had come into the neighborhood – Durancy Rickard. One evening Mr. Goodrich called on her and said, “I like your looks. Let’s get married.” Just like that. They did and their descendants are in the community yet.
We should make some note of the Red Oak Mill. The 1878 Cedar County History describes it as follows:
“A PRIMITIVE MILL – The first mill was a curiosity, and was so unique, as well as simple, in its machinery and construction that a brief description of it will not be considered out of place. Its plan originated in the mechanical brain of Aaron Porter, and his hands fashioned and set it in motion. The pioneers of 1836, after erecting their cabins, made preparations for sowing and planting in the Spring of 1837, and during that season many of them raised corn and buckwheat sufficient to supply their families; but, without a mill, the grain was comparatively useless, and knowing and appreciating the mechanical ingenuity of Mr. Porter, the pioneers prevailed upon him to construct a mill, of some description, to supply their needs. After pondering over the situation and necessities for a time, Mr. Porter went to work. The prairies and forest furnished the material. Going to the prairie, he selected two boulders for the ‘upper and nether mill stones.’ These stones were about ten inches in diameter, the surfaces of which were dressed down to suit the purpose for which they were to be applied. One of these stones was fastened to the floor of his cabin. A hole or eye was drilled through the center of the other one, which was so adjusted as to revolve upon the other from a pivotal center. An upright shaft completed the machinery. One end of this shaft was fixed in the upper side of the upper mill stone, and the other end was fitted, gudgeon fashion, in the ceiling or joist above. The power was derived from this shaft, which was operated by two men, one using his right hand and the other his left one. With their other hands they fed the mill. It was a rude, primitive concern, but it served its purpose, and its construction was looked upon by the people whom it was intended to benefit and accommodate as a great and convenient accomplishment, and was called the ‘Little Savior’. It did not grind very fine, but it was a little ahead of a coffee mill in speed. The meal or flour it turned out was not bolted, for Mr. Porter did not attach a bolting apparatus. The only refining process to which the productions of Porter’s mill were subjected was a wire sieve, and then it was ready for bread; and many choice buckwheat cakes and many a relishable ‘johnny cake’ was baked from flour and meal ground at Porter’s ‘Little Savior’ Mills. They were always busy, till the time came when other and better mills were erected in accessible localities. Many and many a bushel of grain was carried to them on the backs of the settlers. They generally went to mill in couples, and helped each other to grind their respective ‘grists’. No ‘toll’ was exacted — no charge made for the use of the mill. It was built for the accommodation of the settlers, and was an accommodation that was highly appreciated. Before it was ready for operation, common tin graters were frequently used to reduce corn to coarse meal. Sometimes a coffee mill was used to spend the evenings from the time suppers were over till bed time in grinding (in a coffee mill), grating or pounding corn into meal for the next morning’s breakfast. It made coarse but wholesome food.
The next attempt at mill building was made by Messrs. John Ferguson, Charles Dallas and William Coutts, on Rock Creek, on land then belonging to William Coutts, but now owned by William Rickard, and not far from the residence of John Ferguson. This mill was commenced and completed in the fall of 1837, Mr. Coutts selling his interest about the time the mill was completed. The mill house was sixteen by sixteen feet, one story high, built of round logs. The projectors and builders did not have time to hew the logs. The people of the neighborhood were out of bread. Porter’s hand mill could not supply the demand, and coffee mills and graters were wearing out. The mill was supplied with one run of stone, which were purchased in Louisa County. There was no machinery to handle them, and when everything was in readiness, the immediate neighbors came together, and with strong arms and hand-spikes put them in place. In a good stage of water, the Red Oak Mill, as it was called, had a capacity of about two bushels per hour. In the fall of 1838, and the winter following, John Safley was the miller. When corn was ripe enough to grind, the mill was kept busy night and day. At one time, says Mr. Safley, there were settlers at the mill awaiting their ‘turns’ from Muscatine, Johnson and what is now Linn County.
During Safley’s millership, a settler brought a ‘grist’ of rather green corn to be ground, and was told by the miller that it was too green to grind, and that it would clog the stones. The man insisted on having it ground at once. His family was out of bread. At last Safley turned the corn into the hopper and started the mill. For a few minutes the meal came out through the spout pretty freely, but the stones soon began to clog, and then the meal came slower and slower. Safley immediately saw that he would be compelled to lift and cleanse the stones. His patience was being put to the test. The settler’s patience was also being tried. His family was at home without bread. At last his patience gave out, and he ‘d-d such a mill’. This vexed Safley the more, and the vehemence of his nature got the better of his early Scotch religious training, and he ‘d-d’ back. ‘D-n your green corn; d—n your persistence in persuading me to attempt to grind it; d-n your stupid head, and d-n your impertinence for d-ning the only mill in the country’. Now, have you got d-ning enough?’ The mill was stopped. The corn was removed from the hopper and, with the assistance of neighbors and hand-spikes, the stones were raised and cleansed and put in readiness for the next ‘grist’.
In April, 1838, a terrible freshet occurred in Rock Creek. The water rose thirteen feet in four hours. The dam was carried away, the mill foundations washed out, and the mill building was ‘skewed’ around so that the machinery became all awry, and consequently useless until repairs could be made, which were not undertaken until ‘after harvest’. Then the settlers volunteered and came together and set matters to rights. It was the ‘last chance’ for their winter’s bread. Everything straightened up and put in ‘ship shape’, the mill was again started, and during that Fall and the following winter it was kept busy, but during the spring and summer of 1840, it was entirely abandoned, in consequence of the almost continued repairs necessary to keep it in running order.
About the time Mr. Ferguson and his associates commenced building their mill on Rock Creek, Aaron Porter undertook to utilize the water of Crooked Creek, by building a mill on the land now owned by Andrew Wilson. Mr. Porter made stones for this mill from flint rocks found in the neighborhood. He also made the boxing for the larger shafts from the same material, and it is said they answered the purpose admirably.
“These mills were the first attempts at water machinery in the county. They were devoted exclusively to grinding corn and buckwheat. They were not supplied with bolting apparatus, nor did they need any, for the settlers had not begun to raise wheat.”
The remnants of the foundations can be still seen in Rock Creek on land owned by George Fowlie and later by Kermit and Marion Fowlie Spencer. George Fowlie inherited the farm from his father who bought it from the government in about 1846.
We should also mention Red Oak Presbyterian Church as stated in the December 1959 issue of Cedar County Historical Review:
“Red Oak Grove Presbyterian Church was organized March 1, 1841 by Michael Hummer then pastor of the church at Davenport and also a Missionary. The place nor dates of preliminary organization are not known, probably a school house near the present building. The following were enrolled as charter members — Robert Dallas, Miss Sarah Dallas, John Ferguson, Mrs. Isabella Ferguson, John Safley, Charles Dallas, John Chappell, Mrs. Elizabeth Pirie, Samuel Yule and Mrs. Elizabeth, wife of Charles Dallas, 10 in all. (Ed. note: Delete C. Dallas, add Robt. Pirie) John Safley and John Ferguson were elected Elders. Their first task was the reception of Mrs. Elizabeth, wife of John Safley as a member of the church. Thus the oldest Presbyterian Church in the county and the 12th in Iowa came into being. The earliest settlers of the Township being Scotch immigrants, they brought their religion with them. The group gradually prospered. In 1851 the location of the church was moved to Tipton to become the nucleus of a church there.
“In 1859 the members living in the grove separated from the Tipton group and organized a separate group. A new building was erected by John Chappell and Jacob Snyder at a cost of $1000. This was to serve the congregation until 1920.
A parsonage was secured in the village of Shiloh, north of the church, which was later the home of Wayne and Nan Rowser. This was the pastoral home until 1901 when the present home north of the church was erected.
A number of ministers have served the church. Their tenure of service was short, four or five years at the most. Under the leadership of C. E. Thompson the present building was erected and dedicated May 8, 1921 at a cost of $28,000. A gift of $l000 from Mrs. Jeanette Cook paid the last indebtedness on the building. In the early 1930’s the church was at low ebb of interest. By the efforts of Louis Penningroth, it was revived. For the last 20 years whoever was pastor divided his time between Red Oak and some other church.
Three young men have gone out from the congregation as ministers – Edward Cousins, Louis Penningroth and John Hegarty.
“One of the charter members, Mrs. Sarah Dallas Carl, survived until April 20, 1916 after witnessing more than seventy-five years of the church’s activity. She rests along side the church house as do most of the other early members.
“In recent years the church has received some fine memorials. A picture, ‘Christ at the Door,’ which hangs in the center wall, was given in memory of several members. Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Crispin gave in 1958 an electronic organ in memory of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Little. The present membership is about 100.
In connection with and adjacent to the church house is the cemetery. One peculiarity of this tract of ground is that in order to use its facilities a person must have at one time resided within a radius of five miles of the cemetery. (Note: This is no longer true.) From the August l959 Cedar County Historical Review we read:
“On January 1, 1848, Robert Dallas deeded an acre of ground (Section 3)(Correction: Section 11) to the Cedar County Commissioners (now supervisors) as a place for burial of the dead in the Red Oak Grove neighborhood. This was described as situated on a moderately elevated piece of ground along side of the road leading from Muscatine to Cedar Rapids and near the united branches of Rock Creek. This had been the site of the first schoolhouse of the Township. As the county commissioners felt no responsibility in caring for the cemetery, in 1871 an association was formed to look after the graveyard. In 1872 Robert Dallas gave another strip of land to the east of the original plot and in 1873 John Goodrich donated the strip to the south. In 1902 H. L. Moore purchased and donated the five-acre tract to the south to be known as the Moore addition.
There have been a number of donations and bequests of money which have been set aside as endowments for perpetual care. In 1905 Red Oak Grove’s most distinguished son, Robert G. Cousins, then a member of Congress, presented to the cemetery association the beautiful wrought iron arch and gate. In 1891 the time of the convening of the cemetery association’s business meeting was changed from February to the last Monday in May. This has become a homecoming occasion with a potluck dinner at that time. If there are any repairs to be made to the monumental work the men look after it.
Income from donations, investment of perpetual care funds and a tax levy maintain the cemetery. The earliest burial was that of Robert Pirie, who died October 31, 1846. Here rest the remains of the sturdy pioneers of the township and their equally brave wives, also the charter members of the Presbyterian Church, Robert Dallas, John Ferguson, John Safley, John Chappell, Robert Pirie, Samuel Yule, are resting on the slope adjacent to the church house. Robert G. Cousins rests on the family lot. One of the most interesting graves is that of Edward Willis of Mountnessing, Essex Co., England, who died from the bite of a rattlesnake June 10, 1856. This young man was working for John Goodrich at the time. He had a new pair of boots which hurt his feet. He took them off against Mr. Goodrich’s advice that there were snakes about. In going barefoot a snake bit him causing his death.”
The old settlers recognized that they were pioneers so they got together periodically to exchange reminiscences. From the 1878 Cedar County History we read:
“In November, 1870, John Ferguson invited to his house the old ttlers of the vicinity of Red Oak. Among them were the following: John Safley, who came with John Ferguson and wife, September 11, 1836 (Ed. note: Settled April 1837); Charles Dallas and wife, now of California, came with them; W. A. Rigby, who came in October, 1836, William Coutts and John Chappell, who came in the Spring of 1837; Samuel Yule, who came in September, 1837; Robert, William and Gordon Dallas, who came in 1838; John Goodrich (deceased) and wife, 1838; Robert Cousins and family, including sons James and Joseph, 1841; J. W. Brown and family, December, 1839.
“When all had arrived at the house of Mr. Ferguson, he informed them that he had caused them to come together in order to properly recognize and more fully appreciate the kindness and beatitude of the Great Giver of all good to that community; for after a lapse of more than thirty long years, while the ruthless sickle of time had stricken down friends and neighbors on all sides, not one of the little band of settlers before 1840 had been removed by death, but, singularly enough, all were living and had been blessed by surroundings of comfort and elegance and a goodly share of this world’s property.
“The day was passed in reviewing and renewing the old times, and from that time an annual meeting of this hardy band of Scotchmen has been held, in succession, at the homes of the following members:
1871, John Goodrich; 1872, W. A. Rigby; 1873, John Safley; 1874, Samuel Yule; 1875, Elzy H. Carl; 1876, John Chappell; 1877, Gordon Dallas, 1878, to be held at the residence of James Cousins.
John Goodrich died February 2, 1877, aged 81 years. He was born August 1, 1795. Robert Dallas and Robert Cousins have been dead some years.”
From these meetings came the Cedar County Old Settlers Association which functioned for many years.
By Gordon Smith and given to Carl Crispin 1972