How drainage enabled farming here


Roger Aegerter Profile PictureJEFFERSON, Iowa, Aug. 30, 2016 – When you list the reasons that Greene County is a successful farming community, you have to include three developments that are often forgotten today – our early roads, the railroad and drainage of ponds and swamps.

Early accounts say that Greene County was almost 75 percent covered with water in a wet year, similar to the one we are having this year.

Historical accounts tell us that around 1890, some of the early land owners in this area trapped muskrats to pay the land taxes.  Their mode of transportation was not walking or oxen but a row boat!

You can learn more about how things changed in the 2011 book “The Heritage of Greene County, Iowa,” and other resources and displays that are at our Greene County Historical Museum here.

Around 1904, there was a movement to start drainage districts in Greene County.  District No. 1 was petitioned on June 9 that year in northwest Greenbrier Township, but no construction happened at that site until 1912.   The first successful drainage district in Greene County was District No. 2 in the Grand Junction area. It involved two railroad lines, two churches, a school, the city, and several acreages on the edge of town. The original tax assessment of land owners in that district by the county was 22 cents per acre for high ground, but most land owners paid 50 cents per acre.

Drainage districts were formed fast after those first ones.  There were 40 by 1910, 85 by 1913, and 155 by 1919.  At that time, half of the farms were planted with oats, hay or were pastures.

S.J. Melson was county engineer from 1910 to 1935.  Up to the 1919 economic depression, he prepared plans for 100 drainage districts.  After that depression, additional district plans slowed.  In 1999, Drainage District No. 187 was approved.

In 1919, Drainage District No. 151 was formed to drain Goose Lake, located north and west of Jefferson, which at that time was the property of the State of Iowa.  Goose Lake consisted of 642 acres, 140 of them in wetland, 50 in swamp and 452 in open water.  The open water was seven feet deep, with two feet of peat on the bottom.

In 1923, most drainage districts were in place.  About that time, the first tiling machines were being used in the county, although digging by hand was much more common – and strenuous. The men who did it were often referred to as “Iron Men.”

Many recent immigrants found their first jobs digging canals and ditches.  You didn’t need to know English to dig a ditch.  These men lived where the work was.  They cooked for themselves, eating frog legs, turtles, ducks, geese and rabbits.  Digging was their life.

A “Top Man” on a digging crew took out the first 16 inches of dirt; he was paid 15 cents per rod, a rod is just longer than 16 feet.  A second digger took out another 16 inches, measuring down; he was paid eight cents a rod.  The “Bottom Man” was the expert of the crew; he would take out the last 15 inches of dirt and put the tile in place.  He was paid 12 cents a rod.

The tile systems to drain Goose Lake involved eight miles of ditch, all dug by hand.  Total cost of the project was $53,000.  Well-known Jefferson attorney Francis Cudahy’s father was the first to farm this reclaimed land.  In 1924, he had planted 50 acres of potatoes. Three years later, he was up to 200 acres.  He gave up the land in 1928 when the state raised the cash rent so it was not profitable any more.

In 1928, road management was turned over to the county supervisors away from township trustees. In the next six years, Greene County graded and graveled over 700 miles of roads and put every farm home in the county on a gravel road. The road program, with deep ditches and culverts, helped drain surface water from farms and improved drainage throughout the county.

In 1954, the state decided to restore Goose Lake to a wildlife area.  The drainage system was partially plugged.  After a few dry years, the lake filled and has been in a similar situation that you see it today.

Now in Greene County, there are about 750 miles of drainage district tile and open ditchs in Greene County and another 2,500 miles of private tile lines.  So there is a little over 3,000 miles of tile in Greene County, stretching a greater distance than from New York to San Francisco!

The whole tiling system was a huge economic development. There were many people involved in getting the county dry.

To make the tile piping, you first had to find and dig clay.  There was a big seam of clay under the southwest corner of Grand Junction.  It was found when a small vane of coal ran out, and the clay was found under it.

Making the tile also involved digging sand and hauling it to a tile factory, and there were several around the county. The tile had to be cured with heat, then it had to be hauled to the site where it was to be buried.

First though, the land had to be surveyed, the county engineer had to draw up plans for the best drainage system, deal with the frequent legal problems, then take bids to dig and lay the tile.  Then the ditches had to be dug in very wet conditions, usually.  The tile would be placed, and then the ditches would be filled.

Clay tile pipes were practical to manufacture up to 18 inches in length. For longer tile pipes, concrete worked better. The Jefferson Cement Works was a large factory to make concrete tile and was located just north of today’s Greene County Fairgrounds. The Milwaukee Railroad served this factory, delivering cement and shipping out the “tile” pipes. There were also cement tile plants in Dana and Cooper.

There are arguments today about whether wetlands should be drained, or how much of them should be drained.  And there are concerns about how drainage systems impact water quality.

But creating the dry land opened up some of the best farm land in the world, and thus made Greene County one of the most productive agricultural communities anywhere.

The first tile pipes have been hidden for decades, and the “Iron Men” who dug the ditches are gone.  But their work and the drainage system they built forever changed not only Greene County, but all of Iowa agriculture.

You can comment on this column in the space below here, or you can write directly to the author by email at The author is executive director of the Greene County Historical Society.

Justice Harris’ poem “Homecoming”

JEFFERSON, Iowa, Aug. 24, 2016 — We’ve been thinking ahead to this Sunday’s “Poetry Out Loud” program at our Greene County Historical Museum, featuring readings by members of the “First United Coven of Greene County” poets group. And that prompted a pleasant memory of one of Greene County’s most respected citizens, the late David Harris, who was known much more for his 27 years as a justice on the Iowa Supreme Court but was also a fine poet.

Justice David Harris mugshot
Justice David Harris

Justice Harris, who died in 2010, occasionally wrote reflections for the Jefferson Bee & Herald, and sometimes he included poems he’d written.  So we asked retired Bee & Herald editor and publisher Rick Morain if he happened to have any of Harris’ poetry handy, hoping we could share a verse with readers.

Morain gave us one that seems most appropriate, a poem of praise by Harris for his hometown of Jefferson.  The Morains have it framed and displayed on their mantelpiece.  Harris wrote it in 1973 and titled it “Homecoming.”  It is written with a rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet, and here it is to savor:

Our pride is not in us but in the place
That molded us and is our strength and pride
As we come home. We sing its lasting grace,
Thanksgiving sing, to town and countryside.
If there is good in anything we’ve done
Or said, or written here or anywhere
We may have wandered, any laurels won,
The words and deeds were not enough to bear
Our thanks. Kind fortune smiled most tenderly
Upon our gentle town, gave treasures rare,
To us for all the watching world to see.
Our sons and daughters, with so much to share,
Should lead this sad and weary world to live.
We, here, were given so much more to give.

You can enjoy the poetry reading this Sunday, Aug. 28, at 2 p.m. at the museum in Jefferson.  The program is free — and the refreshments will be, too.

And you can read more about it in another story on this internet site.

A treasury of local poetry

JEFFERSON, Iowa, Aug. 22, 2016 — The Greene County Historical Society will be hosting local poets on Sunday, Aug. 28, for a free 2 p.m. “Poetry Out Loud” performance at the museum in Jefferson.

The poets have been meeting – their goal is monthly – since 2002 to share their work, always doing readings “aloud and with feeling,” which was the directive of their original convener, Colleen O’Brien.

This will be the fourth time they’ve come together for a public reading at the museum, the earlier events being in 2003, 2013 and 2014.

Our local poets reading in 2014 at our Greene County Historical Museum.
Poets reading during the Poetry Out Loud event held in 2014 at our Greene County Historical Museum.

Over the years, they’ve taken the name “First United Coven of Greene County,” which always requires local media to explain that a “coven” is actually any “assemblage,” not just a gathering of witches, with which most people associate the term. The local coven has restricted its membership to female poets, despite occasionally being questioned about that.

Six poets are scheduled to read in the Aug. 28 event – Teena Toliver, Tori Riley, Nancy Hanaman, Karen Voge-Perkins, Hollie Roberts and Mikki Schwarzkopf.

“We’ll be reading our own poems, as well as some of those written by other members of our group who can’t be there and others who are deceased,” said Schwarzkopf.

There will be free refreshments, and the historical society intends to have a “coffeehouse atmosphere” in the museum for the program.

Poets Tori Riley of Jefferson and Dennis Maulsby of Ames in 2014.
During the 2014 poetry reading, Tori Riley, of Jefferson, spoke afterward with Dennis Maulsby, of Ames, then the Iowa Poetry Association president, who attended our reading in Greene County.

A showcase for the Lincoln Highway story

GRAND JUNCTION, Iowa, Aug. 8, 2016 — The Greene County Historical Society met here Friday, Aug. 5, with a program and tours showcasing the transcontinental Lincoln Highway, with a special focus on its route and history here in Greene County.

Joyce and Bob Ausberger, of the Spring Lake area, who’ve long been involved in the Lincoln Highway Association, did a quick presentation of the highway’s story. They’ve traveled it coast-to-coast “a few times,” Bob said.

“The Greene County section from Grand Junction through Jefferson to Scranton is one of the neatest areas anywhere on the Lincoln Highway,” he continued. “Here we’ve got both the Lincoln Highway and U.S. Highway 30 close together, so you can see the differences. On the Lincoln Highway, we have nice interpretive sites, the Lincoln Highway museum here in Grand Junction, and three nice towns with lots of amenities for visitors.”

Two of those interpretive sites that are must-sees are the Lincoln Highway Interpretive Site/Lions Club Tree Park, located along U.S. Highway 30 just east of Grand Junction, and the Iowa Lincoln Highway Association Museum in the business district here.

The program Friday was preceded by lunch at the First United Presbyterian Church in Grand Junction.

You can see more photos from this program on the Facebook page of the historical society. And can learn more about the historic Lincoln Highway in Greene County by visiting the museum and by clicking here.

You can comment on this story using the space below here.

Rick Morain’s favorite food “Growing up Greene”

What Denise O’Brien learned from her parents

The games Rick Morain played while “Growing up Greene”

Mahanays “return” for Bell Tower’s 50th

JEFFERSON, Iowa, June 6, 2016 — The Greene County Historical Society helped launch the 50th anniversary celebration of the Mahanay Memorial Carillon Tower in Jefferson on Sunday, June 5, with a program at the museum — and then a tour of the tower itself — that looked at the past, present and future of the iconic structure.
Don & Bonnie Orris as Floyd & Dora Mahanay
And talk about making history come alive!

The highlight of the program was the appearance by Floyd and Dora Mahanay (despite being deceased since 1947 and 1962 respectively) who told their own story about what they were like, why they were so philanthropic toward our community, and why they decided on donating $350,000 for the bell tower that was built after their deaths. The Mahanays were portrayed by Don and Bonnie Orris, of Jefferson.

There is now a fundraising campaign underway to raise another $440,000 to complete the 4-octave, 47-bell carillon, which will be played from a keyboard or an automated machine.

Carole Custer, president of the Bell Tower Community Foundation, said Sunday she hopes that work can be completed by the Bell Tower Festival of 2017.
You can see more photos from this program on the Facebook page of the historical society.

You can comment on this story using the space below here.

Foods of the pioneers – like prairie chickens

By MARY WEAVERMary Weaver Profile
RIPPEY, Iowa, Aug. 2, 2016
— Many of you know that I am interested in the early historical development of Greene County, with a combined interest of a woman’s life on the prairie. I have researched Mary Davis, wife of Truman Davis, and read other documents about early pioneer women settlers.

Mary and Truman Davis came to Greene County in a prairie schooner in the fall of 1849. Mary was 36 and Truman was 39. They had six children, ages 2 to 16. Iowa had become a state in 1846, but Greene County was a part of a large area then called Dallas County. After our population reached 150, we officially became identified as Greene County in 1851.

In reading diaries written by settlers who came to the area that would become Greene County, we learn women were the backbone of the family; the guardian of the family food supply, and producer of foods. They served as the family seamstress, knitting factory, doctor, teacher, and a good Samaritan to neighbors and newcomers.A prairie chicken

We know the Davis Family had to be self-sufficient, as the nearest town was Pierce’s Point, which is now Adel, and it just had one general store. The nearest mill was four miles south of Fort Des Moines, about 65 miles from their home. About every six weeks, a Reverend Cadwalader rode on horseback from Des Moines. He would bring the Davises’ mail and sometimes flour.

Prairie chickens were abundant in the tall swaying grasses of Greene County. They became extinct as the land become tilled for crops, removing the grasses. The “greater prairie chickens” are a type of grouse, and they seemed to be everywhere. Called “boomers” because of the noise made during their mating ritual, they were from 16 to 19 inches in height and weighed two to three pounds. In the attached picture the booming noise is made by the male puffing out the yellow sac at the bottom of their throat. During the mating cycle the booming noise they made could be heard up to one mile.

Artist depictions of prairie chickens show them in a large covey, up to 200. Prairie chickens did not migrate though they were strong flyers, and research indicates they might travel up to 30 miles in search of wintering grounds with a reliable food source.

They were not threatened by severe winter weather. When the snow was thick they “dove” into the snow to keep warm, and could have easily been plucked from the snow by Truman Davis or one of his boys.

We have to assume that Mary Davis knew how to butcher and prepare a prairie chicken. She most likely used a recipe like the following, from a turn of the century cook book:

“After butchering the chicken (writer’s note: “by plucking off the feathers and removing the chicken’s insides”), boil the chicken in hot water until it is tender in all the joints. Remove the breast, and rub with butter, salt, and pepper, and again boil briskly. Remove and rub butter on each piece of the chicken, and cook in the oven in a hot fire for a short period of time”.Expect the meat to be very dark.

You can comment on this story in the space below here, or write directly to the columnist by email at

The killer diseases of pioneer times


JEFFERSON, Iowa, Aug. 1, 2016 – You probably don’t think of Greene County as a place where you risk getting malaria. Or cholera? Typhoid?

Mikki Schwarzkopf

It was true in the 1800s. All three diseases were once a serious scourge in much of the Midwest before widespread drainage tiling began around 1900.

Pioneers came here for the fertile land and plentiful water. But they also found thousands of acres of swamps and sloughs. In fact, settlers often needed to dig wells only 10 feet deep.

Early first-hand reports:

Grand Junction was located at the intersection of two railroads. The history book “The Past and Present of Greene County” commented that the “lay of the land was discouraging, for during a wet season fully half the surface was under water, and for a time… muskrat houses were as numerous as human.”

From memoirs of G.S. Toliver, circa 1856: “The ground was soft and we had great difficulty on getting across the mirey places especially at Greenbrier Creek, where oxen went down to their bodies and the wagon bed rubbed on the ground…”

The Jefferson Bee of March 21, 1873, had a long article about the water. “…within the corporate limits of Jefferson we have full 100 acres of land, which, for the greater portion of the year is covered with water from six inches to four feet in depth… Take them along about dog-days and the stench that arises at that time equal in number and strength any found elsewhere… All know that they are rank in miasmatic poisons, and all will admit that something should be done to drain away these disease-breeding and frog-hatching ponds.”

From a 1967 book about Greene County pioneer Enos Butrick: “Many diseases were prevalent in this new land. The swamps and sloughs afforded excellent breeding places for the mosquito; malaria and ague were common, and dysentery or ‘summer complaint’ among the babies. The family headstones in our old cemetery tell the unwritten stories of babes in arms sacrificed to the ignorance of the care of infants of that early day. With only home-made remedies and improper food it is no wonder the death rate was high… Myriads of mosquitoes came by night. Screens were unknown…”
Pioneers faced plenty of hardships in building homes, constructing their own furniture, and breaking sod for planting. But frequent sickness and death dogged them with every month spent here.

Malaria, cholera and typhoid were all directly or indirectly caused by swampy land.


An advertisement for a malaria “cure.”

Nearly everyone contracted malaria; in fact, one historian commented, recurring bouts of malaria “was so prevalent that it was unusual to escape it.”

The common word for malaria was “ague,” pronounced “ag-yew.” The symptoms cycled from lethargy, teeth-chattering chills, high fever, racking headaches and copious sweating until the fever broke. Sometimes malaria laid siege to entire families, and the animals suffered for food.

Poems were written about ague, and the Oct. 13, 1871, Bee ran a long one featuring the rhythm of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” Following is an excerpt:

‘Twas the ague and it shook me
Into heavy clothes and took me
Shaking to the kitchen-every,
Every place there was warmth in store,
Shaking till the china rattled;
Shaking till my molars rattled:
Shaking, and with all my warming,
Feeling colder than before;
Shaking till it had exhausted
All its powers to shake me more —
Till it could not shake me more.

A variety of bogus potions claimed to be a cure. One ad ran in the March 21, 1873, Bee: “King of the Blood, the most thorough purifier of the blood yet discovered.” Among the diseases it treated were “fever and ague, disordered liver, dyspepsia, rheumatism, nervous afflictions, general debility, in short, all the numerous diseases caused by bad blood…”

Quinine was eventually found to lessen the symptoms a bit. The May 10, 1872, Bee joked that “Des Moines prides itself on its fever and ague crop. All but seven of its inhabitants are practicing the loudest kind of quakes, and the seven quakeless ones are making fortunes by bartering in quinine, and exporting the teeth shaken from the jaws of their be-shivered neighbors.”

Malaria is a recurring illness, that strikes repeatedly throughout life, so sufferers never really recovered.

But aren’t malaria-carrying mosquitoes (anopheles) only in tropical areas?

Researchers report they have been found everywhere but Antarctica. They plagued the entire midwestern U.S. in the 1800s. Female mosquitoes laid eggs everywhere there was standing water. The females pick up the malaria parasite by biting infected people. And often previously infected newcomers to Greene County were welcomed here, only to be bitten by our mosquitoes, which then bit and infected others.

These are the same mosquitoes we have here now, but thankfully they haven’t bitten infected people, and aren’t carrying the malaria parasite.


Cholera warning
A warning printed during a cholera epidemic.

Although malaria was a misery, cholera meant death, and was dreaded by all.

Newcomers to Greene County brought their customs, but also brought cholera and typhoid, which are highly contagious. Interestingly, most newspapers were reluctant to report local outbreaks. Sickness was bad for business. After all, news of epidemics would discourage settlement by new families.

People all over the Midwest became sick with cholera and died in a matter of hours or days. Symptoms were severe, including nausea, vomiting, chills, thirst, diarrhea, and violent spasms. The death rate was between 50 percent and 90 percent. Many people fled, and it was often hard to get anyone to care for the sick or bury the dead.

A severe cholera epidemic swept throughout the Ohio Valley in 1854. Thousands fled and sought homes in Iowa. An Iowa City editor asserted that “50,000 men, women, and children will have come into this State by the first of December, reckoning from the 1st of September.”

Cholera was variously attributed to teething in babies, miasmas from the ground at night, the wrath of an angry God, and electrical disturbances in the atmosphere. In fact, it was eventually found to be caused by pathogens present in water contaminated by sewage. But it could also be spread by people, animals, and by handling clothing and bedding used by victims.

Sanitation was casual. Drinking water was dipped from shallow wells, rivers or lakes. Raw sewage was put into streams or in cesspools which overflowed. It was considered convenient to have drinking water and sewage disposal close together.

The Bee of July 19, 1872, reported:

“Now that the genuine cholera is abroad, it is the duty of every family to have some mixture at hand in case of dread emergency. Here is the best receipt known, and is also efficacious in cases of summer complaint [malaria]: Take equal parts of tincture of opium, red pepper, rhubarb, peppermint and camphor… No one who has this by him, and takes it in time, will ever have the cholera.”

Of course, none of these remedies worked. Even now, cholera sufferers can only be cured by rehydration and antibiotics.


Typhoid Mary graphic
Facts about the infamous “Typhoid Mary” in New York.

Typhoid fever was another frequent killer in Greene County, with a fatality rate of 30 percent. From the diary of T. M. Terrill in April of 1868: “The folks here are all well as usual except one of the boys, who is very bad with Typhoid fever – think it is a doubtful case.”

Typhoid was also found in water contaminated with two types of salmonella. Some who contracted a mild case became lifelong carriers of the disease, the most famous of was “Typhoid Mary” in New York. The bacteria get into food or water by a human carrier and are then spread to other people. Sufferers endured poor appetite, abdominal pain, severe headaches, high fever, diarrhea, and internal bleeding.

In T.M. Terrill’s 1901 diary, he explained, “Sickness made it hard on Mother. At one time Dan was the only one able to wait on the rest of us. He was 8 or 9 years old at the time. Typhoid fever left one of the boys eyes so that he could not shut it even when asleep.”

Sufferers either got over it themselves or died. Now, antibiotics can cure it. But as with cholera, draining swamps and avoiding human carriers was the only way to avoid typhoid.

“The Past and Present of Greene County” reports that “for a quarter of a century or more after the laying out of the town, sewerage conditions were bad, and surface water – shallow wells – were the only supply for household purposes. The result was an epidemic of malarial and typhoid fevers, from which many died… A well 2,000 feet deep has changed sanitary conditions to the extent that the fevers mentioned are very rare inflictions.”

When settlers began extensive drainage around 1900, it improved crops AND virtually eliminated several diseases.

So as far as our health is concerned, tiling was literally a life-saver.

Mikki Schwarzkopf, of Jefferson, the author of this story, is a longtime member of the Greene County Historical Society. She especially enjoys researching topics from the past, and has helped provide information used in many of our monthly programs. You can comment on this story in the space below here, or you can write to her directly by email at

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    There have been three courthouses built where the Greene County Courthouse stands today.  Ground was broken on the current courthouse in November of 1915, the cornerstone was set in May 1916 and the new building was dedicated in October of 1917. The centennial celebration of the courthouse is already underway, with events being planned by the “Courthouse 100” committee, with support from the Greene County Historical Society.  You can learn more about the courthouse history and the celebration plans on the Facebook page “Courthouse 100: Greene County, Iowa.”


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