The official report given to both houses of the Iowa Legislature by a committee of five of its own seems today like something out the Twilight Zone. The directive was to study the extent of economic destitution in the far northwest corner of the state, in Sioux, Lyon, an O'Brien Counties, where successive waves of grasshoppers had devastated cropland and put life itself at risk. Immense poverty was creating malnutrition, endangering the life of the new settlers. It's a chapter in the story of the European people, my own immigrant grandparents among them, swarming onto land occupied only by a few wigwams, land right here beneath my feet, in the mid 1870s, when Henry Hospers, by all accounts a wonderful, warm-hearted leader, was working hard to bring other Hollanders to the far-reaching open land of northwest Iowa.
The committee of five visited the far corner of the state, talked with people in their sod houses, investigated whether or not conditions were as ugly as touted. Their findings seem shocking today, in a region that quite regularly leads the state in livestock production of all sorts, where land prices are higher than most anywhere else in Iowa.
There was, they reported, no question of need. People were starving, the report says, and despite these hard-working folks' innate aversion to accepting relief, to feeding at the public trough, life, the report argues that their lives are more important than their pride.
Their pluck sustained them for a time, and even yet a man is occasionally met who refused to consult the relief committee. But the great majority in the more afflicted portion of the unfortunate district have been compelled to accept aid--for life is more than pride. Many who have thus far got along without aid have sold their last bushel of grain, and are now quite powerless to seed their land without assistance from some source. Either in the matter of subsistence or seed, propositions for relief have uniformly been the last to find acceptance.What follows is a description of the world where I live, circa 1875, an amazing view really, something I wish I could see in a stereoscope.
Your Committee spent some time in riding over the great sweeps of prairie, snow-clad and desolate, visiting the people in their houses. None off their residences are extravagant, and seldom embrace more than one room. A majority of them are neat, though rough, having little furniture aside from such articles as the man of the house could manufacture. Some of the houses are made of sod, with straw roofs, in which floors other than the hard ground may be absent.People had little food. "A few pounds of flour, or a little meal, with possibly a little pork of some kind," they reported, "generally comprised the stock of provisions--with no hope beyond the good hearts of the more fortunate people of Iowa for fresh supplies."
Still, the committee discovered remarkable heartiness.
Nevertheless the people are generally cheerful; and if any one expects to find a wail of perpetual lamentation he might as well look outside "the grasshopper district" as within it. The men and women there stand up squarely, in the full dignity of their muscular development, and say, "We only ask for a reasonable chance for our lives!""A reasonable chance." What the beleaguered people of "the grasshopper district" wanted from the government was help, the goods they'd need to get on their feet. They were not afraid of work, nor were they determined to leave, despite grasshopper swarms that appeared hot summer after hot summer, and bare and empty cupboards in those sod houses.
And they evidently have faith sufficient in the people of Iowa to believe that this they shall have. The relief supplies as far as your Committee could judge, have been wisely used; and that they have prevented actual starvation, your Committee are constrained to believe.Therefore, the committee maintained, the state should continue to act, should continue to offer its hard-working citizenry relief in their distress. "It is all important that these supplies should be continued; and your Committee feel impelled to say that they can hardly be continued too liberally."
And what form should that relief take?
The great concern of the settlers at the present time is seed; and it was the anxiety of the people on this score that brought so many from near and far to meet your Committee in the gatherings before alluded to. Their painful anxiety over this great issue is easily discerned; and their suspense, in view of the near approach of seeding time, may be put down as among their chief sufferings. Your Committee estimate that aid is needed to seed over 100,000 acres of land, and while it is not regarded as possible to afford all the relief desired, the Committee is clearly of the opinion that an appropriation should be made to meet the emergency to the extent possible.This too is part of the story of Sioux County, Iowa, almost 150 years ago, a time almost forgotten, a time of nearly universal distress fraught with pain and suffering, right here on the ground we till, the good earth where we build and maintain our homes, our schools, our churches, and our businesses.
History is sometimes remarkably easy to forget.