Going west as far as Iowa
MANSON – While 1862 is remembered for some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, this was also the year when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law to encourage western migration and settlement. It was an offer John Wise and his family couldn’t refuse.
“They came by wagon train from Paw Paw, Illinois, and some of them walked all the way,” said Norman Thoel, 85, who co-owns a Heritage Farm south of Manson that was settled by the grandparents of his late wife, Betty. “There were no roads or railroads out here in those days, so it was a long, hard trip.”
The group crossed the Mississippi River at Davenport and headed northwest to Fort Dodge before arriving at Yatesville, a small settlement in Calhoun County just east of present-day Manson.
The Wise family arrived in Calhoun County in the 1860s and got the deed to their land in 1874, Thoel said.
“They had to go to the Calhoun County courthouse, which was in Lake City back then,” said Thoel, who noted that the round trip spanned more than 50 miles. “It took them all day by wagon to get to Lake City, and there was a real risk of the wagon getting stuck in swampy areas.”
Once John Wise filed the deed, he traveled to the land office in Fort Dodge to specify the land he intended to claim. The Wise family had settled on Section 30 of Lincoln Township.
Their original claim was 80 acres, followed by their $50 purchase of 40 acres to the west that were little more than swamp land.
“Section 30 was Homestead Act land, while Section 31 across the road was railroad land,” said Thoel, who noted that every other section in the area was Homestead Act land. “You had to buy the railroad land, but you didn’t have to buy the Homestead Act land; you just had to prove up on it.”
$500 built home
“Proving up” meant staying on the property and improving the land. Settlers could pay a small filing fee and were required to complete five years of continuous residence before receiving ownership of the land.
The Wise family built a house in 1869 on Section 30 for $500. Henry Moses and William Jould, of Yatesville, were hired to build the new home.
While many deals in those days were done with a handshake, the specifics of the two-story frame house, right down to the joists and studding, were detailed in a hand-written, one-page contract.
“There were few trees in this area, so lumber was hauled here from Boone,” said Thoel, who noted that the house was built with square nails. “It took two days to haul the materials up here.”
An upstairs room in the new home served as a schoolhouse for children of the pioneers who were moving into the area. The house stood for more than 100 years, said Thoel, a Manson-area native who moved to the Lincoln Township farm in 1954 with his wife, Betty. The Thoel family lived in the old farm home until they built a new house in 1970.
That home, which escaped the deadly tornado that hit Manson in the summer of 1979, still stands on the farm.
Manson had it all
The tornado is just one of Thoel’s memories of Manson, which was a hub of commerce for countless farm families in the area. Thoel can recall when Manson boasted six gas stations, five grocery stores, a railroad depot, Foley’s clothing store, a Gambel’s store, creamery, hatchery and more.
“We’d take a case of eggs to the hatchery on Wednesday night and get paid on Saturday when we were back in town,” said Thoel, whose family used the cash to buy groceries. “You didn’t have to go to Fort Dodge, because you could find everything you needed in Manson.”
That included entertainment. The streets would be filled with people on Wednesday and Saturday evenings, and the 20 to 25 members of the community band would play during the summer months, said Thoel, who performed with the band from 1948-1951.
Not only was small-town life much different then, but so was farming.
“We used to plow everything back then,” Thoel said. “Also, oats used to a big crop, but phased out when traditional horse power phased out.”
Ongoing efforts to improve poorly-drained, swampy land also ushered in a new era of agriculture. John Wise’s daughter, Hazel, had married a young man named Clarence Blunt who moved to Iowa from Little York, Indiana, and dug ditches for farm drainage tiles.
The Blunts farmed the family’s Heritage Farm until Clarence Blunt passed away from pneumonia in 1952.
When Thoel began farming in the 1950s, soybeans were changing Iowa agriculture. “If you didn’t have a combine, you’d run soybeans through a threshing machine, which didn’t work too well. Also, you’d save beans for seed beans. We’d store them in an old wagon and would clean them in the spring before planting.”
Pioneers like the Wise family who moved west to Calhoun County and beyond also changed the world, as they helped Iowa become a global agriculture leader.
“My wife was very proud of this farm, and we are proud of this heritage, too.”
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