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Reminiscences - Ira C. Bridges

In order to give what would be termed Personal Experience in pioneering, the following account (with some slight changes in verbiage) is presented as related by Ira C. Bridges, of Industry, one of the oldest settlers in the county:

"I (Mr. Bridges) was born in Morgan County, Ill., August 20, 1825, my parents coming hither from the state of Tennessee in 1823. There (in Morgan County) they resided until November, 1829 when they located in McDonough County, at that time composing a part of Schuyler County. With my maternal grandfather, James Vance, the Bridges family located in the south part of the county, Mr. Vance having removed to that locality in 1823. Mr. Vance was a Justice of the Peace from 1825 until the county was organized in 1830. He was one of the first County Commissioners, was the first Postmaster in his section of the county and assisted in naming and laying out the city of Macomb. Mrs. Bridges' father had located on eighty acres of prairie land adjoining the timber, and there built a small log house. In its construction not a nail was used; half of the floor was laid with linn-wood puncheons--that is, split logs; mother earth furnished the other half, and contributed to the construction of the hearth, fire-place back and jambs, surmounted by a stick chimney--that is, made up of small sticks plastered over with mortar made of common clay. The door was made of clapboards (split timber), with wooden latch and hinges. Bedsteads were made by boring two-inch auger holes in the logs, constituting the walls, erecting posts at a suitable distance for the width of a bed, and then stretching poles between them and the wall. Clapboards were laid on the poles for a bottom and on top of this was placed a tick filled with prairie hay, surmounted finally by a feather bed, stuffed with the soft down which the mother had plucked from her geese. A most excellent bed was the result. We had two such in our small room and the family enjoyed themselves and came out all right in the spring of 1830. Grandfather Vance erected a small horse-mill, which ground the corn-meal for the entire county. My parents had fifteen children, and all were raised on corn bread and bacon. The father broke up ten acres of prairie, and cutting the overturned sod with an ax, planted the first crop of corn therein (sod corn). Watermelons and pumpkins were produced abundantly; and altogether, the family lived on the fat of the land. In the summer it was necessary to add another room to out palace; and we felt quite comfortable and were no longer crowded.

"The plow used for breaking prairie was called the barshare; its mold-board was of wood, the bar and shoe (or point) of steel, and with six yoke of oxen attached, it cut a furrow from sixteen to eighteen inches in width. It took a stout man to hold the plow, while the bare-footed boy did the driving. Often, on finishing a land, there would be a snake-killing, as the reptiles were very numerous in the early days.

"The winter of 1830-31 proved to be very severe, on account of an unusually heavy fall of snow which continued on the ground for several months, causing much suffering. The little corn that was raised could be reached only after much digging and great labor, and both the deer and turkeys died for want of food. As we could not go to mill, we made graters for the manufacture of meal and for the supply of our daily bread, mush and hominy. The cold was intense, to add to our sufferings. We would cut down a tree, haul it to the house door, roll on big backlogs and fill in along the front; and then the family would sit around the roaring fire and sing all day long--there were no pianos then. In 1831-32 the Indians were quite numerous and troublesome. The Governor called out troops and, after some parleying, the Black Hawk War ended by the Indians agreeing to leave the state. Only a few remained to steal stock and otherwise make nuisances of themselves. Among those caught in thefts was Black Hawk himself, and Thomas Bridges, a cousin of mine, had the honor of giving him a cow-hiding--after which all the Indians left. (The Black Hawk War occurred in 1832, though there had been much disturbance during the previous year).

"Our churches were few and far between. There were a few Hard-Shell Baptists, but the missionary Baptists, under Elder John Logan, organized a church among the neighbors and preached from house to house. although the preacher stood behind a chair for a pulpit the people showed themselves eager to hear the Gospel--much more, it seems to me, than they do now. This church organization continued for some years. Mr. Logan then removed to Macomb, and the congregation recognized that place as their church home.

"In the pioneer days we were much pestered with wolves, as they made sad havoc with our calves, pigs and sheep. Father made a wolf trap, and caught quite a number. He received $5 for each scalp, which proved quite useful to pay taxes with, money being then very scarce. We continued to break a few acres of land each year. In 1832 emigration became quite extensive.

"There being many ponds throughout the county, and the vegetation dense, malaria, with chills and fever, became quite prevalent; in fact, hardly any person was exempt. the few doctors in the county did what they could with calomel, and quinine and bleeding, when the case became serious. The fever would leave the patient very weak and listless, with skin of yellowish hue, and with an anxious, far-away look, which would cling to him for years, or until the disease was completely worn out by time and better sanitary conditions by way of drainage.

"Crops of all kinds were abundant, the soil producing luxuriantly, but the prices obtained on account of distance from market and imperfect means of transportation, were at a low ebb compared with those of today. Pork sold at $1.25 per hundred pounds, dressed; corn, to emigrants going west, at 8 to 10 cents per bushel; and wheat (which had to be hauled to Beardstown) at 25 to 30 cents per bushel. Sales of produce were made on the principle of barter or exchange--that is, exchanged for store goods. Cattle were very cheap, buyers coming from Jacksonville and elsewhere south of McDonough, getting them at their own prices.

"Our wheat was threshed on the ground by horses trampling on the sheaves. The separating was done with wooden forks; there was not a steal fork, or an iron shovel or scoop in the county. The first threshing separator machine was built and introduced into the county by Dallamand & Imes, the builders, in 1852. This changed our entire method of preparing grain for the market, and to us it was a most wonderful improvement.

"In 1850 the California fever struck our neighborhood, and, with many others, I started for the Golden West. We left McDonough County on the 20th of March, of that year, and arrived at Hangtown, in California, on the 12th of August, after five months of weary pilgrimage spent in crossing the great plains and deserts of the West. We saw numerous bands of Indians, large herds of buffaloes, deer, prairie dogs, antelopes, rattlesnakes and many other animals--not a few of which were welcomed to our camp kettles. Our route was by way of Fort Kearney, up the South Platte river to Ash Hollow, where it was crossed, thence by way of the Black Hills to Fort Laramie, Sweet Water and Devil's Gate, and through the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains and down the Humboldt River to "the Sink," where it enters the ground; then across a grassless, waterless desert of fifty miles to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and over the mountains to Hangtown [Placerville]. This was an old mining town, which received its name from the hanging there of two notorious thieves. There I remained and worked over two years. I had the usual success of these early miners--made little money, but gained great experience and saw much of the world. I returned by way of Panama, by steamer, to New York, and thence home."

Mr. Bridges furnishes much more of his valuable and interesting history, but as this covers the early period of his life in connection with the first settling of McDonough County, other portions of his narrative will be reserved for later pages.

Source: The Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of McDonough County, compiled by Dr. Newton Bateman, and Paul Shelby, 1907, pages 637-639. Transcribed by Joanne Scobee Morgan

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