A Life Pilgrimage on the Quaker Highway

Dr. Henry Edwin McGrew


This is the "Third Month fourth, 1943" and it is exactly three quarters of a century since this pilgrimage on the Quaker Highway began. This statement is not from memory of any person now living but it is a matter of record in an old Family Bible - somewhere between Malachi and Matthew.

The event of this birth was of small consequence at the time to the world at large and has so continued to be, but it was rather significant to though unappreciated by the Pilgrim himself. As these years have multiplied, so filled with blessings, he has come to a high appreciation that he was born and allowed the privilege of living in such a beautiful world. It must have been an event of interest and some consequence to a small group of concerned Friends who manifested throughout subsequent life a profound, unwavering, tender, firm enduring responsibility that day committed unto them. To the Father and Mother this wayfarer pays his tribute of unfeigned love and unalloyed devotion. Often he has said if it were all to do over again and he were given the power of choice as to immediate ancestry he would make not any change in the whole matter.

Those were still pioneer days in the vast territories "Beyond the Mississippi." In the year 1856 this Father, in company with his own father, some brothers and sisters, left their homes in Ohio in response to the "westward ho" and journeyed to the challenging prairie lands of Iowa. At this time the Pilgrim's father already had a small family - a wife in frail health, two small sons and a small daughter. Early in the pioneer life the wife and daughter passed away.

The Father had, on reaching the edge of Marshall County, Iowa at the small town of Le Grand, "entered Government land" three miles from the village - one half mile east and three miles south. The location was in Marshall County but just across the line running between Marshall County and Tama County. He was associated with a brother-in-law in a sawmill industry, making lumber from the forest trees along the banks of the Iowa River. Thus it came about that the old farm had much fencing from native grown posts and rails and the pioneer buildings builded were from Native lumber.

The Pilgrim's Mother, the eldest of four children, three girls and a boy, left orphans by the early and untimely death of both parents, came also from Ohio with a grandfather and a step-grandmother, by team and wagon. Her limited schooling was obtained in a pioneer school while her duties as oldest sister and granddaughter were somewhat exacting. While not rugged she possessed a quiet resolute spirit and was patient and efficient in matters of household economy and essential thrift. She was gentle, kindly, friendly, wholly unconscious of her personal charm and unconscious also of her winning manner which attracted always a multitude of friends. It was little wonder that a stirring, vigorous, hard working man of affairs, a pioneer farmer, a widower with two young sons sought her to help fill a need in his home and a longing in his heart, and so it was that on the twenty-third day of First Month, A.D. 1861, they two, in a Friend's Meeting and according to Friend's custom, became husband and wife, on repeating: "In the presence of the Lord and of this assembly, I David Davis McGrew, take thee, Alpha Pearson, to be my wife, promising with Divine assistance, to be unto thee a loving and faithful husband as long as we both shall live." Then followed her pledge: "In the presence of the Lord and of this assembly, I Alpha Pearson, take thee, David Davis McGrew, to be my husband, promising to be unto thee a loving and faithful wife as long as we both shall live."

During the years that followed, there were some perplexing and sad experiences. Two little girl babies came to the home, the second following the first some three years later. Each sweet promise seemed destined to be "just shown and then withdrawn", in spite of tender and diligent care and the aid of such medical care as was available. Then in 1865 came a little girl Margaret, who was able to survive the hardships and limitations of pioneer life. Within another two years came a brother for her whom we know as the Pilgrim, and within another two years and in another geographic location to be noted later, there arrived in the household the baby Elizabeth.

As these children grew toward maturity the lad was known to say: " I have two sisters, the older one is good and the other one is like me." That was not quite saying that the one was perfect nor that the other two were seriously evil. It did suggest that one was more gentle and unerring while the younger brother and sister possessed more vim and purpose in having their own minds and opinions and their own self determination with less and less regard to rules and regulations laid down by the heads of the household.

The years spent on that pioneer farm were important in the life of the boy just starting on his life pilgrimage but so brief were these years and so early in his experiences, practically nothing is registered in his memory concerning them. Later however, he found much delight in reviewing the local and national history of those important years.

Iowa was then being rapidly settled by the finest and most select pioneers for it gave promise of becoming one of the most productive farming states of the Union. Its early history can scarcely be noted in this account but it abounds in incidents of profound and thrilling interest. Iowa, known as the Hawkeye State, was named for a tribe of Sioux Indians who were probably later driven out by the Sacs and Foxes. In 1673 Marquette and Joliet stopped in their voyage down the Mississippi River long enough to claim possession in the name of France, and in 1803 the entire domain was part of the Louisiana Purchase. In 1838 Iowa was organized as a district territory and on December 28, 1846 was admitted to the Union. While rather generously supplied with coal in some parts and with excellent limestone in other sections, the great wealth of the State was in her deep black soil, and some one has stated "the soil of Iowa is worth as much as all the silver and gold mines of the world."

One hundred and sixty acres of the best of this soil came into the actual possession of the Pilgrim's energetic Father as he fulfilled the government requirements relative to homesteading. When he had paid the dollar and a quarter per acre, in testimony of all this and conveying the right of ownership, came in due time from Washington, D.C., signed by James Buchanan, the 15th President of the United States, serving from 1857 to 1861.

The development of this beautiful farm was a delight to this marvelous Pioneer. Here was a rich plot of earth, one hundred and sixty acres of it, a quarter of a section, a half mile east and west and a half mile north and south, for some reason, or no reason, there was a highway or a "wagon road" on three sides of it, east, north and south. The east "forties" sloped gently to the west and the west "forties" sloped gently to the east and these slopes met about midway in lower ground in the nature of a "slough" in which the early spring time or during a wet season one might find a small stream of water flowing northward, indicating a general slope of the farm toward the north. This small stream of water constituted one of the headwaters of what was known as Davison Creek, a tributary of the Iowa River, which is in turn a tributary of the great Mississippi River, the "Father of Waters."

Never wanting in good judgment and always able to envision future possibilities, and with characteristic energy this great Pioneer chose to place his improvements on the east side of his personal domain, facing the county line road and almost midway of these east fronting forties. Whether subsequent development sustained the wisdom of this choice may be a matter of individual opinion. Some who knew him in later years might conclude he desired to have his home at the very east border of his possessions so at the very first sign of morning - maybe even before the "crack of dawn" - the household might hear his kindly but positive voice and "be up and at it."

The early improvements were of pioneer type. A small square excavation walled with limestone made a valuable cellar store room for fruits and vegetables. Other limestone rock from the quarries was wrought into a suitable and substantial foundation on which the sills sawed or hewn from native logs, were laid and from which the native timbers were erected until a comfortable though snug and limited country home was brought into being to endure through many years and to be "house by the side of the road" to many wayfarers.

The other necessary buildings were perhaps a bit temporary and of whatever material was available as straw, boards, and rails were utilized until horses, cattle, sheep, swine and barnyard fowl were protected from wintry blasts.

This Pioneer's genius for order and symmetry was much in evidence in the development of this farmer's home. His fences, whether mortise posts and rail, or "stake and rider" rail, or whether of osage hedge, much used in those days, were all exactly on the line, and one might say straight, only every one knows a rail fence could never be straight. Some one has suggested that some individual rails are so crooked they cannot lie still. Some people might be.

One of the features of this early farm was the purposeful arrangement of trees and groves of native trees or trees adapted to the native climate and the soil. The designer of plans, the one who not only planned but skillfully executed the same, was a lover of nature and a natural admirer of flowers and fruit and sturdy trees and he possessed genius of execution and taste in arrangement. Maple groves were carefully planted in straight rows with trees some twenty feet apart, westward from the east line to a distance of perhaps one hundred yards, then southward perhaps three or four hundred yards and from there eastward to the line of the "wagon road." Thus three sides of a large rectangle were formed, the remaining east side fronting the highway and giving opportunity for a fine row of trees, driveway and yard trees, some hard maple, some elms, cottonwood and cedar. Within the enclosure was room for a garden for early summer, for a small orchard of choice apple trees, some plum trees and grape vines and alder berry bushes, some strawberry rows and raspberry bushes. Some herbs were also allowed to grow, as catnip and sage, horsemint and peppermint, and some mustard and hops, while out in the open might be found the important dandelions for greens, and bonelet and pennyroyal, and possibly by the stream some calamus.

As the years slipped by this grove grew more beautiful and the strong trees became a great windbreak, especially from storms from the north and the west. It was a veritable thing of beauty and of utility, a place for birds - robins, blackbirds and quail, of wildlife such as rabbits and squirrels, and a shady place at noontide in summer for horses and cattle and sheep. Later, on occasions, there were picnics held in favored portions of the grove and sometimes the country people would gather for Fourth of July celebrations, and seated on improvised seats, would listen to the program and especially the patriotic address from the speaker who paced about on the improvised platform.

This systematic farmer planned quite as carefully the entire farm, selecting the corner for pasture land and certain parts for corn and wheat and oats and other features of the farming industry. All these were interests local and largely domestic, but during the years there were many other interests, state and national concerns of the people.

Without railways nearer than Iowa City, full sixty miles away, without highways and with but horse drawn conveyances, without telegraph, telephone and radio and with very infrequent mail service, these pioneers were none-the-less a part of a great State surging in the effort for material development which hastened railroad building and general advancement. They were also part of a great growing nation with its political interests and differences, a part of a united nation, facing a possible calamity of secession and permanent separation.

Some of the Iowa pioneers had earnestly done their part to elect Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency in the autumn of 1860 and knew at that time the possibility of war between the north and the south. The report of the Confederate Convention in Charleston, South Carolina, on the following December 20th, confirmed the apprehensions of people everywhere and "wars and rumors of wars" were terrible in those days as they are in ours.

In those days there were anxieties - some in the home of these good Pioneers, for the only brother of the pioneer wife and mother was taken with the armed forces, to live through a three year service, then was brought to this very home on the pioneer farm, on a stretcher so wrecked in health as to never fully recover and finally, after years of useful life, he died at the Soldier's Home in Marshalltown, when all funeral arrangements were made by this selfsame "older sister."

The war dragged wearily along 1861, 62, 63, 64, and into 1865 when after great loss of treasure and of human life, after unspeakable sorrow and distress, on April 9th at Appomattox Court House, Robert E. Lee the great and gentlemanly commander of the Confederate forces, surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant the determined and resolute commander of the Federal forces, Lee handing his sword to Grant who received it then as a token of esteem and goodwill, handed it back to Lee. Everywhere now was rejoicing. The cheers which started there echoed and reechoed throughout the nation and brightened every palace and cabin - in city and country - brought cheer to the pioneer home facing the sunrise on the east side of Marshall County, Iowa.

Some days passed by in this continued rejoicing. One day it seemed desirable for the Pioneer to make a trip to the village - 3 1/2 miles away to secure some needed provisions so he started out on horseback. Nearing the town he met other neighbors homeward bound and they told him the sad news that on the night of April 4th, 5 days after the surrender of General Lee, President Abraham Lincoln had been shot by John Wilkes Booth, an actor, in Ford's Theater in Washington and that he had died next morning without regaining consciousness. This conscientious Quaker Pioneer was stunned beyond words. He waited for a few moments, astride his horse there in the "wagon road" until the others had gone, then instinctively turned his horse about and returned to his pioneer home - for why follow any plans with such a sorrow and such a shock to what seemed well founded hopes. Often in every life may come the moments of disappointment and it is well for each generation to remember that our forebears had their problems, their battles, their disappointments and their victories.