The Early Families of Villisca

Compiled by Audrea Higgins


One of the first questions arising in a story about a community is that of who were its first settlers.  Contacting many of the families who have been residents of the Villisca community for many years, resulted in a wealth of information.

The following chapters of biographical information are entered mostly according to the years in which the families settled in the community.

Credit is also given to the person from who the information was received.  Obituaries are from the Villisca Review, in most cases.

John Harris Family

John Harris, born in Tennessee on January 16, 1818, married Jane Keeney, born September 8, 1820 in Tennessee, on February 23, 1841.  The Harris family emigrated to Iowa from the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee.  They went south through Muscle Shoals in a houseboat to Cairo, Illinois, before striking out over land to Iowa with an ox team.  The family settled about three miles northwest of Villisca.  (Where the Willis Gourley farm is located today.)  This area was to be known as the Dunn Settlement.

Accompanying the Harris’ were Mrs. Harris’ parents, the Thomas Kenneys.  Mr. Kenney was a distiller and cooper by trade, but was driven out of Tennessee by the rebels who were opposed to his abolition ideas.

After settling in this county, Mr. Keeney raised tobacco.

John and Jane Harris were the parents of the following children:

Martha A. Harris, born Feb. 20, 1842; died May 9, 1844.

L.B. Harris, born Mar. 4, 1844; died May 9, 1844.

J. Wes Harris, born Aug. 9, 1853, married Eva Smith (I), died Feb 5, 1937; married   Nannie C. Fulton (2), Oct. 1, 1885.

Sara J. Harris, born Feb. 7, 1856; married R. J. Dunn; died Jan. 3, 1929.

Lee W. Harris, born June 8, 1861; married Fannie Van Wert, Jan. 12, 1886; died Nov. 11, 1941.

Charlotte M. Harris, born Sept. 18, 1864; married Will Hillbourn, Mar. 23, 1886; died Aug. 15, 1940.

Lydia B. Harris, born Feb. 26, 1866; died No. 11, 1872.

The first election caucus in organizing Montgomery County was held in the log cabin home of John and Jane Harris in August 1853.

John Harris died October 18, 1872.  Jane Kenney Harris died January 2, 1905.

(Information by Melber Harris, Clarinda, Iowa.)

George W. Harris

George W. Harris was born August 9, 1853, in a brick house on the farm now owned by Willis Gourley.  He was the son of John and Jane Keeney Harris, and for many years took credit for being the first white boy born in Montgomery County. This story was later challenged by a lady in the western part of the county.

Mr. Harris was actually born the year the county was surveyed and formed, and the first election was held in his parents’ home.  Eighteen votes were cast in this election, twelve Democrat and six Whig votes.

In 1874, George married Eva Smith and they founded a home in Republic, Kansas.  Mrs. Harris died May 5, 1882, leaving Mr. Harris with two sons, L.A. Harris, and Guy, who died at the age of two, shortly after the death of his mother.

On October 1, 1885, he was married to Nannie C. Fulton.  To this union were born three sons, Albert, Orval, and Melber, and two daughters, Fay, and Sylvia.  Nannie Harris died October 16, 1923.

George was well acquainted with the operators of the “underground railroad” during the Civil War when slaves made their escape to the North and safety.

He also recalled helping his Grandfather Kenney worm tobacco plants and told how they twisted the leaves into ropes to dry.  They held these ropes in place under pressure by using heavy weights with a long lever and rocks.

These are only two of the tales George Harris liked to tell.  He also often wrote articles for publication in local newspapers.   In one such article, he stated:  “Today’s residents have difficulty realizing what the country looked like when I was born.   There were no long ribbons of concrete bisecting the area.  There were no steam trains plying between towns which had not yet been conceived.   There were no people.  There was no livestock or cornfields.  Montgomery County was practically virgin territory.”

In his obituary taken from the Villisca Review, quote:  “Harris lived through the growing period, passed through the Puritanical Age, the Gay Nineties, the early depressions, Spanish-American War, World War, post war inflation and its subsequent deflation.”

George Harris could tell his experiences by the hour.  Following is an article written by a student who interviewed Mr. Harris and really tells it like it was.

“An Interview With An Old Settler”

“So you want to know about the early days in Iowa? Well, my folks came here with the surveyor, and I was the first white child born in Montgomery County, so I reckon I ought to be able to give you a little information upon the subject.”

“Let me see,” and George Harris puffed his pipe reminiscently.

“My folks were born, raised and married in a little town in Cumberland Mountains in East Tennessee.  They came to Iowa with my mother’s folks in 1849.

“I can hear my dad now, talking over old times, money was mighty scarce and hard to get down south, so a bunch of us neighbors slipped up to this country, ‘cause we’d contracted a bad habit.  Yep, it sure were a bad habit.  You see it was this way, we’d contracted the habit of craving food three times a day.  Now you know you’ve got to be up and doing to satisfy a habit like that!  And I guess he had it right.”

“Most of the trip, up the Tennessee and Ohio rivers to the Mississippi, was made in a flat house boat.  While going up the Tennessee they went through the Muscle Shoals, and I guess they pretty near upset.”

“When they got to Cairo they changed from the house boat to a regular steamboat that carried passengers up and down the river.  They went up the Mississippi to Dubuque where they landed and bought an ox team and other necessary supplies, and set out for Lee County, Ioway.”

“They were living there when Joseph Smith, the great Mormon prophet, was killed in the massacre at Nauvoo, which is in Lee County, and only a few miles from where my folks settled.

“My dad saw the Mormons leave for Denver.  They must have been a discouraged looking lot, the men pushing the baggage in wheelbarrows, and their wives and children riding crowded together in wagons.”

“Well, to make a long story shorter, my folks came to Montgomery County in a prairie schooner, drawn by an ox team, in the spring of 1852.  At the various stops along the way they fell in with a good many of their future neighbors and fellow citizens, who were also traveling west.”

“Some of these folks had been out and made their locations the year before, and were bringing their stuff out.  Others, like my folks, were coming for the first time, bringing their stuff along, and expecting to look around a little before they settled down.”

“There were wagon trails leading west from all of the Mississippi landings.  My folks followed the “Old Ridge Road”, so called because it followed the ridges and kept out of the slews.”

“The first wagon train that came that way set out bushes every now and then, which was very thoughtful of them, but the road changed considerable after that, and the bushes weren’t good for much except decoration, maybe.  Well, my folks followed these all-fired bushes, and got lost.  And that wasn’t all of the bad luck, they ran out of matches.”

“The dry prairie grass was so high, it came up to the hub of the wagon.  If a prairie fire had got started they would have been burned to death, sure.”

“Guided by the hand that leads all pioneers, they left the road and cut across the seemingly boundless prairie, ‘til they caught sight of a grove off in the distance.   They made for this grove, hoping and praying that some one lived there who could supply them with matches, and show them the right road.”

“Thank God, their prayers were answered.  The “Good Settler” gave them enough matches and directions to last the rest of the trip, and told them how close they had come to being burned to death.  He told them if they got caught in a prairie fire, to plow in a circle around the wagon and burn off the grass between the plowed strips.”

“However, they didn’t have any occasion to use this advice, during the rest of the trip.  They arrived safely, and located on the West Nodaway River in June, and started right in breaking the sod, with an old prairie plow and the ox team they had driven from Dubuque and another the bought after they got here.”

“They let this plowed soil lie and rot until the following spring, when it was sown with spring wheat, and considered ready for a crop of corn the next year.”

“The first livestock the folks kept was a flock of sheep which gave them wool for the clothes and blankets for the beds.”

“The coarse homespun dresses were called ‘linsey woolseys’, and home spun pants were called jeans.  Today we consider wool clothes better than cotton ones, but in those days, calico was the most fashionable material.  The purchase of a gown of calico was a much talked of event.”

“During the first few years the settlers lived on wild game, and fruit and nuts.   Deer, prairie chicken, and sorghum and wild crab apples was their sauce.  They killed so many prairie chickens that they had to throw away all of them but the breast, which they packed in barrels and froze.  The timber was full of deer and there was plenty of fish in the Nodaway in those days.”

“They dug their first well with a spade and walled it with boards.  It’s a wonder they didn’t drink polly-wogs.  There was only one disease then, and they didn’t lay that to the water.  This disease was the shakes, or ‘ague.  It was supposed to be caused from the rotting prairie soil.  My, but it was awful.  And the medicine was worse.  They had to take big black bitter pills, that didn’t have any sugar coating on them.  These pills were supposed to keep the ‘ague away as well as to cure it.  When I was a little fellow, my mother broke mine up and I ate it with sugar.  Some of the men dissolved theirs in whiskey.”

“Our log house had two rooms.  One was the dining room and general living room, and the other was where we slept.  In one end of the best room was a great fireplace.  The puncheon floor was made of hewn oak, which was white and would scrub good.  The roof was made of clapboards instead of shingles.  These clapboards were thicker than shingles, and a lot longer.  They didn’t have any nails to nail them down with so they put boards and weights on them to hold them down.”

“Our furniture was a rough board table, a cupboard made out of a packing box, a cot bed, a bench made out of a plank with pins in it for legs, and several chairs made on this same order.  A spinning wheel and a cradle always stood in front of the fireplace, and the rifle and powder horn hung over the door.”

“I was born in this house August 9, 1853, and I lived there until I was eight years old.  I was christened George Platter West Harris, for one of our neighbors.  I always signed my name G. P. W. Harris until I went to sign a deed once, and the notary asked me why I didn’t shorten my name to G.W. Harris.  It didn’t make any difference, after all, because everybody calls me “Old George Harris.”

“When I was about eight year old, my folks built a new brick home.  They gave Larcas Brothers, contactors, an eighty-acre farm for building it.  Of course, land was cheap then and building material was high before the railroad came through, because us folks were so far from the markets.  All of the brick for the house was burnt in an old fashioned kiln.  I thought I was awfully big, carrying bricks, but I guess I was just in everybody’s way.”

“The county was organized at about the same time that we moved into our new house, so we had the first election there.  It was held out under the trees in the yard.  Mother got dinner for all of the voters.  There were eighteen of them.  There was John Ross, Jim Ross, R.W. Rogers, James Carlisle, G.D. Connolly, J.G. Romaine, William Wilson, Wells Sager, A.J.Lowe, Mr. Hannoway, J.H. Sager, Chauncy Sager, Robert Dunn. Twelve of them were Democrats and six were Whigs.”

“I’ll never forget my first day at school.  It was a cold winter day and there was a light snow on the ground.  I ran off barefooted.  Jim Ross, the school teacher, followed my tracks through the snow, and took me to school with him and kept me there until my folks came after me.”

“All the schooling I ever had I got at this school.  The first thing we studied was the “Elementary Spelling Book”.   It had a few words on each page, with easy sentences at the bottom of the page using the words in the spelling lesson.  When we had gone through this twice we were ready for McGuffey’s Reader.”

“In connection with our school work, we organized literary and debating societies.   We would put on programs every once in a while.  We used to come to Villisca in sleds and spell against the school at Villisca.  Once we got up a play and put it on at the neighboring school house.”

“About every four weeks on Friday afternoon, we would have what we called an ‘exhibition’, and our folks would come to hear us speak our pieces and sing our songs.”

“Ever so often we young folks would get together and have a taffy pull.  Those were the days of real sport and good cooks.  We weren’t allowed to have very many dances, but we always managed to have at least one dance during the holidays.  They were always invitation dances held at private homes.”

“The High School at Villisca was just starting at the time that I finished at the country school.  My folks had planned for me to go there, but there was a siege of typhoid that winter, and we all got it.   My father and my sister died, and they gave me up, but I didn’t die.  When I got over that, I had to stay home and work, so I didn’t get to go to High School.”

“Another thing which I about forgot to mention was the old swimming hole.  There was the dandiest one on our place, so we boys just about lived in it in the summer.  Also, we earned our spending money by trapping and by digging out young wolves in the summer.”

“Another event which stands out in my memory of my boyhood days, is the time that I and several boys rode to Red Oak on the train which was the first to come through.   We were hoisted on top of the box cars.   The train went so fast that I got dizzy and scared.  We could hardly hang on.  Believe me, we were glad enough to get off when we got there.”

“The first church I was ever in was the Baptist Church at Sciola.  I always went to Sunday School and revival meetings in the school house.  They had a dandy circulating library in the Sunday School.”

“In those days we really celebrated on the fourth of July.  We used to go to Frankfort to celebrate, with a high flagpole on the wagon, and the team all decorated with flags.  People were more patriotic in those days than they are now.”

“One time when I was about fifteen, we drove a heard of hogs to St. Joe and brought back a load of stuff for the store in Villisca.  On the way, we stopped over night at a farmhouse, which we found later to be a station of the underground railroad.  The lady of the house looked just like a jailor, and she carried a big bunch of keys around with her all the time.  She made me nervous.   I didn’t sleep very much that night.”

“I remember before the war, the men of the community would organize and drive the ‘bushwhackers’ back into Missouri.”

“About this time we took a Missouri paper, the “Missouri Democrat” which was a Republican paper. There was another paper called the “Missouri Republican”, which was a Democrat paper.”

“I guess the war surprised everybody that read about it as much as it did me. Most of us out here thought that it was over a disagreement over slaves between the southern slaveholders and some Abolitionists back east.  We didn’t think that the outcome of the war held any great importance for us until Abe Lincoln made all under the U.S. skies see the importance of keeping us all under one flag.  I wasn’t old enough to go, but my brother carried a gun for the family.”

“Times go pretty hard right after the war when payment was received, by we managed to have plenty to eat and clothes to wear.  True we didn’t have many fixin’s but we were thankful for being alive.  Human life was a sort of casual thing in the early days.  It wasn’t fine ideas that kept you alive, it was hard work.”

“You’d hardly know that this was the same country, for every year has brought its own changes, but honestly, I’m telling you the truth, I’d rather have my grandsons see what I saw and feel what I felt when Iowa was in the making, than to get up their radiators, step into their baths, speed away in their cars, and go to their universities.  I am glad that I had my share in these grand and glorious things which can never be again.”

And the old settler wiped a bit of moisture form his eyes as he said “Those were the he-man days.”

(Information by Melber Harris, Clarinda, Iowa)

More to come. Check back soon.


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