Blizzards, Immigrants, and Democracy
Like other northwest Iowa counties, Clay County has its share of blizzard stories from early settler days in the nineteenth century. Fred Tice from Missouri told a harrowing story of a March 14th that turned deadly. The 13th had been fair but the 14th turned cloudy. “We knew we had to go for wood and provisions. A German named Powdermaker had a nearby claim [near Spencer and Peterson]. Mr. Palmeter was to have charge of two yoke of oxen and sled. A boy of Powdermaker’s and a man named Smith were to go directly east to the Little Sioux and get a load of wood. Grant and Tice were to take the horse team and go to Spencer for mail and groceries and if possible some wood. As they started it began to snow. Words cannot describe the storm. Reached Spencer at 10:30. Did trading and went to get team. The stable man didn’t want them to go as he said, they could never find that lone house on the prairie. Mr. Grant said his wife and 3 children were in that house out of fuel and food. So they started back.” Though they found the Grant house with the help of a compass, they still could not account for their companions. Three days and two nights of snow kept them inside; they finally set out to look for the others. After several days of searching they “discovered the teams of oxen in the willows in the edge of the Sioux River bottoms.” They followed the oxen’s trail backwards and found Mr. Powdermaker’s son “lying frozen to death. Half a mile further they found the sled. Palmeter had led and carried the boy until the cattle got away from him. After lying the boy down, he headed for the river” which he followed until “at the mouth of the Muddy Creek he had given up.” Tice and his companions found Palmeter there. Tice went to tell Mrs. Palmeter of the tragedy. Smith’s body wasn’t found until the snow melted in April.
A story like Tice’s leaves no doubt of the challenges created by winters in Clay County. Blizzards are like characters in these stories. In Sara Egge’s study of the women’s suffrage movement in Clay County, she writes that “records left by Lutherans [largely rural, immigrant residents] attest to hardships that dogged midwestern settlement and the tenacity of ladies’ aid societies’ efforts to surmount them.” Egge paints a vivid picture of women walking miles with their children to attend meetings and riding horseback carefully in order to protect precious needlework—quilts, pillowcases, clothing—“from harsh weather” as they sought to hold bazaars and dinners to form a community, especially a community committed to building schools and churches. “Unforgiving conditions made feeding large groups a challenge.” Even among the Yankee (American-born) women in town, attendance at summer meetings that often numbered 50 “dropped in the winter to twenty women when cold, snow, and ice hampered their travel.”
On the one hand, the harsh winter climate drove German, Norwegian, and Swedish immigrants into common villages and towns with Yankees. On the other hand, “for decades, ethnic, gender, and religious differences produced restrained tensions and distrust.” Egge’s research tells her that while Yankee women got recognition and financial authority through their fund-raisers, social gatherings, and soup kitchens, and turned their efforts toward more civic and political efforts, rural immigrant women, producing the same kind of church-based fund-raisers and community-building were less likely to turn religious identities into political ones.
Norwegians and Swedes more readily assimilated into the Yankee ways of thinking and being, but Germans more often retained their own ethnic identity, writes Egge. Anna Schmidt remembers that her father, born in Germany in 1867 and emigrated to Clay County in 1884, took several trips back to Germany to see family. He went home for Christmas in 1894 and stayed in Germany for a year, working. In 1913, with a family in Iowa, he travelled to Germany for his parents’ anniversary. She mentions no tension with Yankees in town or if and how her father came to speak English. She only says that her father was not interested in the war or the peace and paid little attention to the armistice.
Though Mr. Schmidt may have kept his head down and stayed out of the turmoil around him in Clay County, the war turned tensions into what Egge calls “anti-German hysteria.” This anti-German sentiment even played a significant part in the passage of the women’s suffrage bill. Beer-drinking Germans, especially in Eastern Iowa, had, in the nineteenth-century pushed against women’s suffrage that had been connected to the temperance (alcohol prohibition) movement. When, in the early twentieth-century, after the war, the push for women’s vote arose again, women used anti-German sentiment to remove German immigrant influence and achieve their ends. “As anti-German hysteria grew to a fever pitch in the Midwest in 1917 and 1918, suffragists embraced nativism to achieve the right to vote.” The severe winter weather that drew Clay County residents together– Mr. Powdermaker and Mr. Grant, town women and rural women, Yankees and immigrants–did not prevent prejudice being used as a bad means even though for a good end.
Sources: SHSI: Royal, Iowa 1900-1975; Anna H. Schmid, “Life of Father or Three Score Nineteen Years,” Spencer, 1946; Sara Egge, Woman Suffrage and Citizenship in the Midwest, 1870-1920, University of Iowa Press, 2018; on-line: Nellie Walker, Iowa Suffrage Memorial Sculpture, Iowa State Capitol, 1930s, National Park Service, nps-gov.