Wetlands and a Memory of Ditch Digging, 1880-1910
Hancock county, Iowa
Arthur Wellemeyer remembered that Hancock County was once mostly level or gently rolling land. And it was wet. Both the headwaters of the Iowa River and the Boone River run through the county. In addition, “every quarter section farm had a few tiny lakes on it called sloughs.” Farmers, he recalls, hired contractors to drain the surface water from these sloughs and “wet draws.” Their system, called a “Bull Ditch,” literally employed the power of some 20-48 bulls to forge a ditch through the wetlands. Said to be stronger than oxen, the 20-48 bulls would pull a “shovel-like [hard wood] plow” creating a ditch some 6 feet wide and 3 feet deep “piling the dirt on both sides.” He explains that the process would only work in wet soil.
A common practice between about 1880 and 1910, as Mr. Wellemeyer recalls, the process was used before the big Dredge Ditchers and before farmers in the county could afford tiling. In the first few years of the town of Klemme, a person “would see a bull ditcher with a string of bulls pulling the camping equipment down the road.” Once a common sight, by 1900 it was already rare.
Early in the twentieth century, maps in the county plat book displayed both the rivers and the extensive ditches that had transformed the landscape.
Sources: SHSI: Historical Human Interest Stories as Part of Bicentennial Anniversary of Hancock County; Plat book of Hancock County, Iowa, 1929-30; photo by Mat Reding.