Tag Archives: Iowa State Historical Museum

Iowa State Historical Museum, Part 3

One of the things I discovered at the museum that fascinated me was a description of surveying and how the surveying chain was used. I’d seen the surveying chain Cathy’s grandfather had used, back in the late 1800s. I had seen surveying chains in exhibits in many museums and books. After all, George Washington had been a surveyor. I knew from history that, while people had been doing various types of surveying for millennia, surveying was evolving rapidly in the mid-1700s. But this was the first time I’d seen that chain defined and explained.

As they do today, surveyors in the mid-1800s used compasses and levels, but the chain was a key part of their equipment. Each chain was made up straight links, with each link being 7.92 inches in length. Twenty-five links equaled a rod. One hundred links equaled one full chain (though surveyors often carried half-chains, to cut down on weight). One full chain was 66 feet, or four rods.

Eighty chains equal one mile (5,280 feet or 320 rods). Reading that, everything else I knew about the settling of the territories fell into place. One mile was a key measurement. The Land Ordinance of 1785 divided the new territories using a grid. One square mile was a section, and 36 sections equaled one township. A township was six miles on each side. Land was sold by the section (one square mile is 640 acres), or, for those who couldn’t manage a farm that large, one-half or one-quarter section. Flying over the Midwest even today, one can still discern the mathematical precision of the initial surveys that divided the territories up into townships and sections—the grid is still there.

The thing that amazes me is not that they came up with this plan, but that people actually walked around with these chains and marked out the entire center section of the United States. It is daunting now simply to drive across the vast plains, but to tackle them on foot, to measure the land one chain at a time, and to document it so well that we still recognize those townships is really stunning. We may have cooler tools today, but we do not have more astonishing accomplishments.

Photos and more info on surveying and map-making in 1800s can be found on this website: http://www.oshermaps.org/exhibitions/american-treasures/iv-nineteenth-century-surveying

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Iowa State Historical Museum, Part 2

Here are a few of the items that captured my interest in the Iowa history and agriculture sections of the museum.

The pioneer farmer on the Iowa prairie faced the task of the first plowing of the virgin ground—called “breaking prairie.”

Iowa was obtained as part of the Louisiana Purchase. It was originally labeled as part of Northwest Territory, and then it was a section of the sprawling Michigan Territory. Then, in 1836, borders were redrawn, and it was considered part of the Wisconsin Territory. Then, in 1838, by act of Congress, it became the Iowa Territory. A territory needed a population of at least 60,000 to apply for statehood. In 1846, Iowa became the 29th state.

I was tickled by a quote from the diary of an early (1840s) Iowan woman named Kitturah Belknap. “Now my name is out as a good cook so am alright as good cooking makes good friends.”

Corn was essentially grown for the purpose of raising livestock—in Iowa, especially hogs.

Barrel making for Iowa’s grain shipments was a major industry in the area’s early days.

In a display on milling (which didn’t appear until towns began to grow, as you needed a fairly good customer base to justify going to the trouble of bringing in mill stones), I saw a book titled The Young Mill-Wright and Miller’s Guide, by Oliver Evans, published in Philadelphia in 1821. The thing that struck me about that was the idea of someone buying a book to learn milling. Milling struck me as the sort of thing one would learn as an apprentice—but perhaps not in the territories.

Grain dust is highly flammable (so yet another danger of storing grain). There was a model in the museum of a grain elevator that once stood in Council Bluffs, IA, that held 2.1 million bushels of grain. On April 20, 1982, a spark ignited the dust during a loading operation. The whole building was soon engulfed in flames, and moments later, it exploded, hurling concrete and burning wood up to a mile away. And this was not a flimsy building. It isn’t evident from the model, but the walls were six inches thick, concrete reinforced with steel rods. But the central building vanished. Five people were killed and another 22 were hospitalized.

Model of Council Bluffs Grain Elevator

Model of Council Bluffs Grain Elevator

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Iowa State Historical Museum, Part 1

Not far from the capitol was the impressive State Historical Museum. Learning more of the agricultural history of the region was my main objective, but I’ve always been interested in Native American history and culture, so I spent a fair bit of time in these exhibits, as well as in those of the region’s natural history.

IA-History-Museum-B

Here are a few insights I gleaned from the Native American section of the museum.

I’d seen the Grass Dance at many powwows, but learned here that it originated with the Omaha and was passed along to the Sioux—so essentially a Midwestern dance—which makes sense, given that the Midwest was largely grassland.

An excerpt from The Autobiography of a Fox (Mesquakie) Indian Woman, by Truman Michelson, explained that Indian girls had dolls so that they could practice on a small scale the clothes making and beading skills they would need when they were older.

Francis LaFlesche, an Omaha, was the first Native American ethnologist. He worked for the Smithsonian Institution in the 1800s and wrote dozens of books, many of which can still be purchased. A quote from him related that, “The White people speak of this country at this period as a ‘wilderness,’ as though it was an empty tract without human interest or history. To us Indians it was clearly defined than as it is today; we knew the boundaries of our friends and those of our foes.”

I’ll include more in a second post—but these will just be highlights. There is a lot more to see and learn. For more information, including hours, you can visit the museum’s website: http://www.iowahistory.org/museum/index.html

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