William R. Hays enjoyed sharing his memories of the early days of Burr Oak, Skidmore and Nodaway County. This letter was printed in the April 9, 1914 Skidmore New Era:
Nodaway Co. in Early Days of the Fifties
Reminiscents of a Pioneer Settler of Western Nodaway County.
By William R. Hays.
Denver, Colo., April 1, ’13.
Editor New Era, Skidmore, MO.
My Dear Sir — About three years ago I was introduced to the then editor, one Mr. Baker, whilst waiting for a south bound train to bring me to Colorado via Kansas City.
Recognizing Mr. Baker as a grandson of Lawson Baker, I supposed I become somewhat reminiscent of our early days etc. I told him I could probably interest many of his readers by an article for his valuable local paper. He expressed a desire to have me do so hence this article, which if you kindly publish it, I would, if you wished, follow with another more interesting article relating to our trip from Illinois in the Spring of 1859 opening up settlement and up to the close of the Civil War.
Wm. R. Hays.
This is a record of the people and conditions the writer found in the valley of the Nodaway river in Nodaway and Holt counties in the fall of 1858, when I first visited that vicinity.
Four men, who later became well known in your part of the country, who lived in Blandinsville, Illinois, vis: Captain John Grigsby, Alonzo Coston, James T. Hays and Major William R. Hays, left Blandinsville early in the month of August of that year in a covered wagon and visited this country to look up a location that might suit them for a permanent home.
You ask me why this particular country? My answer is as follows: In the years of 1856 and 1857 my ost highly esteemed father, Thomas R. Hays, (who was raised to manhood in Springfield, Washington, Kentucky, and settled in McDonough county, Illinois, in 1831, where he raised his large family of children) seeing he could do little for his family in Illinois, where land was, in 1856, fifty dollars per acre, found that by selling his Illinois land he could invest his money in government and, costing only one and one-fourth dollars per acre, and give one-quarter section to each of his then nine living children.
My father entered the lands surrounding Burr Oak Grove, in the west part of Nodaway county, having nine quarter sections, in a square and several near by, as well as a tract of timber near Smock’s Saw Mill and one quarter section adjoining Robert Bagby on the west, a few miles southeast of the present town of Skidmore.
Before we started to see this land my father told each of us that we might choose a section, or any two half-sections of this land if we liked it well enough to move on to it in the Spring of 1850.
I will now describe at least a part of our trip to see this land and show what our decision was.
We crossed the Mississippi river above Warsaw, at a little town called Canton, in Northeast Missouri, thence west through the northern tier of counties to Maryville. We were directed to Downey’s Mill to cross the river, and when a few miles east of there were told we had better go down the river to White’s Ford, west of Brownville, (now called Graham, and named for old Colonel Graham, Nodaway’s first County and Circuit Clerk, and before the war a member of the legislature). In traveling down the river we were pleased to see fine crops of corn. I remember that we gathered a few ears from the then Andy Russell farm, now the Henry Linville, I believe, which were fourteen inches long and large in proportion.
We camped at White’s Ford and made the acquaintance of the White family, who were from the state of Indiana. Sunday morning we bid goodbye to the Whites and at noon were on a section line running east, crossing the river at what was then known as Downey’s Mill, now the town of Skidmore, named for Judge Marteny Skidmore, who was also from Indiana.
You will hardly believe me when I tell you that the valley land west of the river had a growth of blue stem grass and rosin weed much higher than a tall man; so high, in fact, that a man on horseback might easily hide therein only a short distance from the road. After our lunch we took a trail leading up the ridge north of Hickory Creek and camped at Burr Oak that Sunday night.
My father, after entering this land at Pattonsburg, Missouri, where the U. S. land office was at that time, came up to see his land a second time and found Bill McDonald, whose father at that time and long after had a home adjoining the John Owen’s farm, a few miles north of Downey’s, with his neighbors raising a double hewn log house on his forty acres of timber land at Burr Oak Grove, After telling McDonald that he had him entirely surrounded by land he had purchased from Uncle Sam, but would give him outlets wherever he wished them or that he would buy his land, etc., and Bill sold him the land, I believe for nine dollars per acre, and stopped the raising, which was only half way up. We found the house in this shape and camped there.
On Monday morning we drove over the neighborhood and found that it was five miles to King Grove and four to the mouth of Burr Oak creek on the Nodaway, where Mansel Hughes then lived. Hughes married a sister of Andy Garnett. Several families lived at King’s Grove, Holt county, among which was Hugh Campbell, Reuben Parrish and about two other families beside John King, for whom the Grove was named.
My brother James and I chose the east one-half of section three and Grigsby and Coston the west one-half of section two township sixty-three, range thirty-eight.
Learning of Smock’s saw mill, we went there and had a bill of lumber sawed, suitable for completing the log house. Then we invited Lawson Baker and his neighbors, the three Hedgepeth brothers, one of whom was named James, the King Grove folks and Mansel Hughes to the second house-raising at Burr Oak Grove, and raised the house to the proper height. We had a real jolly time, and I remember that Lawson Baker kept the crowd in fine spirits with his comical jokes. We contracted with Mr. Parrish to roof, floor and chink the house ready for us the next spring. Then we mowed hay with Armstrong’s machine and stacked it for spring use.
After this we spent a little time hunting deer, one of which came near running over Captain Grigsby and I, just east of Pearl Hays’ house, where a road ran through the hazel brush. The dogs started the buck, and as we were to the windward he followed the road where we were, by a quick jump we got out of his way and of course, we forgot we had a gun and he got away unharmed. We often laughed about our narrow escape.
At this time there was a family of Walkup’s on the Little Tarkio, northwest of Burr Oak several miles, and another family two miles below on the same stream. Then several miles west of here were several families on the Big Tarkio. With those exceptions and what I have heretofore mentioned, all of this vast country between Rock Port and the Nodaway was an extensive prairie wilderness in 1859, when we settled at Burr Oak.
At this early day all the inhabitants settled along the timber, which bordered the streams and from Quitman south, on the east side of the Nodaway were the following settlers: Warner Carden, Jackson Holt, William Holt (called Uncle Billie), Uncle Joel Albright, James McDonald, John Owens, John Brown, Judge Wm. V. Smith, I. D. Hall, Robert Bagby, James Graves, Andrew Russell and Uncle Billy Graves, just north of Brownville (now Graham).
A brother of Andrew Russell had a mill and store at Quitman. Uncle McKenzie also resided there. Many of the Brown family resided in and near Brownsfille. On the west side of the Nodaway the McKnights, Morgans, old man King and his son, Enoch, George Manley, Mansel Hughes, James and Lewis Hedgepeth, Lawson Baker, James Campbell (a brother-in-law of Robert Bagby), Picas Paschal, David Bender, next the White’s at the ford west of Graham.
During the Civil War there were many changes and when I came home after the war in 1865, I settled where Pearl Hays now lives. Jacob Walker from Ohio was on the Lawson Baker place, and he had a large family of grown children, some of them married. Downey was gone and Marteny Skidmore had taken his place. I believed the old mill changed hands several times within a few years.
Quitman was our post office when we settled at Burr Oak and for a few years after the war. We called it seven miles to Quitman and we could travel nearly in a straight line then, where there were no fences. Now it is ten miles traveling at right angles. Many times during the war my youngest sister, Martha, (now Mrs. H. H. Coston) rode horseback to Quitman for the mail when, on account of the frequent shooting of men from ambush, it was thought safer for women to go for the mail, etc. A man that was found dead near the creek that runs into the Nodaway from the Bilby farm, which creek was crossed in going to Quitman from Burr Oak. There was a Masonic lodge at Quitman when we came and Grigsby, A. M. Coston and the writer belonged there. There is no doubt but Masonic ties saved the lives of many citizens during that awful war, where brother fought against brother, each according to his convictions of the matters in dispute.
After the war we were importuned to drive out of the country some of the Confederates who had been active agitators for the rebellion. I cut them short, asking them what we had been fighting for; I told them we had been fighting to enforce the laws of the Union, and we would fight for its maintenance now, and that no Confederate should be molested if I could help it.