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Published in Green Magazine September, 1986



By Neil M. Clark
Chap. I

       His hair was curly, his eyes steel-blue, his muscles powerful in the glow of the forge fire; and when he heard the screech of ungreased axles in worn hubs, signifying the passing of settlers' wagons, he let go the bellows stick, laid tongs aside, strode to the door of the shop, and, standing bareheaded in April sunshine and a leather apron, cast a critical eye over the newest newcomers to the West of golden promise. Even to the experienced blacksmith who had seen many such, they looked a weary, road-worn lot. Five canvas-covered wagons; tired ox-teams, heads adroop; a pack of flea-bitten dogs; wilted women with small children in the drivers' seats; bedraggled fowls in crates; half- or full-grown boys and maids peering curiously through flaps of the canvas; a calf or two tied behind; gaunt men afoot alongside; patched harness; worn rawhide whips...
       The wagons creaked to a halt, and a clerk in front of Dana & Throop's store hailed them cheerily. "Where-about be you from, strangers?" The tallest of the wagoneers made reply. "We're out of Delaware County, New York, mister. Seven weeks and two days on the road, so far, and not once have we slept in a house since we started. What place might this be?"
       "It's called by the name of Grand Detour, sir. A name from the French, signifying the big bend of the river which you see at this point." He waved an arm around. "Have you folks made a choice of place that you're bound for?"
       The tall man cracked his whip id1y against a near wheel, "We did set out for a town some neighbors of ours have settled at, ca1led Buffalo Grove. You know it? But we'll be settling ourselves down, most anywheres soon, I reckon, if only to give our womenfolk a rest from the riding. What's land like, hereabouts?"
       "This, sir," said the clerk, puffing pompously as a crowd of listeners began to gather, "is a place created by the Almighty as a special paradise for His children. He made it without trees ready for the plow, but with timber near at hand in groves for every need. He made it flat enough so that no man need stand on his head to farm it, but gently rolling for drainage. There is no part of these United States, I daresay, more delightful to the eye or more salubrious. You could make no mistake in settling on this very spot or as near to it as you can get. The river that you have just crossed, as you doubtless know, is called the Rock; one of the great rivers in this mighty state of Illinois. Already its bed is being prepared for steam navigation to this point and beyond, connecting with the Mississippi, and providing an unexcelled route all the way to New Orleans and even beyond the sea."
      Concluding this lengthy outburst, the clerk did not pause even for breath. "As for Grand Detour itself, sir," he went on, "town lots are already selling here for $100 to $400, depending on the location, and in another five years, they may well be selling for $1,000 to $5,000. We expect to see this place blossom into a great city. Sir, this store in front of which I stand will sell nigh onto $30,000 worth of merchandise this very year..."
      It was not the first time the tall stranger from the East had heard tall talk. And yet - he loved it. His dull eyes glowed. The sunset, and dreams of fortunes to be had through the magic of a nation's expansion, just as the clerk suggested, were what had brought him and his family and neighbors on their long, hard journey. "Is the best land spoken for?" he asked wistfully. "It seemed to us from the last summit that the foot of man had not stepped here as far as the eye could see."
      "Settlers choose the hollows in this country, stranger," the clerk informed him. "You wouldn't see them, They are here, nevertheless. And more are coming every day. The land is filling up so fast, it's hard to believe. But you are in time even now, if you act at once; you may still secure choice locations."
      "How is the soil for crops?" The clerk threw back his head and laughed. When he spoke again, he addressed the local audience instead of the stranger. "He asks how the soil is for crops!" he exclaimed. "Brother-" facing the stranger once more,"-I'll tell you how the soil is for crops. Scratch the prairie anywhere you like, and drop your seed; and when autumn comes, you may harvest fifty bushels per acre of the finest prairie corn..."
      "Yes," spoke up a voice from the crowd derisively, "and when you try to plow the same field next year, may heaven help you? You had better move you on to a new farm. For the plow is not made that will scour in this prairie soil after the first year."
      The mover cast a clouded look at the speaker, then at the plow conspicuously tied to the side of his wagon. "That plow," he said, "was made after the patterns of Jethro Wood. I guess you have heard of him. They claim it will turn a clean furrow in any soil."
      "Not prairie soil after the first year, it won't. Nor will any plow. My advice to my friend, is to strike north and keep going till you come to timber, or head back where you came from, before you bury any of your time and labor, and maybe your own body, too, in this accursed spot. That's what I'm about to do - go back; it's a lesson that has cost me dear to learn, but the prairies were not made for the plow and crops. If they were, why don't trees grow on 'em?"
      The clerk, a born booster, had been nearly bursting for a chance to chip in again. "Don't you listen to him, sir!" he said earnestly. "It's true that this soil needs a special kind of plow But we have a man in this town, a mechanic newly come out here from Vermont, who has given study to the matter and will make you a plow that will turn prairie soil, no matter how many times it has been plowed before, and do the slickest kind of a job of it. What do you say, blacksmith?"
      All eyes turned toward the big man with curly hair who stood bareheaded and silent on the fringe of the crowd. The latter shook his head and smiled slowly.
      "I wouldn't want to make a sure promise before I knew I could perform," he said.
      His eyes, however, thoughtfully rested on the far bank of the river. Soon now, he privately knew, he would be ready for a decisive test of an idea that had come to him. His forge fire had burned early and late, his hammer had shaped the precious steel with infinite care. He even knew the field, yonder, claimed under preemption rights by Lewis Crandall, where he meant to make his first test. Reflecting so, he was reminded that he still had more work than he could do, and that his fire would be cooling. He turned his back abruptly on the crowd, and went inside his shop.
      "Who," asked the tall stranger from Delaware county, New York, "might he be?" "Name of John Deere," said the clerk...

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