James Perley

James Perley

Harrison County was part of the western frontier for a few years around the Civil War, and settlers flocked here to take advantage of new opportunities.

Farmers were most numerous, though some doubted the fertility of the land. Most hills were "bald," that is, bereft of trees, and many lower levels away from valleys were in a similar state.

Many farmers tried to avoid such open areas, but some who knew good ranching sought them. One such family settled in a high part of the Missouri River valley north of Dunlap and Moorhead. 

First, they fenced their land and introduced cattle to their new home. The now nameless rancher decided he knew how to make his land support the maximum number of cattle. He divided the land into sections and planted pumpkins on their borders.

The cattle, which occupied set pieces of the ranch, grazed happily in tall, lush grass. In time. they ate the grass almost to the ground, especially during dry spells. Then, the family moved the cattle to an untouched area and left them there until they ate their fill.

The process repeated all summer as the first exhausted pastures replenished themselves. The family watched the happy cattle gain weight because they knew they would earn money for the ranch.

Later, as the pumpkins matured, the cattle feasted on more juicy food. Soon, it was time to take the cattle to market. Chicago was the closest market, and without railroads, ranchers had to walk them to the nearest railheads in central Iowa.

 Once they reached the railroad station, cowboys herded the livestock into railroad cars and they left for Chicago. The stockmen rode with their animals to the Chicago stockyards. There, the cattle were penned and sold. Packing company reps inspected the cattle and bid on the lots. Some were sold at auction to private individuals. 

Stockmen gained reputations for themselves since they were regulars. One of the best known lots of cattle came from the Monona County rancher whose ranch was just north of the Harrison County line. It had a good reputation for having some of the best cattle on the market at the Chicago stockyards. When he was asked the secret of his success, he smiled and did not divulge the paddock system of grazing he had devised, nor the pumpkins he fed to the herds. He just replied that he had put green glasses on all the cattle, thereby tricking them into thinking that the dry, brown grass was as lush and green as the first grass of the spring. He said that made them eat more and thus put on more weight.

(James Perley is the President of the Harrison County Historical Society.)

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