Log Cabin Captures a Moment in History
by Roxana Currie
When I first met this rustic relic of the past, I was a wide-eyed
romantic about Iowas log cabin period from 1845 through
the Civil War. But early discussions with the experts had convinced
me the cabin couldnt be that old, so my heart danced only
moderately at my first glimpse.
Oh, but it looked old. It had been reshingled with asphalt
and listed terribly to one side despite the best effort of a
steel cable to hold it square. Even columbine and blue bells
brightening the tall grass around it couldnt create a homey
feeling. But it was a real log building, rough, squared logs,
chinked with some gray, crumbling mortar.
I obeyed the owners order not to enter the cabin, ducked
my head through the door and craned my neck to take it all in.
The dim interior, crowded with the typical accumulation of rural
Iowas empty out-buildings, looked less like
an old shed. There was a loft over the north end, intact, but
without access. The odd windows sitting on the ground in the
south wall took on the shape of a fireplace long gone. Yes,
it was a house, lived in by sturdy pioneers who traveled here
by covered wagon, stumped out a farmstead, and built a community.
The earthy smell of well-ventilated age swept me into the past.
I had to answer the mystery of this cabin. What was its
particular story? Who built it? And how old was it really?
The current owner was a single woman from Des Moines who had
remodeled a pre-Civil War frame house on the acreage into a summer
cottage. She had only a tidbit of information about the cabin,
but she had faithfully propped and prodded it into staying upright
for 60 years. When she bought the place, the seller had told
her the cabin was a historic site. The site of what, no one
seemed to know.
The only presenting clues were land records. The acreage had
come to her from James Brendel, who farmed it for 20 years.
Hed purchased it from N. R. Kuntz, a Polk City businessman
who speculated in land. Kuntz owned the farm for 50 years, renting
it to various tenants. Hed bought it from Peter Gfeller,
and in 1856 Gfeller had bought it from the original owner, John
Land records suggested that Kuntz wouldnt have built the
cabin, since he only rented out the land. So it surely was built
before 1863. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources was interested
in looking at it now, and after a look confirmed it was probably
a pre-Civil War cabin.
Gfeller was the only name on the land records that any local
person still carried. A call to Norman Gfeller, a retired farmer
active in our local Kiwanis, added an enthusiastic investigator
to the Mystery of the Log Cabin, one who became even more enthusiastic
after deducing that his grandfather had been born in it.
Yet, even the birth of a grandfather is hardly a historic event.
The mystery appeared to be sealed in the past until a Des
Moines Register article appeared. The reporter, unable to
answer a readers question about a Mennonite cemetery in
the north part of Des Moines, quoted a Historical Society publication,
The Mennonites in Iowa, and listed the names of the only
Mennonites known to settle in Polk County; Leichty, Gehman (Lehman?),
Snyder, Gfeller, Nussbaum, and Neuenschwander! (I was phoning
the library even as I finished reading the article.) The meeting
place of Polk Countys only Mennonite community certainly
would be a historic site.
In Mennonites In Iowa, Melvin Gingerich wrote that
John and Peter Neuenschwander and Isaac Nussbaum had been part
of a Mennonite community in Putnam County, Ohio, for 20 years
after leaving Switzerland. They came to Polk County, Iowa, buying
land in 1849, land first being offered for sale in 1848. Peter
was 73 years of age. He bought 86 acres of land; his son, John,
280. Nussbaums also bought land in Madison Township in 49.
Leichtys came in 50.
The Mennonite custom was for visiting preachers to come and
lead worship in these small, leaderless congregations as often
as possible. When the congregation grew, and desired it, leadership
was chosen from within the group., In the Polk County group,
Joseph Schroeder was not ordained to the office of preacher,
nor John Neuenschwander to the office of deacon, until August
of 1858. Thats when the church was officially formed.
The cabin had been sold to Gfeller two years earlier, but the
fact that John was chosen deacon probably recognizes his leadership
of the group over the past 10 years. It seems nearly certain
thy met in his home. our historic site, from 1849 through 1856.
John had 14 children, and tradition urged him to provide land
for them. By 1864 he had accumulated enough land to give his
sons Peter and Daniel each 120 acres, his daughter Anna, who
had married Preacher Schroeder, 46 1/2 acres, and daughters Elizabeth
and Catherine each 15 acres.
Elizabeth and Catherine were married to John and Jacob Beutler.
The Beutlers were the first Mennonite settlers in Mahaska County,
Iowa, and it was common for the sparsely populated congregations
to go to another community to find husbands and wives for their
sons and daughters.
The Gfellers were from Switzerland, and came to Iowa in 1856.
Family history records a strong reformed background, but Gingerichs
book lists them as part of the Mennonite Church of Polk County.
Peter and Annas daughter, Rosa, married John Neuenschwanders
son, Peter. Only the three youngest Gfellers were born in the
cabin, Wilhelm (Normans grandfather), Peter Herman, and
In writings P. H. Gfeller described their home in Iowa,
which was a log cabin...The cabin was located near the timber
along the Des Moines River and a small creek, which provided
a place to swim and fish. The timber yielded wood, nuts, wild
cherries and apples.
By 1874, the Gfellers also needed more land, and Peter set out
for Dickinson County, Kansas, arriving there with the grasshopper
invasion. The next spring the entire Gfeller family joined him
there. The cabin may have been empty since then, unless one
of Kuntz renters lived in it.
In 1933, Gingerich interviewed 74 year old Jacob Liechty Jr.,
who may have been the last to remember the Mennonite Community
he was part of as a child. He related that the services were
always in homes, and always in German. He attended with his
aunt and uncle, Daniel Beery and Elizabeth Nussbaum Beery, in
his overalls like the rest of the men. No one had Sunday clothes,
but he didnt remember that anyone dressed differently than
the rest of the community.
A partial list of Swiss immigrants in Northern Polk County before
the Civil War, by genealogist Dave Ringgenberg, notes John, Jacob,
and Ulrich Liechty, John Werstberg, Abraham Amstutz, Conrad and
Hohann Moekley, Frederick Manz, and Peter Gfeller. Gingerich
adds Beutlers, Jacob Gehmen, and Preacher Singer, noting that
in 1865 Polk City had six subscribers to the church paper, according
to the author, a large number for such a small congregation,
and a measure of their commitment. In the ten years after the
Civil War, at least twenty-five new Swiss families emigrated
to Northern Polk County, and in 1879 they organized, not a Mennonite
Church, but the Salem Reformed Church.
In 1868 Neuenschwanders moved to Moniteau County, Missouri.
They were part of Polk Countys history for only 20 years,
yet remarkably they left us a log cabin. With its history
explained, somehow the cabin doesnt look so decrepit.
It still lists terribly to the west. Its still very well
ventilated. The years have not been kind to it; but it continues
to stand, a memorial to the Mennonites who worshipped in it nearly
150 years ago.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, October 1996