As we wend our way up through that area on Highway 67, 10 miles north of Clinton, we feel differences, as we peer west and see the spot in which Almont thrived 100 years ago, then get to the dip where the Sabula, Ackley and Dakota Railroad crossed just north of the Midland Branch.

A few miles more and we roll into Hauntown, named after Billy Haun in 1839, who later lost his mill.

To the east, beyond Elk River, are the Modoc Hills. Modoc Indians are evident elsewhere in American History, but no one knows why these hills were named for them, since the tribe didn’t exist here.

Perhaps some settler was acquainted with the Modocs and simply called the hills that… (”It looks like Indians in them thar’ hills!”)… although the last Indians left here late in the 1830s. The hills north of Hauntown became known simply as Hauntown Hills. “Rattlesnake Hills” would have better described them — being so prevalent there that folks collected them in bags, to collect a bounty.

The Hills people were a separate breed of hard-working settlers. You can see it yet today… in lean bodies, chiseled from hard work; in gnarled hands and firm faces, belying invariably warm personalities. Many moons ago, their numbers were great. Today, many original descendants live on in the Hauntown area. The 150 years in between seem like yesterday; when you meet these folks and listen to them speak with pride of their collective heritage.

In Hauntown, the Struve Mill is famous for being the biggest business in the vicinity… when the town had a sawmill, distillery, flour mill, warehouse, general store, blacksmith shop… plus a store that featured supplies from Marshall Fields! Of course, pioneer women did most of the sewing of things, such as clothing.

Carrie Helfert Oake (circa 1911 to 2000) wrote a book about the Modocs and remembered her first store-bought dress wasn’t until she was graduated from high school in Sabula. Her sister, Gladys, had much the same fanfare at her eighth-grade graduation from the Modoc one-room schoolhouse, seven years previous.

Besides the Modoc schoolhouse, there’d been Shady Dell School, north a mile; Hauntown School; Almont North, by the garage; and Almont South, between Duddy McClintock’s farm and the Peters, on 67. So those five schools handled over 100 children who lived in the area. Some considered that they were deprived children, going to a small one-room schoolhouse where they didn’t learn all that their big-city (Clinton) counterparts learned. Not so. They spent long hours competing to be the best in their school by studying late into the night. Competition was very personal with them. Each child’s McGuffey Reader was tattered and well-worn with work.

Carrie Oake notes her first-grade teacher, Miss Inez Finnicum, was known by the Superintendent of Schools to be the best teacher in Clinton County. Once, he’d brought a whole group there to show off this wonderful teacher Carrie loved so much. The dazzling array of lessons recited individually and in unison, astounded the visitors.

Students did arithmetic and phonics… in long entertaining discourses, each one presenting poems and oral recitations. Their grammar at home might have been lacking, due to pioneer travails, but each student back then could recite all the principal parts of irregular verbs. Of course, teachers were quick to correct any “He don’t’s” or “I seen’s.”

My mother, who grew up on a farm by “the dip,” also graduated from a one-room schoolhouse, and from Mount St. Clare Academy… finally earning her teaching certificate from Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls.

Like all children of the Modocs, she was very well educated. That’s why, in Mom’s old age, I was amazed to see her once-impeccable grammar, and her perfect Palmer-style handwriting, deteriorate — reverting to that of her “field-hand” past.

Her two-year-degree found Mom back teaching at Modoc School, where Carrie Oake had her as a second-grade teacher… since Miss Finnicum had been spirited away by the Clinton system “for big money.” A teacher in the Modocs might make $100 per month plus room and board, while a city teacher could double that. Besides, country girls often were looking for a city feller to escape their hard scrabble farm life, preferring the fineries of city living. Many folks moved from farm to city; even some life-long farmers retired to the city.… perhaps at the behest of their daughters.

Carrie Helfert moved to Sabula with her parents and played basketball in high school there. Her memoirs were written in 1990 after her dear husband, Floyd “Scotty” Oake, died. Alone and lonely, she filled her time writing… (in a way that older people should really all try)… telling stories of her childhood and teen years in the “whoop-de-doo” and “la-di-dah” style of her past youth in her precious Modocs.

The flavor of her youth is captured well in her riveting book — which takes one back to those times and those places, even if you’ve never been there before. It was similar to sitting on Helen Cotton’s back porch with Ed Baasch, Dan and Marlys Smith recently. It’s the same flavor that’s evident when Wilbert Behrens or Steve Tietjens calls me.

Those folks can take you back instantly to all the famous families of the Modocs: the Struves, Peters, Helferts, McClintocks, Petersons, Hendricksens, Geronzins, Fangers, Johnsons, Albert Meyers …

Many of us have roots in the Modoc Hills. These homey people didn’t stray far. They moved into this outer territory, and their offspring continue to populate the area, giving substance to the stock and strength and pride to their descendants.

Sources: Helen Cotton, Dan Smith, Marlys Smith, Steve Tietjens, George McClintock, Richard Herrity, George Struve, Mervin Helfert, Lucille Hendricksen, Wilbert Behrens, Charles Burke, Hauntown Memories, the Clinton Herald by Sam Elrod, Footprints in the Modoc Hills by Carrie Helfert Oake.

• Next week: More about the Modocs —  our pioneer ancestry.

Gary Herrity is the Clinton Herald’s historical columnist.

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