Remembering John Henry Nieland (1854 - 1949)

— Letter from David Nieland to Kay Davis in February, 2004  

When I talk to first cousins about Grandpa Nieland [John Henry Nieland 1852-1949] they usually mention remembering him sitting in his rocking chair smoking his pipe. He spoke German, but could understand the English that was spoken around him. I remember my Dad [Louis Nieland] and Grandpa visiting. Dad spoke English and Grandpa answered him in German. And he loved to sing in German, especially the hymns he learned as a boy and the hymns from his Catholic Church in Breda.

He is also remembered for his vegetable gardens. When they lived on the farm, Henry Nieland had a huge garden that provided food all summer and plenty to "put up" or store in the root cellar for the winter. He knew how to grow plants from seed and he raised and sold lots of tomato and cabbage starts to different customers. He made baskets from willow and he also made his own garden rakes. He would use a 2x4 and put rows of nails along the board for the tines of the rake. He liked this because it was heavier than the store bought kind and did a good job of smoothing the garden for planting.

Henry Nieland tending his huge vegetable garden

Grandpa learned how to graft trees before he came to the United States. As a student in Germany, Grandpa was taught practical things like gardening and horticulture. When he first came from Germany and worked on a farm near New Vienna [Iowa], he grafted apple branches to wild apple roots. Dad, Grandma and Grandpa Nieland were returning to Breda from a trip to LaCrosse, Wisconsin and they went through New Vienna and saw the orchard with these trees.

He also was an expert at pruning trees. Last year when Paul [Nieland] and I were pruning my orange and grapefruit trees in Mesa, Paul pruned them like I did! I asked him who taught him to prune trees and he learned from his dad [Ben Nieland] and I learned from my dad. Grandpa taught his sons the correct way to prune trees.

When Grandpa and Grandma [Anna Köster/Koester 1863-1933] moved to a house in town, he had a great garden there too. He planted a grape arbor over the sidewalk and we kids liked to walk under and see the grapes growing. He often helped the Sisters who lived and taught in Breda put in their garden in the spring too. He liked to work in the garden and sing at the same time.

Henry Nieland and Anna Köster Nieland in 1884

He also liked to smoke meat and had a smokehouse at the farm and at the house in town. I can't remember which grandchild asked him how to smoke meat, but I do know Grandpa opened the door of the smokehouse and all we could see was smoke. That didn't teach us how to do smoking, but we sure remembered that!

The family would celebrate Grandpa's birthday each year with a get together. One year Jolene (Nieland) Jensen recited a poem for Grandpa in German. One of the Sisters (Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration) at school taught her the poem and she recited from memory. On another birthday, my brother Mark [Nieland] recited a poem that our grandfather, John Braun taught him. The poem was in German or Luxemborgish; I'm not sure which.

Grandpa said, "If you want smart children marry a smart woman." He also said you should never let your wife drink (beer, whisky, etc.) when she is pregnant. He believed the baby would develop a fondness for alcohol.

When Grandpa Nieland started on the land he bought in Sac County, he first built a small barn. He slept in the barn loft with the horses in their stalls on the ground floor. There was a spring on that land and he kept fresh ham and butter in a crock in the spring. The cool water kept the food from spoiling. He ate ham with bread and butter and drank water from that spring. The Gerhard Boes [1837-1915] family first lived in or near Arcadia. Grandpa went there on Sunday to go to Mass and get more ham, bread and butter. A Johnson family lived across the road from Grandpa and Mrs. Johnson did his washing in the spring that was close to his first "home".

Henry Nieland "broke" the prairie on the land he bought in Sac County. He also broke the Gerhard Boes farm. To do this, he used a special breaking plow. The breaking plow made a shallow furrow, just turning over the thick prairie grass. This left the land to a long winter of freezing and thawing and likely composted the grass. The next spring the field was plowed again. This time the plow made a deeper furrow and turned the ground over again so that the field was ready for planting of the crops. This was called "back set."

Gerhard Boes and Henry Nieland lived close and planted crops working together. They would lay out a planting pattern, to space the seeds for the corn crop. Then Gerhard would drive the horses and Henry would work the planter. The planter had a long handle that had to be moved back and forth to let out a few seeds for each hill of corn. They probably worked together with both families to get the corn harvested in the fall too.

At first there were no roads in the area where Grandpa lived. When the farmers would go to town they went across the sections with no fences to stop them. Only when the land started to be fenced were the roads constructed.

Henry Nieland in 1942, at age 90

When someone died, the neighbors would wash and dress the body and place it in a coffin brought from town. In the early days, a wagon was used to take the coffin to church. The people usually walked from church to the cemetery. The body was waked in the home.

The story is told of Henry Nieland and Cyrus McCormick, the inventor of the reaper. Henry and Anna (Berning) Nieland [1854-1883] were working in the field at the farm; the story says they were shocking oats. A party of hunters rode through the field and one of the men was Cyrus McCormick. Henry didn't like having a hunting party go though his field and frightening the horses and he asked them to leave his land. McCormick is said to have predicted that all the farmers in the area would "soon quit and the land would go back to the Indians."

— Letter from Leone Wittry Buelt to Kay Davis in February, 2003  

There were two Henry Nielands and two Herman Nielands in about a 15 mile radius. Sometimes the mail would get mixed up and they made an exchange. Luckily one Henry [John] Nieland (1852-1949) had a Breda address and one had [Henry Joseph Nieland (1871-1957)] an Arcadia address. Herman F. Nieland (1885 - 1958) had a Breda address and Herman A. Nieland (1906 - 1988) had a Wall Lake address.

In the afternoon, Grandpa Nieland would go to the pool hall to play cards with his friends, Ben Steinkamp, Henry Steinkamp and Barney Osterholt. But on Sundays the pool hall was closed so sometimes his friends would come to his house to play cards. The game they played was Solo and they played for pennies. Sometimes it got pretty noisy as they enjoyed their game!"

— Letter from Joan Wittry Hannasch to Kay Davis in December, 2001

Grandpa [John Henry] Nieland was 97 when I last saw him, shortly after my wedding in 1949. I remember him as a very distinguished, dignified man who loved to sing German hymns. When he worked in the garden or tended his grape arbor, he would sing with a strong voice. I often worked with him in the garden, so he taught me well to garden.

Often relatives came from far away, and the conversation always led to old times. He had a good memory and a good mind. As long as he was able after his retirement, he attended daily Mass and we sat with him in the family pew.

People often brought him cigars and he loved his pipe, smoking Prince Albert tobacco. He was a very contented man, enjoying each day as it came. He said once, he knew he was an American when he did his thinking in English, too. He kept up his native tongue, reading German newspapers he subscribed to. Some of the older relatives who came to visit conversed in German with him.

Every Saturday afternoon Grandpa would get out his shaving mug and mirror stand and trim his face and his beard. He had a slight bald spot on the top of his head and often wore his hat in the house. He also had a black woolen winter cap. I can't recall him wearing anything but black. His ears were huge, and probably that's where I got mine. He had clear blue eyes and must have been very handsome as a young man.

He was a leader; for he often told stories of helping other people come to America and buy farmland as he did. He had been on the church council at one time, and was unhappy with the poor quality brick used to build the [St. Bernard'] church [in Breda, Iowa].

During my high school years, I sang in the choir and often went to early Mass with Grandpa, so we would come home to have breakfast together. Mostly I would cook oatmeal for us to share. It was a special time for us to be together. Dad [Jake Wittry] would be gone to business and Mother [Anna Nieland Wittry] seldom got up that early. It was a quiet time.

Grandpa had a hobby of smoking meat for people. He had a smokehouse and carefully tended the fire so the hams and bacons were very, very good. This seemed to take days to "cure".

I don't remember Grandpa ever driving a car or owning one. He always walked to church and to town, three blocks, to shop or get the mail daily. I don't remember him going any place with us, but he always had people stop to see him. I got to know all my uncles and aunts and cousins, because we lived with him!

When our two aunts who were nuns came on "home visits" every five years, the whole family came home to see them. These where special times and five years went by quickly. My father would meet their train in Carroll and bring them to Breda where they stayed at the Convent with our teaching sisters.

We always had a big birthday party for Grandpa's birthday. All the [relatives] came and had a good time!"

— From Leone Wittry Buelt to Kay Davis in January 2002

"Grandpa [John Henry] Nieland worked so hard and was very saving. I remember after we moved into his house my mom [Anna (Nieland) Wittry] wanted to buy him a new mattress. His bed had been moved to town from the farm and was old. But Grandpa said it was good enough. But when the mantle clock in the dining room stopped working, he wanted that replaced with a clock that struck the hour with a chime. That way he could know what time it was if he was awake at night. And that's what Mom got.

He liked to sit in the rocking chair and read the newspaper. When he had his 97th birthday and the reporter came to talk to him, he really enjoyed seeing the article in the paper. The article mentioned his tobacco — Prince Albert. After the article was printed, the company sent him a can of that tobacco."


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