Big Woods


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    The Big Woods was an anomalously large tract of forest land that covered a sizable portion of the southern part of Bremer County. It extended southeastward from Waverly to Jefferson City, which is now Denver. The eastern edge was about three miles in length, and a mile west of Denver, and was four miles in width. From Denver, the timber extended all the way down to the Red Cedar River, where two arms spread out into a "Y." The northern arm extended to Waverly and the southern arm nearly to Janesville.

    This forested area included more than twenty-six sections of land. Some portions were only partially covered, but in thirteen of these sections trees stood side by side. The "Woods" contained a variety of trees, including hard maple, black walnut, butternut, white oak, elm, ash, basswood, poplar, dogwood, and ironwood. Over the years, there were three groups of Native Americans who camped and hunted in the "Big Woods." One was the Winnebago, who periodically encamped around the fork of the Cedar River. Another was a branch of the Sioux tribe that occasionally roamed through the northwestern portion of the woods, while the Sac and Fox were sometimes found in the southeast corner. The first European-American settler was Charles McCafferee, who migrated from Scott County Iowa in 1845. He settled on section thirty-four, known later as the Stears Farm. A woman by the name of Cynthia Messinger arrived in 1848. McCafferee said that the Indians were afraid of the "Chemokemons," or white men, because they feared the whites would take their land away and spoil their fishing and hunting. They were, of course, correct.

    Although only the southernmost part of the "Big Woods" touched Black Hawk County, its resources were valued by area residents. One of the least intrusive ways of exploiting the forestís bounty was the tapping of maple trees and the making of maple syrup, which had many household uses. It could be used as a topping on bread and rolls and as a sweetener in drinks. It was an annual event for the settlers near the woods to make it. Many operations were required to produce the syrup and the whole family became involved. Sugar camps dotted the woods from the 1850s to the early 1930s. Most syrup was for private use, but others produced it to sell.

    Inevitably, in a land in which prairie was more prevalent than forest, "The Big Woods" attracted those in search of lumber. One of the largest portions of the forest was near the Cedar River, where it covered 10,000 acres between the towns of Denver and Waverly. At one time, there were five steam sawmills working to reduce timber to usable wood products. As the pine forest of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin disappeared down the Great River to the hungry mills along its banks, so the "Big Woods" slipped down the long road to Waterloo, the shorter road to Cedar Falls, and just across the road to Waverly.

    The fate of "The Big Woods" was hardly unique. It has been estimated that Iowa once had 6.7 million acres of forest, roughly 19% of our state. The settlement and development of eastern Iowa reduced the volume to 7%. A 1994 survey reported that Iowa is around 4% forest now. This has caused major problems for the species that live here. Among the animals that used to inhabit northern Iowa were black bears, gray wolves, mountain lions, ruffed geese, and bisons. Most of the large animals have migrated west or to the northwest. Vestiges of the once diverse wild life populations remain, including some of the smaller animals formerly prevalent in "The Big Woods." According to a survey done by University of Northern Iowa professors, many species can be found in an area where the "Big Woods" used to be. Some of the species are the Virginian opossums; masked and short-tailed shrews; eastern and prairie moles; eastern cottontails; white-tailed jackrabbits; woodchucks; Franklin ground squirrels; plains-pocket gophers; plains-pocket, western-harvest, white-footed, and deer mice; coyotes; red and gray foxes; raccoons; ermines; long-tailed and least weasels; badgers; spotted and striped skunks; and white-tailed deer.

    One specie that created a controversy was the blue-spotted salamander. In the proposed section of the newly relocated Highway 58 and new US 218, a blue-spotted salamander was found. This was a surprising discovery because these salamanders are not supposed to be in this area. Also nearby, a specimen of silky-prairie clover was found, the first recorded one in the state.

    Today, "The Big Woods" survives only in the name of a road and lake near Cedar Falls. The broad swath of forested land once prized by early settlers for its resources has virtually vanished. Only in a few scattered locations, such as Denver Hills, a residential area in Denver, Iowa, a few miles north of Waterloo, is there any hint of what "The Big Woods" once must have been like.

By Kevin Spears- Fall 1999

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