Chapter 7 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1882

Asa “Kentucky” Coates should be in the Iowa and Fort Armstrong County history books, but isn’t. In fact, he is only briefly credited in a section of the Iowa State Department of Natural Resources’ website that talks about the major attractions in Five Falls State Park as “being the first to identify Neshnala as one of the oldest trees in the state.” While that’s perfectly true, it’s also roughly akin to saying something like “Leonardo da Vinci did some sculpting;” it’s only half the story.

Coates was a colorful character, to say the least. Born in Maysville, Kentucky, in 1839, he grew up hearing about the exploits of local celebrity Daniel Boone, whose family had lived there for a time. His early years somewhat paralleled Boone’s, as a kid doing a lot of hunting and trapping in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky; then, like Boone, he saw warfare, serving as a scout with Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee from 1862 to 1865; and, finally, after the war, apprenticing as a surveyor for two years.

But he chafed at the more settled life of a typical land surveyor in the relatively “tame” Ohio River Valley and through some chance encounters carved out a unique career as a timber surveyor, spending most of the second half of the 1860s and the 1870s roaming around the backwoods of northern Michigan and Wisconsin mapping out roads to desirable timber stands for lumber barons like Charles Mears and Frederick Weyerhauser. Which is how, in 1882, he ended up in eastern Iowa…

In 1879, a committee of the Iowa House of Representatives, recognizing that forests still made up something like a fifth of Iowa’s land area, commissioned what amounted to a preliminary inventory of the state’s woodland resources, specifically to include an assessment of its potential commercial value. It took another two years for the Iowa Senate to finally agree to fund the venture. It was Coates who was hired under a three-year contract to visit each of the state’s nearly one-hundred counties, starting with the eastern counties, and eventually report back to the legislature.

Coates − an imposing figure at six-three and two-hundred-plus pounds − was a cross between a surveyor – he carried his surveying equipment, along with camping gear, on a pack horse – and a latter-day mountain man – his familiar Winchester carried across his saddle, a Colt .44 holstered on his right hip. He was known as “Kentucky” Coates because he’d never lost his accent.

As he moved into a new county, his practice was to visit the local sheriff’s office for two reasons. The first was to show the law enforcement official his warrant from the state to justify why he would be seen wandering around the county’s backcountry armed – by the 1880s eastern Iowa no longer thought of itself as a wild frontier.

The second reason was to ask the sheriff where he could connect with the few locals that still tried to make their living as trappers; it was a lesson he’d learned as a kid, trappers always knew where there were any wild places left, which is why he would hire one as his guide for that county.

The Fort Armstrong County sheriff directed him to a tavern on the edge of the small settlement called Montgomery along Old Post Road about fifteen miles north and west of Lee’s Landing. Of course, as he had already spent several weeks in the five counties along the river north of Fort Armstrong County, the “trapper’s grapevine” had flagged the bar’s denizens he was coming.

Recognizing a kindred spirit, Coates hired a grizzled old man in his mid-sixties named Jack “Breed” Young, so nicknamed because his mother was from the Fox tribe, to show him any remaining timber stands in the county, most of which were long, narrow bands, roughly a half-mile to a mile wide, along the major rivers, like the Pincatauwee on the north and the Mississippi on the south, as well as a half-dozen creeks in between. What Coates found would be a recurring pattern for many counties he would visit: There were some desirable clusters of hardwoods in these groves sufficient for local use, but, unlike Michigan and Wisconsin, hardly enough for any large scale commercial development.

Except “Breed” Young had saved the best for last…

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager