top of page

Iowa Article: "Early Commercial Travelling in Iowa," Frank M. Miller

Mills, Frank M. "Early Commercial Travelling in Iowa." The Annals of Iowa 11 (1914),


In a brief account relating his experiences in the 1850s, Frank M. Miller provided insights into early commercial travel and boosterism within Iowa. The shoe-maker arrived in Des Moines while the military still occupied Second Fort Des Moines. Miller noted the bustling, constant construction taking place in ‘the village’ surrounding the fort. Although he intended to open a shoestore, he spent his first year operating a brick-making operation that contributed to many early buildings in Polk County.

Eventually, Miller opened his shoe store and gained a clientele throughout the state and beyond. Of note in his reminiscences are commentaries on hospitality, crowded sleeping conditions, and the expectancy of hearty, perhaps over-zealous gratitude. He related issues with bedbugs, sleeping twenty people in a one-room house, and being caught out in storms.

Boosterism of the early state stands of note in Miller’s reminiscences. He discussed how in the early days individuals had to take the initiative to sell the state to eastern migrants, especially those traveling in wagons marked with ‘Nebraska or Bust’ on back back of their wagons.

“When I first arrived in Des Moines it was a village of less than two thousand people, but about the liveliest village you ever saw. I came early in January 1856 on a voyage of discovery, crossed the Mississippi on the ice at Burlington, and took the stage coach there for Fort Des Moines in about the coldest weather.” (328)

“”I decided the future capital was good enough for me, and went back to Indiana to arrange for moving out.” (328)

“In the early spring I came by boat from Cincinnati, arriving at Keokuk, Iowa’s greatest city at that time, on April 4, 1857, my twenty-fifth birthday. There with my wife and ten-weeks’ old baby, I took the coach for Des Moines where we arrived after six days and nights constant going, as the frost was just coming out and the roads breaking up. There were twenty in and on our coach.” (329)

“When we got to the village the river was up and the float bridge swung round and no crossing. Fort Des Moines was a very lively point just then. The Capital had just been voted from Iowa City.” (329)

“Land seekers, town-lot speculators and settlers rushed to the new seat of government. Building was rampant, shanties were going up by the hundred, and the noise of the hammer and the saw waked you in the early morning and kept you awake at night.” (329)

“I boomed the business to the extent of my capacity, and incidentally, I boomed and boosted for Des Moines to such an extent that for years our business became known far beyond the boundaries of the State…” (331)

“I made many trips over the State and elsewhere, some days driving a whole day for forty miles between houses, and now I frequently find myself wondering how I happened to escape dire disaster in storms encountered. I had often to stop for the night at homesteaders’ cabins where the food was only corn bread and sorghum molasses, with parched corn coffee or hickory bark tea. I noticed one thing which seemed rather peculiar; where there was the least to eat there were more fervent thanks for the bounties spread before us. Often too the meal did not seem worth that price.” (333)

“No one who did not go about in the early days can have an adequate idea of the discomforts and hardships. The houses were either cabins or shacks built of the native cottonwood lumber, in which the festive bedbug was incubated, and often sleep was impossible in the summer time. Houses were often, in fact generally in the country, of but one room, and when strangers or company came, three or four had to occupy one bed. The feeling of hospitality which was prevalent then did not allow the settler to refuse food and lodging to any one who came along. The houses were too far apart to justify sending the wayfarer to the next house.” (333)

“I slept more than once in a one-room house where there were fifteen or twenty of us and only two beds.” (334)

“Boosting in the fifties was altogether another thing from that of the present day. Now it is principally done in the newspapers or speeches, in town meetings and commercial clubs, or somebody goes out with a subscription list. Then we just went out and did things ourselves. It was hard, every-day, constant work. It was work, not words alone.” (335)


bottom of page