Chapter 11 - Pioneer Life.


Records of pioneer times are interesting, and they are not without their lessons of instruction. By the light of the past, we follow in the foot-prints of the adventurous and enterprising pioneer. We see him, as it were, amid the labors and struggles necessary to convert the wilderness into a fruitful field. We sit by his cabin fire, partaking of his homely and cheerfully-granted fare, and listen to the accounts which he is pleased to give us of frontier life, and of the dangers, trials, hardships and sufferings of himself and others, in their efforts to make for themselves homes in regions remote from civilization. Through these pioneer records, we make our way along to the present. From small beginnings we come to the mighty achievements of industry, the complex results of daring enterprise, subduing and creative energy and untiring preseverance.

Following on in the path of progress and improvement, we see once waste places rejoicing under the kindly care of the husbandman; beautiful farms, with all the fixtures and appurtenances necessary to make the tillers of the soil and their families contented and happy, are spread out before us; villages are built up as if by magic, and by hundreds human souls are congregated within their precincts; the marts of trade and traffic and the workshops of the artizans, are thronged; common schools, union schools and high schools have sprung up; young and ardent minds --- children of the rich and the poor --- may press forward together in the acquisition of science, literature and art; churches are built and a Christian ministry is sustained for the inculcation of religious sentiments and the promotion of piety, virtue and moral goodness; the press is established, whence floods of light may emanate for the instruction and benefit of all; railroads are built to bring the products of every clime, and the people from afar, to our doors; and the telegraph "upon the lightning's wing" carries messages far and near. Let the records of the pioneers be preserved; in after years our children and our children's children will look over them with pleasure and profit.

The Log Cabin.

The first important business of the pioneer settler, upon his arrival in Crawford county, was to build a house. Until this was done, some had to camp on the ground or live in their wagons --- perhaps the only shelter they had known for weeks. So the prospects for a house which was also to be a home, was one that gave courage to the rough toil, and added a zest to the heavy labors. The style of the home entered very little into their thoughts --- it was shelter they wanted, and protection from stress of weather and wearing exposures. The poor settler had neither the money nor the mechanical appliances for building himself a house. He was content, in most instances, to have a mere cabin or hut. This was made of round logs light enough for two or three men to lay up. The house would generally be about fourteen feet square --- perhaps a little larger or smaller --- roofed with bark or clapboard, and floored with puncheons (logs split once in two and the flat side laid up). For a fire-place, a wall of stones and earth was made in the best practicable shape for the purpose, in an opening in one end of the building, extending outward, and planked on the outside by bolts of wood notched together to stay it. Sometimes a fireplace of this kind was made so large as to occupy nearly the whole width of the house. In cold weather, when a great deal of wood was needed to keep the proper warmth inside, large logs were piled in the fire-place. To protect the crumbling back wall against the effects of the fire and to throw forward the heat, two back-logs, one on top of the other, were placed against it.

For a chimney, any contrivance that would carry up the smoke would do. They were usually constructed of clay and sticks. Imagine a cold winter's night, when the storm of wind and snow was raging without, the huge fire blazing within, and the family sitting around! It might be cozy enough if the cold was not too intense; and, in reality, before those fire-places there was often something of cheer, as the farmer sat smoking --- if he had any tobacco; and the wife knitting --- if she had any yarn and needles.

For a door to his log cabin the most simple contrivance that would serve the purpose was brought into requisition. Before a door could be made, a blanket often did duty in guarding the entrance. But, as soon as convenient, some boards were split out and put together, hung upon wooden hinges, and held shut by a wooden pin inserted in an auger-hole.

Pioneer Furniture.

In regard to the furniture of the pioneer's cabin, it may be said that it varied in proportion to the ingenuity of the occupants, unless it was where settlers brought with them their old household supply, which, owing to the distance most of them had to come, was very seldom. It was easy enough to improvise tables and chairs; the former could be made of split logs; the latter were designed after the three-legged stool pattern, or benches served their purpose. A bedstead was a very important item in the domestic comfort of the family; and the fashion of improvising them was as follows:

A forked stake was driven into the ground diagonally from the corner of the room, and at a proper distance, upon which poles reaching from each side of the cabin were laid. The wall ends of the poles were either driven into auger-holes or rested in the openings between the logs. Bark or boards were used as a substitute for cords. Upon this, the wife spread her straw-tick; and if she had a home-made feather bed, she piled it up into a luxurious mound and covered it with her sheets and bed-quilts. Sometimes sheets were hung against the wall at the head and side of the bed, which added much to the coziness of this resting place --- this pioneer-bed room. The sleeping arrangement was generally called a "prairie bedstead."

Primitive Cookery.

If the settler arrived in the early part of the season and had not time to plant, or had no fields prepared for that purpose, he could, at least have a truck-patch, where a little corn was planted, also a few potatoes and turnips, and some other vegetables were put in the ground. Of course this was only to make his small supply, which he had brought with him, reach as far as possible. His meager stores consisted of flour, bacon, tea and coffee. But these supplies would frequently be exhausted before a regular crop of wheat or corn could be raised, and as game was plentiful, it helped to eke them out. But when the corn was raised, it was not easily prepared for the table. The mills for grinding were at such distances away, that every other device was resorted to for making meal.

Some grated it on an implement made by punching small holes through a piece of tin or sheet-iron, and fastening it upon a board in concave shape, with the rough side out. Upon this the ear was rubbed to produce the meal. But grating could not be done when the corn became so dry as to shell off when rubbed. Some used a coffee-mill for grinding it; and a very common substitute for bread was hominy, a palatable and wholesome diet, made by boiling corn in a weak lye till the hull or bran peeled off, after which it was well washed to cleanse it of the lye. It was then boiled again to soften it, when it was ready for use, as occasion required, by frying and seasoning it to the taste. Another mode of preparing hominy was by pestling. A mortar was made by burning a bowl-shaped cavity in the end of an upright block of wood. After thoroughly cleaning it of the charcoal, the corn could be put in, hot water turned upon it, when it was subjected to a severe pestling by a club of sufficient length and thickness, in the large end of which was inserted an iron wedge, banded to keep it there. The hot water would soften the corn and loosen the hull, while the pestle would crush it.

Primitive Threshing.

When breadstuffs were needed, they had to be obtained from long distances. Owing to the lack of proper means for threshing and cleaning wheat, it was more or less mixed with foreign substances, such as smut, dirt and oats. And as the time when the settlers' methods of threshing and cleaning may be forgotten, it may be well to preserve a brief account of them here. The plan was to clean off a space of ground of sufficient size, and, if the earth was dry, to dampen it, and beat it to render it somewhat compact. Then the sheaves were unbound and spread in a circle, so that the heads would be uppermost, leaving room in the center for the person whose business it was to turn and stir the straw in the process of threshing. Then, as many horses or oxen were brought as could conveniently swing around the circle, and these were kept moving until the wheat was well trodden out. After several "floorings" or layers were threshed, the straw was carefully raked off and the wheat shoveled into a heap to be cleaned. This cleaning was sometimes done by waving a sheet up and down to fan out the chaff as the grain was dropped before it; but this trouble was frequently obviated when the strong winds of autumn were all that was needed to blow out the chaff from the grain. This mode of preparing the grain for flouring was so imperfect that it is not to be wondered at that a considerable amount of black soil got mixed with it, and unavoidably got into the bread. This, with an addition of smut, often rendered it so dark as to have less the appearance of bread than mud; yet upon such diet the people were compelled to subsist for want of a better.

Going to Mill.

Not the least among the pioneers' tribulations during the first few years of the settlement, was the going to mill. The slow mode of travel by ox teams was made still slower by the almost total absence of roads and bridges, while such a thing as a ferry was hardly even dreamed of. The distance to be traversed was often as far as sixty or ninety miles. In dry weather, common sloughs and creeks offered little impediment to the teamsters; but during floods and the breaking up of winter, they proved exceedingly troublesome and dangerous. To get stuck in a slough, and thus be delayed for many hours, was no uncommon occurrence, and that, too, when time was an item of grave import to the comfort and sometimes even to the lives of the settlers' families. Often a swollen stream would blockade the way, seeming to threaten destruction to whoever would attempt to ford it. With regard to roads, there was nothing of the kind worthy of the name.

When the early settlers were compelled to make these long and difficult trips to mill, if the country was prairie over which they passed, they found it comparatively easy to do in summer when grass was plentiful. By traveling until night, and then camping out to feed the teams, they got along without much difficulty. But in winter such a journey was attended with no little danger. The utmost economy of time was, of course, necessary. When the goal was reached, after a week or more of toilsome travel, with many exposures and risks, and the poor man was impatient to immediately return with the desired staff of life, he was often shocked an disheartened with the information that his turn would come in a week. Then he must look about for some means to pay expenses, and he was lucky who could find employment by the day or job. Then, when his turn came, he had to be on hand to bolt his own flour, as, in those days, the bolting machine was not an attached part of the other mill machinery. This done, the anxious soul was ready to endure the trials of a return trip, his heart more or less concerned about the affairs of home.

Those milling trips often occupied from three weeks to more than a month each, and were attended with an expense, in one way or another, that rendered the costs of breadstuffs extremely high. If made in the winter, when more or less grain-feed was required for the team, the load would be found to be so considerably reduced on reaching home that the cost of what was left, adding other expenses, would make their grain reach the high cash figure of from $3 to $5 per bushel. And these trips could not always be made at the most favorable season for traveling. In spring and summer, so much time could hardly be spared from other essential labor; yet, for a large family, it was almost impossible to avoid making three or four trips during the year.

Wild Animals.

Among other things calculated to an annoy and distress the pioneer was the prevalence of wild beasts of prey, the most numerous and troublesome of which was the wolf. While it was true, in a figurative sense, that it required the utmost care and exertion to "keep the wolf from the door," it was almost as true in a literal sense. There were two species of these animals, the large, black, timber wolf, and the smaller gray wolf that usually inhabited the prairie. At first, it was next to impossible for a settler to keep small stock of any kind that would serve as a prey to these ravenous beasts. Sheep were not deemed safe property until years after, when their enemies were supposed to be nearly exterminated. Large numbers of wolves were destroyed during the early years of settlement. When they were hungry, which was not uncommon, particularly during the winter, they were too indiscreet for their own safety, and would often approach within easy shot of the settler's dwellings. At certain seasons their wild, plaintive yelp or bark could be heard in all directions at all hours of the night, creating intense excitement among the dogs, whose howling would add to the dismal melody.

It has been found by experiment that but one of the canine species, the hound, has both the fleetness and courage to cope with his savage cousin, the wolf. Attempts were often made to capture him with the common cur, but this animal, as a rule, proved himself wholly unreliable for such a service. So long as the wolf would run the cur would follow; but the wolf, being apparently acquainted with the character of his pursuer, would either turn and place himself in a combatative attitude, or else act upon the principal that "discretion is the better part of valor," and throw himself upon his back in token of surrender. This strategic performance would make instant peace between these two scions of the same house; and not unfrequently dogs and wolves have been seen playing together like puppies. But the hound was never known to recognize a flag of truce; his baying seemed to signify "no quarters;" or, at least, so the terrified wolf understood it.

Smaller animals, such as panthers, lynxes, wildcats, catamounts and polecats, were also sufficiently numerous to be troublesome. And an exceeding source of annoyance were the swarms of mosquitoes which aggravated the trials of the settler in the most exasperating degree. Persons have been driven from the labors of the field by their unmerciful assaults.

The trials of the pioneer were innumerable, and the cases of actual suffering might fill a volume of no ordinary size. Timid women became brave through combats with real dangers, and patient mothers grew sick at heart with the sight of beloved children failing in health from lack of the common necessaries of life. The struggle was not for ease or luxury but was a constant one for the sustaining means of life itself.


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