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History of Bedford and Somerset Counties

History of Bedford and Somerset Counties by Blackburn and Welfley

Chapter VIII - Volume II - Pages 133 - 137

Chapter VIII


The first need of the settler in coming into the wilderness was a place of shelter for himself and family. A cabin would have to be built, and the proximity of a spring would usually determine its site.

Usually the first one built would be of a somewhat temporary character. This was apt to be the case when the settler was alone, and under the necessity of doing it by his own exertion. The cabin would be built of logs of a suitable length, and notched at the ends. The ground logs usually were larger, and, being rolled into place, on them were set the notched logs, round after round, until a height of seven or eight feet had been reached. For the gables the logs were shortened, in regular order, and these were held in place by other logs or poles that were laid across the cabin from end to end. These also served to support the roof of bark or clapboards. When the settler was alone, the logs used were necessarily light, something which he himself could lift and put in place. Under these conditions they could be but little else than round poles.

If built in the season of the year in which the bark could be peeled, it was often used for the roof, being laid over the poles or logs which held the gables in place, and weighted down and held in place by other logs laid on top of it. Or a straight grained tree of suitable size would be felled and cut into lengths of about three feet, and split into thicknesses of about an inch. These were called clapboards, and may be said to have been an unshaved shingle. Any one who has seen the rough staves from which barrels are made can form a good idea of what a clapboard was like. These were laid and kept in place in the manner already described. Such a house would be built without a single nail having been used in its construction. When other settlers were in the neighborhood, they always gave the new-comer a welcome, and assisted him in building his cabin. Usually, in that case, a more substantial structure was raised, as larger logs could be handled by the united strength of the men present than what the settler when alone could handle.

The walls of the cabin being built up, an opening for a door was cut at a suitable place, and an opening was also cut for a window. The door itself was but a clumsy affair, made by splitting a large log in the same manner that the clapboards for the roof were made, and cutting them with an axe into as smooth a shape as was possible. They were usually fastened to strong cross-pieces of wooden pins. Thus constructed, the door was hung in place by wooden or leather hinges. There was a wooden latch on the inside, raised from without by a string or throng of deer skin passed through a hole in the door. From this we have the homely phrase, "The latchstring is ever out." The window was usually a simple opening in the wall, that in cold weather was in some way closed. The interstices between the logs were filled with pieces of wood or small stones, and then plastered with clay mortar. Oftentimes the cabin, when first built, had no floor save the earth, there being no sawmills; if a wooden floor was desired, rude plank had to be split from logs and fashioned smooth with an axe or a broad-axe, if the settler was so fortunate to have one. Such plank were called puncheons. A fireplace had still to be constructed. For this a suitable opening was cut in one end of the cabin. The chimney was built against the outside. The sides, back, and hearth were usually built of stone, but very often the upper part was built of sticks of wood plastered over with clay. The furniture of the cabin was usually such as the settler himself could fashion with the tools and means at hand. While the writer has never seen such cabins in Somerset county, he has seen them elsewhere.

The utensils for cooking and the dishes for the rude cabin table were rather limited in number. Fortunate was the pioneer woman who had a pot or kettle, and still more so was the possessor of a Dutch oven. This was an iron pot of some twelve or fifteen inches in diameter and five or six inches deep. It had feet two or three inches high, and a metal lid. While it could be used for cooking, it could also be used for baking a loaf of bread, the method of using it being to set it on the hearth over live coals, and also heaping them over the top. It was a fair substitute for the bake oven of a later day. Knives and forks were scarce. The best dishes and spoons were of pewter. Tinware was almost unknown, while articles of crockery were very scarce.

The cabin having been built, the settler's attention was next directed to the clearing of a part of his land, so that a crop of grain and potatoes might be raised. The small undergrowth was dug up with a grubbing hoe and burned. Whatever was of too large a growth to be taken out in this way was cut down with an axe as close to the ground as was possible. Trees were either cut down or deadened by girdling them. When cut down a part might be split into rails. The remaining part were cut into lengths, rolled together into heaps, and burned. This part of the work was so heavy that the settler was under the necessity of calling in the help of his neighbors when he had any. A day would be set for the log rolling, and there was always a ready response, because all of the settlers were in need of more or less assistance of this sort in bringing their lands under cultivation. In the early days much of the heavy work on almost every improvement was done by united efforts of the entire neighborhood, now for one, then for another. These log rollings of the pioneers were their busy play days. While there was not a little of hard and heavy work, it was always seasoned by plenty of fun and frolic. For years these log rollings were looked upon as the gala days of the settlement. Year after year this work was kept up until the forest was cleared away, and the landscape everywhere dotted with the smiling fields that now greet the eye.

A few acres of ground have been cleared the first year, the next thing was the preparing of it to receive a crop of wheat or rye. Agricultural implements were the crudest kind. The plow was a home-made affair, usually with an iron point, something like what is now known as a shovel plow, but often it was entirely wood. The modern plow was not then invented. With such plows as these it can well be seen that it was indeed a task to prepare the ground for a crop, even when the settler was the fortunate possessor of one or more horses or oxen. Crude barrows were made of stuff framed together, through which wooden pins were inserted a few inches apart. Later, when they could be had, these were superseded by iron pins called "harrow teeth." One more than one pioneer farm, after the seed had been scattered, it was covered by dragging brush over the ground. In the earlier years there were no wagons. The only way in which anything could be moved from one place to another was by means of rude sleds, but sledding in harvest time in something quite different from what it is when the ground is covered with mow. Some settlers provided themselves with crude wagons, the wheels of which were made by cutting a large tree, say of a diameter two and a half or three feet, and by means of a cross-cut saw cutting off blocks of five or six inches thick, and making wheels out of them by putting round holes through the center for the axle. In this way a clumsy wagon could be constructed that would be of some service about the place.

Grain had to be cut with a sickle, and grass was cut with the common Dutch scythe, as it was called. Threshing of grain was usually done with a flail, the grain being spread out over a rude floor. Sometimes, when the settler had two or three horses, the grain was trodden out by making them walk over it. The separating of the grain from the chaff was oftentimes a work of more trouble. If there was no windmill, it could only be done by tossing the grain into the air and allowing a strong wind to carry away the chaff. Sometimes a crude windmill would be constructed by the settler himself, or one might be borrowed from a more fortunate neighbor.

Of meat there was seldom any lack in the early pioneer days. The streams abounded in fish, and the forest with all manner of game. In every cabin there was a rifle, and the settler knew how to use it. For clothing, suits of buckskin were oftentimes worn by the men.

As soon as wolves and other wild animals that naturally prey on sheep had been sufficiently thinned out to warrant the hope that they could be protected against their ravages, the settlers began to bring them in.

On almost every improvement or farm, in its proper season, would be found the flax patch. When fully ripe the flax would be pulled out of the ground by the roots and bound into small sheaves, which were allowed to dry in the field. After the seed had been carefully threshed out, the straw or stalks would be spread out on the ground and allowed to rot for several weeks. The fiber would then be separated from the woody part by the processes known as braking, hackling and scutching. Many times all this was the work of the pioneer woman herself. Certainly, after the wool had been shorn from the sheep and the flax had been prepared for the wheel, the labor of spinning both of them into yarn and thread was hers. In every cabin or house was found the little spinning wheel, which was worked by a treadle. On this wheel both wool and flax could be spun. But after the carding machines were introduced, on which wool could be formed into rolls, the large spinning wheel was also used. On one or other of these wheels all the wool and flax must be spun by the pioneer woman. While this work was on it took up all of her time not occupied by her other household cares. All though the long winter evenings was heard the hum of her spinning wheel. The wool being spun into yarn, it was usually colored in dyes of various shades and tints, as pleased the fancy of the good housewife. But her labors are not yet nearly done. The yarn and thread have now only been spun, but have not spinning and weaving alike have been associated with woman's name in all ages save that in which we now live! The drone of the spinning wheel is now replaced by the sound of the regular stroke of the hand loom, on which the yarn is being woven into sheetings and shirtings, linseys and flannels, as may be desired.

But still is the tasks of the pioneer woman unfinished. She must now fashion her cloth into garments for her oftentimes numerous household, or into various articles that enter into the domestic economy. These were household occupations of which the present generation know little or nothing, save what they are told by their grandmothers. As we look back upon these occupations through their traditions a sort of halo of romance far different from the stern reality seems to be thrown over them. Perchance the great or great-great-great granddaughter of the pioneer woman may still possess the little spinning wheel of her once busy ancestress. Where such is the case it is usually to be found in her best parlor, bedecked with gay ribbons, a choice and certainly cherished piece of bric-a-brac, of the use and handling of which her fingers are as ignorant as would be those of her ancestress of the keys of the piano standing near by. For has not her lot been cast in a happier age, when by this process of the world in the invention of labor-saving appliances, woman has been relieved of much of the drudgery and labor of the household!

In the days of which we are writing a different condition of things prevailed. Money was scarce. The market for any spare produce that might come from the farm was far away and difficult to reach. Nothing could be bought that might be made or produced at home. As the settlers increased in numbers their condition was greatly ameliorated. They could help and assist each other in their struggle in the wilderness. The asperities of like were toned down and softened, while its amenities were increased. The distinctions always existing where wealth and poverty are found side by side were then unknown. Few or none were blessed with an over-abundance of worldly gear. None had very much. All had enough to live according to their simple wants. The people had their social gatherings and pleasures. Who knows but that, great as may appear to us the toils and hardships incident to that period, they may not have enjoyed a greater measure of happiness that we of the present day, who have so largely reaped the fruits of their labors.

[Source: The History of Bedford and Somerset Counties by Blackburn and Welfley, published in 1906. Transcribed and proofread by Batha Karr <batha.karr@gmail.com>. ]

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