SUNBONNET DAYS - CHAPTER VI - IN OUR LOG CABIN
By the time Father had bought the relinquishment of his claim and had equipped himself for farming and housekeeping, the gold in his belt was much depleted. He had enough, however, for a few more purchases; and so, shortly after our arrival at the Doniphan County claim, he went to St. Joseph for a window sash and sawed lumber. The sash he fitted into the south wall of our cabin, the lumber he laid as a floor atop the puncheons, and he also floored the loft. This gave us an upstairs bedroom for the boys, while I slept in one corner downstairs and Father in another. Father also rechinked the spaces between the walls to make them tight against snow and rain. Finally, he dug a well. Mr. Gardner had depended on the muddy Missouri for his water supply.
Although I was not yet fourteen years old when we moved to our cabin, I did the housework. Perhaps it was well that I had only two rooms to keep, for I had enough to do without a large house. I not only cooked, swept, and washed, but made butter and cheese, cut out and fashioned clothing, and at certain seasons manufactured soap and candles.
Candle light was the only illumination I knew. In Switzerland we had burned mineral oil in open lamps, and I had seen oil flares aboard the Searampore and steamboats, but there was no mineral oil in Missouri or Kansas as far as I knew. We used candles in the homes, churches, business houses, and offices. I made them by the hundreds in the winter after we had butchered a fat beef. The main ingredient of the candle is tallow, rendered from beef fat. My candle mold was large enough for casting eight candles at a time. In the center of each of the eight forms, I hung a string of wicking, knotting the string at the top to hold it in place. I then measured out as much tallow as I wanted, added a small quantity of beeswax, melted the combination until it was well mixed, and poured it into the mold. I hung the mold up to cool overnight and next morning removed the eight candles which I laid away in a store box. Day by day I repeated the operation until all the tallow was converted into candles.
Wax was not essential to candle making, but its addition gave solidity to the tallow and increased the lustre of the light. Two pounds of beeswax lasted us a year, and a ball of wicking twine lasted for several years. Some of my neighbors saved the cost of wicking and beeswax by making their wicking of native hemp fibres and taking their wax from bee trees in the woods.
Another place in which we beat the high cost of living was in our laundry, where the only cash outlay was for a tub and washboard. Soap was a by-product of butchering time. In the fall Father fattened and killed a hog for winter's meat. Fat hogs were essential, for the hog produced not only meat, but lard, which was rendered from the fat. Part of the lard was saved for cooking; the rest was compounded with lye to make soap. I made lye from wood ashes saved from the kitchen stove. Each day I poured clean ashes into a wooden hopper, which Father had made; and when I had saved a hopperful, I poured on water, which, percolating down through the hopper, leached out the lye and dripped into a crock set below.
The lye was left to stand until it became somewhat concentrated through evaporation of water by the sun. I tested the degree of concentration with a feather, the lye being strong enough for soap making when it could eat the hairy barbs of a feather.
I usually made enough soap at one time to last a year. For that purpose I used a sixteen-gallon iron kettle, which Father slung from a log over a fire in the back yard. The hog fat was put into this kettle and boiled until clear. Then I stirred the liquid lye into the boiling fat.
After the combination had boiled for the greater part of a day, I took up a saucerful to test it. If the compound had boiled long enough, the small quantity I had taken up in the saucer would harden upon cooling, which told me that the batch was done. The soap was then salted to precipitate excess lye, which sank to the bottom with the salt. Then I allowed the fire to die down. As the contents of the kettle cooled, all except the dregs at the bottom hardened, I then cut the soap into cakes, which I wrapped in paper and stowed away in boxes to be used as required.
Another of my manufacturing operations was cheese making. I was the first cheese-maker in my immediate vicinity, and no one else in the county was making it, so far as I knew. When we arrived in St. Joseph, cheese could not be had on the market. Uncle Christian understood the process of making it, but had no rennet, nor could he buy any. He had written of this to Father, so that when we were packing for our voyage to America, Father put in twenty dried calf-stomachs to serve as rennet. Rennet is the factor which, when added to milk, causes the solids to coagulate. Today synthetic rennet is used in cheese making, but then we used natural rennet, which is the inner lining of the stomach of an unweaned calf. After a calf has been grass-fed the active principle of the rennet in the stomach disappears.
When Aunt Christine learned, some time after Mother's death, that there were twenty pieces of rennet in one of the sea chests, she asked me to teach her how to make cheese.
I had helped Mother to make it, but was not certain that I could do it myself, until Aunt Christine's encouragement impelled me to try. I got out one of the calf stomachs, clipped off a bit of rennet about twice the size of a postage stamp, put it in a cup of water and let it soak overnight. The next morning I heated six gallons of milk in a boiler on the stove. I had no thermometer and, in fact, did not know about using thermometers for testing the heat of milk. From time to time I put my hand in the milk; and when the temperature of the milk rose to equal that of my hand, I knew it was up to blood heat. I then removed the boiler from the stove and poured the dissolved rennet from the cup into the boiler, stirred it well, and left it covered with a fresh white cloth. In about half an hour I observed that the solids were beginning to coagulate. Then I knew that my cheese was going to turn out all right. I now put the milk back on the stove and heated it to above blood heat. Rolling up my right sleeve to the shoulder and pinning the sleeve in place, I stirred the milk with my arm and manipulated the solids with my hand until I had collected them into a large round ball. Then I poured off the whey, straining it through a cheese cloth, and the cheese was ready for the ripening press. I would not say that this was the first cheese ever made in St. Joseph, but it was the first cheese that Aunt and Uncle knew about. Later, in Kansas, I taught many of my neighbors how to make cheese.
I also made butter at the farm, using for that purpose a keg churn. This consisted of a keg mounted on a frame. It was turned over and over by means of a crank. As it revolved, a dasher within the churn dropped alternately to one end of the keg and then to the other, thereby agitating the cream until it was stirred into butter.
Today most farmers buy their cheese and soap, and large numbers do not even butcher. Instead, they sell their cattle and hogs to the packers and buy back their meat products from the local butcher. By the modern method of handling meat, farmers can buy fresh meat when they want it. In the old days we clubbed with three other neighbors in our butchering. One of us would kill a beef early in the fall and, keeping one quarter, would give the other three quarters to the neighbors. When that beef was eaten a second neighbor would kill a beef and divide. Since each farmer made it a point of honor to give his neighbors the tenderest meat possible, he always fattened the finest of his herd. On our farm we fed our fattening animals such delicacies as pumpkins to improve the flavor. This was in addition to the regular fattening diet of corn.
Of course, we could have no fresh beef in summer, for we had no ice for keeping it. We then ate dried beef, smoked hams, bacon, and sausage, which we cured in our smokehouse. We also had salted pork and for fresh meat in summer we had chicken.
The family sewing took a good deal of time. Not only did I mend, but I made my own dresses and sunbonnets. I also made jackets and trousers for my brothers, and even made shirts for my father. I was an inexperienced seamstress. The simple sewing which I had done in Switzerland was vastly different from the difficult task of cutting out clothing and fitting it. Had it not been for my neighbor, Mrs. Jim Boston, who lived half a mile away, I could not have succeeded.
Mrs. Boston instructed me to take especial pains with my sunbonnets.
"People always look first at the face," she said. "So your headgear should be the very best."
In Switzerland we had worn hats in summer, and I never had seen a sunbonnet until I gazed from the deck of a Mississippi steamboat at the women and girls gathered at the plantation landings. The sunbonnet was the badge of the American farm woman, particularly of the pioneer farm woman. They were not so much in evidence in St. Joseph. There I wore a hat which Aunt Christine bought for me, but on the prairies the sunbonnet was the common article of headgear in summer and worn on all occasions.
Those were the sunbonnet days. Every woman desired a fair complexion, especially on the frontier where a bronzed skin denoted Indian kinships, and women were careful to maintain the whitest skin possible. Nothing better could have been devised as an armor against the dreaded tan than the sunbonnet, which fitted the head snugly, and with about the same effect as a wagon sheet on a covered wagon. To make it doubly certain that no stray sunbeams should paint the neck, a cape was sewed to the back and sides, and a projecting brim stood guard against old Sol in front.
Mrs. Boston directed me to make my everyday bonnet first. For this I used two thicknesses of light material, which I stitched together in parallel rows and, in the pockets thus formed, I set slats of stiff pasteboard to hold the bonnet in shape. My Sunday bonnet was cut to the same pattern as the everyday one, but was more elaborately done. It was of green material to match my Sunday dress and had a frill of white edging in front. The pockets between the stitches were much narrower and instead of pasteboard slats I inserted whalebone in them. After the bonnet was starched and ironed and shaped with the whalebone, Mrs. Boston declared it to be the perkiest creation on our side of the Missouri River.
Although she had a husband, a son, and two daughters to work for, Mrs. Boston always found time to assist me. I often walked to her house or rode there on the pony, Dick, to have her show me how to cut out a sunbonnet, a shirt, or trousers, and stitch them. I did some awful sewing, but Mrs. Boston told me that the most important thing was that the seams be good and strong, and they were. Sewing was all by hand, there being no sewing machines on the frontier.
Without exception my neighbors were friendly and helpful; they assisted me in numerous ways, and I assisted them in return. The feeling of neighborliness is stronger among farmers than among city dwellers, but it was especially strong in pioneer communities. No neighbor ever insulted us for being foreigners. Neither did they hate us because we were for a free state while some of them were for making Kansas a slave state.
In fact, our proslavery neighbors protected us from the "border ruffians" of Missouri, who in that summer of 1856 raided Kansas again and again, stealing horses, killing free-state agitators, and burning houses. Osawatomie and Lawrence were sacked and burned that summer, and one hundred free-state settlers were driven from their homes in Leavenworth and forced to leave the territory. Since our house was only a mile from the Missouri shore whence came the "border ruffians," it would have been a simple matter for them to have crossed the river to burn us out and steal our cows and work oxen, had our neighbors informed on us.
One night word was sent to our proslavery neighbors that the "border ruffians" were coming the following day. Jim Boston, who had been informed of what was going on, came to our house and rapped on the door. Father could speak only a few words of English, so I took the message.
"The 'border ruffians' are coming over tomorrow to drive out the abolitionists," he said. "Put a white cloth on your chimney, and you will be safe."
We did as directed and were not molested, nor were any of our neighbors, many of whom were "Free-Soilers"; as all had been warned to show the white cloth.
The married women of the neighborhood recognized me as a regular housekeeper and invited me to their sewings and quiltings, where we had a good time helping each other with our work. I wanted to do like the rest, so I invited them to a quilting in return. They remained throughout the day. At noon I served them the best dinner I could prepare. I remember that the menu included chicken and wild grape pie.
Among our neighbors were some dreadfully poor ones, and we had others who drank liquor, but all were kind and I remember them with gratitude. When one neighbor was ill, the others took turns at nursing, and also planted his corn or harvested his wheat if need be. We accepted many favors and gave favors in turn without any thought of reward.
I once gave a quilt to a Mrs. Bowman, a near neighbor, with a large family. I remember that quilt particularly because of the sequel. The following winter Mr. Bowman set out for St. Joseph by starlight in the morning, expecting to return late at night. It was a pleasant morning and Mr. Bowman thought it would be warm all day; but Mrs. Bowman, who did not trust the weather, brought out the quilt I had given her and slipped it on the wagon seat. Mr. Bowman drove to St. Joseph, completed his trading, and then began his return.
As he faced the northwest, a wind sprang up from that quarter. Rapidly it grew colder. Low scudding clouds soon obscured the sky and snow began to fall. The last part of his journey homeward was made in the face of a blizzard. He walked beside his team, shouting to the oxen and goading them, but they would not hurry against the storm. Mr. Bowman stamped his feet and beat his arms about his body; but strive as he might, he failed to stir up enough circulation to keep from freezing. In his extremity he wrapped the quilt shawlwise about himself. Upon his arrival at home, he declared that without the quilt he would have frozen to death on the road.
Several years later, when I was married and living in St. Joseph, Mr. and Mrs. Bowman called to see me and brought me ten dozen eggs. The eggs were not payment for the quilt, but were an expression of friendliness.
Of all my neighbors, none was closer in friendship to me than Mrs. Boston. She had a sister, Sarah Hutchinson, who was my age, and who lived with her parents on a claim adjoining that of the Bostons. Mrs. Boston also had a daughter, Sarah. The two Sarahs and I were the nearest of friends.
It was Mrs. Boston who nursed me when I had the ague, an affliction common to pioneers. My sickness began with a chill, followed by fever. When my head began to swim, Father put me to bed where I sank into unconsciousness. As I began to lose my senses, I thought that men were standing all around my bed. All had long hands which grew longer as they stood there. Then I drifted into delirium and Father sent Adolph for Mrs. Boston. How long I was unconscious I do not recall. My first lucid thought was the consciousness that Mrs. Boston was bending over me, applying cold compresses to my head.
I must tell about the Bostons and their home in some detail, for they were typical pioneers. They and the Hutchinsons were from the mountains of eastern Kentucky, which they had left partly to take up free land in Kansas and partly to escape competition with slavery. It has been so long since slave days that today we have forgotten that the institution was a handicap to white men as it was to negroes. Poor white people of the South who had no slaves were forced to compete in the labor market with slave labor. Many Southerners, therefore, the Bostons and Hutchinsons among them, were opposed to the extension of slavery into Kansas.
The two families arrived in Kansas by covered wagons. They had very little money, but their skillful hands and fingers soon created wealth. Mr. Boston, assisted by the Hutchinsons, built the log houses for the two families. In each house the front room, which was living room, dining room, and kitchen all in one, was heated by an immense fireplace, occupying an entire side of the room.
The fireplace was a source of delight to me. Mr. Boston, or his son John, who was Adolph's age, would drag a log to the door by ox-team. Blocks were then sawed off the end of the log with a cross-cut saw. A block was then rolled through the door, across the room, and heaved up on the andirons. Two logs were kept burning on the andirons all the time. When the front log had burned until it was about to shatter to a bed of coals, it was rolled to the back of the fireplace; and a new log was lifted to the front of the andirons to occupy the place of the front log. In that way they kept up a continuous hot fire. No matter how cold it was out of doors, it was always warm and cheery inside Mrs. Boston's house.
Mrs. Boston's cooking utensils were a kettle, hooked to an iron crane at the top of the fireplace, and a three-legged oven, called a Dutch oven. She made up for her limited supply of utensils by superior skill in preparing food. First she baked potatoes and other vegetables in the three-legged oven, which she stood in the midst of the living coals and heaped more coals on top of it until it was completely covered and surrounded. As soon as the vegetables were done, the coals were brushed off the lid of the oven. The vegetables were taken up into dishes; and the dishes were kept warm on the hearth. A pie and biscuits were next put into the oven; and while they were baking, she mixed yellow corn meal with water and seasoned it for corn pone. No meal at the Bostons was complete without corn pone. Again the coals were brushed off the oven; the lids was again lifted off by hooks; and the pie and biscuits were replaced by the pone.
Without a clock to time her cooking, Mrs. Boston never failed to take up her corn pone when it was exactly right. She served it steaming hot from the oven, and I can tell you that it tasted mighty good with fresh butter. Meat was usually boiling in the kettle while the other food was being prepared in the oven, but she sometimes also baked meat in the oven.
Nowadays I eat food mixed by measure, seasoned according to measure, and heated by thermostatic control; yet I have never tasted anything more correctly baked than Mrs. Boston's meals, which were mixed by guess, timed without a clock, and heat-controlled by womanly instinct.
At the Hutchinsons Mrs. Hutchinson and her daughter Sarah kept house much as did Mrs. Boston. But while the Bostons had a well, the Hutchinsons lived so near the Missouri River that the boys brought up water from the stream in barrels, which were allowed to stand until the mud settled. Eventually, that resulted in a tragedy.
One winter day Sarah was left to get dinner while the remainder of the Hutchinson family drove away, either to town or to visit neighbors. Unfortunately, the brothers had neglected to bring water from the river. It seems that Sarah, needing water for cooking, set out to the river, cedar bucket in hand, to procure water. The river was frozen, but not far from the bank was a hole which the boys had cut in the ice, and to it Sarah went. Now this cedar bucket had a loose bail, which would sometimes come off the bucket.
When the family returned, the house was still warm; dinner was cooking on the stove; but Sarah could not be found. Mrs. Hutchinson noticed that the water bucket was missing from the shelf.
"Didn't you boys bring up the water?" she asked.
They thought they had, but when they went to look in the barrels they found nothing but mud in the bottom.
"Then Sarah has gone for water," she declared.
A mother's intuition told her that something was wrong, and one of the boys was told to run to the water hole to see if Sarah was there. She was not there, but the bail of the water bucket lay on the ice. No doubt, after she had filled the bucket, the bail had come off in Sarah's hand. She quickly put the bail on the ice and then, reaching down to save the bucket from being washed away by the surging water, had slipped and fallen in after the bucket.
When the ice went out in the spring, Sarah's brothers dragged the river for miles. Failing to recover the body, they rode all the way to St. Louis, inquiring at every town and cabin on both sides of the stream, but the body was never found. The girl's mother was so grief-stricken that she would no longer live on the claim, and they moved away. For a long time I was afraid of the Missouri, and looked at its boiling water in terror.
The Missouri is a treacherous stream and has claimed many lives, but when it was frozen, we used its icy cover for a bridge. Often have I ridden horseback across to the Missouri town of Amazonia, carrying butter and eggs to market and bringing home dry goods and groceries. There was no other way to cross in winter, for there was not a bridge in the four-thousand-mile course of that stream from the mountains to the gulf. In the autumn, before the new ice was thick enough to support a horse, and in the spring, before the floating ice had cleared sufficiently to permit the passage of the river by boats, we could not cross at all. In anticipation of such periods we stored supplies to last us until the stream was passable.
One of my trading excursions to Amazonia stands out in memory and recalls the scrupulous care with which we were schooled in honesty. Today there are authors who scoff at the stories of Honest Abe Lincoln, but such persons were brought up in the cities in these later days when parents are too busy to teach honesty. I readily believe the story of Lincoln's long walk to return six cents to a poor widow whom he had unwittingly shortchanged. My father would have done the same thing.
Once when I was returning on Dick across the ice from Amazonia, where I had traded at McChesner's general store, I began to calculate in my head the value of my purchases. To my chagrin I estimated that I had cheated Mr. McChesner out of a nickel. Of course, he had figured the account himself, yet my father had always impressed upon me that I, too, must calculate the amount of change. Consequently I felt so culpable that my forehead flushed hot with shame. It was late afternoon, too late in fact to ride back and return the nickel. I was determined, however, to go to town the first thing in the morning. But as I rode on, I again calculated in my head and was rejoiced to discover that our accounts were square. Delighted, I urged Dick to a greater burst of speed, and went home at a gallop.
Social life in Doniphan County centered in the school and the church. Aside from the neighborhood sewings and quiltings, I attended no gatherings except those connected with the school and church. Several churches were organized in the county, among them a German Methodist church for the accommodation of German families in our community. It had services in the schoolhouse until such time as the congregation could erect a building. We attended the German church, because Father could understand the language. In one way the organization of that church hindered him. Since he could attend a German church and trade with German storekeepers, he was not compelled to learn English, and consequently never did acquire proficiency in English.
We felt a closer relationship to the school than is possible in these later days when education is standardized and much of the government of the schools is vested in boards and commissions. In our day the school was our own creation. During the early Kansas territorial days the government was in such constant turmoil over the slavery question that almost nothing was done toward organizing school districts. The initiative for school organization, therefore, was left to public-spirited farmers in each community.
In our community somebody called a meeting to consider the building of a schoolhouse. At that meeting everybody agreed that a school was a necessity; but without any means of levying taxes to build a schoolhouse, another way had to be found. The patrons of the district decided on a central site, and there they met one morning at daybreak. A captain was chosen to direct building operations. Soon axes were ringing in the woods, trees were felled, trimmed, dragged by ox-teams to the building site, where they were squared, notched, heaved in place, and chinked to withstand wind and snow. While part of the men were laying the logs, others were riving shingles to lay on the roof. An expert in masonry worked with another gang, bringing stones from a quarry to build a fireplace and chimney. A puncheon floor, puncheon seats, and a puncheon desk for the teacher were manufactured and installed. At noon the women served a community dinner cooked in the woods. By night the schoolhouse was complete and ready for occupancy. The farmers on whose land trees were cut and stone was quarried made no charge for the materials. Next arose the question of teacher. We had no examining board and no laws covering qualifications for teachers. Somebody, however, suggested that Mrs. Lewis, the wife of our community doctor, would be a good teacher. I do not know how it was determined that she was qualified, but she was chosen by a show of hands, and accepted the post. Of course there was no tax levy to pay the salary of the teacher and no authority for levying a tax. It was agreed by a vote that the tuition should be one dollar a month for each pupil and that the school be of four months' duration. Those who could not afford to pay tuition in cash paid Mrs. Lewis in produce. She taught several terms of successful school. Adolph and Fred attended there and learned rapidly. In a short time they could read and recite in English as well as any other children of their age.