Recollections of Nankin

Vol. XIV

pp. 434 – 441

Transcribed by Patricia M. Dettloff

Arrangements of the Log House of those times; what were its conveniences, and how were the rooms divided. In answering these questions, I can do no better than describe the house in which I spent my childhood and early youth. Judging by my recollections, the house was 18 x 24 feet on the ground. I have spoken of the walls and roof. The cracks between the logs were stopped by triangular pieces of wood, fitted and fastened in, and then they were all plastered, outside and inside, with clay mud. This, if properly done, effectually prevented any circulation of air through the walls. The house was built on the south bank of the river and fronted south. It had but one outside door – located in the middle south side. There was one twelve-light window of 7 x 9 glass, in ease of the sides. The door was a battened door, and it and the windows and their casings were stained red. The brick fireplace and hearth were in the middle of the east end; an iron crane hung to the north jam, suspended from which were several pot hooks on which the kettles were hung when used in cooking. The bricks of the fireplace were laid in clay mortar. The ground story contained but one room; this room was used for kitchen, diningroom, bedroom and parlor, and sometimes, as was common with us, for a shop; for in cold weather my father brought his work-bench into the house whenever he had sash or doors, coffins, or other small articles to make.

In the southeast corner stood a ladder leading to the chamber. The dishes and other culinary apparatus, together with a chest holding provisions, were kept in the northeast corner. The two west corners held each a bed with a trundle bed under one of them. A trap door in the floor led to the cellar. The kitchen table sat against the north wall and over it hung the looking-glass. Between the beds and against the logs at the west side of the room stood a cherry bureau, a leather covered trunk and a candle stand. Standing about the room were a half dozen straight-backed, splint-bottom chairs, including a large and a small rocker, several three-legged stools and a cradle. This last article was as indispensable among the pioneers as elsewhere in every thrifty family. This particular one was made by my father of whitewood boards, and of the most approved plan of the times. It was a ruder people, living in a more primitive age that cradled their babies in sap troughs; I never saw anything of this kind. In time of use the flax and wood spinning wheels were also on this floor. At other times they were both in the chamber.

Suspended from a beam overhead by two hooks hung the trusty, flintlock rifle. Hanging against the south wall, east of the window, were, during the cold season, halves and quarters of venison. Strips nailed to the undersides of the beams overhead were frequently covered by small pieces of lumber to be used in making sash, ax helves, gun-rods, etc., and in their season were utilized by my mother as a convenient place for drying fruits.

Now, if you are curious to make further investigations, climb the ladder that leads to the chamber. You will find plenty of things up there stowed away with small regard to order. No useless window adorned that apartment. The roof was of such a peculiar construction that, while it generally shed the rain pretty well, it also let sufficient light in to make all parts of the room visible. Aided by this peculiarity in the roof, the winter’s storms would sometimes bestow upon us in the chamber that which from poverty we were unable to buy, a white bed spread. Two beds were found in the chambers, bushels of walnuts and butternuts were on the floor. There were boxes and barrels, corn, muskrat and mink skins; but to describe all the articles in the chamber would expose to the public the contents of rooms the housekeeper prefers should remain closed, so we will not be too curious.

Are you interested to know how cooking was done in those days over an open fire? Boiling was done by simple hanging the kettle on the crane and swinging it over the fire. Baking was more complex. It was done largely by the use of a bake-kettle, an article now unknown. It was a kettle with a flat bottom, about 10 inches across, sides five or six inches high, and a little flaring. It stood on three legs about two inches long. It had an iron cover in form of a disc with a flange an inch high on its outer edge, and a loop in the center of its upper surface to lift it by. In this were baked bread, potatoes, pork and beans, and meats of all kinds. The process was to put the article to be baked into it, set it over a quantity of live coals on the hearth, heat the cover and place it on the top of the kettle, and put live coals on the cover; these coals to be changed when cool for live ones. Short-cake biscuit and cookies were sometimes baked in the spider by turning the spider up before the fire of the open fireplace to bake the top, while the live coals were placed against its back to bake the bottom.

A turkey was generally roasted by hanging it up before the fire by a string attached to a beam above. A dripping pan was placed under it and it was basted and turned till done. Though cooked by primitive means, a turkey roasted in this manner is equal in flavor to the best that improved methods can produce.

In about 1832, the tin oven made its first appearance among us. Dr. Adams was the first to introduce it. As it, too, is now unknown among culinary apparatus, I give a description of it in general terms. It was made of tin nearly two feet long with an open front facing the fire, with top and bottom parts flaring to act as reflectors, with a dripping pan midway between top and bottom in which to put the articles to be baked. It was an improvement on former methods.

The illustration accompanying this paper of the old house described above was drawn from memory more than 40 years after the house had burned to the ground. It is recognized at sight by those familiar with the original. It exhibits two additions which were built in subsequent years. The open shed on the east was put up before my recollection, and was principally used by my father as a shop to store his bench and tools. The frame part on the west was built in the fall and winter of 1831. Our folks were expecting company and this was built to add convenience to the house for the occasion. The company arrived the latter part of February, 1832. For convenience we children had been sent away for the day, and on our return we found the new guest occupying the new apartment. He was young and without a name. Upon consultation it was agreed to call him Edgar, by which name he grew to be six feet four, and has ever since been recognized by us as a brother.

Manners and Customs

Culture and refinement are not, as a rule, characteristic of the rural districts. The life of hard, unremitting physical labor, made them impossible with the pioneer. I have, as I looked back to those times, sometimes wondered if strangers who were accustomed to move in refined society did not suffer extreme embarrassment, as they fell into the society and sat at the table of those primitive settlers.

If your wish to enter a neighbor’s house, knock on the door, provided there is a door to knock on. I remember once going to a neighbor’s house that had no door – only a blanket in its place. I could find nothing about the door on which my knuckles would make sufficient noise to arouse the attention of the inmates. I tried the end of the logs and other things, and finally I halloed and gained my object. Do not expect the inmates of the house to respond to your knock by opening the door; that was never done. You would, instead, hear the call, "Come in." You were expected then to open the door yourself and go in as you were bid. A welcome greeting would follow, and if cold weather, the family circle around the open fireplace was instantly enlarged and you were invited to sit up to the fire. And such welcome was generally extended freely, not only to friends and neighbors, but to entire strangers. Under ordinary circumstances, no stranger, and especially no neighbor, unless near his own home, was ever allowed to leave one of these pioneer homes with an empty stomach. Such food as they had was always given freely to the hungry. A custom to which I know no exceptions was for the host, after the company were seated at the table, to say to any guest present, "Now take right hold and help yourself; we use no compliments." And in accordance with this invitation, each person present dished into the potatoes and meat to suit his own caprice. Sopping was general. Each person, by use of a fork, would sop his bread in the meat or gravy dish, and from thence convey it to his mouth.

The bill of fare, though limited in variety, was wholesome and nutritious. A good venison steak, or loin, cooked as our mothers used to cook them, were dishes that epicures might envy. We had none of the cultivated fruits, but wild fruits could be had from the woods in their season. In the absence of apples and peaches, we contented ourselves with pumpkins, wild plums and berries, fresh, dried and preserved. But, crude as were our manners and customs, and as reluctantly as we would return to them with the privatiens, some of us pioneers who have grown gray since those days look back with regret that those good dinners are among the things of the past.

Game was plenty in the woods, and invaluable to the people. All were not hunters, neither did all have guns, but all profited by the products of the chase; for no family could satisfactorily enjoy their venison steak while knowing their next neighbor was out of meat. Many quarters of venison have I seen pass from my father’s house to our less fortunate neighbor without money and without price.

Maple sugar was our reliance for confectionery. And it was used in nearly all kinds of cooking. Even tea and coffee were sweetened with it, both in the form of sugar and molasses.

The dress of the pioneers was not constructed after the latest Paris fashions. It was of the most heterogeneous styles of form and material that imagination or necessity could invent. The housewife was her own dress maker and generally the tailor of the family. The materials were generally coarse and cheap. Winter caps were generally of fur, and home made, from the undressed skins of the wolf, fox, coon, muskrat or mink. A tow frock was a common outer working garment for a man.

If a person had good clothes he was fortunate, but if barefooted and clothed in rags he considered himself a man and was never for this snubbed by his neighbors. I frequently saw men at church with bare feet, and I have seen a man at church more than once too, with no other clothing than a coarse shirt and a pair of cotton pants, and I don’t remember that I ever heard a remark from anybody that there was any impropriety in it. Women went with naked feet while doing their work at home, and occasionally in the street, going from one neighbor to another, but I have no recollection of ever having seen a woman at church in that condition. Buckskin, nicely tanned, was frequently used in the clothing; sometimes entire garments were made from it and sometimes it was used as facings.

On the occasion of an old time log house raising, all the neighbors from far and near were assembled. They came not for a holiday play spell. They were each expected to work as hard as at home, but as it broke in upon the monotony of home labor, it was an enjoyable time. They talked and laughed and worked with hearty good will and social glee. The logs were always previously placed near by, and the four bottom logs placed in position. Four men were chosen to "carry up the corners," that is, to fit the ends of the logs to their places in the corner, with axes, after they were placed on top; besides this, the corner men were expected to score the side of the log that faced the inner room of the house, that all might be hewed down after the logs were all in place, to make, as near as might be, even walls to the rooms. The first half dozen courses of logs were easily placed; those that went higher required harder lifting and the use of longer skids and pikes, or crotched poles, to roll them to their places. The logs were generally placed in position before dark, and the men gathered in huddles to talk, shoot at a mark or to drink, for it may be remembered the temperance lecturer had not yet made his appearance on the platform, and our pioneers were not all temperance men, though but very few of them were intemperate. The many furnished whisky at their raisings; a few declined.

When these hardy settlers tested their skill at shooting at a mark, they had no need to blush at their success. There were always some of them that acquired the habit of putting a ball pretty near where they wished, whether aiming at a mark or game.

At the raising of Abraham Perren’s house, in 1832, a little episode occurred which I will relate: While the raising was in progress, a deer was seen running across the field of vision. Thomas Dickerson’s gun sat near my father, against a stump. He seized it, threw off the powderhorn that hung from its muzzle, drew it into position and fired. The deer continued its course as if unhurt. "There, you missed him," the men said. "Then the gun doesn’t carry where it is pointed," my father responded. But soon the deer fell dead.

One of the most important duties pertaining to the domestic economy, was the keeping of fire. Scarcely did the vestal virgins of Rome, or the priests of ancient Judah, guard the sacred fires of the altars with greater care than did our pioneers guard the fires of their hearthstones, sixty years ago. If allowed to "go out," it could only be reproduced by flint and steel, or by procuring it of a neighbor, who was so fortunate as to have kept his, and who, perhaps, lived a mile or more away. Either process in a cold morning, was very undesirable. Its preservation was secured by carefully covering it before going to bed, or at other times when not required for warmth. This was before the day of friction matches. The first friction match I ever saw was in the summer of 1836, in the hands of O. D. Swift, in the log house build by Dr. Adams on the corner of my father’s farm. He and his family had been from home. On their return I accompanied them from our house, and suggested that he take some fire. He said no, he would start a fire with a match. This was new to me, and with much curiosity I watched the process of drawing a lucifer match from between two pieces of sand paper and producing fire.

Matches soon became common, but is was years before the farmers thought they could afford to use them so freely as to light their candles with them. To light it by a live coal of fire in the tongs was cheaper.

About the same time the percussion cap made its appearance, which soon displaced the flint-lock rifles. The pill percussion preceded it by a few years.

Farming Under Difficulties

I think it was the elder Adams that said,"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." The pioneer secured his crops of wheat and corn at the same price. From the time they were planted till they were secured in the granary they were subject to constant depredations from both birds and beasts. People nowadays would be amazed to see such immense flocks of blackbirds as we had to guard against. It is no exaggeration to say that when they arose from a field their numbers would darken the air and the noise of their flight would sound like thunder. When such a flock lighted on a field of wheat or corn it meant business, and it was a kind of business that interested the farmer; his bread and butter depending on the result.

In some localities, the coons were as destructive by night as birds and squirrels by day. The young cattle and hogs must be guarded against wolves and bears, and the chickens against hawks, owls, minks and foxes.

The productions of the soil in those days, to whatever cause attributed, was sometimes in remarkable contrast with our more modern experiences. My father and Luman Fowler were once digging potatoes, of a variety known as Bilbows then, but since as Meshannocks; the yield was so great that a measured rod square produced five and a half bushels. I have full confidence in the integrity of their statement; but making any reasonable allowance for inaccuracy of measurement, the yield could then be scarcely duplicated now on any of our soils. The growth of corn stalks was larger than any I have seen since. A stranger once cut a stalk from my father’s field and brought it into the house that measured eight and one-third feet to the butt of the first ear, and it had another ear above it. Whole fields could be found that approximated to this stalk. Whether the yield of corn was greater than is now produced I do not know. We generally raised a southern variety, call gourd seed.

The threshing and cleaning of wheat were other difficulties the pioneer encountered. They had neither barns nor fanning mills. Threshing floors must be built out of doors, that never could be used except in dry weather and by the use of the hand fan they separated the chaff from the wheat. When the grain was in the bag, the neighborhood furnished neither horse nor wagon by which to take it to mill. A carriage, then known as a dray, was improvised for that purpose. A pole with two prongs was inserted in the ring of the yoke between the oxen, and stakes put into the upper side of each of the prongs below the crotch, a board nailed on in front of the stakes on which to lay the bags, and the carriage was ready for use, and to my certain knowledge it did good service for a whole neighborhood.

The first fanning mill came among us early in the ‘80s, and the first threshing machine six or eight years afterward.   

Contributed by Linda Ball