A  series of articles that appeared

in the 1879 Arthur’s Home Magazine

No. 3 … Childhood of mush and milk


Last evening, after the lamps were lighted, father and I were sitting quietly by the stove speaking never a word. Everything seemed unusually lonely for that hour. I was leaning back watching Charlie in his cage in the window, thinking how like the life of a dear little canary are the lives of some women. A small round of gayety, and that is all.


Suddenly I remembered why the evening was one of unusual quiet; we'd had no supper, no cheery tea table with its white cloth, and glistening china, and steaming urn. Just to see how it would look and taste, we'd had mush and milk, and never from my own earliest childhood had we regarded that as supper — nothing like it at all; for it was, as our old widowed neighbor said after the death of her husband, "So lonely! Oh, so lonely!" This she had wailed out through her nose two years after his death, over the doleful prospect that his place would in all probability never be filled.


Finally I said: "O father, I don't see how you ever did live through your supperless childhood, and grow up to man's estate robust and hearty, and with such a compact, well-knit frame! Didn't you nearly starve? Come, now, own up!"


But the old Spartan wouldn't do it. He said in a soft, slow voice, as though feeling his way, lest he commit himself: "Mush made of corn-meal was good when we had salt in it; but when we couldn't get the salt it went a little hard. And my mother made butter, so that the milk was always skimmed that we ate. But when our mush and corn-bread was made of pounded corn, it was so tasteless that a full meal of it seemed to contain no nourishment whatever. It was so unlike corn-meal, more like the pasty, starchy grits which we buy at the grocery nowadays. Without salt it was intolerable; but it was that or nothing at all.


"I was just thinking," father continued, "that it was sixty-nine years ago today since we landed in this part of the State. We started from Newark, Ohio, on the first day of February, and reached our destination on the evening of the fourth. It required several blocks then in which to pound corn to make bread for four or five families.The blocks were made by building a small fire in the centre of a solid stump or log, and burning out a round hole, then hollowing it out into the shape of a deep bowl. The corn was placed in this and pounded with a maul and iron wedge until it was all broken up fit to make into mush and bread. For a rare meal, or for lunch before retiring, we often pounded parched corn and ate it."


Our talk drifted on from one topic to another in pioneer life, when suddenly, with a burst of laughter, I said: "O father, if you'd only been at that golden wedding with me last week! (See here)  It was so good, and we had so much fun! While was reading my address, one old man in the corner of the crowded parlor whooped out with all the joyous abandon of frolicsome boyhood, and laughed as cheerily an a robin. It was where I told how the children used to sleep when the preacher came to stay all night. And at dinner we sat at the table among the old folks — the kind whose childhood was full of privations like yours was — and you cannot think how our heart went out toward them. One man, one of the soundest, cheeriest, sweetest old souls, told us when he was a boy they lived in a cabin so small that they could not spare the room in the corner for the ladder to stand, and so they entered the loft from the outside of the house. A square hole was cut through for an entrance, and the ladder leaned up to it beside the chimney. When the boys went to bed at night, they often waded knee-deep in the snow to reach the ladder."


At this father laughed immoderately. We thought it serious, and told him so.


"I wasn't laughing at the idea of poor bare-legged boy skipping round the outside of the cabin on their way to bed," said he, "but I was reminded of the Lanebarger's, long ago. That was the way they lived; hadn't room inside to put up a ladder, and the entrance was outside. Dave, the oldest boy, became enamored of one of the Goosvelt girls; and though his mother said all she could to keep Dave away from old man Goosvelt's, it did no good. The girls were very handsome — that is, handsome for those days —stout-limbed, full-bosomed, sunburned, muscular, red-cheeked, and with teeth gleaming white as any shark's. But they'd rather shoot at a mark than get a good dinner; rather ride bare-backed and on the keen jump than to set up stitches in knittin' work, or hackle flax or spin tow. They could row a canoe like an Indian, and fleeter girls on foot I never saw. But that was neither here nor there, for if they had no appetite for housework and home-keepin’, they wouldn't amount to much in those days.


"One night, what does Dave do but sneak off after his stent was done and marry Ruth. Now they were as poor as the law allowed at old man Goosvelts, only had three beds all told, and two of them had three lodgers apiece, and the other one four. They had no accommodations for any more; and when the family retired early, Dave and Ruth were left sitting there on one of the little benches. Dave said, 'S'posin' we move to-night?' And so they 'moved.' Ruth took her linen dress, and handkerchief, and apron, and some dried plums, and the candle-moulds that she found — lost out of a mover's wagon — and tied them up in a rag, and they started for his home. The family were all in bed, and the house was dark. Now the Lanebargers were no richer in this world's goods — excepting the land they had squatted on —  than were the other family; and the mother divined the truth, but she kept her counsel to herself, and said nothing, and pretended she was asleep when the movers stopped and came to the door. Dave didn't knock, of course, because he was at home; he just gave the latch a quiet pull with the leather string, and stood inside. The situation was a leetle queer for Ruth, and she stood close up to Dave, her heart stirred like, and beatin' fast enough.


“ ‘Mamma,' said Dave. No answer. The mother, young and healthy, and full of fun, pretended to sleep soundly and hear not. 'Mamma, I say!' piped Dave, a sense of shame creeping over him, no doubt. No answer. 'Mamma, mamma, I say! I'm here! He spoke out several octaves higher than before.


"The loud breathing was stilled, and the mother said: 'Is that you, David?’


"To which he replied, sheepishly: 'We've moved.'


"The mother coughed, and that was all the answer she gave.


"' Where'll we sleep, mamma?' he whined out.


"'Why, sleep where yon allus did, in with Tom, and Nathan,' was the sweeping reply.


"Was there ever a cooler reception for bridegroom and bride? There they stood. Life was all before them, but what a beginning! The cabin was dark as pitch. Poor Dave, who had rushed blindly into matrimony, married without reckoning, moved without consultation, reached out his hand to take that of the sanguine Ruth, and in a dazed way caught hold of the knob on top of the post of a big spinning wheel, and stood there, convicted. Finally he said: 'Mamma, we're here; we've moved.'


"'Yes,' said she, curtly, 'and I think it's time that all honest folks were abed. You must be a real owl of a youth to stand there sight-seeing in the dark. Why don't you go to bed.'


"'She's here, too; we've moved,' was the reply, 'and I don't know where to sleep'


"'Tom and Nate sleep in the bunk in the fur corner o' the loft, an’ you ought to know by this time where your lodging place is. You are aware that we don't keep a public house with lodgings to let.' and the mother turned her face to the wall and closed her eyes.


"Now, the ladder stood on the outside of the cabin, and the mode of ingress was a square hole cut through the building. It was the first ladder Mr. Lanebarger ever made, and it was done by guesswork. He had no rule of measurement, and instead, he stepped off on the ground the length from one round to another. This was a poor rule. The whole length of the ladder, according to this measure, required only four rounds. When Dave essayed to escort his wife up the ladder he found that she couldn't ascend. Here was another dilemma. Could she pull herself up by one of his legs left dangling? No, she couldn't do that. Could she clamber along if he held one arm down? No, her weight was too much avoirdupois.


"The matter was serious, it was nothing to laugh over. So they didn't laugh. And she was too stolid to indulge in tears. Dave said, 'Ding it all!' more than a dozen times, but that let no light into the darkness. Finally, by some strategy, or system of management, they both got up the ladder, and they slept, somehow.


"A daughter in-law nowadays who met no kindlier greeting when she moved home to her husband's relatives would be very apt to shed tears in secret."


Then father told who were the descendants of Dave and Ruth, the great grandsons and daughter, and we were surprised to know that Ada Brooks, the pretty schoolma'am that the little ones all love so dearly, was a great-granddaughter of the gawky pair who packed up their dried plums and candle moulds, and moved one night under such unfavorable circumstances. But Ada had more pluck than Ruth had, for she could catch on the round of a ladder above her bonnie curls and swing herself up as lightly as a squirrel.


Then I said, musing: "Sixty-nine years ago tonight; and you were all very poor, father, weren't you."


"Yes." he replied, "we owned nothing except the few household goods, a couple of cows, a span of old crow-bait creatures, two dogs and a tolerable wagon. The cows gave good milk, and we men and boys did fair, full day's work on three meals of mush and milk — morning, noon and night. Beats all how many nice things a woman can contrive out of cornmeal nowdays when she has plenty to do with, but in those limes she couldn't do much with such scanty means. I can hardly taste turnips," he continued, "without feeling myself to be a boy again working in these bottom fields among the roots and stumps, hoeing corn. My mother used to send our dinners out to the field, and it was nearly always turnips with a plentiful dressing of butter, and corn pone or fried mush. Hunger made the humble repast taste good."


"Didn't you boys enjoy gathering nuts every fall?" I asked.


“'That was about all the recreation and fun we had," was the reply. "We would work hard and gain time so as to gather nuts on Saturdays. The finest hazelnuts grew over on the hill-sides, yonder, and beyond Black's over at the wind-fall. We could load up both creatures with them. There was no road then, but we followed the Indian trail — let one horse walk behind the other until we came to where the one traveled highway was. Walnuts and butternuts grew in the valley, and chestnuts on the ridges. It was not like it is now, a boy to every chestnut-tree. One could go out and gather and leave the heap lying on the ground until he was ready to take it home.


"Those were good times even if we did feel the pinchings of poverty and endure the privations incident to life in the far West. I wouldn't like to live them over again," said father, as he smoothed one hand down the other in a comforting way, "not now, since all these blessings and luxuries have come to me in my old age. But it's 'mazin' strange that I feel, when I stand on the railroad bridge and watch the train whiz by, and think of the times when its track through the valley was a forest and a thicket almost impenetrable. Its tread makes the very graves of the old pioneers tremble."


© 2011 Peggy Mershon                                                                                     Contact at marwelmer@aol.com