This story was a bit of a surprise since it appeared in Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine in 1891 — three years after Rosella’s death. I suspect it was pieced together from notes and perhaps incomplete manuscripts she left behind, but it includes some great writing and details on pioneer life!


When the pioneer families began to show the first signs of prosperity they aged tallow candles, or tallow and bees-wax mixed. They were called "taller dips." Made by putting candle tricking of the right length on smooth little hazel rods that would hold eight or ten dips. Then the tallow was melted in a large kettle, and a few gallons of boiling water poured in to bring the oil to the surface.


Generally the woman of the house assisted by a neighbor did the work, which lasted all day.


The row of little linty candidates were, by a graceful dexterous swing of the hand, dipped into the tallow, one rodful at a time, and hung on a near frame to cool off, until the whole number were gone over. Every dipping increased the size of the candle. When they were large enough they were stored away after careful count in boxes.



other stories

Log Cabin Life of Long Ago

How the two old dippers would sit with old faded clothes on tucked away out of the reach of drops of tallow, and visit. We always hailed candle-dipping day. They had so much time to talk, as they sat close together, crooning over neighborhood gossip and the stories of "when you and I were young, Maggie;" stories growing intenser in interest and thickly strewn with such links as "an' ses she's" "an’ ses I’s," sweeter to us than the fattest raisins in a pudding.


When announcement was made for a spelling-school or singing-school and the question was- asked: "Who will fetch a candle?" none but the children of well-to-do parents could sing out, "I! I!" and they did it with a glow of most comfortable pride.


But if a candle " sputtered," ran down the sides and sizzed and winked, and pooh'd out angrily, and " guttered " down on to the shoulders of some young cavalier, or on to some girl's best cape or waist ribbon, the person who brought it there was disgraced. It went to prove that the Millers or the Joneses were stingy—they had more water of which to make caudles than they had tallow.


Presuming that a girl wanted to fix up the house to look real pretty and tidy, one of the points — not the least, either — was to have a good showing of dips.


She would cut a stick so that the bits of branches remaining on it were like hooks, on these she would hang perhaps a dozen candles, three or four in a place, and suspend this from a nail on one of the joists overhead. It looked rich and thrifty.

When tin candle-molds were invented it was a great stride toward luxury and refinement, and beside the smooth symmetrical mold candle, the lowly "taller dip " hung its head in abject mortification.


We remember when Bazzar Doolittle went out toward the lake and married Lydia Hunt, and brought her home, and old man Hunt carried her things in the go-cart, how grand the gay Doolittles did feel over her "settin' out!"


They bragged about Lydiar's stewkettle, and hackle, an' two splint-bottom chairs, and a pair o' candle-molds that would run six at one time. And the way those candle-molds did go about doing good service was a caution until they came to an inglorious end.


Little Peter Hulett was sent to carry them home after his mother had used them. He was told to take the short-cut through the new clearing. It was full of stumps of saplings that had been cut off two or three feet from the ground. As he walked along, his mind dwelling on some of the old stories told by his grandfather about General Burgoyne, he became excited, he called every stump a red-coat and fought "the British" with the caudle-molds clear across the lot. This made a coolness thereafter between the families.


So, when fifty years later, Minnie Viola, granddaughter of Seth Doolittle, son of old Bazzar, married a great nephew, Clarence Mortimer, in the direct Hulett line, and they bragged vociferously of "her settin' out," in which was a seven-hundred-dollar piano, we old folks drove a peg to the truthfulness of hereditary laws.


Clearing a piece of timber land, going into the wilderness and beginning to make a farm, was no child's play. Many of the first generation could not endure the toil, and it was common for the brave father to die and leave his family. He would take chills, drink teas of roots and bark, doctor himself; he would be half-fed and half-clothed, he could not make the yearly payment, he was far from home, he rarely received letters, he could not become acclimated — fever would set in, and he would die at the age of thirty or forty years.


When a man began to clear the ground he dug out by the roots — grubbed out, they called it —every brush that was small enough to be spanned by his hand; all over that size and under one foot in diameter he chopped; and all over one foot were girdled and left standing. After the brush and stuff was burned, and the logs chopped he made a "bee" and the neighbors came and they rolled and piled the logs in heaps which were burned afterward.


This gathering of the strong-armed men with hand spikes was called a log rolling, or "logging bee."


Then came that old-fashioned mankiller, the plow, called the "Wooden Mold-Board."


These plows were strongly framed with spirally concaved mold-board, iron point and shire, all bound together and to the beam with a heavy iron bolt, which made them very stout. Some of them had colters.


They answered a good purpose while the soil was new and mellow, but plowing new ground full of tough roots brought out the "cuss-words," even from good men.


A good old Methodist, whose daily life was above reproach, used to wrap his shins in dry hides and bundle up his body till he looked like an Esquimau, and then, sometimes, he could not help sweating when a wicked root would fly out and strike him across the legs with great force.


He said he had a season of special prayer in his own behalf every night before he slept.


For many years the wheat crop was all cut with sickles, a tedious way, but "many hands made light work."


But little was worn that was not made at home.


A farmer would sow half or quarter of an acre in flax every spring; this was called the “flax patch" There is nothing prettier than a patch of growing flax. The flowers are exquisitely beautiful — so delicate and airy, and the blue suggests the blue of a pretty baby's eyes. The green of the growing flax is likewise suggestive of airiness, of a filmy veil stirred by a loving breeze. It stirs into soft billows when the winds play in dalliance upon its surface of bloom. But this is the poetry of the flax, the sober prose comes afterward.


When ripe it is pulled up by the roots, a little handful at a time, and, save the stooping over, it is not hard work, for it has little else than a short, slender taproot, hardly striking into the ground at all. Every little handful must be tied up in a tiny bundle until the time that the seed is threshed out. Then it is laid on the grass until the woody part becomes rotten and brittle, and the fibrous part, or lint, separates from it easily.


Then it is ready for the "brake," a rude heavy machine that crushes it; and after that comes the "scutching" of it, and this was such hard, dirty, dusty work that a man or woman was made to resemble the Santa Claus character at our Christmas festivities.


This was work for poor old men, the old grandfathers or aged uncles who lived among their kindred and were glad to earn a little money and scutch flax long enough to pay for linsey or jeans for a pair of pantaloons.


We recall more than one of these dear old men — one of them, old Esquire Hill, a gentleman born, who came from Essex County, New York.


In the evenings after he was tidied up, and we children had picked every bit of tow off him, and brushed the shives from his white hair and snowier beard, he would teach us lessons in geography, spelling, reading and writing, and he did it with such pleasure to himself and profit to the little folks. In sight of our window, among the cedars and the green myrtle he sleeps well, and nearly all his old pioneer neighbors are near him.


Another old man from Wendall, Massachusetts, did the same work for us, year after year —"daddy Fisher" — and when with five pairs of willing hands he was made fresh and clean and pinky every evening, he would lean back in his chair and reel off the stories about the "old Bay State," and brother Hosea and brother "Lewk."


And the joke was against us and we made ourselves ridiculous by offering him the biggest red apple in the basket, hurriedly saying: "Here daddy apple, take a Fisher!"


The peals of child-laughter were uproarious over the mistake.


After the scutching came the hackeling, an operation that divided the flax from the tow. The hackle was an instrument something like a brush, only instead of bristles it was a set of long, slender, sharp steel teeth. A handful at a time of the scutched flax was combed through this, and the combings was the tow. The straight, sweet-smelling, silky flax was left remaining in the hand of the one who hackled.


For very fine soft linen only flax was used in the spinning and weaving. This was for dresses, aprons, underwear, men's fine shirts and pantaloons; and some women made pillow-cases, fine sheets, rare towels, and very choice things out of it But flax chain and tow filling was for common serviceable use. It made a beautiful cloth and could be bleached as white as snow.


For dresses the colors were copperas and white, the cloth woven in stripes or checks, with sometimes a side-stripe for change. There is nothing softer and sweeter to the touch than fine homemade linen, perhaps because every thread meant so much of toil.


Flax was always spun on the little wheel, and tow likewise, until the Yankee women introduced the manner of carding it by hand-cards, which were held in one's two hands on the knees. It was carded into shapes that were called "bats," a folded-over process, a bat reminding one in shape of a fish dressed and cleaned ready to cut in pieces.


The flat silky-gray bat was held in the girl's left hand, and she walked slowly back and forth and spun a nice thread from it on the big wheel.


It was pretty employment and we always loved it. Boys and little children would look on and say, " Why, the thread 'pears to come slipping out o' the end o' the bat ready-made!" and so it did seem as we held it gently between the thumb and forefinger of the left hand while the right turned slowly the great round rim of "mamma's wheel."


The little wheel was a cunning invention for those times when men did not invest much in speculations. And the man whose brain evolved the inestimable boon gave a gift just when it was most needed. This little wheel was driven, with a rapid motion, with a crank to which a pedal was attached with a cord or band. The spindle was driven by two bauds, one of which ran a little faster than the other, giving a compound motion to the head, or spindle, so that the thread was winding up while the twisting was going on.


Any person who has seen a weaver weaving rag carpet — and there is one in every neighborhood — will understand how weaving was done in old times. The machinery and plans, such as harness, reeds, shuttles, quills, swifts, bars, reels, and everything are about as they were then, only more convenient.


It was a time of excitement in a family when the mother was planning the plaid for each of the girls a new flannel dress.


They would discuss. They would tip their heads sidewise and cock up their eyes like jay birds when they were arranging the colors, the style of the check, the quality, what reed it better be woven through, and whether so many yards would allow the grown girls to have an extra breadth in the skirt or not.


The wider the dress-skirt the tonier was the girl who swung it. It was a mark of style. It proved that she was as good as the best of them. It looked rich. It savored of prosperity. A poky dress-skirt meant "real stingy."


Sometimes the full skirt could hardly be, by hook or by crook, by gather or plait, got on to the waist. But it was put on "all-ee same-ee."


Often there would be four colors in the woven dress plaid — red and blue and black and brown. It was a fine bit of artistic skill and taste to arrange the colors so they would harmonize. But the woman of the house, the power that made things move, whether or no, would go on thinking and thinking, until fatally it came.


Perhaps she would see the plaid shawl that the circuit-rider's wile wore, or the lining in the jacket back of the old doctor when he was out digging fish-bait, or the gay colors in some old man's camlet mantle that he had brought all the way from over the mountains, and she could plan the "dress flannen" better for these hints.


If they had set their faces on red, blue, black, and brown, the important event of dyeing the warp and filling came next.


The red was dyed with madder, the dye wet up with bran water, using alum as a mordant. If the madder or " mather," as some of the old Jersey grannies would pronounce the word, was of a good quality and the yarn was frequently lilted and aired during the process of dyeing, a dark, bright clear color was the result, with the proviso that it " wa'nt crowded in the kittle." But if they tried to make the madder do more than its share the color would be dim, dead, dingy, and all the alternative was to dye it some darker color to save its reputation.


Blue was a slow process. It was done with indigo in the dye-tub that stood in the warm corner and — spoke for itself. If it was good, lively dye, capable of making a fine blue, it put on grander airs yet and manifested itself after a fashion of its own. Well, there are better ways now, tidier and speedier, to color blue.


Black was an easy dye, made with hulls of green walnuts, maple bark, and copperas.


Brown was obtained from butternut bark, a beautiful, clear, sunny tint that never faded.


Women had one trouble, but it seems to us now that they did not take it to heart very seriously, that of getting good fits. No woman's dress "set well" in those days. How could it? They all used the same pattern. Old Ruth Flint, tall and angular and bony, and stooping forward as if hunting four-leaf clovers all the time, had her dresses cut over the pattern that Pinky Backus got of Sally Pope, and Sally cut it over Becky Peterson's, and Becky got it from 'Liza Jane Lincoln, and she cut it over an old dress that her cousin sent her from the Ohio River, and every maid, mother, aunt, cousin, and niece of them wore dresses cut off that pattern. One would say, "I guessed at the buzzum of it;" another added, “ two fingers' weadth;" another laid a fold down in front, and another always had to throw her shoulders back and walk kind o' proud like to keep the pins from bursting out.


We remember once when a girl started home dressed in her " best bib and tucker," a tall, thin girl who run the little wheel from Monday morning till three o'clock Saturday afternoon, as she got over the seven-rail fence in front of the house her whole back burst out like a snowy light biscuit. Every pin bent, pulled out, or doubled up like a fish-hook.

She laid her reticule on the door of the stone out-door oven and came back grinning. "It was that dratted old Cook pattern," she said; " I ‘lowed a whole inch down the back, but it ought to 'a' been two inches."


And with the utmost complacency she took a butcher knife, proceeded to the hawthorn tree below the garden, cut off a handful of thorns and had the offending dress pinned up as tight as a glove before she started again.


While the women of those busy times really did lack the skill that comes from close planning, they had a great deal of self-reliance.


A woman who could snatch down the old musket and fire at a deer or bear with good aim and keen eye and steady hand was not a bit afraid to uudertake the job of making a silk bonnet. We watched her. She took the frame that had belonged to a bonnet worn in the days of the Revolution, straightened it, made the wire fit snugger, and then began. She sewed the silk round the front seam inside,same as when she made trousers — carried it back, tacking it down here and there, cleverly, and finished it up — whistling as she sewed — by a very clumsy, rude pucker at the tip-top of the crown. She turned it over, held it off, whistled cheerier than ever, and then finished it by coveting a large overcoat button with black silk and fastening it into the pucker. Did it just as if it wasn't put there to hide a bad job of work.


Then she frilled some old black lace and sewed it inside for a face trimming, whistled a little more and was just as satisfied with her millinery as she was with her pone-loaf, her blue yarn of her own dyeing, or the stump she had dug out of the door-yard herself.


© 2011 Peggy Mershon                                                                                     Contact at