Keeping the past alive

A PIONEER TALK

Essay by Miss Rosella Rice read before the Ashland County Association in 1879

History of Ashland County, Ohio, A.J. Baughman, 1909

 

There is a vast store of rich material almost untouched lying waiting for some writer who will hold the mirror up to nature and give us pictures of the people and the manners and customs of early times. What a royal book could be made! We grow so weary of politics, the sham side of religion; the ruthless clambering after high places; the desperate struggles for riches and fame and honor; men standing on other men's necks to elevate themselves. Oh, sometimes, if it were not so sentimental and so like twaddle, or the talk of whispering lovers we could cry out in the language of Moore:

 

The following sketch of Miss Rosella Rice, late of Perrysville, Ashland county, was written by Colonel Sullivan D. Harris, and appeared in William T. Coggeshall's Poets and Poetry of the West a work which appeared in 1860.

 

“Rosella Rice is a native of Ashland county, Ohio. Her father Alexander Rice, was among the early settlers of Perrysville, and Rosella has always resided at the old homestead, where she was born, about the year 1830. Miss Rice is a born poet, and has nursed her strange wild fancies amid the equally wild hills and glens and rocky caves which she has haunted with a devotion that has amounted to a life passion.

 

“Meeting with but few associates who could appreciate the depths of her passions for such communings her spirit was wont to retire within herself except when it was called forth by the presence of the sylvan gods which she worshiped. Her early contributions to the county papers are marked by her own rude, but genuine original characteristics. Coming but little in contact with the world at large, she built upon ideal models, wherever she departed from her own original.

 

“Miss Rice has read much and well, and within the last few years she has visited the wide world considerably. She has contributed to Arthur's Home Magazine, Philadelphia, and to several of the Cleveland, Columbus and other Ohio papers. Her prose writings always attract attention and secure a wide circulation from their peculiar original vigor and directness.

 

“In addition to the foregoing from Mr. Harris, the author adds that Miss Rice was on the regular staff of Arthur's Home Magazine for at least a quarter of a century. Miss Rice died June 6, 1888.

— A.J. Baughman

O, had we some bright little isle of our own,

In a blue summer ocean, far off and alone, 

Where a leaf never dies in the still blooming bowers,

And the bee banquets on through a whole year of flowers."

 

Etc. etc. You all remember it, and how charming you thought it sounded when you almost sang it to lengthen out its delicious sweetness.

 

There is not half the material nowadays for the manufacture of readable stories and sketches there was in pioneer times. We are surprised when we the field over. How fresh and charming and breezy were the stories written by Eggleston, the only writer who has ever ventured into this broad and beautiful field.

 

The stories that are the simplest and most natural and that cuddle the closest to Nature's great warm, true heart are the best. Their narration brings the quick, hearty laugh and the sudden mist of tears the soonest. Bret Harte may, in his strange, bold way, bring out wonderful words, pictures of heroism, history may tell of great men who sacrificed their lives in a fury of enthusiasm, forgetting everything only fame that was to follow after. But in our own humble opinion we do believe God and the angels have looked down and beheld the truest heroes in the lowliest walks of humble life. Oh, we bare our heads in the presence of our grandees; we bow graciously, we smile and fawn upon them because they are great. The richest carpet is spread for them to walk upon from the doorway to the glittering carriage in the street; we beg for their autographs; we look after them adoringly and we sigh when they are gone and we read glowing accounts of where they go and how they are received and the honors that are heaped upon them, and our hearts warm with exultation. We call these our heroes. We believe the heroism hidden in the commonest walks of life, and perhaps not known beyond the horizon's rim, not read about, nor sang about, nor talked about, and scarcely known or dreamed of by the nearest neighbors, is the grandest example of brave courage and devotion that there is.

 

In pioneer times such heroes were found in every neighborhood. They were not shrined, neither did they stand on pedestals. They sat on benches at their looms, and on rickety chairs close up to their little wheels, and from early dawn until bedtime they made music; the music of the flying shuttle and the banging of the lathe, the buzzing of the flyers, and the fine metalic ring of the sharp teeth of the hackle. They dressed in clothing that they had manufactured themselves, and they clad their husbands and their children in the same. The heroism of these wonderfully energetic women will never be known, because they know it not themselves. We may talk of the spirit of our missionary women and laud them, but no need of theirs can compare with the self-denial of these managing, planning, contriving, overtasked, active foremothers of ours. Their creative ability was marvellous. Their generalship was splendid. Their strategy and maneuvers and devices without parallel. And yet, revering their memory as we do, cherishing the bold, brave, beautiful examples they have left us, we cannot but lament the sad heritage they bequeathed likewise.

 

 

These noble grandmothers and mothers wrought with hands and brain; they toiled beyond their strength; they used up the vitality that they should have shared with us — their defrauded bodies. They robbed us, and the consequences abide with us today. We have white faces and flabby muscles and are short of health, and we have to coax ourselves to walk up hill, and then we hold a hand on our side and gasp. Instead of springing out of a wagon or off the side saddle, or from the top rail of the fence, we creep down as though we carried a set of china or a basket of imported eggs. They would have run up stairs three steps at a clip if they'd only had the stairs. As it was, they tripped up the ladder that stood in the corner, carrying a bushel of corn or twelve dozen skeins of flax thread with the ease that one of us would carry a glove box. We know one mother who died at middle age with a flush as of roses on her lips and her cheeks and a sunny sparkle in her eyes, and her glossy brown hair smoothed back from her white forehead. She lay down to sleep and to dream at night and the sleep came in the twinkling of an eye, but it was the dreamless slumber of death, and the word went forth that she died of heart disease — a very pretty name by which to designate such sudden calls of death, such untoward freaks of Providence. But her bereft family knew the limits of a life spent in overwork, an energy that knew no boundaries at all.

 

She had said, "Now I will make fifty linen sheets for ourselves and then I will quit spinning and weaving." That was two hundred and fifty yards of linen. Any one who has raised flax and carried it through the stages prescribed, will know what that means. Raising, pulling, spreading, ratting, gathering into bundles, then breaking, scutching, hackling, spinning, boiling the skeins in ashes and water, spooling, warping and weaving. Then comes the bleaching out on the grass in March and April and the web is ready for use. Besides the stores of family and bed and table linen she wanted the fifty homemade linen sheets to lay aside for herself and husband in their old age and after the children were all married and settled in life.

 

Poor, short sighted woman! She died before half the number were made. Her husband, a young man, was left disconsolate with five little children between the ages of fourteen and four. What an absurd mistake she made! And the linen sheets. The cold, clinging, clammy things. Well, the daughters-in-law cut them up and used them for baby linen and tea towels and dish rags, with never a thought of what they cost. And the sons-in-law wipe their bearded faces and tidy about their ears with the towels made out of them, and instead of thinking that the life of a noble but unwisely energetic woman was twisted up into the nicely spun woof and warp, and the fine gold of it beaten up into the flossy fabric, they scrub diligently, thinking of the sharp bargains they make in swapping horses, perhaps getting a good, two year colt for an old crowbait with its bony back thatched over with newspapers.

 

If there is one thing in this life that we sorrow over more than another, it is to see energy — that great lever that moves the world — misspent, poured out wastefully. Our possibilities for accomplishing good and great works are wonderful and we have no right to trifle them away and spend our time making overmuch provision for our perishable bodies. Why, the very time devoted to making pies, if spent out in the woods under the gracious roof of gold and green, when days are long and skies are bright, and woods are green and fields are breezy, would tend to make one fresh and active and interesting, and to grow mellow in a kindly way. So many lives dwarfed and disappointed, and in complete owe their failure to the wearing of the shackle that they impose upon themselves. They seem to glory in their manacles. They hug their thralldom. We say to such:

 

There'll come a day when the supremest splendor

Of earth, or sky, or sea,
What e'er their miracles, sublime or tender,

Will wake no joy in thee.

 

Sometimes we wonder if our own township is an exception in its wealth of story making material. Every old cabin hearth stone holds a story, sometimes wonderful, sometimes tragical and sometimes stranger than fiction. Away off in the woods on our way to and from the school we taught long ago we used to sit and dream and rest awhile on a heap of old hearth stones, the birthplaces of a poor little boy who, when he came up to manhood, received the appointment of Foreign Minister. His father made baskets and trays and half bushels, and his mother spun sewing thread and hackled flax and colored copperas and rocked her babies in a sugar trough. What to them was poverty? Contentment disarmed of its sting. Their wants were few. There was no aristocracy in those early days. When the women wanted to visit neighbor Prudence and have a good social time and not tax the poor family, they took provisions with them. One would take half a quarter of tea and a pitcher of cream, another a loaf of bread and a roll of butter, another some maple syrup or wild honey, with venison or pork or raised cornbread or doughnuts, always carrying a good deal more than was needed, and then the woman whose honored guests they were could get up a plain meal without any embarrassment whatever.

 

At the time we used to indulge in these dreams, William was abroad an honor to the nation he represented, and perhaps many a time in his far-away political home, there came up before him the shady little nook in the wildwood, with its rich undergrowth of cool ferns and mosses and leaves mingling in wild luxuriance. Oh. such examples are so encouraging to poor boys. Energy and perseverance with a character based on good sound principles can accomplish anything. And how true and full of exaltation comes to such the ringing song of the sweet minstrel girl, Alice Carey. Her own soul alive with the inspiration that thrilled herself and others when she sang

 

"For many a lad born to rough work and ways,
Strips off his ragged coat and makes men
Clothe him with praise."

 

But one hearthstone there was that could have told a boss story, as the boys say. Just the man and his wife and her sister comprised the family. It was the bleak November time, when the rains seem to have a sobbing sound and the winds cry about the leaves, and the dead vines swing mournfully, and the waters drip like tears from the dead leaves. The husband was away at the mill down at Shrimplins, and would not get home till late that night. The two women sat conversing over the embers. One subject only was in their thoughts, and that was "there will be no dress for the baby." Now did anybody ever hear of a wideawake woman who couldn't see her way through or over or under or around the obstacles in her path? Surely not.

 

The husband came home late, ate his corn bread and milk, buried the glowing coals and went to bed. Away in the night the young wife woke her sister with "Bet, say Bet, I've studied it out. Ilark'ee! Early in the morning he will kill Old Nan, for what's the use o' keepin' just one sheep, poor, lonesome creetur', and me and you'll go to work and we'll make a bit o' flannel out o' the fleece, an' that'll be very daddle for a good, warm, soft baby dress. Don't ye see, Bet?" Poor, sleepy Betsy. We don't know whether she saw it or not, but she acquiesced with a drowsy "eh, heh."

 

He killed the sheep bright and early the next morning. The two sisters picked off the wool nicely carded, spun, put the infantile web into the loom and wove it that day and evening, and at night they cut out the dearest little coatie and made it before they went to bed. There wasn't much margin left to boast of, because the next day's dawn found a sturdy little man child taking the tailor out of the brannew coatie. A little sprout of a pioneer with round, red fists and heels that tested the new flannel vigorously. And this was the stuff that pioneer women were made of in the long ago.

 

Sixty years ago a poor boy in Green township used to get up very early winter mornings, when the snow lay deep and white upon the ground, and as he flipped his homeknit suspenders over his shoulders he peered out between the cracks of his cabin home and whispered through his chattering teeth, "Jinks, do b'lieve I see tracks!" Then despite the cold he clad his feet in his father's old boots and sallied out to hunt rabbits. That boy wanted an education. He needed one of the first requirements — a spelling book. If it had been summer time he could have dug ginseng or columbo roots and sold them. But the winter season locked up this only resource, and all he could do was to catch rabbits and sell the skins for one cent apiece. Forty rabbit skins would buy a spelling book, a nice one with a good wooden back to it. That man died worth one hundred thousand dollars. And this was the stuff that pioneer men were made of.

© 2011 Peggy Mershon                                                                                     Contact at marwelmer@aol.com