50 YEARS AGO OR, THE CABINS OF THE WEST

 

A series of articles that appeared

in 1875 in Arthur’s Home Magazine

No. 4 … Tom and Bessie 

                                                      

Everybody knew Tom Lawson and Bessie Carnahan were engaged, and people said it came of that husking-bee at Judge Lee's, the November before. All came about because of that one ear of red corn! What great events do spring from little things!

 

They danced together a good deal that night, and Tom kept watching Bessie and hovering about her, and when the vine of bitter-sweet berries that were twined in among her black curls came loose, Tom's deft lingers were the first to put in place the pretty ornament.

 

Uncle Dick said he mistrusted something uncommon when Parson Belden preached in the barn back of Judge Leo's cabin, for, instead of Bessie riding to meeting that day with the family in the ox-wagon, as she usually did, she came a-foot down across the thorn-thicket and the creek bottom to the riffle, and then she and Tom waded. Tom wanted to carry her over, but she wouldn't hear to it, and just slipped off her shoes and stepped across behind him as nimbly as an Indian girl would.

 

It was considered a little unsafe, then, going to meeting, or going almost any place, so that day of which I speak, the men all carried their muskets and rifles, and when they got to the barn they stacked them. Parson Belden stood beside some kind of a receptacle for grain. It was made out of a hollow sycamore log about four feet high, with circumference in proportion, and covered with flat strips of bark. His Bible and David's Psalms lay on this, and his musket leaned up against it. The people sat around him on logs, and blocks, and on the clean puncheon floor. Some of the women put their babies over into the mows on the straw, and hay, and flax, and set older children to watch them and keep them quiet. The preacher's wife, a white-faced, little woman, sat with Mother Fisher and Hannah Gwin on the flax-break, a heavy, cumbersome utensil which, in those days, held a post of honor in barns as high as a piano does now in our parlors. Tom Lawton and Bessie Carnahan sat on the scutching-block as it lay tipped over on one side.

 

One of Fisher's boys was living at Carnahan's when Tom Lawton asked Bessie in marriage of her father. He was a witness of the transaction, and we used to hear him laugh over it and tell all about it, after he was an old man himself. This was the way he told it:

 

"I seed all the time that there was suthin' abrewin', an' I's bound to watch Tom, 'cause I didn't know but I'd have fur to ask soino old man fur his darter some day. Tom he kep' a-hangin' reound, an' a-hangin' reound, an' I made bizzness to be abeout all the time. I headed that feller mor’ 'n a thousan' times, I did, jus' when the 'portant words were a-stickin' in his thrapple; hee, hee! heehl Poor Tom! 'f I'd a kneown all I wouldn't a-pestered him no heow, like as I did, but I was young-like, an' full o' the old scratch an' willin' to do 'most anything that was kind o' larfable and mischievous-like. Times was pretty hard tliat summer — the old man was in a pinch to raise money, an' we had all turned out and dug reuts — columbo, and spignut, and gingsang—an' arter we'd got 'em clean an' about half dry, the old man said we'd hitch up the ox-team and take 'em to town to sell. Old man he was a-dickerin' an' a-hagglin' abeout the price o' reuts, fur the marcheant stuck a heap on 't 'cause they want fust-class an' clean dry, but arter 'while he gin in, an' he an' the old man made a bargin.

 

"Wall, Tom, he stuck like a burr to the old man — cluster mor' any brother would — an' while they was a-hitchin' up Buck an' Bright, I was inside o' the shed purtendin' to be gittin’ the kiverlid an' things, an' all to onct I hearn Tom hem, and haw, and cough-like, an' then he blurted right eout, like as if he was a-speakin' a piece at an exhibition: 'Mister Carnahan, may I have your darter Betsey?'

 

"An' then old man Carnahan he turned reound. like as if he'd hearn a clap o' thunder, an' he said: 'What say, Tom?' An' then poor Tom he had fur to go over the whole lingo again, an' I tell you he hussled through it as though the old Harry was arter him.

 

"' Mister Carnahan, may I have your darter Betsey?'

 

"The poor, old, dumbfoundered critter, he looked right deown at the two noistrils in Buck's nose, an' he hurried an' said: 'I s'pose so, Tom." An' that's all there was of it, an' there I was e'en a'most bustin' to larf, an' a peekin' through a leetle crack in the shed.

 

"Well, what does that old man do but go right off to Purdy's store an' buy Bessie a weddin' dress an' a pair o' slippers out o' the interest-money that he'd dug, an' toiled, and turmoiled to get. The gown was o' that sort of stuff we called painted muslin — whitish, with pea-vines, and roses, and poppies, and hunny-suckles just a-runnin' helter-skelter, hippity-click, all over it. It was the parfectest thing I ever seed. I swear If it didn't make a fellar think of a reg'lar flower-gardin, heaps on heaps o' posies! But afore we got three miles on our way hum'ards, I knowed that that stuff'd never be Bessie's weddin' gown! The bag in which the old man put his things drapt out, an' wo didn't miss it till we'd gone a right smart step, an' then I got eout an' run back to git it, I kneowed 't wa'n't very fur back, 'cause I'd nodiced tho bag lyln' there, like as if it was dumb an' hed no secret inside of it. Wall, I feound it in a little holler at the side o' the road, an' I'll be beound if it wa'n't layin' on a little, longish hillock that looked ezackly like a reg'lar grave! It looked as smooth, and green, an' mournful-like — abeaut six feet long and 'portioned accordin'ly. My heart stood still for a minnet, the larf was all gone out o' me, the sweat started an' I felt as if I'd hed a tech o' palsey. The bag lay right on the grave, or what 'peared to be a grave, an' when I stooped to pick it up my hair seemed to raise up, an' I fairly groaned. It was e'en a'most sunset then, an' the katydids an' crickets had begun their lonesome singin' in the brambly fence corners a near me, an' as I laid the bag acrost my arm some sort of a great, black night-bird, with a queer whirr in its big, loose wings, swep' down, cuttin' the air clost to my head an' 'lighted on a fencestake that leaned over towards the grave. Its tail an' wings hung kind o' loose-like an' sort o' mournful, an' it screamed out the pitifulest cry I over hearn tell of. Laws! I couldn't compare it to nothin' but the wailin' cry of a broken-hearted, despairin' woman! I never believed much in signs an' tokens, but Grand'ther Jones alius did, an' he'd kind o' teached me such things — I kind o' 'herited it from him, somehow. As soon as I could pucker up courage enough, I tell you I got out o' that lonesome place; the grass didn't grow under my feet on my way back to where the old man an' Tom was a-waitin' fur me. The ride home was a very quiet one; I couldn't convarse, I hadn't the heart to do it; I felt more as if I was froze, or turned to stun, or suthin'."

 

There was a rude pathos in the way Fisher used to tell this story that touched me more than the most eloquent language would have done.

 

Well, while Bessie Carnahan went on spinning and weaving webs of linen to make sheets and tablecloths, Tom worked away and paid for a little bit of land. It was a pretty nook, in sight of the big bond in the creek; part of it was bottom land, and part bluff and broken. A ripple, or "riffle," the old settlers will persist in calling it, was so near, that the rushing and rippling and the swash of the clear waters, so beautifully broken into white foam, could distinctly be heard from the bluff bank on which Tom had selected a site for the cabin which was to be the home.

There never was a happier prospective bride than Bessie. How she toiled! Would you like to see some of the handiwork of a girl of fifty years ago? Step into the double log-house, the dwelling, the home of her well-to-do-father, and see for yourself. First, there is a bed made of goose and duck feathers, weight fifteen founds, all of Bessie's own pickin', her mother said. Even the feather tick was home-made, cotton filling and fine flax chain well beaten together, two bangs of the sleys to every throw of the shuttle; then before the feathers were put in it was nicely starched on the wrong side, the starch made thick and rubbed on with the band. Three frolicsome generations might kick such a feather bed to their hearts' content, and it never would "shed a feather" — at least that was what all the old women said; and they took pinches of the tick between thumb and fingers, and rubbed it so vigorously that if there had been any deception they would have proven it. Then there were pillows to match, encased in slips of snow-white linen. The upper sheets were fine flax, both warp and woof; the lower sheets were half tow, and would wear very soft and smooth. She had three quilts; the nicest was made of "boughten stuff," pieced in a figure called Washington's March; though why it was dignified by this name no one could tell, for there was nothing in it that smacked of the military, nothing that suggested a inarch; but some one said the blocks did look a leetle like the soles of men's feet a-tramping round in a kind of a forlorn chase.

 

The other two quilts were made of the flaps «f worn-out linen shirts, pieced in with copperas and white half-worn breadths of linen dresses. Batting could not be obtained, so Bessie made bats out of soft tow on the hard cards, on her knees; each bat could be split open, and they made a very good substitute. Her straw tick was thin tow cloth, woven in what was called "half-sleyed" goods, that meant half as thick as good, firm cloth.

 

She had a half-dozen tablecloths, and the same of towels, besides three or four bleached towels that were intended to be hung up on the walls in the prettiest and most conspicuous places. One large towel of the diamond pattern was already fixed to hang under the mirror that her mother had given her. She had an old cat surrounded by nine kittens cut out of black cloth and stitched on the white background of the towel.

 

No good housewife would deem herself competent for household duties and honors if the customary cat and kittens held not their place on the wall. Sometimes the cat looked as though she had dropsey in the head, and the kittens gave evidence of being similarly afflicted; but that was a matter of little consequence.

 

Then Bessio hae a needle-cushion made out of bits of the gay gowns of grandma's, and aunt's, and cousin's. A curious cushion that was as full of points as a prickly cactus, and on the tip of every point was a tuft or tassel of bright woollen yarn.

 

Of edibles there were little bags full of dried plums, and cherries, and wild grapes, and sweet corn, and currants, and dewberries; crocks and jars of pickles and crab-apples; and funniest of all, she had three pairs of worn-out, snow-white linen pantaloons full of good cheer. The bottoms of the logs were tied up, and then they were stuffed full and buttoned up. One pair was filled with dried pumpkin, another with dried squash, and the third with hazelnuts. To have them out of the way, they wore set astride of a pole in one corner, and an old quilt thrown over them. They looked like three headless horsemen. But in every thrifty cabin home in those early days it was common during the winter months to see last summer's linen pantaloons doing good service in this way.

 

Fisher, our old story-teller, used to tell us of a tornado that swept across the country of the far West in the year of 1812. It levelled the forest trees jn its course, unroofed cabins, and left desolation in its track. Fisher's eyes would stick out in terror while he pursued the narration, but he always ended with a laugh that made rosy and dimpled his round old face. The incident that finished up the story — that was like the cracker on a whiplash — came in after this rollicking fashion: "Well, you see, me and Joe, we hed our old trousers filled with hicker'nuts an' hazelnuts, had 'em up next to the ruff settin* straddle of a polelike, out o' mam's way an' Reuth's, an' when thet pesky storm come a-tearin' acrost the hills, an' up the crick vally, oh, wuss nor any swearin' or cursin’! Wy, me an' Joe, we was grubbin' in the lot fernent the still-housen, an' all we could do was to fall flat on our faces right down in the muck. The sky was black as a hat, an' the air was full o' trees, an' brush, an' litter, and such, just a-turnin' eend over eend, awful-like. Joe said we ort to pray, an' he begun to pray, 'Now I lay me deown to sleep.' I rolled up my eyes just in time to see the ruff swep of'n the cabin, an' then I closed 'em, an' the last I remember was hearin' Joe savin', 'If I should die afore I wake.' I thought my time hed come sure an' sartin, but it didn't last no longer than I'm tellin' on't. But the fun of it was that Joe's britches full of hazelnuts were clean gone, lifted up an' korriedoff, and nobody knowed hide nor hair o' them. It must 'a' been a month arter that, one day I was out cuttin' a hick'ry to make mam a new broom, an' what should I see away up in the very tip top of a tall tree but Joe's white linen britches, settin' there straddle o' the topmost fork o' the tree, as compozed as a preacher! It was a joke on Joe, I tell you, an' he lost no time a-gitten them out o' that. Nary a nut was lost; he had buttoned them up snug-like, an' then sowed 'em, an' so they come back all right; but, Jereusalem! how mad Joe ust to git when any of us'd remind him o' thet prayer down in the muck durin' the windfall of '12 — hee! hee! heeh! But, then, poor feller, 'twas all the prayer he knowed. Dear me, he got to be pretty glib-like at prayin' arter he jined the Methody. I've seed him pray till the sweat'd roll deown his face like punckins rollin' deown a hill. He was mighty in prayer when he got well stirred up, and his blood warmed, and his sperits roused like. Why he'd make the mourners howl like wolves when he got fairly under way, Joe would! But then Joe's gin eout long ago; he made his peace with his Maker, an' he drawed up his cold shanks, an' shot his own eyes with his own han's, an' just went easy as a taller dip that was snuffed eout."

 

The little log cabin was raised. It stood on the bluff Tom had selected and Bessie approved. It was small — perhaps twelve by sixteen feet. Tom furnished the whisky the day of the raising, and all went off pleasantly. Sometimes on such occasions men would take too much and get to feeling too rich, and wise, and stout, and self-important, and then fights would be the result.

 

Old settlers tell us of one laughable incident that occurred on the day of Tom Lawson's raising. A poor man had entered a quarter section of land, and by dint of close economy had made two payments on it, and another was nearly due. Ho expected to raise the money by selling some pork. He had it on hands, hoping and waiting for a better price. The day before the raising, ho heard that there was no market whatever for pork, that it would not bring money at all. His spirits sank down to zero. What would or could he do? He ate no supper. He knew his land must be forfeited, his family left homeless. He tossed in bed all night, and in the morning at the table he played with his corn dodger, but ate it not. His cup of rye coffee stood untasted. When he went to the raising, he walked along like a slinking dog, and smiled a ghastly smile when his comrades hailed him with, "Look as though ye'd lost the hoss race!" "Look as though the corporal'd be called on to hold an conquest over yel" People pitied him, and the well disposed ones passed him the jug frequently.

 

It was not long until his spirits rallied, his gloomy prospects began to brighten; maybe pork would be worth something; and soon he felt so well that he leaped up in the air, essayed to clap his feet together three times before alighting, and in a wonderfully elated voice squealed out: "Yeep! yeep! pork'll be all right yit! Yeep! yeep!"

As the job progressed, the poor man felt better and better; a prospect for the sale of pork grew to be a sure thing. Unusual merriment prevailed among the men when they witnessed the change in their companion. He leaped, and whirled, and capered about on one shambling leg, using his arms for a fiddle and a bow, all the while piping out in a thin, shrill voice: "Yeep! yeep! po-rick's riz! po-rick's up! I'm all right, fren's. Yeep! yeep!"

And now, after the lapse of fifty-five long years, we almost held our breath as we waited for the answer to our query, "How did it end with the poor man?"

 

"Oh, he came out all right; pork did come up, and he made his payment," was the gratifying answer.

Grand'ther Jones, as everybody called him, because he was the oldest man in the neighborhood, was at Tom's raising, and he drank just enough to make him a little flushed and a little mellow. He was a very superstitious man, had signs for everything — could stop blood, and cure felons, and blow out fire, and tell fortunes, and find lost money, and foretell events — indeed, he was the astrologer in those early days. One class of persons regarded him with a holy veneration.

 

When they were putting the clap-board roof on the cabin, the old man, who was sitting on a stump in front, stared suddenly, opened his mouth, wiped his hand across his face, and said in a low voice: "Gad, sure! Tom'll never live in that housen! Poor feller, that's hard on 'im. I'd a gin the best keow on my place 'n that hadn't happened."

Fisher was near, and he said: "What see, grand'ther?"

 

But the old man worked his lips as if they were dry and needed a wetting, and he only looked wise and glum, and said: "Jess, parse me the joog."

 

And forthwith the cob was taken out of the ample jug, and it was lilted up to the eager lips, and steadied in the hands of Grand'ther Jones. The old man averred afterward that at the same moment he had seen two Toms.

The Sabbath day following the raising there was meeting at the house of Judge Lee. The judge read one of Whitfield's sermons, and they had singing of hymns and prayer. This was customary service in those early days. It made the Sabbath seem holy, and it held in restraint those who would have spent the day in visiting, strolling, or, perhaps, hunting. All honor to those Christian pioneers in their observances of that day.

© 2011 Peggy Mershon                                                                                     Contact at marwelmer@aol.com