50 YEARS AGO OR, THE CABINS OF THE WEST
A series of articles that appeared
in 1875 in Arthur’s Home Magazine
No. 7… Father’s Stories
‘Pass the dish to father," I said this morning at breakfast.
"Oh, no, I don't like grits; the no-taste carries me away back to 1811 and '12, when we had to eat them without salt," said he. "I never taste grits without seeing the old hominy mortar, or block, standing in the yard before Uncle Davis's cabin. There were no mills in reach of us to grind our corn, and the only alternative was to pound it up tolerable fine.
"How was such a block made, father?" asked one of the boys.
"Well, you see," said he, "that we worked according to the tools we had. A solid new stump was chipped and hacked a little in the centre, then some kindlings and stones laid on it and a fire started. After awhile the stones would get hot and burn into the stump, and a nice, smooth hollow would be the result. Then, for a pounder or pestle we always drove an iron wedge into the end of a thick, heavy piece of timber, and this made a very good substitute. The corn was pounded and sifted, and the meal that was fine enough to go through the sieve was used for pone and mush, and the coarse, cracked pieces of grains made grits or hominy. Our pounding-block was a movable one, and could be taken into the house and we could work at night. Oh, when we used to eat our humble food unseasoned by salt, I thought times were verv hard indeed! The nearest salt was at Zanesville, and there was no road in that direction, so that it had to be packed on horses. One horse would walk directly behind the other. We made a tincupful of salt go a great ways then. It was not uncommon for women to borrow a teacupful of salt at a time."
"Did you think this was a pretty place when you first came here?" I asked.
"Oh, yes! I had quit fretting for the evergreen trees, and the broad and beautiful view of Lake Champlain, and the men and boys we had left behind us, and the tea and short-cake and all these likes that were so dear to my heart.
"You see, when we left Uncle Davis' H, we all moved into a little cabin that our daddys had put up on Uncle Solomon Hill's land, just over there across the creek, up on that slope above the bank. We three families lived all together in the one cabin for as much as six months. During that time my daddy built on this farm and cleared some.
"But you asked If I thought this was a pretty place, and how it looked. It was in the month of February that I first saw this place. I felt an affinity for it the minute I set foot on it. That February day was a mild one, there was a humid atmosphere, a blue, soft haze enveloped the hills and lay in the creek valley. I crossed the creek on the ice, and followed a little path that my daddy had made through the woods. More than half the way was through a dense thicket, a low matted growth of small timber interlaced with vines. I stopped and took long breaths, and stood in my bare head and looked up at the sky through the woven branches. I imagined that I would soon become an adept in popping over Indians. We were the fifth family in the township."
"There is one thing that I cannot understand," said one of the girls, "how in this world could people manage when they had only one room in which they ate, and worked, and slept. The sleeping arrangement is what puzzles me."
"Easiest thing in the world," said he, laughing. "If two beds stood close together, a quilt or sheet was hung between them. My mamma's bed had a curtain of blue calico hanging around it."
"What did you do when the preacher stayed all night at your house?"
"Well, we men folks would sit round the fire in winter, or the fireplace in summer, and tell stories, and pat in the ashes, and punch the brands, and be so much interested that we didn't notice when the women retired. Then when we went to bed the fire would be all covered up and the house dark. In the morning, when breakfast was nearly ready, and the preacher opened his eyes and yawned, then the women would have some excuse for going out-doors, maybe for chips, or to cut meat for breakfast, or to do the milking. At a concerted signal they would come in. I presume this was the unpleasant part for the teacher who boarded round, and had to sleep in the same room with the whole family. I know of one teacher who used to sleep in a little loft in the milk-house, some distance from the dwelling."
"Why, that was a strange place for lodging; rather cool and airy."
"Oh, he said it was delightful to lie and listen to the rippling of the water and to peep out from the openings in the roof and see the blue sky and the gleam of the stars," said father, laughing, "but I guess it was the blue of a pair of eyes that he admired the most."
"Oh, what was It, father? do tell us the story," said one of the girls.
"Oh, it is a homely sort of a narrative, not much of the romantic in it, and if there was I couldn't bring it out," said our father, laughing. "Well, I can tell it just as Carrol told me. He said he wanted Lucy, and her father wasn't willing, and got mad and said it would be a pretty story, indeed, for his daughter, the like of Lucy Clark, to marry a schoolmaster who had to teach school for a living at ten dollars a month. Now, Carrol had set his face on the law and put his aim pretty high, and he meant to come up to it. Lucy loved him, but her father influenced her, and she finally married John Hunks, an old bachelor, whoso farm joined the Clark's section. Carrol went off and studied law, and in time was one of the first lawyers in that part of the country. Somehow, he couldn't get the image of Lucy out of his heart, he couldn't fall in love with any other woman.
"One day, about five years after his disappointment, he took a notion he'd like to see the place and the people where he had taught his last school. He was heavily bearded and dark, and had grown taller and looked very unlike the smooth-faced boy of other years. He longed to look upon the idol of his young manhood. Fortune favored him. He went to the village near her home and idly sauntered into the one dry-goods store. No one knew him. He had not been there ten minutes until a little, sun-burnt woman came in, carrying a bag of rags, a basket of eggs, a pail of butter and an empty jug. Her face was flushed with walking and her bare, brown hands looked like a pair of claws. She wore a calico sun-bonnet made over a whole sheet of pasteboard, and her shoes were a heavy pair of clogs, a size too small for her husband, which she wore as a matter of economy. She did not recognize Carrol in the manly man who sat back a little from the door.
"His heart beat faster, while it ached with pity. Poor Lucy, into what a mercenary niggard had the lassie ripened! She inquired what they paid for rags, eggs and butter, and began a tirade against the low prices. She wanted to buy some muslin and some molasses, and when fold how they sold them, expressed great astonishment that they would dare to ask so much. She called their system of traffic dishonest, and said they ought to become rich at such an unreasonable rate per cent.
"Carrol's idol crumbled and fell to the ground. It was but coarse clay, after all. When the indignant little termagant closed her bargaining, she gathered up her bag, basket and pail, shut her white lips with a pucker, that meant business, and walked out of the store, digging her little, hard heels into the floor defiantly, while she lugged thw dangling jug of molasses by a string instead of a handle.
"He was cured, and in less than a year married a woman who was his equal if not his superior.
"I rode with Carrol all day in a stage-coach once; we were the only passengers, and that was how he came to tell me this episode in his life."
"What became of Carrol, the poor schoolmaster and the rising lawyer? did he reach the goal he had aimed for in his young manhood?" I asked.
Father laughed knowingly and smoothed the end of his thumb over a threadbare place in his jeans pantaloons, as he slowly said: "Do you remember a lawyer in ------- by the name of --------?" "Yes," said I, "but what of him?"
"Well, he was the poor schoolmaster whom I have 'ailed Carrol, that's all," said he.
"Why, lather, how you talk! You surprise me! He was the governor of the State; our best and noblest governor," I said, with staring eyes.
"Yes, so he was. Carrol was the best governor we ever had," was the reply; "the noblest Roman of them all."
"And what became of Lucy Clark Hunks, the blue-eyed school-girl, who was the first love of the governor?"
"Well, she was the mother of eight poor, ignorant sons and daughters, who had no higher aim In life than to become wealthy, and they counted wealth by acres. They were the greediest, grasping family I ever saw. Why, whenever Lucy was sick unto death, she always whined for a little sack of money that she had, and it was brought to her, and she held the little wallet by the neck, sleeping and waking. I remember, one time, her husband was at our house to see about buying some calves. I was in the sitting-room, reading, and he was shown in to where I was.
"He stopped, and stared, and stood still. When he spoke, he said: 'I declare! I don't go much on books myself, I 'sider that a man can do without 'em, and I 'cided long ago that the money 'vested in books better be put into real estate, good land, fat acres, somethin' that can't take wings and flee away, somethin' safe from fire, and water, and 'structive elements; tint's my 'pinion.'
"I thought such a narrow-minded man wasn't fit to be the father of a family.
"I remember hearing my daddy tell of the Methodist preacher staying at our house, one night, long ago, and John Hunks's father was lying ill and it was feared he never would recover, and the poor old man, with death staring him in the face, concluded it might be well enough when the ' Methody minister' was so near them to send for him.
"The preacher found him lying in a dark corner, breathing with difficulty, and approached him with: 'My friend, this is hard to bear; I hope you are patient under the circumstances. Did you want me to come and pray with you?'
“Wall — yes,' was the reply, wheezed out in a voice scarcely audible; 'don't know as 't'’ll 'mount to much, but I thought as how you was so nigh to us, you might pray a little, it won't do any harm, any how, you know.'
"'Do you love to read your Bible? have you found precious the promises contained therein?' said the minister.
"' I can't read nary a word, but then I know a good many things that's in the Bible from hearsay. These old ears have served me faithfully. I know all the fax about Addum and Eve just as well as if I'd 'a' been there — 'bout their residen in the garden of Egypt and eaten of the — the — British soup, I think's the word —and their findin' out their stark nakedness an' makin' aprons fur theirselves out o' pig leaves. I have that all at my tongue's end, an' then I know about Mosy in the little plastered basket, and the trouble he had with the Pizzyites, and the Izzarites eatin' mamma off the ground that had rained down out o' the sky, an' about the plaguos of the fleas, an' all that. You'd find me pretty well posted on Bible matters, squire,' and here the poor old man stopped and wiped the moisture from his brow.
"' Have you ever made a profession of religion; ever experienced a change of heart?' asked the minister.
"' Well, that's where you have me, squire,' he replied. 'I did sort o' jino "meetin' once, but, somehow, I didn't stick; I s'pect I didn't, git the right flop in tho fust place, or else I hadn't good root or somethin'. Last winter I tuck to goin' to meetin' agin, an' got kind o' warmed over, an' I felt better, a sight better, than I did at fust. I was in danger o' the dark place, sure.'
"' Do you enjoy communing with your Saviour? do you love to pray?' asked the minister.
"'There you've got me agin, squire; I'm not much on prayin', an' the like. Fact is, I didn't come o' prayin' stock,' and the poor old man smiled a made-up, ghastly smile that was pitiful to see.
"The minister read the chapter about the thief on the cross, and knelt beside the bed and offered up a fervent prayer. Before he took his leave the old man called him to the bedside, and after painfully fumbling around in his bosom, drew out a wallet and shook out of it a warm silver dollar, which he urged the minister to accept. The proffered kindness was politely rejected."
While father was talking, one of our old neighbors, Elnathan Starkey, came in. We were laughing heartily about old Mr. Hunks telling the preacher that he did not come of " prayin' stock."
Elnathan turned in and laughed as hard as any of us, then he wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his wamus and said: "'Pears to me now that in those old times, Alex, there was a power of real Simon-pure religion in our new neighborhood. What ranting, stirring, wide-awake Methodists we did use to have in our day! Just think of the Gwin family, for instance. They were a holy family — the religious element could have been no stronger without reaching fanaticism.
"I often laugh over an incident that occurred in 1820, when little Hannah Gwin was teaching school. You remember she taught a term or two in the lower part of Father Gwin's old house. Hannah wasn't much of a scholar, could only read and write, tolerable like, but she was so good that some of the mothers prevailed on her to gather their little ones around her for instruction. Hannah wouldn't make near so much teaching as she would sewing. You know, Alex, she commanded a dollar a week the year round; she was a powerful fine hand with the needle, no sewing machine of nowdays could make any finer stitching than did Hannah."
"But what is the incident, Elnathan, that you started out to tell us?" said May.
"Oh, well, yes, yes! It was In 1820, one hot summer day a sudden storm came on with thunder and lightning and pouring rain. The old clapboard roof leaked a good bit, but Hannah had the children sit in dry places, and they didn't mind it much until the thunders were so loud that their voices were drowned in the noise. All at once came a peal of thunder that shook, the low cabin, and almost at the same instant it was followed by a blaze of lightning which struck the trunk of a large elm directly in front of the house. The shock was severe, and very white were the faces of poor Hannah and the little ones. I told you that Hannah was a good Methodist, but, unfortunately, she could not sing. Looking around over the little group, she said: 'Will some one start a suitable hymn?' That instant a blue-eyed little girl, with a voice that suggested the song of the lark, started up, to the tune of Pisgah, that blessed old hymn, 'On Jordan's stormy banks I stand.' She sang at the top of her voice and the fire of enthusiasm caught, and all the scholars and the teacher joined in with an earnestness and fervor that was beautiful. By the time the hymn was finished, patches of blue sky began to appear and the black clouds were gathered up and the storm was over.
"Poor Hannah, she felt so safe, and trustful, and happy during the storm: the hymn seemed to lift them all out of the reach of danger. I remember she said to the little girl,' Why, I was so glad you chose that suitable hymn; it was just the very one for the occasion, it lilted me above all fear or care and made me feel that God was watching over us like a tender, loving father. Perhaps it is well enough that I cannot sing much; I should always be singing hymns and, maybe, annoying people.'
"But, Alex, I declare for it! I often smile now, after the lapse of fifty years, when I think of that wild summer storm, and Hannah and the children in the midst of it, singing so beautifully. 'On Jordan"s stormy banks I stand.' Hannah thought it was so appropriate, too, when, you see, that it wasn't at all, only that the word stormy was in it."
This incident was very enjoyable to us; we who were not born, and knew nothing of life, and times, and trials of fifty years ago.
"I'll never forget," said father, "a little fuss I saw at the raising of old Captain Parker's barn. It was just after old Bedford was out of the State's prison; he had served a year and this was the first gathering after he came home. Beacon Jones's father was talking to Judge Lee, perhaps on some political topic, and old Bedford heard him use the word plenipotentiary. He became very wrathy, and flew at him and was raining down the blows thick and fast, when some of the men interfered and shook him, and an explanation ensued, and it came to his understanding, very dimly, however, that he had been over-sensitive and had no cause whatever for insult. Bedford had never heard of such a word in his life, but the word penitentiary was somewhat like it in sound, and he knew what that meant."
"As a general thing we had good preachers In early days," said Elnathan, " but when I tell my folks that everybody used whisky and thought it no harm and no more disgrace than to drink tea or lemonade now, I can hardly make them believe it of the preachers."
"It is a fact, nevertheless," said father, "but speaking of preachers reminds me of old Parson Harmon; ha, ha! Now, really, that man, when excited, frequently used language that was a little dubious, I think. Really, I couldn't call it much less than downright, real wicked, bad language. Yet he was a very earnest, tender-hearted, generous man, his language was good and he was specially eloquent in prayer.
"People were not so ready to criticize their pastors then as they are now, they allowed them to have human traits, to be brother men. I remember, one time, a committee of two were appointed to confer with old pastor Harmon, to approach him very gently on this point and see what he thought of it and how he regarded it. We didn't want the unconverted to find a flaw in the character of our preacher.
"Judge Lee approached the subject as gently as he could. The parson looked up with a bright, frank face and, smiling, said; * My dear brothers, you are mistaken. I never swear, I would scorn to do it; still, I am aware that sometimes my language is very strong, but it is only a kind of a rough way I have of praying when I am excited ! I may be a little peculiar, that's all.'"
© 2011 Peggy Mershon Contact at email@example.com