50 YEARS AGO OR, THE CABINS OF THE WEST
A series of articles that appeared
in 1875 in Arthur’s Home Magazine
What times Jack Howell did have when he courted Peggy Watson fifty-five years ago! People did not have parlors and sitting-rooms then in the backwoods, no, indeed; they had only one room, and they lived, and ate, and spun, and wove, and carded wool and tow, and cooked, and visited, and slept, all in the same room.
If any fellow came to see one of the blooming daughters, his visit was in the presence of the whole family. Think of that! If the bashful swain cast "sheep's eyes" at the girl who sat twirling her thumbs in the corner, a half dozen mouths were softly stretched in silent laughter. If the family had all retired and the tallow dip burned dimly and the white ashes crept over the glowing embers and only two ghostly shadows were pictured on the gray log wall, twinkling eyes were opened their very widest at every hitch of his low, splint-bottomed chair, or heavy little bench.
This was how matters stood with Jack and pretty Peggy. Jack loved the girl and ho meant to tell her so, sometime, when he could pick up enough courage, but there was Lydia, her mischievous younger sister, her black eyes always twinkling with fun. She would play tricks on people, too, and he could not trust her. Still, he continued to visit at neighbor Watson's, and he came no nearer bringing the eventful matter to a crisis, either.
The Watsons were poor people. Peggy had been brought up to be kind and hospitable, and every night before Jack started home she gave him something to eat. Sometimes it was only a plate of hominy, or a saucer full of stewed pumpkin with cream poured over it, and one time, when there was no corn-bread baked, she gave him a good drink of mulled buttermilk seasoned with ginger. One baking-day, she made him a little turn-over pie out of wild plums, and set it away in a hidden place where no one would see it. But Lydia and her little brother Tom had been watching, and were ripe for fun. They stole the pie out of the little box (that was made of elm bark and stained with blood-root and black ink,) and made some additions to it. They took it up in the loft and carefully raised the upper crust, pinked out and ate the plums, and then began the fun of making a pie on their own responsibility. How they did laugh! What rare fun that was! Lydia took a thick piece of dark brown cloth and cut it up in small pieces and put it in the pie, while Tom, with a radiant countenance, seasoned it with a piece of shoemaker's wax that he found among the tools on his Undo Sam's bench. Then they fitted the crust on so exactly that no one would have known at a casual glance that the pie had been robbed of its contents.
Before Jack came on Saturday evenings the house was always tidied up its very nicest. The floor was scoured with sand, the tinware was polished with rushes from the lily pond, fresh towels were hung up back of the pictures on the walls, the four panes of glass in the window were washed and a spick-span clean curtain put up, the dresser scoured and the dishes arranged to make the most show, by turning the saucers bottom upward and standing a teacup on each one. One set would fill a whole shelf then. Fresh chicken tail feathers or " sparrow-grass" was hung above the little mirror, a notched paper was laid on the hanging-shelf, and fringed cloth, white as snow, was spread on the chest. The tinware was hung so as to show to a good advantage, and the ironware, as black on the outside as it could be made, stood in a row outside the door. The dishcloth hung beside the strainer just on the wall outside above the pots and kettles. The bedclothes were piled so as to make them look abundant on a little stool that stood between the beds. A dinner-horn, and cow-bell, and the wagon-whip hung on the mantel above the wide old fireplace, while the saddles and bridles were carefully suspended in a prominent position. In the corner stood the ladder that led up into the loft. Dried pumpkins hung on poles overhead among the socks and stockings and wearing apparel of the men; while the clothing that belonged to the women covered the walls behind the beds. A dye tub stood against the jambstone and a barrel of kraut a little farther back , An old speckled hen sat on thirteen eggs in a sugar trough in under one of the beds.
Oh, there was no end of the tricks Lydia played on that fellow, Jack, after he was the accepted lover and the betrothed of her sister Peggy!
One time she dressed in boy's clothes and came in at night and pretended she was a relative from the East. Jack, bashful fellow, never suspecting the truth, ran under a bed to hide in his embarrassment, and the setting hen picked him, and he shrieked out, "Lordy! I'm snake bitten, and I don't care who knows it."
At that Lyd laughed convulsively, and her peals of merriment roused the whole family, and they joined her. Peggy herself enjoyed the fun.
Another time, when Jack came in the evening, he wore a new fur hat, and when one of the girls offered to take it, he wanted to appear unconcerned and act as though a new fur hat was nothing uncommon, and he said* " Oh, never mind! never mind!" and with an air of easy freedom hung it On the post of a big spinning-wheel that stood back against the wall. All elderly women who remember about big wheels know that the post on which the great rim is hung is always turned in a turning lathe, and has a head on the end of it. Now, when Lyd went to bed that night she slyly drew the cord in the lining of the hat until it was so tight that it fitted around below the head on the post. She tied it fast. The house was dark when Jack started home, and he wanted to be very sly and steal out softly. He fumbled and tinkered a long while and couldn't pull the hat off, and Lyd, lying awake, with sharpened sense of hearing, heard him gnash out angrily, "the hell!" and jerk the hat off and leave the lining fast on the wheel.
But his troubles were not over. He had ridden a white horse there and put it in the log shed outside the stable. The Watsons had a white horse, too, and Lyd had stolen out and exchanged "critters," and that poor fellow never knew the difference until the next day at noon.
The little tub of blue dye that stood in the corner always had on It a loose-fitting cover, and In every well-to-do family in early days was used to sit on, the same as a chair. Poor bashful Jack Howell was sitting on it one night, and the lid became shoved to one side, and the drab skirts of his scissor-tailed coat worked down into the dye, and were colored a dingy, grizzly shade of blue.
Old Mother Watson declared that the dye would lose its virtues, 'cause blue dye always did if any fabric of another hue was put into it; but she was mistaken that time. Perhaps it was because drab was so nearly no color that the dye was not affected.
The Howells were very poor people, and their son could not afford to wear a variegated coat, so his mother dipped it in a dye of butternut bark, and made it a rich brown with a golden tint.
He was a steady, well-behaved boy, and, though poor, any managing mamma would be glad in those days to secure him for a son-in-law. Indeed, the two old women, as some of the meddlesome neighbors said, did "right smart o' the courtin' theirselves." One would send some nice onion sets to the other, and then in the gray of the evening the other would send to get a "leetle mite o' runnet" to set the milk for a sage cheese; and if either had company, say the new circuit preacher, then one of the elect — that means either blooming Peggy or manly Jack — was dispatched to the home of the other for a "settin' o' butter." They swapped eggs to improve their respective breeds of chickens, too, and borrowed hanks of yarn, and made beer in the same keg; and their girls exchanged posie seed, and broke wish-bones together, and tried their fortunes with salt-cake, and tea-grounds, and leaves of rue stamped on their bare arms, and they dreamed dreams after walking backward and counting the joists over their heads.
People used to laugh at Peggy at wool-pickings and quilting-bees because she was so very quiet and demure, and blushed so rosily and prettily; but old Mother Howell, with her fancy hare-lip, would come to the rescue of her prospective daughter-in-law with the coarse and homely Baying, "It's the small sow that drinks the slop;" and then the old woman would grin with an air of pomposity.
"Still waters alius runs the deepest," was what mother neighbor woman used to say to Peggy.
But you will be tired of so much Jack-and-Peggy narrative, and no doubt want to hear about the first wedding in the wilderness in the year of our Lord 1812. Well, they were to be married, and settle on a squatter's right on the eighty acre lot west of the Watson claim. They didn't know what they would have to commence housekeeping with, for this was so long, long ago, and people were poor, and had but just begun to clear land, and raise patches of corn, and pumpkins, and potatoes. Wheat they could not raise; if they did, it was what was called sick wheat; it made bread and biscuit that looked good and tasted good, but no stomach could retain it more than half an hour; it even made hogs and dogs sick.
The Howells were rich in dogs — nothing else. They had bull-dogs with snub noses, and long-eared, mournful-looking hounds, and frisky puppies, and they all thrived and waxed fat. Why, Jack Howell could talk dog an hour at a time, and then have lost none of his enthusiasm.
The day of the wedding drew near. It was to be solemnized on a Tuesday evening by the circuit preacher when he came to preach at Hoskin's School-house. One of the judges was a justice; but old Mother Howell would not hear to a child of hers being married by a common squire; she said it seemed solemner to have the "circus rider" do it, and have him pray like, and say things out o' the Bible, and sing religious things.
So, on Tuesday afternoon of the "'p'inted day," there was a great hubbub at the two "housen." Jack sat on a stump out in the yard rubbing grease on a pair of wrinkled, foxy-looking shoes, while his mother was brushing the blue cloth coat that his father wore on a similar occasion. Jack looked up frequently, because he heard Peggy say she would come over to borrow his mother's bake-kettle to make tea in, and when she did come he wanted to help her carry it home.
In those days a girl wouldn't think of marrying without she wore a cap during the ceremony. The cap was the one thing needful. It was made of white lace, with a full plaited border all round of footing with a narrow edging on it. Generally white ribbon trimmed it, put on in bows with ties of the same. Slippers were also a very important adjunct; "skippers" was what Mother Howell called them in her poor, blundering way.
Before the young couple took their places on the floor preparatory to the marriage service, Lyd stepped round behind the sheet that was hung up in front of the waiting pair, and said: "Now get ready to catch hands, and when he asks you if you'll take this follow for your pardner, don't stick your thumb in your month and say, 'Ehhch ;' you must say, ' Yes, sir, by your leave.'"
When they stood up. Jack looked as sneaking as a sheep-dog. His father's blue coat did not make a very close fit, and the collar came away against the back of his head, while the waist of it, in front, was above his jacket. Peggy looked very pretty, and blushing, and scared, especially when the preacher said to Jack, "Salute your bride'' She turned her face just in time to catch the kiss on the end of her nose. Then there was a real prayer, and the hymn was sung something about Isaac and Robecca, and then they sat down until the women, with sleeves turned back and choice calico dresses pinned up in front, said: "Well, now come to supper."
They had wild turkey, and maple molasses, and sage cheese, and honey, and potatoes, and turnips, and custard eaten with their knives, and forks, and nice corn bread made out of meal ground at a mill twenty-one miles away, and store tea, bought for the occasion, and rich, amber-colored coffee made out of rye and scorched molasses. They had borrowed dishes so that eight persons could sit down to the table at one time.
Oh, they had pleasant times that day! All the people in the sparse settlement were there; girls in good homemade linen gowns, and boys in deerskin trousers — all rosy and bright and sparkling with merriment.
After supper the radiant bridegroom gave the Methodist minister a wink, and the two walked out toward the spring which was beyond the cabin, hidden in a dumb of low shrubbery.
"Well, what's the damage?" asked the young man, thrusting his hands into the pockets of his new linen trousers; "thought p'raps I'd better get the thing off my mind," and he squirmed like an eel and grew very red in the face.
"Well, you must use your own judgment as to what you feel willing to give," said the minister, smiling.
"Oh, I s'posed, seein' as how it was me, and weddin's bein' somethin' rare-like, as you may say, you'd not be hard on a foliar," said Jack, grinning painfully and bashfully.
"Oh, no, no, I'll leave the matter entirely to yourself," was the encouraging answer.
"Well, see here, 'squire," said the poor follow, walking closer up to the parson, and there was a cringe in his voice that was really sad, "seein' as how it's me, and I'm kind o' poor like, and as you might say, just commencin' life, and mighty little to begin with, would you mind takin' a fine, promisin' pup for pay o' this weddin' o' mine?"
"A puppy, did you say? a young dog?" said the minister, his eyes dilating, and the muscles about his mouth beginning to twitch with the first symptoms of laughter.
"Yes, sir, a pup that'll be wuth his weight in gold if he's trained right; you see his mother was part mastiff and part bull-dog, with a little smatter of wolf blood in her veins, and his father was old Bill Hoskins's gray Bounce, a dog that could take a bear by the scruff and hold him and shake him like you'd shake a meal bag; a dog that is afeared o' nothin' that walks, creeps or flies. I swear you'll have a dog that you'll be proud of, if I do say it myself ^ you see I know what I'm dlscoursin'; I'd be chawed afore I'd cheat a minister o' the gospil out o' his honest airnin's; work well and faithfully done, as you've done your'n to-day, sir, an' I thank you most sincerely fur the job you've done fur mo an' yon young woman. We're both young and poor, but I hope we are honest an' willin' to pay our debts. What's your opinion 'bout my offer?" and the poor relieved lad rested his hard, brown hands on his hips and began to breathe easier. *
"Ye-e-s — well — yes, I think I'll take the pup. I'll be glad to accommodate you, sir, and I believe I heard my wile say that she'd like to have a dog to drive the coons away from the truck patch. But how am I to get him home? I'd like to take my fee with me, but you see I preach at Hoskins's school-house to-night, and at Willoughby's tomorrow, and at Lane's to-morrow night, and from there I go directly home," said the circuit rider, running his fingers over his bearded chin in a thoughtful way.
"Easiest thing in the world," said the newly married, honest young man; "I can put the pup in a bag and leave his head stick out, an' you can carry him with you. It's a mortal mean man who couldn't afford to keep the preacher's dog a night; wherever you go take him with you an' order a good swig o' sweet milk for him with the cream left on, too."
We must not omit to say that the poor circuit rider was disappointed. It had been a long time since the collapsed leather wallet in his pocket had felt a coin inside of it, and he had hoped on this occasion to receive a fee, no matter how small it was, it would buy a little store tea for the emaciated, sad-eyed young wife at home, with her two ill-fed babies, alone in a log cabin, through the scant roof of which, at night, the stars looked down into the pale faces of the sleepers.
Sometimes, before the poor missionary reached his cabin home, he was tempted to leave the puppy enveloped in the sack lying in the Indian trail, but his better feelings of pity intermingled with mirth prevailed, and in spite of the whining cry he held to him and carried him home in safety and delivered him over to his wife as his marriage fee.
The dog did not belie Jack's cordial recommendation, and proved himself to be a fast and faithful friend of the family. He caught wild game, and kept coons and squirrels out of the patch, and barked valorously at night when the whipporwills and owls alighted on the ridge pole and sung, and hooted, and made mournful the lonesome hours of darkness.
The grateful young couple did not forget the circuit rider, they always remembered him kindly and generously. The first autumn after they were married they had a pumpkin-bee, to which all the neighborhood were invited. After the bee they had a dance. There was no fiddler in the vicinity and the boys whistled instead.
Jack and Peggy dried one hundred pumpkins that fall. When some one ventured to suggest that they never could use so many, Peggy demurely answered that they didn't expect to, but it was good to be industrious and to school themselves to good habits.
I have often heard Jack tell about the trials of pioneer life; sometimes the pathos in his voice, and in his stories would make me cry; then again he would tell such very funny things that my laughter was almost without bounds.
He said he never undertook anything that was as hard as trying to be a good Methodist. He told me there was nothing that would test a man's Christian principles like plowing a now piece of ground the first time after it had been cleared.
He said the plow would cut off the tough roots under ground, and with great force they would spring out and thrash him unmercifully across the shins. No man could strike a blow with such a vicious and stinging power as that.
I said, throwing out the question as a cautious feeler: "Why how could the blows from those roots touch your Christian character?"
"Law, child, don't you know! Why they made me swear in spite of myself," said he, blushing like a sensitive girl; "but I alius took the aggravatin' side o' the question to my Maker afore I went to sleep, an' I know He didn't lay the sin up agin me. Why I used to tie sheepskins all over my shins to save 'em, an' save the humiliation 'fore my Lord an' Marster; but even then the roots whaled away at me until I'd say 'damn,' in spite o' myself. Yes, indeed, a Job or a Stephen couldn't a kept back the oath when it was drubbed out of man under like sarcumstances."
Dear old Christian Jack.
No. 9… Rich in Dogs
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