SOME RECOLLECTIONS OF A BUSY LIFE
By Thomas S. Hawkins
Conditions in the “Far West” Seventy Years Ago
In writing these recollections, I do so, not expecting or believing that there has been anything in my life that would be of interest to the general public. I trust, however, that my children and grandchildren, and their descendants, and a very few dear friends, may desire to know something of the great changes that have taken place in the manner of living in the last seventy years, as well as something of the hardships and privations through which their forefathers passed in that part of our country which was then known as the “Far West.”
It may be well in the beginning to describe some of the conditions surrounding my own home, as well as those of most of the people residing in country districts west of the Mississippi River.
To begin with, we had no railroads, no telegraphic or telephonic communication with the outer world. News of events transpiring in the East took weeks reaching us, and the small weekly papers, which were all we had, gave us very sparing reports of what had happened in Europe months before. Electrical lighting was a thing undreamed of. Even coal oil and coal-oil lamps were then unknown. We had no cook stoves and not even a match. Like the Sun worshipers, we were always expected to have a live coal on our altars. When the family retired for the night, the fire was carefully covered with embers and if by accident it should go out, one of the children was sent to a neighbor to borrow or else a little powder was poured into the old Kentucky rifle, some “tow” rammed down on it, and this was fired out against the wall, where paper and shavings were prepared to receive it; being thence transferred to the open fireplace, where it was cared for until a good blaze was finally started.
Every house had a large open fireplace equipped with a swinging crane, where all the roasting was done. I do not think anything better for roasting was ever invented than the old-fashioned crane. There was a large hearth, where coals were drawn from the fireplace for the broiling iron, or for the large cast iron ovens in which the baking was done. These ovens were raised from the hearth on three legs so that live coals could be placed under them, and the lid of the oven had a rim an inch or more high raised around it, so that the coals placed on top would not fall off, and thus heat was applied both above and below.
For lights, we had pine knots or candles, and such candles! When I can first remember, such a thing as a candle mold was unknown. The candles were made by melting tallow in a large cauldron, with a certain portion of water, and if something extra was desired, beeswax was added. Then a dozen pieces of candle wick of the right length for a candle were doubled over a rod and let down into the cauldron, again raised into the air until the tallow adhering to the wicks became hardened. Then they were again let down and raised into the air, this process being repeated until the candle had grown to about the right size, when it was taken from the rod and other wicks substituted until the tallow was all removed from the surface of the water. Such candles were not artistically a success. Sometimes they would be the largest at the wrong end and they were always lumpy. Sometimes more tallow would harden on one side of the wick than the other and the wick would not be in the center. Still they gave a fairly good light.
Such a thing as “store” soap was unknown. The ashes from the fires were carefully preserved during the winter, and in the spring when “soap-making time” came, an ash-hopper was constructed from boards, with a trough at the bottom. Into this hopper the ashes were thrown until it was full; then water was poured on, and in a few hours it would percolate through the ashes and come out of the trough at the bottom the strongest kind of lye. This was caught in wooden vessels, and poured into a large cast iron kettle. To this was added all kinds of waste fat, which had been preserved during the year. A fire was built under the kettle and kept boiling until the mixture reached the proper consistency, when it was put away in barrels for the year. It was pretty strong, almost to the point of taking the skin off, but its cleansing properties were, I suppose, equal to that of any of the finer soaps of today. This was the original of all the “soft soap” I ever heard of, and I think very much superior and a very different article from the kind I have sometimes had handed out to me even to the present day.
There were no brick or frame houses in the neighborhood where we lived. The house of my earliest recollection, and in which I was born, was rather a superior building and consisted of two detached one-and-a-half-story log houses placed twelve or fourteen feet apart, one roof covering the whole. The buildings were of hewed logs, the spaces between the logs being “chinked” with thin pieces of limestone and then plastered over with lime.
There were small windows of twelve panes of eight by ten-inch glass. At one end was built a large stone chimney, running up outside of the building, with an immense fireplace and hearth inside. The passage between the two houses was left open at both ends and was a delightfully cool place to sit on hot summer days. I do not remember any house being divided into rooms. I recall a neighbor, with a family of some eight children from two to twenty years of age, whose log cabin consisted of one immense room, perhaps twenty-five feet square, without a single partition. They cooked, ate and slept all in the one room.
When quite a large boy I occasionally went home with one of the neighbor boys to stay all night. It was an awful trial to me when bedtime came, being, I imagine, both timid and diffident. The men and boys would go outside until the women and girls were safely in bed, then we would go in, and when we had located ourselves the light would be put out and we would undress and get into bed in the dark. It looks crude to us in this enlightened day, but it was the best the people could do with the few tools they possessed at that time. Of one thing I am sure, the inconvenience did not lessen the modesty of either sex, and I have never known of purer-minded or a cleaner lot of young people anywhere.
In our home we had a stairway leading to the upper part of the house where we boys slept. The roof of clapboards was only a little above our heads, and the patter of the rain on the roof on summer nights is among my most pleasant recollections. The boards made a good roof to turn off the rain, but in the winter when the wind blew the fine snow would drift through the interstices between the boards of the roof. It was glorious up in the old-fashioned feather bed, with the blankets pulled up to one's ears, listening to the roar of the wind, the pelting of the hail and snow and the war of the elements, until one fell asleep.
In the morning we would awake to find the bedding and the floor covered an inch or more in drifted snow. And woe to the boy who was dilatory in rising, for those who were up first would take the bed-clothes with them, and in their place the lazy ones would be covered with hands full of snow. It was equal to an electric shock to get a boy out of bed. It seems at this distance a rough life; but I do not remember that we ever considered it so, and it certainly served to make one hardy and self-reliant.
Our clothing was all home made. We raised a small field of flax, which at the proper season was cut and spread out in the field to be rotted by the dew, or, better still, in a shallow pond of water if convenient. Here it would lie until the wood fiber was thoroughly rotted, when it was taken out and spread on the ground until dry. Next it was taken to the “break,” when all the woody substance was broken to pieces, and largely removed, and then to the “skutching” board, where the remainder was removed from the fiber, and the fiber beaten very fine. It was then ready for the women to spin. This was done by placing the cleaned fiber on the distaff of a small spinning wheel at which the operator sat, working it with her feet, something like the modern sewing machine, while her hands were free to manipulate the flax and draw it out into fine and even threads. These threads were then wound on to large spools, then transferred to the “winding yards,” where it was made into “skeins,” then to the old hand loom, where it was woven into linen for summer clothing and for various household uses. We were not arrayed in fine linen, but it certainly was comfortable and almost everlasting.
We also kept a small flock of sheep and at the proper season they were shorn; the wool was washed to free it from dirt and animal grease. It was then “picked” by hand. This was a tedious process, as every particle was taken apart and all the burrs and other matter removed, and was largely done of evenings when all the family could take part; the men and boys could help while they were resting. There was always considerable emulation as to who should have the largest and cleanest pile.
This cleaned wool was made into “rolls” by using a pair of hand cards. It was now ready for spinning. This was done on a large spinning-wheel. The end of a roll was attached to the spindle, and the large wheel was turned swiftly and when it had acquired sufficient momentum the operator would walk back briskly the full length of the room, drawing the thread out through her fingers until it had reached a proper fineness, and when it was sufficiently twisted, the wheel was reversed and the thread run up on the spindle. Another roll would be attached to the end of the thread and the same process repeated until the spindle was full. I have often wondered how many miles a girl would walk in a day of twelve or fourteen hours, back and forth. I imagine it would tire any of the athletes of the present day.
Then the thread was unwound from the spindle on to the “winding yards” and taken off in “skeins.” It was then ready for coloring. For our common clothes, the bark of various trees was used. I think oak, walnut and butternut for different colors. For our best suits, wool dyed in indigo to a deep blue and then thoroughly mixed with pure white was used, making what was called blue mixed jeans, which was the very top of the fashion. This woolen thread was next woven into cloth on the hand loom, in a manner similar to that already described for linen.
Our farming was of a very primitive character. Our plows consisted of an iron shear and wooden mold-board. We raised Indian corn, some wheat, and a small field of tobacco, and an abundance of all kinds of vegetables. Corn was used in various forms in the family for bread, being one of our principal foods, followed in importance only by “hog and hominy,” which was a close second.
The only mills consisted of a pair of stones propelled by horse power on an inclined wheel. When we had to go to mill a long sack was filled with corn and placed on the back of a horse, and a boy on top of the sack leading another horse. We generally joined with a neighbor with another sack, another boy, and another led horse, as it took four horses to turn the wheel.
Arriving at the mill, if no one was ahead of us, the miller took our sacks of corn and, after taking out his toll, placed the balance in the hopper. In the meantime we would lead the horses on to the wheel, the wheel would start, the mill stones would revolve and, if you had good luck, by night you would reach home with your sack of meal.
We always took our sacks fairly full of corn, but I have heard of people who filled only one end with corn and placed a large stone in the other to balance, but I do not know if this was true. At least it must have been before my day when people were less enlightened.
One thing I remember well is, that to ride a well-filled sack of corn on a bareback horse four or five miles to mill, without it falling off, was a difficult task. I know of nothing more heart-breaking than a couple of twelve-year-old boys trying to boost a limp sack of corn back onto the horse from whence it had fallen. How I have perspired and worked and prayed for some one stronger to come by to help us in our difficulty. If a sack of corn has no reasoning faculties I cannot understand why every individual grain always wanted to get into the heavier end.
There were no butchers or butcher shops and the larger part of the year we had bacon and ham three times a day. Once in a while the neighbors would band together and kill a beef and divide it among themselves; but in the summer time fresh meat would only keep a very short time in that moist, warm climate, and cold storage was unknown.
About the last of December “hog-killing” time would begin. This generally lasted two months. The hams, shoulders and sides were salted down and after a time were taken up and smoked, while we lived for months on backbones, spare ribs and sausage. We just had to eat them to keep them from spoiling. At first I used to think nothing on earth tasted so good as a nice broiled spare rib, or fresh sausage, or the tenderloin around the back-bone, but after a month or two of such diet, even in mid-winter, one wouldn't dare look a live hog in the face.
I would not have the reader infer that we had no other kinds of food, for that would be untrue. There was an abundance of all kinds of wild animals which we could have for the taking. The conservation of wild game was unknown, and no one ever seemed to dream that it would not last forever.
In the spring when the tender buds came out on the elm and other trees, the young half-grown tree squirrels would appear, also, and were easily killed. Deer were plentiful and there was no closed season.
The woods were full of wild turkeys and in the fall they would come into the stubble-fields, bringing their half-grown young by the hundreds. From experience I can say that the tender breast of a half-grown turkey nicely broiled is something to be remembered.
Then there were quail by the thousands, and after the snow had fallen, we boys would go out by the straw-stacks and clear away the snow from the ground for a few feet square; over the clear space we would set a light trap built of lath, with a figure-four trigger. Over the trap would be thrown a little straw and a little wheat scattered under it. Often in the evening we would find from one to two dozen quail safely caught.
In telling hunting and game stories, one must be careful not to exaggerate. I began with hundreds of wild turkeys, thousands of quail and now wonder if the figures will hold out and tell the truth. I hope so.
In the winter the prairie chickens would come in by the hundreds of thousands. The fields and the prairie were literally alive with them. I remember my father going out in front of the house and shooting them off the roof. At other times wild geese were just as numerous as the prairie chicken.
I hardly know if it is safe to risk my veracity by telling you the actual truth about the wild pigeons. In the fall of the year they would come in by the millions. In the afternoon the heavens would be darkened and the sun obscured for hours, as they flew over our heads toward their roosting place.
With my father I once visited one of those roosting places, a few miles from our home. The pigeon has certain places where they go to roost year after year. This one was a heavily wooded area covering over a thousand acres of large forest trees. We arrived about an hour before sunset, and soon they began to arrive.
They would alight on a great forest tree, covering every branch, and then light on each other until the branches would snap, falling to the ground, while the birds would rise with a sound like thunder and seek another location. As it grew toward the dusk, of the evening, the noise of falling branches and the thunder of millions of wings was simply terrifying. People went for miles to see and hear. A gun was not necessary; anyone could knock over with a pole as many as he cared to carry home. I visited this forest a few years later when the birds had left the place, and it looked as though it had been swept by a tornado.
While writing of game, it would never do to pass over the luscious opossum. All epicures in the South, without regard to “race, color or previous condition of servitude,” have from time immemorial considered a nice roast ‘possum with sweet potatoes the “piece de resistance” at any banquet. Although I have often sat at a table and heard all extolling its excellency, I must acknowledge that I never could screw up sufficient courage to taste it.
Many a night after a hard day’s work I have roamed the river bottoms with other boys and a pack of hounds hunting him. Of all animals he is most “child-like and bland.” Often when the hounds would bay informing us that they had “treed” something, when we reached the place we would see from one to three or four ‘possums, just out of the dogs’ reach, with their long prehensile tails wound around a branch of a tree, with their eyes closed and swinging back and forth with the breeze, apparently as unconcerned as though there was not a boy or a dog in a hundred miles. He certainly can “play ‘possum” to the limit. You can strike him, throw him on the ground, stick a coal of fire to his tail, and he will sleep on just as unconsciously as ever.
And what a happy animal he must be. When bedtime comes, all he has to do is to find a branch of a tree, about the right size for him, wrap his tail around it half a dozen times, let go and swing off, where he will sleep the long night through.
It seems proper for me to say before I pass on that I never was a mighty hunter. My father and my brother, next younger than myself, were both very fond of the sport, but, though a good shot, I preferred practicing at a mark rather than at live animals.
Money was almost unknown among us. I remember when a boy I was sent to the post office in Palmyra, some six miles distant, where I found two letters. This was before the days of postage stamps. On one of these letters there was due fifteen cents, and on the other ten cents postage. As I did not have the money I had to go home without them. I recollect there was a good deal of skirmishing around among the neighbors to raise the amount, so that I could go back after the letters. I mention this incident only to illustrate how scarce ready money was with us, for we were as well off, and perhaps better than the average people in the community. Yet we had an abundance of everything else and lived well. Whenever the groceries and provisions were running low, the wagon would be loaded with hams, bacon and tobacco and my father would drive to Hannibal, and barter for a supply of everything needed to last for months. Butter, eggs, poultry and vegetables were raised on the farm.
Occasionally, perhaps once a week, we had wheaten bread; at all other times, corn in its various forms was used. I imagine the reason why bread from wheat was so seldom used was because of the difficulty of raising and preparing wheat without machinery.
When the wheat was ready to harvest, men went into the fields with "cradles," with which they cut the ripened grain. Others followed, who raked it up and bound it into bundles. It was then “shocked,” that is, about a dozen bundles were placed together, heads upward, while one or two other bundles were broken across the center of the straw, and placed over the standing bundles, forming a cap which was almost impervious to the rain. Later on the bundles were hauled to the barn or stacked around the threshing floor.
Those who only farmed a few acres, placed the bundles on an open platform, where the grain was beaten out with “flails,” the grain falling through the interstices between the rails and the straw when the grain was all beaten out, was removed.
Those who raised larger crops had a threshing floor. In some instances these were in the barn, but usually a place was leveled off on the open ground, then trodden as solidly as possible. On this floor the bundles of grain were placed, the heads all pointing in one direction, and the bands cut. Then the boys mounted on one horse and leading another were turned on, usually four boys and eight horses, and traveled around and around for hours, while the men would shake up the straw with pitch forks, and from time to time remove that from which the grain had all been extracted.
It was weary work for the boys and the horses. Imagine sitting astride of a raw-boned perspiring horse, without saddle or blanket, for hours and hours, going around and around a circle not more than forty feet in diameter, until one grows dizzy and sick. Instead of traveling unceasingly around the small circle, you would suddenly be standing still and the world would commence whirling around in the opposite direction until at least one boy I knew would fall almost senseless into the straw at the horse's feet, only to be shaken up and lifted on the horse's back, to go on again in the interminable round.
It was not funny to be a sensitive, imaginative boy in those days. I think my early experience on the threshing floor has made me always impatient with men and women, too, who always seem to be traveling in a circle and arriving nowhere in the end.
After the straw was all removed from the threshing floor, and the grain and chaff swept into a pile in the center, the floor was again filled with bundles and the same process repeated until the grain was all threshed and gathered with the chaff into one large pile. Then the old “fanning mill” was brought out, and while one man turned the handle another filled the hopper with a scoop shovel. The chaff was blown out and the wheat fell on an inclined plane and ran down on to a piece of canvas, from which it was placed in sacks and perhaps run through the fanning mill two or three times before it was thoroughly cleaned and ready for market.
This seems a slow process when compared wit the combined harvester of today, which goes into field of standing grain, cuts, threshes and sacks ready for market all in one operation. But this was the only way the western people knew seventy years ago.
I am glad of the improvement, if for no other reason than to keep the boys of this generation from going round and round forever on that old threshing floor. And yet, sometimes when some of the wise young people come around with their cock-sureness and immeasurable knowledge of everything under the sun, I feel as if I would enjoy boosting them astride old Bill’s prominent backbone and have them try it for an hour or two. I am sure would bring them to a more humble view of their importance. But it is time to drop these descriptions and get down to the more serious task of giving the reader, as far as possible from my own recollections, some of the principal events of a long and busy life.
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