HISTORY
OF
MENARD & MASON COUNTIES, ILLINOIS
1879

Chicago: O.L. Baskin & Co., Historical Publishers
186 Dearborn Street
Chicago

EARLY MANNERS AND CUSTOMS

The young men and women of the present time have no conception of the mode of life among the early settlers of this country from forty to sixty years ago. In fact, one can hardly conceive how such changes could have taken place in so short a period of time. In nothing are the habits and manners of the people in any respect similar to those a half-century ago. We are at a loss where to begin so as to give the youth of to-day anything like a just idea of this matter. The clothing, the dwellings, the diet, social customs - in fact, everything h as undergone a total revolution.

In a former part of this article, we spoke of the "three-faced camps" in which some of the early settlers lived, and it may be truthfully said that the dwellings of the early pioneers, for a number of years, were but slightly in advance of these camps. The house was, in almost every case, built of logs, the cracks filled with pieces of wood called "chinks," and then daubed over with mortar made of clay. If the floor was anything more than the earth tramped hard and smooth, it was made of "puncheons," that is, logs split open and the split side turned upward, and the spaces between the uneven edges of these were often of such dimensions that the younger inmates were compelled to use care to keep from stepping their feet through these crevices. The roof was made by drawing in the top after the manner of a boy's quail-trap, and laying on these "clapboards," as they were called by the Western people, but known among Yankees as "Shakes." These being three or four feet in length, were held in place by logs laid on them, instead of nails. These were called weight-poles. For a fire-place, the logs were cut out of one wall of the room, for a space of five or six feet, and three sides were built up of logs, making an offset in the wall. This was lined with dirt, or stone if it could be had. The flue or upper part of the chimney was built of small sticks plastered over with mud, mixed with grass or straw to hold it together. This was called a "cat-and-clay" chimney. The door was also an aperture made by cutting out the logs in one side or the room; and the shutter was composed of a rude frame with clapboards nailed or pinned across. The hinges were also of wood, while the fastening consisted of a wooden latch catching on a hook of the same material. To enable the occupants to open the door from the outside, a buckskin string was tied to the latch-bar, and passed through a small hole two or three inches above, so that when t he string was pulled from the outside it lifted the latch out of the hook, and the door opened without further trouble. At night, or in time of danger, when they wished to lock the door, all that was necessary was to draw the string in through the hole, and all was safe. This is thus so common among the old people, when speaking of their hospitality, that "the latch-string hangs out." The furniture in the house was on a par with the house. Illustrative of this matter of buildings, I will state a fact that may be surprising to others besides the young. The house in which George Spears, Sr., lives, in Clary's Grove, was perhaps, the first brick house in the county. The bricks were made in the fall of 1829, the mud being tramped by oxen. In the spring of 1830, the house was begun. All the lumber was sawed by hand with a whip-saw, that is, a pit was dug, over which the log was placed, and one man standing in the pit worked one end of the saw, while the other was handled by another on a frame above. In this way all the flooring, of blue ash, and all the finishing lumber, of black walnut, and the sheeting for the roof, was sawed. This must have been an immense job, as the house is one of the largest farmhouses in the county. Any one examining this building at the present time would not suppose it to have been built more than ten or twelve years, for it seems as perfect as when first built. During the erection of this house, Mr. John Clary, the first settler in t he grove, being then between forty-five and fifty years of age, came to Mr. Spears and, after watching the workmen for a while very earnestly, remarked that that was the first brick house he had ever seen. Mr. Spears was obliged to send to St. Louis for window-glass, for even at that comparatively late day it could not be procured nearer. This was occasioned by the fact that glass windows were almost entirely unknown, the ordinary window being an unclosed crack between two logs, over which a greasy paper was fastened in the winter.

The articles used in the culinary department were as few and simple as can be imagined. A "flat-oven" or skillet, a frying-pan, an iron pot or kettle, with, occasionally, a coffee-pot, completed the outfit of the best furnished kitchen. Stoves were then entirely unknown, hence all the cooking was done on the fireplace. The oven was set on a bed of glowing coals, and the frugal housewife, taking as much stiff dough of Indian meal as she could conveniently hold in both hands, and deftly tossing from hand to h and to mold it into the desired shape, tossed it into the oven, patting it with her hand to the desired thickness. About three of these "dodgers" would fill the oven, when the ready heated lid was placed on the oven, and all was covered with burning coals. As soon as the bread was done, it was taken out upon a tin platter and set on the hearth near the fire to keep warm. Generally, the impress of the fingers of the cook were plainly visible in each "dodger." In the oven from which the bread was taken the ham or venison was then fried, and often, in the fall and winter, the grease tried out of the meat when fried was allowed to remain and in it the "lye-hominy," made also of Indian corn, was seasoned for the meal. Thu the repast was prepared, and sweeter brad or more savory meats were never eaten than was prepared on those rude fire-places. As to sweetmeats and confections, they were things entirely unknown. Sugar was unknown save in sections of country where sugar-maple abounded; but nearly all of the early settlers had an abundance of the finest hones in their cabins the year round; for wild honey-bees were found in great numbers whenever there was timber. Sometimes wild crabs, wild grapes, and berries of various kinds were preserved in hones; but these were only opened on the most important occasions. For many years after the settlements were commenced in this section wheat bread was entirely unknown. This fact will demand a separate paragraph on Mills and Milling.


1879 Index

MAGA © 2000, 2001, 2002. In keeping with our policy of providing free information on the Internet, data and images may be used by non-commercial entities, as long as this message remains on all copied material. These electronic pages cannot be reproduced in any format for profit or for other presentation without express permission by the contributor(s).