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"A Brief Sketch of the Life of A.S. Gillin"

As Gillin
Alexander Smith Gillin, his wife, Isabelle Jones Gillin, and "Aunt Em"


I was born on a farm in a heavy timbered country in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, January 28th, 1853, near the city of Ebensburg, almost on the summit of the Allegheny Mountains. The fourth son and child of John and Elizabeth [Brallier] Gillin.

My father did not have a native country. He was born on the high seas, when his parents were coming from Ireland to America. The sail ship on which they came was wrecked by a terrific windstorm. All of the sails and top riggings were blown off and the vessel floated for weeks before they had it so that they could continue on the voyage. [Note: John was the 2nd son, 4th child of John and Frances Smith Gillin; they had three more sons after settling in Cambria County - Alexander, 1827; William, 1828; and Thomas, 1833. Of the three, only William grew to adulthood and married.]

Father grew up to be quite a handyman with mechanic tools. He was what we would term nowadays a Jack-of-all-trades." He did carpenter work, mason work, plastering, painting, and any other kind of work in the construction of buildings.

He purchased a piece of Timberland adjoining his father's farm before he was married. Here he erected a frame dwelling, doing all of the work himself, working all of the lumber out of the rough used in its construction, as there were not any planing mills at that time to prepare the lumber as there is today. He had his house completed and a few acres cleared to cultivate when he was married to Elizabeth Brallier [oldest daughter of Emanuel & Mary Leidy Brallier also of Blacklick Twp.] in September 1846. To their union were born ten children: [I'll add both given names; A.S. gives only first names.] Samuel Brallier, Robert J., John Emanuel, Mary Cordelia, Mesach, Martha Matilda, William Shadrach [whom they apparently called Shadrach, as that's the name A.S. gave], Frances Jane, and Charles Henry.

After the boys reached the age of about seven years, they were put to doing light work, and as they grew older, heavier work. After I reached the "starting point" to work, we four oldest boys had plenty to do as long as we lived on that farm. The surface of the land was very stony, and the stones had to be picked up and hauled off after each crop had been taken off the land, as every time it was plowed brought to light a new "crop" [of rocks], and that had to be kept up for years. This was the four oldest boys' job. We were designated as "the big boys" and "the little boys." Sam and Bob (or Rob?) were the big boys, and John and I were the little boys.

We were given a yoke of oxen hitched to a Yankee Jumper on which the rocks were put on to be hauled off of the land. Our instructions from father were for the large boys to pick up the large stones and the small boys pick up the small stones. We had many disputes over what was a large stone or a small one and discussed the matter quite often very (valiantly?), spending more time at that than it took to load them on the Yankee Jumper.

The first job in the Spring was making maple sugar and syrup. There were about 500 Sugar trees, as we called them on a ridge on the farm, which was called "the sugar camp." This land was not cleared for cultivation. It was quite a job to prepare it so that it could be worked successfully. It took years to do it.

When it was started, the trees in the center of it were tapped, which was in the center of the group of the trees, where was the boiling down of the sugar water. A long pole was placed on crotches made of small trees driven into the ground and from four to six iron kettles were hung on this pole, each one holding about 50 gallons each. When the "boiling-down" process was started, sugar water was put into all of the kettles; after it was about half "boiled down," what was in Kettle #2 was dipped into Kettle #1, and that was repeated until we got to the end of the string of kettles. (This sentence was reworked without distorting the meaning.] When the last one was emptied, it was filled with fresh sugar water. That process was kept up until what was in Kettle #1 was "boiled down" so that it could be stirred as you stir fudge, until it became granulated as is brown sugar. [What he calls "sugar water" is actually "maple sap"]

When the camp was started, only a part of the trees were tapped; those nearest around the "boiling-down" place, and the sugar water was carried to it by hand, but each year the camp was expanded, and in time, the trees that were tapped became quite a distance from the "boiling-down" place, making it too much of a job to carry the sugar water in by hand. Then roads were cut out through the camp and the water [sap] was hauled in by a yoke of oxen hitched to the Yankee Jumper, a kind of sled [like a "skid" today] that we used to haul the stones off of the cultivated land; upon this sled we placed barrels of water [sap] to haul it in to the "boiling camp." But the water was carried by hand and put into the barrels.

At first, the receptacles used to catch the water [sap] as it dropped from the trees were made from cucumber trees - trees about 15" in diameter were used. They were cut into blocks of about 30" long, which were split in the middle, each half made into a trough - the inner part chopped out, leaving the shell. These troughs were placed close to the trees, so that when the [sap] came from the spiles [small trough, driven into holes that were made with an auger) would drop into them.

The spiles were made of sumac, which has a pity center like elder. The pith was burned out of the center with a red-hot wire. This kind of wood was selected because it did not ["chec"?] and split as most wood does. After the "camp" was closed, these troughs were turned upside down and placed on wood chunks so they would not rot.

Next to the last year we were on the farm [1863], Father disposed of the troughs because much of the [sap] was being spilled when emptying it into pails to be carried away, and it took considerable time to transfer it. He purchased wooden pails to use instead of the troughs. With the pails, all he had to do was take the one that had the [sap] in it and put an empty one in its place.[Sap] was gathered twice a day when the main run of sap was on. The vessels would not hold a twenty-four-hour run. In the morning when we had all of the sap gathered, we boys had to carry in wood and prepare it so that it could be used to keep up the fire under the kettles; the fire was between two long logs, one laid along each side of the kettles. It was kept up day and night. Most of the time, it required two to look after it.

Our next job was picking up the stones and hauling them off the ground to be put into crop. That done, we little boys were each given a mallet (something like a croquet mallet) with instructions to go over the meadows and pastures where stock had ranged during the fall and winter, and break up and scatter all of the droppings that they had left. Sometimes when our work was inspected, it was not satisfactory, and we would have to go over it again. These droppings [manure], if not scattered, would interfere with the cutting of the grass, all of which was done with a scythe, leaving the mown grass in quite thick rows. It was the little boys' job to scatter these rows evenly over the ground so that it
would dry out quickly. When dried out thoroughly, it was raked into winrows by a hand rake.

Father always kept a flock of sheep and raised from one to two acres of flax. The wool from the sheep was washed after taken off the sheep. After it was dry, it was hand-picked - every little speck of dirt that could not be washed off was picked out. After going through this process, it was bundled up and sent to the roller mills, which worked it into rolls so that it could be spun into yarn. The yarn was then knitted into mittens, socks, stockings, and woven into cloth. Then it was made into bed blankets and clothing for the family. Mother had two small spinning wheels and one large one and a loom to weave the cloth.

To prepare the flax for the loom was more of a job. In order to have the stems to grow tall and a good heavy coat of lint on the outside of the stem, the soil in which the seed was planted would have to be fertilized. When the flax had grown to maturity, it had to be pulled by hand and put into little bundles about the size of a man's arm with his coat on. Each bundle was tied with a few of the flax stems. These bundles were put into shocks as is oats or wheat and left stand until thoroughly dried. Then with our Yankee Jumper and oxen, it was hauled and put in the barn. Next, it was threshed. The barn floor was swept thoroughly, and a pole about 15' long was placed on blocks or boxes so that it would be about two feet off the barn floor. [We then took ] the little bundles of flax in our hands and buffed over the pole until all of the seed boles were knocked off, keeping the bundles bound, as they were made when we pulled them.

After the threshing was completed, the flax was ready to be put out to bleach, and the woody part in the stem to rot. After the hay "was made" and the meadow cleared, we yoked up our ox team and hitched them to the Yankee Jumper and hauled it to spread on the stubble where the hay was cut off. [Reworked the following sentence for clarity.] We had to put it in straight rows, 10' apart, keeping the ends of the flax even. It was left lying there until late in the fall, giving it as much time as we could for the woody part of the stem to rot.

It was the raked into bundles about the size of a sheaf of grain and hauled back to the barn where it was kept dry until there was time to break it, which was done with what was called a breaker, a machine set on legs about 30" high. The machine was about 5' long. It had four pieces of wood the full length, made out of lumber about one-half inch thick and four inches wide; the upper edges were beveled off to about one-fourth of an inch and placed about three inches apart. The upper part was made of three pieces with the lower edges of them beveled as is the upper edges of the four lower ones and set on hinge at one end so that the upper pieces - or one might say "knives" - when closed would fit in between the lower knives. The upper part on the opposite end from the hinged end had a weight of about 10 pounds on it. The hand to take told of was located about one-third of the way from the hinged end and was used to lift the part up and push it down. A bunch of the flax that had been kept as straight as it was when pulled - the size that one could nicely hold in one hand - was taken (a right-handed man would hold it in his left hand) and held across the lower knives. With the right hand, he worked the upper part of the flax up and down until he had the woody part of the stem all broken into fine pieces.

Before the flax was put through this process, it had to be "kiln-dried." The kiln was a small enclosure all but the roof, which was made of poles laid across it. The flax was laid over those poles. A good fire was kept up in the kiln, which was the only job that had [one] in the breaking part. Up to that part of it, he was the whole works. The next thing to do was the scutching, which was considered a boy's job.

We had what was called scutching boards and scutching knives. The scutching board was 1" thick x 10" wide x about 3' long. This was nailed to a square block, so that the board stood upright. The knife was made of hickory wood - 1" thick x 3 ½ " wide x 2' long. The edges of this piece of wood were beveled so that they were sharp [sounds like serrated edges?] - one end was rounded off enough to make a nice handle to hold on to when using it. A bunch of the flax that one could hold nicely in one hand was placed over the upper end of the scutching board; with the scutcing knife in the other hand, you would strike on the part that was over the end of the board; this would "skutch" all of the woody pieces of the stem that the breaker had broken.

When all the wood part was scutched out to about the middle of the bunch one was holding, it turned around, and the end that had been scutched was taken in the hand and the other end scuched out, always keeping the fiber straight. When finished, it looked something like a woman's "switch of hair."

After it was scutched, it was hackled, or one might say combed. The hackle was made by putting long steel needles in a solid slab of wood. The needles were four inches long, tapering from the large end to a needle point. The bunches, which were always kept separate, were pulled through the hackle, commencing at one end, like a woman combs her hair when it has tats [matted hair?] in it. To do this, the hackle was fastened down on a bench with the needles pointing upward. This ended the boys' work with the flax. The next thing to was to spin it into thread, when it was ready for the loom, to weave it into cloth.

Mother kept a hired girl to do the housework. One - and sometimes two - to do the spinning and weaving, as it took most of her time to knit mittens, socks, hosiery , and work up woven cloth into garments for the family. This work was all done by hand.

In late spring, we cut down large hemlock and white oak trees and peeled off the bark, which was then cut in four-feet lengths and corded up to dry. After it was thoroughly dried, it was ready for market and sold to a tannery to tan hides. The white oak trees were sawed in pieces the length of a barrel stave. This work was done by the boys. We had a man who understood how to make staves work it up. The staves were hauled to a cooper shop and worked up into barrels, except the ends [the bottoms put on?]. The staves were chamfered and grooved at the ends where the barrel heads would fit in. After the staves were thoroughly set to their shape as in a barrel, they were torn down and packed in a neat bunch with whoop poles - little trees about an inch in diameter. [A bunch of barrel staves was called a shook or chook (?), A. S. explains.] We then delivered them to the cooper shop.

Another job we had to do was cut down trees that were from six to eight inches in diameter and cut them into four-foot lengths for props in the coal mine. Our mine was a drift in the side of a hill. The vein was just four feet thick in depth, and lay between two layers of solid rock. The props were used to hold up the upper strata of rock when the coal was taken out. In my time, the coal had been taken out so that where the mining was done, it was quite a distance from the entrance. A railroad made of wooden rails, on which was placed a four-wheel truck that held ten bushes of coal, was pushed out by hand when it was loaded. It held 10 bushels of coal. In a busy time, when the supply of coal that
was mined got low, one of us boys would have to go into the mine and help the miner until the supply of mined coals was built up good and plenty. The last two years we lived there [1863-64], I was the one who helped the miner when the supply began to get low. Our residence was between the mine and Ebensburg, the town where we delivered the coal. The mine was one mile [from our home]. Ebensburg was seven miles east.

From the coal mine to the Main Highway [present Route 422?] leading to Ebensburg where we delivered coal, it was two miles. This road, or trail, was poorly worked and up quite a steep hill that required two teams to haul a full load; then, one team hauled from there to Ebensburg. In working it that way, a boy went with the teamster to bring the extra team home. After doing that way for some time, Father changed his plans and had the boys with a yoke of oxen hitched to a two-wheeled cart haul coal from the mine to the main highway and pile it on the ground for the teamster to finish the full load - usually 40 bushels, 80 pounds to the bushel. This was usually the boys' job, and in the fall before the busy time for delivering coal comes, we had a good supply on the hill, too - it was called "top load." In the winter, we would use a sled [flat pallet-like skid] in place of the art on Saturdays to keep up the supply.

Father usually kept three teams of heavy horses and a yoke of oxen, which was used to work in, when more than the teams of horses could do and to do most of the "trucking around" on the farm that boys could do.

One spring when John [A.S.' brother] was twelve years old, and I was ten, we had two steer calves that we had broken to ride the winter before; they were as gentle as ponies. We often wished that we had a yoke that was their size that we could break them to work. John was something like Father - handy with tools. He made our little wagons and sleds and many other things to play with. He decided if he had a piece of wood the right size that he could make a yoke. We looked around for a piece the right size, but could not find one. An idea came into our heads to go out in the timber and find a tree that would be about the right size. After looking around awhile, we selected a linden tree. We took turns chopping and soon had it down and cut out a piece the right length for the yoke. The yoke completed, our fun began. As we had them pretty well trained, it was not much of a job to get the yoke on them, but it was hard to train them as was our old ox team, but in a year's time we had them obeying our commands: "Get up" - start them turning to the left; "Haw" -- turn to the left; "Gee, gee, come-arouse" - turn to the right; "Whoa" - stop. We did lots of "trucking around" on the farm with them and used them to take joyrides.

Father planned every year to have the timber cleared off of about five acres so that the land could be cultivated. The men - when not engaged at other work - would cut down all the large trees, trim them, and cut them into about 15' lengths. We boys did the same to the smaller trees and underbrush. To dispose of the logs - some which were too and three feet in diameter - we had log-rolling bees. Fifteen to 20 men were invited and with seven yoke of oxen helped haul the logs to the place where they would pile them in a heap. The piling would be done with hand spikes and skids; these piles would be six to eight feet high. They were built so that there was a hollow space at one end where fire wood and bark could be put in to start the fire to burn them, when the wood became dry enough to burn. When this was completed, we boys gathered the brush and other rubbish that would burn and put it in large piles. The large boys gathered the large limbs, and the small boys the small ones, large chips, and pieces of bark. In doing this work we had many discussions as to what was small or large, as we did when picking up the stones. After the logs and brush were burned, the ground was ready to be put into crop (planting could begin] - winter wheat or rye.

To prepare the ground for seeding, it was loosened up with a horse hitched to a single-shovel plow so that enough of the ground could be loosened up to cover the seed-grain that had been sown. The ground around the stumps that could not be loosened up with the plow was done so with a mattock. When the crop had matured, it was cut with a cradle by the men. What was around the stumps that could not be cut with the cradle, the boys gathered with a sickle. They held the sickle in their right hands, they would gather as much grain as they could in their left, then cut it with the sickle. When cut it would be laid down on the ground; that was repeated until there was enough to make a good-sized sheaf; it was then bound. There were not many things done on the farm but that the boys had a hand in doing. [What he means is that the boys helped with nearly everything on the farm.]

The water for house-use and washing was carried from a big spring of water about 20 rods from the house. It was carried by-hand in pails by the boys - according to the size of the boy. We grumbled continually about doing this and kept at Father to put down a well close to the house, as our Uncle Sam Brallier had. Father objected to doing that for the reason that wells had to be sunken very deep, and the water from them was hard. The water in the springs was as soft as rain-water. They did not have, at that time, iron-piping, as they do now to convey water to where they wanted it.

Father heard of a man who had a machine to bore holes through the center of logs about 12' long, which could then be coupled together to convey the water s it is done now with iron-piping. He went and investigated the piping and thought it was all right, came home and took the measurement of the distance from the spring to where he wanted the water conveyed, then went back and ordered enough logs bored to do the job. These connections - or thimbles, as they were called - were made of iron about ¼ -inch thick x 4" in diameter x 6" long; the ends of the thimbles were made sharp.

To start this work, the first thimble was driven into the end of a log, placed so that it was around the hole in the log; this was done with a wood maul. After it was driven far enough so that it would hold, another log was placed up against the thimble, which had been stared, then driven by a battering ram until the ends of the logs came together. That was repeated until the piping came to the distance he wanted - from the kitchen door, where it emptied into a tank that had an outlet to carry the water to the barn. There it emptied into a tank for the stock. These logs - or piping - was laid in ditches three feet dep. This water was of a temperature that never froze in winter and was nice and cool in the summer.

In the winter of 1864-5, an old neighbor of Father's who had come West [A.S. wrote this from the West] returned for a visit [to Blacklick Township] and to advertise the Western prairies. [It is possible that this could have been Levi Shaffer, son of Andrew and Sarah Cain Shaffer; he'd gone to Iowa in the 1850s] He secured the use of our schoolhouse and advertised that he would give a lecture, which he did. He had samples of many of the products raised, told the nature of the soil - no stones - and that a furrow could be drawn a mile without a break in it. We boys went to the lecture with father and were very interested in it. Father did not say much in our presence about it, but I imagine he and Mother had talked the matter over carefully, as that summer (1865) after he had harvested his little crop [seems to be what they called the vegetable garden], he packed his grip, took a train for Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He spent about ten weeks looking around the counties of Linn, Benton, Buchanan, and Black Hawk. He came home very much impressed with the West and decided to dispose of his holdings and move West. The following winter [seems to have been actually that fall] he sold his farm, reserving the use of it the following year, so that he would have time to close up his business there. [Besides the coal, he had a lumber business.] Shortly after he sold the farm, he was taken sick and died (October 1, 1865), leaving Mother a widow with ten children - the oldest not "of age" and the youngest two weeks old.

After Father's death, Mother's parents, brothers, and sisters all wanted her to buy back the farm, but we four oldest objected and said if she did not carry out Father's plans, when we became "of age" that we would go West; we were not going to farm where we had to pick up and haul the stones off of the land every year.

We farmed the land (the last year) as Father had planned, and the following winter (1866) Mother's aunt-- who lived in Linn County, Iowa - came back for a visit and was at our home several times. She thought we ought to carry out Father's plans, but her folks all opposed it. We boys stuck to it that we would go West if she stayed there. This was a trying time for Mother. It was the height of her ambition to keep the family with her, and it was hard for her to go against her folks wishes, but she decided while her aunt was there to have a sale and move West, as Father had planned. Sam, the oldest of the boys, went with Mother's aunt when she returned home, and with the aid of an uncle, he rented a farm, bought teams, and machinery to operate the farm.

Mother immediately made sale and sold off everything but bedding, dishes, and some keepsakes. Most of the things were not sold were brought as baggage by the family. When we arrived at Cedar Rapids, we were taken to Mother's aunt and uncle's home.

(The above was written by Alexander Smith (A.S.) Gillin in the early 1930's and transcribed and typed by his daughter Edith Gillin Bruner, with whom he spent the last few years of his life, after being widowed. Some minor corrections, grammatical rearrangement, and explanation in brackets [] was performed by Wanda Barrett, who so graciously provided this rare glimpse of life in early Blacklick Township)

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