Benton County Pioneer Life

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Pioneer life in the Benton Co. WA area

Pioneer Held Fear of Fire/Tobacco Chewed Not Smoked

Tri-City Pioneer
Tri-City Herald, Sunday, March 19, 1961, page 22

The pioneers were always careful with fire. They were not equipped with facilities to handle it. Fires were always watched. The pioneer housewife kept the Chinese sulphur matches in a metal capped tin can so that rats or mice could not contact them. This container was placed beyond the reach of the children. The pioneer’s pocket match box was formed by sliding two brass pistol cartridges of different size into each other. Making a water tight and fire proof container. This container would hold about a dozen matches. Parlor matches and paper matches were unknown in these early days.

The pioneer’s fear and dread of fire shaped their way of life to a great extent. Especially in the Tri-City area. The weather in the summer time was very hot and dry. The atmosphere itself seemed almost ready to explode in a spontaneous combustion. The pioneers cleared and burned the sagebrush in the winter months when the moisture was the greatest. The more provident pioneers kept a 50 gallon whisky barrel, filled with water. They kept a bucket made from a five gallon coal oil can by the side of the barrel. These fire preventatives were place near the back porch of the house and at the corner of the barn. A gunny sack was generally pulled over the top of the barrel to keep the younger children from falling in. The sack also kept the loose stock from drinking the water.

An old favorite pioneer story depicting the shortage of water and the ultimate use of it by Horse Heaven Wheat Ranchers was as follows: The first harvest hand was given a large tin wash basin filled with water to wash his face and hands. When he had finished, before he could throw the water out, the next harvest hand said, “wait, I want to wash also.” This was repeated until all the harvest hands had used the same water. The last to use it looked around and was in the act of throwing it out when he was stopped by the wheat rancher who said, “wait, I want to give that to the horses.”

The pioneer wheat rancher ploughed a fire-break about 15 or 20 feet wide entirely around the fields. He kept this fire break harrowed and dusty until the grain had been harvested. Most of the pioneers kept a sack of rock salt to sprinkle on a roof fire and to pour down a burning flue or an overheated stove pipe. The horror of fire kept the users of tobacco from smoking. They chewed it instead. There was plenty of room in the wide open spaces where it could be spat. Every ranch house had its cuspidor. Every tobacco chewer prided himself on his aim. He could make it ping or pong when it hit the cuspidor. He could lob it over the top of a piece of furniture without accident and hit the cuspidor situated on the oppisite side, in dead center. Oh! the tobacco chewer was indeed an experienced performer. Hitting the target was only half of the act. Getting it away without a drip on the floor or a drool in his beard required real finesse.

The pioneer tobacco chewers each had their favorite “ammunition” or chewing tobacco. “Star Plug” was good on the getaway but splattered when it hit. “Horse Shoe Plug” on the other hand was sloppy on the start but hit the mark with a wonderful intonation. Taking everything into consideration, “Climax Plug” for a good getaway and a happy landing was all that its name implied; the “ne plus ultra.” Old red-whiskered Billy Martin of Kennewick was one of the pioneer tobacco chewers of the early Tri-City region. He had them all beat for quickness of action, accuracy and distance.

A lumerick

There was an old chewer named Bill
Who chewed and spat with a will
He coughed and swallowed his chew
The nicotine turned him sky blue
Of tobacco he now has his fill

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