Pioneer Homes, Amusements and Recreation in Fayette County, IA
From: Past and Present of Fayette County, Iowa
B. F. Bowen & Company
Indianapolis, Indiana 1910


It may be interesting to the younger generations to learn something of the manner of living among those who paved the way to civilization in Fayette county, and especially so to the surviving pioneers whose early life is in part recorded.

On another page it is stated that most of the early settlers located in the timber along streams, regardless of the topography of their surroundings, just so they could get "timber" and "water." But as the settlers increased in numbers, such locations were not always obtainable, and some were driven to the prairie sections. The first duty after the land was properly secured, through a process known as "filing on it," was the building of a "house." These, when the urgency for their possession was great, were hastily built, and often were crude affairs, diminutive in size and as cheaply constructed as the ingenuity of the builders could devise. The material used was secured in the forest, and consisted of round logs, laid up in the form of a pen, usually of no greater dimensions than to barely accommodate the needs of the occupants. A single room was considered sufficient, though some of the larger families were provided with two rooms, and all had an attic room where two or more beds could be placed, usually on the floor. There were but few nails used for any purpose, strong wooden pins being used in their stead. There were but few boards before the advent of the pioneer saw mills, which came almost as soon as their products were needed; but the first settlers devised the means of flooring their houses, either with "puncheons" split from straight grained logs, or from hand sawing the required number of boards for floors, window frames, doors, etc. But many of the earliest cabins were devoid of either doors or windows, and some had earth floors for some time after being occupied. The apertures for doors and windows were cut out when the cabin was built, and the severed logs were held to their places by means of puncheons or planks pinned in place: and quilts or old carpets closed the openings, at least for the time being. Sometimes the window openings were closed with greased paper, which shut out the cold, but admitted a faint, glimmering light, much better, however, than no light! The roof was made of "shakes," split from logs cut to the proper length, and "rived" to proper thickness with a "frow." In the use of this tool some of the pioneers were quite expert, and their services were in demand among their less fortunate neighbors. In later years nearly all the shingles used in building quite pretentious houses and barns were covered with handmade shingles. The material being of oak, the shingles were very durable and were much longer lived than the machine made product of a still later period.

These "shakes" were not nailed on, but were held in place by means of heavy weight poles, laid on top of them, and kept at proper distance by means of short props placed at each end. The chimney - the most useful feature about the house - was built of split sticks, an inch or more in diameter, laid up in such a manlier as to form the proper size, and this was always on a liberal scale. The inside of this structure was carefully plastered with mud prepared from yellow clay, and it is said that few such chimneys ever caught fire. The fire place was built of stones, the larger the better, so they could be handled. Of these the back wall, jambs and hearth were constructed, and all was carefully plastered with clay mortar. The dimensions of the fireplace were on the most liberal scale, since the fuel cost nothing but the labor of preparing it. The cooking was mostly done over the fire in the fireplace, for it must be remembered that we are speaking of a period which antedates the general introduction of cook stoves.

Baking was done in an iron kettle or oven, which was set on a bed of coals and the iron lid, with a flange to it, was covered with coals and by this means our ancestors were able to turn out a quality of "johnny cake" never surpassed by the most modern kitchen range. For baking "white bread," they used a "reflector," which was constructed of tin, and had a great flaring top and open sides which reached much closer to the fireplace than the portion containing the bread. This device absorbed the heat of the fire and, when properly adjusted, did an excellent job of baking. When the fireplace was constructed, heavy iron cranes were embedded in the rock and mortar, these being hinged at one end and loose at the other, and adjusted to the proper height from which to hang kettles from hooks placed on the horizontal bar. This was the manner of general cooking, the crane being pulled out and returned at pleasure. The "menu" of those days probably did not compare favorably with the Waldorf-Astoria or the Great Northern, at least as regards variety; but with the prospect of some time having a home of their own, in the enjoyment of that peace of mind and domestic tranquillity, more universal among those who are constantly and profitably employed than with others, it is doubtful if our Fayette county pioneers would have exchanged places with the frequenters of those now renowned institutions.

The forests abounded in wild game and wild honey, the streams were full of fish, and the prairie chickens were about the only inhabitants of the prairies (if we except the wolves), hence the opportunities for obtaining a livelihood were not then restricted by the "high cost of living!" Hogs and cattle were not plentiful among the pioneers, if we except the patient ox, of which each family usually had from one to half a dozen "yoke." These were the motive power of the times, and were used in the same manner that horses are used at present. They were used in breaking land, hauling timbers, going to mill and to market, and probably many a dashing young swain employed his father's oxen to take his future wife to places of amusement or recreation.

The settlers on the prairie were less fortunate in some respects than those who located in the timbered districts, though "timber," in this region. usually presupposes rough and hilly land, with rapidly flowing streams and clay soil. To the present day citien, it is a source of wonder why the first settlers of the county, who had choice of location, should choose some out of the way place along the rivers and creeks, when perhaps the adjoining land, unoccupied at the time, was much better situated. The most rational explanation of this eccentricity is, that they sought such a location because of having left behind them in the east a location similar to the one chosen here. Many of the earliest settlers of the county located along the Turkey, the Volga, Otter creek, Mink creek and Brush creek, some of them hemmed in with hills high enough to exclude the sun during several hours of the day, while the few acres of bottom land was subject to overflow at every freshet. Of course these were exceptional cases, but sufficiently numerous to cause comment.

The prairie settlers hauled their house logs from the timber, and some of them even built temporary quarters from hay or green slough grass. After the saw mills were established, rough boards were secured for the first course and the cracks were battened with slabs. Such cabins were not as warm as those built of logs and plastered with mud, but they were used until circumstances permitted building better ones. The usual dimensions of the pioneer cabin were sixteen by eighteen feet, though some were smaller and occasionally one was larger. It is surprising to learn how many people could be comfortably provided for in one of these cabins. The "taverns" of that day seldom were larger than eighteen by twenty six feet, and yet they never had to turn anyone away for want of room! When the beds were all full the capacity of the house had not commenced to be taxed, since there remained the tables, floors, chairs, etc., and nobody complained if consigned to any one of these resting places. A spirit of comradeship and good fellowship pervaded every community, and when one had done his best, even though he failed, public sentiment commended his efforts.


House raising "bees" were a source of profitable amusement among the pioneers, in that one individual at least was always benefited, and in time, the whole community enjoyed like benefits, for the raising of a house or barn was something which no one could accomplish single handed. A feast of good things, such as the pioneer mothers could make from the material at hand, was one of the pleasures intermingled with heavy and, sometimes, dangerous work. Often a dance followed the completion of the work, the new building, if far enough completed, affording the "dance hall," and if not that, then some other building or the open yard was dedicated. There was always a "fiddler" or two in every community who could play the popular airs of the day and "call" the various changes of the cotillion, Virginia reel, etc. There was always a disposition among the pioneers to help each other, and a neighbor afflicted with disease or other hindering cause was the subject of universal sympathy, of the tangible kind, and his crops were planted or harvested, his wood hauled and cut, his corn husked or any other necessary labor was performed by his neighbors without a thought of recompense, save as he, in turn, might have an opportunity of repaying in kind.

The old time spelling school became a fixture with the building of the first school houses and the establishment of schools. Every school had from one to three or four spelling schools during the winter term, and the rivalry for the honors of "spelling down" became animated, and good oral spellers were thus produced in every community. A literary programme was also rendered, and this encouraged the pupils to lay aside natural timidity in appearing before the public. It was nothing unusual for a teacher to take a squad of his best spellers and declaimers and walk three or four miles to meet the pupils of another school in a spelling and speaking contest. And do any remember the method of lighting the school room on such occasions? "Who can bring a candle for the spelling school next Friday night?" and hands went up by every pupil at this inquiry from the teacher, even though the candle was not always forthcoming, for every one wanted and enjoyed this little respite from the ordinary affairs of home life. The candles were cut in two, and by melting a small portion of tallow on the window sash, they could be made to stick fast by setting the candle in the melted grease and holding it until it cooled. The teacher usually held a greasy dripping candle in his hand while pronouncing the words which were to determine the question of championship. The "captains" (usually two of the best spellers in the school) having chosen everybody who would take part in the exercises, the "tug of war" commenced, and after a little preliminary skirmishing over a few previously prepared lessons, the "spelling down" was commenced and continued until all had missed. The last to "fall" was the champion, without regard to whom he was or where he came from.

Singing schools were another source of recreation and profit at a little later period than the introduction of the spelling school, and were conducted in the school houses and sometimes in private homes. The teachers were usually able to read music, though some who came here from the Eastern states brought with them a system of musical notation based upon the shape of the notes, called the "buckwheat notes," by the use of which, if the proper tones were learned and maintained, it was claimed that the student did not need to bother his head about the key, or the location of a character on the staff! But we had some excellent singers and teachers in the pioneer singing schools. Besides the practical value of such forms of recreation, there were many who took advantage of this opportunity for an outing who did not take active part in the exercises. It afforded an excuse for an evening out, as did the dance and the spelling school, and the young people took advantage of it with a relish born of their necessities.

Hunting at the present day is called "sport," but it is doubtful if the pioneers considered it such when driven to the forest, in all kinds of weather, to replenish the depleted larder. However, it is probable that they enjoyed this kind of "labor" to a greater degree than any other requiring an equal amount of energy and self sacrifice. With the earliest pioneers there was an element of danger in plunging into the forest alone and unsupported, in that the Indians were removed from the county under the terms of three different treaties, and some lawfully occupied portions of the county for several years after others had been removed. They were exceedingly sensitive over the question of trespass and resented any encroachment upon their rights. But a party of several well armed white men were usually safe from molestation, while one or two were in danger.

There were some buffalo in Fayette county in an early day, and deer were plentiful, likewise the smaller game, wild fowls and fish in great abundance. It is believed that the extremely severe winter of 1857 killed off most of the deer, either from their inability to get food or from their helplessness in wading the deep and heavily crusted snow. The latter condition placed them at the mercy of the wolves and other flesh eating animals, while even the human "animal" was not slow to take advantage of a helpless deer wherever found, even though he could use nothing but the hide!

The comparatively few buffaloes were soon slaughtered or driven across the Missouri, the deer were soon annihilated, and the hunters had to be content with the small game and fowls and the slaughtering of the prowlers that have infested the country from pioneer days to the present, though the wolves have not been a source of much damage in recent years. They afford the occasion for periodical hunting parties whereat the men engaged in this class of sport have opportunity to show their powers of endurance and the careful training of their dogs. Such events now a days usually wind up with some kind of a feast provided by the defeated parties. Prairie chicken hunting has been a fad for many years, and the proficiency of the "wing shots" has become a matter of comment. This species of fowl was very plentiful until within comparatively recent years, and even now some are found in the grain fields; but, like the quail and other game birds, they need the protection which the law has given them. But in the early days the prairie chicken was always a source of helpfulness to the hungry hunter, as it was, also, the harbinger of spring time, and the nearest neighbor to the occupants of the isolated cabin. Their crowing and cackling by day was a compensating offset to the howling of wolves by night.

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