Homes of the Pioneers in Elkhart County, Indiana
From: Pioneer History of Elkhart County, Indiana
With Sketches and Stories
By: Henry S. K. Bartholomew
Press of the Goshen Printery
Goshen, Indiana 1930


THE DESCRIPTION of the homes in which the pioneers lived makes one think that the poorest and humblest of those today seem almost palaces in comparison. Fotunately, some of the early settlers have told us about their homes, so that we can form something of an idea as to how they looked and how little like a house they were. The most minute description is given by John W. Irwin to whose personal memoirs frequent reference has been made in this volume. Here is what he says about his father's house on Elkhart prairie.

"The house was of the uniform size of all the cabins then built, being exactly twenty feet square, made of round logs from twelve to fourteen inches in diameter. laid on each other at the ends and notched so that the space between them was from one-half to five inches. This was afterward filled by driving chinking of suitable size. When the cabin was built there were no saw mills and so no lumber could be had even for the floor, which was made by splitting logs into slabs about four or five inches in thickness. The levelest side was hewn with a broad axe to be used for the upper side. The joists were round poles. On these rested a floor of lighter puncheons. The lower story was about seven feet and the upper story from one to five logs. Then came the ridge pole on which rested the clapboards. These were held on not by nails, for there were none to be had, but by long poles. The chinking between the logs was usually covered by mud, clay if it could be found. If not then straw or chaff was mixed in to hold the sandy composition together. The chimney was made by cutting out five or six logs for a breadth of six feet. A log fireplace was made here, surmounted by a chimney of sticks, all plastered inside with the mud to secure against the fire. The mode of access to the loft, which was generally the sleeping apartment of the younger members of the family, was by a row of large, stout pins in the wall at such distance from each other as to assist in ascent and descent. In the better cabins the ladder took the place of these. The window of our home afforded four lights of glass ten by twelve. The door was of clapboards, secured on buttons by wooden pins projected from the door and an augur hole in these received the upright piece secured to the door check and thus formed the hinge. The fastening was a wooden latch secured when shut by a wooden 'ketch'. A string secured to the latch was passed through the door and hung outside and afforded a ready facility to the outsider to secure admission by pulling the string. Our latch string was always out and it seemed to be so understood by all, for the number who sought our roof besides our own family was legion."

As there were eleven members in the Irwin family, it must have taxed the little cabin to provide room for several more lodgers. Mr. Irwin says there was scarcely a meal eaten or a night passed when there were not from one to a half dozen visitors. As the elder Mr. Irwin refused to accept compensation for his hospitality many individuals sought shelter in his home in preference to any other in the community.

There were only two beds in the room, one in each of the corners farthest from the fireplace. They had no bedsteads, but platforms for the beds were made by boring two holes with a two-inch auger, one four feet and the other six from the corner of the cabin. Into these were driven two stout poles, one four and a quarter feet long and one six and a quarter. At their intersection was set a post into which each of the rails was fastened. A strip was nailed on the wall parallel with the longer pole. Clapboards were laid crosswise, one end resting on the rail and the other on the strip at the side of the wall. On this platform the beds were made. Additional sleeping accommodations were provided by making beds on the floor. These were always taken up in the morning. The cooking and all other house work had to be done in this one room.

This cabin was typical of most of the cabins of that day. Few, if any, were better than this while many others were not as good. About the only improvement that was made for some time was that the builders began to use hewed logs instead of round ones. In some of the cabins there were no glass lights, greased paper being used instead.

Richard C. Lake, Sr., who settled in Jefferson township in 1837 told the author something about his cabin a short time before he died. I t was built of hewed logs and at first consisted of one room, but later an additional room was built. As soon as the cabin was built and the roof was on, before the spaces between the logs were chinked, he and his young wife began to occupy it. For some time it had no door, except a quilt hung in the doorway and for a little while there was no floor. Their first supper was cooked between two joists or "sleepers", over a fire made of sticks and logs. Between another two joists they set their rude table, and sitting down on these joists on opposite sides of the table they ate their first meal in their new home. During the first five years of their housekeeping their bread was baked in a "Dutch oven."

The furniture used in these cabins was not less crude or more elegant than the cabins themselves. Few of the pioneers had chairs in their homes at first. Some of the more prosperous ones had hickory chairs with splint bottoms, but by many these were considered a luxury. Most of them had only three legged stools and benches. The benches were split out of logs, smoothed on the top side, holes bored in the lower side for legs. These were used at the table as well as around the fireplace. Sometimes people would even sit on the ends of the backlog in the fireplace in order to be as near the fire as possible. Tables were often made in the same way as the beds, in a corner of the room. The top was made of puncheons, hewed on the top side to make them smooth. Above the door the faithful rifle hung, sometimes upon a pair of deer antlers which were fastened up for a rack and sometimes upon forked sticks. Over the fireplace was a shelf upon which stood a candlestick or a lard lamp, a clock and whatever books the family had, which were usually very few. This shelf was called a mantel and oftentimes was colored blue with indigo. In the summer time the housewife would set some crocks or pots on this shelf and plant morning glories or other vines in them. In the course of time the vines would cover the fireplace as completely as if a curtain were hung there.

In the fireplace was a crane upon which kettles were hung when articles of food were being cooked. Sometimes the crane was made of iron and sometimes of wood. Forked sticks with a pin stuck into the long end were hung over it and on these the pots were hung. When the time came that brick chimneys were built swinging cranes came into use. An eye was built into the chimney and into this the crane was fastened so that it could be swung around over the fire or out over the hearth.

Generally some article of furniture occupied each corner of the room. In one corner was the large bed for the father and mother and under it the trundle bed which was pulled out at night for the children. In another corner was the rough table and in another the cupboard in which were kept what few dishes, knives and forks the family had. The knives and forks usually were made by a blacksmith and were very clumsy looking in comparison with the oldest fashioned ones that we know. In the fourth corner were the old spinning wheel and the reel upon which the wife and mother spun into yarn the wool that the sheep provided for the family's use.

The methods of cooking employed by the pioneer women were elso extremely crude. With only one or two cooking utensils they were not equipped to prepare elaborate meals even if they had had the variety of foodstuffs which those of the present day have always at hand. Some families had nothing but a skillet with a lid and in this skillet different articles of food had to be cooked in turn. Sometimes potatoes were roasted in the ashes at the edge of the fireplace. The Johnny cakes were baked on a johnny cake board. Some families had frying pans with long handles in which they fried their meats by holding them over the fire in the fireplace or by setting them on coals that had been raked out on the hearth. Sometimes this pan was also used for making pancakes or "flapjacks" as they were often called. When a johnny cake board was used for baking it was set at the edge of the fireplace near the coals and tilted so that the heat could strike it to better advantage. A stone or block of wood was placed under the outer edge to hold it in place. When the lower side was about baked it was turned around and the other side placed nearest the fire.

A writer who was familiar with pioneer life has this to say concerning home made utensils: "With his axe the early settler found little difficulty in manufacturing the rude utensils which were needed about the home. Trays, large and small, were made from soft poplar, buckeye and basswood. Trenchers and bowls for the kitchen use were hewn from sections of maple logs and then burned or scraped smooth. Gourds of every shape and size were raised. Being of many shapes and sizes, they were used, when scraped out and cleaned, for a great variety of purposes. The gourd hung as a dipper beside the spring or well and was also a companion to the cider barrel. It was used at the table, at the lye kettle, at the sugar camp, for soup, soap, or sap. A large one split in half made a wash pan or milkpan. A small one was used by the grandmother as a form over which to darn socks. The small boy carried his bait in one when he went fishing and the baby used one for a rattle. The churn was sometimes a mere trough and paddle. A curious, clumsy, wooden machine for kneading bread was called a dough break. Water was frequently carried by a yoke that fitted across the shoulders with a thong hanging from each end by which two buckets of water could be carried, leaving the hands free to carry two more if necessary." This same device was sometimes used in the sugar camp for carrying sap from the trees to the kettle. The writer's father when he moved from Goshen to his farm in Jefferson township in the spring of 1868, used one to carry water to the house from a creek forty rods away. He used it for several months before he could secure the services of a well digger.

The same writer tells about lighting the home and making fires. He says: "The home was lighted by the blaze of the fireplace and by tallow candles. Candle making, indeed, became an art and candle molds with balls of cotton wicking could be seen in every home. A good lamp was modeled from clay in the form of a cup in which was burned lard. When this was filled with bear's oil and fitted with a cotton wick it gave a very good light.

Matches in the early days were unknown, so the matter of starting fires was a serious one. Often when a settler was unfortunate enough to let his fire die out in the fireplace, he sent to his nearest neighbor to borrow coals to rekindle it. Usually a blaze was kindled by means of punk. It was a peculiar dry, spongy wood found in the knots on the trunks of the trees, and also on the larger branches. Hickory trees, especially, furnished excellent punk. But the substance was not plentiful and was rather valuable. It was absolutely necessary to keep it dry; the least dampness rendered it useless. To start a fire a small bit of punk was held close to a flint, which when struck with a piece of steel, let fall a shower of sparks upon it. One of these sparks, beginning to burn, the punk was surrounded with dry leaves or tow and the mass fanned into a blaze. Then with dry kindling wood a good fire was built."

Notwithstanding the hardships which our grandmothers and great grandmothers were compelled to undergo and notwithstanding the fact that they had to do as much hard work in one day as many women of the present day do in a week, they did not forget that there are other things to be thought of besides providing food and clothing. They did not neglect to cultivate the aesthetic as well as the physical. Many of them brought flower .seeds with them and as soon as they possibly could do so planted them. In the clearing around the rude cabin they had their flower beds in which they grew many of the old fashioned flowers. Perhaps their productions would not appeal to the tastes of some of our present day artists or floriculturists but their variety and combinations made color schemes which certainly were not to be ridiculed. Those primitive flower beds in front or at the end of the log cabin or around a stump out in the front yard were the forerunners of the elaborate flower gardens and the splendid creations of landscape artists which excite the admiration of those who are fortunate enough to live in this twentieth century.

What can we say that will do justice to the pioneer women who made homes of these uninviting log cabins in the woods and who did their share in laying the foundation of what has become one of the best and greatest counties in our Hoosier state? They were the women whose work, in the words of an old couplet, was never done. The hours which were not occupied by their regular house work had to be spent with the spinning wheel, the loom, or in making garments for the family. In the summer time they cared for the garden and some of them worked with the men out in the field. Many of them were as well educated as any women of their day and generation and in spite of their coarse hard work they gave to their homes an atmosphere of refinement. All honor then to the pioneer mothers who gave to us a heritage of blessed memories which are more precious to us than any other of our earthly possessions.

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