IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
STORIES OF IOWA
FOR BOYS AND GIRLS
AROUND THE FIREPLACE
You have read how the pioneers came to Iowa with their ox teams, and how they built their houses. But people could not live in an empty house. They had to have a stove or a fireplace where they could cook their food. Then they needed a table and chairs so that they could eat their meals, and they wanted beds in which to sleep at night.
If there were trees near-by, the pioneer cabin often had a fireplace. Around this the father and mother and the boys and girls gathered to keep warm in the winter. Here the mother also cooked the food. She could bake bread by putting the loaves in a covered pan and piling hot coals all over them. Often these pioneers did not have wheat flour. They had to eat corn bread or corn "dodger." This could be baked in a skillet or frying pan held over the fire, or it could be laid upon a "johnny-cake board," tilted toward the fire, and left to bake in the heat.
Meat might be fried in the skillet. Large pieced of pork or venison or venison or turkey were often hung before the fire on a twisted string. As the string unwound, the meat turned and was browned on all sides. Sometimes, of course, the string was burned or broke and the meat fell in the ashes. A pan, usually called the dripping pan, was placed under the roasting meat to catch the fat and meat juices. Upsetting this pan meant getting the "fat in the fire." Meat and vegetables might be cooked in an iron pot hung over the coals.
If the cabin were on the prairie where there were no trees, a stove has to be used instead of the fireplace. This was easier to cook with, but it was hard to get wood to burn. Often the mother had to burn the wild hay. This was twisted up into a long hard roll and pushed into the stove as it burned off at the end. Sometimes ears of corn were burned in the stove, for corn could not be taken to market and the pioneers had no money to buy coal.
I am sure that you are waiting to ask what the pioneers had to eat. Usually they had fried salt pork, corn bread, and coffee. If they had a cow, they might have milk and butter. Or if the father and the boys were good shots, they sometimes had wild turkey, rabbit, and venison. Did you ever eat venison or wild turkey? In the summer they had more to eat. They might have roasting ears, potatoes, and other vegetables.
There were often wild plums, grapes, and crabapples in the thickets by the rivers, but there was not much sugar to sweeten them. Of course the boys might find a bee tree and get some honey. Some of the farmers raised sorghum and had sorghum molasses. It was much harder for the pioneer mother to have different kinds of food in the winter. Sometimes she dried the fruits and put them in sacks hanging to the rafters of the cabin. Sides of bacon and smoked hams hung there, too. Usually the pioneer family had lots of hominy.
To-day we buy hominey in the stores, but the pioneer women had to make it. They soaked the kernels of corn in lye made from water and wood ashes. This loosened the hulls, and when the corn was washed several times the hulls came off. These corn kernels were called hominy. It could be dried and kept for winter.
It is hard for us to remember that most of these pioneer cabins had no basements or cellars, no glass cans of fruits and vegetables, and none of the canned food we buy at the stores.
But cooking was only one of the many things a pioneer woman had to do. She did not have a very large house to keep clean, but it was hard work to keep the cabin in order. Sometimes there were no boards for floors, so packed dirt was used or puncheon slabs with the flat side up. There were usually no carpets or rugs, no curtains, and not much furniture. The table was sometimes made of a large packing box. For chairs there might be three-legged stools, or homemade, splint-bottomed chairs. Some pioneers had a cupboard made of rough lumber and there was always a flour barrel or meal chest in the corner.
The bed stood in one corner of the cabin. It was made by fastening two rails into the log walls of the house with one leg out in the room. Over this frame slats were laid crosswise or rope was woven, to support a tick stuffed with hay or straw. In winter a feather bed was placed on top of the straw tick. Then the sheets, quilts, and blankets were put on. A small bed, low enough to slip under this large bed, was made for the children. The pioneers called this the trundle bed. If there was a baby in the cabin, the father might make a cradle for it by hollowing out a large log and putting rockers under it.
If the mother of the pioneer family wanted soap, she had to make that, too. Did you ever see anyone make soap? Every day the pioneer woman saved the fat from the meat. This fat, together with lard from the hogs they killed, was used for soap. Next the woman had to make some lye by pouring water over wood ashes in an ash hopper. Then she took a huge iron kettle, perhaps four feet or more across, put in the fat and added the lye. This made soft soap.
The pioneer mother not only had to make soap, but she had to do many other tasks, too. She had to make most of the clothing for her family, and often even the cloth. The spinning wheel had the place of honor in the pioneer home instead of the radio. Some pioneer women even made the thread from which the cloth was woven.
Have you ever seen flax with its blue blossoms growing in the fields? The pioneer cut this much as we cut clover, but afterwards they let it lie in the fields to rot, or ret, the outside woody covering of the stalks in the dew and sunshine. Then the women beat handfuls of flax plants against a frame with nail points sticking up. This was called a hackle.
It cleaned away the soft part of the plant and left though threads from which homemade linen cloth was made. If the linen and woolen threads were used together, the cloth was called linsey-woolsey. Dresses made of this cloth never wore out, the pioneers said. They were handed down from one girl in the family to the one next younger. In the summer the women wore slat sunbonnets and in the winter, knitted hoods. At night the mother and the girls knit stockings and mittens or plaited straw for hats.
Sewing, knitting, or reading in the evenings had to be done by candle light. Many of the pioneers had to make their own candles. Sometimes a girl dipped a long wick in melted tallow, held it up to cool, and dipped it again, until it was large enough for a candle. They called this a tallow-dip. If they wanted shapely, smooth, round candles, they might use a candle mould. This was made of six or eight hollow tubes fastened together. A wick was placed in each one of these tubes. Then the tallow was poured in. When it cooled, the candle could be slipped out of the mould just as your mother slips gelatin out of a dish.
The pioneer home was a busy place. Suppose we knock at the door of one of these cabins some winter evening. The door opens and we step inside. There is a fireplace on one side. The mother is frying meat in a skillet, and watching that the johnny-cake does not burn. A coffee pot boils by the open fire. One of the girls is setting the table with the few dishes of the family. Another is spinning. The father is making a yoke for the oxen. One of the sons has been hunting and has shot a couple of rabbits which he is dressing. His wet coat hangs beside the fireplace to dry. Two smaller boys are teasing the two dogs, while the baby creeps about picking up the shavings from the floor.
It is crowded, you say. But it may be that we must stay with these people over night. It is dark and there is no town for another ten miles. The mother and father invite us in and ask us to eat supper with them. One of the boys goes out to put our team in the log barn.
Of course not all these homes were alike. Some pioneers brought good furniture with them. Some had money enough to build better houses than one-room cabins. But all the pioneer houses were small. It was cold in the winter. The work was hard for they had many things to do. But most of the pioneers tell us that they enjoyed it. Their fireplace was the center of a new home.
Back to Stories of Iowa Index