Volume 1


Fourth Edition Printed by the Clio Press Iowa City, Iowa 1920
Copyright 1917 by Clarence Ray Aurner

Transcribed by Sharon Elijah, submitted April, 2013


After finding a farm which suited him, the settler next selected a place to put his cabin. The family could live in the big covered wagon in which they had traveled for many weeks, perhaps, until the new house was finished. The building would not take very long, for all the neighbors from a distance of many miles would come to help.

The material for the house must be taken from trees which were all about the same size. And one may believe that in finding a place for the cabin some care was taken to have it as near as it could be to good trees. The logs were cut to suit the size of the house, which was usually about sixteen feet square; or perhaps, the sides were made longer than the ends where the fire places were put. After the trees were felled and the logs cut, a chain was put about them and they were dragged, or “snaked” along the ground by oxen or horses, to the site of the new house.

While some men chopped the trees down and cut off the logs the right length, others “saddled” each log. Saddling a log meant cutting notches on both sides at each end so that the log would fit into the one below it and rest closely against it. When the number of logs needed to complete the house had been brought together, all hands laid them up, one above the other, until the walls were high enough. Since the logs lay close together the small cracks left between them could be stopped with “chinking” made of clay.

The gable ends of the house were easily made by cutting each log a little shorter than the one below it until the ridge pole was reached. Of course each log in the gable ends must be fastened to the one below or to the light logs laid from end to end to support the roof. The roof logs were very straight smooth logs but not so heavy as those in the walls. These were laid at certain distances apart, three of four feet probably, and rested upon the sloping walls at either end. On these logs “clapboards” were laid and the clapboards were held in place by poles put on them at certain distances. Then short pieces of wood, chunks or “knees” or “runs”, about twenty inches long held these roof poles apart, and kept them from slipping down toward the lower edge of the roof.

pg 75

“Clapboards”, which were used for the roof in place of shingles, were made from the best oak trees. The logs were first cut with ax or saw into blocks about four feet long. Then a tool called a “frow”, which had a blade fixed at right angles, or cross wise the handle, was used to split off the clapboards. The short block having been set on end, the frow was driven into it with a “mallet” or wooden “maul”. Then, by wrenching the handle, the flat pieces could be split off.

After the house had been enclosed and the roof completed the cracks between the logs had to stopped with clay. This work was called “chinking”, and it is said that each autumn the owner must see that the mud that had fallen out or been washed out by the rains of summer was renewed. When plaster could be had for chinking, as in the better houses, it lasted longer.

The floor in such houses might be bare, for the earth could be made smooth and hard and it would do. But slabs of wood, or “puncheons” as they were called, could be hewed with the ax and made quite smooth to cover the earthen floor, and this was the common way of flooring log houses until saw mills were built. Doors were made either of puncheons or of clapboards and they were hung on wooden hinges and had a wooden latch. Through holes bored in the cross pieces and through the clapboards, wooden pins could be driven to hold the door together. With an ax and a saw and an auger no nails were needed in building log cabins. Indeed, nails would have been useless.

The door latch dropped into a socket on the inside and it was opened from the outside by a latch string. The string ran through a hole in the door, and one will readily see that if the hole was made a little above the latch a pull would lift it out of the notch or socket on the inside. All that was needed to lock such doors was to pull in the latch string. Perhaps some have heard the familiar saying, “the latch string always hangs out”; which means, of course, that visitors are always welcome, for the door is never locked.

To make the window or windows needed, a piece of log about two feet long was cut out of the wall and the hole was closed with oiled paper. Sometimes glass might be had and once in a while greased deer hide was used. Anything that would admit light and protect the room from the storms and cold would serve for a window cover.

Such a house would not be entirely finished, however, if there were no great fire place in one end. In a cabin sixteen or eighteen feet square almost an entire end would be used for the open fire. The chimney was laid with sticks and mud, or rocks if they could be had; and great logs were rolled into the fire place to protect the back wall from being slowly burned out. These were called “back logs”; but they did not resemble the small stick which is sometimes now called a “back log”. The old kind were sometimes too big for or three men to lift and they had to be rolled in.

The big fire place would be among the first things to attract attention. Above it, resting on the logs, a shelf or mantel made from a slab would probably be found. On the homely shelf a candlestick, or possibly a lamp, a clock, and perhaps some table ware would be seen. Within the fire place and fastened at one side, the stout crane either of wood or iron swung around to carry the pots and kettles over the blazing fire. There were curious pieces of iron ware; many in some cabins and few in others; for our grandfathers and grandmothers were not too proud to begin with a few simple pieces of furniture.

Over the door of the cabin, always in wooden cleats and fastened to the logs, rested the true rifle of the cabin owner. The powder horn hung near, and these two pieces were as much a part of the furniture as any other household article; for game could not be had at all seasons without the gun. Then sometimes it proved a great friend in danger from enemies. Not only men but women too were accustomed to use a rifle; and when women were left alone for many days, while men were gone on long journeys to mill, it was necessary that they should know how to shoot.

pg 79

In a corner of this one-roomed cottage the pole bed for grown folks was visible; and under it the trundle bed for the little folks was pushed during the day. The large bed was made by boring holes in the wall-logs to hold the side rails and by resting the two ends at the corner of the bed in a forked stick driven in the ground. On these side rails poles and bark were laid and the whole could be covered with prairie hay. When made up with the many-colored quilts of our grandmothers it was not at all displeasing to the eye. Perhaps the “prairie bedstead” was not so comfortable as most beds are today, but it gave the tired travelers a place to rest until they could have better ones.

In another corner of the room the large spinning wheel, which was necessary in every frontier home of that time, was kept. Near it there might be another small one.

The large one the housewife used to spin wool and the small one she used to spin flax. Elsewhere there was a heavy table, the only one to be sure, and perhaps it was made on the spot by the settler. Chairs or stools also were made from slabs, and patent furniture was not needed. If chairs had been brought along in the emigrant wagon they probably had splint bottoms. Such chairs are now a curiosity.

pg 81

A homely cupboard, made perhaps from a box or from hewed slabs, held the few dishes possessed by the family. Since there was no fine china, china cupboards were not needed. These things were very plain; but the people who used them were honest and wholesome and usually happy. Happiness came from the way people used what they had rather than from the hurry to get more.

It may be interesting to know how cooking was done over the big fire which was never allowed to go out; at least if it did go out it was by accident. Sometimes the live wood coals must be borrowed from a neighbor, if there were not steel and flint and tinder to kindle a blaze. To be without fire on a cold winter morning when neighbors were not near would be very unfortunate. The cautious housekeeper always kept live coals. There were no matches until long after those early days in Iowa.

Over the fire great kettles were swung on the crane; or they were hung on poles resting in a chain with pot hooks made from iron or wood. To cook meat a long handled frying pan was either held over the live coals or it was set upon coals drawn out in front of the fireplace upon the hearth. The same frying pan might serve to bake pancakes, although some housewives preferred the heavy iron spider or skillet.

For baking bread or biscuit the Dutch oven was most useful. It has been described as a flat-bottomed kettle, quite deep and with a heavy tight iron cover. Coals of the fire were put all about it and fine bread and biscuit were quickly baked in this way. Sometimes turkey or spare ribs were hung by means of a string before the roaring fire, and as they began to roast a pan was set beneath to catch the drippings. For that reason, it seems, there is a piece of kitchen ware called a “dripping pan” which every kitchen now may have. We cannot understand the meaning of many things unless their history is known.

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