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Hard Times and Hominy-Blocks

The following is a chapter from "The History of Jefferson County, Iowa", Pages 360-361, published by the Western Historical Company of Chicago in 1879.



In consequence of the severity and length of the winter of 1836-37, the settlers who were not fortunate enough to be able to bring a six-months supply of provisions with them, were sometimes reduced to very straitened circumstances. There were no mills in the country -- the nearest one was a hundred miles away, so that for breadstuff the corn raised the summer previous was as good as useless, unless some means could be devised to crush it, and the settlers fell back on their own ingenuity to meet the exigencies of the times. Hominy blocks were substituted for mills. The corn was crushed as fine as possible in these primitive concerns, and then sifted through a wire sieve and baked in "corn dodgers," Indian "pones" or "johnny-cakes." Such corn as the settlers used for bread that winter would hardly be considered fit feed for horses now, but most of the pioneers of 1836 were glad to get it. Those of them who had this kind of coarse bread and "hog and hominy" for a regular diet the first winter of the settlement of this part of Iowa were esteemed to be in "good fix." Deer, wild turkey, etc., were plenty, and if they grew tired of "pork and bacon," or if these articles gave out, the deficiency was easily supplied from the forests and prairies. Wild bees were plenty, too, and wild honey was to be found upon almost every table.

As the country settled up, however, mills were built, and "hominy-blocks" or "corn crushers" went out of use until they only exist in memory. As relics of the "long ago," a description of them will not be out of place.

A tree of suitable size, say from eighteen inches to two feet in diameter, was selected from the forest and felled to the ground. If a cross-cut saw happened to be convenient, the tree was "butted," that is, the "curf" end was sawed off so that it would stand steady when ready for use. If there was no cross-cut saw in the neighborhood, strong arms and sharp axes were made to do the work. Then the proper length, from four to five feet, was measured off, and sawed or cut square. When this was done, the block was raised on end, and the work of cutting out a hollow in one or the other of the ends was commenced. This was usually done with a common chopping-ax. Sometimes a smaller one was used, and in some instances a fire would be kindled on the end and carefully watched until a cavity or hollow was burned out sufficiently large for the purpose intended, when the ragged edges would be dressed away with some smaller sharp-edged instrument. When completed, the hominy-block somewhat resembled a druggist's mortar. Then a pestle or something to crush the corn was necessary. This was usually made from a suitably-sized piece of timber, with an iron wedge attached, the large end down. This completed the machinery, and the block was ready for use. Sometimes one hominy-block accommodated a whole neighborhood, and was the means of staying the hunger of many mouths.

The houses of those days were only cabins -- most of them built from round logs. The floors were made of puncheons split from trees of the forest. The doors, door-cheeks, window-cheeks, etc., as well as all other "finishing stuff," was made in the same way, and then dressed down with a broad-ax. The roof was made of clapboards or "shakes," split from some monarch of the forest. The boards were held in place by weight-poles laid lengthwise, and kept at convenient and suitable distances by "knees." Very often a cabin would be completed without the use of a single nail in the entire structure. A mud-and-stick or sod chimney and earthen hearth finished the "cabin." The women baked their "corn dodgers" or "johnny-cakes," cooked their venison or roasted the wild turkeys their husbands killed, by these old-fashioned fire-places in skillets, pots and ovens just as nicely as cooks and servants bake the bread and roast the meats on costly stoves and ranges now. They cooked their meals and entertained visitors -- people didn't "call" then -- at the same time and in the same room, and didn't consider it a disgrace wither, to be seen molding their "johnny-cakes" or bending over their skillets and ovens. And the mothers of those days -- the brave wives of Iowa's pioneers -- were just as happy as the wives and mothers who live in costly mansions in 1878. But by and by the primitive log cabin gave way to hewed log or frame houses with shingle roofs, plank floors with carpets -- rag carpets, may be, that prudent housewives made themselves. They cut the rags, sewed them together, and, as likely as not, wove them with their own hands. Brick or stone chimneys took the place of the old-fashioned and primitive mud-and-stick or sod chimneys. The first hewed log or frame house was the pride of the neighborhood, and its occupants were considered the first families. -- the aristocrats -- of the settlement. The erection of the first frame house in the county is accredited to Thomas Lambirth, and is still standing and occupied as a residence by Mrs. Lambirth and her son-in-law, J. P. Chezum.

In that neighborhood the settlers were mostly of southern descent, if not natives of some one of the Southern States. Some of them, and the larger part we believe, represented Kentucky customs and habits, and hosptality, and in traveling through Round Prairie Township one will notice that to all the old houses there are outside chimneys, and very often one at each end of the house. In the country districts of Kentucky, Tennessee and the Carolinas an inside chimney, until within the last ten or fifteen years, was the exception and not the rule. In the Eastern States an outside chimney has always been an exception. But as the country of the Iowas developed in wealth and prosperity, and the people grew rich, the fire-places to the outside chimneys were closed up, and heating-stoves substituted as a measure of economy. A large per cent of the heat that escaped "up the chimney" is thereby saved, and much less fuel is needed to keep a house warm.

The old primitive log cabins, reminders of the days of small beginnings! But very few of them are in use now. They were abandoned many years ago for a better class of buildings, but a great many of them are still standing, and used for wash-houses, tool-houses, etc. They ought to be preserved as mementos of the "times that tried men's souls" (and women's), and vines and flowers planted around them. With such surroundings they would make nice summer-houses, and an hundred years hence (sic) would be a curiosity to the people who will then hold and exercise dominion in the commonwealth of Iowa.

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