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Life in a Log Home

Part III: The Crowded Cabin

A well-constructed log house would have been relatively comfortable, with its thick walls and its close-to-the-earth design. No doubt much of the heat from the fireplace escaped up the chimney on windy days, and rainy spells must have been tiresome. Body heat helped to keep the numerous occupants warm. But the pioneer homemaker was not concerned with the temperature inside her house. She had other things to occupy her thoughts.

There were many beautiful days when work could be done outdoors where there was plenty of room. But let's consider, as an example, one of our spells of gloomy weather when it rains or drizzles for days on end, or when a blizzard strikes.

Great-grandmother really knew the meaning of "togetherness." Bad weather brought the men, the children, the relatives, the in-laws, the preacher, and perhaps a tin peddler, inside. The men worked with their hands, making or mending things - harness, tools, furniture. They talked and argued, or slept and snored. For the women there were the usual household tasks, possibly game to dress and prepare for cooking, and always keeping an eye on the babies to see that they didn't get too near the fire. There was sewing and mending to be done - and what a bother it was to lose or break the last good needle.

How did the children spend their time when they were house-bound? The older ones played with the babies, amusing them by tossing and blowing a feather into the air or by playing catch with a rabbit's fluffy cotton tail. They watched the men as they cleaned their guns or poured lead bullets. They cracked and ate nuts and poked their fingers into the bread dough or into the cream on the crock of milk. The boys teased the girls, or perhaps they curled up in a corner with a favorite dog and listened as the men discussed politics or spun yarns about how it used to be when they were tykes.

Sometimes, the first "school" was taught by the mother or an aunt in the midst of such varied activities. A blackened shovel made a good slate; so did the hard packed earth of the floor, or the frost on the windows. There were homemade games like checkers, and doll-babies made of whatever was available. For the boys there was the great outdoors and the possibility of stalking a wolf, regardless of weather; and the very real hazard of getting lost in the big bluestem, taller than a man.

The first church services often were held in a home in a community and provided a welcome break in the monotony. In summer, young people often walked barefooted until they were nearly there, putting on their shoes just before entering the church or meeting place. Christmas was not the festival it is now; Al Selement remembers that his mother used a small thorn bush for a Christmas tree, with hawthorne fruits stuck on the thorns as decoration. Weddings and funerals were held in the home.

Originally published in the Annals of Iowa, Vol. 37, No. 8 (Spring 1965) Copyright 1965, State Historical Society of Iowa Excerpt reprinted by permission of the publisher.
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