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Life in a Log Home


Part V: Keeping House

The pioneer homemaker had little time to worry about housekeeping as we know it in terms of wax and starch. She would be aghast at the way we waste water. The springs were always down hill, going with empty buckets, but up hill, coming back with them filled. It is easy to see why water was saved, and why the washing was taken to the source of water when the weather permitted. There were some wells, but they were shallow and usually contaminated. An old household encyclopedia says that the best way to keep the well free from worms (mosquito larvae) is to put a small fish in it. Another doubts that bathing is healthful but says that a farmer doing heavy labor may safely bathe twice a year. His bath towel often was a worn, discarded undergarment or piece of blanket. His bathroom didn't include rolls of pink tissue. Instead, soft cloths were kept at hand and used somewhat like the well-known roller towel. Soiled cloths were washed when they needed it. The baby's didies were used over and over, being hung up to dry between times. The "washing" was spread on the grass or draped over bushes to dry outdoors. Bedding was hung out to "air" during the winter.

It was a constant struggle to keep things half-way clean. Earliest floors were the hard packed earth. Edith Helm Jones remembers a family who poured the dishwater on a different spot every day, to help keep the dust down. In time, the grease from the dishwater formed a fairly impenetrable wax-like surface. Crude brooms were made of buckbrush (coralberry) lashed together and trimmed evenly across the end.

In some homes, dishwashing was simplified. After plates and bowls were washed the dishrag was "rinched out" and used to wipe the dishes, which were then set back on the table to dry.

The D.A.R. history of the Alex Young cabin in Sunset Park in Washington, Iowa, states that, "During the Civil War, Alexander Young made a trip to town daily 4 1/2 miles) to get the mail and buy a newspaper. If he was not able to get a paper, he would read one while in Washington. The noon hour at the Young home always found a gathering of neighbors to receive their mail, and to hear the news from the "front." So, even during a "bad spell," lively discussions made 11 the time pass quickly, for adults and for the listening chil-dren.

If a letter came, it was read again and again before it was tucked away beneath the clock on the shelf, or it might be fastened to the bangleboard.

A bangleboard was a small board, padded and covered with cloth. Hooks were spaced over the front to make a catch-all for small articles-bangles and beads, the key to a chest, the scissors-anything small that could be hung up. The padded back served as a pincushion.

Some of the floors were almost like pincushions. Those made of split logs were called "puncheon" floors, from a French word meaning "to prick." These floors often were so rough and uneven that only three legs of a chair would rest on the floor at one time, hence three-legged stools. Cracks between the logs might be filled with earth, or they might serve as a spittoon for the men and women who chewed to-bacco.

The loft was for sleeping. Stairs took up space so the loft was reached by a ladder, sometimes crosspieces lashed to saplings, or crude steps hewn out of a log. If a young lady was vain enough to wear a hoop skirt, she had to lift the front of it when she attempted to negotiate the ladder-stairs.

There was little room for any but the most essential fur-nishings. Houseplants would have frozen. Curtains added charm but at the expense of light. Books were rare and precious. The home library, if there was one, usually con-sisted of a Bible, a doctor book, and an almanac. The al-manac was almost indespensable for planting and harvesting "by the moon," and for keeping track of the passing days and weeks.

If a little pioneer daughter picked a bouquet of wild flow-ers, she quite possibly put them in a whiskey-bottle vase. Liquor was the most profitable means of marketing grain and it was therefore plentiful and cheap, from 12% to 25 cents a gallon.

Hospitality was the common denominator in pioneer com-munities, but raiders and horse thieves were the bane of early settlers. They were more to be feared than the Indians or wolves. Even so, the latchstring was always out.

The latch was a wooden bar lifted by means of a leather thong run through a small hole above the bar. To lock the door, one had only to pull the latchstring inside. There was no way to lock the door when everyone left the house. Ingenious settlers sometimes hid the latchstring by bringing it out someplace away from the bar, much as we hide the key under the doormat. Mischievous youngsters must have teased each other by pulling the thong inside to lock another out in the cold.

Log cabin

Health was the pioneer's greatest asset. The treatments prescribed in old "doctor book" make us wonder how anyone survived even the most common ailments. Malaria, or the ague, was believed to be caused by the miasma that rose when soil was turned, although it actually was carried by mosquitoes that swarmed over the undrained prairies. A "cure" for its intermittent chills and fevers would, according to Dr. Chase, "sicken and vomit some, but it scarcely ever needed repeating." Old cemeteries have rows of small stones for the children taken by typhoid; often an entire family was wiped out in a few weeks.

However crowded the log house may have been, it still was better than the wagon-life of the trail, or a makeshift lean-to or cave. And no matter how many lived there this was not as bad as having to eat, sleep, and live in the same small room in which one member of the family might be dying.

Life in log houses produced generations of hardy Iowans; we do well to remember them.


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.

Photos used by permission from the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City.

 
     
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