Chapter 09 - History of Wyoming County

CHAPTER IX.

THE CONDITION OF THE PIONEERS - THEIR WAYS AND MEANS OF LIVING.

THREE quarters of a century have passed since the first settlement of this region, and changing circumstances have brought with them such changes in many of the customs of the people, that one of the present generation can form only an imperfect conception of what some of those customs were.

People are usually slow to adopt those modifications in their customs which changes in their environments render desirable, or even almost necessitate. Like the Welshman who persisted in balancing the wheat in one end of his bag by a stone in the other because his father did so, they follow the beaten track which their ancestors pursued, and often only turn from it when changed circumstances actually compel them to do so.

The march of improvement and the progress of invention make slow advances, except in those cases where necessity compels people to follow the one, or loudly calls for the other.

The rude implements and appliances that were in use "when the country was new " were inventions which grew out of the necessities of the times, and were adapted to the circumstances in which people found themselves. Time wore on, and those circumstances gave place to others. Inventions followed these changes; but in many cases, as in those of the cast iron plough, the grain-cradle and the horserake, the inventors only lived to see their improved implements scoffed at and derided. Thus have people always done, and thus they will to a greater or less extent continue to do. As in the physical world, however, one condition is evolved from another by the slow process of natural selaction, so in these cases the fittest are in the end the survivors.

The first settlers in this region came when the primitive forest was growing, not only here but in the country through which they had passed for many miles. The first roads, which were simply widened Indian trails, were then barely passable. Of course they could bring with them only those articles of household furniture or those agricultural implements that were indispensable.

The first work of the pioneer was to prepare a house, or dwelling-place for his family. There were no mills for the manufacture of lumber, and the first houses were necessarily built of logs fastened by notching at the corners. They were usually from fifteen to eighteen feet -square, and about seven feet in height, or high enough to just clear the head of a tall man. Often no floor was at first laid. A fire-place was prepared at one end by erecting a back of stones, laid in mud instead of mortar, and a hole was left in the bark or slab roof for the escape of the smoke. A chimney of sticks plastered with mud was afterward erected in this aperture. A space of a width suitable for a door was cut out on one side, and this was closed first by hanging in it a blanket, and afterward by a door made with split plank and hung on wooden hinges. This door was fastened by a wooden latch, which could be raised from the outside by a string, which passed through a hole above it. When the latch string was "pulled in" the door was effectually fastened. The expression used of a hospitable man - "his latch-string's always out" - had its origin from this primitive method of fastening a log house door. A hole was usually cut in each side of this house to let in light, and when glazed sash could not be procured greased .paper was used to keep out the blasts and snows of autumn and winter.

Holes were bored at the proper height in the logs at one corner of the room, and into these the ends of poles were fitted, the opposite ends, where they crossed, being supported by a crotch, or a block of the proper height. Across these poles others was laid, and these were covered by a thick mattress of hemlock boughs, over which blankets were spread. Thus were "Genesee bedsteads" constructed; and on such a bed many a pioneer couple reposed as sweetly as though "sunk in beds of down." In the absence of chairs, rude seats were made with an ax and auger by boring holes and inserting legs in " puncheons," or planks split from basswood logs and hewn smooth on one side. Tables were often made in the same way, and after a time a floor was constructed of these "puncheons," with a bare space in lieu of a hearth about the fire place. A few necessary pieces of crockery, or sometimes wooden trenchers, were kept on rude shelves, till, after a few years, lumber could be procured of which to make a cupboard.

A dinner pot, a dish kettle, a tea kettle, a frying pan, and a bake kettle constituted the entire stock of iron ware. The bake kettle - a utensil that is now never seen - was a shallow vessel with legs some six inches in length, so that it could be set over coals on the hearth. It had a cover with edges turned up so that coals could be heaped on it. This was used at first for all the baking of many a pioneer family. The fire-place had, instead of the iron crane with which it was afterwards furnished, a transverse pole called a lug pole, laid across two others so that it could be moved backward and forward at a sufficient height to .prevent burning. On this, "trammels," or hooks so constructed that their length could be adjusted, where hung.

This room, thus furnished, served all the purposes of kitchen, drawing room, sitting room, parlor, and bed room; and not unfrequently workshop also, for temporary benches were erected, and sleds, ox yokes, and many other farming utensils were made and repaired there during stormy days or evenings. The light for such evening work was furnished by the blazing fire, or sometimes by a "slut," which was made by placing a rag for a wick in a dish of "coon's oil," or the fat of some other wild animal.

Here also, as time went on, were heard the raking of the hand cards and the whirr of the spinning wheel; for in those days the cloth for both the summer and winter clothing of the family was homemade, and all the technicalities of the process, from picking the wool to " taking out the piece," were as familiar to every member of the family as any household word.

At first, before the establishment of cloth dressing mills, the dyeing or coloring, even of all the woolen cloth, was done by the pioneer wives; and after clotheries made their appearance, everything except "fulled cloth" was colored at home. The properties and the proper method of compounding for different colors, of Nicaragua or Nic. wood, log wood, fustic, indigo, madder, copperas, alum, vitriol, etc., as well as all the various indigenous barks and plants, were known to every housewife. The old dye tub, which is still remembered by the older inhabitants, had its place at the side of every hearth, where it was frequently used as a seat for children in cases of emergency, or when the increase of the family was more rapid than that of chairs. Peter Parley (Mr. Goodrich) calls it u the institution of the dye tub, which, when the night had waned and the family had retired, frequently became the anxious seat of the lover, who was permitted to carry on his courtship, the object of his addresses sitting demurely in the opposite corner."

The flax brake, swingling knife and board, and hatchel are never seen now; and one of the present generation would be utterly unable to guess their "uses were they shown to him. Then the pulling and rotting and all the details of dressing flax were known to every child; and the process of spinning the flax and tow, weaving and bleaching the different qualities of cloth, and making the thread for all the family sewing, was a part of the education of every girl. Then cotton cloth was only to a slight extent manufactured in this country, and it was practically beyond the reach of most farmers. Woolen goods, other than those of domestic manufacture, were seldom seen. A "broadcloth coat" was an evidence either of unpardonable vanity or of unusual prosperity.

It is hardly necessary to speak of the ordinary food of the first settlers, such as hasty pudding, Johnny cakes, or corn pones, the meal for which was ground in a pioneer mill or wooden mortar; or of the dainties, such as shortcakes, mixed with the lye of cob ashes and baked in ashes on the hearth, that were set before company. The simple and substantial diet of the people then was adopted because circumstances would permit no other. They were too poor to pamper their children with sweetmeats, or to stimulate them with tea and coffee: and the incidental result was a degree of robust health such as the children in later times do not acquire.

It must not be inferred that all the settlers in this region were subjected to severe privations. The kind of fare spoken of was not looked upon as hard, for it was the best the country then afforded. There were instances where people were compelled to go into the woods and gather leeks for a dinner: but these were perhaps as rare as are cases of extreme destitution now. The condition of the country was such that these habits and methods of living were necessary, and they were not regarded as hardships.

The agriculture of those times, if agriculture it may be termed, was such as is never seen now. Very few at the present day have witnessed the process of preparing the virgin soil for the first crop. The timber was often girdled in advance, so that when felled, as it often was, in what were termed wind rows, much of it would burn as it lay, being partially or wholly dried, by kindling the fire at the windward end of these rows. After the first burn some of the remaining fragments were "niggered" into pieces that could be easily moved, and the whole was drawn together with oxen and "logged up" for the final burning. Many in the neighborhood usually joined in this work, and the "logging bees " were at the same time occasions when work was done and social intercourse enjoyed. When the burning was completed and the ashes collected the ground was sometimes made ready for the seed by harrowing with a three cornered harrow, which was often hewed from a crotched tree, with either large wooden pins set at intervals, or very large and strong iron teeth. Such a harrow was drawn over the ground among the stumps to fit the soil for its first crop when the roots' were not sufficiently decayed to permit the use of a plow. In using this primitive harrow in these clearings the driver found it necessary to keep always at a respectful distance, for it often bounded from side to side in a manner not compatible with safety at close quarters. In cases where plowing could be done the old bull plow was used. This was an uncouth implement, with wrought iron share and a wooden moldboard, such as is now scarcely ever seen even among relics of the past. In rare cases a wooden plow, hewn out of a crotched tree, was used.

The wheat sown or corn planted in ground prepared in this rude way often gave good returns, such was the fertility of the soil before it was exhausted by repeated cropping. When the crop was grown and ripened, it was cut with sickles, a handful at a time. Sickles may occasionally be seen at the present day; but there are few who ever saw them used. For harvesting grain among the stumps of the first clearings the sickle was best adapted of all instruments, and no other was known; but when these stumps had decayed, and the grain cradle had been introduced, many looked on it as a pernicious invention, by the use of which more than sufficient grain would be wasted to pay for the labor of harvesting, and some insisted that more could be harvested in the same time with the sickle - so strongly are people attached to old customs.

The grain was first threshed with the flail on the ground, and partially separated from the chaff by pouring it from a height in the wind and afterwards dexterously manipulating it in a "corn fan," a description of which would be quite difficult. For many years after barns were erected on all farms the flail and the feet of horses were the only threshing machines, but fanning-mills superseded the old corn fan.

Hay was cut with the old fashioned scythe, which has changed but very little, and the hand rake only was used to gather it. Among the stumps and stones in early times these were the most available tools, but their use continued long after improved implements were available, and after such implements had been invented.

In those days the conveyance most in use was the ox-cart it was made available for almost everything, from hauling manure to going to meeting, or to balls and weddings. Its use was thus universal because it was, like the other tools spoken of, adapted to existing conditions. The rough and stumpy roads almost forbade the use of four-wheeled conveyances.

It seems hardly necessary to call attention to the wagons, ploughs, harrows, threshing-machines, harvesters, mowers, wheel-rakes, etc., etc., of the present day, and contrast them with the awkward and uncouth implements of former times; but if this is done the adaptation of these to their existing circumstances should be remembered, and the additional fact should be borne in mind that the improved tools of the present day would not then have been available.

During some years after the first settlement of this region trade was carried on in a manner quite different from the way in which it is now conducted. Now all produce has a cash market and a cash value; and all the necessaries or superfluities that are purchased are reckoned according to the same standard. Then there was not sufficient money in the country to be made the medium of exchange, and trade was carried on almost wholly by what was termed barter. About the only article that sold for cash was the crude potash, or black salts, manufactured from the ashes into which the forests were burned. By reason of this nearly exclusive exchange trade, mercantile establishments were quite unlike those of the present time. Then, every store was a sort of commercial microcosm. In it was kept everything that the inhabitants required. As one who lived in those times says: o' Every merchant kept dry goods, groceries, crockery, glassware, hardware, dye stuffs, iron, nails, paints, oil, window glass, school books, stationery, rum, brandy, gin, whiskey, drugs and medicines, ending with a string of etceteras, or every other article usually kept in a country store. Things were sometimes curiously grouped; as, for example, silks and iron, laces and fish, pins and crowbars, pork and tea, molasses and tar, cotton yarn and log chain?, wheel heads and hoes, cards and pitchforks, scythes and fur hats." In exchange for these, the pioneer merchant received almost every article of country produce. Coarse grain was converted into spirits at his distillery, or that of some one in the vicinity, for distilleries sprung up early. Pork was " packed," feathers, butter, cheese, etc., etc., were received in exchange for goods and sent, at first by teams, sometimes over bad roads, to Albany, where they were exchanged for the goods which these teams brought back; and so the barter trade was kept up. This expensive method of transportation necessarily rendered the price of goods high, and that of produce low; and this condition of things continued up to the time of the completion of the Erie Canal, which, by affording better facilities for transportation, cheapened merchandise and enhanced the price of produce.

Gradually, since that time, has trade changed till it has reached a cash basis, and along with this change has come another important one - the "division of business." Now dry goods, groceries, hardware, books, drugs, liquors, etc, etc., are separate branches of business; and produce dealing is separated from all of them.

A no less marked contrast is to be seen in the manufactures of those times and the present. Then almost every article and utensil that was used was cither "homemade," or manufactured at the shops which sprung up to supply the wants of the early settlers. Then, as has been stated, the cloth in which every one was clad was of domestic manufacture. The spinning wheel and the loom were portions of the furniture of almost every house, and clothieries, or wool carding and cloth dressing establishments, were as common as grist-mills. Almost every hamlet had its tailor's shop, where the knight of the shears cut the clothing for the people of the vicinity, and, to avoid the responsibility of misfits, warranted "to fit if properly made up." This clothing was made up by tailoresses, or, as the tailors sometimes termed them, "she tailors." The trade of a tailoress was reckoned a very good one; for she received for her skilled labor two shillings (as currency was then talked) per day; while the price of housework help was six shillings per week.

Shoemakers' shops were abundant also, though there were itinerant shoemakers who "whipped the cat," as going from house to house with their "kits" was termed. After the establishment of tanneries, the people were in the habit of having the hides of their slaughtered animals tanned on shares, and the leather thus obtained was worked up by these circulating disciples of St Crispin.

The ubiquitous tailor shop has entirely disappeared, and only here and there is to be seen a solitary cobbler's sign. Every village has its shoe stores, and the descendants of Abraham vie with each other in supplying the gentiles with clothing "ferry sheap."

Very early it was a portion of the business of every blacksmith to make the nails that were required where wooden pins could not be used. Now an old fashioned wrought nail is a curious relic of the past; and even the rivets, bolts, and horse shoe nails that were formerly made upon every anvil are now made by machinery, and furnished more cheaply than they can be hammered out by the vulcans or their apprentices.

So of almost everything. Where joiners formerly took lumber " in the rough " and did all the work of building a house, now houses are almost, like Byron's critics, "ready made;" for little is required but to put together the parts that are made by machinery.

The wheelbarrows, carts and wagons, and even the cradles and coffins, that were formerly made in the shops that sprang up when the country was first settled are now made by machinery, and sold at rates far lower than those at which handmade work can be afforded; and the old hand manufactories have gone to decay or degenerated into simple repair shops. The question has often arisen whether the invention of labor saving machinery, which has led to this centralization and cheapening of manufactures, has been beneficial or otherwise to the country. It is claimed by many that these inventions are detrimental to the best interests of the country, because, though they cheapen manufactured articles to consumers, they throw out of employment and reduce to poverty large numbers of skilled artisans.

To this it is answered that the utilization of natural forces always adds to the wealth of a country; and that those who are thus deprived of employment are in the end benefited, because they are driven into more profitable avenues of industry, raised above their former condition, and made partakers of the increased general prosperity.

In early times, wild animals, especially bears and wolves, were great sources of annoyance. It is not known that any person ever became a victim to the rapacity of these animals, but many cases are recorded of terrible frights. Many swine that were permitted to roam and feed in the woods were destroyed by bears, and great care was necessary to protect sheep against the wolves. For years the slumbers of people were interrupted and night was made hideous by the howling of the latter.

The record of the proceedings of the first board of supervisors of Genesee county, of which Wyoming then (1805) constituted a part, contains the following: The board, after considering the necessity and utility of destroying wolves, passed a vote to allow a bounty of five dollars apiece for the scalp and ears of each wolf taken and killed in the county aforesaid since its organization."

The board of 1804 "resolved that certificates given to Indians for wolf scalps shall be certified in the presence of a white person of suitable age, who shall attest the same."

The price paid for the scalps of wolves in different years ranged from $5 to $45 per head for grown ones, and from ยง2 to $20 for whelps. Between 1803 and 1821, when the payment of bounties was discontinued, an aggregate of $6,782 was paid for 793 wolves and 8 panthers. It was thought that the large bounties offered here induced people to capture wolves elsewhere, bring them into this county and kill them, and obtain the price of their scalps; and this may have led to a discontinuance of the bounties.

Subsequent to 1821 these animals were occasionally seen, and slight depredations were sometimes committed by them; but they have long since ceased to visit this region.

SOURCE:  History of Wyoming County, N.Y., with Illustrations, Biographical Sketches and Portraits of Some Pioneers and Prominent Residents; F. W. Beers & Co.; 1880