Week 18: #52 Ancestors– Social
By Eilene Lyon
Pioneering was not about rugged individualism. Settlers depended on family connections and other social ties for practical and personal reasons. Survival depended on the community network. Many jobs required extra helping hands. Other events drew on specialized skills, such as midwifery or blacksmithing. Even gatherings for work became opportunities for fun and entertainment.
In forested areas, clearing land for agriculture took many years. Much of the wood could not be used for other purposes, so settlers gathered and burned the tree boles and slash. When a homesteader had cut his timber for the year, he set a date for his neighbors to help move the trunks into burn piles.
On the appointed day, men would arrive, carrying their log hooks, and organize into competing teams to see who could move their allotted logs the fastest. Women prepared a hearty meal and the host provided whiskey to reward the men for their labor.
Maple Sugar Time
Maple sugar was a precious commodity which could be used like cash in some instances. Pioneers used it in their cooking and preserving of food. The best quality maple sugar would be refined to be much like cane sugar.
Tapping the trees and boiling the sap required around-the-clock attention, so many people worked together in late winter to harvest this liquid gold. Children liked to dribble some of the hot syrup on the snow to make a sweet, crunchy-gooey treat. Sugaring time was also the time for taffy pulls. This was a social occasion for teens in particular.
Spiritual life infused pioneer society. It did not matter if there were no physical churches to attend. Circuit riders would cover a territory, enabling communities to have a formal service about once a month. At other times, bible studies would be held in private homes. Sometimes a community member would serve as a lay preacher when the circuit rider was elsewhere.
In the fall, the Methodists, in particular, held camp meetings. These drew from an area of more than a hundred miles in circumference. The camp site was usually situated in a wooded area near a stream, emphasizing a connection to nature. These events lasted several days and featured a variety of sermons, songs, baptisms, and conversions.
Like the maple sugaring, other harvest chores became social events. Corn-husking was a contest, much like the log-rolling. Teams raced one another to finish husking their pile first. Harvesting and threshing wheat was more efficiently done in a rotation with everyone in an area working together as a group.
When the apples, peaches, and pears ripened, stripping fruit from the trees and preserving it began. Not every household would have a cider press, so that also became a time to gather for a common task.
You are undoubtedly familiar with quilting bees—a favorite time for gossip among the women of a community. Other communal work for women included wool picking, gathering slippery elm bark and herbs, peeling hoop poles, and the breaking and spinning of flax.
Even the most minor of crimes and transgressions could be counted on to entertain the citizens. Court terms were held about once a quarter and people packed the gallery to hear sordid tales of chicken theft, libelous words uttered by drunks, fist fights, and petty theft. One can hardly imagine the crowds that would gather for something as major as the rare homicide.
This is just a sampling of some ways that pioneers socialized. There were many games that children played. Wintertime activities included sled outings and more. Singing groups and literature societies entertained and challenged the intellect. Life was hard, but fun was had, too.
Images: Blake, John L. The Farmer’s Every-Day Book. Auburn and Buffalo, New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1854.