Pioneer Pastimes

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.

Church Services

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.

Women’s Work

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.

Court Days

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.

45 thoughts on “Pioneer Pastimes

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    1. Thanks! I had hoped to included some quotes from letters and books to liven it, but time has been getting away from me! We tend to forget about how these ancestors liked to have fun, too. Weddings were especially festive.

      Liked by 3 people

  1. There is still some of that gathering to get the work done in the rural prairies, neighbours helping neighbours. I would say the gossiping has mostly shifted to social media. Your description of all the different activities speaks of when life seemed slower and everything was interconnected in a way that it doesn’t feel today.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I was considering this the other day: back then people walked fast and talked slowly; now we talk fast and walk slowly.

      You’re right about interconnected. Though they lived further apart, they depended on each other more.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I read recently that in the 19th century it really was like that. I think men began taking over later that century – it seems to have become male-dominated in the 20th.

        It’s sort of like how health care was women’s work (especially childbirth) until men came up with the concept of medical degrees, then it became a male-dominated profession. Same goes for computer programming, which men first thought of as “secretarial” work. Guess who dominates the profession now?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. My mother remembers the steam threshers coming for the harvest, and the women fold would have to feed them all, usually in shifts! They could have 20 or more at a time…so that would be a lot of pies.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My grandmother mentions feeding the threshing crews in her diary from 1932. It began long before then. What would all those men have done without women to do all that cooking and cleaning for them? Threshing was a huge job, of course, and necessary to get flour. I watched a horse-powered threshing machine in South Dakota in 2015. The draft horses were so beautiful and the operation quite ingenious.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. They still have a steam threshers show in the county every summer, with all the old machines on display and all the old-timers come out. My mother was 18 when they moved to the farm in 1944, and shortly after they bought their first tractor (1948) so the threshing groups eventually went by the wayside. But she still had to do dinners for the combining crew in the fall, as not everyone owned a combine back then.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s amazing what modern farm machinery can accomplish with just one person and a computer. At the same place we saw the threshing demonstration, they also had a large assembly of tractors, and showed how a tractor engine could be used to power a sawmill. Very ingenious!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. For all the modernization that saves us time and improves our way of life, we are far less connected than in the pioneer days. Thanks for sharing these snapshots of early life here!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. They washed sheep? I don’t know how to wrap my head around that. My great grandfather was a Methodist circuit rider who had his flock spread out over most of SW Ohio. I didn’t know about Court Days but it makes sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, the sheep washing was a surprise to me, too, but there it is! How cool you had a circuit-riding reverend in your family. My great-great- grandfather started an ME church in Indiana and was a lay preacher, but I don’t know if he ever rode a circuit.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I wonder what the slippery elm bark was for. I give the inside of slippery elm capsules to one of my cats who suffers from GI troubles. It seems to calm her stomach. The maple sugar was making my mouth water btw.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I discovered your blog from LA’s. I’m fascinated with history because my great-grandmother published a series of cookbooks from in the 1890s and early 1900s.I’m curious about that period and what a woman’s life was like.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you’ve come by! I have a lot of posts from the 19th and early 20th century to delve into. That’s cool about the cookbooks. I suspect she may have had other writing ambitions, but focusing on the home was a good way to get published back then.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I will take a look at your posts about the 19th and early 20th centuries. My great-grandfather had a printing press and was a newspaper publisher. My great-grandmother published and sold her little cook booklets to women’s auxiliaries at churches across the nation as a fundraising tool. My goal is to reprint them some day.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. So excited. I have hand written notes from her and she had this one little booklet crossed off her order list. My mom and aunt didn’t have a copy of it either. That’s a story In itself.

    Liked by 1 person

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