Montgomery County Illinois History

The Memories of the Early Years of Montgomery County

By A H H Rountree Published in the Hillsboro Democrat, January, 22, 1873

The habits and customs, manner of living, diet and manner of cooking as well as the very articles of diet; the clothing and manner of making them have undergone as great a revolution as has the county itself.

The early settlers came here to better their condition and make homes for themselves and families; consequently the first duty was to build cabins, often of such hasty construction, that the logs were unhewn, but put up in the rough; cracks chinked and daubed, and no weather-boarding; chimneys of wood and jambs and back of mud, wide and roomy and the floors often simply mother earth, or of puncheons split out and smoothed off, or if dignified with plank, the plank was generally sawed by hand with whipsaws.  Bedsteads and tables were almost the sole furniture.  Shelves on pegs were the usual repositories of clothing of every sort, as well as of the necessary wares.  Pewter plates were very common, instead of granite and china.  The open fireplace with its accompaniment of ovens, skillets, griddles, teakettles, pots, etc., were used for cooking instead of stoves.

Biscuits and corndodgers baked in an oven over and under glowing coals at the fireplace, and Johnnycakes baked on a board in front of the fire, are among the pleasantest memories.  The big pot of lye-hominy was also one of our earliest delights.  Game was so plenty that it rarely happened that meats were scarce.  But the flour came after some years, but hand mills, run not by steam, horses or oxen, but by women and children, were occasionally seen.  New corn was often grated by hand for immediate use.   Fruits only could be procured from abroad, and with great difficulty, except such as grew wild.  Honey was abundant, for the simple trouble of cutting down the bee trees so common in the woods. 

Then there were no well-filled shelves of canned fruits, nor bins of apples as at present.  Indeed an idea seemed to prevail that any one who planted an orchard, did so for his grandchildren and not for himself. But our thrifty soil soon corrected that idea.  As settlements were usually made in the timber, firewood was abundant for the cutting.  But the lights, what a change!  Instead of our gay chandeliers, and coal oil lamps, were candles of tallow or wax, and an old-fashioned affair dignified by the name of lamp, that was stuck in a crack in the wall and held lard, in a heart-shaped sheet-iron basin, in which was a wick, which burned well and gave a torch like glare.  Those who had brass or silver or even iron candlesticks strove to keep them as bright as their pewter and tin-ware.

Every cabin could and did usually accommodate as many as could get into it, and not unlike our omnibuses of the present day, always have room for one more.

The clothing for both sexes was made at home throughout. If of cotton, the cotton was raised, picked, ginned, carded, spun, woven, colored, and cut and made at home. If of woo1, the sheep were raised, the wool clipped, picked by hand, carded, spun, colored, woven, and made up at home. All members of the household, male and female, men, children, and women, were usually employed in some part, if not in all parts, of the manufacture. It is true that the men and boys frequently wore clothing either made entire of the dressed skins of animals, or had their clothes “foxed” with them.  Boots were nearly unknown, while shoes were indulged in as a luxury only by the grown members, while moccasins made at home sufficed for the smaller members. However, as soon as tanning could be done, and it was also often done at home, it was not infrequent that the shoemaker went from house to house with his implements, and made shoes for the family.  Patent leather, morocco, kid, French calf, pebbled, etc, are later introductions, almost wholly unknown at that time.  Post offices, newspapers, and magazines were perhaps longed for, but not obtainable generally

Wheeled vehicles were scarce and those that were made at home had no iron about them; indeed those that had iron tires were esteemed such a luxury, such as approach to “uppertendom”, that in assessing property for taxation, those without iron were exempt, while those with iron were taxed. It must be here remarked that necessity made the owners very liberal with their wagons and teams, so that while they were not really common property, they very nearly were practically so; the implements of farming, from the axe up followed the same practical use.  It is true that our reapers and mowers, our horse rakes and gang plows, harrow, etc., were not then even invented, much less in use.

Saddler and harness shops were not needed nor used, and even the mending was not infrequently with withes or bark. No fine fancy bridles, no check-lines nor fancy harness, no calf and kip collars adorned the teams. Shuck (husk) collars, rope lines, no harness or breeching at all. Ox-teams were, perhaps, more common than horses.

We wonder if the boys of our day are curious to know what kind of hair oil and neckties, what shaped collars and cuffs were the fashion then?   We wonder if our girls are curious to know what sort of dress trimmings, what shape and fashion were the bonnets and hats, and if they wore panniers and bustles, sacks, overskirts and pelerines, and whether they wore furs, victorines, muffs and cuffs, etc., and when they are informed fully about it, we would suppose their looks of incredulity would be refreshing?

There are no doubt many now living in our old county who can tell of the long linen shirts, home-made, that were the only summer garments worn by children; of the moccasins and the buckskins clothing.  There are no doubt some who never wore boots until nearly grown, and perhaps never saw any till nearly grown. Yet while these were days of sincere happiness; and though the memories are pleasant, would we go back to them? Would we be willing to live as our fathers and mothers lived? Would those that grew up thus like to try it again? Times have changed and with the tines our people, and their notions and tastes, and no doubt it is all right. But the memory is pleasant.

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