Delaware County NY Genealogy and History Site

Centennial History of Delaware County, New York : 1797-1897
edited by David Murray, LL.D.

Transcribed by Tamara Sanford


WHATEVER the nationality of the pioneers, the experiences through which they were required to pass in clearing and reducing farms to cultivation were essentially the same. The Dutchmen who came into Middletown through the Shandaken mountains, the Yankees who came to Roxbury or Harpersfield or Franklin, the Scotchmen who penetrated to the hill country of Andes or Delhi or Bovina, all had to go through the same trials and suffer the same inconveniences. It may be of interest at this point to follow a pioneer into the forests of Delaware county and watch him while he clears a place for himself in the wilderness.

Take as an illustration a family which had come from Scotland, consisting of a father and mother with two little boys. They came first to the house of Scotch friends in Andes; and after prospecting around took on lease a farm in the adjoining town of Bovina, which had just then been organized as a separate town. This farm is entirely covered with forest of maple, beech, birch, basswood, etc. The father, after selecting the place, leaves his family for a little with his friends and himself goes thither to cut down a few acres of the forest, and to put up log buildings for the protection of his family. When these were ready, we may imagine the little caravan on its way to the new home in the wilderness. A yoke of oxen drags a rude lumber wagon, on which are mounted the mother and the two little boys. The father drives them and carries on his shoulder an axe which he has already learned to handle. A few pieces of primitive furniture are also carried on the wagon, together with the pots and kettles and dishes which are needful in the kitchen. A dog of the Scotch collie breed circles in excited joy around the party, startling squirrels and birds, and putting to flight the wolves the foxes and the bears which creep curiously out to see the passing cavalcade. A friend who is going to help to install the family in its now home, is driving behind them a milk cow and her calf, a half dozen sheep and a sow with a half grown litter of pigs. The good collie in the midst of all his miscellaneous duties considers himself specially charged with the driving of this diversified herd.

Everything goes well. At every farmhouse they pass they receive a kindly word of welcome and offers of any help they might need. Their journey is not long; and before night they have arrived at their new home. A wood fire is started in the chimney; a hearty meal is cooked from the supplies they had brought with them. The oxen and the cow, the sheep and the pigs are all suitably housed and fed. The season was the early autumn and the first night was exquisitely beautiful. The same stars which they know in Scotland, and the same full moon, the harvest moon, looked down upon them with friendly eyes. They soon put the furniture in order, and having committed themselves to the care of him who equally is their God in the wilds of America and in their dear native land, they were soon asleep.

Every moment that was not needed for the care of his family and his cattle is employed by the father in chopping down the trees around his buildings. Little by little the clearing became larger and the prospects gradually brighten. The American axe, which he soon learned to wield with force and precision, is the most effective tool which has ever been devised. With it the interminable forests of the continent have been leveled and turned into fruitful fields. A few years later when the two boys had grown so as to handle the axe, the three would together attack a tree; the father cutting alone on one side, and the two boys putting in alternate strokes on the other side. The tree cutting usually continued during the entire winter and thus by springtime a considerable addition is made to the clearing.

The task of the pioneer however is not only to cut down the trees. Each tree after it had been felled, was cut into logs of about fourteen feet; the branches were trimmed off and piled into brush heaps. Then when the summer sun had dried the branches, and the more pressing spring's work was passed, advantage was taken of a windy day when there was a strong breeze away from the buildings. The brush heaps were all kindled, being watched lest fire should do some damage, and in order that the heaps should be completely burned. After this preliminary work was done, then came the great work of "logging." This was sometimes done by the pioneer and his boys. But it was a very heavy task, and if a large clearing was to be made the usual custom was to hold a "logging bee." A few of the neighbors, who sometimes had similar favors to ask, were invited to help on this supreme occasion. Perhaps two additional yoke of oxen were brought, and each man carried his axe on his shoulder. They came after breakfast, and went away after a, five o'clock supper. A dinner was served at twelve o'clock and for an hour men and oxen were alike refreshed by rest. It is fair to say that on these occasions the farmer was expected to provide some kind of drink. It was either rum which came from New England or the West Indies; or it was the whisky which already began to be distilled in all these country towns. The men did not drink to excess, and nobody was much the worse for what they considered their suitable indulgence on these occasions.

The work they had to do consisted in dragging the logs together and making them into heaps for burning. A yoke of oxen was assigned to each gang, which consisted of two or three men besides the driver. Each log was drawn by the oxen to its heap and rolled by the men with handspikes to its place. Fragments of the unburned branches were piled in along with logs, and thus log heaps were made throughout the clearing. As the whole space had already been burned over when the brush heaps were fired, the task which the loggers now had was by no means a clean one or an easy one. Their faces and their clothes were soon begrimed with the coal from the logs and the branches. But this did not interfere with the good humor of the company or with activity and the willingness with which they worked.

After the logging, on some dry, breezy day the farmer sets fire to these log-heaps, and watching and tending them carefully sees them all burned up. Then among the stumps on the soil, well fertilized by the ashes left by the burned log-heaps, he sows his crop of rye, or bats, or buckwheat. And notwithstanding the rough and unplowed surface these first crops were sure to be rich and abundant. Along with the first crop of grain, rye or oats but not of buckwheat, the farmer also sows a crop of mixed timothy and red clover. The grain comes to maturity during the first summer, but the grass making a start during this summer under the friendly shade of the grain, comes to a head and furnishes a crop of hay for the second summer. Potatoes are planted also in the new soil and yield a good crop. Some minor crops, such as turnips, cabbages, and onions are also raised even from the very first. On the farms along the rivers and in protected places, Indian corn is also planted although not in general until the second year.

The stumps and roots of the hardwood timber very soon begin to decay, and in a few years can be torn up and burned. Thus land which at first was covered with forest, in the course of five or six years became cultivatable fields, yielding abundant crops of grain and hay and vegetables. Where the forests were of pine, as was the case in many places, the stumps were much longer in decaying. Indeed you may still see fields filled with pine stumps which must have been cut fifty years ago. A stump machine is generally necessary to eradicate the pine stumps, and then a fire soon reduces them to practicable ashes.

The tools and implements in the case of a primitive farm such as we have been describing were neither many nor elaborate. The axe was the most useful and important hammer and cut nails, the saw and the crowbar. Then there were the yoke, the ox-chain, and the sled to be drawn by oxen, the harrow used on new land even before the plough, the hoe and the shovel. About the barn and stable were the flail, the fanning mill, the half-bushel grain measure, birch broom, etc. In the house the cooking of food and the necessary warmth were furnished by the open fireplace. . The wood was cut usually in the wintertime and was thoroughly seasoned before it was used on the fire. In the winter when the weather was cold there was built an immense fire consisting of a backlog, a fore stick, and the necessary top dressing. When such a fire got under way it was a sight to behold. It must be remembered that at this early day friction-matches* were unknown; and at night before going to bed it was always the custom to cover up a bed of coals with ashes, so that the fire might be kept alive till morning. If by any accident the fire became extinguished, the common resource was to send to a neighbor's for a shovelful of live coals.

(*It was about 1834 that friction matches came into use. In remote localities, they were introduced later. The price was about 2/6 for a box of fifty.)

There is nothing in which greater progress has been made during the century than in the matter of artificial light. At the time of the settlement of our Scotch Pioneer, say 1820, almost the only kind of artificial light in use by such a family was the candle. It was made from the tallow of the beef or sheep; preferably from the former, because it was harder and stronger. A row of wicks was hung on a stick, and the whole dipped at once into a pot of melted tallow and taken out again. The stick with its row of dipped wicks was then hung in a cool place until the layer of tallow -became hard. In the mean time a second and then a third, etc., of -the rows of wicks were dipped and hung up for cooling. The process was continued until the candles became as large as was desired. An improved method of making tallow candles was to have a row of five or six tin candle moulds soldered together parallel. Wicks were inserted in each and drawn tightly through the centre of the mould. Then the melted tallow was poured into the moulds around thin wicks, and the row kept in a cool place until the candles had become hard. After this, they were drawn out of the moulds and were ready for use. Artificial light was not so much used in those early days as now. Lamps for whale oil were sometimes employed when a better light was necessary. But it was not till the discovery of kerosene oil in 1858, in Pennsylvania, that the great improvement in the character of light for country houses began. Since that time almost every house has, its kerosene lamps which furnish a light nearly equal to the gas light of cities.

Index to Centennial History of Delaware County

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