(Continued from Part 1. This part concludes the article.)
Twice a year the cabin was emptied of everything. The walls, floors, and ceilings were scrubbed with lye soap and a bristle brush. All the belongings were also cleaned before they came back into the house. This was pest control and it was needed until DDT became available. Even then, bedbugs, lice, ticks and other creepy crawlies were a fact of life and were controlled by brute force. Failure to do so left you in misery and maybe ill.
Foods were stored in bug proof containers. The most popular was fifteen pound capacity metal coffee cans with tight lids. These were for day to day use in the kitchen. (I still have one of them. It’s a family heirloom.) The next were barrels to hold the bulk foods like flour, sugar, corn meal, and rice. Everything was sealed or the vermin would get to it. The vermin was also why people sifted flour in particular. There was always at least one, preferably two, months of food on hand. If the fall cash allowed, they would stock up for the entire winter before the first snowfall.
The closest thing to a cooler was a metal box in the kitchen floor. It had a very tight lid and was used to store milk, eggs and butter for a day or two. Butter was heavily salted on the outside to keep it from going rancid or melting. Buttermilk, cottage cheese and regular cheese was made from raw milk after collecting for a day or two. The box was relatively cool in the summer and did not freeze in the winter.
Mice and rats love humanity because we keep our environment warm and tend to be sloppy with food they like. Snakes love rats and mice so they were always around. If the kids were going to play outside, they would police the area with a hoe and a shovel. After killing and disposing of the rattlesnakes- there was always at least one-then they could play for a while in reasonable safety.
The mice and rats were controlled by traps, rocks from sling shots, cats and coyotes. The cats had a hard and usually short life because of the coyotes. The coyotes were barely controlled and seemed to be able to smell firearms at a distance. There were people who hunted the never-ending numbers for the bounty.
After chores were done, kid’s active imagination was used in their play. They didn’t have a lot of toys. There were a couple of dolls for the girls, a pocket knife and some marbles for the boy, and a whole lot of empty to fill. Hide and seek was played for fun, but had a serious side when their parents were gone for the day and strangers stopped by. (It’s lonely out there.) Their father’s beef calves were pretty gentle by the time they were sold at market – the kids rode them regularly. (Not a much fat on those calves but a lot of muscle.) They would look for arrow heads, lizards, and wild flowers. Chokecherry, buffalo berry, gooseberry and currants were picked for jelly and syrups. Sometimes the kids made chokecherry wine.
At night when it was too hot to sleep, the kids along with their parents, would often play cribbage at the kitchen table. The windows had no screens so bugs would come in through the windows and fly around the kerosene lamp. The big fat June bugs were the worst. People got so used to squashing the bugs on the table, they wouldn’t even think about it as they shuffled the cards. Cribbage was a great way to teach the kids about numbers.
If the siblings wanted to play with other kids, it was a three mile hike through open country to the neighbors and those kids had their own chores to do. That never stopped them, they just pitched in and got the work done so they could play. Nobody worried about walking that far or about getting lost. The neighborhood had a different meaning then.
On a hot summer day in the afternoon, the shade on the east side of the house was treasured and the east wind, if it came, even more so.
Adults hated hailstorms because of the destruction to crops and animals, kids loved them because they could collect the hail and make ice cream.
Childbirth was usually handled at a neighbor’s house with a midwife if you were lucky. If you got sick you were treated with ginger tea, honey, chicken soup or Sulphur and molasses. Castor oil was used regularly as well. Wounds were cleaned with soap and disinfected with whisky. (I don’t know which would hurt worse, the lye soap or whisky.) Mustard based poultices were often used for a variety of ills. Turpentine, mustard and lard was one that was applied to the chest for pneumonia or a hacking cough.
Contact with the outside world was an occasional trip to town for supplies using a wagon and team (you could haul a lot more in the wagon than in a car.). A battery operated radio was used very sparingly in the evenings for the one station it could bring in. A rechargeable car battery was used for power. Yes, they did have a car. It was rarely used as it took gasoline, couldn’t haul much and so, was more for emergencies than serious work.
School was a six mile walk one way and you brought your own lunch. One school teacher regularly put potatoes on the stove to bake and shared them with the kids. She was very well thought of by the kids and the parents. Salt? Pepper?, Butter? Bring your own or do without.
These people were used to a limited amount of social interaction. They were used to no television, radio, or outside entertainment. They were used to having only three or four books, one of which was a bible. A fiddler or guitar player for a picnic or a dance was a wonderful thing to be enjoyed. Since these people were a relatively small social group, when kids in particular went to town for high school, they didn’t have good socialization skills. They were terrified by all those strange people they had to deal with. The schools went out of their way to work on that and one thing they did was find jobs for some of the students that required dealing with the public, whether it was as a waitress, sales clerk or other activity.
In the country, church was a social occasion as well as religious. Church in town was also a part of the socialization efforts for the country kids. While the school couldn’t recommend or force, they definitely didn’t stand in the way. It wasn’t unusual for the Gideons to hand out bibles at school.
The church ladies and their butter and egg money allowed many rural churches to be built and to prosper. The men were required to do the heavy work but the ladies made it come together. The civilizing of the west sprang from these roots. Some of those ladies had spines of steel. They needed it.
That’s a partial story of my mother’s family’s homestead years. People were very independent, stubborn and strong but still needed the community and access to the technology of the outside world for salt, sugar, flour, spices, chicken feed, cloth, kerosene for the lights and of course, coffee. There are many more things I could list. Could they have found an alternative if something was unavailable? Maybe. How would you get salt or nitrates in Montana without importing? Does anyone know how to make kerosene? Coffee would be valued like gold. Roasted grain or chicory just didn’t cut it.
I don’t want to discourage people trying to prepare but rather to point out that generalized and practical knowledge along with a cooperative community is still needed for long term survival. Whatever shortcomings you may have, if you are part of a community, it is much more likely to be covered. The described community in this article was at least twenty to thirty miles across and included many farms and ranches as well as the town. Who your neighbors are, what type of people they are, and your relationship to them is one of the more important things to consider.
Were there fights, disagreements and other unpleasantness? Absolutely. Some of it was handled by neighbors, a minister, or the sheriff. Some bad feelings lasted a lifetime. There were some people that were really bad by any standard and they were either the sheriff’s problem or they got sorted out by one of their prospective victims.
These homesteaders had a rough life but they felt they had a great life and their way of life was shared by everyone they knew. They never went hungry, had great daylong picnics with the neighbors, and knew everyone personally within twenty miles. Every bit of pleasure or joy was treasured like a jewel since it was usually found in a sea of hard work. They worked hard, played hard and loved well. In our cushy life, we have many more “things” and “conveniences” than they ever did, but we lack the connection they had with their environment and community.
The biggest concern for our future: What happens if an event such as a solar flare, EMP, or a plague takes our society farther back than the early 1900s by wiping out our technology base. Consider the relatively bucolic scene just described and then add in some true post-apocalyptic hard cases. Some of the science fiction stories suddenly get much more realistic and scary. A comment out of a Star Trek scene comes to mind “In the fight between good and evil, good must be very, very good.”
Consider what kind of supplies might not be available at any cost just because there is no longer a manufacturing base or because there is no supply chain. In the 1900s they had the railroads as a lifeline from the industrial east.
How long would it take us to rebuild the tools for recovery, to the Early-1900s levels?
One of the greatest advantages we have is access to a huge amount of information about our world, how things work and everything in our lives. We need to be smart enough to learn/understand as much as possible and store references for all the rest. Some of us don’t sleep well at night as we are well aware of how fragile our society and technological infrastructure is.
Trying to live the homesteader’s life would be very painful for most of us. I would prefer not to. I hope and pray it doesn’t ever come to that.