Thursday, February 25, 2010

Cabin Fever

What with the cold, the snow and all, it’s been good winter down this way for cabin fever, a vague disorder brought on by too much time spent cooped up inside. This despite the fact the simplest of our cabins these days is equipped with electricity, central heating and plumbing and located only a 3- to 30-minute drive from the nearest grocery store. Television, telephones and all these computers connect us to the world --- so long as the lights stay on.

This is a fairly recent development.. Only 150 years ago, a snap of the fingers where time is concerned, the cabins really were cabins and those walls we’ve been staring at beyond the computer screens would have been made of logs, some dressed but others with bark intact.

If you’d like to see an example, look (above) on the Lucas County Historical Society Museum campus where a cabin dating perhaps from the 1850s was reassembled in 2000 after having been moved log by log some years earlier from where it was built near Newbern Cemetery.

The single room with loft is more spacious than you might think, looking at the exterior, but considering the size of families and the number of generations expected to remain under one roof back on those days, it must have been awfully crowded on cold winter days when many people were confined inside, the door had to remain closed and a wooden shutter often was the only covering for a glassless window.


We have a fairly good idea of what one of the first cabins in Lucas County --- that of William and Nancy McDermott built in the fall of 1847 out near what now is Bethel Cemetery --- looked like thanks to the 1881 history of Lucas County. McDermott, in Cedar Township, and John Ballard, in English, generally are recognized as Lucas County’s first permanent settlers. Ballard moved on while McDermott lived here until his death and is buried Bethel --- you can’t get much more permanent than that. Because he was illiterate, old Bill wrote no memoir. He was a good story-teller, however, and those stories probably are the source of the following paragraphs, found on pages 380-81 of the 1881 history:

“William McDermit (sic), a native of the green Isle of Erin, (arrived) in September, 1847, near the eastern limit of the county, some ten miles from Chariton, in what is now Cedar township. He was accompanied with his wife Nancy, and four children of tender years. He gave to his settlement the name of ‘Ireland,’ the land of his nativity. He came from Illinois and first settled near Pella, Marion county, but the “Dutch” were crowding too closely, and he sold his claim there for $1,000, and pushed out to a new locality. With his capital thus acquired, two yoke of cattle, a wagon, his household effects and family, he started for Monroe county, where he reached the house of Henry Harter in August, 1847, with whom he left his family while he made a prospecting tour for a new home. He came into Lucas county, some fifteen miles distant, and he was so pleased with the country that he laid claim to one hundred and sixty acres in section sixteen, of its virgin soil, upon which to make his future home and rear his family. He then returned over to Monroe county, where he had left his family and worldly effects, and with them he at once returned to his claim in Lucas, which he reached early in September, bringing with him some men --- Henry Herter, John Bell, Sam Richmond and Charles Reynolds, of that settlement, to aid him in the construction of his cabin. It was sixteen feet square, built of round oak logs, and covered (roofed) with clapboards. This accomplished, his friends, who thus aided him, returned to their settlement in Monroe county.

“This accomplished, he found that winter was approaching and he must provide supplies for it. He made every arrangement for his family he could by making a log heap in front of the new shanty, upon which his wife could cook their food, as he had not yet built a chimney in it. The next morning he was to start to Oskaloosa, forty-five miles away, to mill, for his groceries and other supplies for the winter, and to his surprise he found his oxen were missing. Concluding that they had gone back to Harter’s, which was on the route, he gathered up his sacks and started out on foot. Finding his cattle there he borrowed a wagon and proceeded on his journey. He was gone some ten days. During this period Mrs. McDermit with her four children --- the eldest but nine, and the youngest short of a year old --- as her sole companions, remained at the cabin in her solitude. The cabin had yet no door, no window, nor floor, though places were cut for the former. She cooked upon the log heap in front and slept alone in the open cabin at night, as her only shelter.

“Not a white being, save her children, nearer than fifteen miles away; and a band of Pottawattamie Indians were camped on the Cedar creek not far away, who, in their hunting ranges, would occasionally call at the cabin in the day. However, they were friendly, and did not molest her. There were a few who lingered behind after their surrender of the territory under the treaty of 1843, and the final exodus of the tribes beyond in the Missouri in the spring of 1846. They found abudance of deer and turkeys to hunt at that time. During those ten days that McDermit was absent, the wolves broke the solitude of the nights and made them hideous with their howls; and not infrequently they would surround the cabin and attack the faithful watch dog, who would keep them at bay until they retired and their howls were lost in the distance. Here was bravery exemplified, vividly illustrating the courage, dangers and privations of the pioneer. How many women of Lucas county would to-day exercise the nerve and fortitude which Mrs. McDermit did during those ten days --- yea, during her whole pioneer life?

“When McDermit returned he at once finished his cabin, placed in it condition for comfortable occupance by building a chimney, putting in a window, making a door and floor. The latter was made of basswood logs, with one side hewn smooth and edged, and laid down so they made a comfortable surface. The openings between the logs were filled with prairie mud. It is said that he made the floor the next Sunday after his return for his winter’s supplies, which he probably regarded a work of necessity.”

This cabin with additions continued to serve the McDermotts as home until the early 1870s, when a family dispute broke out. Some of the children wanted to move farther west to Kansas, as did their mother. William was determined to remain in Lucas County. A separation was agreed upon, The Cedar Township farm was sold. Nancy moved west and William, into Chariton, where he died on Aug. 1, 1875. He is buried beside his son, Daniel, in Bethel Cemetery.


Some of the most thorough descriptions of the earliest Lucas County homes were written in 1923 by Ellen (Berry) Badger, who arrived in Chariton just before her 13th birthday during October of 1853. The party she traveled with had left Lawrence County, Indiana, on Sept. 15, 1853, in six wagons and two buggies.

Ellen, youngest surviving daughter of John Marr and Anna (East) Berry, born Oct. 13, 1840, had been left motherless at age two when Anna died on Jan. 3, 1843, in childbirth complicated by the measles. At age 12, Ellen was living with her elder sister, Lucretia, and Lucretia’s husband, Isaac Julian.

Another of Ellen’s sisters, Susannah, had married James Mitchell some years earlier and they had moved about 1850 with his father, Joe, to Lucas County, where Joe took up land that later was occupied by the Lucas County County Home (now site of the HyVee cold storage warehouse), just northwest of Chariton. James and Susannah lived a mile and a half north of Joe.

It was the presence of the Mitchells as well as Berry cousins Jesse Wells and Elizabeth Wells (Mrs. Aaron) Scott, that drew the Julian/Berry party to Lucas County in the fall of 1853, traveling as many did then in the fall in order to be prepared to plant in a new location the following spring.

The prairie schooner in which Ellen had traveled from Indiana with Isaac and Lucretia as well as her brother, Alexander, called Alec, then 20, arrived at the James Mitchell cabin on Sunday, Oct. 9. That night, the first killing frost of the season occurred.

James and Susannah Mitchell and their two children, Joe and Eliza, invited the Isaac Julians as well as Ellen and Alec to stay with them until housing could be built or located. The meant eight people, five of them adults, shared one room. Here is Ellen’s 1923 recollection of that cabin:

“It was built of round logs with bark on, cracks chinked with pieces of wood cut as nearly to fit as possible, then put into place and daubed with mud. There were few singles to be had as they had to be made by hand, and most of the cabins were covered with clapboards. To make them they would hunt a tree that would split straight, then saw off cuts about three feet long; then split off boards with a hand tool called a frow. They shed rain fairly well, but the snow would come under them in case of a storm of wind and snow, and we could not have much fire or the snow would melt and we would be all wet. The floors were made of puncheons, roughly dressed with axe and foot adz, which left many cracks. There was one door and we could see plenty of daylight between the boards. It hung on wooden hinges that squeaked every time it opened or shut. It fastened with a wooden latch that worked with a string. A hole was bored in the door and the string passed through the hole, so all we had to do was pull the string inside when we wanted to lock our door. The window, like most all of the other neighbors’, was a hole about two feed square cut in the logs and a board shutter made for it that fastened with a peg, and it was almost always too cold in winter to have either the door or window open. Heating was done by a fireplace, also the cooking. To make one they would hunt for stone enough to build the fire chamber against the wooden wall, then the rest of the way they would build it with prairie sod cut in blocks. These often would get loose and crumble down, then, oh, how they would smoke when the wind would blow! Sister had a better outfit for housekeeping than most of the neighbors. One high post bedstead and one homemade one, a nice big chest to keep things dry and safe from mice, also handy for a seat, some trunks, five chairs and a good fall leaf table.

"Well, they took in the four uf us for about a month until Isaac could find a place to winter. They had no shelter outside of the house except a little log stabling covered with prairie straw. In daytime we piled the bedding all on the bedsteads and at night those that slept in the bedsteads had to go to bed first and get out of the way so we could make down the beds for the ones that slept on the floor. The first one up in the morning had to start a good fire so there would be coals on which to cook our breakfast, which was generally corn pone or buckwheat cakes and Orleans molasses. Boots and shoe were made of cowhide. Overshoes had not yet been heard of. Women, most of all, wore the cowhide, as walking in the grass so much quickly spoiled leather. The roads were not traveled enough to make much mud or dust."

After a few weeks with the Mitchells, four more members of the Julian family arrived in Chaariton --- Isaac’s brother, Jacob; his wife, Amanda; their baby, Willie; and “Uncle” Rene Julian, father of Isaac and Jacob. They had traveled earlier with the Julian/Berry party almost to Lucas County, but then headed up into Marion County to visit Leannah (Julian) Woody and her husband, Thompson, Leannah was a sister of Isaac and Jacob, daughter of Rene, and had settled in Marion County three years earlier.

Isaac and Rene Julian set out immediately to find a permanent home for the winter and located in the same neighborhood Jacob Phillips, anxious to sell his place, which had two cabins on it, and return to Illinois. The Jacob Julians settled into one cabin; Isaac and Lucretia, Ellen, Alec and Rene, into the other.

“This cabin was built of hewn logs,” Ellen wrote, “had two doors, a six-pane glass window, a plank floor, and dressed plank the doors were made of. A lean-to or shed room was on the north side, and sod chimney.

“Now we were all nicely located for the winter. It was less than a mile to Mitchells, about a mile to cousin Jesse Wells and about two miles to Uncle Joe (Mitchell). We had three chairs. Uncle Renne got two bedsteads, and a good homemade cupboard that we could shut the mice out of our food. Table about four feed square, and we had some boxes we brought our goods in that we used for seats. The boys made a trundle bed for Uncle Renne that we shoved under one of the other beds in daytime, and at night was pulled near the fire.”

After a winter and summer in this new cabin, other family members --- Sally (Julian) Sullivan and her husband --- arrived in Lucas County. It was decided that they would move in with Rene into the cabin the family had occupied . Isaac, Lucretia and Ellen would move to a new 160-acre claim about a mile and a half southeast of what now is Oakley.

“They made a tent out of the wagon sheets and bed clothes,” Ellen wrote, “until the men could get logs and lumber for the cabin. By this time there was a saw mill on the creek north of Oakley, so we had some native boards for doors and floor, but there was no planning of lumber for this building. We got into it before it got cold. Got some pole and log pens made and covered with prairie straw for the stock. We lived pretty snug and warm that winter. It was now two miles to the nearest neighbor. We now had a cookstove which we put in the middle of the room; one end was the kitchen while the other was the bedroom.”

And with that, Ellen ends the descriptions of her early Lucas County homes.

Prior to 1860, the Sullivans moved on and Isaac and Lucretia bought and moved back with their children and Ellen to the cabin where Rene Julian now was living alone, remaining there five years. During those years, Rene died (on March 16, 1861, age 77) as did Isaac (on 21 January 1865, age 36). All are now buried in the Chariton Cemetery, although Rene at least was buried first at Douglass. Upon Isaac’s death, Lucretia sold the farm and moved with her four children and Ellen into Chariton, ending the family’s log cabin days.

Ellen married Samuel Badger on Dec. 25, 1866, in Chariton, and lived the remainder of her life on farms in the Chariton Point neighborhood, just southeast of town. She died in 1934, some 10 years after writing her memoirs.

Further reading: Copies of Lucas County’s 1881 history may be found in the Lucas County Genealogical Society library at the Chariton Public Library. A complete transcript of Ellen (Berry) Badger’s memoirs may be found here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks Frank, for the comment. Your blog has changed. Looks good. I love the Daisies. Are they Black Eyed Susans, or called something else?