Thursday, April 30, 2009



Roberta C.M. DeCaprio

I’d like you to envision boggy earthen floors, stifling heat, freezing cold nights, no privacy, mice, bugs and other vermin crawling all over the food you eat and where you sleep. Am I giving you a glimpse of what the contestants on the CBS show Survivor endure? It might sound that way, but NOPE! What I’m really showing you is what it was like to live in a typical frontier dwelling.
After completing the task of raising four walls and a roof, homesteaders found it was equally hard to make their homes livable. Water was a primary need for sustaining crops and the homesteaders themselves. For this reason most settlers staked their claims near rivers, streams, or springs. But these prime locations quickly became unavailable, and most families had no choice but to dig a well for their water source.
Well water was initially drinkable, but for practicality purposes the well was located close to the house . . . along with the barn, chicken coop, outhouse and manure pile. Human and animal waste seeped into the earth, contaminating the well. Many settlers had to boil the well water before using or consuming it.
In the winter, melted snow supplemented the water supply, as well as rain caught in barrels. But more times then not this way to obtain water was not plentiful enough. Consequently they were forced to seek out the nearest water supply, hauling back to their homes water-filled barrels in ox or horse drawn wagons. This took a lot of time and it was back breaking work.
Because of the water scarcity, the way homesteaders conserved their supply was by bathing in the same bathwater. Entire families would share a tub of water and a bath was limited to once a week. The first family members to get into the tub were the parents, followed by the children, going down the line from eldest to youngest. By the time the baby got a turn, the water was quite black, and the part of the child’s body beneath the water couldn’t be seen. Hence the phrase, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” was coined.
After the family bath, the filthy bathwater was then used for light cleaning and heavy laundry. To conserve water further, settlers didn’t wash or rinse their dishes after eating. Pioneer mothers instructed their children to “clean their plates,” and they meant it literally. Thus coining another phrase parents say at the dinner table to their children. Fortunately, modern day parents mean something entirely different.
Disposal of human waste was another problem. Frontier toilets ranged from an agreed-upon scrub or hole in the ground, to a free-standing sod or wooden outhouses. Outhouses were usually an oblong, boxed structure, three to four feet square and around seven feet high. Built into the back wall of the outhouse was a two foot high wooden box with an oval-shaped hole cut into it. The wooden box served as the toilet. Fancy outhouses had lids that covered the hole.
The outhouse structure was positioned over a five to six foot deep hole dug in the earth. When the hole filled, the outhouse was moved. In winter the droppings would freeze and form a pile that would eventually reach the seat. Resourceful homesteaders kept sticks and shovels in the outhouse to knock down the problem.
There was little one could do about the stench. Sprinkling lye or lime down the hole after use helped to control the smell, which became unbearable in hot weather. In the middle of the night, especially during winter, homesteaders were spared the long walk to the outhouse if they used a chamber pot. The basin was kept in the house, usually beneath the bed and emptied in the outhouse come morning.
Outhouses were fly magnets, and often the winged insects found their way into the house. Window screening, though it existed, was expensive and hard to come by. Therefore, flies and mosquitoes swarmed over dining tables, food and sleeping homesteaders. Smokey smudge fires built outside the house helped to cut down on the vermin, but most times a child in the family was given the chore to wave a small branch over the dinner table to keep the bugs off the food.
Large furniture pieces such as stoves, bedsteads, tables and dressers were too hard to transport on the trail west. Often, if a family did take such belongings, they were abandoned along the way to lighten the load the oxen and horses carried. So frontier homes were furnished fairly simple. Upended trunks served as wardrobes and dressers, packing boxes stuffed with pillows became trundle beds and empty barrels were fashioned into rocking chairs.
Homesteaders pasted layers of newspaper to the walls of their homes to keep out drafts and insulate the house. Women made curtains for the few windows they had and wove bits of cloth to make rugs. But even with a roof over their heads, settlers on the frontier never ceased to battle the daily struggles they faced . . . weather, the wilderness and putting food on their rough-hewn tables.


Celia Yeary said...

Roberta--I was so excited to read this. My dh has some old papers, hand-written, by his great-grandfather's second wife. They made a home in North Texas in a cave, and she gave birth to twin boys. One of them went on to settle a town in Texas. The account is how they lived in the cave, and when her husband went away for some reason, she was left alone with the babies. She writes that a "lion" came to the cave and stayed outside and protected them. No one can figure out what she actually saw--the description sounds like a big, shaggy dog. We have those papers, they're difficult to read, but oh, what a treasure. Now, I'm going to dig them out and read again! Thank you--this was wonderful. Celia

Deborah Schneider said...

A reminder that any day we "whine" about what we have to do, it's still nothing compared to what our fore-mothers endured.

Every time we go camping, I'm happy to come home and enjoy modern luxuries.

Paty Jager said...

Great information, Roberta! There was a building on our ranch when I was a child that had newspaper stuffed in the walls for insulation. It had been an old homestead. It was fun to try and read the pages before they crumpled into small pieces.