Come take a walk with me back in time, along a trail less traveled. Have you ever wondered what the view from the window of a pioneer cabin in the mid-1800s might hold?
With a family living in a small cabin trying to make ends meet and adjusting to life in the West without the conveniences and safety of city life, the view was often very special and brought the occupants a sense of peace knowing the land they surveyed was their own. At an ancestor’s cabin, the view included a ridge where two little children rest in their graves beneath the cedars. If they could see a neighbor’s cabin and know others were living nearby, undoubtedly visiting was done. Often cabins were close together, and a small community was formed.
Through their windows pioneers could see their fields and gardens and hear the voices of their children as they played. Love and laughter and persistence and pain formed everyday life for the pioneers. Each day had its assigned tasks whether it be wash day, bake day or canning day. Every day saw pioneer settlers busy trying to accomplish necessary jobs in order to build success into their lives. Pioneer parents spent their lives raising their children. The taught them work ethics and basic school skills, and worked to keep them healthy and protected.
Keeping things clean was a daily effort. With a family living in such close quarters, as much time as possible was spent outdoors. Trail dust and debris collected deep within the creases in their clothes and permeated the walls of their cabins making laundry day a weekly event if water was close by. Otherwise, weeks or a month passed without clothes washed. A wash board was a necessity that the pioneer woman used. Clothes were dipped in hot soapy water and rubbed across the ribbed board to get dirt and stains out. Soap was hand made and didn’t give many suds. However, it was strong and cleaned the clothes. Fingers formed cracks that sometimes never healed until summer because of the harshness of the soap and the conditions under which the laundry was done.
When it came to baking, daily biscuits were made from sour dough and flour. They were hot and delicious at mealtime, but loaves of bread baked in the indoor fireplace took time and often 12 to 15 loaves were baked in one day, depending on the size of the family and hired hands on the farm or ranch. Some farms and ranches were well enough off to hire a cook to cook for the ranch hands, but most were fed by the wife and mother of the family. If a family were lucky enough to own a milk cow, they had plenty of sweet milk, cream, cheeses and butter. A springhouse was built over a cold spring on their property as close to the cabin as possible. If there was a creek running by, then the springhouse was built across that, and boards were laid to form a floor with logs for the walls and roof. A small door accessed it, and shelves lined the inside. Canvas curtains covered the shelves, and if it could be obtained, wire screen. My grandmother, who lived on a remote ranch, had the shelves in her springhouse covered with canvas, and upon the shelves would be placed pans of milk, churned butter, cottage cheese, pies, and anything else that needed to be kept cool. As a small child, I remember going inside my grandmother’s springhouse and getting goosebumps on my arms from the chill inside, even in the heat of summer. When it was really hot, my grandfather would pour water over the canvas curtains to help chill the food items.
At the DUP Museum on Vine Street in Tooele, look carefully for candle molds, and see if you know what they are when you find them. Pioneers had to make their own candles since the nearest store was about 2,000 miles away. They burned smoky and dimly, but they served their purpose in keeping the cabin light enough to see in at night. There was no time during daylight hours for sewing and mending, so usually this was attended to at night after the daily chores and supper were finished. Doing such work was difficult in the flickering light from a candle. A coal oil lamp was barely better. Some pioneers had kerosene lamps and lanterns as trade opened the West, and that made life a little easier for the pioneers.
Life and death played out within the walls of the pioneer cabin. Birth, with help from a midwife or neighbor occurred there, as did death, with family gathered round the bed caring for and easing the family member or friend’s passing.
Well worn trails between cabins and farms and ranches can still be seen and followed today, if we watch carefully. Little feet running between pioneer homes wore a trail, and later hoofprints from ridden ponies and driven cattle made the trail deeper and lasting. My grandmother could look out her window and see black willow trees planted near the spring where her springhouse was and hear her children as they played about the ranch. From her window she watched a wild herd bull come into the yard and start a fight with their bull. She kept the children away from the windows and they laid on the floor so the wild bull would leave and not attack. Despite dangers and trials, she told my dad of the fulfillment and peace that living on a ranch brought her.
Determination, dedication, faith and courage helped the pioneers as they built their cabins, settled the land, and watched through their windows the patterns of the seasons upon their lives.
Patricia Holden is the publicist for the Tooele County Company of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers. She is also a member of the DUP SheepRock Camp. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.