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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Those good old days? Red Willow County in the 1870s

Monday, April 23, 2012

Today, there is considerable talk of hard times, and great concern for the "Poor," by the government and private agencies. These measures are beneficial, for 2012, however our standard of living in this age, for people in every economic class, is infinitely higher than it was for the early white settlers in Red Willow County.

We have recently come across a manuscript by Mary Loomis McDonald, the daughter of Russell and Fidelia Cooley Loomis, among the earliest settlers in Red Willow County, in the early 1870s. Her stories are interesting -- often heartrending, of a time that today is difficult to comprehend.

Many of the husbands of those early families had fought in the Civil War. Most had fought on the side of the North, but all came to Nebraska with the hope that things would be better for them than if they stayed in the East, where economic conditions were bleak following the cessation of hostilities. Many of the first settlers to our region, if not most, were Christians. They saw, as one of their first priorities, a place that the settlers might worship. One place they chose was in a tent, the home of Royal and Flora Buck. This location was quite centrally located (in the vicinity of Red Willow, on the banks of the Republican. Mary Loomis remembered that families traveled long distances -- often as much as five miles, via ox cart, yet they rarely missed and were on time for the service, at which various men took turns in preaching and leading the singing.

Gilbert Nettleman, a highly educated and cultured gentleman from Indianola was vitally interested in the churches of the area. There were no pianos or organs, of course, but Mr. Nettleman had brought a small Melodian with him when he came to the area and frequently loaded that instrument into his ox cart and brought it to various church services in the area, so that the members of the congregation could have instrumental accompaniment to their singing..

Mr. Nettleton was elected as superintendent of all the schools in the district. He was a dedicated educator, and as he had no horse he was forced to drive an ox cart or walk to the schools in his district -- as far as Stockville, which he did on a regular basis. Mr. Nettleman, in those very early days in Red Willow County, organized "literaries," to which the entire community turned out for a day of songs, readings, spelling bees and debates.

In the summer of 1872, the counties of Furnas, Phelps, Red Willow and Hitchcock were organized. Russell Loomis was one of the judges at the first Red Willow County election.

Soon after the first county election, the first school in Red Willow County began -- in a sod house, across the road from the later Red Willow School. Miss Sublima McNeal, a maiden lady, taught a three month session in each of the two schools in the district until she accepted a position as a teacher in the first permanent school, which was built in Indianola.

Some of the early women to Red Willow County had come from prominent families back east, and for them the change must have been particularly harsh. There was no such thing as face-paint or make-up. There was no shopping for clothes, and no sewing machines (and no money). All clothing had to be sewn by hand, even overalls for the men and boys. Style was only something to be remembered from the past. The one thing that they could do was see that the clothes their families did wear were clean, and in this pioneer women took great pride.

In those days of "inconveniences," the only lighting after the sun had set was with coal oil lamps and lanterns. Electricity was still many years away -- unheard of, and even if someone had told of this marvel he would have been disbelieved. When a family ran out of coal oil for the lamps, the lady of the house put bacon grease in a sauce pan, then twisted piece of rag, so that the end of the rag extended over the dish. The cloth was then lit and it was this dim light that the lady of the house used, as she sat nearby to sew or knit. Her hands were never idle. She had a large family to care for, sewing by hand -- knitting stockings, socks, mittens, and mufflers for the entire family -- plus hours on end that she spent patching clothes and darning socks.

In addition, the lady of the house was the one who put on a brave front for the family -- making the best of every situation. Children recalled with pleasure the tasty meals their mothers put on the table, when there had been so little with which to prepare them. With lye made from wood ashes, she made corn hominy. Corn bread was a staple, at first made from corn the family had to buy. There was much joy when they were able to use corn which they had grown.

Mattresses, as we have come to know, were absent from the settlers' homes. Bed ticks were filled with lumpy corn husks -- or a step up, with straw or hay. Still, everyone slept peacefully -- unless there were rumors of Indian raids, which tended to dominate bad dreams.

The mother of the house used straw to braid for hats for her men, to protect them from the hot sun, when they had to cut their grain crop with a "cradle" or scythe, then bundle the grain with wisps of straw, prior to threshing the grain with a flail.

Hay for winter feeding of cattle was cut with a scythe, raked up by hand with a homemade rake. Corn was harvested by hand, and then shelled by hand! The men did all the clearing and plowing with a walking plow, then cultivated with a hoe. It was a proud day when they were able to possess a one horse cultivator. It was slow going, but quicker than the hoe.

The first settlers who came to Red Willow County built their homes along the creeks or river, where water and timber were plentiful. Later arrivals needed to homestead on the divides, where water there was scarce, and even if wells could be dug, they were costly. So water was hauled in barrels from the creeks, or a neighbor's well. People were eager to improve their property. Some cut lumber from the creeks was used to build rude log huts, but the lumber was "green" and it warped and shrunk horribly, making for very leaky houses. Only a few houses had rough wooden floors, (and then only in the main room), -- which they covered with a layer of hay, then covered that with "mother's rag carpet." The other rooms had bare, solidly packed, dirt floors.

The roof of the house was made of sod and when the rains came "that dirt roof did leak!" There was not a dry spot in the house when it rained. The children tried to find shelter under the table, or the bed, but soon the murky water was bound to drip through. Then, disgustedly, they went outside into the rain. At least the rain was clean and "we got it first-hand."

Chairs, tables, and beds were hand-made -- crude, but they served their purpose.

In the Loomis family food was not really a problem, as father (Russell) was a very good hunter, Mrs. Loomis was a good cook and the family usually had enough to eat. On the prairie, at that time, social contacts were very important. In the Loomis family, Russell proudly proclaimed that neighbors and strangers (Indians excepted), were always welcome to share the Loomis table. No one was ever turned away hungry. The latch-string was always out. There was no modern latch on the door, only a homemade door latch with a string, which pulled a slat up and allowed the door to be opened. The door was never locked, partly because there was not much to steal, but more because neighbors were cherished. Everyone was in the same boat. Neighbors were like an extended family, and folks helped one another--which was necessary for survival.

For the Loomis family, they missed the treat of maple sugar, which they had so enjoyed back in Michigan. It was with real joy that they discovered that tapping the sap of the local box-elder trees could be similarly used, and that syrup was almost as good as the maple. Russell and the boys hewed out troughs, then tapped the trees, and soon the sap was dripping. The sap was then gathered and would be boiled down to a fine syrup. The children helped gather the sap and would stay in the "sugar bush" (box-elder grove) until the syrup was ready to carry to the house. Mother Loomis then boiled it down some more until it became sugar. Mary remembered that she never ate anything better than that syrup on pancakes and the preserves that her mother made of the wild plums, sweetened with box-elder syrup was the best ever. Life was not without its little rewards.

Source: Prairie Schooner Days, by Mary Loomis McDonald (at High Plains Museum)


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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By