Hopkins County Folk Lore
The Pioneer Women of KentuckyBy Contributing Editor, Carolyn Buntin Eveland
It was early fall in Kentucky. One of those days that was cold in the mornings and hot in the afternoon. The older children were deep into their morning chores. Gathering eggs, feeding chickens, cows and horses while an older boy was struggling with a pail of fresh milk he had just relieved from the cow.
The children could see their breath become filmy vapor in the chilled morning air. Dew was thick upon the grass wetting dress hems and pant legs as the children headed for the house, aprons full of eggs; arms loaded with firewood and the all important pail of milk.
It was an uncommonly beautiful time of the year. The sun was just beginning to send beacons of light through the tall trees as the children performed their tasks. Leaves of red, orange, yellow and purple hidden in the morning mist now took on distinction with the rising of the sun. The early homestead farm stood in the midst of Mother Nature's brilliant tapestry of colors.
The cabin was warm and cozy with the smell of frying bacon whetting the appetites of hungry children. Breakfast consisted of simple fare for indeed the early pioneers only had necessities needed to sustain life when Hopkins County was first settled. Fry Bread or biscuits, gravy, bacon and fresh milk was considered a good start for the day. Sometimes the family sat down to bowls of mush made from corn meal. Eggs were usually saved for cooking or Sunday breakfast.
The fireplace was usually large, taking up one entire wall in the tiny cabin. Huge iron hooks and spits were hung from it, allowing pots simmering with meat or vegetables to be boiled or spit-roasted. A grill of some sort could be laid across the burning logs for frying. Baking was accomplished using a compartment made into the side of the chimney when first constructed. If there was no compartment, burying the bread or meat in a lidded iron kettle or skillet set upon and under a pile of hot coals served the purpose.
The logs for the cabin would have been hewn by hand, including the "shakes" or shingles, which covered the roof. Those who had settled in the area first with a barn or house raising always assisted newcomers. Neighbors gathered for one day only to construct the cabin or barn for the new family. Neighboring wives brought what they had in the way of food to feed the families that had come to be acquainted. All the chopping and hewing of logs, shakes, poles for the frame and numerous other items required in the building of a house were done beforehand by the man of the house and sometimes the woman as well.
Heat from the fire was most welcome this chilly morning but outside temperatures would rise during the day turning the little cabin into a sweltering furnace. That's the way fall is in Kentucky. The temperatures are cool or cold in the mornings and hot in the afternoon. None the less, cook fires were kept burning in summer and winter for obvious reasons.
One or two of the older girls, even at six and seven years of age, were making beds and dressing the little ones.
The kitchen also included the living area and beds for the family. Eventually a small room would be added onto the back of the house where the parents slept. As time past, some of the boys moved into the loft of the cabin for more privacy. Right now however, two of the beds were crammed with the owner's children. Three at the head and two at the foot was the general way the children slept. It was warmer that way in winter but dreadfully hot in the summertime. The parents occupied the third bed usually with a nursing baby lodged between them.
In the 1700's, it was unlikely that a school had been organized in the forested wilderness. Hopkins County didn't become existent until 1807. Mothers usually taught the older children themselves how to read and do simple sums. After the morning meal, she discharged the younger ones to play outside while babies were kept under her watchful eye. Father had been in the fields since first light, returning only for breakfast before his long day started once more. Older children capable of working the fields were sent along with their father while younger girls were set to minding the younger ones outside.
The mother's day was long and tedious. Her time was not only spent in the care of the house and preparing meals but in the numerous outside tasks as well.
Her floors, which were often nothing more than packed dirt, were swept with a sagebrush broom she had made herself. If the woman of the house were lucky enough to have carpets, these would be spread in the middle of the room with furniture placed along the sides. Often the walls were covered with old newspapers or canvas from the wagon they had arrived in. Old crates were used as chairs, or simple stools carved from logs. The table often was nothing more than hewn logs, placed cut side up, upon a trestle. While she worked at this task, water had been set to boiling for washing dishes. The floors swept and dishes done, beans were set to soak upon the stove for the family's supper that night.
Baby was tied in a shawl, which provided a sling around the woman's shoulders. She now headed for the fields herself with a trusty hoe in hand and at least one bucket. The smaller children stayed behind with the older sister who was often only a couple of years ahead of them in age. If there were no older children to tend the little folk, then all the small ones came with her to the fields. One baby on Mother's back; others scampering along or led by the hands. The entourage marched along to join Papa in the fields.
The harvest was mostly over, the lady of the house and older girls having canned and dried vegetables and fruits for months now in preparation of the coming winter. There were tomatoes left, okra, and squash, along with turnips and turnip greens. Huge pumpkins lay in the browning rows and must be carried back to the house. Often a small hand pulled cart or wagon was used for this purpose. The gathering began as soon as she entered the fields.
She didn't have to carry water to the fields for watering so much now with the heavy dews that was upon them. Although during the spring and hot summer, she and Papa had carried bucket after bucket of water to the rows of thriving vegetables.
Some of the pioneer women of the day were fitted with shoulder yokes; much like a team of oxen would wear. The heavy wooden apparatus dug in the shoulders and back of the neck as heavy buckets of water were carried to the house and the fields in this manner.
Oft times a woman would carry two pails of water and balance one upon her head. This is how my great grandmother, Lucy Hoggett Buntin carried water from the spring to her house every day. She was part Cherokee Indian and some thought this was why she could carry two buckets and balance one upon her head. Whatever the reason, it was born of necessity.
My father, Jewell Buntin, and his brother Justin often lived with their grandparents, Thomas and Lucy Buntin on their farm in Hopkins County which was located at the end of present day Niles Row Rd. Of course, this was much later on in the early 1900's. However, much of the same struggle in every day life was still abundant in the lives of those people. I have longed to traipse through those fields and woods, perhaps finding a piece of iron or old tool that I could look upon as belonging to my great grandparents. However, a doublewide trailer sits on the grounds now, prohibiting any wandering through property that I might have.
My Uncle Justin told me a story that has never left my memory although I was just about twelve years of age when I heard it. His grandmother, Lucy, carried large pails of water from the stream "pert near a mile" from their house.
She and Tom had many children and several trips were required each day to bring in all the water the family needed. My uncle, a little boy at the time, was sitting on the doorstep one day. He looked up to see his grandmother, bent over and struggling with the buckets of water. Nearing the house with her last load of the day, she stumbled and fell. All the water was lost. It was the first and last time he ever saw her cry. She sat upon the ground, crying and wiping her face with the back of her hand and apron. After a few moments, she pulled herself upright, gathered her pails and walked slowly back to the stream again. Another two-mile round trip and she would be finished for the day. Such resilience and fortitude of this woman has left me with the yearning to have known her. Unfortunately, she died eight years before I was born.
After several hours had passed in which our pioneer woman had gathered Tomatoes, picked Okra, hoed in the hard, sun dried earth, tended children, and changed dirty diapers, she now had to feed her family. Gathering them to a shaded area, she produced cornbread, salt pork, and a jug of water. All ate and drank greedily in the noon day heat while baby nursed in Mother's lap.
She had to leave the fields much earlier than her husband who was turning the now picked over fields with a horse and plow. Turning under the soil would bring new minerals and growth to the plants, which were to be planted in the spring. Of course, another plowing would have to be done before then. In between times, hogs had to be butchered smoked or dried, some would be packed in salt, fish were caught, cleaned, and stored in wooden barrels also filled with salt for the cold winter ahead. A hundred tasks kept the farmer busy through the winter months, including the repair of harness and gear, sharpening and oiling of hoes, shovels, and the plow. Mending of fences and wagons, maintenance of the house and sheds had to be seen to. Fodder for the animals needed to be put up in a dry place along with the wood for the house fires. The farmer would find himself a nice stand of timber, cut the trees with a hand ax, chop them into small logs, and transport them back to his yard. All in plenty of time for the wood to "cure" before the snow and wetness of winter set in.
Just in time, if her children had returned from school, the older ones were sent about their chores. The beans were put to boil after adding more wood to the fire. Cornbread was stirred up and put in the oven. Tomatoes were peeled and sliced, potatoes, dug from underneath mounds of straw beneath the house, were fried in a heavy black, iron skillet. Fresh turnip greens were boiled with meat grease too. Usually some sort of pork was boiled or baked to feed the many mouths that depended on her for their nourishment.
The days were shorter now and not nearly enough time was left to do all she had to do. Firewood had to be cut and brought in with the help of the boys, if there were any. Dishes had to be washed and put away, coffee had to be ground for Papa's breakfast, and children were bathed. During the week, tub baths were out of the question. Who could or would carry enough water to heat and bathe eight or ten children, plus the perspiring parents? In later years, a pump would be located outside the house but not during these middle to late 1700's and early 1800's.
A bucket of water was warmed on the grate. Coarse rags and Lye soap which she had also made, were scrubbed over the children's face and hands, taking special care of the ones who attended school. Long after the family was snugly tucked in their straw mattresses, the pioneer woman heated her iron upon the dying coals of the fire and ironed clothes long after the candlewick had burned low.
The next day would bring the canning or preserving of the vegetables she had picked the day before. Long hours of intensive labor commenced with the lifting of heavy iron kettles full of vegetables and boiling water. It usually took all day.
Clothes had to be washed and were often carried on her back to the nearest stream. Clothes were soaped with common lye soap. The garments were wet in the flowing water, rubbed with soap, and scrubbed against a flat rock protruding from the water. In the case of heavily soiled clothing, the articles were pounded or slapped against the rock to remove the ground in dirt, then rinsed in the stream. Thus came the task of toting the now much heavier sodden clothes back to her yard and the clothes line or fence for drying. If there were older girls in the home, washday was held when their assistance could be gained. If not, the woman did what needed to be done, managing alone without complaint. If water was closer to the house, it was boiled in huge iron kettles for the weekly laundry.
Nighttime could always find the woman of the house engaged in mending or making clothes as long as the light held out. If the family were fortunate to have a few sheep, it was up to the wife to make the wool from the sheared sheep into material for clothing.
As soon as the sheep was freed from their heavy coat of wool, it was taken to the stream for washing out accumulated dirt. It usually was quite a task to prevent the wool from floating downstream while it was being cleaned and rinsed. After the wool was dry, the tedious task of removing burrs, stickers, and hardened trash began. Next, it was arranged in long thin rolls in preparation for the carding machine. The rolls were spun into thread on a broach at the wheel, then turned into skeins of yarn.
The next process before the yarn was woven into material with the use of the spinning wheel and/or loom, was dyeing it. Browns were made with walnut bark. Rusted iron or nails set brighter colors, wild flowers; especially the Goldenrod was used for yellows, called Nankeen. Sumac and Walnut bark were used for grays, utilizing the acid found in the Sumac head. Blue was a difficult color to manage and in some cases had to be looked after for days. Blue took several dyes mixed together and was a tricky process.
Underwear, trousers, coats, bed clothing and curtains were all hand stitched by the nimble fingered lady of the house. Mittens, hats, scarves and socks had to be knit in addition to the other cloth necessities as well. Often times the actual sewing of the garments was delayed until the arrival of cooler months reduced the load of outside chores. Even straw hats were hand woven for protection from the summer sun. The making of straw mattresses did not escape the hard worker either. For some reason, anything that revolved around a needle and thread was her chore.
Many times the pioneers found no available leather for shoes. Moccasins were made from heavy sinew cords stitched through heavy animal skins. It took strong hands to push the needle or bone implement through the tough pelt with many long hours invested in the making of winter footwear for the family. This in addition, our heroine did without complaint.
In sickness or accidents, the woman was always the backbone of the household. Doctors were usually non-existent if any were to found at all in those very earliest of pioneer days.
Women of that time spent many long hours in the woods selecting with careful scrutiny the herbs and plants used in her medicine kit. She treated snakebite, measles, poison ivy, chicken pocks, small pocks, malaria, and everything minor or major in between.
Women even made toothbrushes for her family from the splayed ends of a Sassafras twig.
Children were born at home with no doctor usually in attendance. Sometimes a mid-wife could be fetched to attend the woman in childbirth, sometimes not. The death rate was high among children born to women of those olden days. Large numbers of babies were born into the household, but only a handful to a few normally survived until adulthood. Grievous tears and heartbreak clung to many a tiny grave in the family's backyard.
In the midst of all the pain and toil, this woman exhibited pride in her work, her home and her family. She laughed and danced at the rural dances or house raisin's that were held infrequently with her peers. This woman was a gracious hostess, always ready to set another plate for the traveler or neighbor who showed up unexpectedly on her doorstep. She was a helpmate to her husband, children, and neighbors. She hummed and sang while performing the most menial tasks. Though her life was unmistakably hard, common sense and a goal for the future fortified her mind and thoughts.
Commonly a church would be the first community building erected if a cluster of neighbors dwelled fairly close to each other. Before a church was built, settlers held services in each other's homes. There our pioneer family could be found each service if possible. The woman gloried in her simple faith, believing with all her heart, every word that was read from the greatest book of them all, the Holy Bible. Giving endless thanks to the Creator for all her many blessings, her soul soared in the revelation that she was indeed a child of God. She asked for help when she needed it too, believing fully that Divine Assistance was coming her way. The visiting and eating that followed the preaching was a delightful rejuvenation for her spirits and a balm to her woman's heart.
Crowded into a crude wagon we find the family slowly making for home. In sweet remembrance of this day, her pride in her family and the love of her neighbors, she lifted her voice and sang anew in praise to the God she worshipped.
Copyright © 2000 by Carolyn Buntin Eveland
Nancy Trice, © 2000