Several months ago, I retold several stories about oxen and heel flies that had been written by John A. Hart in a 1909 book titled History of Pioneer Days in Texas and Oklahoma. Hart was born in Madison County, Kentucky, in 1850 and his mother died when he was two years old leaving John and a two-week old brother. The boys went to live with grandparents in Indiana, and the whole family moved to Texas about 1855.
Mr. Hart gives us an interesting glimpse of frontier life in those long ago days.
“When traveling to church some folks would walk from one to three miles, while others rode horseback and a great many went in ox wagons. The men were generally armed with guns or pistols, a shot pouch and powder horn. In the pouch would be a bar of lead, bullet molds and a rag for patching, and if caps were used, a box of caps, or if a flint lock, several flints. While at church the guns were stacked outside, but the revolvers were never taken off.
“Everyone wore homemade clothing, even shoes and hats, and I have seen some buckskin leather breeches and coats. Some had caps of deer skin with the hair side out. No one ever thought of charging a stranger or traveler for lodging – it was an insult to offer to pay for a night's lodging; stock hunters could travel all over Texas and never be out one cent.
“A trip to the mill was sometimes done with an ox cart or a yoke of oxen to a four-wheeled wagon and corn piled into the cart or wagon for four or five families. A wedding was generally public with everybody invited and everybody went and a grand charivari followed.
“It was the custom to have a grand time at Christmas and if people were to celebrate Christmas now as they did then they would be considered regular outlaws and all be arrested. [I wish Mr. Hart had described those wild festivities.]
“Rope hobbles, bridle reins, clothes lines, and bed cords were nearly all made out of raw hide, although some hair rope was made by cutting off the bush of cattle's tails and twisting the strands into a rope. People were considered quality when they could have a pair of hair bridle reins. Sometimes a hair rope was stretched around the bed when they camped out to keep snakes and tarantulas away as they will not cross a hair rope.
Home sweet home on the frontier. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)
“People always wanted to know when it was going to rain or when the sun or moon would rise and set, and they would pay ten cents for an almanac. I remember when matches sold for ten cents for a box which contained twenty five matches. Only travelers or freighters could afford to use them and matches were not used only in extreme cases. Many times I have walked a mile to borrow fire. Everybody kept a piece of punk and a flint rock to strike fire and by placing the flint on the punk and striking it with a pocket knife, the spark produced would light the punk and you’d have fire Sometimes we would take raw cotton, place it on a skillet lid and sprinkle [gun] powder over it and then take a case knife and strike the lid [to make a spark] knock fire out of the lid and catch the powder and we had fire.
“Three or four families would own a sorghum mill with the rollers made of live oak and the cogs were all wood. The owners of the mill helped each other in making sorghum. We didn’t know sorghum by that name then, it was just plain molasses. A single horse or steer turned the mill and it usually took a driver to keep a steer moving. Each person would make from one to three barrels of molasses. When molasses making was over the youngsters had a candy pulling and everyone would take part.
“Wheat was cut with a cradle by hand and a good cradler could cut about two acres a day. A good binder could keep up with a cradler but generally an acre and a half was a day's work. In case of sickness or distress every person showed a willing hand; if any one got behind with his wheat cutting or anything else, all turned out to help.
“Squirrel and cat hides were dressed by the boys and girls for shoe strings and leather raw hide was used to cover saddles, while sheep skins were used for saddle blankets. Sumac leaves and black jack bark were used in tanning leather. The leaves were gathered while green and the bark was peeled off while the sap was up. These could then be stored away and used any time of the year. The sumac leaves were used for shoe uppers leather and the bark for sole leather. When the hide was ready to tan, the leaves or bark was boiled and the hide to be tanned was placed in a trough. The boiling pulp was placed between the folds of the hide and the liquor poured over it repeatedly for three or four weeks.
“No one thought of going in debt and they paid cash or its equivalent or did without. If anyone would have offered to take a mortgage, the people would not have known what it meant. Borrowing and loaning things, however, was very common; everybody's oxen and wagon or anything else was to loan if anyone wanted to borrow it. Whenever anyone looked for their stock they looked for their neighbor's stock at the same time.”
The good old days?
– Sam Moore