Monday, December 27, 2010

New Year's Eve on the Prairie

I was initially drawn to my love of history because I was encouraged by the lives of pioneer women during a very difficult time in life. Learning about what they endured gave me perspective on my own trials. As we close out 2010 and ponder the New Year, I thought you might find a pioneer woman’s New Year’s musings of interest. I’ve interspersed the historic record with some personal musings [In brackets]

Emily Carpenter was 42 years old when, on August 12, 1872, she and her family (which included 3 boys and 4 girls ranging in age from 1 to 16 years old) left Bear Creek Valley in Wisconsin headed for Nebraska. The Carpenters two-wagon train included oxen Buck & Bright, Tom & Jerry, Dave & Dandy, and Duke & Derby, four cows, a gray pony named Badger, and Colonel—the dog. Moving wasn’t new to Emily. She’d already lived in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and two different counties in Wisconsin.[So much for the idea of pioneers living a hundred years on the home place!]

The Carpenters move came as a result of a letter from a homesteading friend in Nebraska. Seven children, their parents, and a brother-in-law began life “in a house of one room size 14 x 16 with attic.” [Oh … my … goodness. And I thought MY house was small for company!]That winter they “put up a story and half frame house with a combined kitchen, dining room and living room, a bedroom and pantry down stairs and one large room upstairs. [And that was the “big new house.”]”

Mrs. Carpenter served as a nurse/midwife in the neighborhood and “was noted for being able to go calmly from one case to another.” She lived on her homestead for 32 years. One of her daughters paid tribute this way: “If Ma could write a line -- her line in that big book up there -- I know about what she would write. Something like this: ‘arrived here safely after a few mishaps.’ These are the words she wrote in her journal when they arrived in Gibbon at the close of their trip from Wis. in the fall of 1872.”

As you contemplate the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011, I thought you might find a few New Year’s Eve entries from a Nebraska pioneer woman’s diary of interest:


Christmas tree New Years Day. We all went except E.W.C. and Lydia. The tree was very good but some were offended at the jokes. [The more things change, the more they stay the same!] The young folks watched the Old Year out and New in at Pool's ranch. They sang the old out the New in. Many that commenced the year with us have gone to their long home. Our hearts have been made sad many times during the past few months at parting with friends. I went to town once during the year. [Did you catch that? She went to town ONCE … all year.] Brought home some few things for Christmas.


The last day of the old year. The day is cold and dreer. The storm is howling. No one is in today. All shivering around a cob fire. [Thank you, Father, for central heat … forgive me for complaining about the bill.] Yet we should not complain, for many would be glad of as good. [Give me a heart to thank you like Mrs. Carpenter’s.] Winter with his frosty breath is giving us a little of the Artic regions where he is supposed to hold his coast. The past year has brought many changes to our family. Hulda and Cyril married the past year. [Thank you for the new love you’ve given young couples this past year!] Steve's little boy has come to greet us all with his pleasant smiles. Randie's little girl with her dear little coaxing ways has stole our hearts away. [Thank you for grand-children and their pleasant smiles and dear little coaxing ways. What a joy it is to spoil them.] May the coming year be a happy one and may we all be spared to the close. [May I ever be mindful of the blessing of today and not take it for granted.]


The last day of the year has come again. The day is nice and warm. . . . The evening finds only mother, E.W.C. and I at home. Mother has gone to her room. . . I sit here and think over the changes of the year. Dear little Fannie has gone, forever is still the little voice. Dear little one "gone before.". . . Uncle Aaron Sleeper has died during the year. [Thank you, Father, for the medical advances that have made children’s illnesses less life-threatening.] Five grand children have come to bless and cheer. May their lives be happy. Poor Mrs. Hunneybun was among the living a year ago and also Mrs. Whitakers, now they have joined the majority. Soon we shall join them a few years at the most. Soon we shall lay the burden down. Soon we shall rest from all the toil and care of earth. [My life is so much easier than it would have been in 1888. Thank you for tall the labor-saving inventions. Help me to complain less.] How blest if our work is only well done. From all our toil to find release. At the close of the year we are given to sober thoughts. Shall we be here at the close of the coming year, and if here will we be happy in the consciousness of a year well spent in good. Let us strive to be active in good work, slow to do or think evil to our neighbor, Make the golden mile our mile. [Amen, Lord!] So shall our days in contentment be passed, knowing we have done our best. Good-bye little book and old year. Laid by are you both. You pages are written full. We can not go back now to make any changes. Good-bye, good-bye.


To night is the last of 1889 The year has sped away with the swiftness of an arrow shot from the bow. Friends dear are gone who were here at the beginning. They have turned their faces from us and have gone; others have crossed to the other shore, and O! how we miss them.


The last day of 1895 has come. Soon the last day of our life. So many have gone during this year. Our little Agnes went and how our hearts ache. So young to bid all goodbye. No more will her feet on willing errands go. Never more on us to smile. The little hands are still that were so busy. yes, she has passed to the great beyond where others of our dear ones have gone. What would we not give to know if they have met and know each other there. In God's own time all will be manifest. A few more years at most will be lived, then too we shall join the many.

May we all begin the new year with Mrs. Carpenter’s sense of “making the most of the time” as Ephesians says … BLESSED NEW YEAR!

Monday, December 20, 2010

White Christmas

Remember featherbeds and pallets on the floor? Remember sleeping in you grandparents unheated upstairs and making a run for it in the morning to dress by the stove in your grandmother's kitchen? Remember being snowed in and loving it?

Much of the nostalgia I feel about having snow this time of year is probably a result of the modern era inventions that have made it so much easier to deal with the effects. Here's a heroic (at least I see him as a hero) storm story related by one Nebraska pioneer who was writing to his wife back home about his experiences in the west:

... now I can tell you of one of the most terrible storms I ever witnessed. It struck us at sunset Sunday evening with wind & rain ... Monday morning it turned to snow ... the storm lasted from sunset Sunday evening till near midnight Wednesday night making near 80 hours storm. When we would go out to try to do anything for the stock we could not see other more than from 5 to 10 ft & to be heard we had to shout at the top of the voice on account of the wind blowing such a gale ... there was a woman about a mile from here with 4 children whose husband was away from home and I knew she had but little wood if any so Wednesday afternoon I concluded to make the effort to reach her and see how they were getting along & I had to go right against the storm ... I would proceed abut 5 rd [rods] then turn and get a little breath then try it again in this way I succeeded in reaching the house & she was mighty glad to see me as they were out of wood and the ax buried under the snow. They had been in bed for 2 days only as she would break up something in the house to burn & cook something for the children to eat the oldest was only 7 years old. I dug the ax from under the snow hunted my way to a pig pen got a couple of poles and cut wood enough to do till next day then started home again ...

I'm thankful I don't have to worry about getting to the well and hauling in water, or breaking frozen water before I can wash up or make coffee in the morning. I often have the luxury of avoiding even going out when the weather is at its worst. Oh, I do my share of whining about shoveling and snowblowing when Nebraska winters rage, but overall, I have it fairly easy compared to my pioneer foremothers.

Have a safe and blessed Christmas, friends ... and a white one, too, if that's your heart's desire.

Stephanie G.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Syllabub at Belle Meade

Past this stone wall (how old is it? who built it? did slaves labor create it?, a long drive carries you towards a house in the distance that's reminiscent of Tara. Of course you're only a visitor and it's 2010, so you won't be approaching the house from this angle. Instead, you'll drive around to the side of the house, park, buy a ticket, and pass through the gift shop and by a restaurant and back outside where you encounter barn and carriage house, smokehouse, and doll house until ... finally ... you join other guests and wait. You look towards the road, trying to imagine what it must have been like to live here in the days when Belle Meade was a working horse farm five thousand acres large. Railroad tracks brought buyers and mares, and took yearlings to the big spring sale. Today, however, Belle Meade sits atop a hill in the middle of the greater Nashville area. In fact, it wouldn't be hard to drive right by without a glance. Turn back towards the house, and a docent dressed in period dress helps your imagination carry you back in time. She has an authentic and delightful southern accent and she adores history ... and you can tell.

The women of Belle Meade are, like the women of many historic sites, hard to find at first. I don't have a portrait of the woman I'd like to show you today, but her photograph is atop a sideboard in the main hall of this great house. She wears a wide white collar that comes to a point in the front, and the docent explains that, were you coming to visit back in the day, this African American woman would open the door and greet you before guiding you into whichever of the four rooms on the main floor were appropriate. That would, of course, depend on your station in life and who you were here to see. Were I transported back in time, I wouldn't have dared come to the front door of this place. I don't know where I would have been at Belle Meade, since my skin is white ... but my people were poor.

I try to imagine what it would have been like to spend time in these parlors ... but I can't. I have to admit, the finery makes me want to bolt.
The people who graced these rooms would have been horrified by my lack of ... just about everything. I would have needed to spend a lot of time with the book I bought in the gift shop titled Fashionable Dancer's Casket or the Ball Room Instructor a new and splendid work on Dancing, Etiquette, Deportment and the Toilet.

"In the selection of colors," the book advises, "a lady must consider her figure and her complexion. If slender and sylph-like, white or very light colors are generally supposed to be suitable; but if inclined to embonpoint (that would be me), they should be avoided, as they have the reputation of apparently adding to the bulk of the wearer." Some things never change. Women had to be concerned with their figures back then, too.

Up the sweeping staircase to the guest rooms (the family had a separate wing), you can imagine the ladies here, because mannequins have been dressed in period costume. Such tiny waists ... how did they breathe? Such elegance. Did they ever let their hair down and just relax? I can almost see Scarlett O'Hara clinging to one of these bed posts and ordering the woman who's picture I just saw in the downstairs hall to lace her up.

Well ... once laced up, I imagine the ladies had no trouble at all finding great satisfaction in a tablespoon or so of the syllabub waiting in the parlor downstairs. I thought I'd close the blog with a recipe from Amelia Simmons, an American orphan (yes, she had that on the book) who wrote, American Cookery: or, the art of dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables, and the best modes of making Puff-Pastes, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards, and Preserves, and all kinds of CAKES, From the Imperial PLUMB to plain CAKE. Adapted to this country, and all grades of life. (WHEW ... now THERE's a title!)

To make a fine Syllabub from the Cow.

Sweeten a quart of cyder with double refined sugar, grate nutmeg into it, then milk your cow into your liquor, when you have thus added what quantity of milk you think proper, pour half a pint or more, in proportion to the quantity of syllabub you make, of the sweetest cream you can get all over it.

Let me know how it tastes................................and bon appetit!

--Stephanie G.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Square Root of Something is Nothing

Society women of the 19th century wanted to be known for their talents in the arts, not for their smarts. Most didn’t go to school, but were taught the basics of reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic by their governess or perhaps a hired tutor. As women, it was more important they were adept at playing piano, singing, doing embroidery, or painting. Adept, but not too good at it. To excel, or heaven forbid, to try to earn money with one’s talent, was forbidden.

Fine. I can accept that. Until I start to put myself in their shoes. I’ve always been good at math. How would I have fared back then? Would I have been allowed to use my math-gift? I think of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. She was able to add a column of numbers in her head—which came in handy when she took over her husband’s general store and started a lumber mill. But she was the exception.  And face it, she wasn't real.

Being good at math . . . would I have even known I was good at it? I think that’s the saddest part about women of history. What gifts were left undiscovered? How many female mathematicians, scientists, or engineers went through their lives having no inkling of their natural strengths?
Marie Curie observing uranium

Of course there are the exceptions: Madame Curie (physicist & chemist who studied radioactivity, and won two Nobel prizes), Elizabeth Blackwell (first female doctor in the USA), Emily Roebling (engineer on the Brooklyn Bridge). But what about the women of the middle class, or even women from the poorest classes? Those who had to work for a living might have had a chance to utilize their practical gifts, but they probably didn’t have the chance to know if they were good at those talents so cherished by the upper classes: singing, playing piano, embroidering, or painting. So who had it best in this regard?

Elizabeth Blackwell

I haven’t a clue.

The theme of all my novels is constant: we each have a unique purpose—the trick is to find out what it is. Because this desire-to-know is so ingrained in me, I feel extra pain in knowing so many women through the ages have not fulfilled their potential.
Emily Roebling

And yet who of us have?

What we can learn from these women who were subjected to stifling rules, is that we—who have no such rules--have no excuse for not making a concerted effort to discover all our gifts and talents, and to use them to make some kind of difference in the world.

So stop right now. Make a list of what you know you’re good at, what you think you might be good at, and what would be your dream “gift”. Take an accounting of all that you are—and can be. Then use your gifts to the fullest.

Do it for all the women who’ve gone before.//Nancy

Monday, December 6, 2010

Women and the Battle of Franklin

There is no portrait of a lady to share this week. The women who herded their children down these stairs while a fierce battle waged around them are barely mentioned in this place. They are, as I said last week, more of a footnote to the story of the Battle of Franklin, wherein eighteen thousand mostly barefoot and starving Confederate soldiers engaged the Federal army.Hay bales literally yards from this back door mark the line of battle, but the battle doesn’t stop at those hay bales. It surges past it until
men fight in the yard while sisters and mothers and children huddle in a stone-lined basement room, and two non-combatants do their best to keep soldiers
in search of respite from breaking in.

One of the men in that basement room, Moscow Carter, has already been a prisoner of war. His wife is dead and he has signed the oath of allegiance to the union so he can get home to help care for his four children. Moscow’s father, Fountain Branch, is also a widower. When Fountain Branch and his wife Polly moved into this lovely

brick home, it was at the edge of town on Columbia Pike, the main road to Nashville. It takes more than a little effort to imagine farmland and isolation today, as our tour guide tells us that the
cotton gin was across the two-lane paved road near the Dominos Pizza.

But in the basement, with the saw-marks still evident on the undersides of the floorboards above your head and the faint aroma of “basement,” it gets easier to imagine the four women living here in what must have sounded like hell.

One woman, Fountain Branch’s daughter-in-law, has come north from Mississippi with her two children … to be safer. What must she be thinking as she huddles in the basement? Can she hear the bullets peppering the side of the house? Can sh
e hear the screams?

When the battle is over, Squire Carter and his two daughters light lanterns and go looking for their brother, Todd. He’s been off at war for a long while; a courier and aide to one of the generals fighting here. He’s out there … somewhere. They find him, only 175 yar

ds from the house. He’s been lying on the battlefield through the long, frigid night. While an 8-year-old and an 11-year-old hold lanterns, a doctor operates on Todd’s head wound and moves on to others. He will use the parlor for a surgical theatre. Forty hours later, resting in the room pictured on the right. wounded in what was left of the family’s vegetable garden, Todd will die just a few yards from the room where he was born.

In two days, when the Confederate army leaves the area for Nashville and another ill-fated battle, the women of Franklin will be called on to nurse the wounded left behind. Thousands of wounded. The nurse’s photographs do not hang on the walls of the Carter House museum alongside those of the men they cared for. [Photos aren't allowed there.]

The women of Franklin remain mostly nameless, represented in the museum only by an ammunitions chest that Moscow Carter found on the battlefield and the family (presumably the women) later used “to hold quilts,” and in the fine running stitches that hold white stars on the blue ground of a hand-pieced flag “presented to the men of Company D, First Tennessee Regiment … by the ladies of Franklin.”

Who were they? What were they names? What did they look like? How did they feel about … anything?

The museum doesn’t tell us. The tour guide doesn’t say. And the walls of Carter House keep those secrets.