A Day In The Life of Early Mason County


It’s about 6 a.m. on an early spring day in 1789. Our pioneer, perhaps John Downing, realizes its time to get up. It’s cold inside his un-chinked cabin. He jumps out of bed, stirs the coals in the fireplace, add a couple of logs, and crawls back in bed to let the cabin warm a little. There is no need for John to dress as he has worn his breechcloth and hunting shirt to bed. John’s wife, Susannah, rises and starts breakfast. After breakfast of corn much and bear grease John shaves a bit of tea from the block for his morning cup. He gives his children their morning chores. Ellis, the oldest at 18, will help his father with firewood, Nancy 17 and James 16 are dispatched to fetch water from the spring. Susanna 13 and Joseph 12 are put in charge of their younger siblings. Mary 10; Sarah 8; the twins Dorcus and Deliah 6; Catherine 4, Lydia 2 and Rachael the newborn.

Although John, Ellis and James had cut nearly 30 cords of wood last year, the supply is almost completely depleted and firewood is a basic necessity. John and Ellis drop a load of wood on the hearth. John picks up his rifle and heads out to his newest field to work. He stuffs some fry cakes and jerky inside his hunting shirt for lunch. Several dogs follow him out as he carries his axe, hoe, and seed bag in his left hand and totes his loaded rifle in his right hand. The rifle will be his constant companion due to the threat of marauding Shawnee. If it comes to a fight he also has a tomahawk and a knife slid through his belt. It wouldn’t be the first or the last time he had to use them.

His first task of the day is preparing a section of next year’s field. Instead of clearing the land he cuts a 6 inch wide strip of bark from around the trunk of several trees. This will kill the trees and let light down to the ground below. He will plant this field like he has all the others. Instead of plowing and grubbing the soil, he burns off the ground cover and makes little 4 inch hills where he can plant between the stumps. Into each hill he places four or five kernels of seed corn. Spring is when food is in short supply. Until the kitchen garden begins producing spring vegetables, their diet is going to be monotonous. Even with the poor quality of game meat John decides to spend the rest of the day hunting.

John heads into the woods with his dogs. The only game he can find this close to home is squirrels. If he was to shoot them with his large caliber rifle most of the meat would be wasted. Instead he shoots the limb just under them. John manages to “ bark “ four good sized squirrels. At least his family will be able to eat for another day. John gets home as night falls and drops his bounty into the stew pot. Dinner is served an hour later. The whole family eats together sharing their cups and the older helping the younger. The conversation is lively as they discuss their day. Everyone is particularly excited when Susannah announces that they are invited to neighbors on Saturday for a barn raising. They are sure to go as it is only a trip of two miles. After dinner everyone has a few little odds and ends to attend to so they gather around the fireplace. John whittles out pegs to join the beams at the barn raising. The oldest children are spinning some wool on drop spindles, and Susannah is busy sewing squares of scrap cloth in with which to make another quilt.

The family retires early. Candles are scarce and there is little grease left for the betty lamp. The children all climb the ladder to the loft, the infants are put down in their boxes. John banks the fire and pulls the latch cord from the cabin door. As the flame dies in the fireplace John and Susannah lie down in their rope bed and nod off to sleep. After all, tomorrow will be another day.

Adapted by Ken Downing

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