My mother was, and still is, into the study of genealogy or basically, what’s in the family tree. She covered the walls of our home with photographs of relatives, some going back to the time of the Civil War. To be quite honest with you the further back they went the uglier those people were. Some of them, especially the women, scared the crap out of me and I would go out of my way to avoid those dreadful gazes, especially when I was in the house alone.
Many years later, as I became interested in the study of history, I would come across photos of those scary old gals in their younger days and most were quite attractive. So what happened during the middle 40 years of their life? The difference in how they lived their lives and how we live ours may be the answer.
Rifle and much of the western United States was “new country” in the late 1800s and anyone who was not Native American came from somewhere else to get here. The gals married young and started families right away then often endured a brutal trek in a covered wagon while caring for several youngsters and probably pregnant at the same time. My scary great, great, great grandmother had 11 children. Half before the family moved west in 1879 and the rest while hacking out an existence on their Nebraska prairie homestead. To her testament, all but one child survived into adulthood.
The large families were pretty common among pioneers. Farming and ranching were dominant occupations of those days and many hands were needed to work the land. Growing your own “help” was the most economical way, but it took a heavy toll on the one doing the “producing.” Diseases that we read about today in history books were very real in those days and pioneer cemeteries are filled with the graves of children. A large family was necessary to ensure that enough children survived to work the land and be able to provide the parents with some level of care during their twilight years.
How would we react today without the comfort of air conditioning or even an electric fan to make some of these 90-plus-degree days bearable? Many of the pioneer homes didn’t even have a mature shade tree and almost no insulation to protect from the summer sun. If that wasn’t enough they did most of their cooking on large, cast iron, wood burning cook stoves which added even more heat to the house.
This stove was also used to heat up water for doing laundry, which was done in a tin tub with a scrub board and some hard, lye soap that guaranteed to turn most anyone’s hands into buzzard claws. Now if you had kids in diapers, and they weren’t disposable back then, this laundry task never ended, but it still had to be squeezed in with preparing all the meals, chopping wood, tending to the garden, milking cows, canning food for the winter and hauling water, all still without air-conditioning.
To relieve one’s self there was this little wood shack in the yard that went by various names including hooter, crapper, outhouse, shanty, privy and a few other names. This shack sat over a hole in the ground with a rough, wood seat to place one’s sitter over. It was a cold place to land in the winter and rather fragrant in the summer. You cleaned yourself with the pages of the Sears Roebuck catalogue if that was available otherwise shelled corn cobs would do, as toilet paper didn’t exist. This fine arrangement was often shared with flies, spiders, snakes, mice, packrats, skunks, coons and anything that decided to wonder in from the barnyard.
Traveling anywhere was no easy chore. You either rode a horse or hitched up a team and wagon. A trip to Grand Junction from Rifle could easily take three days one-way by wagon, riding a wood plank for a seat, totally exposed to the elements and bugs. One can still see remnants of this wagon road on the north side of De Beque Canyon. And today we think the Halliburton Highway (Interstate 70 to anyone not from here) is rough.
These few words only touch on the hardships our ancestor’s faced in day-to-day living. How we would stand up in their shoes would be hard to say. Someday those who follow us might think we had it pretty rough. So, the next time you see a photo of your scary great, great grandmother, cut her a little slack and thank her for enduring. Because she did, you exist.
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What: Wild and Scenic Film Festival