The Wilderness Home
The wise pioneer chose land on a lake, a stream, or a bay. It was important for him to have a water supply. If he chose part meadow land and part forest land, he had an easier time building the log cabin and planting the first crop. In choosing a place for a home, he kept in mind the need for protection from the Indians and from storms.
The newcomer began by chopping the small undergrowth. The smaller trees he killed by burning them about the roots or by using an ax to take off a strip of bark all around the tree. This was called "girdling" the tree. The logs he did not use for a cabin he put together and burned just to get rid of them. What good use could be made of that timber today!
The first home was often any shelter that could be found. One Norwegian family lived in a haystack for three months. How fine the log cabin must have seemed when it was finished, even if it had only one room! But when winter came, we may be sure that the snow sifted onto the floor and over the beds.
Logs for the walls were fitted and plastered together. Floors were often made of earth, stone, or logs split lengthwise. Sometimes screws or wooden pegs were used instead of nails. Roofs were of stone, clay, boards, or brush. A second room was sometimes made in a low attic, which was reached by a ladder or by wooden pegs driven into the wall.
Doors were made from thick boards laid lengthwise and held in place by cross strips and wooden pins. Leather or heavy wooden hinges were used. A wooden latch fastened on the inside was opened by a strip of buckskin that hung through a hole on the outside. Many of the early pioneers used greased paper or deerskin or bearskin for the windows. A few of the better cabins had glass.
The fireplace was the most important spot in the cabin, for it was used to heat the home and cook the food. The room was lighted by burning big sticky pine knots, by candles, or by wall lamps made from clay in the shape of a cup. Bear's oil and deer's fat were burned in these lamps.
The first-floor room, with its heavy handsome furniture, was used in many ways. Here the first church services were held. When a Catholic priest or a preacher on horseback came near, the news traveled like lightning. The cabin was swept, benches were set up, often a chest was made beautiful to serve as an altar--all on short notice. Soon the little dwelling became a church.
The cabin was also the first country school. Sometimes the mother of a family was the teacher of a "pay" school. Before Wisconsin became a state, these schools were supported by the parents of the children enrolled in them. One man sent three of his children to school and paid fifty cents a week as his share toward the teacher's salary of fifteen dollars a month. In some places the first teachers were French priests.
Many parties were held to get work done in a pleasant way. There were log-rollings, house-raisings, husking bees, wood-chopping parties, and quilting bees. How would each kind of party help the early settler?