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History Early Settlers in Douglas County Early Furnishings

Early Furnishings, Cooking, & Daily Life

Bedding; dyes; lamps & candles; mops, chairs, one-post beds, chests, designs; tools; cooking utensils; foodstuffs; soap making; hominy grits; water mills; water supplies; large families.

Most of the furniture was crude homemade make shifts. The beds were of the bunk variety with a mattress made by filling a ticking with the downiest feathers of ducks or geese. Some of these "feather beds" were handed down to the eldest son or daughter for several generations. They used homemade quilts or "comforts" on the beds usually covered by a hand woven counterpane. Interview: May 4, 1938, Con Sutherland, former county judge, at his home on Clifty Creek three miles east of Goodville.

Factory made dyes were unknown by the early settlers. They made their own dyes. White walnut bark was used to produce a light brown color called butternut, the hulls of the black walnuts produced a dark brown, sumac bark produced a dark blue color while black sumac produced purple and Indian paint root and black oak balls produced red. There was also an insect, the cochineal, which produced red dye when boiled.

The lamps were very crude affairs. Bear and hog grease were used for oil. This was placed in a container and with a wick made from a piece of twisted cloth the lamp was complete. All kinds and shapes of containers were used. The best of these lamps gave a very poor light. Homemade candles were widely used. These were made from beef tallow, which was melted and run into a mold through which a yarn wick passed. They were an inferior type of lighting also. Interview: May 1, 1938, Mary J. Garton, wife of one of the first doctors in the county, at her home in Ava, Mo.

Some of the more prosperous settlers had woven or hooked rungs on the floor. These among the more unenlightened were called "Skivver lids." Their mops were made of corn husks threaded in a handle through auger holes. Rocking chairs were practically unknown here. The homemade chairs usually had a seat of woven hickory bark, or rawhide. Some few of the settlers were skillful enough to make ago furniture even with the few crude tools they had. A good set of furniture for a pioneer home consisted of a four poster bed with a net of rope or hickory bark woven to support the straw or feather tick and also to act as springs. This rope or bark was passed through holes bored in the head, foot and side boards of the bed. It was fastened by driving tapering pegs into the holes, alongside the rope or bark. These beds were usually made of walnut or wild cherry. Then there were one-post beds. The corner of a room took the place of three legs so one leg was all that was needed. A dresser and high or low chest of drawers completed the furnishing of the bedroom. These were usually made of walnut, wild cherry, hard maple, or pine. Some of the settlers furniture was quite beautiful. Many of the dressers and chests of drawers had hand carved designs and hand carved drawer pulls.
Broadaxe, Harlin Museum, West Plains MO

The maple leaf design predominated. Tables were only used for dining purposes. These were varied of design and kind of wood. Some of the least industrious of the settlers would cut a large tree, build their cabin over the stump and have a table without having to build it. The only trouble with this type of table was the fact that after several years it would decay and leave them without a table. All the furniture was put together with wooden dowel pins. A good set of tools then consisted of a wooden hammer, a saw, an auger or two, a foot adz, a broad axe, and a drawing knife. A few of the former settlers had furniture they brought from their former homes. Interview: May 4, 1938, Con Sutherland, former county judge, at his home on Clifty Creek three miles east of Goodville.

Corn Husker
Corn Husker, Harlin Museum

Every home had a fireplace constructed of native stone. These were used to heat the house in winter and to cook the meals in during the entire year. They were fitted with firedogs on which the wood lay, cranes which could be swung over the fire to hang pots of food to cook on and out to allow the food to cool when done, iron grills to set pans on, spits for roasting meats and tongs for handling blazing chunks of wood. All the cooking utensils were cast iron or copper with cast iron predominating. With her few crude pots and pans and the contents of her larder many of the settlers wives could prepare a dinner fit for a king or an epicure over her open fireplace. In the average settler's larder would be found flour and meal from home grown grain, dried, jerked, or smoked or salted hams and bacon, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, apples, turnips, sauerkraut, dried beans, dried peas, sorghum molasses, whole pumpkins, dried pumpkins, dried apples, dried peaches, raisins, squash and dried squash, butter, mild, apple cider, and apple vinegar. Interview: May 1, 1938, Mary J. Garton, wife of one of the first doctors in the county, at her home in Ava, Mo.
Corn Sheller
Corn Sheller,
Harlin Museum

All the ashes from the fireplace were saved in what was called the ash hopper. When enough ashes had been saved water was poured over them which extracted the lye from the ash. This lye water was saved, grease added and boiled down to make homemade soap. The settlers usually made their own meal by grating corn on the cob, before it had entirely hardened, through a homemade grater. These graters were made of a piece of tinned iron, perforated with punched holes and fastened to a board. The meal thus procured was called gritted meal or hominy grits. The water mill came to this country with some of the earliest settlers. This was where the settler got his wheat ground into flour. Some of the earliest of these mills were Sutler's Mill located on Bryant Creek where Rippee post office now stands, Bryant Mill located at what is now Bryant post office, and Jackson's Mill located on Beaver Creek one mile south west of where Highway 76 now crosses it. Sutler's Mill was destroyed during the Civil War but the others still stand and Jackson's Mill is still in operation. The first mills had overshot wheels. An overshot wheel is one in which the water is carried by a flume over the wheel and poured down on the forward side of the wheel. These wheels were constructed with a long shaft on the mill side of the wheel and from this shaft power was secured by a pulley gearing. The wheel had buckets on the outside rim to catch the water and the weight of the water turned the wheel. These mills had stone rollers for grinding flour and stone burrs for grinding meal. All the cog wheels in the mill were made of wood and stone bearings were used on the wheel. Interview: June 6, 1938, John Tompkins, son of the first postmaster in this county, at his home two miles northeast of Ava, Mo.

The settlers cabin was usually located near a spring. Some of them were not near a spring and these had dug wells. Locating a well in those days was considered an art. One of the settlers was usually thought to be a water witch and was always called upon to mark the spot to dig the well. They used a forked stick to locate the place to dig. The water witch held a fork in each hand with the fork turned upward. He then walked to and fro until the fork turned downward. At the spot where that happened the settler dug his well. This is still practiced among some of our more primitive people. The settler's tubs and buckets were made of weed while a long handled gourd, carefully cleaned and with an oval segment of shell removed, served as a dipper. Interview: July 14, 1938, W. F. Reynolds, active in county changes and politics, at his home in Ava, Mo.

Large families were the rule in those days and contrary to general opinion it was not lack of knowledge but the will to survive that governed the size of the family. A family which had five or six children large enough to shoot and two or three children to reload the rifles stood a good chance of survival against Indian raids while a family with only two or three children stood a poor chance of survival. During this period the only law in this country was the law of the gun. As in all primitive countries the law of survival of the fittest worked overtime. Interview: Aug. 4, 1938, W. P. K. Lee, former County Judge, at his home on Brush Creek one mile south of Highway 14. Now deceased.

Courtesy of the Douglas County Genealogical and Historical Society Journal, December 1984 and December 1986. The text is from “First White Settlers” in the Western Historical Manuscripts Collection, U.S. Work Projects Administration, 1935-42, Missouri Historical Records Survey-Douglas County. Photos of early tools by Peter Callaway, at the Harlin Museum, West Plains, MO.