The woodman's axe was as important to John as his rifle. John was an expert with the felling axe and also the broad axe that he used to make a round log into a square beam. He made his own hammers and mauls from hard wood, including hickory. While cutting logs for his cabin and clearing the land for farming, John acquired the ability to identify which kind of wood was best for a specific need, and he became more skillful in the use of a variety of tools. He was forced to build their home without any sawed lumber, glass windows, iron hinges, door knobs or iron latch, no spikes or nails of any kind, no brick for foundation or chimney, and no boards for the floor. After notching the ends of the logs, so that the corners would be level and secure, John rode off for many miles in every direction to ask his friendly neighbors to help raise the heavy wood. Sometimes the first logs (sill) were laid on a foundation of rocks on the corners and other places if needed. One pioneer wrote that "we would have a jolly time in carrying up the corners and the man that made the most noise was the best fellow!" "Cabin raising" was always a happy time when the neighbors got together, a very special event.
After the body of the house was up, the busy neighbors began to lay the timbers for the roof, and soon shingles (called 'shakes' or 'clapboards') were laid in tiers to shed water. Some of the early shingles, split with a tool called a froe, were from three to four feet long, and weight poles were so laid and that it would give proper lap, held in place by wooden pins at the ends.
After the neighbors left, John and Martha were on their own to erect a stone fireplace and a wooden chimney, and as they labored, the pioneer couple talked about making furnishings for their new dwelling. Martha was not happy with the dirt floor, and hoped that John would soon have time to install a puncheon floor of smooth split logs. Their cabin was sparsely furnished with furniture fashioned from natural materials found nearby and with wood from the same trees cleared earlier. Soon a bed, stool, table, chairs and cupboard were fashioned from the downed trees, and the pioneer couple was very proud of their new furnishings, which would be called "primitive style" today. Their bedstead had one post that was connected with the wall and was corded with ropes covered with a straw tick for a comfortable mattress.
Some of their utensils were also made of wood, including bowls, some made from dried gourds. They were happy to have a three-legged spider skillet with a long handle, a large cast iron kettle and a Dutch oven that they brought with them from the east.
Just as they had to provide their own food and shelter, John and Martha had to make their own clothing. Deerskin was used to fashion moccasins, shirts and breeches. Soon they were able to use wool and flax. The flax was spun into thread and loomed into linen. Martha wove wool yarn and linen thread together to produce 'linsey-woolsey', a hard wearing coarse cloth that she used to make most of their clothing. She was very busy combing, carding and spinning wool, a continuous chore for the pioneer woman. Martha had only a stiff dried plant called 'teasel' to comb or card her wool, the process of cleaning and straightening out the fibers so that she would have a yarn of consistent thickness for her spinner, a long and tiresome task. Later she was able to buy a carder made of wood, leather and metal.
Sitting by the fireplace one evening, John and Martha were talking about how nice it was that the neighbors came to help with their "cabin raising ". Martha remembered that one of the pioneer ladies remarked: "The men were certainly bragging about their skill in farming and building a cabin. They seem to think that they have done all that work by themselves!" The two young pioneers agreed that they were very thankful for all the help from both the men and the ladies, and planned to help with the next "cabin raising" in their area.
One day John, with a smile on his face, and humming a happy tune, was hard at work preparing a fine oak tree for his next project, a very special wooden cradle for the first born of the pioneer family. Perhaps he was wishing for a helper with the work on the farm, while Martha was dreaming about help in the cabin.
This story (a tale in part) was written in due respect and gratitude to our brave, adventurous and skillful pioneers who braved the long trips to the frontier, cleared and tilled the land, built their cabin homes and raised their families on the prairies or in the groves.
"Pioneer": "A person who goes ahead preparing the way for those who follow."
Return to Lowell History
Return to the "Pioneer History" A to Z Index Page