(Editor's Note: Canyon Lake's Harriet Bishop co-authored a chapter about her grandmother's days on the Texas frontier for the book TEXAS WOMEN ON THE CATTLE TRAILS, recently published by the Texas A&M;
Press; the book has won the coveted Liz Carpenter Award for 2006, presented for the "Best Scholarly Book on Women and Texas." Here are some other remembrances by her grandmother, Viola Perry.)
In our hectic, busy lives these days, we often hear the lament, "I wish
we could return to the simpler times of long ago."
How far back would you like to go? My grandmother was born in December,
1864, and told of her early life on a farm near Coal Run, Ohio, where
nearly everything the family needed was made in the home from materials
grown on or gleaned from the land.
When we need a new dress or shirt today, there is a store nearby. How
simple is that? But grandmother's new dress was months in the making!
In 1932 she told of her early girlhood in a narrative passed down to
me. When she was 13 years old in the summer of 1878, her family had
emigrated West seeking cleaner air. Their Coal Run, Ohio, farm was
polluted by a constant natural gas fire, negating the economic advantage
of free coal available only for the digging. The Muskingum River banks
were so oily that stock waded to the middle of the river to drink. If
anyone had known how to put the fire out, capture the natural gas, and
dig oil wells, my grandmother's later life would likely not have
Kansas had gained Statehood in 1861, and promised a new life for
homesteaders. So teenager Viola Perry became a pioneer who later drove
a four-horse chuck wagon on the Chisholm Trail of Texas.
First-hand glimpses into the everyday life of women in the late 1860's
and 1870's reveal that life was not that simple then. As my grandmother wrote:
"There was no cotton grown in Ohio, so that when mother wanted to make
lindsey woolsey for our clothing, she used her own wool....we washed the
sheep in the creek with soft soap before we sheared them. I always
thought it cruel, but when the sheep came out of the creek they would
just shake themselves and then play happily. They would look so white
and fluffy after that.
The men took out all the burrs and sticks in this washing, and the sheep
were turned into a pasture that had not been used that spring so as to
keep them clean. In a day or two several neighbors would come and help
with the shearing. Of course, father would help them in turn.
When the wool had been cut, it had to be tub washed through several
waters. We rubbed it on a washboard, but when it was dry it was as
fluffy as you please.
She nearly always dyed the wool before it was carded. If she waited
until it was carded, it would tangle and make a rough yarn. If that
yarn was then tied into skeins for dyeing, every place where the skein
was tied would leave a place that was not thoroughly colored.
Almost every year mother changed the color of our clothes. She made our
own dyes from barks that we gathered in the woods. Gathering the bark
was a picnic for us all. Every child had a basket and tools for cutting
and scraping the tree trunks. Hickory, butternut, and sassafras are
some of the trees that I remember.
Butternut root bark and sassafras root bark make beautiful browns, but
very different. The sassafras makes a brown that is almost brick red.
The wonderful flowering dogwood makes a splendid black. Hickory and oak
combined make a lovely gray green. From the oak we took the inner root
bark. No, we did not kill the trees, because we were careful not to cut
all the way around, and we covered the roots carefully with earth again
when we were through. We gathered bark from the same trees year after
By night, each child was supposed to have a basket full. When we got
home, we dumped our baskets into the big dye kettle that had been filled
with water, and the next morning we had to build up the fire and boil
Our dye kettles (we had three or four of them) must have held as much as
a wash tub. They were of cast iron, with three legs. For boiling dye,
we set the legs up on stones so that we could make a better fire under
them. We used those same kettles for soapmaking and for butchering.
To dry the wool we spread it on canvas, and turned it as it dried.
The next task was carding. Even a little girl could help with the
carding. The cards were about the size and shape of an ordinary dust
pan, but of course they were straight. Each card was studded with
several hundred hooks of fine brass. They were about an inch and a half
long, with the last half inch bent at right angles.
You would take a fluff of wool between the cards and comb it so that the
teeth of one card meshed between the teeth of the other. If from
awkwardness or from lack of strength you did not comb perfectly
straight, the wool would get into a horrid tangle and the fine hooks
would be ruined.
The wool did not fall out in strands but just gradually became straight
and fluffier than ever. Then mother's task was to spin it into yarn on
her large spinning wheel.
Spinning wool is hard work. It is done on a large wheel, and the
spinner has to stand up all the time, walking back and forth. Mother's
hands would become blistered from the yarn which she twisted into a hard
Next came the weaving on mother's loom. For the warp threads strung
onto the loom vertically she bought white cotton thread, designed to
make a piece of linsey-woolsey fabric twenty yards long and as wide as
Mother's dyed woolen thread was then woven across the loom horizontally,
threaded in and out of the warp by tossing the shuttle across the web by
hand. The threads of the warp were alternated by pressure of the foot
pedal. It was awful work.
Sometimes every stitch I had on was this homemade cloth, and how it
scratched! You would think it would be unendurable for summer wear, but
after a winter's wear it thinned down amazingly.
The men and boys all had their winter clothing of the same material. By
spring it would be thin enough to be comfortable for the warmer weather.
The one trouble with all this was that each year my new dress and
underclothing, the boys' shirts and pants, and anything else that mother
made were all the same color.
Every stitch of our clothing had to be made by hand. Mother did not
double seam things, but they were all sewn in a fine back stitch. We
all wore underwear of the same material and made by almost the same
patterns as our outside clothing.
Our winter wraps were of the same material too, but usually of a
different color. That was because winter wraps were expected to last
two years, and mother's scheme of changing colors every year interfered
with the ensemble effect.
I remember my own linsey coat, with a pocket in it big enough to hold my
When the weather got hot, all of us went into linen. Mother had yards
and yards of white linen that she cut into when she needed it. It must
have been her hope chest.
How cold those linen sheets were in the winter! They were really rather
coarse and very heavy.
Father always wore white linen suits to church, and was very proud of
them. Mother was not so fond of them, for they had to be washed and
ironed after one wearing, and she had too much to do. He had white
shirts made out of fine handkerchief linen, tucked and ruffled and cold
Mother had nice clothes too. I remember one pretty blue silk dress that
I was always begging her to wear. It was probably what she wore when
she married my stepfather. She had those cute little bonnets that sat
on top of the head with a little crescent cut out to make it fit over
the roll of hair.
Caps, sweaters and stockings she knit by hand out of the same home
raised, home dyed, and homespun wool. In the summer we children went
barefooted, and father and mother did not wear stockings unless they
were going somewhere. She could knit suspenders as elastic as the
rubber elastic ones you see now."
It seems that merely producing clothing for the family was an enormous
job, mainly done through all its stages by the women, from the washing
of the raw wool to the finished brand new party dress.
"Back to the simple life?" Not on your life!
(Next week we'll explore the woman's role in feeding this real life
family. And we'll follow their travels out of Ohio and into a new life
on the Kansas frontier.)