WINDHAM - 1811 - 1850

The way that our forefathers and foremothers lived, the customs and manners of that old life, now only a memory, must always be more or less interesting to us. There is much of romance attached to it, but the actuality was a hard and stern reality, with little to soften its rugged features.

Nearly one hundred years have passed since a few men decided to leave the Berkshire hills and bring their families into the then unbroken forest of the present Windham township, Portage county. Before leaving, however, the following persons were dismissed from the Congregational Church of Becket and organized into a church by themselves: Deacon Elijah ALFORD and wife, Olive ALFORD, with their daughter, Ruth ALFORD, Thatcher CONANT and wife, Elizabeth CONANT, also their daughter Susannah CONANT, Jeremiah LYMAN and wife, Rhoda LYMAN; Benjamin HIGLEY and wife, Sally HIGLEY, Miss Anna STREATOR.

This was on May 2, 1811, and we know not, but it is pleasant to think that the bright May sunshine rested in silent benediction on this little band whose strength of courage and undaunted fortitude made these early homes the center of our manhood and womanhood.

About a month after this, the first eight families having put all their earthly possessions they could take with them into their ox wagons, started for the homes which were to be theirs on the frontier. The trip would mean but a few hours of time now, but then it took about six weeks. They frequently camped where night overtook them, and if the night was stormy the patient woman heart must have almost failed amidst such hardships.

Often the women would leave the crowded wagons, which were filled with the few cooking utensils, bedding, a chest and a rocking chair or two, and walk that they might rest the tired cramped body. If any became too sick to sit up they were made as comfortable as possible on an improvised cot of the bedding, but the journey still continued.

One woman was known to remark, after seating herself on a log at the close of a weary day, that "Women will follow men to the ends of the earth." She evidently knew nothing of the new woman.

While sitting by the side of one who was born during the first year of this century, and listening to the stories told by her of the olden times, when she was young, she told me the following incident:

Some years after the first settlers came an uncle returned that he might accompany her to this township. It was during the last of the journey back that they passed through an Oneida village. The Indians were about to have a festal dance of some kind, and offered her uncle the pipe of peace, thus giving him no alternative than to do otherwise than to accept their hospitable intentions, for to refuse would give them the impression that he was an enemy. This left the young lady and a little boy alone in the wagon.

As the dance progressed she became badly frightened, such grotesque positions, such horrible grimaces, such pandemonium she never dreamed of, to use her own expression. When the air was rent with those dreadful sounds and stolid Indians seemed like creatures from the other region, they brought her the pipe to smoke, but she was too badly frightened to do aught but stare.

One woman, on reaching her destination, asked: "Is that pile of logs to be our home?" The house that caused this remark was one built of logs without gable ends. However, few houses were built before the occupants came, and these afforded shelter until the less fortunate had finished their little cabins of one or possibly two rooms and a rude chamber overhead. All but a few articles of furniture were hewn out of logs, and I have often heard my grandmother tell of the rude stool, benches, and tables, while just at first the bedsteads were of poles.

They held their first religious service in their new home on Sunday, July 28, 1811, in one of the first private cabins built in Windham. In the midst of the grand old forest, God’s first temple, this small band inspired each other with words of helpful comfort, and their songs of praise mingled with the rich melody of the birds. It was not long ere a log structure was built for this purpose, and not many years passed before a frame house took the place of this. It was a long time, however, before these buildings were sufficiently warmed, and the women took their foot stoves with them. They kindly allowed the girls to warm their feet, but watched to see that they did not put them on the bright tin which was so tempting, but that they were kept in the proper place.

Slowly the mighty forest trees fell away from these humble homes; this forest, which at night echoes and reechoed with the bark of foxes and growl of wolves, the growl of bears, and the scream of wild cats.

Neighbors often dropped in to spend an evening, and after a time, the young people had their parties then as well as now. But the young ladies’ escort went with torch in hand that he might find his way by the blazed trees, and also frighten wild animals.

The hoot of an owl or the howl of a wolf might startle them, but the young ladies of those days, accustomed to these sounds often, would not scream in such terror as would her granddaughter or great-granddaughter of today.

But few families had more than one or two horses, so the ladies, old as well as young, commonly rode horseback behind husband, father, brother, son, or lover. How very unpleasant this must have been, as they could not do otherwise than to cling often to those sitting ahead to keep from slipping off.

At first the nearest place where pins, needles, thread, and a few other necessary articles could be purchased was at Pittsburg, about 100 miles distant, and later at Warren. And Windham was certainly a very prosperous township when a merchant, Deacon Isaac CLARK, came, even if the entire stock was valued at $500, which seemed of great value then. His wife acted as his buyer, making the trip to Pittsburg on horseback. On the first page of the entry book are the following entries:

September, 1817 John SELEY. Dr.
To ½ lb tea @ $1.50………………………………$.75
To Ό yd cambric @80 cents………………………. .40
To ½ paper pins @ 25 cents………………………. .12 ½
Jeremiah LYMAN Dr.
To 5 ½ yds. Calico @ 60 cents……………………. 3.50
To 1 skein silk……………………………………… .09
To 2 ½ yds. Fulled cloth @ $1.75…………………. 4.37
To ½ lb pepper @ 50 cents………………………… .25

In those days young ladies purchased their table dishes before marriage, and doubtless all might tell some laughable stories about the getting of them, but the following perhaps is the most interesting:

This particular young lady purchased in Warren her "setting out," as the first dishes were called, and had them packed securely in a bundle, fastening this in some manner to the horn of her saddle. All went well until nearly home, when her horse became frightened and refused to go. She urged it forward a few steps, when it whirled and started back. Again and again this was repeated; the horse then shied far to one side, striking a tree and tearing a hole in the bag of oats she had taken for feed. When the horse shied she noticed just ahead in the fast gathering darkness what she first thought was a yearling calf, but as it came opposite found to her amazement it was a bear. No need of urging her horse forward now, and frightened as she was it required all of her attention to hold him. It is needless to say that the oats were all sown. However, the precious dishes were all whole, every dish.

Everything purchased was paid for in produce of some kind.

There were no idle hours in that old time. The housewife’s lot was full as hard as that of the pioneer himself. All was bustle in the one living room the house afforded from early daylight to sunset, and after the evening darkness came on, the knitting, spinning, and darning, or patching continued until 8 or 9 o’clock, when all went to bed tired.

Most of the clothing worn by the family was of domestic manufacture, including fabrics of linen as well as of wool, and they made all of the much prized linen. The wool was taken from the backs of sheep and washed, carded, spun, dyed, and woven on the farm premises. Their wool dresses in the earliest time were often made with wool thread spun from the wool more nearly resembling hair. Plaids were the prevailing designs, and the colors were obtained from barks, berries, and leaves.

Flax wheels, now set apart as ornaments, and as such have no particular story to tell the present generation, were once essential to every household. The flax was sown early, and the "fairy blue" anxiously waited for. The women began their work at the second hatcheling, then came the spinning and weaving. When the web was taken from the loom it was spread on the grass and exposed to the sun, frequently sprinkling with water until wet.

One old lady, who lived to be one hundred and four years old, knit socks for three wars; the Revolutionary war, the war of 1812, and the Rebellion. During the Revolutionary was she crawled under old buildings for saltpeter, and watched the kettle while getting it into shape to be used in powder.

I have often heard my grandmother tell of the first missionary society planned by the young girls. They met every two weeks at private houses during warm weather.

A young lady of to-day would be surprised at the real self-denial shown, because they had so little to give at the most, as they themselves often needed what we would call bare necessities. Indeed, our necessities would be luxuries to them.

The young lady of to-day as a Christian Endeavor worker of a King’s Daughter, with her books, her monthly magazines, her weekly papers, her chance to become conversant with the absorbing topics of the times; this young lady who pledges herself to give so much a week or month, is far beyond the brightest dream of her great-grandmother, of whom she inherits the qualities of unselfish, loyal womanhood.

However, they were not entirely without educational advantages, as Miss Elizabeth STREATOR and Miss Rebecca CONANT opened a school in a private house about a month after the first settlers came. For about a year these young ladies gave their services, relieving each other every two weeks. One, Rebecca CONANT, afterwards married and went with her husband among the Indians of Michigan as missionary.

The first teachers were young ladies, and the first death of an adult in the township was a woman., Miss Lucy ASHLEY, while one woman, Mrs. Rhoda LYMAN, died during the journey here, and lies in an unknown spot near Utica, N.Y. Life, with its joys and sorrows, doubtless passes and repasses near the unmarked grave, little knowing that the last sad scene of another life was ended there with a Christian burial.

The first birth of a white child that lived was a daughter of Mrs. Wareham LOOMIS.

Our grandmothers prepared good, substantial meals, even if very plain. Rye and Indian bread was very common, cornmeal in various forms. At dinner boiled vegetables were often served. Beef or pork was often boiled with potatoes, cabbages, and turnips, but not in the form of a soup.

Venison was a favorite meat, while at first the best pieces of bear meat were eaten, and wild turkeys were common.

They did not can fruit in those days, but made a jar of preserves, and wild crabapples, wild plums, huckleberries, and cranberries were considered nicest.

After a few years two ladies, Mrs. Ebenezer N. MESSENGER and Mrs. Jeremiah LYMAN, at least had cultivated apples and peaches, which were borne on trees raised from apple seeds and peach stones brought from their old homes in Becket.

No famous women have lived in Windham, but commonplace lives lived well deserve praise, as it is not so much what is done as the way it is done.

Mrs. Harriet SNOW ALFORD Chairman and Historian Windham committee - Mrs. Lucretia NORTON, Mrs. Mary A. BOSLEY, Mrs. Emma DONALDSON, Mrs. Estella PEASE, all descendants of pioneer women.




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