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Pioneers Were Self-Sufficient

Like most communities, in the early days, Shelby County, Ohio, was almost totally self-sufficient, with farmers producing enough for their families, but little more. Even town people had gardens and raised stock. Until good roads were built and the canals/railroads installed, the transportation to market centers (Dayton and Cincinnati) was so poor that there was little need to produce surplus goods.

Pioneers were often reduced to meager fare, especially as they waited for those first crops to arrive. They soon learned the art of preparing foods which were life-sustaining and could be easily transported. Their supplies usually consisted of flour, dried meats and fruits, potatoes, beans, corn and a small reserve of sugar and salt.

Salt, now one of the least expensive items, was so expensive to early settlers that it was considered a luxury. Ohio was fortunate in that there were several salt springs which were considered to be of such great value that three of these were reserved by the national government to prevent anyone from forming a monopoly.

Early eating dishes were larger and made of wood, partly for their durability and also affordability.

Any other type of dishes, such as Wedgwood, had to be imported from Europe. They were expensive as well as fragile. Probably the most important cooking utensil used by the pioneers while on longer journeys was the bake oven or skillet with its tight fitting lid. It was filled with dough for bread, and after it had been securely fastened, live coals were placed on top — it baked perfectly.

If the hunter was successful in shooting wild game such as deer, wild ducks, geese or jackrabbits, they were also cooked in the skillet. Along the way, wild berries, currants, choke cherries and other edible fruits were added to the food supply. Settlers would also fish in nearby streams to vary the content of their meals.

As soon as a pioneer would arrive at a ‘permanent’ stopping point, they would start preparing the land for crops. Oftentimes the early settler cleared the trees and planted before building a cabin. Many of them used their ax to till the soil between the trees.

Stock raising in Ohio was commenced on a small scale. Horses were scarce and sold for $60 to $100. Hogs, cattle and sheep were more numerous. The stock were marked by clipping the ear, and were allowed to run ‘at large’ in the forests after bells had been securely fastened to their necks. Sheep were normally not eaten for mutton because of the scarcity of wool for clothing. They had to be penned at night to protect them from the wolves.

The animals and birds native to an area could ravage a farmer’s fields, so laws were passed encouraging the killing of these pests by paying bounty on them. In 1891, a bounty of $.10 was paid for each groundhog killed and $.20 a dozen for English sparrows by Perry Township officials. From 1819 to 1854, a $4 bounty was paid for each of the almost 800 wolves killed in Shelby County. Squirrels were numerous and often large hunting parties were formed to hunt them. Near Columbus,19,660 squirrels were killed in a single day, in a combined hunt.

Women planted gardens, dried vegetables/fruits and raised poultry. Canned food was just being invented, so the best way to store food was to dry it. Standardized measuring didn’t become ‘standard’ until the mid 1860s, so women used a ‘bit of this’ or a ‘pinch of that’. They gauged the food’s readiness by the way it looked.

Sugar was made from beets, corn stalks and watermelon. It was also made from maple sap, a process that settlers learned from the Indians. Apples were a popular crop for farmers in the 1800s. They were eaten in many ways for all meals and as drinks. They could be stored by drying them and tasted much better than other dried foods. Apples were fed to animals such as hogs and could be turned into cider.

Access to water was very important in pioneer days. There were no pipes bringing water into the house and wells were expensive and hard to dig. There were no refrigerators and many foods would spoil quickly when left out in the heat. By putting foods into pottery containers and placing those containers in the cool water, the food would last much longer.

If there were no matches, fires were started by striking flint and iron together and possibly using some gunpowder.

According to Sutton, "[Shelby County] ...pioneers...endured hardships and privations of which we of today have but little was always coarse and unpalatable to the modern taste, and often scant—not sufficient for the demands of nature. Their principal food was corn bread and wild meat. Should a settler be fortunate enough to have wheat flour and tame meat, he was considered to live like a king. As a substitute for tea and coffee, they used the spice bush and sassafras. Many of the children of that day lived to become men and women without knowing the taste of store tea or coffee.

The tomato, now consumed by all, in those days was laid upon the fireplace mantel for an ornament, because Ohio women believed it was poisonous.

This is an abstract of a letter sent from Joseph and Hannah [surname unknown] written in 1850.

Sidney, Shelby County, Ohio, July the 5th, 1850, half past five o’clock PM, just came in from the wheat field, raking and binding after Joseph, who has been cradling...Dear Children, We have had a very cold and dry spring some corn laid in the ground six weeks perfectly dry, we then had rain, and ever since have had a beautiful growing time. Corn is very uneven but bids fair now to do well. Oats and flax is coming out potatoes looks well wheat crops is better than they have been for years.

Meadows are generally thin but if we continue to get a few more showers they will make an average crop. Peaches we have none this year but there will be a great deal of apples. Our orchard had more than common. Our cherry trees are very full, some pairs and plums plenty of currents, a prospect for some grapes.

I will give you the market price of produce, Horses Good, From $50 to $75 to $100;

Cows From $10 to $15; Wheat 70 to 98 according to quality; Molasses 40cts and 62cts; Callico From 3 to 25cts; Timothy seed $1.50; Clover seed $3; Potatoes 62 a Bu. to 70;

Eggs 6cts a dozen; Flour $5 a barrel; Tallaho (Tallow) 8; Lake Salt $1.87; Flaxseed $1;

Rice 5 cts; Oats 31; Apples 50; Wool 25; Butter 10; Beeswax 17; Corn 45; Barley 75; Feathers 30cts; Lard 5cts; Sholers 4cts; Hams 6cts; Coffy 12cts; Sugar 8cts

Land is on the rise on account of the town pike from Sidney to Wapaukonnetta and railroad from Belfountain to St. Lewis by way of Indianapolis, Muncy town and Green Vill. The work is sold from Sidney to Belfountain. John Cary has got the contract to grub and grade. It is let wes(t) from Sidney to Houston and will be let as fast as they can get it ready. They now at work on it and calculate to have the cars running from Sidney to Belfountain in three years.

In 1881, Shelby County farmers produced the following products: wheat, rye, buckwheat, barley, oats, corn, flax, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tobacco, sorghum, maple sugar, bees, butter and eggs. They harvested apples, peaches, pears, cherries, plums and grapes in many orchards. Animals included horses, mules, cattle, sheep and hogs.

'Pioneer' segment written in October, 1997 by Sherrie Casad-Lodge


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