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100 Years Ago

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While pioneers were a special breed of people who could build, hunt, plant crops and gather food, not all early settlers were prepared to handle what faced them when they arrived on the frontier. Some were from well-to-do families who were looking for an opportunity to establish a new life but had been raised in towns or villages. Not everyone stayed here or even survived the journey. Have you ever lived on a farm? With little or no training, could you teach yourself how to live off the land? The following excerpt from Sutton’s historical 1883 biography shows how neighbors worked together to help each other learn the ways of the wilderness.

Thomas Graham was born in Ireland in 1779. He and his wife, Isabella, emigrated to New York City in the year 1832, where they had four children, including Frank who came to Shelby County in 1840. Frank bought eighty acres of land, nearly all in ‘the timber’. He then returned to New York and brought his parents back to Shelby County. It will be remembered that the Grahams came from Ireland, where they knew nothing of the use of the axe, then lived in the city of New York for eight years, never having seen a rail fence, much less having made rails or cleared land.

Frank relates that one day, shortly after their arrival here, he told his father if he would cut and split a few rails, enough to make a pen, he would go and buy a few pigs, for an Irishman’s home is never complete without pigs. The old gentleman started with his axe and attacked the first nice-looking tree he came to. This proved to be a white elm, which is not very easy to chop or split, but he worked with it awhile until the return of Frank several hours afterward, when he asked his father how he was getting along. He said very well; he had got four mighty nice rails made, but he thought the ‘bloody things’ were hard to split. So they thought they would try another tree, and see if that would do any better. They next tried a nice-looking little beech, but this proved as obstinate as the first. They then concluded to go and get the opinion of a neighbor as to what kind of timber he used to make rails.

The neighbor told them to take ash or hickory, but they said they did not know one kind of timber from another. So their neighbor went with them and showed them the kinds that would split easily. They then went to work and soon had their pen built. Practice soon gave them the use of the axe, and it was not long before they understood woodcraft as well as their neighbors. 

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


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