Childhood Days – Chapter 19

This historical marker can be found on the Elkhart River near Elkhart.

This historical marker can be found on the Elkhart River near Elkhart.

Chapter 19

Editor’s note: All the heating and cooking in the log homes was done by the open flame of the fireplace, keeping the fire going was very important. You will see in this chapter how the invention of matches was a great help for the pioneer. Also, you will see how the early pioneers made great use of the waterways in Indiana.

The present generation of readers of these sketches will scarcely be able to conceive of a time within the lives of their fathers and grandfathers when matches were unknown, but many of the old-timers can readily recall a period when invention had not yet stepped in and supplied these convenient, and at present, indispensable instruments for starting a fire. Now millions of them are used every day in the year. Then, there was not one in existence, and the pioneers were often in sore straits to secure a fire when it was most needed.

The utmost care was used in the pioneer cabin to keep the embers alive in the simple fireplace in each. A piece of wood, one end of which was a mass of coals, would be buried in the ashes of the fireplace each night when the family retired, and generally, this would be found in the morning reduced to a mass of live coals, and a fire could soon be started therefrom. At other times, however, it would be found that the fire had died out during the night. Often, a log heap was kept burning in a nearby clearing to supply the necessary fire when that in the fireplace had died out, but this could not be always done.

Every pioneer household was supplied with a flint and steel — often the back of the blade of a pocketknife would supply the piece of steel — and a quantity of punk, a fungus growth found plentifully in decaying timber, to be used as tinder. A spark dropping upon this punk would ignite it, and other material having been prepared, a fire was soon started from this ignited punk. In getting a fire in this way, the flint would be laid upon a piece of this punk, with the edge of the latter extending out from beneath the flint slightly. These would be held in the left hand, while the piece of steel was grasped by the right. The steel striking the flint would produce many sparks, and ignite it, thus giving the nucleus of what would soon become a roaring fire in the fireplace.

But sometimes, in rainy weather when the atmosphere had been full of moisture for many days at a stretch, this punk would absorb enough moisture to prevent it from igniting a spark. Then a boy of the family would be started off with the fire shovel in hand to the nearest neighbor’s to borrow some fire, and as an early breakfast to a hungry boy — and what boy is not hungry at all times? — depended upon his celerity* in getting back, the mother knew that he would not loiter by the wayside. I have gone on such errands hundreds of times in my childhood days.

The first matches I ever saw were solid blocks of wood about five or six inches in length and two inches wide, cut the length of an ordinary match, these blocks were split into squares the size of a match, and nearly through the block, leaving the bottom solid. The split end of the block was dipped into a preparation of sulfur which would ignite by friction. Sulfur matches were the first in use, and when a match was wanted, it was pulled from one of these blocks and ignited. They were carefully husbanded, and none was unnecessarily used. Thus invention came in the “nick of time,” and filled “a long-felt want.”

After a few years in the wilderness, the pioneer farmer had extended his clearings rapidly, and soon was growing more grain than was needed in home consumption. Mills were established wherever suitable water power could be found to grind this grain into flour. This flour was hauled in wagons over roads that were almost impassable for teams to Fort Wayne, to which point a canal had been constructed from the east, thus giving an outlet to the surplus products of this part of Indiana. Others hauled their flour to Michigan City, where it found an outlet to the east by sailing vessels via the Great Lakes.

A mill had been established at Benton, my native village, which then promised to become a leading town of the county. It is within my recollection when it was a much more thriving town than Goshen, the county seat. An extension of the canal had been surveyed from Fort Wayne to the lakes. Much work was done on the canal in Noble and Allen counties, and as it “struck” Benton, the old town had a genuine “boom” and its outlook was bright. Sylvan Lake, at Rome City, now one of the leading summer resorts of northern Indiana, was made by a dam erected as a “feeder” for this proposed canal.

Hauling the surplus flour and other products of the mills and farms about Benton became too tedious, and hence, the enterprising business men of the town of that day concluded to adopt a different method of sending their produce to the markets of the east. Just below the village, several flatboats, or scows, were constructed and launched. I do not now recollect their dimensions, but to my youthful imagination they seemed like immense affairs. These were loaded well down with flour in barrels and other products, and when all was ready, and the water in the Elkhart river at the proper stage, they were cut loose from their moorings and carried by the current swiftly down the flowing river. The entire town was out to see them off. Experienced boatmen were in charge of the boats, but many citizens rode upon the vessels several miles down the river, and then walked back to their homes.

My father’s home was a mile below town. There was a foot-log across the river there that we used in crossing the stream. It was elevated five or six feet above the water. When the first boat reached this foot-log, Dr. S. R. Kyler, of Benton, was standing upon the bow of the boat, on a box, and by his side was his faithful dog. When the bow of the boat was about to pass under the log, the doctor sprang upon the latter, intending to jump into the boat as it passed under. He was followed by his faithful dog. But the boat “grounded” on a sunken log, and its motion was checked. The doctor could not check his momentum and went head first into the river, as did the dog. This was the first mishap of the voyage, and was greeted with a shout of merriment from the boatmen and others on board. Whether these boats went farther then Elkhart, I cannot now remember. Probably not, as steamboats from the lake then occasionally came up the river as far as that town. It is probable that these boats took the cargoes to the lakes or towed the boats down the “Big Saint Joe,” as the river was then called.

* Celerity means swiftness.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *