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Settlement of Galesburg, Illinois, Including Noble Phelps and Family

Household Skills


For years the tiny village of Galesburg remained scattered over a plan much too large. The 173 individuals who spent the winter in thirteen cabins at Log City were augmented in the spring by fifty-nine more, but only a few moved into the town. Most of them were farmers; their holdings lay just beyond the village limits, though some for sociability built their homes in the town. And a number remained at Log City until the second summer, or longer.

Upon the clean level prairie they began to build a town of framed wooden houses, and by 1845 there were seventy dwellings, besides stores, mills and shops. Galesburg was distinguished for its white houses, for ordinarily prairie homes were not painted, but Leonard Chappell started an oil mill in the village to grind the flaxseed raised by the farmers, and exchanged oil for seed. There were no sidewalks; paths ran in all directions according to convenience, across lots, cutting corners, and planks were laid for crossing streams. There were no trees, and the neat and tidy white houses stood out against the green prairie like a modern chicken run. It was a village of magnificent distances.

The architecture was without distinction. These people were not reared in the Georgian tradition which gives dignity to so many New England villages, and they had no taste of their own. They brought their pattern from the towns of central New York. Its only merit was its simplicity. Each man was architect not only of his own fortunes, but of his own domicile.

The first task was to get their little settlement running as a machine for living, houses built, gardens planted, fruit trees set out, and utilities established to supply immediate wants, and on their farms to build not only houses, but barns, outbuildings and fences.

Wood was the only building material. Each buyer of land received one-tenth in timber if he wished. It was comparatively hardwood; there was no pine, but plenty of oak, black walnut, maple and basswood. Magnificent old trees were cut down and ripped up by Henry Ferris in the first sawmill at the Grove. Until they had their own sawmills, the colony had to haul logs ten miles to Knoxville and pay two-thirds of the lumber for toll. These mills supplied planks and boards, but shingles and joists were rived from felled trees. Lumber prepared during the previous winter at Log City had been hauled to the sites over the snow. All the material for building, except glass, builders' hardware, and white lead, was produced in the neighborhood by the settlers' own labors.

A brickyard supplied material for chimneys and foundations, though many made brick on their farms. The clay shale of the neighborhood was admirably adapted, and the manufacture of paving brick ultimately became a leading local industry. There was also stone from the washed-out hollows beside Spoon River. This was used for the foundations of larger buildings. Readymade sash, doors and blinds were available when Gad Colton got his woodworking shop running.

Each householder was not only his own architect, but his own carpenter, mason and painter, for though primarily farmers, they were handy with tools, as farmers were apt to be in the early years. Skilled mechanics did not come until later.

The houses were framed and enclosed against winter, and finished at leisure as time and material became available. Blankets were hung over the openings, giving the houses a "dubious look," as one chronicler has it, and the whole family helped in the finishing-laying floors, building partitions, plastering and painting, the loving affection for their own home supplying what was lacking in mechanical skill.

Except that the houses were larger and more permanent, though not so picturesque, nor at first so comfortable, domestic economy followed much the same lines as at Log City. But from now on the gradual shift of household industries to store, shop or mill will be observed, as a complete and organized community emerges from pioneer conditions. The houses were better furnished, for household goods began to arrive from New York, and there were craftsmen who could make furniture.

Usually a brick oven was built with the house, and sometimes one outdoors for summer use, but fireplaces were rare. The settlers had had enough of them at Log City, and vastly preferred the less decorative but more efficient stoves, a cookstove at least, and in the larger houses a heating stove. "Stone coal" was mined the first year by Avery Dalton in the southwest part of the county, but many of the settlers had never seen coal, and wood being plentiful, it was the only fuel. There were no matches; when a fire went out a child was dispatched to the nearest neighbor with a copper kettle in which to bring back a live coal. Each housewife made her own soap and candles.

Soap boiling was a regular domestic function. The ashes from wood fires, and all the fats and greases were saved. The ashes were kept in a barrel with holes in the bottom, and leached with water. The lye was mixed with the fat and boiled in a great outdoor kettle for two or three days. The result was "soft soap" -an expression which was slang for flattery in those days. This was used for washing clothes. To make toilet soap, the soft soap was mixed with salt and allowed to harden, and then cut up into cakes.

For candles, the tallow from the slaughtered cattle was melted in the washboiler, half full of hot water to keep the tallow near the top. The wicks were tied in rows and dipped in the tallow until of the desired size. Six months' to a year's supply was made at a time.

They bought at the store only what they could not make. Clothes and shoes were made at home. The southerners spun and wove, but the Galesburgers who were working up to the more advanced standard which they had known in the East began with cloth. Henry Ferris sent the wool from his sheep to Peoria or Oquawka, and got back flannel for women's dresses, and full cloth for the men's garments. Then Mary Ann Paden moved in and the family was "sewed up." She was both dressmaker and tailor.

When a horse or cow died, its skin was saved and tanned, and Chris Miner came with his tools and folding bench, and made enough shoes to last the family a year. When Mary Ann and Chris happened to meet at the same house, as often occurred, there was a merry time, for both were good gossips, after the tradition of their crafts, and aware of all the news of the community, and each could sing a song and tell a story, which they did to the great delight of the younger members of the family.

These household industries continued for several years, diminishing as Colton's store, and later Chambers', made manufactured goods available, and better systems of transportation gave the village an export trade. Ready-made shoes could be bought, as well as soap and candles, and then came kerosene, as great an innovation in its way as electricity was later. Less and less was made at home, as the number of stores around the public square increased.


Extracted from They Broke the Prairie: being some account of the settlement of the Upper Mississippi Valley by religious and educational pioneers, told in terms of one city, Galesburg, and of one college, Knox. By Calkins, Earnest Elmo, 1868-1964. New York: Scribner's, © 1937.