Memory of Pike Woods

Introduction by Jackie
Below are two exceptional historical articles I found that were published in the Racine newspaper; one in 1904 and one in 1906.  They are lengthy but well worth the read time.  Both are an outstanding descriptions of what our wilderness landscape looked like during early settlement.

1904 Article

Ben Bones Tells of Mammoth Trees-Monarch of Them All 9 Feet at the Base
by Ben Bones of Mt. Pleasant
(Source:  Racine Journal Times, publication date April 1, 1904)

Often when pioneers get together they talk of conditions surrounding the country, fifty or sixty years ago.  All agree that forests abounded everywhere.  And, there were some mighty big trees at that time.  No man is better posted in this direction than Mr. Bones of Mt. Pleasant, who has lived here for more than half a century.
Mr. Bones has written the following for the Journal:
To the Editors of the Journal:

“In Memory of the Cnce Big Trees of Pike Woods”
A half a mile southeast of Petrified Springs, there was a timber hewed from a swamp burr oak 2 ft. square and 64 ft. long.  I think this is the largest stick ever taken out of Pike Woods.  A white oak, three-quarters of a mile west of my farm, was cut down.  I made a butcher block, 42 posts, and 17-1/2 cords of wood.  A hickory felled on the Jackson farm made 7-1/2 cords of wood.  One half mile west of Berryville, and exactly where John Gehring’s house now stands, was a fallen black walnut tree, 7-1/3 ft. in diameter.  Black walnut trees 4 ft. in diameter were plenty, also butternut trees on the flats; also elms of that caliber and now and then a basswood tree, white and black ash 3-1/2 ft. were not scarce.   There was probably no forest more beautiful on earth fifty years ago.
The monarch of the woods blew down in 1876.  It was 9 ft. at the base and 124 ft. long.  I bought the tree and put ten feet of the hollow base in my front yard making a wigwam for the children.  I paid for the cutting of this.  There were two horse blocks and 22 cords of stove wood before getting to the first branch.  This tree was a cotton wood about 135 years old and I think the largest tree in the state.   There is just one of the large trees left, a cottonwood, 125 feet high, 5-1/2 feet at the base and it is sixty feet to the first limb.  The body is a symmetrical shaft worth going miles to see.  I feel it a duty to these old trees of long ago, to write that they once lived.  Alas!  Those who will remember them are about as scarce as the old trees.”
B.R. Bones

1906 Article
or How our Grandfathers Utilized the Forest
by Raymond Piper, 450 Owens Avenue, Racine, Wisconsin
(Source:  The Racine Journal Times, publication date December 21, 1906)

If we study the period between 1850 and 1855, taking Pike Woods in the vicinity of present Berryville as a representative locality, we find that practically the famer’s entire living was derived directly from the forest, and from the meager farming which he did between the stumps.  But the greater part came from the forest. 

For some years previous to 1850, much of the land now occupied by great cabbage fields was covered with a dense forest known as Pike Woods, and in many places by almost impenetrable underbrush.  The small sections into which this was divided were owned by farmers residing west of Racine and, on the prairie, those who used those woods as the source of their rail, fencepost and fuel supply.  To one riding along a road between Racine and Kenosha, not frequented by automobiles, and with fertile fields on either hand, it is hard to believe that so few years ago it was no difficult matter to become lost in these woods even to one familiar with the few trails.

In the early fifties (1850’s) the greater part of this land was purchased by permanent settlers, who built houses and commended the long task of clearing away the forests.  Then too, began the destruction of the great Pike Woods on a large scale.  Those who have seen this forest in its primeval grandeur declare it to have been magnificent, made up as it was of huge trees of many species thriving closely together on the slightly rolling ground, and with Pike Creek meandering through it.  Numerous young tributaries of the creek flowing at the bottom of ravines with steep green banks added to the picturesque scenery.

The pioneers usually came in “prairie schooners” which were wagons covered with canvas stretched over ribs of split saplings.  They were drawn by oxen.  The settler’s family, if he had one, migrated with him.  He brought also necessaries, and his most valuable personal property.  The possessions which he carried with him on this first and only journey were all he ever enjoyed in his new western home.  Often the pioneer, however, owned little to start with, and frequently arrived on the frontier with scarcely money enough to take up a small piece of land.  He camped out in his prairie schooner until he could erect a log house on his claim, which was the first improvement made.
Practically all the material used in constructing the log house was obtained from the forest.  Ash or basswood logs were used.  They were either hewn or “put up with the bark” as it was called.  In the latter case, the cracks were chinked with clay.  The hewing required great skill with the ax if a perfectly flat and straight surface were to result.  In doing this a straight line was drawn lengthwise of the log.  It was then “scored” – cut into at intervals of several inches, - and then hewn “true to the line”.  It is interesting to note that no lime was used in building the house, and that it was by the use of the axe and auger alone.

The rafters were small straight ironwood poles, and were secured by wooden pins.  They were covered with sawed boards with rough bark edges.  The shingles were eight or ten by about eighteen inches in size.  They were split by hand in the woods.  As they were insecurely fastened, and exposed more than nowadays, the sun soon warped the green wood into almost semicircular form.  Though they seldom leaked, snow would drift in the winter.  Before those who slept upstairs would care to rise on a morning after a snow storm, they would have to carefully remove the snow from the bed clothes, and then shake it from their half buried garments on the floor, and empty their boots. 
The floors and doors of the house were made of large boards over a foot in width.  They were really the only places in the structure where nails – square nails at that – were used, wooden pins taking their place wherever possible.  All planning and matching that was done, if any, was done by hand.  The panes in the window-panes were small.  Sometimes a log house would not have a floor, not even a window, a curtain over an opening in the wall taking its place.  The house was usually divided into two apartments, a bed room and the large living room.  A rude ladder served the purpose of the elaborate stairways of the twentieth century.

The furniture of the house was mostly home made.  A segment of the trunk of a huge basswood tree split in half and planed and fitted with legs, served as a table.  Dining and other benches were supplied in the same way from smaller logs.  The beds were made of logs mortised and fitted with legs at the corners.  At intervals of ten or twelve inches in these logs, holes were bored, through which bed cord was stretched, both across and lengthwise.  This formed the bed spring.  Upon it two mattresses were placed, the lower being made of straw, the upper one of corn husks.  It is said that these beds were extremely comfortable, but we who are accustomed to feather beds would probably fail to see where the comfort came in.

The cast iron stove upon which the cooking and baking was done was bought of the manufacturers in Kenosha.  That the baking was done upon the stove, sounds strange, but it was.  The large cast iron, drum-shaped over stood upon one side of the top of the stove, leaving space for four cooking holes.  Besides being used for cooking and baking, the stove also heated the log house.  At this period which we are studying, chimneys were not common in Pike Woods.  A stove pipe through the roof served the purpose.  In those houses which had them, the chimneys were built outside at one end of short logs chinked with clay.  Candles were used instead of gas lights.  The tallow for these was saved whenever a cow was killed for beef.  They were made six at a time in a tin mold.

The barn was likewise built of logs, but had no floor.  The roof was sometimes nothing more than a stack of corn stalks or straw, having for its base some logs laid across on the top of the walls.  The stack was not usually entirely used until spring, and after that a roof was no longer necessary until the next winter.  This style of roof, which is now seldom employed by architects, was not very common however.

In the early years of settlement the lumber of the community was sawed at Foster’s Mill, which was situated on Pike Creek, a few miles west of Berryville.  The owners of the mill took toll in lumber.  A large enough quantity of logs had to be delivered by the settlers so that it was a surety they got their handsome share.

As soon as the pioneer was settled in a his new dwelling he began at once to clear a piece of ground.  After 1850 little wood was burned simply to get it out of the way, though this was not uncommon among the first settlers.  By this date a demand has arisen for wood in Racine and Kenosha, with populations of 5,000 and 3,500 respectively.  Timber was then converted into cord wood and hauled to these towns.

Wood chopping is an art which has disappeared in this section with the forest.  An interesting article might be written on the passing of the wood chopper, and how he opened up the wilderness that we might enjoy the civilization and luxuries of today.  There are few now who can do little better than cut their feet.  This is a natural consequence when there is little opportunity for practice; however.  In pioneer days a good wood chopper could strike his axe where he wished so exactly – within a fair’s breadth of the mark – that his cut into a tree was as smooth as if a giant had taken out a chip with two strokes of a huge axe.  And every stroke would count.  If the tree were softwood, it would seem that the woodsman would almost bury his axe in the tree at every stroke.

A good day’s work for an experienced chopper was two cords, and this did without the aid of a saw, except in the case of unusually large logs.  So many chips resulted from the constant chopping that they were often sold by the wagon load.  Though only three shillings per cord was paid for cutting wood, choppers were plentiful.  Only the tree trunks and large branches would be accepted by the purchasers of cord wood.  Maple and hickory sold for $2.25 per cord delivered, oak for $1.50, and basswood for about $1.00.  But even at the low price cash was not received, but “store pay,” that is, the amount was “traded out” in groceries, clothes and boots.

When the first track of the Northwestern railroad was built, the settlers sold large quantities of cord wood to the company for fuel on the locomotives, piling it up in great heaps by the side of the track.  The introduction of coal for fuel for the engines destroyed the market for the farmer’s wood. The following were also some purposes for which the timber was utilized.  Basswood of a certain length was sold for broom handles, which were manufactured in a building situated on Sixth Street where Paddock & Myers now have their office.  Perfectly straight maple tree trunks of a specified diameter were sold for pump logs.  White oak logs running twenty feet without a limb were purchased by a Milwaukee firm for ship masts.  Wood cut to a certain length and split as thin as possible was used for barrel staves.  Small hickory poles called “hoop poles” were sold, and afterward split by the “coopers” for the barrel hoops.  Straight oak timber was split into rails.  White oak was also used for fence posts on account of it its lasting properties.  Of course the settler made his own axe handles and flails from hickory.  When the railroad came through, timber for ties and bridges was sold.

All wood that was not used for the purposes mentioned above converted into charcoal.  As charcoal pits have not been burned in this locality for many years, it may be interest to note how it was done.
The pits were usually burned in late autumn or winter.  A sandy location a convenient distance from the house was selected.  The pit had to be handy to watch and far enough away from the buildings so as not to endanger them by fire.  In constructing a pit, the chimney was first started.  This was made simply of sticks a few feet in length building up in the form of a square.  The base of the pile was made up of stumps and unwieldy logs “snaked” from the woods by a yoke of oxen and a log chain.  All pieces of wood that had any length were stood on end and inclined toward the flue at an angle of thirty-five or forty degrees, and when completed even with the top of the chimney.  The flue was heightened, as the pile was enlarged and raised tier upon tier, until the desired size was reached.  The piles were always circular in form, though their size and height varied.  They were sometimes forty feet in diameter.  Basswood made the best charcoal.  The harder the wood, the longer the burning required.

When the pile of material was completed, a six-inch air-tight covering was put on.  This consisted of a layer of sod covered with several inches of sandy loam.  Draughts were left at intervals around the base.  The ditch made by removing the soil drained the pit in case of rainy weather.
Now everything was ready for the exciting and dangerous process of burning the pile.  This required two or three days and as many nights, according to the weather.  The great pit was started by dropping an armful of straw and some fire down the chimney.  From this time the pit had to be watched closely, and the fire kept from breaking through the covering anywhere.  Only one draught on the side away from the wind was kept open.  It was necessary to beat the pile down frequently with a heavy sledge in order to keep it solid.  This, of course, was very hazardous, as the watchman might at any time step upon a place which had been burned out beneath and fall through into the fire.  Sometimes the pit would settle unevenly, in which case the depression would have to be filled with wood and recovered.  If carefully “patched” in this way, the pile would often go without watching for a few hours.  But again, the fire would be uncontrollable, and would burn the wood to ashes in numerous places. 

When the pit had burned the proper length of time, the outside was cooled off by shutting the draught.  It is of interest to note that the fire penetrated to all parts.  A portion of the covering was then removed and the coal raked out until fire was reached, when the opened place was recovered.  As little covering was removed as possible at one time, so that the fire in the center would not get draught.  As the pile gradually cooled, water had to be always on hand when raking out, in order that any coals that might appear could be immediately extinguished.  As burning charcoal does not smoke, a bushel of the coal would sometimes be burned to ashes before the fire was discovered.
The charcoal was loaded onto wagons and drawn to town.  The large clapboard wagon boxes held a hundred bushels.  It was a ridiculous sight to see the be smutted face of a settler over the top of his box as he was driving his oxen home after delivering a load of charcoal.  A pit made two to seven hundred bushels according to its size.  The coal was sold to wagon makers, blacksmiths, tinners, tailors, bakers and candy makers.  It was one of the very few articles, in fact, the only product from the country, which sold for cash.  It sold for a shilling a bushel, half its market price at present.
Burning charcoal pits was very hard and dirty work, but that made no difference if a little cash rewarded the labor.  As Racine and Kenosha were yet small, its sale was limited, and pits therefore were not burned often.

Thus far we have seen only how trees themselves were used.  Let us now look at some of the other products of the forest, and how the land was utilized while wooded, and after being cleared; the first step toward civilization.

There was always an abundance of maple trees in Pike Woods, from which the farmers were able to get a plentiful supply of maple syrup to last through the year.  The trees were tapped in March, as today, when it began to thaw a little in the day time.  Hewn troughs were used for catching the sap, which was boiled down in a large cast iron kettle.  The maple syrup season was one of the great pleasures for all, especially the boys.  We do not wish to be critical, but the pioneers assure us that their maple syrup was vastly superior to the present article for some reason or another.  We would, at least, know that it was maple syrup when we ate it.  Splendid white vinegar was also made from the sap by letting it stand a year.

Old Pike Woods always contained also a multitudinous supply of squirrels, rabbits, and raccoons.  Wild ducks were also abundant especially along the lake shore.  One of the pioneers tells us that he started out one afternoon and killed thirty-eight before nightfall.

In clearings made by the Indians, wild raspberries and black currants grew abundantly.  All blackberries, which were nearly as large as some of the cultivated varieties, could be easily obtained for home use, and some for market as well.  They usually grew on the high ground at the edge of a steep ravine.  The bushes were so thick that picking was dangerous work, as one might step over the top of the bank at any moment.

There were also many wild strawberries.  They grew in grass plots, either in the woods or the clearings.  Though small, they were pretty thick sometimes.  As crates and boxes were not in use then, the berries were picked in pails, in fact in most any vessel that could be found.  Wild strawberries have a peculiar delicacy of flavor which is found in no cultivated variety.  It is an extremely delicious and appetizing taste, which few have had the exquisite pleasure of relishing.  To justice to the wild strawberry, or “vegetable manna”, would require as vivid a description as Lamb gives of “animal manna” in his essay on roast pig.  One who once finds a ripe wild strawberry , and tastes it, will not be satisfied until he is positive that he has disposed of all the wild strawberries in the vicinity.

Red and yellow plumbs, grapes, and crab apples, were found from which the family supply of jelly was made.  These also were usually found in the clearings among the trees that had sprung up with the second growth.  Of course, there was an abundance of nuts of all kinds.

The cattle were pastured in the woods loose, one having a cow bell.  Then only the cultivated land, and not the pasture, was fenced, directly, the reverse of present custom.  In this way the stock would pick their living in the summer.  In the winter they would go where chopping was being done, and browse on the tender buds and twigs.  The very little feed given them was hay or corn stalks.

The pigs also ran loose in the woods, feeding upon the acorns.  Each settler had a special mark on the ear of his hogs.  Often they would roam off into the woods and remain for the whole season and in the autumn the settler would be obliged to go pig hunting.  He could not have told his own pigs, of course, had it not been for the earmarks.  The pigs had, by this time grown large and fat, weighing three and four hundred pounds.  Sweeter and more delicious ham and bacon was never eaten than that of pigs fattened upon mast.

In the early times the settlers raised a breed of pigs known as “prairie rooters”.  This hog resembled the wild boar of the wilderness more than our carefully bred bacon hog.  They had long legs, long ugly snouts, and long ears.  Their hollow backs served the purpose of saddles to any adventurous youth who could get near enough to mount, who wished a swift ride through the forest, and was not particular how he dismounted at the end of his ride.  If these hogs once got through the fence into the garden, it was marvelous how quickly they could plow it up.  It was exceedingly difficult to fatten this variety, for they grew all to ears, snouts, and shanks.  So it was an extremely difficult and dangerous task to catch and down one at butchering time without being slashed by the wicked looking tusks.  Sometimes this was impossible, and the pig would have to be shot.  It was hazardous to go any where near one if he smelt blood.  Happily the settlers were not obliged to raise this kind of hog long, for the breeds were soon greatly improved.

The first season after a piece of ground was cleared and fenced, corn was planted between the stumps in the ashes of the burned brush.  There were not rows, and the ground was not even plowed, probably because this would have been impossible.  Plowing was not absolutely necessary, as there was usually no grass in the thick woods.

A strong hickory crotch set with teeth was dragged between the stumps and the second crop was grown in the same way the next year without the ground being plowed.  The second crop was also corn, and good results were produced everything considered.

A garden was grubbed and fenced as soon as possible.  It is unnecessary to say that all the common vegetables, which have changed but little in variety since the time of the Romans, were grown.  The garden products could be sold for “store pay”.

The supply of hay was obtained “out on the prairie” just as the prairie farmers purchased their fuel “down in the woods”.

Thus, as we have seen, the days of the forest are rapidly passing, if they have not already passed, and the few remaining woods are gradually disappearing, and the old homes of the monarch of the forest are being devoted to an ever advancing agriculture.  Many of the products that these great forests once yielded are now south in other places, or have been entirely displaced by the provisions and improvements of the steady march of civilization.  If we compare the conditions of half a century ago with those of today, we are struck with awe at the marvelous advance in all lines, and it seems perhaps the greatest that has ever been made in an equal length of time, in the history of the world.

(Author: Raymond F. Piper,
1450 Owen Avenue, Racine, Wisconsin, publication date Dec. 21, 1906)

No comments:

Post a Comment