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County History

Building a Home in the Allegany Wilderness (local history series, pt2)

Transcribed by Crist Middaugh

The New Patriot, October, 13-19, 1993

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Building a home in the Allegany wilderness

Farming, housing, and clothing were all crude, but early settlers hung on to build a community

Second of a series

By Harriet Balcom Davis

Local History Series Second Photo 1 of 1

Planting and Havesting

A cleared wild needed to be left fallow for a year before a crop could be planted. The soil on the flat bottom land of the creeks and rivers was rich. The first crops were raised without the use of a plow. Planting was done in a primitive manner as by the India women. A hole was dug in the ground and the deed dropped in.

The earliest plows were made a home, usually from the crotch of a tree which nature had fashioned in something resembling the required pattern. The settler had only to shape and sharpen a point. Later, iron points were brought in from the East and the side of the plow were made of wood. These were effective only in that they stirred up the surface of the ground. Drags were made with holes bored in a frame in which to place the “teeth” of round sticks.

Hoes and rakes were heave and strong for there were few forges in the country and it was no easy matter to get a broken tool repaired. Grain was cut with a sickle and hay with a scythe. Flails were the only threshers and hand-fans the only separators of the wheat from the chaff.

It was difficult to protect the drops from the wild hogs and raccoon. Corn was one of the first crops raised and the raccoons found this a delicious treat and sometimes left little for the farmer to harvest.

To break, or crush, the corn into “samp” a mortar was made by burning out a hallow in the top of a stump which had been chopped off flat. Fire was blown on to the stump to give it the proper direction and cause a cavity to burn evenly. When a coating of coals was formed the fire was extinguished; the burned wood scraped out and the process repeated until a hollow of the desired depth and shape had been made. A spring pole to which a heavy wooden pestle was suspended was attached and the machine was ready for the homemaker to grind the corn for mush; or ‘journey’ or ‘johnny’ cake.

The First Grist Mills

As more settlers moved into the area many changes took place. More land was cleared, more crops raised. Soon wheat was being raised and this necessitated the building of grist mills to grind the grain into flour.

The first grist mill was apparently build in 1803 on the Philip Church property in Angelica at Belvidere. This was large enough to accommodate only the local area. In 1807 a dam was built on Wiscoy Creek and in 1808 a settle by the name of George Mills built a grist mill there. This was the first in the area and so important to the settlers who had to travel many miles to have their grain ground into flour that men came from as far away as Geneseo, thirty miles to the North, to help with the raising of the building. Even the Indians came from the Reservation to help.

The millstones and the necessary casting for hanging them were brought from Albany by ox-drawn sleds. The cog wheels, gearings, etc. were made of wood. Built by a Mills, operated by several generations of Mills it became known as Mills’ Mills. (Not understanding when my father told me of this when I was a child I though he must be stuttering. Mill’s mills indeed!) To the mills settlers came from great distances usually bringing their grain on horseback. A man or boy led the animals across the back of which the bags of grain were suspended.

It was not until the early 1820s that nearly every community had its own mill for grinding grain into flour.

The Early Settlers’ Clothing

At the beginning of the 1800s the Allegany County women were not subjects for a fashion show. If they owned a good dress it was one brought from their earlier life and location, and now packed away in the trunk in which they had brought their quilts and clothing. With all the choices available today it is hard to imagine how little was to be had, and with what difficulty that was obtained.

Every woman having learned as a girl the use of a thimble with needle and thread made her own clothes and those of her family. There were no sewing machines. Every stitch was made by hand. There were two colors of gingham from which to choose; a light blue or a deep blue. This material, usually only twenty-two inches wide, could be bought for three shillings (about twelve to sixteen cents) a yard. It took six yards to make a simple dress.

Each settler kept a few sheep and raised flax. When sheared the wool of the sheep was carded and spun on a large spinning wheel and then woven into cloth. The fibers of the flax plant, or “tow”, as the broken fibers were called, was spun on a smaller wheel into linen thread which was then woven. The wool was made into pressed flannel for winter garments and the linen was used from summer clothing. This pressed flannel, or “fulled cloth” was wool that had been moistened, shrunk by heat and pressed to make it thick.

Many a man wore buck-skin pants made from the skin of a deer. The earliest shoes were also fashioned from the deer skin.

Education and Religious Services

In the earliest years schools were mostly non-existent, although most parents felt the need of their children having some education. This usually meant learning to read, write and do simple arithmetic - the three R’s! When enough families had settled near enough to each other they banded together and raised a log building which was heated by burning logs in a fireplace. School was in session only during the months the children were not needed at home to help with planting and harvesting. The seats in the school room were hewn planks without backs and placed on blocks of wood. There might or might not be planks placed higher for desks. There were no blackboards and very few books. A child was taught to read from the Bible or whatever book was available. The use of the hickory stick was thought to be a necessary part of the education.

In Hume along the Wiscoy Creek the stable part of a barn was used as the first school of the area. The old adage of “where there’s a will there’s a way” seemed to apply.

Although there were no buildings for churches most people felt a spiritual need and met in homes for religious services. Weather permitting meetings were held outside in the open air in the shade of the spreading branches of a forest tree. By the time schools had been built the building provided a meeting place for church services and other gatherings.

Sermons were preached by a Circuit Rider who carried his Bible in a saddle bag and rode from one settlement to another, usually to a different one each week. Elder Ephraim Sanford, a Baptist preacher was one of these who brought the Gospel to the pioneers along the Genesee.

Communication and Travel

Communication and travel were by the way of the rivers. From Canisteo and Cohocton Rivers to the Susquehanna to Baltimore. Or, by the Genesee River, portaging around the falls, to the Mohawk Valley and down the Hudson to New York.

In 1807 there was still only wilderness with no road from Hornellsville to Angelica. By 1812 the Bath and Olean Turnpike was finished to Almond and a postal route brought mail carried on horseback to Angelica once in two weeks. Goods brought in the county was carted from Utica to Almond with five horse teams.

It is a matter of record that one great, great grandfather, Stephen Atherton was six days in moving his family from Caneadea to Hinsdale. He had to fell trees to cut a road as they went.

Can one imagine today having to go to Angelica from Hime by the way of Rushford, down the creek to the Genesee River, up the river to the vicinity of Transit Bridge and there crossing the river and continuing to your destination?

Next Week: The county gets organized and survives the famine of the “year without a summer.”

Editor’s Note: The write, an Allegany County native, now lives in Arizona.

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