yesterday's tennessee

Yesterday's Tennessee
History of Henderson Co.

From Auburn Powers, History of Henderson County, Tennessee, 1930. Reproduced with permission for personal use only. No further reproduction can be made without written consent of Andy E. Powers and Sherode B. Powers.


Chapter II

A little more than a hundred years ago Henderson County was occupied by pioneers in the truest sense of the word. They were the ones who came to this new and uncivilized region to lay the foundation for a great county. As has been stated before, they came to this county bringing very little with them except brave hearts and strong determinations. They did not come to get rich quick, for there were no valuable minerals here. They came for liberty and freedom and to make for you and me a decent place in which to live. We owe them a debt that we never can repay, but we can preserve for future generations what they made possible for us to enjoy.

Their worldly property was scant, consisting of only the barest necessities. A family that brought with it its wearing clothes and a few bed clothes; an oven, a pot, an ax, a broadax, a free, a saw, and an auger; a pig and a cow; and a few seeds for his fields and gardens was a well furnished family indeed. Many did not have nearly so much. They had no carpets, mirrors, rocking chairs, or cooking stoves. All the cooking was done on the fireplace. Much of the food was cooked in the pot, oven, and frying pan just mentioned; but soft ears of corn were roasted with the shuck on, in hot ashes, thus giving to it the name "roastingear". Thin cakes of cornbread were baked on eye-hoes placed before the hot embers, thus giving to it the name "hoecake." Ashcakes were cooked upon the hot rocks of the fireplace where the fire had been removed. The earliest pioneers never saw a steamboat, a railroad, a moving machine or hay rake, a telephone, a street car, an automobile, an airplane, or a radio. It will doubtless seem strange to you that such conditions existed in your own county so few years ago, but it does not seem so to the author. He has seen such conditions himself within the past two years. There are many people in the world today as ignorant of modernism as were these pioneers. After the pioneers had harvested their first crop they lived more comfortably, for the fresh land yielded heavy crops for the planters. Too, the woods were filled with wild game that furnished the pioneers with abundance of fresh meats.

It was not uncommon at all for a man to go out into the woods and bring home a nice fat buck. Deer abounded in this region. The woodland was open, and the ground covered with wild peas and grasses which made an excellent place for deer to live. Too there were plenty of canebrakes for them to live in during winter. Cane Creek received its name from the masses of canebrakes upon its banks. Wild Turkeys were almost as common as quails are now. And the large pigeons that once were hunted throughout North America for their beautiful plumage and delicious meat were so numerous in Henderson County that they often broke down trees roosting in them, so many lighting in the same tree; but there is not a living specimen of these precious birds today. There were so many squirrels that the pioneers were forced to kill them off in order to save their crops. An occasional bear and not a few raccoons were here also. The large timber wolf and prowling panther roamed at will. Just what would many of us lovers of out-doors give for hunting conditions as they were then? After all, the pioneer life had its good points even though conditions were different from what they are today.

People dress considerably different now to what they did a century ago. A man then wore homemade breeches, a hunting shirt, moccasins made from skins of animals, and a raccoon cap. In summer neither men nor women wore foot wear except on special occasions, and then it was very rude and ugly. The women wore long dresses, split-bonnets, and shawls, all of which were plainly made. The mother and daughters of a family were too busy doing the essential things to spend much time on tucks and ruffles. Some may ask why conditions were so backward here only a hundred years ago. A hundred and twelve years ago this whole region was Indian property and unsettled by a civilized man. Now, can you conceive how it is possible for a country to make so much progress in so few years?

When a family of pioneers came, the father and boys sat about to build a home and to equip it. The house was made of logs and seldom had any floor other than of dirt. The cracks were filled with sticks and mud. A large chimney was made of sticks covered heavily on the inside with mud to prevent them from catching fire. An open fire place occupied half of one end of the house…. The pioneer made his own furniture or called in his neighbors to help him. The bedsteads were usually made by driving down a forked stake in one corner of the house about four feet from one wall and about seven feet from the other. A small pole, which was usually a split from a big log, there being very little small timber or undergrowth, was placed with one end in the fork of the stake and the other in a crack in the wall. Another such piece was so placed with one end upon the first piece and the other in a crack in the other wall. More such pieces were laid alongside, it until the structure was almost solid across the top. It was in an oblong shape and about four by seven feet in size. It made a fairly comfortable bed for a good size family of children when it had the proper bedding upon it. Later, corded beds came into use. They were a great improvement over the former.

The new comer had also to make a table to eat upon and stools to sit upon. The table was made of hewed plank with four hewed legs. There were no sawmills here to furnish lumber when the early pioneers came. The stools he made by boring three holes in a hewed piece of timber about fourteen inches square and by sticking a peg in each of the three holes. These pegs served as legs for the stool. It had no back. The spinning wheel and loom were more complicated and harder to make. It generally took the best carpenter in the community to make a loom.

After he finished equipping the house, the pioneer and his sons then deadened timber for a field and planted a crop.

What stock the pioneers had ran out side, and they, assisted by deer, made it necessary for the planter to fence his fields. In those days wire fences were unknown. The way the pioneers built fences was to cut down big timber, cut it into logs about twelve feet long, split them with mauls and wedges into rails, and finally to place the rails, one upon the other, until the proper height of the fence was obtained. This made a fairly good fence, but it required much work to build it….

The mother and daughters were, by no means, idle. They made cloth by hand for the whole family's clothes, and kept the spinning wheel humming and the shackles of the loom darting back and forth from morning until night. They carded the wool from the sheep's back and the cotton, which they had separated from the seed by hand, into rolls and spun them into thread. This thread they wove into cloth and made into clothing for the family. All the sewing and other similar work was done by hand, there being no sewing machines to be had.

During the long wintery-nights after the evening meal the whole family would assemble in the living room and discuss things in general. The father was usually considered the head of the family and would sit before the big, roaring fire and smoke his pipe and tell stories to the children. He and the larger boys did not do so many things in the house as did the mother and daughters, who kept the music of the cards, spinning wheel, and loom going until far into the night. However, all had time for a family conversation. Family life then must have been even dearer and more sacred than it is today. Try to imagine Mary, the oldest daughter, sitting in the corner by the grease lamp carding rolls or reading a love story, John and Henry tinkering with their flint rock rifles, the father with the favorite son upon his knee telling him of heroic deeds he had performed, and the mother with Little Susie held close to her bosom listening with love and pride to the exciting though true stories of her husband.

The manner of living made friendship very strong between the pioneers. They worked in harmony with each other. A pioneer's house was open to both friend and stranger at all times. If his fellow man needed food, clothing, or money, he would cheerfully lend it to him and think he had done only a common favor. If a neighbor was sick, the pioneers would gather at an appointed day and work his crop. (The same is still true today.) If he had work too heavy for one man to do, he would invite his neighbors to help him. No one who was invited failed to come. To fail to come when invited or to fail to invite a friend was considered equally discourteous. No one expected pay; and to have offered pay would have been a grand insult. The men assembled early and worked until noon; when a fine dinner was usually prepared. They did the same justice to the dinner that they did to the work. The afternoon found them ready to continue the task if it was not finished. The men took great pride in their strength, and challenged each other to contest to see who was the strongest. The "best man" at a log rolling was a hero.

After the "workings" they generally had parties. The fiddlers would assemble in one corner of the house. A man who had a good voice and knew his "steps" would begin to call the set while the young men and their partners would promenade. The most common game was the square dance. The young men with their hunting shirts and leans breeches on and maidens with their long skirts on that swept the floor enjoyed life to the fullest. When the party was over, the young men saw their sweethearts home but usually parted with them at the door. There was very little "courting" done at night. And when there was, the boy and girl sat in the house with the family and talked in general. Would the boys and girls of today appreciate such social privileges?

Do not get the impression that these rough and sturdy pioneers were dull minded and ignorant. It is true that they aid not have the opportunity to receive an education that the boys and girls of today have, but they were awake and alert to the things around them. Whenever a stranger from some other parts came in, the people soon learned what he knew and passed it on to others. Everybody welcomed him and shared with him the very best. In this manner the people kept themselves fairly well posted.

Schools were very scarce, and what they did have were subscription schools. Do you know what a subscription school is? It is one that is supported by the parents who have children attending it. The house was usually a large one-room log house with a large chimney and open fireplace occupying one whole end. The floor was of dirt, and the benches were split logs with the flat side turned up. They had legs but no back. For light a log was cut out of the side of the house thus furnishing a long opening which served as a window. It did not have a glass in it for there was no glass to be had. The school had no blackboard, globes, or charts and but few books. They were usually a speller, reader, and arithmetic. Writing was taught also. Schools then were not graded as they are today. The teacher, who was seldom competent to teach, heard each pupil's lesson separately from the others. But classes were soon created in spelling. The pupils would stand in a long row and spell orally, much as they do today. Even the studying was done aloud. (The author has seen such schools but not in Henderson County). It is indeed an amusement just to stand by and listen to the different sounds in such a school. But the pupils in our pioneer schools seemed not to notice the noise and learned readily for the few months they were in school.

The terms were about two months in mid summer and about the same in mid winter. The boys would bring their axes and cut wood and keep fires, while the girls would keep the house clean. The boys and girls were not allowed to associate with each other, the boys being seated in one side of the house and the girls in the other. If a boy more than spoke to a girl, a rumor was spread that there was "courting" in the school. Such a report was a bad reflection, indeed, upon the school and the teacher.

Churches were built much on the same order as were the schools, but it was not necessary to pay the preacher, as it was to pay the teachers of the schools. The preachers never thought of receiving pay. His service was always free and to the upbuilding of God's Kingdom. He would ride or walk almost any distance to fill an appointment and was seldom, if ever, late.

The pioneers did not have cars to ride to church in. They did not even have buggies, and very seldom wagons. Those who lived near the church or meeting place walked. Those who lived farther away went in carts drawn by horses or oxen. It was a common thing for a family to go fifteen or twenty miles in an ox cart to meeting. Some would even walk great distances. Those who went horseback fared best and were looked upon with dignity. Often the boys would ride horseback and carry their sweethearts behind them.

There was almost always a large congregation. If the house would not hold all the people, the men would give back and allow the women and children to be seated. They would. stand on the outside as close to the preacher as possible and hear the sermon. All were quiet and attentive. They came for only one purpose and that was to learn more about Jesus Christ and to worship Him. They would sit for hours on the rough split benches and listen to the sermon, which was usually not polished and elegant, though earnest and forceful.

The preacher often became very emotional and would arouse the wooing spirits of his congregation. The men and women and even the boys and girls would stand and tell of their Christian experiences. They were not afraid or ashamed to stand before the public and speak for Him, who had saved their lost souls. Often the preacher was forced to close his sermon and to give way to the heart felt words from the congregation. It was not uncommon for a service to break up in the tumult and shouting of Christian souls who sang praises unto their Savior. Nothing brought more happiness to a congregation than for a wayward soul to be brought unto Christ. Many times now we hear old men and women speak of the religion and meetings the people had in the early days.

Palestine, about five miles south of Lexington, was once the center for a big camp meeting, or revival. Near the camping grounds was a very large spring known as the Boiling Springs, which furnished abundance of water. It is said that this spring was so enormous that fence rails could be buried in it and that it changed its position annually. It has, however, ceased to function of late. People for miles around came and brought corn and other provisions with them and built places to keep them in. All placed their supplies in a common storehouse and used them whenever they chose. If a man was unable to bring his lot, he was made welcome to share from the common supply. The men fenced enclosures in which to keep their stock. What they brought consisted of provisions to live upon and cooking utensils to prepare it in, clothes and tubs and soap to keep them clean, bedding, and other necessities for camp life. They often spent weeks and sometimes months in one of these meetings. All had a good time and received inspirations from Above. At the close of the meetings the pioneers went home with happier souls, a greater love for their Lord and Savior, and a stronger determination to live more nearly like Him.

  1. How did pioneers do most of their cooking?
  2. What did the pioneers never see?
  3. Describe the pioneer's dress.
  4. Describe a pioneer's house.
  5. How did the pioneer get furniture for his house?
  6. Describe a rail fence.
  7. What were the duties of the mothers and daughters?
  8. Mention some things a pioneer would do for his neighbor. Is such true of today?
  9. What often followed a "working"?
  10. How did the pioneers learn about the outside world?
  11. Describe the schools, the houses, and the equipment, or furnishings.
  12. What were the duties of the boys during winter school? Of the girls?
  13. How did the pioneers go to church?
  14. Tell about the church services--the congregation and the sermons.
  15. What was once a center for big camp meetings?
  16. Describe a camp meeting.

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