Pioneer Memories – Dish Rag Stew

Farm woman cooking at stove in kitchen
Farm woman cooking at stove in kitchen

Have you ever wondered what life must have been like for settlers as they landed in American and tried create a new life for themselves? I’m sure it was exactly like it was depicted in all of those fun-loving episodes of Little House on the Prairie right? Wrong! I bet life on the frontier was a good thousand times more difficult then Hollywood has ever led us to believe. If we just had time machines we could go back and check, but since we don’t, we have to rely of the next best thing. Letters, stories, and memories from our ancestors.

So where do we start?

Well, the other day I was thinking about it, and I remembered that in my giant folder of genealogy documentation, I have a half dozen letters written from one of my distant cousins (Mary Lee Parker) to her cousin (Hazel Bolton), which is also a distant cousin of mine. The letters were written back in 1943 and contain many references of life on the farm, as Mary Lee Parker recalls stories that were passed along to her by her Grandmother (Clementine Desmond Richardson) as well as her mother (Mary Lee Smith). I transcribed the letter as it was written, including the spelling and grammar errors. Enjoy…

Wichita, Kansas
Jan. 25, 1943

Dear Hazel,

The sun is shining brightly and the cold wind has abated so I can be warm enough in here to use my typewriter. So here is another annal of one Clementine Desmond Smith, nee Richardson; your Great Grandmother and my Grandmother. I suspect that your Mother and I knew her better then all her other grandchildren. Your mother, in her middle-age and myself in her old, old age : she lived with us from her eightieth to her eighty-ninth year. For a nimber(sp) of years before that she had spent about two months of every year wiht(sp) us.

When she was a girl in her early teens her father brought his family from New York state to Wisconsin. She often spoke of that journey. They came by boat through the great Lakes to Wisconsin. That was quite a boat ride for children who had not been very far from the farm on which they were born till then. She spoke of the thrill of that trip many times. What seemed to have impressed her most about the boat was the beauty of the wood-work in the cabins. I suppose she had only seen painted woodwork till then and that this was left with the natural grain showing. I do not remember many stories of her life in Wisconsin.

Oh, yes there was one. It might turn your stomach a little bit, but it would not if you had ever seen my Grandmother take care of her kitchen. This happened when Grandfather was courting Grandmother. He had come over in the afternoon to see Grandmother. He was invited to stay for supper. Grandmother, it seems did most if not all the kitchen work at that time. She described their cellar way as having a commodious landing either at the head of the stairs at the kitchen door or part way down the stairs. My memory is hasy(sp). It seems that the dish pans hung over a shelf on which the clean kettles rested and also a shelf for left-over food.

Grandmother made a stew for supper and prepared it at this place along the cellar steps. I know it was good for we used to have it sometimes and I always enjoyed it. You took the old, deep iron kettle and layed(sp) in it first some scraps or slices of cold fat meat (or partly fat); Then a layer of cold cooked potatoes, then stale broken bread.  Then you began with the meat again and proceeded as before; and repeated till you had the quantity desired. Then pouring boiling water over it till the contents were well moistened you put it to stew slowly, stirring occasionally. It must cook till it has browned on the bottom and stirred to brown again till it is quite tasty. Now that is the way Mother always made it but it must be that they didn’t stir it then for the story goes that when they neared the bottom of the kettle they found Grandmother’s nice clean dishcloth in the bottom of the kettle. But it was also stated that no one was upset by it for she always kept her dishcloths so clean that no harm could come of it. So the family always called it “dish-rag stew”.

When Grandfather and Grandmother married they went to Minnisota(sp) to live. They had only log houses in which to live. The Indians were still around. Did I not tell you about the Indians frightening Grandmother when your grandmother (my Aunt Ella) was a baby? If not, say so on a postcard and I will tell you of it.

The winters are very cold there with a great deal of snow. At that early time, due to the great quantity of timber, the farmers fenced their fields with “stake and rider” fences. Do you know what those fences were like? Not likely. They layed(sp) the fence somewhat in the manner of building a log house except that in place of making a square or rectangle they made a crooked fence like this

Stake and rider fence re-sketched from an old letter between distant cousins.

It seems the snow would pack along the fences and the sigsag(sp) was wide enough so that when the snow became as deep as the fence they would drive along on top of the fence all winter as it made a much better road than the roadway.

They had strange neighbors besides Indians. Norwegians and Swedes lived near. Their manners and customs were very different from Grandmothers. But she was always kind to her neighbors. One time when she had made pumpkin pies she sent my Mamma(sp) and, I think, your Grandma to take a pie to a Norwegian family. It was Mother who told me about this. They delivered the pie. The Norwegian mother cut it and gave each of her children apiece(sp); not on a plate but in their hands. At first they just looked at it, as the they hardly know what to do with it for they had never before seen a pie. Finally one child dropped on his knees and crawled under the bed, then the other followed. Mother could hear them making noises (mmumyummm) Soon they reappeared and each piece of crust had been licked clean.

It seems strange to write to some one and not have the slightest idea where that someone is. I hope that where ever you are that all is well with you and that you are enjoying your tasks because you feel that you are doing your bit. I wish I were doing something to help.

With love and Best Wishes I am

Your Cousin,
Mary Lee Parker


Did you enjoy the first letter in this special Pioneer Memory series? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

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