Pioneer Pursuits
With Special Reference to Pastimes and Pleasures
Navarro County, Texas


Navarro County Texas History
Pioneer Pursuits, with special reference to Pastimes and Pleasures

Presented by: Carl F. Mirus
Originally published in "The Navarro County Scroll", 1959
Reprinted with permission of the Navarro County Historical Society

Friends, Fellow Members, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Presenting a paper dealing with the past activities of our fore-fathers entails, necessarily, a good deal of hearsay, repetition of old legends and some lifting and adapting from the writings of those who have made a serious study of pioneer lift.

Most of the material here presented has been related to me by older people - in fact I may say that any one is ten or fifteen years older than I, qualifies, in my mind at least, as a genuine pioneer - and some is from various other sources.

To begin, it is difficult for us today to imagine the hardships endured by the original settlers.  Today, even the poorest of our citizens enjoy an ease of life which was wholly beyond the reach or even the thought of the richest of the early settlers, and the poor of the time - and there were so many more poor - lived a life of rigorous hardship and deprivation.

Today we take for granted radios, televisions, automobiles, gas and butane fuel, hard surfaced roads, theatres, phonographs, stores selling every need and luxury, the country side traversed with telephone lines and electric lines, railroads and truck lines bringing in wares from other climes and taking our produce to the markets of the world.

One hundred years ago, even fifty years ago, the country was sparsely settled, neighbors lived, except in the towns and villages, far apart, dependent on their own resources for a livelihood and entertainment.  I doubt if these sturdy, self-reliant folk gave much thought to the lack of what we, today, feel necessary for living.  For one thing, most of our modern aids to ease, comfort and well being were not thought of at all.  I expect if some prophet in the 1880's or even in the early 1900's would have told of some of our modern inventions he would have been derided as insane, or as having imbibed too much rum.

The past week we have a severe cold spell.   But gas heaters, space heaters, floor furnaces, central heating systems have kept us warm.  Well built houses, often with insulated walls, double floors, tightly fitting windows and doors have kept the cold outside.  Our early settlers lived in log cabins of flimsily constructed houses of rough sawn planks.  Roofs were of loosely laid shingles, the floor, either earth, or planks with wide cracks.  The windows and doors were makeshift.  In short, the houses were draughty and cold.   The only heat was that thrown out by the fireplace or "chimley."   The open fire, though cheerful to look at, served to roast the front and freeze the rest of the person.  So it was the custom to throw a quilt over the chair and wrap this over the shoulders to keep warm by the fireside.  The only light was that of tallow dips or a rag in a bowl of lard.

In the summers, not only were there no electric fans, evaporative coolers nor air conditioners, but there were no screens, and flies, mosquitoes and other insects made themselves at home inside the house.

Due to the lack of home comfort, as we know it, folks went to bed with "the chickens" and there was little nocturnal social life in the early days.  There were occasional sociables, and infrequent square dances held at night.  But the social life, as we know it, was non-existent.  For one reason, it took a lot of hard work to live, especially for the women folk, and by nightfall all were ready for sleep.

The pioneer woman, especially, had a hard life.   Bearing and raising a large family, cooking for all of them, doing the wash in the good old fashioned way with tubs, washboard and an iron boiling pot, using lye soap she had made herself, making clothes for all the family, even in the early day spinning and weaving the cloth, putting up preserves and the various sorts of pickles and chow chow needed to spice the monotonous died, making a garden, often cutting the stove wood and then working "in her spare time" in the fields alongside her husband and older children, and milking the cow morning and night for a full life that did not crave nightly or daily amusement.

The early settlers were, in the main, deeply devout, sometimes bordering on the rim of fanaticism.  Therefore, most of the early entertaining centered about and was dependent on the religious culture of the time.   Most of the pioneers were members of the more militant evangelical sects and these frowned upon most secular entertainment as being Satan's handicraft and the members were forbidden, upon pains of eternal exclusion from the ranks of the blessed, of attending any public gathering unless this be educational.  A legend has it, that circuses added the menageries of wild animals to their shows so as to be able to come under the educational category.  Likewise, it  is a well documented fact that the reason theatres were all called "opera houses" was to circumvent the ban on theatres.   I am sure many here present will recall the old Merchants Opera House in Corsicana, and will further recall that there was never an opera sung in it.  But many fine theatrical performances were given and those who would, could still say they had seen the opera.

So, in the early days the church services were the greatest social event.  Possibly because the people lived far apart and were lonesome, seldom seeing the nearest neighbor, and church afforded not only spiritual strength, but afforded an opportunity to see and visit with friends and neighbors.

As ministers were scare regular preaching services were had on an irregular basis.  Some churches maintained circuit riders who followed a fairly regular schedule over an established route.  Other denominations had missionaries in the field who covered as much territory as they could.

But in the summers, when the weather was warm, the crops laid by and there was plenty of time, then were held the great religious gatherings of the year.  The protracted meeting, or the camp meeting.  I am not familiar with the exact distinction between the protracted and the camp meeting, but think the protracted meeting was held at some locality where the settlers were thick enough so all could attend from their homes, both daily and nightly sessions.  On the other hand the camp meeting ministered to the spiritual needs of those who lived more widely apart and so a central spot was selected, preferably in a grove of trees, with water available.   In this spot the men folk would erect a rude shelter made from posts with pole stringers to support a roof of tree limbs or brush.  There was once a community in Navarro County called "Brushy Arbor".  The brush roof afforded shade and made it cool and comfortable for the listeners.  And may be it was well that it was cool and comfortable, because often the sermon delivered treated of the great heat generated by brimstone and waiting for the unwary sinner.

At these meetings there were, in the early days, no pews or seating arrangements.  People sat on the ground, or brought their own chairs.  In some places, where the tree growth was sufficient, logs were cut and rolled under the arbor for rude seats.  In later days lumber was borrowed or rented from lumber yards to make benches.

When the camp meeting started all the people in the vicinity - say in a radius of 15 or 20 miles - would pack food, bedding and other necessities of life in their wagon and drive to the meeting.  There they would each select a camping place, generally in family or friendly groups, unload the wagon and set up house - keeping for the duration of the meeting.

Some brought the family cook stove, others cooked over an open fire.  There was a lot of trading of food, recipes and gossip.  The women and children generally slept in the wagons and the men and boys underneath the wagons.

These meetings lasted from a week to a month.   Preaching was held several times a day, with often four or five ministers sharing the preaching.  There were seldom any musical instruments, pianos or organs, at these meetings and the singing was done under the auspices of various song leaders.  Some leaders had voices strong enough to carry the congregation with them as they led off with some familiar and well liked hymn.  Others "lined out" or had another singer line out the songs.

To digress a little, we still have a group of singers who follow the old style of singing, the "Sacred Harp" or Fifth Sunday singers.

These protracted and camp meetings were enjoyed by all, not only for their religious benefactions, but because it was the only time of the year when there was free opportunity to see and visit hundreds of people.  To the young it was the time of courtship.  It was an axiom that the fall after each meeting saw many weddings.

Funerals also were the occasion of gatherings, and because of the sadness and finality of death, always caused a great ingathering of friends and acquaintances.  Of course when death followed a spell of sickness the countryside was aware of all that went on and friends were helpful during the sickness as well as after death.  Neighbors took over the work of the sick, provided food, cut and hauled wood, sat up and in general did good.  In cases of accidental or sudden death, the grapevine telegraph passed the word of the calamity and again friends and neighbors came in to help.

Our pioneers had their superstitions, just as we do.  No doubt theirs were a blend of those brought from the old country, those of the new country, those of the negroes, and the indians, with whom they had come in contact.   Superstition decreed, when death came to a home, the clock or clocks must be stopped at the time of death and not started until after interment.  Any mirrors must be shrouded and kept covered until after the funeral.  All pictures had to be turned to the wall or laid face down on the bureau or table.  There were other, to us, odd customs in connection with death.  The country was full of harrowing stories of body snatchers, or of cats, rats and other carnivores animals waiting an opportunity to sneak in and mutilate the corpse.  There were, too, blood curdling accounts of someone being buried alive over in the next county and horrendiferous details were related about the agonized efforts of the poor persons vain efforts to free himself from the coffin and grave before dying the second time.

Therefore, it was necessary to have a corps of watchers to sit by the corpse to defend it from the depredations of the animals and to observe closely for any sign of the corpse coming to life.  I rather suspect, had the corpse made any movement, there would have been a general and precipitate exodus from the scene.

There being no undertakers available, and if there had been, the roads might have made it impossible to get one, as mentioned by Mr. Dawson in his paper on Old Pansy a year or two ago.  Friends took over and performed the necessary preparation for burial.

Not as Alexander Pope wrote:

By foreign hands thy dying eyes were closed,
By foreign hands thy decent limbs composed,
By foreign hands thy humble grave adorned,
By strangers honored and by strangers mourned.

But friends laid out the body.  If it were possible to get a store bought coffin this was done, but if not, some one would volunteer "I have some nice, smooth boards I laid back for this sort of thing.  "A burial box would be framed by the men, the women would line and pad it.  If a preacher could be found to hold services he was sent for.  If not, some of the elders preached the funeral and did well.

Superstitions also decreed various decorations at the grave.  Many graves were marked with shells, pottery, bottles or other decoration, which I think was either an Indian or Negro custom.

As the cemeteries grew enough in population, another social event grew up.  This was the annual cemetery working.  On an appointed day, generally in the summer, all who had relatives or friends buried in the cemetery met in an all day gathering.  The entire plot was cleansed of brush, grass and other growth.  The graves were re-banked, flowers were planted or growing plants were trimmed.   All brought lunches and an all day social gathering was had.   In election years the various political candidates made these cemetery workings as it afforded them the chance to meet many voters with small effort.  While woman suffrage was not even thought of, the wily candidates wooed the women's influence by bragging on their cakes and pies and especially their children, knowing that woman, if won, would cast her vote through her men folk.

One of the best entertainments the pioneers had was the occasional visit of itinerant merchants.  Beginning with pack peddlers who walked through the country from house to house with an unbelievable weight of merchandise strapped in a bulging bag carried on the man's back.  Many of these pack peddlers were arrant knaves and lied, cheated and stole.  Others were high class men who built up a great reputation for honesty and fair dealings and were welcomed back again and again.  One set of the latter class of pack peddlers were the Sanger Brothers.   My grandmother often told me of living neighbors to the Sanger clan at Calvert, Texas, with five of the brothers of the brothers working the country with packs, while the sixth brother stayed at home doing the buying and attending to the business.  This was about 1872.  By the time the H. & T. C. Railway reached Corsicana, they had prospered enough to open the first Sanger Brothers store here, on the corner where the State National Bank now rears its skyscraper.  After the railroad reached Dallas, the Sangers moved there, selling their store here to Col. S. S. Freedman and his brother Rueben Freedman.

One of the main attractions of the pack peddler in his day was his value as a news carrier. Going from house to house, and working out of a town, he had all the news of the day, and served to carry messages from one house to the next.  He was the radio of the day, as a troubadour.

As the country developed and roads became some better the pack peddler was succeeded by the wagon peddler.  This man could not only carry a far more extensive assortment of merchandise, but he was also in shape to trade or barter his goods for whatever of value the farm had which was possible to transport in the wagon.  So the wagon peddler would swap calico or pots and pans for eggs, butter, chickens, goose down or whatever he could get and dispose of at his headquarters.  He even traded for calves and other livestock, trailing them after his wagon at the end of a rope.  This man, too was generally welcome as the bearer of news, or often as a guitar or fiddle player, leading his customers in old times songs and hymns.

Among others of the itinerants of the day were lightning rod salesmen, wandering "doctors" and eye glass sellers.  Some of these were good people but many have left bad reputations for over zealousness in selling or for plain, down-right chicanery.  But all were welcome, at least on the first visit, as giving the monotonous drab existence a break.

The wandering doctors finally came back presenting the medicine show.  They traveled through the country in gaily painted wagons, emblazoned with the name of their panacea, often with several riders on horseback being part of the entourage.  They would stop at the towns or villages or at cross roads and depend on passers by to herald them to the entire community.

Most of them claimed to sell Indian remedies: "Many years ago my father saved the life of an Indian Chief.  In gratitude the chief told my father the secret of Pohoya, the Kickapoo Indians unfailing remedy for everything from falling hair to fallen arches.  Good for man or beast.  Cures kidney ailments, stomach troubles, consumption and every ill to which man is heir."   Some of his horseback riders might by Indians, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, and they rode and pranced about.  Others were blackface comedians and performed on the banjo and guitar and sang songs of the day.  At night, the camp was lit by kerosene flares. All came to see the "free" show and many bought, from year to year, the priceless nostrums sold, and used them with great success.

I have made mention of the lack of roads in the early days.  Perhaps I should say impassable roads.  Any amount of rainfall would turn the roads into an impassable morass, except for empty wagons drawn by four animals or for horseback riders.  Often up until fairly recent days, many residents of outlying areas found it impossible to come to town more than once or twice a year for necessary trading, both because of bad roads and because of lack of cash, which was in hand but once a year, in the fall after the gathering and disposal of the crops.

So one certain trip into town was staged each fall to coincide with the visit of one or another of the circuses or Wild West shows which worked the territory each fall.

This trip to town was for the annual buying of supplies - staple groceries, bolts of cloth for garments, home medicines and all other house hold needs.  The more affluent drove to town in buggies or wagons and put up at one of the wagon yards, the tourist camps of the day.  There they could get stalls for the horses and mules and, if desired, a hut to live in, complete with cook stove and beds.  Or people could stay in their wagon and cook on open fires.  The majority, for reasons of necessity or economy put up at one of the several camp grounds around town.  These camps grounds were open space on the edge of town and there people fixed up and lived for a few days, just as they did at camp meetings.

From wherever they put up at, they operated from there as their headquarters during their stay in town.  Rounds were made of the stores and purchases made to be picked up in the wagon on the start back home.  The children were given a little small change to spend as they liked.  One old timer once told me he, as a boy, one fall had a whole nickel to spend.  He walked about town for a couple of hours before deciding to blow his pile on a bottle of soda water.  Then he found out he had the choice of white or red soda water and it took him several minutes to decide which he wanted.  Quite different from today, with many colors and flavors of soft drinks.

And then the great event of the year, the circus.   Starting with the mammoth free street parade in the morning, with the wagons painted with pure gold and beautiful women and handsome men riding the wagons, the stentorian cry of the parade master, "Hold your horses, the elephants are coming," the clowns, the steam piano, which purists would term calliope, even to pronouncing it calliope and of course the band with its shining brass horns, the lions and tigers and everything.  Then the anti-climax of the show itself, with the man on the flying trapeze, pink lemonade, goobers and, if finances permitted, the after concert.   And then back home to wait another year.

As time passed and the country became more settled and the early citizens became better off, life became easier and more pleasant.  The kitchen was moved from its separate room in the backyard and its open fireplace into the house proper with a modern cast iron cook stove, often with a hot water reservoir on the back.

A reed organ was bought and the family gathered around the organ while one, generally the wife or a daughter, worked the foot bellows and made music for all.  There were family singings and on Sunday afternoon friends would gather for an afternoon of song and music.

Too, churches were built at convenient locations and regular services held at least once a month and with Wednesday night prayer meetings and singing of psalms and hymns.  People were able to buy horses especially to pull buggies, travelling farther and more conveniently than the slower wagon teams and so were enabled to take in more pleasurable activity.

As the community grew so did the schools, which were at first either non-existent or very small and poor.  The schools provided a lot of pleasure to the scholars and the parents.  Our friend, Mr. Lewis Hodge, can tell us more of the social side of school life than I, but I am sure he will agree the spelling bees not only intramural, between different classes, or between the boys and the girls, or by selecting leaders and they in turn picked their side, or with one school spelling team visiting another school and vying with their best spellers, afforded teachers, trustees, scholars and parents much pleasure to all except the poor pupil who had to memorize and recite as best he or she could some tear jerker as "Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight" or Mabel, Poor Little Mabel With Her Face Pressed Against the Pane" or some such.  For some reason our early citizens believed in gloom.

But all in all they lived good lives.  They came here with little except the desire to create homes and leave a better world in which their children would live.

Their aim in life was achieved abundantly and if we live more easily today, it is in large measure due to the privations and hardships they endured cheerfully in their honest and sincere efforts to leave a better world than they found.

In conclusion, I say, that the more I learn of our early citizens, the more I admire their courage, their resiliency and their ability to make the most of what the opportunities were at the time.  They are entitled to say with Paul: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith."


Navarro County TXGenWeb
Copyright March, 2009
Edward L. Williams & Barbara Knox