Last updated: August 25. 2013 6:24AM - 1731 Views

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LIMA — When this area was still known as the Great Black Swamp, people chose to settle here and tame it best they could.

Think you could have — or would have — done the same?

The men, of course, were ultimately responsible for the well-being of their families. But their wives, those pioneer women, had no easy task laid out for them. Just being female put a person in the second-class citizen rank.

Joanna L. Stratton's "Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier" explains during the 19th century, home was considered the proper place for women.

"For the wealthy woman, this meant a life of leisure; for others, it entailed the endless drudgery of housework and homemaking," she writes. Add to this educational and legal barriers to equality, and the outlook of the average women was much different than today. 

But pioneer women were different.

“To the pioneer woman, home and hearth meant workloads that were heavier than ever. And yet that work was the work of survival. ... Men and women worked together as partners, combining their strengths and talents to provide food and clothing for themselves and their children. As a result, women found themselves on a far more equal footing with their spouses.”

One local resource, compiled by Luke B. Knapke, is a collection of letters and journals from Liwwat Boke. Her name translated from the German is Elisabeth Boeke. She was born in Neuenkirchen, Germany, in 1807 but came to Marion Township, Mercer County. She and her husband, Bernard "Natz" Boeke, bought a farm in 1835 near St. John on what is now Rolfes Road and set to clearing the heavy forest.

Although Liwwat was a peasant of Low German descent, she journaled and sketched when not busy tending to the day-to-day matters of the farm or doing work as a midwife.

“She was veryconsciousof the importance of history and she felt records should be kept of the first days in this new country. There can be no doubt about her determination. After the exhausting labor of a pioneer’s day, few persons would have had the drive and energy which her drawing and writing must have demanded," Knapke wrote.

Her journals explain their usual foods in the beginning: wild game like deer, turkey, goose, bear or raccoon killed by her husband; little fish caught in streams; corn, beets, beans, squash, cabbage, onion and turnips from their garden, started with seeds they brought with them; and roots, fruit and nuts from the woods.

She described a typical morning in those early days. Her husband, Natz, rose very early to hunt:

“If he is not back home again by 10 o’clock, then we eat hardtack or rye and cornmeal mush. Cornmeal pancakes with honey are the best. We know many different ways to prepare corn. We make a porride from corn and cooked meat, either fresh or dried meat. Meat with potatoes, carrots or cabbage makes good stew. ... I cook squash and pumpkin with a little water, mostly in their own juice, slowly steamcooking them in a pot with a lid. I make stewed fruit such as various wild beries and plants called blueberries and bramble-berries, strawberries and quince with honey. Raspberries are plentiful.”

She used everything. Hides were tanned for clothing. Nuts were gathered for boiling in water, with the oil skimmed off the top and stored for cooking use. (She believed it more healthful than lard.) They made clay crockery, learning that it was best to heat the fire very hot and then let the piece cool slowly. She walked the woods for herbs, which she put to use in herbal remedies.

“The wives worry themselves half to death with complaints," she wrote. "Many are without hope. Always and all the time they are in the dismal forest. Their husbands are usually outside in the woods, sawing and chopping down trees and gathering and burning the underbrush."

She preached the importance of using soap to wash, however inconvenient that may have been, as pioneers needed to make it themselves. She also encouraged people to boil the water before drinking it. As the forest was cleared, the land dried and streams changed course. Pioneers needed to build cisterns to store rainwater for washing.

“How different I and Natz seem in those first times, how we struggled to overcome the dense, ominous, wet, silent forest, the streamlets, the creeks, the stones, the solitude ... just we two against time, need and trees. The trees were strong-limbed and Natz is strong-boned. It is indeed an important notion to describe how hard and tedious it was, the time it took to clear the land of all these trees and underbrush. The forest is a vast, attractive, wonderful sight to see and enjoy, but that one cannot eat or wear.”

Dorothy Jean Bixel Aschenbrenner's "Historical Events of My Mennonite Grandparents" gives a glimpse of slightly more modern times. Her grandmother Paulina Bixel married in 1891, and she and Christian Bixel lived on a farm west of Bluffton.

Paulina Bixel sometimes used an outdoor oven for baking, Bixel Aschenbrenner wrote. Every Friday and Saturday, she would bake up to 30 loaves of bread a time. She was so skilled, she would simply hold her hand out to test the heat coming off the fire to know if the oven was ready.

“They had a modest home," she wrote. "Grandma did all her baking and cooking on a large kitchen cook stove. Wood was carried to the house from the shed behind the house. One could always smell wood burning when she was getting the oven hot and ready for baking and cooking. She would bake a five-gallon lard can full of molasses cookies at a time.”

Bixel Aschenbrenner's grandmother on the other side of her family, Lydia Diller, farmed near Elida with her husband, Samuel.

“She did not do a lot of canning in those early years, but pickled many things in large crocks that were stored on shelves in the basement. On those shelves were also many jellies, jams and preserves. There were always jams or butters on the dinner table to go with the fresh, homemade bread," she wrote.

Threshing day in fall was a huge production, as Bixel Aschenbrenner remembers:

“Grandma had been busy since daybreak preparing a large meal for the hard-working men. As many as seven or eight ladies came to help her. There were always many children that came. I looked forward to this day. Grandma placed her red and white checkered, linen tablecloth on the dining room table. Then they would start to pile the food onto the extended table. It would almost sag in the middle from the weight of the food. When it was nearly 12 o’clock, Grandma would go outdoors and ring the huge iron dinner bell, which hung on the windmill. Or someone might call out, ‘Come and get it.’ The huge machines would slowly come to a stop. Men came from all directions. They dropped their pitch-forks and started for the house.

“It was a hot ordeal in the August weather. The extra heat from the kitchen made the temperature almost unbearable.”

Some recipes from those days:

Homemade Soap

From Dorothy Jean Bixel Aschenbrenner's "Historical Events of My Mennonite Grandparents"

Dissolve 1 can lye in 1 quart water. When cool, pour slowly into 2 quarts melted and cooled grease. Stir constantly. Always stir lye into grease. Add 1 cup household ammonia, ½ cup water, 4 tablespoons Borax. Stir slowly into grease and lye. Continue stirring, but not too much. Pour into mold. This improves with age.

Grandma Bixel’s Molasses Cookies

From Dorothy Jean Bixel Aschenbrenner's "Historical Events of My Mennonite Grandparents"

1 cup dark molasses

1 cup sugar

1 cup lard

1 cup sour cream

2 ½ teaspoons baking soda

2 eggs

Enough flour to roll the cookies.

Dough should not be too thick. Sometimes Grandma put a light, lacy frosting on these cookies. I use about 5 cups of flour and use a large cookie cutter. Make a test cookie first.

Happiness Cake

From “The Pioneer Lady’s Country Kitchen,” by Jane Watson Hopping — "Cake recipes like this were popular with the ladies, who wrote them carefully on bits of paper and tucked them away in a safe place."

1 cup good thoughts

1 cup kind deeds

1 cup consideration for others

2 cups sacrifice

2 cups faults, well beaten

3 cups forgiveness

Mix thoroughly, add tears of joy, sorrow and sympathy. Fold in 4 cups faith. Blend into daily life. Bake well with warmth of human kindness and serve with a smile any time. Makes a lifetime of joy and contentment.

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