Pioneer Winter

I’ve been reading a lot about winter lately. While working on a book project for the Wisconsin Historical Society, I’ve dug out a lot of primary accounts from European and Yankee immigrants settling in the Upper Midwest in the 1800s. Not surprisingly, the most poignant accounts describe the earliest days of white settlement.

When I worked at old World Wisconsin, one of my favorite buildings to interpret was the 1845 Fossebrekke Cabin. The Fossebrekkes, like many immigrants, opened their home to late-fall arrivals who had nowhere else to go. Some visitors couldn’t imagine surviving a winter in such a small building.

That's me in warm weather, heading into Fossebrekke, 1983.

That’s me heading into Fossebrekke, 1983.

But when Knudt arrived in Wisconsin, he had nothing. He worked as a laborer and spent his first winter in some kind of a shelter dug into the side of a hill. So I imagine that he and Gertrude Fossebrekke took enormous pride in their sturdy cabin.

I haven’t found a first-person account describing life in a dugout through long, dark, bitterly cold months. However, here’s a story shared by a descendant of a Norwegian immigrant who joined forces with two other single men. The three spent their first winter in a dugout…and their second winter as well:

A large log house was built on Nils Gilderhus’ land in the summer of 1841, but as they did not get it ‘clinked’ (sic) between the logs before cold weather set in, they continued to live in the dugout that winter.

Here Andres Lee and his wife, Gunvor, a sister of Nils, came from Norway late in 1841 and lived with all the rest in the dugout, as did a man named Andres Fenne. Later in the winter, Tore Kaase was also welcomed to live in the same dugout, there being no other shelter, which made a family of six men, one woman and two children, all in the same small dugout.

(“Mrs. Styrk Reque Tells History of Early Pioneers of Gilderhus Clan,” Capital Times, September 7, 1930.)

Those who barely managed to build some kind of free-standing structure often didn’t fare much better:

The winter was severe, and the house being enclosed by foot wide boards, but neither plastered or sealed the green boards warped and left great cracks, and the water froze in our glasses on the table, and if a little spilled on the floor it would freeze before we could wipe it up.

Renee Fossebrekke

Fossebrekke interior.  (Renee is making flatbread.)

We had no crib for the baby and had to keep him tied in  a chair. Our mother was sick all winter and we hung quilts and blankets around the stove pipe and fixed her bed in the enclosure; our money was nearly gone and we had to plan closely to get provisions but by hook and crook we managed to keep alive.

(Hannah L. Parker, “Pioneer Life in Waushara County,” Wautoma Argus, February 13, 1924.)

And here’s one more:

Only those who have experienced it can imagine the loneliness of the first winter 30 miles from a post-office. One inconvenience was the lack of matches. One wild, windy night Mr. Gardner’s fireplace went out. Soon Mr. Salisbury came. He, too, had lost fire. Together they started for Moses Smith’s to borrow coals. Mr. Salisbury fell into a river when crossing on a fallen tree.

Schulz cooking nook Old World Wisconsin

Cooking nook, Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin.  Without matches, fire could not be taken for granted.

While Mr. Salisbury remained at Smith’s to dry his clothing, Mr. Gardner started homeward. After going some distance he thought the pail seemed light and found that the bottom had melted and the fire was gone. Returning he borrowed an iron kettle, filled it with coals, and succeeded in reaching home with it, and a good, comfortable fire greeted Mr. Salisbury on his arrival.

(Helen Hicks, “Pioneer Settler of Spring Prairie was New York Man,” Racine JournalNews, January 15, 1932.)

Last week, while on a writing retreat, I stayed in a cabin built in 1853. I’ve stayed there before, and it’s a good space for me.

Fern Hollow Cabin

Fern Hollow Cabin in NE Iowa, owned by Liz Rog and Daniel Rotto.

Fern Hollow Cabin

From the family album–Fern Hollow Cabin before restoration in 1989.  Liz’s great-great-great-grandparents raised six children in this home, and Liz and Daniel later raised their own two children here.

It was cold during this stay—often below zero. The cabin’s only source of heat is a small wood-burning stove.

Fern Hollow Cabin

That’s a slab of soapstone on the top right side of the stove. After heating it up, I’d wrap it in a towel and take it up to bed in the loft.

I got a lot of work done, but the status of the fire never really left my awareness. A rhythm developed:  fetch wood, tend the stove, write. Fetch wood, tend the stove, write.

Fern Hollow Cabin

All the essentials—laptop, companion feline, and stove. Not shown: steaming mug of cocoa.

I was also acutely aware of how easy I  had it. I did not cut the wood, or stack it. When I had to leave for several hours, my hosts kindly stoked the stove. And I knew that if I did “lose” my fire, all I’d need to do was crumple newspaper and light a match to get it back.

This has been a long winter for most of the country. I will savor the first warm days of spring as much as anyone. But the accounts of pioneer winters have helped me keep the season’s challenges in perspective. It’s snowing as I write this, and I can’t help thinking that I have a lot to be grateful for.

Fern Hollow Cabin

Fern Hollow Cabin.

We can never truly imagine how our ancestors experienced winter, while struggling to build a better life for generations to come.

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19 Responses to “Pioneer Winter”

  1. Rosi Says:

    Thanks for sharing your retreat experience and all the wonderful quotes from the works you included. Fascinating.

  2. Arletta Dawdy's Blog Says:

    Dear Kathleen,
    You embody the spirit of those brave pioneers as you absorb their words and the essence of their experiences and convey these in your writing. Thank you,

  3. Linda Sandifer Says:

    Those old pioneers really had it hard, and it’s difficult for modern society to relate. The closest I come is when we go to our “summer” cabin. We rely solely on a woodstove for heat, and in the spring and fall, it can take most of the day to drive out the cold that settled in during our absence. Thanks for sharing this. It’s a great piece of history and information.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Your comment about needing most of the day really resonated with me–I’ve gone into old buildings on those first warm days of spring and been taken aback with how much coldness had settled in, as if the wood and mortar were reluctant to give in to the changing season. These tiny windows do help us imagine the past, don’t they?

  4. MK McClintock Says:

    What a great post. I’ve toured a few ghost towns, and lived for a winter in a 200-year old farmhouse. The upstairs had no source of heat (which we didn’t know about until we got there), and that alone was an adventure. I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like before modern wood stoves and furnaces. Thank you so much for sharing this!

  5. Paula Reed Nancarrow Says:

    Lordy it’s true, things were much harder back then – though one thing they did not have to face was the fear that they themselves had changed the weather for the worse, for themselves and for their children. Thanks for this reminder of their courage and resourcefulness, and may we somehow find the same.

  6. Heather Says:

    I can’t even imagine trying to get through a winter like this in a tiny cabin. I was reading an article in one of our local papers that shared diary pages or letter excerpts from an early settler who mentioned everything in the pantry freezing. Thank heavens for central heating!

  7. Kathleen Says:

    Kathleen, you do so many things I just dream about doing, like staying in a 1853 cabin, heated by a wood burning stove. I would love to experience that, but I do agree about constantly needing to tend the fire, our fireplace seems to need stirring, adding or just generally tending the fire to keep it viable! Can you tell me if you know anything about the oval picture frame in your Fern Hollow Cabin picture. I have one just like it, but don’t know what kind of frame it might be to even start to researching it. Thanks!

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Kathleen, we obviously are kindred spirits! I’m afraid I can’t provide any information about the frame, however. It’s gorgeous, but I don’t know when it was made, or what kind of wood it is made of. Hope you can pin something down about your own frame.

  8. Kathleen Says:

    Interestingly enough, it seems to be an antique tiger wood convex bubble glass oval picture frame, probably from the 1880’s to 1920. It’s a start!

  9. Sahasra Says:

    This was not helpful to clothing in the Midwest, but was great. Also, your kitten is adorbs!

  10. William Knutson Says:

    Fossebrekke is my Norwegian family’s name
    My great-grandfather Nell’s immigrated in the 1860s and stayed at the fossebrekk farm.
    His father was Knut Chrispinussen-Fosseebrekke.

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