Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Good Old Days? Pioneer Tales of Arkansas' German Immigrants

[Note:  the following is a translation of the first Pioneer Tale published in the German-language Arkansas Echo newspaper.  In April 1892, the newspaper's editor had asked readers to send him their stories about their lives as settlers in the state. In all, the paper published seventeen stories.]

Pioneer Tales 1:  The Good Old Days?
Arkansas Echo
November 3, 1893

All kinds of things, funny and sad, happened to the first settlers and the Echo will relate some of them to our readers. At the same time, everyone is challenged to send in his own contribution to these stories.

When our first German settlers arrived, there was as little clear land in the state as you could have. Usually most of them followed tradition and nature and cleared their farms themselves.  Many of the old Americans did not take kindly to this disturbance of their long accustomed solitary life.

Often we hear people talk of the good old days. The thought comes to me that these people are not, perhaps, entirely wrong. One thing is sure:  People then did not need to worry and be troubled as today. And why not? At that time, the necessities of life were not as great as now; therefore, a person did not have a huge charge-account bill to pay in the autumn. He didn't need much cash. When the Americans prayed, "Give us today our daily bread," he meant it literally. When he had his daily cornbread and slice of bacon, he was satisfied, and if he now and then also had biscuits or pie or roasted chicken, then he was sitting fat, and could take things easy for a while.

With five or six acres or corn, he had enough bread to also feed his horse. The pigs did not need much corn, they always had enough acorns and nuts from the woods and the cattle had knee-high grass for the whole year.  And how was it with cotton? Well, people did not bother much about it.  Three, at most four, acres were planted.

This was enough to pay off the store since then an acre yielded as much as two or three do now, and a bale brought as much by today's prices as three. A person did not, as now, need to scratch around a cotton field until Christmas and catch a cold and fever.

And also, a person made himself comfortable in the picking of cotton. An American once told me how his parents had gathered cotton. They let the cotton bolls get ripe, and when they all had bloomed, all of the cotton plants were cut down. The parents then went into the cotton field on a beautiful day with the whole family. The wife would find a beautiful place under a shade tree and the husband would drag all of the cotton plants there. They were plucked by the wife and kids. Exceedingly comfortable, rlght?  Of course then all the cotton bolls had to be separated by hand, what in any case must have been very boring work, since there were not cotton gins on every corner as there are now.

If a person wanted then to build a house or something else, there was not as much fuss as today. All the material was fetched from the woods -- doors and windows were extraneous -- and the cost for the project was at most only for the nails for the shingles of the roof. And this cost would often be saved by laying a few cross-bars or stones on top to serve the same purpose.

The other necessities that people had, like clothes, were also not very expensive. Everyone had a few sheep, therefore wool. The sheep were sheared, the wool spun, then colored (but not with color out of the store, rather with bark from trees), then they would weave the wool into pants, shirts, and other clothes. By this means, the clothes, in addition to being inexpensive, had the advantage of lasting significantly longer because they were stronger than those which we now pay good money for.

In any case, a person had to buy a hat, a pair of shoes  and perhaps a cotton suit. The hat was such that it was usually used a couple of years and then passed on from father to son unit it finally became tattered. Similarly, the shoes would be made with nails so that they must last at least a year. Yes, there were even a few who did not permit themselves even these luxuries. I myself have known such an artist who made all these things himself.  If he needed a pair of shoes, he went into the woods and took the bark from a hickory tree and wrapped it around his feet and ankles, and the shoes, or more likely, sandals, were finished.  He had made a jacket from a piece of leather such as is used to cover the cars of a train. A hole for the head and a couple of holes for the arms and the jacket or coat was finished.
Above all, this man was an extraordinary eccentric, truly an original. He usually had an entire menagerie in his house. If in winter or during bad weather, a cow had a calf or a sow had a litter, he would carry them into his house, thereby saving the poor animals from staying out in the cold and dampness.

Such was then, in general, life in the good old days. They may have had their own attractions for the Americans, but also for Germans? I think not and I believe that most of us would happily decline such a scrubby life. All of us who began here in the woods didn't have such a bed or roses in the beginning, in fact our whole effort and endeavor was aimed at extracting ourselves from that first situation.  And after tireless work, most of us have succeeded in having comfortable, if not rich, existence.

We thank God that the prized "good old days" lay behind us, and we really do not yearn to return to them. There is only one aspect that could be taken and imitated with advantage, namely the way we handle the cotton fields. If everyone would plant not more than 5-6 acres, then soon the talk of overproduction would end and the prices would soon be at a level that the farmer would be satisfied with.

That will remain a harmless wish for a long time, increasing from year to year, and where it will all end, only God knows. I won't get any grey hairs over it; they are appearing anyway, and I will always believe: Our God has seen to it that trees don't grow in the sky and everything has a beginning and also an end.

(Signed) W. S .

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