No one can deny that our forefathers had a rough time of it when they arrived here, not only in the early centuries but in 1822, 202 years after the first settlers started their lives in the new land. It wasn’t a country but raw land, settled by Native Americans who had adapted to their surroundings hundreds of years earlier. Now we find a group, living in what was not raw land anymore but farms with crops and livestock and cold winters.
By 1822, Orange had come a long way from the Milford Colony of 1639, but was life the proverbial bowl of cherries? Not by a long shot. There was the cold, but also the hot summers, no air conditioning, no sprinklers, no running water, period. BUT they survived and our Henry Lewis Woodruff has given us a bird’s eye view of life at that time. Let’s take another look at Henry’s life in The Old Red House.
We know from the inventory of one Nathan Bryan, builder of the 1740 Bryan-Andrew House, that he made beer, noting the twelve brown bottles listed there. The corner cupboard of The Old Red House, that quaint old cupboard in the south room, held spirits as it was the “bar” of the house with its shelves arranged for that purpose. Oh, how we must change our minds about that part of history, oh my. It seems that when a friend or neighbor called, the first thing to do was to invite them to take a drink, it was a common custom. To refuse a drink was surely an offense and to fail to offer it was a breach of hospitality.
One of Henry’s neighbors was a seafaring man, traveling to the West Indies, bringing back square bottles, filled with pure Jamaican Rum, yet these folks of 1822 were pious and not prone to excess even though it would appear so. This south room Henry refers to was the winter living room being kept more comfortable in its warmth. He notes that the spacious kitchen which we call the keeping room at the Bryan-Andrew house, with its large fireplace, needed a great amount of fuel, as he calls it, to keep the room warm even though the cooking was done there. The maintenance to keep the family warm was left to the south room. The winter signaled buckwheat cakes, significantly on the menu, as the seed of the buckwheat plant is harvested in the fall. With fresh cream, churned butter and maple syrup, buckwheat cakes were the families’ favorite while the north winds blew outside, signaling the winter was upon them.
From Henry’s book, he notes that in this time, the coal stove had not yet appeared in Orange. We can attest to that as the fireplace at the Stone-Otis house, built in 1830, does not include a coal stove but a crane for hanging iron pots and a beehive oven as seen in the Bryan-Andrew house as well. He remembers his grandmother vexing about a stove set up in the kitchen somewhat later denouncing it by saying “It would never do.” The 1830 Stone-Otis House has a crane and a beehive oven which leads us to believe that Mrs. Stone had the same idea.
Matches were invented in 1827 but previous to that, the fire in The Old Red House used tinder which consisted of a tin box abut 4” in diameter with a close-fitting cover with flint and steel inside. To prepare the tinder, a piece of old cotton cloth was burnt and when a live coal, placed in the box and extinguished by pressing down the cover, tightly. It was now ready to use at another time by igniting it with a horse-shoe magnet, struck against a flint. The fire of the day was settled into a low bed of coals upon retiring but in the morning could be revived with additional kindle but if that failed, the tinder box was put to work. While on the subject of fires in the fireplace, there was a custom in my early days of the event of housewarming, a pleasant get-together of friends and neighbors to welcome you to your new home. Housewarming. Hmm. A strange way to welcome someone but it has its beginnings way far away in our history, medieval times to be exact.
When a family moved into a new home, it was thought to warm it for the newcomers and firewood would be brought to light the various fireplaces, thus warming the house. Without all of that, a small amount of live coals would be brought to the family to start their fires burning and a pan, with a long handle was used to bring the “warming” to them and we have such a pan at the Stone-Otis house. Another tradition for new home owners is the bread, salt and more recently matches. The bread so the family will not know hunger, salt for the spice of life and matches to keep warm. There are newer items on the list including wine which is mentioned in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Henry made a mention of a death in his family in 1835, that tells us about a tradition of the annunciation of a passing with the bell at the church on the Green, tolling nine strokes for a man, seven for a woman, five for a boy and three for a girl. It was repeated followed by the tolling of the age of the deceased. On the day of the funeral, the bell tolled slowly as the mourners left the church in procession to the cemetery consistently ringing until all had arrived at the gravesite.
Life was not all doom and gloom, or toil and trouble, but fun and events to look forward to. One such event was the husking bee of song and story. Well, Henry’s book tells of such an event when the corn in the fields was fully ripe, picked in the husk and carried to the barn, heaped up a huge pyramid in the center of the floor as he wrote. The neighbors were invited to the “husking” and the boys, he says were in fine spirits for they could see lots of fun ahead. The girls appeared to remain in the house while the force in the barn was divided into two sides and the race began. Husks flying in every direction, I’ll be bound, stripping the corn, throwing the husks behind them with the corn being placed in bushel baskets in front. Soon the baskets were lugged into the garret and the corn spread on the floor and the pyramid dwindled.
Now the REAL fun began in the sea of husks with the rolling and tumbling, scuffling and wrestling until mother called and a royal lunch was served. The table “groaned”* with bread and butter, crackers and cheese, crullers and doughnuts, mince and pumpkin pies, apples, nuts and sweet cider with the addition of stories, jokes, fun and laughter, a fitting end to a popular and social gathering. This was not the only form of entertainment, no siree..an apple bee. Yup, you heard me right, an apple bee. Do you want me to tell you about it?
This event took place in the kitchen with a roaring fire. The table stands in the middle of the large keeping room as it is called covered with pans, pots, pails and bowls and a row of chairs around it. The boys and girls squeezed in together and baskets of apples distributed and the work began. Some peeling, some coring, some paring while others slicing, a lively scene to behold, filling the containers with the fall harvest. Many hands made the work not only go faster but with the ability to get the apples prepared for winter storage, none spoiled for the lack of it. The whole year’s supply was thus saved, made ready for drying. If the weather was sunny, the apples were dried outside, if inclement, then in the garret. After all was set aside, the children spend time playing until another day when it was another neighbor’s table set with the pans, pots, pails and bowls. Now aren’t you glad you asked?
The Old Red House book is available for purchase at the Academy open Saturdays from 10-3.
*There is a whimsical, old term for a food-filled table, the groaning board, obviously meaning full of delicious and welcoming food.