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Pioneer Experience

Pioneer Experience

The reason I paid good money to live like a pioneer for a weekend is this: the most primary of primary sources is personal experience. You can't find out many details about historical life any other way. To historians, it isn't that important to know, for example, how to wear a skirt near an open hearth. And to the women who were wearing those skirts, it would've been too obvious to record anywhere. I now know how tedious writing with a quill is, so if I were an old-timey woman, I would never have wasted the time and ink to write down: "I always bend at the waist before a fire, so that my skirt goes in, away from the flame; I would never crouch before a fire, because my skirt would billow out toward the flame." It would be like explaining stairs. No one needs stairs explained.

I need a lot of the eighteenth century explained. The most obvious things are completely out of my range of knowledge. Take item seven on this list of things I recorded on our first day:

No idea how to boil water. Other things I never thought about much: iron utensils are really heavy. Crocks are heavy when empty, heavier when full. Cauldrons are heavy, which is obvious, but less so the fact that simply moving a bench is a two-person job. Because the bench is made of half a tree. Which is heavy. It is also so dark in a log cabin that you can't see inside any containers.

 It was about 6:30 pm on a cloudy October day when this was taken. There are three small six-pane windows in the cabin, and both doors were open.

It was about 6:30 pm on a cloudy October day when this was taken. There are three small six-pane windows in the cabin, and both doors were open.

In that gloom, the bottom of my cup might as well been Mary Poppins' carpet bag for all I could tell. You have to rely on sound when you fill things, and if anyone is making any noise at all, you will overfill, WASTING PRECIOUS WATER. Water is heavy. We'll get to the other items I wrote down later. Point is, there about one million details I've misrepresented or omitted in my writing because I had no way of knowing. Now I know about twenty-five good, solid details. Only nine hundred thousand, nine hundred and seventy-five to go!

I met my fellow pioneers, April and Brandon, at GCVM at 2:30 on a Friday afternoon. The first thing we did was get properly costumed. April and I each thought we personally were not costumed in a very flattering way, but we also each thought the other looked unbearably cute, so it's hard to know what to believe. What we agreed on is that a skirt plus a petticoat plus a chemise plus a jacket (kind of like a light shirt that ties in the front) plus an apron plus a cap plus a bonnet added up to too many clothes. Especially for a humid day. It wasn't even high-summer heat and humidity. It was mere October heat and humidity. But on the scale of miserable discomfort, it was still a 7 out of 10. At some point I may have surreptitiously removed my leggings because I didn't want the Pioneer Experience to get too real and result in my premature death. No doubt the people of the time were used to it, just as they'd be used to not catching on fire, keeping their bonnet strings out of the dishwater, and regularly lifting twenty pounds of iron with one arm.

 The worst Brandon had to endure was a moderately silly hat. That and backbreaking physical labor.

The worst Brandon had to endure was a moderately silly hat. That and backbreaking physical labor.

The clothes were comfortable and easy to move in, though. Everything on women's clothing had a drawstring so that they were adjustable for pregnancy, and skirts are about as freeing as they are limiting. The only thing I really disliked was my cap. The only way you could make it not fall off was to tie it tight under the chin. But if you did that, it covered your ears, and then - see item four below:

Bonnet echoes. Or reverberates. Either way, it's annoying. And by "bonnet," I meant "cap." A cap is a small white bonnet-like head covering you'd wear at home. The bonnet was wornoutdoors and in any public spaces, like church or a shop. It has a huge brim that completely eradicates your peripheral vision, but it did protect you from the sun. My favorite refrain of the weekend was, "This is how they oppressed us!" It was always in reference to clothes. Men got hats to shield them from the sun; women got blinders like horses.

I have to admit, I was mostly too busy to think of how they oppressed us. Which is how they oppressed us.

The above excerpt from my journal came from the morning of the last day. I had become so used to woodsmoke within two days that I couldn't smell it anymore. I had more or less gotten the hang of moving logs around with loose tongs that work with gravity, as well as dealing with a fire or two. My sewing hadn't improved but my quilling had. Once I tried it, I immediately started using to quill as a verb. Because it is very different from writing. There's a lot more physical mastery involved.

 The author quilling. This must be from my second attempt, on Saturday, because that was the day I forgot the scarf that was supposed to go around my neck. Indecent!

The author quilling. This must be from my second attempt, on Saturday, because that was the day I forgot the scarf that was supposed to go around my neck. Indecent!

You can see my improvement after a few sessions - by this point I had managed many fewer ink blobs and could write much faster. I had identified three mistakes in my dreadful first try (at the top of this post). First, quills require cursive. Duh. Second, I kept getting way too much ink. Third, I tried to remedy the ink situation by blotting with paper. But you can't blot with regular paper. Pioneers would've used sand, anyway. I didn't have sand, and decided against experimenting with cornmeal. It probably would've worked, but since it takes three hours to grind one cup of cornmeal, blotting with it seemed like a horrible waste. Anyway, turns out that was one detail I got right in my book: Briney and her blobby handwriting. Totally plausible. Very proud of self.

Well, so much for my tidy introduction - I've followed so many random paths in this post that I don't know where I am anymore. I think I'll start over with a series of future posts covering various themes - the homestead itself, the animals, food (I was cooking, so there's a lot about food), blacksmithing, frolicking, and the rare experience of being free to roam the village after hours, before hours, and in between hours.

And the thrilling conclusion to the saga of the Cheetos!


Photos of GCVM by me.

Pioneer Homestead

Pioneer Homestead

Operation Snacks

Operation Snacks