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Pioneer Homestead

Pioneer Homestead

I picked April's photo above for its domesticity. It sums up pioneer life: corn cob checkers for long evenings, a gourd full of sewing scraps, a basket with needles in it, three measuring gourds in a stack, a flagon of something, and a coffee pot. Out the window you can see the corn that April and Brandon worked on harvesting - corn which would be dried in the corn crib and eventually ground up into flour. And above the window, out of sight of this photo, is . . . 

 Brandon goes a-huntin'

Brandon goes a-huntin'

. . . a rifle. That little shelf pretty much has every part of life: harvesting, hunting, cooking, sewing, playing, and, most important of all, brewing coffee. The checkers struck me as optimistic; likewise the sewing notions. The whole time I was there, I only managed to sew three quilt squares together. I suppose real pioneers would've been much more competent and had some spare time to play games and make new clothes (or repair old ones), but it's hard to imagine there was much spare time unless it was the dead of winter. Without any stores to purchase anything, survival would take up nearly every waking moment.

Nicholas and Polly Hetchler built this house in what is now Scottsville, NY. Back then, it was nowhere, so they needed to be self-sustaining. This was probably their second home. Their first would've been very rudimentary, and it would've taken 7-10 years for them to get everything up and going. One of the docents, Marie, thinks the Hetchlers would've done it in closer to seven because they were German and Germans got things done. According to the lore, you could tell a German homestead from a Dutch homestead just by looking at it. The Germans had things together much sooner. I have not personally researched this, so I can't attest to its verity. But I have read that there was a visible difference between the way New Englanders set up their outbuildings on the frontier and the way backwoods farmers would. The New Englanders were tidy and geometrical, and backwoodsmen were slovenly. I don't entirely trust this either. But it tells you something about how people viewed each other's way of making a home.

GCVM has set up the Hetchler place rather tidily, I think.

Two adults and twelve children lived here. They would've used the second floor mostly for storage, maybe sometimes for sleeping. So they really did their living in one room.

This well isn't functional, but I sure hope the Hetchlers had a well or a nearby stream in Scottsville because carrying water any distance is hard work. I used the, um, magic well in the back yard when I needed water, and even that was enough of a pain that I only changed the dishwater once during the day. One dead fly in the dishwater is still clean enough.

This is the back of the house. You can see the woodpiles in the middle right. The chicken coop is hiding behind that tree branch on the right, and the fenced-in area all the way to the right is the pig pen. The small building behind that little porch area on the left is a smokehouse. The building behind that is a log cabin in the sheep pen.

When everything you touch weighs at least five pounds, you don't want to carry it far. I now understand why archaeologists find garbage piles right outside the door. When I dumped out the dishwater, sometimes it was just into that pile of sticks by the back step. If I was feeling energetic, I'd walk to the outer corner of the porchy place and dump it there. I never went far. Smells, flies, mice be damned! I had more important things to do!

In this photo, the pig pen is just out of sight to the left, if that helps you orient yourself.

This is a barn, clearly. I have no idea what happens here because I didn't have time to go and see. I heard that there was flailing going on, which is how you get the wheat seeds off the wheat stalk or something. Then there's a machine with a crank that separates the wheat from the chaff, the outer covering. From the house you could hear the bang, bang, bang of the flailing, and then the rumble, rumble, rumble of the separator. You could hear the machine-made future in that sound, but in 1809 the machines were still men.

April explained to me that one of the most tedious tasks was getting all the rye seeds out of the cracks in the floorboards before flailing the wheat. The problem is that you don't want any rye in your wheat field or it'll get all messed up. I don't know how, I was too busy to care. But it sounded like intense and tiring work. And it shows a general attitude of having to do things right and carefully or pay for it later - which might mean hunger.

The small building behind the fence on the right is the corn crib, where the corn dries before being made into flour. The garden is behind the plank fence - planks, because otherwise critters will go through it and eat everything. There are sheep and geese down to the right of the barn in a large pen that extends all the way around to the other side of the cabin. There are a lot of parts to a farm.

If you walked out the front door of the house and turned left, you'd head down this road, passing the blacksmith on your right. Except in reality, the Hetchlers would've been far distant from anyone else. The nearest town was 10 miles away - a full day's ride in a wagon. They would've had only themselves for company, and at night, themselves would've been packed tight into a single room.

Welcome to the Hetchlers' one room:

This gallery takes you around the room from start to finish. I didn't document very well over the weekend, so it's a mishmash from several visits to the museum. It's interesting to note that several photos are from before the inside was whitewashed. They were more historically accurate in their naked state. I hear the guy who had them whitewashed is now gone, and good riddance.

This last photo completes the circle, bringing us around to the back door again. Here is Ginger on Sunday morning, greeting the day.

I took this photo from my bed, where I may have been slightly less eager to greet the morning. Pioneering is hard work. I would think two adults and ten kids would've needed a bigger farm than this to survive on, but that would also increase the workload. Feeding four people (me, April, Brandon, and our guide to pioneering, Allison) sometimes seemed a bit of a stretch; the idea of having enough food to feed twelve people three times a day seems impossible. Especially in the winter, when there was nothing fresh. And then to squeeze into this single room . . .

Let's just say I was well aware that the amount of work I did in 48 hours was nothing compared to what Polly Hetchler would've done. We had a magic well for water, dish detergent, a secret cooler (thank you, food safety laws), store-bought milk (there's no dairy cow, and even if there were, they wouldn't have had milk year-round), store-bought chicken and pork that we did not have to slaughter and clean and smoke and then rehydrate later, and a good supply of corn flour that had already been ground. There was a whole crock full of corn flour, and I knew I didn't have to grind it, but I still treated it like powdered gold, and I felt guilty if I spilled any.

The workings of this homestead would have taken a staggering amount of labor. Weird parts of my body hurt now - a muscle in my forearms that I didn't know I had is really tired, the backs of my hands are sore, the skin on my palms is tender from being in and out of high heat, and my feet ache from standing so much. I can't get over how strong everyone must have been.

And this farm is established. Imagine if you were Polly and Nicholas and had just pulled up into a piece of forest in your wagon and still had all this land to clear, this house and barn to build, all these fences and outbuildings to put up, and to feed yourself the whole time. Sometimes I get tired and question why I wrote my dumb old book, but then I think about this - the sheer amount of phyiscal strength and force of will it would take to survive, much less do anything beyond surviving - and my fascination is reignited. Who were these people? What were they thinking? Looking back on this experience, I do sympathize with Heli and wonder if they were all mad. But I also wonder if they found it fulfilling to survive, to know they were needed, to see their labor yield something they could eat or use or trade. It's hard to separate the novelty of one weekend from a lifetime like that. I find a lifetime of it hard to imagine. Maybe they hated it. Temporarily at least, I loved it.

Next time, the animals! Ginger has many friends for you to eat. I mean meet.


Photos of GCVM by me and April.

Pioneer Zoo

Pioneer Zoo

Pioneer Experience

Pioneer Experience