My Year In A Log Cabin – William Dean Howells
Mr. Howells’ father, who was a Welshman, moved to a property on the Little Miami River in southern Ohio to take charge of a sawmill and gristmill and superintend their transformation into paper-mills. Mr. Howells describes a year of this life in a half-settled country, and tells how perfectly happy he was in his home-life and how intensely he suffered from homesickness when obliged to leave his mother to help earn money for a large family. Somehow or other, when Mr. Howells writes ff his boyhood, there is always a tinge of sadness about him. With his love for the comrades of his youth there breathe, as it were, notes of sorrow because they are no longer of the earth. Mr. Howells’s emotional instincts in his younger days may not have been at the surface, but were certainly deep in his heart. Nothing he ever wrote can be more tender than the reminiscences of this year spent in a log cabin somewhere in Ohio.
My Year In A Log Cabin.
Excerpt from the text:
In the fall of the year 1850 my father removed with his family from the city of D——, where we had been living, to a property on the Little Miami River, to take charge of a saw-mill and grist-mill, and superintend their never-accomplished transformation into paper-mills. The property belonged to his brothers—physicians and druggists—who were to follow later, when they had disposed of their business in town. My father left a disastrous newspaper enterprise behind him when he came out to apply his mechanical taste and his knowledge of farming to the care of their place. Early in the century his parents had brought him to Ohio from Wales, and his boyhood was passed in the new country, where pioneer customs and traditions were still rife, and for him it was like renewing the wild romance of those days to take up once more the life in a log-cabin interrupted by forty years’ sojourn in matter-of-fact dwellings of frame and brick.
He had a passion for nature as tender and genuine and as deeply moralized as that of the English poets, by whom it had been nourished; and he taught us children all that he felt for the woods and fields and open skies; all our walks had led into them and under them. It was the fond dream of his boys to realize the trials and privations which he had painted for them in such rosy hues, and even if the only clap-boarded dwelling on the property had not been occupied by the miller, we should have disdained it for the log-cabin in which we took up our home till we could build a new house.
Our cabin stood close upon the road, but behind it broadened a cornfield of eighty acres. They still built log-cabins for dwellings in that region forty years ago, but ours must have been nearly half a century old when we went into it. It had been recently vacated by an old Virginian couple, who had long occupied it, and we decided that it needed some repairs to make it habitable even for a family inured to hardship by dauntless imaginations, and accustomed to retrospective discomforts of every kind.
So before we all came out of it a deputation of adventurers put it in what rude order they could. They glazed the narrow windows, they relaid the rotten floor, they touched (too sketchily, as it afterwards appeared) the broken roof, and they papered the walls of the ground-floor rooms. Perhaps it was my father’s love of literature which inspired him to choose newspapers for this purpose; at any rate, he did so, and the effect, as I remember it, was not without its decorative qualities.
He had used a barrel of papers bought at the nearest post-office, where they had been refused by the persons to whom they had been experimentally sent by the publisher, and the whole first page was taken up by a story, which broke off in the middle of a sentence at the foot of the last column, and tantalized us forever with fruitless conjecture as to the fate of the hero and heroine. I really suppose that a cheap wall-paper could have been got for the same money, though it might not have seemed so economical.
I am not sure that the use of the newspapers was not a tributary reminiscence of my father’s pioneer life; I cannot remember that it excited any comment in the neighbors, who were frank with their opinions of everything else we did. But it does not greatly matter; the newspapers hid the walls and the stains with which our old Virginian predecessor, who had the habit of chewing tobacco in bed, had ineffaceably streaked the plastering near the head of his couch.
The cabin, rude as it was, was not without its sophistications, its concessions to the spirit of modern luxury. The logs it was built of had not been left rounded, as they grew, but had been squared in a saw-mill, and the crevices between them had not been chinked with moss and daubed with clay in the true pioneer fashion, but had been neatly plastered with mortar, and the chimney, instead of being a structure of clay-covered sticks, was solidly laid in courses of stone.
Within, however, it was all that could be asked for by the most romantic of pioneer families. It was six feet wide and a yard deep, its cavernous maw would easily swallow a back-log eighteen inches through, and we piled in front the sticks of hickory cord-wood as high as we liked. We made a perfect trial of it when we came out to put the cabin in readiness for the family, and when the hickory had dropped into a mass of tinkling, snapping, bristling embers we laid our rashers of bacon and our slices of steak upon them, and tasted with the appetite of tired youth the flavors of the camp and the wildwood in the captured juices.
I suppose it took a day or two to put the improvements which I have mentioned upon the cabin, but I am not certain. At night we laid our mattresses on the sweet new oak plank of the floor, and slept hard—in every sense. Once I remember waking, and seeing the man who was always the youngest of his boys sitting upright on his bed.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Oh, resting!” he answered; and that gave us one of the Heaven-blessed laughs with which we could blow away almost any cloud of care or pain.
In due time the whole family took up its abode in the cabin. The household furniture had been brought out and bestowed in its scanty space, the bookcase had been set up, and the unbound books packed in easily accessible barrels.
There yet remained some of our possessions to follow, chief of which was the cow; for in those simple days people kept cows in town, and it fell to me to help my father drive her out to her future home. We got on famously, talking of the way-side things so beautiful in the beautiful autumnal day, all panoplied in the savage splendor of its painted leaves, and of the poems and histories so dear to the boy who limped barefooted by his father’s side, with his eye on the cow and his mind on Cervantes and Shakespeare, on—
“The glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome.”
But the cow was very slow—far slower than the boy’s thoughts—and it had fallen night and was already thick dark when we had made the twelve miles, and stood under the white-limbed phantasmal sycamores beside the tail-race of the grist-mill, and questioned how we should get across with our charge. We did not know how deep the water was, but we knew it was very cold, and we would rather not wade it.
The only thing to do seemed to be for one of us to run up under those sycamores to the saw-mill, cross the head-race there, and come back to receive the cow on the other side of the tail-race. But the boy could not bring himself either to go or stay. I do not know just how it is with a boy’s world now, but at that time it was a very dangerous world. It was full of ghosts, for one thing, and it abounded in Indians on the war-path, and amateurs of kidnapping and murder of all sorts.
The kind-hearted father urged, but he would not compel. You cannot well use force with a boy with whom you have been talking literature and philosophy for half a day. We could see the lights in the cabin cheerfully twinkling, and we shouted to those within, but no one heard us. We called and called in vain. Nothing but the cold rush of the tail-race, the dry rustle of the sycamore leaves, and the homesick lowing of the cow replied.
We determined to drive her across, and pursue her with sticks and stones through the darkness beyond, and then run at the top of our speed to the saw-mill, and get back to take her in custody again. We carried out our part of the plan perfectly, but the cow had apparently not entered into it with intelligence or sympathy.
When we reached the tail-race again she was nowhere to be found, and no appeals of “Boss” or “Suky” or “Subose” availed. She must have instantly turned again, and retraced, in the darkness which seemed to have swallowed her up, the weary steps of the day, for she was found in her old home in town the next morning. At any rate, she had abandoned the father to the conversation of his son, for the time being, and the son had nothing to say.
I do not remember now just how it was that we came by the different “animals of the horse kind,” as my father humorously called them, which we housed in an old log-stable not far from our cabin. They must have been a temporary supply until a team worthy our new sky-blue wagon could be found.
One of them was a colossal sorrel, inexorably hide-bound, whose barrel, as I believe the horsemen call the body, showed every hoop upon it. He had a feeble, foolish whimper of a voice, and we nicknamed him “Baby.” His companion was a dun mare, who had what my father at once called an italic foot, in recognition of the emphatic slant at which she carried it when upon her unwilling travels.
Then there was a small, self-opinionated gray pony, which, I think, came from one of the saw-mill hands, and which was of no service conjecturable after this lapse of time. We boys rode him barebacked, and he used to draw a buggy, which he finally ran away with. I suppose we found him useful in the representation of some of the Indian fights which we were always dramatizing, and I dare say he may have served our turn as an Arab charger, when the Moors of Granada made one of their sallies upon the camp of the Spaniards, and discharged their javelins into it—their javelins were the long, admirably straight and slender iron-weeds that grew by the river. This menagerie was constantly breaking bounds and wandering off; and I believe that it was chiefly employed in hunting itself up, its different members taking turns in remaining in the pasture or stable, to be ridden after those that had strayed into the woods.
The origin of a large and eloquent flock of geese is lost in an equal obscurity. I recall their possession simply as an accomplished fact, and I associate their desolate cries with the windy dark of rainy November nights, so that they must at least have come into our hands after the horses. They were fenced into a clayey area next the cabin for safe-keeping, where, perpetually waddling about in a majestic disoccupation, they patted the damp ground down to the hardness and smoothness of a brick yard. Throughout the day they conversed tranquilly together, but by night they woke, goose after goose, to send forth a long clarion alarum, blending in a general concert at last, to assure one another of their safety.
We must have intended to pluck them in the spring, but it never came to that. They stole their nests early in March, and entered upon the nurture of their young before we could prevent it; and it would then have been barbarous to pluck these mothers of families. Some of their nests we found, notably one under the smoke-house, where the adventurous boy who discovered it was attacked in the dark by its owner and bitten in the nose, to the natural gratification of those who had urged him to the enterprise. But he brought away some of the eggs, and we had them fried, and I know nothing that conveys a vivider idea of inexhaustible abundance than a fried goose-egg.