Village Life

The General Store
Today, we refer to it as the convenience store, variety store or even a department store, but it was solely known as the general store during pioneer days.  It was a trading post and a meeting area.

The pioneers usually did not have money.  After all, they spent all that they had to get to North America in the hopes of receiving a land grant and starting a new life.  Any money that they did have left after the transatlantic voyage was used to buy what few items they could to set up a farm.  

So how did they manage to get new goods?
They traded some of their crops or things that they made by hand to get the supplies that they needed.  It was called a barter system (some countries still use this system today).   However, the general store was not just a place for trading items, it was a place for villagers to meet, share news and even play games like checkers.  It was often the central point of the village.  Before the village grew, the general store would sometimes double as the post office where villagers and farmers could get their mail (once the postal system was set up) or telegraphs sent to them.

The general store had two floors.  The bottom floor was the store itself with two large windows to showcase any new supplies that would entice the villagers to come inside.  The second floor served as the home of the general store owner and his family.  There would usually be a storage shed at the back of the floor for large items such as farm equipment, tools or building supplies.   Most of the farmers had their own personal gardens for food to eat and preserve but they would need to make a trade for items like salt, pepper, tea, coffee, sugar, baking powder and other food items that they could not make on their own.  There would be special times during the year, like Christmas or Easter, where pioneers would make special food purchases - like dried fruit - to make their traditional puddings and cakes.  
General stores sold material, buttons and thread for pioneers to make their own everyday clothes but fancier clothes would often be ordered by a catalog by the wealthier villagers.
As mentioned earlier, the pioneers started out by using a barter system instead of money in order to get the items they needed.  However, if there was a particular bad season for crops, farmers might be left with little to trade.  Many general store owners not only used the barter system but set up a credit system to help farmers out.  Instead of straight trade in a barter system, the credit system required the general store owner to keep a ledger book with a couple of pages devoted to each family in the village.  When a purchase was made on credit, the owner would make an entry to record the sale on the family's page in the ledger book.  When the crops were harvested in the fall, the family would pay off their debt with the store owner and the entry would be marked to indicate the payment.  The family could also bring in butter, eggs, chickens, and other necessary items to pay off their debt if it was needed as the general store owner could resell items to other customers that came into the store or sell them to "big city" merchants.  Currency was in short supply but their were many wealthy people that also decided to settle in the New World and they brought their Spanish, French or British coins with them.  The coins were welcomed openly and kept in circulation until the monetary system was standardized within both Canada and the United States in the 1800s.  

Shopping at the General Store
The General Store sold a wide variety of items.  There were preserves and food grown locally that the farmers were happy to traded to benefit villagers who did not have their own crops.  There were also lots of homemade items that craftier pioneers would create for the benefit of their less artistic neighbors.  While there were lots of local items traded, bought and sold at the General Store, it was incredibly important for the pioneers to have foods and other items imported and shipped to them by wagon (and eventually train) from the big cities or port cities.  

Examples of items that could be found in the General Store include:

1)  Household items:  washboards, dishes, candles and candle holders, pots, pans, canning jars and brooms
2)  Groceries:  
  • (locally grown) milk, butter, cheese, fruits and vegetables, meat that has been dried, smoked or salted and herbal medicines 
  • (imported)  tea, brown or white sugar, molasses, coffee, rice, raisins, cocoa and spices

3)  Everyday needs:  bolts of cloth, thread, needles, buttons, dyes, patterns, overalls, work gloves, boots or shoes, bonnets and other everyday needs, lye soap

4)  Hardware:  nails, hammers, hoes, axes, shovels, traps, guns, ammunition, ropes and other necessary items

5)  General items:  pipes, tobacco, books, slates, ink, lanterns or lamps, kerosene, candy (loose candy in jars, licorice or candy sticks), marbles and balls for children

6) Imported items:  cigars, cotton, fine wines, oysters, porcelain dolls, patented medicines (new medicines not made from herbs), china dishes, paper, pens

The Doctor's Office and Local Medicine
It was quite difficult to see a doctor when you were sick during pioneer times.  Since most of the villages were small and built in new areas away from cities that had already been established, it took time for a doctor to establish himself in the village.  Many of the doctors that did settle in a new village had very little education or training compared to doctors of today.  Many of the pioneer women became both nurse and doctor for their families.  Knowledge of local plants became very important as it was often the only resource to use when sickness hit the family.

Pioneers didn't know anything about viruses or bacteria and had a very simple understanding of the human body.  They would observe facts but their conclusions were usually wrong (for example: If someone was tired and listless for most of the day, pioneers would assume that there was something wrong with the blood so they would apply leeches to get rid of the bad blood.  Today, one of the possibilities for these symptoms might be the lack of iron in the blood, or anemia, and leeches would not help in this instance).  There were two popular remedies that doctors would use on their patients - bloodletting and purging.  Unfortunately, these cures would sometimes make a patient so ill and weak that they would die.  Most people relied on herbs and other plants to make poultices, teas and syrups to help improve their health.

Acquiring knowledge of the local herbs and plants was extremely important to help improve poor health.  If the pioneers were lucky and had good relations with local Aboriginal tribes, they would have good teachers in this area.  Some examples of how herbal medicines that seemed to help:

  • a natural painkiller - use the inner bark of the elderberry in a tea
  • breaking a fever - making a tea out of the bark of a dogwood tree
  • asthma - smoking the dried leaves of the Indian tobacco plant help with respiratory problems 
  • sore throat - chewing the resin from a pine tree
  • severe coughs or bronchitis - ingesting pine sap would help calm the cough and reduce swelling in the bronchial tubes
*consult the Aboriginal People page for more herbal remedies

However, other herbal medicines seemed very far-fetched, for example:

  • Curing malaria (also known as "ague" or the fever) - Combine 1/3 of rhubarb with 2/3 sassafras bark and mix them with brandy or whisky until they are a thin creamy texture.  Take a glassful 4 - 5 times a day.  Dilute with water if cramps start.  
  • For cancer - combine the flowers of the pennyroyal, mullein and chamomile plants with 1/2 gallon of apple vinegar and boil for 24 hours before adding salt and honey then continue to simmer the mixture until it is a salve.  Apply the salve on the cancer using a feather.  (Richard Carter's "A Valuable Vegetable, Medical Prescription, 1825)
  • For putrid fever (known as typhoid) and bilious fever (possibly jaundice or yellow fever) - put a handful of dogwood bark, ground ivy, mullein roots and sassafras bark roots in a pot to boil in water.  Strain the syrup and put it in a vessel.  Put cow dung in a tight little linen bag and boil in it water before straining it with the syrup and boiling it again until the syrup and water reduced.  Then, bottle it.   (Richard Carter's "A Valuable Vegetable, Medical Prescription, 1825)

If the village didn't have a doctor, other villagers would sometimes prove useful.  If a pioneer had a toothache, they could go to the local blacksmith who would have the tongs to help pull out the tooth.  The only bad part was that there would be no anesthetic.  If someone believed that they had a disease due to poison in the blood, they might go to the barber to ask for a bloodletting since he would be the one person in the village with sharp blades that could help in making a small cut on the wrist or neck to let the bad blood drain out.  Again, this would be done without any anesthetic.

If the village did have a doctor, it would usually be a man as the belief was that women were too fragile to know about the human anatomy.  The could be nurses to help the doctor but were not capable of becoming doctors themselves.  (Click here to learn more about women who finally became licensed doctors in the late 19th century.)  Today, this seems to be a ridiculous notion since women have been responsible for giving birth to their own children as well as taking care of the sick or injured for generations without licensed medical help.

When a village was lucky enough to have a doctor settle in their area, the doctor's office was often set up in a special side room to his house where he would have a separate entrance for patients so that his home remained private.  This was quite convenient for the settlers that lived within the village but many of the farmers could not necessarily get to the doctor's office easily if they were sick or injured as their farms would be miles from the village.  In a case where the farmer or his family were unable to come to the doctor, the doctor would go to the farmer and his family by making a house call.  The practice of making a house call was not unusual and considered to be part of the doctor's job in keeping his Hippocratic Oath - this is one of the duties that many doctors continued until about 20 years ago.

The Blacksmith
In the pioneer days, it was not uncommon to see a blacksmith in the village.  He played a pretty important role.  A "smith" is a person who works with metal and a "blacksmith" is a person who works with black metal (like iron).  This was a particularly difficult job as it required a lot of strength to hammer the metal into something that was useful to the villagers.

The main tools of a blacksmith were a hammer and anvil (pictured here).  The anvil is block of iron with a flat top and a pointed end.  The blacksmith would place pieces of metal on it so that he could shape the metal using a large hammer.
However, the blacksmith could not successfully make objects out of iron (or steel) without the use of a forge.  A forge could be big or small.  It could be made out of stone or metal.  It is a type of furnace which was designed to hold the coals needed to create a fire (that would heat the metal so it could be reshaped).

Another tool that the blacksmith found helpful was something called the "bellows".  He used this tool to force air onto the forge fire.  The more he pumped, the hotter the fire would become and this allowed the blacksmith to easily manipulate the iron as it softened from the hot fire. 

Tongs would also be necessary to transfer the red-hot metal from the forge to the anvil and for the blacksmith to hold it while hammering it into shape.  The tongs could then move the new object from the anvil to a tub of water to cool it down immediately.    

As you can see from the picture above, there were various other tools that a blacksmith could use to make his job easier.

What kind of things did a blacksmith make?  The pioneers needed to have the blacksmith make them items like:

  • nails and hooks
  • tools (axe heads, hammers, hoes, shovels, pitchforks, etc.)
  • screws and bolts
  • pots and pans
  • cutlery (knives, forks and spoons)
  • cooking utensils (including a roaster that contained sharp points to hold the meat and placed over a fire)
    A roaster
    (Markham Museum and Historic Village)
  • door hinges
  • cowbells 
  • horseshoes
  • fireplace tools 
  • wheel rims and metal parts for wagons or carriages
  • sickles, scythes and plough shares
Not only did the blacksmith make metal items for the settlers but he would often repair existing equipment and objects for them.  He would also help the settlers with sharpening essential farm tools (like axes, saws, sickles or scythes or plough share blades).

If the village was lucky enough to get a blacksmith who was also trained as a farrier, then he would also be responsible for fitting the horseshoes he made onto the hooves of a horse.  The horseshoes protected the hooves from damage while the horse was in use helping with the farm and the farrier would not only fit the shoe but rasp the hoof before burning and nailing the shoe onto the hoof.  

The Grist Mill
Once a village was established, it wouldn't take long for the grist mill to be built.  Since most villages, towns and cities were located next to lakes and rivers, it was just a matter of deciding where the best place was along the water's edge to build the grist mill.  It had to be an area where the water flowed well as the grist mill could not operate without a healthy flow of running water.  

The grist mill had two big heavy stone wheels inside and a waterwheel attached to the side of the building (next to the flowing water) on the outside.  There were lots of gears and such attached to the two heavy stone wheels so that they would move when the waterwheel was active.  The moving stones would grind the whole grain from the wheat that was threshed and brought to the mill.  While the settlers could grind these grains back at the farm, it was a difficult job and took a long time since they would have to do it by hand.  The whole grain would be ground into flour a lot faster at the grist mill so that the pioneers could make bread and other baked items more easily.  Bread was an important part of the meals that the pioneers ate every day so the grist mill would be very busy.  Of course, wheat was not the only grain that the pioneers would bring to the mill.  They would also bring corn, rye and oats for the miller to grind into flour.    

miller was the person responsible for making sure that the equipment inside and outside the grist mill was working properly and he sometimes handled the delivery of flour as well.

How a grist mill worked:

  1. The miller would open up a gate to allow the water to flow into buckets on the waterwheel, making it turn around continuously.
  2. A big rod that was attached to the waterwheel on the outside (and a large gear on the inside) would start moving round and round to start up all the other gears, rods and the two heavy stone wheels and keep them turning.
  3. The miller would pour the grain onto the grinding stone  so that it could be ground into flour.  He also made sure that the machinery was running properly and fixed anything that broke.
In return for the miller's services, many farmers would provide payment through trade by either giving a portion of the flour that was made or making an exchange with the following:
  • pigs
  • chickens
  • firewood
  • baked items
  • other items that the miller might need
If you would like to see an actual grist mill in operation, click HERE to watch a video (courtesy of the website for George Washington's Mount Vernon).

Grist mills were replaced by giant factories in the city called flour mills in the early 20th century since flour could than be ground into flour on a massive scale.  The small town grist mills couldn't compete and were no longer needed so most of them were abandoned and eventually destroyed.  However, many towns managed to save their grist mills so that people today can experience an important part of the pioneer villages.  Try to find out if there is a working grist mill in your area!

Want more information about grist mills?  Check out these websites!

The Saw Mill
Once the pioneers had their crops and farming under control and the other settlers began establishing the village, they would want to build a saw mill as soon as possible. The saw mill was a common feature in the 19th century. It was very important to the settlers since it would help them change logs into lumber a lot faster than trying to do it by hand.

Early saw mills were simple structures - usually built cheaply with a reliance on flowing water like the grist mill.  Therefore, they also had to be built next to the water to take advantage of the flowing water.  These early saw mills often had a single reciprocating blade and were hand operated to help feed the logs into the blade.  The sawyer was the person responsible for operating the saw mill and it could be dangerous work so he had to be very careful when feeding the logs into the blade.  Faster than trying to saw the logs by hand, the early saw mills would likely produce up to about 500 boards per day.  The saw mill would not operate in the winter time since the weather would make it difficult to cut down trees so the sawyer would have to find something else to do during that time.

The saw mill was an extremely important part of the village since cutting down trees and trying to cut the logs down into planks could be very time consuming work.

 Lancaster County Mormons trek back in time
Before the saw mill was constructed, farmers and other settlers would have to cut down and shape the log by using hand saws and axes.  They would use a smaller axe to cut down the trees and a larger axe (called a broad axe) to hew the round logs into square timbers that could be used to construct buildings like the farmhouse, barn or other village buildings.  The pioneers would use a buck (a two-person saw) or a crosscut saw to cut logs into firewood to use in their wood-burning stoves or for the fireplace.

If you would like to read more about saw mills, click the links below:

Days of the Sawmills

Sawmill - The Canadian Encyclopedia

Pioneer Mills

Saw Mill

Pen Pictures of Early Pioneer Life in Upper Canada

Harmer Sawmill

Beach's Sawmill