Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Winter Survival of the Early Pioneers of the North Midwest

Sarah McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western, contemporary and historical fiction. Sarah is a retired critical care/ER nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily and Liberty. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery, Victory Tales Press, Western Trail Blazer and Prairie Rose Publications.
When I lived in Nebraska back in the Dark Ages we now call the 1960’s, I spent the winter battling below zero temperatures, ice several inches thick on the back roads, endless snow, blizzards and my car doors often frozen shut in the morning. Clothes would freeze on the line before I finished hanging them up and my fingers would go numb with the cold. Winter seemed endless and the sun would disappear in a grey sky for days on end. I often wondered how pioneers made it through the brutal winters without kerosene, gasoline, matches or grocery stores. How could they put on enough clothes to ward off the relentless wind and bitter cold? Where did they get enough food to make it through the winter? I went on a search to find out how those pioneers lived through the ferocious winters of the northwest. 

Since winter could last from September until June, preparation was key to survival. Harvesting crops that would last over winter meant they had to choose root vegetables like carrots, potatoes and beets that can endure. Dried apples and corn worked well and salted meats also lasted over time.
Light was essential since it was common not to have windows in the cabins. Most often, without kerosene handy, women made candles by pouring tallow (animal fat) over thick string. Sometimes they just stuck a string in a cup of grease. Sounds icky, doesn’t it? They also used pine knots soaked in grease and, during winter, the light of the fire served as light. Without matches, flints were often used to spark a fire in a little dry brush or moss. On occasion, people would walk for miles to ask a neighbor to give them fire in the form of embers to take home. Without fire, there would be no survival. The thick walls of log cabins helped to insulate against the cold as long as the cracks between the logs were filled with mud, rags or paper.
It must have been rough stuck in a cabin days on end in the winter months. They did have entertainments. Some played musical instruments creating music to break the monotony. They also read, sometimes aloud, shared stories, played games or just had conversations before the fire as they mended clothing or farm equipment. It sure would be nice to have conversations these days, but there are so many distractions with TV, computers and cell phones that do everything but wash the laundry.
Knowing what the pioneers endured to survive winter makes me respect their skills, tenacity, resourcefulness, fierce self-reliance and love of independence. These pioneers demonstrated the true spirit of what it is to be an American. If you can survive winter in the northwest with only rudimentary resources, you can do just about anything.
I have lived in log houses twice. The first log house was once a carriage house on an old plantation that was converted to a very comfortable house with an open stairway to the upstairs that allowed heat to warm the bedrooms and bath. That house was toasty in the winter and somewhat cool in summer.

                                                   The House Where I Was Raised
The second log house was the one where I was raised. When it was built, somewhere in the early 1800’s, it had two rooms downstairs and two upstairs. The kitchen was a detached building in the backyard that was converted to a potting house in later years. My dad spent a lot of time in there. In the 1940’s the new owner renovated the house adding a dining room, large kitchen, bathroom, screened in porch and a room with huge windows upstairs. Upstairs wallboard was put up and pretty wallpaper applied and downstairs, every room had cedar paneling and bead board ceilings. They must have loved French doors because they were everywhere. The floors had wide oak boards instead of the more modern narrow boards. The huge fireplace in the living room heated the downstairs well enough until the end of October. When winter began in earnest, my dad would bring in and reconnect the oil heater that sat in the living room and used the fireplace chimney as its smokestack. My sister and I hated that heater, but we were grateful for its warmth when we got up to the cold in our rooms. We would make a bee-line downstairs to dress. We had electric blankets so we didn’t really suffer on cold nights. Later when my oldest sister inherited the house, she introduced central heat which allowed for the enjoyment of the fireplace in winter. Because the walls were so thick, you could sit in the windowsills. One of the previous owners added clapboard to the exterior and a regular tile roof.  Except for the exceptionally wide windowsills, you could never tell the main part of the house was made of log. Although we were pretty cozy in that house, we lived in the south with relatively mild winters compared to the north Midwest.
Speaking of winter in the Midwest, here is an anthology just released from a brand new publisher that Cheryl Pierson and Livia Washburn put together to celebrate Christmas in the west. It includes stories by 8 western authors and 8 recipes that are mentioned by each author in her story. Wishing For A Cowboy Christmas stories will warm your heart.


My contribution is A Husband for Christmas.   
A night of horror… a wish for a new life...and a secret love
Jane Pierpont and her son, Robin, survived the Titanic, but her husband went down with the ship and the emotional scars of that night have kept her and her son locked into that frightening event years later. Robin is terrified of deep water and Jane has nightmares and survivor’s guilt. She yearns for a family, a loving husband and maybe another child, but she feels disloyal to Michael’s memory whenever Teekonka RedSky comes near her.
Teekonka RedSky loves Jane and her son, but all his efforts to help them past their painful memories of the night Michael Pierpont died have been unsuccessful. Unwilling to give up, can his Lakota beliefs help him bring peace to Robin and free Jane to love again? 
Teekonka let go of the latch and stepped back into the room. He took Jane’s hand in his, its warmth radiating into her chest. “I wondered if you and Rob would attend the festival with me.”
Jane felt confused. “The hotel is just down the street from here. We can manage to get there quite well on our own.”
He shook his head and squeezed her hand. “You don’t understand, Jane. I’m asking you and your son to go with me because I want to court you.”
Jane pulled her hand free. Self-reproach engulfed her. Before her stood a handsome, strong man who wanted to court her and include her son, but she couldn’t. It wasn’t right. Surely, Michael’s spirit was close by, and he would never approve. He couldn’t help dying. “I…I’m flattered that you should ask, but I can’t. My husband—”
Teekonka’s jaw clenched. “Your husband is dead. He’s been dead for seven years.” He stepped back from her. A frown turned his firm lips down. After he walked to the door and lifted the latch, he turned to her again. “I’m sorry. I apologize for reacting so angrily.  You still love your husband. I understand.” The door closed, and he was gone.
Jane stood alone in a room that had suddenly grown cold and dim.
Where you can find Sarah J. McNeal
My Amazon Author’s Page:

I wish each of y'all a wonderful, warm and safe Christmas.



  1. Sarah--I love your post about surviving in the winter during pioneer days. I'm trying to write the first of a West Texas Brides series, and I simply cannot get past the hardships this family will endure on the Staked Plains of Texas, where there is little except flat expanses of grassland. People did it, though, and I grew up in a town that had been formed in this enormous area.

    The house you grew up in looks like a mansion to me! I bet it is a fascinating home.

    Now, I'll finally go buy Wishing for a Cowboy. I have it on a list, but just haven't done it. Thanks for that handy link. Talk later.

  2. Sarah, I loved your story in Wishing for a Cowboy!

    As for cold--I don't like it. Taking care of livestock is brutal, even now. And I can't imagine having to trudge through three feet of snow to go to the outhouse.

  3. Great post. Interesting little tidbits like the string in grease and pine knots. I grew up in a house with no heat upstairs. Blankets were piled on our beds and my nose was always cold, but even now I prefer a colder bedroom for sleeping, though not that cold. Anyway loved your post.

  4. Celia,I always love your kind comments. As much as the house where I was raised holds a warm place in my heart, it certainly had its drawbacks, creaky floors and no central heating and air conditioning. I miss it though.
    I wonder how warm those old sod houses were on the prairie. I know you'll do a sensational job of capturing the harsh realities of life on the plains of Texas tempered by a warmhearted story.
    I always appreciate your thoughtful comments.

  5. Jacquie, every time I watch Alaska the Last Frontier, I shiver thinking about those visits to the outhouse. Yikes!
    Thank you so much for the compliment about A Husband for Christmas in the Wishing for a Cowboy Christmas anthology. I so enjoyed A Gift for Rhoda that you wrote. I think all the authors wrote such memorable stories and I have to try out the recipes in the back.
    Thank you so much for coming by.

  6. Kathy, I'm thinking many of us slept in rooms without much heat. I felt pretty dang lucky when my parents gave my sister and I electric blankets.
    Thank you so much for coming by and commenting. You're so sweet.

  7. Hi Sarah, sorry I'm so late getting here. I enjoyed your post tremendously. It's good to remember how easy most of us have it these days, and how hard life was for our pioneer ancestors. Thanks for sharing your childhood memories with us!

  8. Lyn, thank you so much for coming by. So many of us have forgotten the luxury we enjoy in our lives compared to those amazing and courageous pioneers. Even our grandparents had life so much tougher than us. Of course we get to have the stress of modern life so maybe we've paid our dues.

  9. Sarah, I loved your story in the anthology. Having the Titanic brought in gave it a new twist. How terrible it must have been for those women in the lifeboats to watch loved ones drown! And those in the boats didn't know if they would survive either. How interesting that you lived in a log home. Fascinating post!

  10. Caroline, thank you so much for your kind remarks. I really appreciate them.
    I hope you're having a marvelous Christmas season.

  11. Christmas blessings to you and yours, too, Sarah. I went to college in a California beach girl. And I left in January.

    I still remember the shock of my life walking off that plane. (The airport didn't have jetways.) Goodness, I'm shivering even now.

    I too wonder how one could endure winter without Gortex ans central heat. But I guess you can't miss things you didn't have. And wow, you have lived in some awesome houses!

    Hugs and love...

  12. Grew up in a house in Oregon, only heat was wood, used it for heat and cook. Snow blew in the cracks, feather bed and homemade quilts. Oh the lovely 50's. Actually the best time of my life.

  13. Hey Dick. I think many of us remember the days of hardship with happy fondness. Isn't it odd how those struggling times were actually some great times? Thank you so much for coming by and commenting.


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