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Pioneer homes put their residents to work

Published Oct. 4, 2005

Today's young couples often don't know how lucky they are to have washing machines and electricity, especially with babies in the house.

If you could ask the late Nealie Denison Newberger Squires, she would tell you how much work it was to wash diapers for her twins, Calvin and Carl Newberger.

Remember, they didn't have disposable Huggies back then.

She had to draw water from a pitcher pump and carry it by bucket to a washtub. The dirty diapers had to be scrubbed on a rub board, which was tough on the ol' knuckles.

After a rigorous scrubbing, the diapers were thrown into boiling water in a big wash pot and stirred with a broom handle. The diapers then were rinsed and hung out to dry on clothesline strung between two sturdy poles and usually put by the side of the house.

Like clockwork, it seemed, rain would hit or the clothesline would break just as one got ready to bring in the diapers!

Old-time soap

One couldn't just walk to the supermarket for a bar of soap in those days. Instead, old-timers had to make what they used.

Ada Mae Crilly, stepmother of John Crilly on Cypress Cove Road in Lutz, used to make her own lye soap.

Lye-based soap was quite hard on the hands and left them burning (the genesis for the term "dishwater hands"). Women were ecstatic when the nice, "gentle" Octagon soap arrived and they didn't have to make their own.

Actually, Octagon soap was quite harsh, but the pain was offset somewhat by the premiums, or coupons, that could be wrapped in the soap. These coupons could be exchanged for various prizes. Even then, the idea of getting something free was exciting!

Treats for the home

Over time, improved versions of other household products and furnishings began to appear.

For years, everyone swept their wood floors with brush brooms. Then straw brooms arrived. But all too often, a broom straw got caught where the wood had splintered or cracked, ripping it from the broom. Linoleum floors seemed like something heaven-sent.

Julia Burris was quite proud when she first got linoleum on her kitchen floor. However, the novelty and the design soon wore off and the linoleum split. Oilcloth tablecloths went through the same cycle. Today's soft plastic table covers are far superior.

One household chore that used to be assigned to girls was cleaning and filling the kerosene lamps.

The lamps gave off a faint, rather dim light by today's standards. Studying by the light of those old lamps was difficult. Nobody "burned the midnight oil." After a lamp had burned awhile, its chimney became blackened with soot, and that made it even more difficult to see. But they were prized possessions. Tabitha "Tabby" Hunt of First Avenue in Lutz recalls that the only wedding gift she got was a kerosene lamp.

No one misses outhouse

Electricity and running water ended several other unpleasant tasks, mostly related to outhouses.

People had two choices when nature called at night: Make your way in the dark to the outhouse or use a chamber pot. Needless to say, the chamber pot was the more popular choice, which meant somebody had to empty it and clean it in the morning. Nobody wanted the job.

The outhouses themselves were sparsely furnished compared to today's bathrooms. The most common form of toilet paper was an outdated Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog.

Heating and cooling

The advent of electricity solved what had long been a problem for the pioneers: how to keep things from spoiling. Before iceboxes, food was kept cool in a variety of ways.

The late Alex Johnson Sr. built a large cabinet for food storage. It had shelves and a door. The top was solid, and the sides were all fly screen. The Johnsons kept a large pan full of water on the cabinet top to keep the food cool. Large sheets of absorbent cloth drew the water from the pan down the sides of the cabinet, where the water evaporated.

The Frizzell family cooled their milk by putting it in a pan of water under a screened wooden box placed in the shade of a big oak tree. At the turn of the century, there weren't any ice houses or ice wagons, and certainly no ice cubes!

The Frizzells, who came to Lutz in 1893, also used a "cookbunk," a metal box filled with sand placed on top of four posts set in the ground.

When it was time to prepare a meal, a fire was lit underneath the box and the food-filled pots were placed on top of the sand. When they finally saved enough money to buy a "real" stove, it cost them $11.

Keeping yourself cool in the summer was another challenge. There were no air conditioners or electric fans. About the best you could hope for was to have a few "church fans" lying around the house.

These were thick cardboard fans tacked onto wooden sticks, with religious scenes on the front and funeral home advertisements on the back. Everybody slipped a few of them home, thinking the Lord surely wouldn't mind.

When winter rolled around, there were no central heating systems to make it bearable _ only wood-burning stoves. When it was fiercely cold, you either burned your behind or roasted your front side trying to get close enough to feel the fire's warmth. However, nothing really beat jumping into bed under a mound of homemade quilts and wool blankets.

From sacks to clothes

Pioneers improvised by making clothes from feed sacks. Chicken, horse and cow feed all came in colorful, patterned cotton sacks.

The women picked out the designs they wanted, and that's what their husbands had to buy. People made almost everything out of them: dish towels, curtains, tablecloths, dresses, shirts and even underwear.

I can recall kids wearing homemade underpants, fashioned from these sacks with elastic sewn around the waist and leg openings. After a good number of washings, the elastic stretched and the wearer was left with "droopy drawers" that constantly had to be pulled up!

A longtime blossom

Flowers were another way to spruce up "Cracker shacks," as northerners used to call pioneer homes.

"Cracker phlox," bright rosy pink or white flowers, were commonplace because of their resilience and beauty. They would, and still do, grow just about anywhere, even in the sandiest, driest, poorest soil. Their current-day name is vinca or periwinkle.

Down at the First United Methodist Church of Lutz, a pink periwinkle initially sprung up through a crack in the concrete sidewalk and grew into a huge bush. It lasted for many years, until somebody "cleaning up the place" pulled it out, unaware of its longevity and tenacity.

The primitive orange amaryllis was another favorite Cracker flower. That, too, is a hardy species that can still be found growing near old houses and cemeteries.

Old adage of the week: "A new broom sweeps clean."

If you have old artifacts, pictures or stories to share with Elizabeth MacManus, a longtime central Pasco resident, she can be reached at 949-4352. Send letters c/o Central Times, P.O. Box 1439, Land O'Lakes, FL 34639.