Finger Lakes Daily Life — Growing up in the 1840s

November 4, 2012 at 7:54 pm 1 comment

Finger Lakes SummerLet’s go back in time to the 1840s and get a glimpse into the daily life of Bowers Howe Leonard, a young boy  growing up on a farm in Sennett NY.


Of my own childhood, say before I went to school (which was at or about the age of 5 years) I can of course remember little. I was arrayed, not like Solomon, but most of the time in a red flannel dress with drawers and waist that buttoned behind under the dress, and an old cloth cap that came to me from my brother Cutler; having done faithful service for several years. The shoes which all the family used were the product of the village shoemaker at Mottville, Uncle Henry Harwood by name, with whom an exchange of farm produce was carried on for such boots and shoes as the family required from time to time. That they were strong and heavy goes without saying: and when holes began to appear in sole or upper, it was no disgrace to have them covered with strong and heavy “taps” and patches, making them as durable as new. Not every one of the children of the region enjoyed the luxury of shoes, as during the summertime of school in that district, I think four-fifths of all the boys and girls “went barefoot” all summer and until frost came in the fall; and they were fortunate if they “had got their shoes” to begin school with the winter term from Nov. 15 or thereabouts.

At some time about 1841, I went with the hired man to the woods to drive home some pigs that had been turned into the woods to live on “shack” or beech nuts; we found the swine but after the man had got them started for the house I became in some way, “lost” and seeing a barn some distance away started for that, and when I got to it, found I was in sight of my grandfather’s house (which stood where my son William now lives). I was not long in getting there and as the weather was cold and some snow on the ground, I was very glad to get warm, and get some dinner. My grandmother Howe and Aunt Clara soon learned that I was ” absent without leave” and whether I was sent for or was conducted home by Grandfather Howe I cannot now tell but I was soundly made to understand that such conduct must not be repeated. I did not for a long time comprehend what there was about my going there that was wrong, for I thought it the best thing to do when I did not know the way home.

My mother and grandmother, in common with nearly all the housekeepers of those days, were believers in use of “roots and herbs” as remedies for “all the ills that flesh was heir to” and the amounts of spearmint, peppermint, boneset wormwood, comfrey, Solomon’s seal, beech drops, horehound, catnip, bee balm, slippery elm bark, and roots and barks and buds of various kinds, would have fully stocked any drug store of the present day.

The rafters of the garret were stocked annually with fresh supplies of the herbs and packages of the roots and barks, gathered and stored against the day of need, which if it did not come was brought along, by the first ailment of man or child or beast; who was put on a course of herb treatment whether it was needed or not.

“Sulphur or molasses” was given in the spring to all who could be induced, by persuasion, force or example, to take it. It was kept prepared by the pint and given every morning. Castor oil was also considered necessary among children and the nauseating stuff forced down their throats many times by holding them firmly and by obliging them to open their mouths by holding their noses so they could not otherwise breathe. I was thought to be “weakly” and many “vile decoctions” were administered to me, but as little benefit seemed to appear, I was at length overlooked and “suffered and got well.”

It was the custom to tell children in that age about ghosts, “boogers,” “spooks,” and things of that kind until any timid child was in a state of perfect terror if left alone in the dark at any time. It was the delight of hired girls and men often to relate ghost stories on purpose to see the pale faces and frightened actions of children, and I did not escape the usual fate. I have lain awake many nights, trembling at every sound and awaiting the appearance in bed of my brother, who had perhaps been absent from home at some evening party or meeting.

Finger Lakes Summer

The family homestead


I do not remember at what age I first went to school at the old red schoolhouse. I think learned me to read from the Webster’s Spelling Book which was the only elementary reader of those days. I learned the ABC’s, then the a-b, abs, words of two and three letters each. Afterwards longer words were given until we could spell “baker,” which was a point in education long to be remembered, and pointed at with pride by admiring mothers and teachers.

I had, in those days, besides “Webster’ s Elementary Spelling Book” with covers of wood papered over, “Bowles Spelling Book” with a yellow pasteboard cover which I kept at home to read in, not being used in school, and having belonged to my sister Mary. The Webster speller had in the back part, several pictures illustrating fables, among which I remember that of the old man pelting the rude boy with grass to induce him to leave his apple tree, but the grass not being sufficient, was indeed by the taunts of the boy, “to try what virtue there was in the stones”; which soon produced the desired effect. Also the picture of the milkmaid who persisted in “counting her chickens before they were hatched”: to the ultimate loss of her anticipated green silk dress. These pictures were studied and dwelt upon with an interest which the youth of today cannot understand, with the multitude of illustrated books in library and at house and school, to look at and show the idea which the words of the lesson fail to convey. My reading book first used, was prepared more for the use as a Cyclopedia than as a Reader. It gave a description of various kinds of cloths used in those days: of spices and various articles of trade.

At the time I first went to school, there were very few classes: none except in reading and spelling, and these only among the older pupils. I learned to read at the teacher’s knee, being called about 4 times a day to “come and read” from the plank seat or bench about 12 feet long, on which side by side sat from 6 to 10 little boys whose feet could not reach the floor when fairly seated on the bench, facing the box stove glowing with heat necessary to keep the larger boys and girls on the back seats comfortably warm in winter time, and in summer, pestered with flies and the hot sun shining in through the curtainless windows. We sat thus, six hours per day, twenty- two days per month, eight or nine months in the year. Our vacations were generally from about March 15th to May 1st and from Sept. 15th to Nov. 15th. Saturday was a holiday every 2 weeks.

The teacher “boarded round” one week for each pupil usually: those too poor to “board the teacher” being exempted by the excess of number of scholars over the weeks taught. Teachers were paid by the week, in the case of ladies one and one half dollars to three dollars per week, and for gentlemen or “man teachers,” twelve to twenty dollars per month according, in each case, to the size of the school and ability of the patrons.

Of our comforts in school, I have written somewhat but will write a little further. The fire of green wood which was mostly used, was, of course, entirely cold in the morning and in case a lady teacher was employed, some larger boy was requested to make a fire in the morning-which he frequently failed to do for some reason; and when teachers and scholars arrived, they found a cold room with temperatures near zero. Matches not being in common use, a large boy was sent to the nearest house for some fire, which he generally brought in a couple strips of bark, which were blazing by the time he arrived at the schoolhouse; these placed in the stove with some dry splinters, would soon produce a hot fire; but for an hour all would hover around as near as possible until the heat would begin to be felt on the back seats.

I remember a family of 4 or 5 children by the name of Le Baron, (pronounced La Barn), who attended school at this school house; who lived on the north and south road west of the “swamp” fully 2 miles southwest. They came quite regularly through the deep snow, two boys and two or three girls making the distance on foot, with not abundant clothing or very good shoes; but they were good scholars and learned faster than many living nearer.

The larger scholars and all who could read fairly well took part in reading the Bible as the first exercise of the morning, taking the chapters of the New Testament by course: then the smaller readers were called up to say their letters, or read in words, and spell as they could from the Webster Spelling Book. While the larger pupils attended to various studies: some to geography, others to arithmetic and still others ” turned around” and followed copy set by the teacher, and learning to write: stopping occasionally for the teacher to “mend their pen” made from a goose quill and needing very frequent repair.

All sorts of requests were constantly made of the teachers: “go to the stove,” “get a drink,” “please may I go out,” “wash my slate,” “show me how to do this sum,” formed a part of them, while complaints were mingled to create variety: “pinchin” , “kickin” , “prickin” , ” pullin hair”, “eatin apples” etc. to a varied extent with the task of the teacher to keep the minds of the scholars busy with their lessons. The most diligent were allowed during the forenoon to go to some neighbor’s well for a pail of water as a reward. The scholar who had mastered a lesson in geography, for instance, called on the teacher at once to “hear my lesson”, and between all these varied exercises the small scholars must be heard to read four times per day, and the larger ones, twice; and all to spell at least twice that could spell at all, by being ranged in row along one side of the room. The one at the head who had “gone up above” the others by superior skill in spelling at the previous lesson; the one remaining at the head at the close of day taking the place at the foot next day if present but receiving a “credit mark” for “having left off head”.

The day closed with the roll call and those present would say “here” with a voice that betokened impatience to be away, those absent would be noted by silence, amid which the putting away of books and preparing for the wintry walk homeward, many times through great drifts of snow and unbroken roads, went on anything but silently – and when the teacher announced that “school dismissed,” the scramble among the larger boys to be the first one out was something fearful and often led to the roughest scuffling when once outside; where clothing was tom, and more or less damage done to dinner baskets and books being carried home.

The sports of those days have nearly as strong an impression on my recollection as anything connected with my life at the time, varying from time to time according to the weather and the number and kind present to take part. When the winter term of school commenced in November, the boys generally occupied the time while the ground was free of snow and mud by playing ball: not the baseball of these days so much overrated in my judgment, but the “2 old cat” of that time, when the little boys thought it a great privilege to “chase balls” over the fence, down the hill, or through the brooks – while the big ones took their innings and done the “play” part of the game.

When ball became an old story, “pomp, pomp, pull away” became the fashion: one large boy to “stand” at a “bye” and call the others to “come away, fetch away” and as they made a rush past the bye, the boy standing must catch as many as he could of them, and they, when caught, must join in the struggle to catch the others until all were caught: when the game began again with the first caught to stand for the others.

After snow covered the ground, we played “fox and geese” in paths trod in the fresh snow, generally closing with a snowballing frolic.

Another amusement was to play “I spy” around the barn of “Old Squire Root” as he was called, who owned the farm surrounding the school house and in whose field the other games had been so freely carried on. This barn was not where the present one is located, but a long distance further south, in the center of the farm, and surrounded more or less with deep mud holes, which it required some skill to avoid, especially when running to “touch the bye.” But we had great sport there, to the frightening of the old Squire’s cows and Aunt Sady’s hens, while we sought hiding places inside and outside of the bam and shed. Had they not been the most patient and uncomplaining, ” long suffering and slow to anger,” we should have received what we so often deserved, a thorough trouncing for our mischief. Heaven bless their memories. They were the victims of much lawless frolic by the school children but they endured to the end. May their eternal rest be as sweet as the maple sugar they used to give us youngsters; and their woes escape them as easily as the water used to leak out of their well bucket when we went there to get some for the school room.

Hope you enjoyed this Finger Lakes trip back in time.


Entry filed under: Finger Lakes, history, Uncategorized. Tags: , , .

Thrifting through the Finger Lakes A Beautiful Picnic Spot on Lake Ontario: B Forman Park

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Gary  |  November 4, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    Sweet. I really enjoy what you are doing with this blog. I look forward to each installment. Thanks for your time and effort.


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