Children were particularly valued in the frontier family, isolated as it was from distant relatives and past friends. With their easy laughter, the children brought humor to difficult times; with their energy, they brought lively companionship; with their developing strength, they brought helping hands to the family's labor. Altogether, they provided a comforting source of family continuity and security. "I recall when the last three babies were born," wrote one mother, "each time I thought, 'This is the nicest baby of all,' and from the way they were received into the family circle every one else would have said the same."

On the whole, the family tended to be large. A house full of six to twelve children was not uncommon, and the high rate of child mortality on the frontier encouraged many parents to compensate with additional children. On a practical level, each new pair of working hands helped the family achieve greater self-sufficiency.

For children of all ages, the daily work load was both physically demanding and time-consuming. For the younger ones, there were the daily chores of carrying water buckets, gathering buffalo chips and picking wild fruits. In later years they joined in the heavier work of plowing and planting, building fences and cabins, trapping small animals and helping about the house.

For the most part, child labor was divided according to the traditional roles of the sexes. While girls assisted their mothers with the regular household tasks, their brothers farmed the fields with their fathers. These working roles remained flexible, however. When the need arose, the girls, like their mothers, pitched in with the heavy farm work. Furthermore, during hard times sons and daughters alike often sought employment on neighboring homesteads or in nearby towns in order to provide the family with extra income.

As a child, Mary Alice Zimmerman regularly assisted her father with heavy farm chores. "I can well remember of the early-day struggles," she wrote. "The soil was virgin. It had to be broken, turned, stirred and taught to produce. With the simple means of the time, the process was slow, but the women bore their half of the load.

"I helped my father on the farm and learned to do the work pretty well, as I was strong for a girl. I soon preferred to have a team to myself when possible. I have always loved the great open out-of-doors, and I think that it was as much from choice as from necessity that I was much of the time out on the farm at work with father, as the younger girls could help mother. But I loved to work with mother and loved her way of making a home.

"Father sent me out one spring day to plant castor beans along the hedge to keep the moles away. He gave me about one gallon of seeds and a sharpened stick. As I look back now, I think it was to have been an all-day job; but, thanks to my ignorance, I found that I could press the stick quite deep into the wet soil, thus could put a lot of seeds in one hole, so was soon through. I never will forget the queer smile on his face when I returned with the empty bag."

On their family's McPherson County homestead, young Bessie Felton Wilson and her brother, Bernard, were put in charge of herding hogs. "One summer," recalled Bessie, "when my father had a bunch of twenty-five or thirty shoats and no corn to feed them, my brother and I herded them around over the farm wherever there was anything to be found that a hog could eat. After wheat harvest we herded them in the stubble field. How tired we were sometimes and how sore the stubble made our feet! We had several of the hogs names, and I used to make my brother believe that they were talking when they grunted, and I being able to understand their hog latin would interpret to him. When these hogs were marketed, we were rewarded for our labors by each being presented with a saddle father had ordered for us from Montgomery Ward & Co."

For the Mitchell family, much of the daily farm work was left up to an active and able-bodied team of six daughters. In looking back, Margaret Mitchell Womer vividly recalled those busy years on the family homestead. "There were nine children in our family," she began, "six girls and three boys, and as the girls were older and my father not strong, the hard toil of the pioneer life fell to the lot of the girls. We used to set traps on the banks of the Republican and caught wolves, badgers, bobcats and skunks. Wild turkeys were very plentiful then and we sometimes used traps to catch them.

"We had some very interesting and thrilling experiences with some of the animals we caught. One day an older sister and I were out looking at our traps and noticed that a big bobcat that was caught had climbed a tree with the chain hanging to him. I sat and watched him while my sister went for a gun and shot him. Another time we killed a mother wolf and later caught her four little cubs that had fallen into a shalloa, well while trying to find her. One of my sisters was coming from an errand across the river, when she saw five big wolves chasing a wounded buffalo. 'I'hey sat on one side of the path and watched her pass, but made no effort to harm her. We saw many large herds of buffalo as they came to the river to drink, and occasionally were able to shoot one.

"Our house was made of logs, and the girls all helped with the construction of it. The cave we made ourselves, and were justly proud of the work, for no one in our neighborhood had a better one.

"We made vinegar out of melon juice and tapped box-elder trees for sap to make syrup and it really was very good. We also kept a supply of skunk grease on hand in case of croup among the younger children. There were lots of fish in the river and my sister and I became quite expert in catching them.

"Sometimes there were unpleasant things to be done but we never thought of shirking them. We had a collie dog that was a great favorite of all the family, but as her family increased too rapidly, it was decided that she must be done away with. How to kill her was a grave problem with us girls. We thought we could not shoot her, so only one other method came to our minds, We took her to a bluff on the river, tied one end of a rope around her neck, and fastened the other end to a tree. Then we pushed her off and ran for home. The horror of the thing is still in my mind."

In the late 1850s, the homestead of the Gilkeson family became a wayside inn. Throughout her childhood years, young Annie Gilkeson undertook many of the daily household chores of cooking, cleaning, and managing the modest inn. She titled her memoir "Our House by the Side of the Road."

"It stood near a little town called Easton, close beside the road which was the main highway leading to the far West, twelve miles from Leavenworth, then the largest town in the territory. The house was a good one, considering the time and place. It was really two log houses joined together by boards. One house was two stories high, and the other was only one story. The distance between the two was sufficient to make a large room, which was used for an entrance. A small cabin was attached to the rear for a kitchen. ...

"My father was not a farmer, but he had an ambition to see what he could do with a farm. All the knowledge he possessed on the subject was obtained from books, the 'Scientific American' being his chief textbook. We soon found, however, that the business of farming was of secondary importance compared to the form of work which we were compelled to engage in-compelled is the right word. With no thought or intention of keeping an Inn, we were obliged to do so,

"Very early in the spring, people began to travel westward to locate new homes. As our place happened to be a convenient stopping point for the first day's drive out from Leavenworth, and there was no hotel in Easton, they just settled down on us like the hordes of hungry grasshoppers which came later. So now commenced the martyrdom of my dear mother, which ended in the tragedy of her early death. She worked day and night to care for and feed these hungry people. I, then a child of eleven years, was her only assistance, as no other help could be obtained for love or money.

"One day, my mother went to town, leaving me in charge of the place. She expected to be away only during the noonday meal and thought I could put off anyone who might chance to come, All was quiet at the house. So, with my two small sisters, I went out nearby to gather wild straw berries, which grew in profusion. I was busy with the berries when I heard someone speak to me. Looking up, I saw a man. He said that he wanted something to eat; also, that at the house there were a number of others in the same condition. I told him my mother was away and that I could not serve them. He insisted that I could find something for them.

"So, I gathered up all I could find to eat in the house, and set it before them. I made for them, I remember, my first coffee. With much misgiving, in regard to its quality, I served it to them. But they all praised it, said it was fine. Never in all my life after did I get up a meal which received more praise and I felt more pride in. . . .

"We had only tallow candles for light, and one of my duties was to make them each week. The mold held one dozen and that was sufficient for the time. Another one of my easy duties, for mother would never allow me to do anything hard if she could help it, was to parch the green coffee. No ready-to-use coffee, done up in packages, was known in those days. Later, when I was older, I learned to milk cows and make butter. Father had a novel way of making it, gleaned from the 'Scientific American,' of course. He had made four heavy wire rings to cover the top of the kitchen stove. The pans of fresh milk were set on these and scalded. When it had cooled, this milk was then put in the ice box for the cream to rise. Then it was churned while perfectly sweet. So, the butter was sweet and good. But, oh, the bother and work for it!

"An interesting phase of our early-day housekeeping was its sleeping accommodations. We had but one large room to give to strangers, and it contained, I think, six beds. There being no room for partitions, both men and women had to do their undressing in view of each other. But I know how the women managed, for I have done it myself when away from home. They got into bed with all their clothes on. Then, with the covers pulled up, did all their undressing and also dressing under this shelter. But I have wondered since how such ladies as belonged to the Crosby family of Topeka enjoyed it, for I distinctly remember that two of them stayed with us over night. My memory of them is so vivid because of the impression they made on my youthful imagination by the wonderful gay wrappers they donned after removing their traveling dresses. I can even remember just how they were made, and oh, how I wished I had one like them.

Gilded Age Home | Updated August 8, 2013