Pioneer Life Was No Picnic
for Young Girl
Lovina Z. Powers Foster began recording everyday happenings in a journal (preserved by the Cortland County Historical Society), when she was 12 years old, living in the town of Lansing, north of Ithaca. Her first entry, written in 1828, states:
"During the winter I endured some severe hardships. I had to go five miles through the snow and fetch home necessary articles of provisions. Though I had a father he was seldom at home.
"In the summer I had not only this journey to perform, but also to fetch all our wood. In August, my parents saw that my right shoulder was much larger than the other and sent me on a journey with my uncle as far as the seaside in Connecticut. I stayed at my grandfather's seven weeks."
Later, she wrote, "When I was 16, we moved to Solon, the first of March, 1832. Our house was a mere hut in the woods, only one other within a mile, snow four feet deep. Here I was very lonesome, but soon found friends, though they were rare.
"After this I had some affliction to pass through. Father rolled up a log house and laid some boards like a hog pen, and in the fall we moved into it. It was cold and smoked extremely as it had no chimney, and we had only a few potatoes to eat.
"The first of March, my parents left me with the rest of the children for two weeks. We were very unwell. We had only six or seven quarts of meal with our potatoes. We made porridge and put our potatoes in it. When they returned they brought a little meal and meat.
"In April, I boiled sap all day in the woods. It rained hard. Our dinner was one boiled turnip. It was all mother had to cook. At night the children had gathered beechnuts for our supper. In the morning father had got home with a little meal." In those days boiling sap was keeping the fire around the kettle, carrying the sap in wooden pails from the troughs at the trees, and pouring the sap into the kettle.
"Soon after I worked a week and got some money. I saved a shilling to get a pound of butter and carried the rest about three miles and got some canaille for bread. [Canaille was a coarse, cheap flour, something like our brown feeding middlings.] During the summer we fared tolerably well and raised some grain for winter.
"The third day of December, I began to go to school a mile and a half without passing a house, over a high hill, in solid woods. After school was done, I again helped father make sugar." [This was the Potter Hill School, and on one of these treks she met Daniel Foster and his son, Charles, a young widower. After passing her, he told his father that they had met his future wife, which proved to be true in about three months.]
"The 20th of April, 1834, I went to teach the neighbors' children who could not go to school. We had some new neighbors, one of which was a young widower. He paid me a visit on 11th of May and introduced the subject of marriage. This filled my mind with agitation and I thought of it with tears.
"He gave me a fortnight for consideration and in this time not a day passed but I earnestly prayed the Lord to direct me in this great and solemn affair. When the time came he called for his answer, which I gave him in the affirmative.
"On the 2nd of July, 1834, we were united in marriage. In the afternoon I went home with my husband. He had a bed and a few dishes. The next morning my father sent my brother and sister to fetch me a four-quart dinnerpot, a two-quart kettle, spider, water pail, and a pint bottle.
"And he sent word for Mr. Foster to come and get some chairs. He went and got four and afterwards we got two more, which made us six chairs. We made our table.
"I was very ignorant of work, could only spin wool; had done very little sewing and less cutting. Mr. Foster's father and mother lived with us the first winter and I found their instruction good. Mr. Foster had bought a piece of new land and built a log house but had no chimney. In the winter I suffered with cold and smoke. The next summer we had our own chimney built and got a pair of andirons, and built a new house a few rods away for Father and Mother Foster."
This was on the farm later owned by Elmer Seacord. Charles Foster and his father, Daniel, built the first road through the woods to Solon Pond and drew the first log sawed at the first saw mill built there by Timothy McElwayne.
The Fosters continued to live modestly under extremely harsh conditions. They subsisted on turnips, potatoes, and little else. Things were even worse when crops failed due to unfavorable weather conditions. In 1836, Lovina wrote although she was in poor health, she was forced to go into the woods hunting.
The winter of 1838 was unusually hard. She recorded that six inches of snow fell on September 29, and it continued to snow. On October 12, a foot of snow fell. "It was a cold season and but little grain had been raised. Wheat was $2 a bushel, corn $1.40 a bushel, cheese 7½ cents a pound. Butter 20 cents a pound, and hay was $10 a ton," Foster said.
Her first child, Lucena, was born on Feb. 25, 1837. In 1841 they sold enough turnips to purchase a fall-leaf table, and sugar enough to buy a clock. "Thus we have collected all our furniture and are now comfortable for every necessity.
"I am thankful above all for a temperate, and praying companion, and the peace we enjoy in the family, in the neighborhood, and in the state."
© 2004, Richard Palmer