February 1989

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A New Home: Who'll Follow

Life in the Clearings


Caroline M. Kirkland

First published in 1839
Click here for an index to the chapters of A New Home.

Chapter 13

The Clavers Build a Dream House

Difficulties began to melt away like frosty rime after this. Some were removed, but to many we became habituated in a far shorter time than I could have imagined possible. A carpenter constructed a narrow flight of board-steps which really seemed magnificent after the stick-ladder. The screws came before the bedsteads were quite spoiled, and the arrival of my bureau-the unpacking of the box among whose multifarious contents appeared the coffee-mill, the smoothing-irons, the snuffers, gave more real delight than that of any case of splendid Parisian millinery that ever drew together a bevy of belles at Mrs. ______'s show-rooms. I never before knew the value of a portable desk, or realized that a bottle of ink might be reckoned among one's treasures.

Our preparations for residence were on a very limited scale, for we had no idea of inhabiting the loggery more than six weeks or two months at farthest. Our new dwelling was to be put up immediately, and our arrangements were to be only temporary. So easily are people deluded!

The Montacute mill was now in progress, and had grown (on paper) in a short time from a story and a half to four stories; its capabilities of all sorts, being proprortionably increased. The tavern was equally fortunate, for Mr. Mazard had undertaken its erection entirely on his own account, as a matter of speculation, feeling, he said, quite certain of selling it for double its cost whenever he should wish. The plan of the public-house was the production of his teeming brain, and exhibited congenial intricacies; while the windows resembled his own eyes in being placed too near together, and looking all manner of ways. Several smaller buildings were also in progress, and for all these workmen at a high rate of wages were to be collected and provided for.

I could not but marvel how so many carpenters had happened to "locate" within a few miles of each other in this favored spot; but I have since learned that a plane, a chisel, and two dollars a day make a carpenter in Michigan.

Mill-wrights too are remarkably abundant; but I have never been able to discover any essential difference between them and carpenters, except that they receive three dollars per diem, which, no doubt, creates a distinction in time.

Our mill-wright was a little round-headed fellow with a button nose, a very Adonis, in his own eyes, and most aptly named Puffer, since never did a more consequential dignitary condescend to follow a base mechanical calling. His statements, when he condescended to make any, were always given with a most magisterial air; and no suggestion, however skillfully insinuated or gently offered, was ever received without an air of insulted dignity, and a reiteration of his own conviction that it was probable he understood his business.

It is to be ascribed to this gentleman's care and accuracy that Mr. Clavers has since had the satisfaction of appearing as defendant in several suits at law, brought by those of his neighbors whose property had been doubled in value by the erection of the mill, and who therefore thought they might as well see what else they could get, to recover the value of sundry acres of wet marsh made wetter by the flowing back of the pond, while Mr. Puffer's calculations and levels prove most satisfactorily (on paper) that the pond had no business to flow back so far, and that therefore malice itself could ascribe no fault to his management.

But to return. Our own dwelling was to be built at the same time with all those I have mentioned; and materials for the whole were to be brought by land carriage from two to thirty miles. To my inexperienced brain, these undertakings seemed nothing less than gigantic. I used to dream of the pyramids in Egypt, and the great wall of China, and often thought, during my waking hours, of the "tower on Shinar's plain," and employed myself to conjectural comparisons between the confusion which punished the projectors of that edifice, and the difficulties which beset the builders of Montacute.

"No brick come yet, sir! Dibble couldn't get no white wood lumber at I_________, (thirty miles off,) so he stopt and got what lime there was at Jones's; but they hadn't only four bushels, and they wouldn't burn again till week after next; and that 'ere sash that came from __________ is all of three inches too large for the window frames; and them doors were made of such green stuff, that they won't go together no how."

"Well, you can go on with the roof surely!"

"Why, so we could; but you know, sir, oak-shingle wouldn't answer for the mill, and there's no pine shingle short of Detroit."

"Can't the dwelling-house be raised to-day then?"

"Why, we calc'lated to raise to-day, sir; but that fellow never came to dig the cellar."

"Go on with the blacksmith's shop, then, since nothing else can be done."

"Yes, sir, certainly. Shall we take that best white wood siding? for you know the oak siding never came from Tacker's mill."

"Send Thomson for it, then."

"Well, Thomson's best horse is so lame that he can't use him to-day, and the other is a-drawing' timber for the dam."

"Let John go with my horses."

"John's wife's sick, and he's got your horses and gone for the doctor."

But if I should fill pages with these delays and disappointments, I should still fail to give any idea of the real vexations of an attempt to build on any but the smallest scale in a new country. You discover a thousand requisites that you had never thought of, and it is well if you do not come to the angry conclusion that everybody is in league against you and your plans. Perhaps the very next day after you have by extra personal exertion, an offer of extra price, or a bonus in some other form surmounted some prodigious obstacle, you walk down to survey operations with a comfortable feeling of self-gratulation, and find yourself in complete solitude, every soul having gone off to election or town meeting. No matter at what distance these important affairs are transacted, so fair an excuse for a ploy can never pass unimproved; and the virtuous indignation which is called forth by any attempt at dissuading one of the sovereigns from exercising "the noblest privilege of a freeman," to forward your business and his own, is most amusingly provoking.

I once ventured to say, in my feminine capacity merely, and by way of experiment, to a man whose family I knew to be suffering for want of the ordinary comforts:

"I should suppose it must be a great sacrifice for you, Mr. Fenwick, to spend two days in going to election."

The reply was given with the air of Forrest's William Tell, and in a tone which would have rejoiced Miss Martineau's heart—"Yes, to be sure; but ought not a man to do his duty to his country?"

This was unanswerable, of course. I hope it consoled poor Mrs. Fenwick, whose tattered gown would have been handsomely renewed by those two days' wages.

As may be conjectured from the foregoing slight sketch of our various thwartings and hinderances, the neat framed house which had been pictured on my mind's eye so minutely, and which I coveted with such enthusiasm, was not built in a month, nor in two, nor yet in three;—but I anticipate again.

The circumstance of living all summer, in the same apartment with a cooking fire, I had never happened to see alluded to in any of the elegant sketches of western life which had fallen under my notice. It was not until I actually became the inmate of a log-dwelling in the wilds, that I realized fully what "living all in one room" meant. The sleeping apparatus for the children and the sociable Angeline, were in the loft; but my own bed, with its cunning fence of curtains; my bureau, with its "Alps on Alps" of boxes and books; my entire cooking ar ray; my centre-table, which bore, sad change! the remains of to-day's dinner, and the preparations for to-morrow, all covered mysteriously under a large cloth, the only refuge from the mice: these and ten thousand other things, which a summer's day would not suffice me to enumerate, cumbered this one single apartment; and to crown the whole was the inextinguishable fire, which I had entirely forgotten when I magnanimously preferred living in a log-house, to remaining in Detroit till a house could be erected. I had, besides the works to which I have alluded, dwelt with delight on Chateaubriand's Atala, where no such vulgar inconvenience is once hinted at; and my floating visions of a house in the woods were full of important omissions, and always in a Floridian clime, where fruits serve for vivers.

The inexorable dinner hour, which is passed sub silentio in imaginary forests, always recurs, in real woods, with distressing iteration, once in twenty-four hours, as I found to my cost. And the provoking people for whom I had undertaken to provide, seemed to me to get hungry oftener than ever before. There was no end to the bread that the children ate from morning until night—at least it seemed so; while a tin reflector was my only oven, and the fire required for baking drove us all out of doors.

Washing days, proverbial elsewhere for indescribable horrors, were our times of jubilee. Mrs. Jennings, who long acted as my factotum on these occasions, always performed the entire operation al fresco, by the side of the creek, with "a kettle slung between two poles, upon a stick transverse."

I feel much indebted to Cowper for having given a poetical grace to the arrangement. "The shady shadow of an umbrageous tree" (I quote from an anonymous author) served for a canopy, and there the bony dame generally made a pic-nic meal, which I took care to render as agreeable as possible, by sending as many different articles as the basket could be persuaded to receive, each contained in that characteristic of the country, a pint bowl.

But, oh! the ironing days! Memory shrinks from the review. Some of the ordinary household affairs could be managed by the aid of a fire made on some large stones at a little distance from the house; and this did very well when the wind sat in the right quarter; which it did not always, as witness the remains of the pretty pink gingham which fell a sacrifice to my desire for an afternoon cup of coffee. But the ironing and baking were imperious; and my forest Hecate, who seemed at times to belong to the salamander tribe, always made as much fire as the stick-chimney, with its crumbling clay-lining, would possibly bear. She often succeeded in bringing to a white heat the immense stone which served as a chimney-back, while the gaps in the stone hearth, which Alice called the Rocky Mountains, were filled with burning coals out to the very floor. I have sometimes suspected that the woman loved to torment me, but perhaps I wrong her. She was used to it, I dare say, for she looked like one exsiccated in consequence of ceaseless perspiration.

When the day declined, and its business was laid aside, it was our practice to walk to and fro before the door, till the house had been thoroughly cooled by the night-air; and these promenades, usually made pleasant by long talks about home, and laughing conjectures as to what ____ and ____would say if they could see our new way of life, were frequently prolonged to a late hour. And to this most imprudent indulgence we could not but trace the agues which soon prostrated most of us.

We had, to be sure, been warned by our eastern friends that we should certainly have the ague, do what we might, but we had seen so many persons who had been settled for years in the open country, and who were yet in perfect health, that we had learned to imagine ourselves secure. I am still of the opinion that care and rational diet will enable most persons to avoid this terrible disease; and I record this grave medical view of things for the encouragement and instruction of such of my city friends as may hereafter find themselves borne westward by the irresistible current of affairs; trusting that the sad fate of their predecessors will deter them from walking in the open air till ten o'clock at night without hat or shawl.

Click here for an index to the chapters of A New Home.
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