March 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 14

Domestic Manners on the Frontier

When Angeline left me, which she did after a few days, I was obliged to employ Mrs. Jennings to "chore round," to borrow her own expression; and as Mr. Clavers was absent much of the time, I had the full enjoyment of her delectable society with that of her husband and two children, who often came to meals very sociably, and made themselves at home with small urgency on my part. The good lady's habits required strong green teas at least three times a day; and between these three times she drank the remains of the tea from the spout of the tea-pot, saying "it tasted better so." "If she hadn't it," she said "she had the 'sterics so that she wasn't able to do a chore." And her habits were equally imperious in the matter of dipping with her own spoon or knife into every dish on the table. She would have made out nobly on kibaubs, for even that unwieldly morsel, a boiled ham, she grasped by the hock and cut off in mouthfuls with her knife, declining all aid from the carver, saying cooly that she made out very well. It was in vain one offered her anything, she replied invariably with a dignified nod; "I'll help myself, I thank ye. I never want no waitin' on." And this reply is the universal one on such occasions, as I have since had vexatious occasion to observe.

Let no one read with an incredulous shake of the head, but rather let my sketch of these peculiar habits of my neighbors be considered as a mere beginning, a shadow of what might be told. I might "amaze indeed, the very faculty of eyes and ears," but I forbear.

If "grandeur hear with a disdainful smile"—thinking it would far better to starve than to eat under such circumstances, I can only say such was not my hungry view of the case; and that I often found rather amusing exercise for my ingenuity in contriving excuses and plans to get the old lady to enjoy her meals alone. To have offered her outright a separate table, though the board should groan with all the delicacies of the city, would have been to secure myself the unenviable privilege of doing my own "chores," at least till I could procure a "help" from some distance beyond the reach of my friend Mrs. Jennings' tongue.

It did not require a very long residence in Michigan, to convince me that it is unwise to stem directly the current of society, even in the wilderness, but I have since learned many ways of wearing round which give me the opportunity of living very much after my own fashion, without offending, very seriously, anybody's prejudices.

No settlers are so uncomfortable as those who, coming with abundant means as they suppose, to be comfortable, set out with a determination to live as have they been accustomed to live. They soon find that there are places where the "almighty dollar" is almost powerless; or rather, that powerful as it is, it meets with its conqueror in the jealous pride of those whose services must be had in order to live at all.

"Luff when it blows," is a wise and necessary caution. Those who forget it and attempt to carry all sail set and to keep an unvarying course, blow which way it will, always abuse Michigan, and are abused in their turn. Several whom we have known to set out with this capital mistake, have absolutely turned about again in despair, revenging themselves by telling very hard stories about us nor'westers.

Touchstone's philosophy is your only wear for this meridian.

"Corin. And how like you this shepherd's life, Master Touchstone/

"Touch. Truly, shepherd, in respect of itself it is a good life; but in respect it is a shepherd's life, it is naught. In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life. Now in respect that it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in respect that it is not in the court, it is tedious. as it is a spare life, look you, it fits my humour well; but as there is no plenty in it, it goes much against my stomach. Hast any philosophy in thee, shepherd?

Nobody will quarrel with this view to things. You may say anything you like of the country or its inhabitants: but beware how you raise a suspicion that you despise the homely habits of those round you. This is never forgiven.

It would be in vain to pretend that this state of society can ever be agreeable to those who have been accustomed to the more rational arrangements of the older world. The social character of the meals, in particular, is quite destroyed, by the constant presence of strangers, whose manners, habits of thinking, and social connexions are quite different from your own, and often exceedingly repugnant to your taste.

Granting the correctness of the opinion which may be read in their countenances that they are "as good as you are," I must insist, that a greasy cook-maid, or a redolent stable-boy, can never be, to my thinking, an agreeable table companion—putting pride, that most terrific bug-bear of the woods, out of the question.

If the best man now living should honor my humble roof with his presence—if he should happen to have an unfortunate penchant for eating out of the dishes, picking his teeth with his fork, or using the fireplace for a pocket handkerchief, I would prefer he take his dinner solus or with those who did as he did.

But I repeat it; those who find these inconveniences most annoying while all is new and strange to them, will by the exertion of a little patience and ingenuity, discover ways and means of getting aside of what is most unpleasant, in the habits of their neighbors: and the silent influence of example is daily affecting much towards reformation in many particulars. Neatness, propriety, and that delicate forbearance of the least encroachment upon the rights or the enjoyments of others, which is the essence of true elegance of manner, have only to be seen and understood to be admired and imitated; and I would fain persuade those who are groaning under certain inflictions to which I have but alluded, that the true way of overcoming all the evils of which they complain is to set forth in their own manners and habits, all that is kind, forbearing, true, lovely, and of good report. They will find ere long that their neighbors have taste enough to love what is so charming, even though they see it exemplified by one who sits all day in a carpetted parlor, teaches her own children instead of sending them to the district school, hates "the breath of garlic-eaters,"and—oh fell climax!—knows nothing at all of soap-making.

(To be continued.)

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