Header Graphic
Leaves From an Old Dayton Scrapbook

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, October 29, 1933


Leaves From An Old Dayton Scrapbook

By Howard Burba


     While credited with being among the first to sense the possibilities of Dayton View as a residential district of the highest type, the late J. O. Arnold was equally as enthusiastic in collecting and preserving historical data in connection with the settlement of the entire city of Dayton.

     Forty or fifty years ago Mr. Arnold was spending the major portion of his time in supervising the opening of streets, the building of homes and the planting of shade trees in Dayton View.  His ancestral home was the first house to be built in that part of the city when the old “ford” was abandoned and a bridge placed across the river on the site of the one now leading across from Monument av. to Riverview av.  The old Arnold home, first house in Dayton View, stood at what is now the northwest corner of Superior av. and Arnold Place.

     But Mr. Arnold’s real hobby in the latter days of his life was writing historical sketches for the newspapers of his day.  As these articles appeared he placed them in large scrapbooks.  Realizing they would most certainly be of interest and value in later years, he selected the most carefully prepared scrapbook of his lot and one day back in 1896 he penned a brief announcement inside the front cover declaring that at his death he desired it placed in the old log cabin for the perusal of those who should come after him.

     Glancing through the pages of his scrapbook one is struck with the colorful descriptions of early Dayton life, as presented in word-pictures by J. O. Arnold.  And since these descriptions are not to be found in any local historical volume, what could be more interesting than the reprinting of some of them now, more than a hundred years since the time they pictured, and almost 50 years since they were penned?

     Let me turn a few pages of this old scrapbook for you.  You’re too busy to seek out and assemble these delightful descriptions of pioneer life—let me do it for you, and provide you with a few minutes of rare entertainment, made possible by the study and foresight of one man who was determined that the works of those who settled and made possible the now modern city of Dayton should not perish.

     Here are a few extracts from the Arnold scrapbook, grouped beneath the same headings under which they appeared in a Dayton newspaper in the late ‘80s:



     After the old Dutch oven came the bake-oven.  We call it the “old bake-oven,” but it was the new one then and a feature of housekeeping that produced good results.

     It was built out in the open, and away from all other buildings, and was constructed as follows:  Oak logs two feet in diameter were cut off four feet in length. These were set on end in the ground about two feet, leaving about two feet above the ground.  On these were placed sleepers, and on these cross-ties forming a floor.  On two of these were placed clay and mortar, sometimes brick and stones, and well plastered. On top of this foundation a dome was built of brick, if it was not of hand clay, leaving a place in the rear for the smoke to pass out, and a door as built in the front.

     Oven wood was reared out of dry sticks and the oven heated to a baking point.  When the live embers were all drawn out of the front door the dough, in square iron bake-pans, was laid in the oven on a large, long-handled paddle.  The door of the oven was then closed.  One or two leaves were baked on the bottom of the oven, and for this reason it had a peculiar flavor.  In large families 12 to 16 leaves were baked at once, besides several pies.  Wild blackberry, mulberry, elderberry and wild plum pie were those depended upon.  At first when small fruits and orchards were cultivated, apple, rhubarb, gooseberry, cherry and other kinds were baked.  Certain days of the week were baking days.  The good old-fashioned loaves baked in the old bake-oven had a reputation as “home-made bread.”



     To pass through a country and witness a log-rolling is to behold a jolly time, but to clear a place of land that is heavily timbered and grub it ready for the plow is hard labor.

     In early days one man to clear a piece of land had an almost insurmountable task.  His first movement when lone-handed would be to girdle the trees by chopping and severing the bark around them so as to prevent the sap from rising.  The tree would then die.  Not only that, but the stumps would not throw up shoots after being deadened in this way.  The following year the trees would be cut down and cut into logs.  With a yoke of oxen these were gathered into place for the log-rolling.

     On the day set apart for this the neighbors would assemble and when all was in readiness they would use their hand-spikes.  Aided by a team of horses or oxen a log would soon be placed in position; soon another alongside it and so on until several formed a foundation for the pile.  Then with skids logs were placed on top of these, and this would continue until the field was full of log-heaps of deadened timber.  The men did this work willingly, and the next day they would all be at another neighbor’s working until the entire neighborhood was mutally aided.

     The one who had the first log-rolling would commence to fire the logs and continue this until virtually all of them were reduced to ashes.  Then the plow was started and the roots thrown up were burned.  At evening the men were too tired to engage in any amusements, but they would stay for supper, and then, all but the younger, would go home early.  The women and boys did good service in burning the logs.  Thus the forests which once formed the site of Dayton were cleared away.  The old barns of square pens of logs and threshing floor between soon gave way to substantial log structures.

     The framework of the houses and barns in the Miami Valley were generally hewn out of trees which grew near the spot where they were felled.  They are all put together with wooden pins all of which were prepared and the framework completed in minute detail before the raising.  The entire neighborhood considered it their duty to attend the raising and would arrange their own work in advance of the event.  It happened so frequently between 1850 and 1860 throughout the county that they all knew how to take hold to the best advantage.

     Sixty to 70 stalwart men would assemble for this purpose and the entire house or barn would be raised in one day.  It was not only laborious work but dangerous to raise the heavy bents with spike-poles, and the young men would climb and do the pinning, arrange the braces into position, while the men below would hold the bents in a balance until they were secured.  This provided serious and narrow escapes and made them timid to a degree that when the raising was over there was a relief experienced by all.  House-raising, like log-rolling, was too laborious to permit of any sport, but the younger element never let an opportunity pass without getting at least some measure of fun out of it.



     In the early log cabin days in Dayton sugar was an item of luxury as well as a necessity, hence its importance.  New Orleans sugar and molasses found a ready market north in exchange for corn, pork, whisky and kindred commodities.  They commanded good prices, which in turn held up the prices of northern products.  The north Mississippi valley had not yet teemed with the millions of farmers to raise all of the needed products of the south, and the south devoted her energies to cotton and sugar.

     The pioneers in the Miami valley had advantages which inured to their benefit from the beginning.  The Miami river being navigable for small craft, formed a line of trade and travel which was followed by the building of the canal, while railroads later kept pace with the general improvement in the west.  The high price of sugar, being 12½c a pound, soon developed sugar-making wherever maple trees existed.

     One of the most beautiful sugar camps near the city was bounded by Salem av., on the east, Broadway, on the west, Superior av., on the south and Grand av. on the north.  In this camp also grew the finest specimens of walnut, oak and hickory trees, the two former growing to a diameter of six and seven feet at the surface of the ground.

     The maple trees were tapped by boring a hole in them and a spike made of alder with the pith taken out and shaped to be driven in the hole in the tree; troughs made of square blocks of timber hollowed out to gather the drippings from the sugar maple trees.  A hillside was selected for the kettles and a large backlog was secured.  On heavy, forked posts were suspended a pole, and from this the kettles hung.  A sled with a barrel upon it, drawn by a horse, made its rounds through the camp daily to gather the sap, as the troughs were filled by constant dripping day and night from the alder spikes that were driven in the trees.

     The kettles were filled, the fire started and the boiling commenced and never ceased day and night until the sugar-making was over.  As soon as all the kettles were “boiled down,” they would be emptied in the smallest kettle, nearest one end, and the others filled alternately, commencing from the smallest to the largest and as they would boil the sugar water would be transferred from one to the other in rotation, leaving the first kettle with fresh water from the trees and the last kettle with the finished product.  Large gourds were used to dip the water from one kettle to another.  Dry, dead timber was used for the fire between the backlogs.

     While the writer can draw the picture of the camp in its primitive state, and recall the squirrels, quail and other small game within the boundary named above, yet with all the improvements of fine avenues, elegant residences, fine sidewalks, shade trees and an environment that is unequaled in a city of 80,000 people yet the inspiration and childish sports in this primitive home had its charm.



     A husking bee offered about as much fun in the autumn as maple sugar-making did in the spring.  Fortunately these episodes in early days had their advantages in a social way for the young folks as well as adding in a material point of view much to the lives of the older ones.

     The husking bee was an event of some consequence and Dad had an eye to business when he pulled the ears off of the stalk and laid them in two long rows in the barn.  The yellow ears could be cribbed for use and the husks could not only be fed but mats and rugs for the porch could be made out of them as well as husk mattresses.  This additional labor during the winter months offered a revenue for the pioneer.

     Invitations to the husking bee were extended orally, thus there was not paper to purchase and pens, ink or time to waste.  The daughters of “Dad” would say when meeting a neighbor:  “Tell the girls to come over Wednesday night, we intend to have a husking bee; tell the boys to come, too.  Send word to the Wilsons and tell them to be sure and come.”

     This primitive invitation was hearty and whole-souled, with neither style nor money expended.  You must remember that money was scarce.  They did not have it, and without money, hundreds of imaginary wants were supplied by simplifying the details and habits of life.

     When the evening came for the husking bee, the girls would aid in preparing a sumptuous supper and the boys would repair to the barn.  Two captains would be chosen by acclamation.  These would pick up a stick and the first would hold it upright with one hand so that it was impossible to clutch it with the fingers sufficiently to throw it over his head.  He who had possession of the stick had first choice of huskers, and the best one in the neighborhood was the first one selected.  Their ability to husk corn was as well known in a neighborhood as pupils of today are known by their teachers in a grade-school.

     The two captains would choose their sides until all present were chosen, then each side would take a row of corn and at a given command they would make the husks fly.  The husker who would find the first red ear was to have the privilege of kissing the prettiest girl at the “ bee,” and the particular girl he might select was left to his own decision.  This was sometimes ominous as to future events.  The side winning the race by getting its row of corn husked first, would receive the prize.

     After the “bee” was closed they would hoist the host on their shoulders and carry him to the house. There the girls would have supper ready, and the young men, hungry from their husking, would do full justice to it.

     When the table was cleared and set back the usual games took place, and toward midnight the girls would be seen going home on horseback, and often a boy on horseback with a girl on behind him.

     Where are these girls?  The writer visited one of them yesterday.  She is living on Third st. in Miami City.  She is now 90 years old.  Another is living on St. Clair st. between Third and Fourth and one of the boys, 87 years old, is living on Third st. between the Callahan block and the Beckel hotel.  They have attended husking bees within a distance of a city block of first and Main sts.



     Ashes in the large open fireplaces accumulated with great rapidity but economy in all things prevailed and these were carefully dumped into the “leach,” or “hopper.”  This was usually a large sugar hogshead placed on a platform and so inclined that when water was poured in on the ashes, the lees would pass into a trough and on into a vessel set beneath it.  The lees were boiled, and when well boiled down and still very hot, grease would be added, and this became soap.

     Modern improvements have so revolutionized this business that today we step to the telephone and order any grade desired at less cost than one could make it at home if he had all the ingredients offered to him free. But in the old days in Dayton, when one had no money with which to buy soap and when few factories were engaged in making it, necessity became the mother of invention and the old “ash hopper” was a familiar and a permanent fixture in every back yard.



     They generally butchered their hogs in cold weather and each farmer killed from two to 20 hogs each year.  In each neighborhood they would have a mutual understanding as to the day that each would butcher, so they arranged their work that they could help one another.  They would shoot the hogs and stick them, having previously filled large iron kettles with water, hanging on a pole resting on forked posts, with an immense fire beneath each kettle.

     They had a large hogshead inclined toward a platform placed on trestles, which enabled them to put the hog into the boiling water head first.  When scalded they would pull it out, reverse it, and scald the hind parts.  Then, quickly pulling the hog onto the platform, they would soon scrape off the bristles. What was known as a “gambol stick,” sharpened at each end, was stuck through the leaders of the rear legs of the animal, and it was hoisted to another pole placed between two forked posts, and the cleaning accomplished.

     The entire butchering would be done in one day.  The sausage meat was made with cleavers the same night and ere morning the meat would be ready for the salt barrels and the sausage meat cut, seasoned and stuffed into long narrow bags which the good wife had made out of the meal and flour sacks she had carefully preserved throughout the year.



     The hymns sung in churches 100 years ago bear record of love, and were sung with the spirit and understanding and with the devout manner indicative of the professor of religion and music.  The preacher or some member of the church would read two lines of the hymn (in the absence of hymn books) and set the time.  Then all members of the congregation considered it their duty to sing to help the preacher along.

     Only 50 years ago Dayton had in the First Presbyterian church a Mr. Augustus George, a grand man, advanced in his ideas, a lover of music and a good singer.  He stood up in the presence of the congregation and started the tunes.  Then he organized a choir.  Feeling the necessity for instrumental music to accompany the voices he still later introduced a bass violin--and this sacrilegious thing was unceremoniously kicked out.

     At the same time Rev. James Barnes, another good singer and with a powerful voice was also considering whether or not musical instruments were really the work of the devil.

     As late as 40 years ago, or about 1856, the same mooted question was brought before the church and it again caused heated discussion.  The word “organ” had an obnoxious odor, so it was changed to the word “harmonium.”  An instrument of this type was introduced in the Presbyterian church and from that time on church music kept apace with the times.

     It is a strange coincidence and in line of progression that one of the first of the modern pipe organs in a Dayton church was placed there through the generosity of Mr. George Phillips, a grandson of Mr. Augustus George, who first introduced the bass violin in the same church with such deplorable results.



     In the early days there were those among the women who were adepts with the needle and “quilting bees” served as a social gathering which enabled them to gather and exchange views on all subjects relating to all that was of interest to a “quilting bee.”  The usual way of visiting was to go alone with their knitting, which was the most convenient to carry.

     But the “quilting bee” was quite a different way of spending the day together.  In nearly every neighborhood some good housewife had a quilting frame.  They were made with two posts held together by a bar, longer than the quilt and near the top of the post was a roller which had tacked upon it a strip of cloth to fasten the quilt to.  On one end of the roller there was a wheel which had holes in it so that it might be fastened with a nail or pin to the post to hold it in place.  Two of these were placed parallel to each other and the sides of the quilt attached to the cloth on the roller.  They were held apart by two bars at right angles with the posts and roller and when the frame was set up and the quilt was in place it formed almost a square.

     The patterns were then laid off on the quilt with chalk and four persons on each side of the frame generally took their places and would quilt the space allotted them.  To save time the quilt was prepared ready for the women before they arrived by having the lining, cotton batting and the patchwork blocks all sewed and basted together.  This would be attached to the frame, ready to be spread apart when the quilters came.

     Sewing carpet rags was another way the women of pioneer days had of spending a day together.  All old garments were carefully cut in strips about half an inch wide and when a sufficient quantity was collected they would call in the neighboring boys and girls and sew the ends of each strip together.  Then they would wind the long strips of carpet rags into immense balls and the one who succeeded in rolling the largest ball would win the prize.  These balls were taken to the weaver; there was always a loom in every pioneer community.  Then on the handloom the adept and skillful weaver would fashion the rag carpet of attractive design which was a part of every well-kept pioneer household.