Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Hogs to Sonora and other Holiday Happenings

Christmas has gone in and out of favor, worldwide and in America. The frenzied holiday shopping that marks Christmas today is a modern phenomenon. Compare this to the period between 1780 and 1820, when Revolutionary Americans, in turning away from their British heritage, ignored Christmas as a vaguely foreign thing. Christmas Day was a school day in Boston into the 1860s, and Christmas did not become a federal holiday until 1870.

So it did not surprise me that a letter dated December 2, 1878 mentions Christmas, but does not elaborate:

… We expect to have a Christmas tree at Gordon…..

Christmas trees were not unknown in North America. German immigrants introduced them in several areas. A German immigrant in Wooster, Ohio named August Imgard was the first to decorate a Christmas tree with candy canes in 1847. But even fifty years later not every householder had a tree in their house. Some towns like Gordon, Ohio had a community tree. In 1878, Christmas trees were no longer a novelty, but not as widespread as in our time.

Gordon, although not quite in Northwest Ohio, was typical of many western Ohio villages. It was and is a village of less than 200 people northwest of Dayton in Darke County. The letter, written by one O. F. Cosler, lived in or near Gordon. The Cosler family owned a few acres at the south end of town. O. F. was writing a letter to friends or relatives back east in Maryland. He mentioned some other late fall-early winter activities. Christmas was a December event, but it was not alone.

…I just got done husking corn about three weeks ago.…

The major late fall activity on farms all over Ohio was husking corn, and Cosler was no exception. In our mechanical age, cutting the corn stalk, removing the ears, and shelling them for their seed is all done by one machine, the combine harvester (so called because it combines what used to be three or more jobs). If you drive through rural Ohio you can see farmers using these huge machines like self-contained factories, “processing” corn fields. Corn plants go in one end, and yellow corn ready to use comes out the other.

In Cosler’s time, husking was one task of many. The corn would have been ‘shocked,’ or gathered into a bundle still in the field. Standing upright, the corn shocks allowed the ears to dry. Then, as the first snow began to fall, it was time to husk. The cob was stripped from the shock, the leaves of the husk taken off, and the ears taken to a barn or corncrib for winter storage.

Husking corn by hand was a cold, wet, repetitious job that made for chapped hands, bloody knuckles, and muddy boots. Christmas was and is fun, but husking corn by hand was a bitter piece of drudgery, romantic only when viewed from our time.

....I am going to take a load of hogs to Sonora tomorrow….

Cosler was getting ready to move hogs to West Sonora, an even smaller town to the south of Gordon in Preble County. Gordon and West Sonora are roughly five miles apart. To us, five miles means five minutes. For a farmer in the 1870s, Cosler probably faced an all day job. Semi truckloads of livestock were still fifty years away, so Cosler likely got as many pigs in a farm wagon as could reasonably fit and hauled them overland by horse power. With the passing of hog drives, farmers began selling younger pigs, so more would fit in the wagon. Pigs do not have a herding instinct like sheep and cattle, so watching Cosler convince a disgruntled (no pun intended) herd of young pigs to hop into a farm wagon and then drive them through the late fall countryside for five miles must have been quite a sight.

....the Sunday School had a concert too [sic] weeks ago…….

Sunday schools were an important religious and social outlet in nineteenth century America. Usually affiliated with a denominational church, Sunday schools in the nineteenth century were often led by female volunteers. A church without a resident pastor would continue to have Sunday school services.

We can only guess what kind of music was offered at the concert Cosler heard (or heard of). That it was choral is probable, although even a small community like Gordon might have had access to a piano, an organ, or possibly a violin. The Cosler property was across the railroad tracks from a Baptist church. If the Sunday school was affiliated with that church, the concert might have included the instruments owned by that church. Congregations of that time could not have offered more of a concert than children singing. That close to Christmas, it would have brought a glow to the listeners.

From a single letter, we can only see the past dimly. Whether O. F, Cosler remembered December 1878 as a time of jolly holidays or of wrestling hogs and cornstalks, we can no longer say. From his letter, we can see a little of both.

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