Chapter 05 - Looking Backward



The residents of the town of Elma in the year 1900, being in the full enjoyment of their pleasant and comfortable homes, many with expensive and luxurious furnishings and surroundings, with well cultivated fields and farms and well-filled barns, with villages, churches, postoffices and schools nearby; with railroad -and telegraph stations within easy reach; with good roads everywhere, and having been, for many years in the full possession and use of all these evidences of prosperity, and in the every-day life passing easily, almost imperceptibly from one day or week or month or year to another, if asked about these surroundings would be likely to reply they were that always so, but with a second sober thought they would hesitate and say, that great changes had taken place in Western New York since the first white settler moved upon the Holland Purchase; and even since this Reservation was vacated by the Seneca Indians.

Some writer has truthfully said, "That a person in a boat floating down a rapid current, by looking at the water at his side can form no idea as to how fast he is going; and only when he looks at the shore or at some stationary object can he realize the velocity of the stream,"

As a people and nation we are on the high tide and moving rapidly on. Shall we take a look towards shore and see what rapid strides we have made? We all know, or ought to know something of the early history of our country and of the hardships and dangers through which the early settlers passed; of the oppression which was forced upon the colonies by the home government; of the spirit hey had with which to oppose the wrongs which they suffered, and which were increased until armed resistance became a necessity; of the great men of the country whose united patriotism and wisdom placed before the world our "Declaration of Independence," followed by the eight years Revolutionary War, and the acknowledgment by England of our Independence which compelled the governments of Europe to recognize the " United States of America" as a nation among nations.

Then were we, as a nation, like a little child, hardly able to toddle along; but now like a strong, fully developed man we claim to be, and are, second to no nation on the face of the earth.

We have our 4th of July celebrations, when we have the Declaration of Independence read and appropriate orations delivered, and we fill out the day with patriotic songs. Why do we do this? Because we are by these exercises, taken back in thought to the time of Colonial troubles, the times that tried men's souls; and we receive great pleasure and profit in reading and reviewing the early history and later growth of our country, our spirit of patriotism and national pride is thereby strengthened; and by these celebrations we keep the fires of patriotism and love of country burning, so that our children and all citizens may learn and remember something of the struggles and hardships of the early settlers during the infant days of our republic. As national and individual independence and prosperity is today the heritage of all the people, so by the review we are made to realize when and how the great change and growth has come to pass, and love of country is made to take deeper root in the hearts of all the people.

As we turn back the pages of our national history and read about the great men; their labors and achievements in the affairs of the nation, the boys of today are thereby encouraged to do their best that they too, may have their names on their country's roll of honor.

As we read about the first steamboat, the first railroad locomotive, the first cotton loom, the first school, the first sewing machine, the first telegraph, and about a thousand other great inventions what interesting subjects of thought they are for us.

How proud were the men who gave them to us, and how we honor them, and cherish their memory; for they were the first to open a path through what had before been an unbroken wilderness, and they have opened the way for the inventive spirit to operate until today we have all these inventions brought to such great perfection that they are marvelous in our eyes. It is the great desire of our people to be forever pressing on, and so far as possible, to stand at the head of the class in all inventions that tend to make national and individual prosperity.

At the time the Colonists made their efforts to resist the tyranny that was forced upon them by the English government, had they been possessed of only ordinary intelligence and determination or in other words, less backbone; or if such strong outside influence had been used against them as to crush their efforts for Independence; or if the Colonists had been satisfied to continue under British rule, we today, would be a second down-trodden and oppressed Ireland instead of the great United States nation.

Suppose that inventors had been satisfied with the steamboat which John Stevens set afloat in 1804, we would today be going around in just such a craft as that, instead of the splendid palaces that plow through the waters of our great lakes and the greyhounds and merchantmen and warships that traverse all oceans.

The first railroad engine which was built in the United States was placed on the track in 1830; a crude kind of engine with four wheels, no cab, no cover for engineer or fireman, wood for fuel, and able to go only a few miles in a day.

Christian Smith, who is still living, stepped on board as the first railroad engineer. Suppose that had satisfied the world as being the climax of railroad engines, what would the world be today as compared with the present railroads, crossing and recrossing every state and almost every civilized country of earth; with Empire Express passenger trains with a speed of sixty miles per hour and great freight trains, each carrying 600 to 2,000 tons of produce or merchandise 20 to 30 miles per hour? And so of each and all of the other great inventions of today which have been brought so nearly to perfection by American inventive genius.

As we trace these back to their early days, we can truly sa}' that the push and the determination of our people to "get there" have, from very small beginnings and many unfavorable surroundings, produced marvelous results; and from taking this backward look we are prepared to give honor and praise where they are due; being better able to realize the changes that have been made, and so are encouraged to press forward to complete victory in all possible things, our motto being '' Excelsior," always upholding the flag of our Union, with its Stars and Stripes, singing as we go, "Long may it wave, over the land of the free and the home of the brave."

As a people, we have much of praise and honor for those who have been the prime movers in all the great events of our national affairs and as we receive such inspiration and hope and strength by a review of our early and later national history, may we not have these same impressions increased toward the first settlers in the town of Elma, by a review of their early labors. A very large proportion of the families who resided in the town of Elma when the town was organized in 1856, came from the Holland Purchase, where they or their families were among the first settlers on that tract. By taking a look back to that time we shall see what Western New York then was, how the people labored, with what tools and implements they worked, what were their surroundings, and the difficulties, dangers, and hardships of their early lives.

This review of the frontier life of the early settlers on the Holland Purchase may not be a history of the town of Elma in the strict meaning of that term; but it is a history of the early life of the fathers and mothers, of the boys and girls who were the first or early settlers of this town. Among their number are many who now reside here, and who have been and are numbered among our best citizens, and to take a brief review of their early lives is to place them in the position where we can give to them the respect and honor that is their due; for by their early acts and labors they laid the foundation for, and made possible the present conditions and surroundings. It is but fair that they and their early acts should be remembered, and that we by this review may realize the changes that have been made, and the difference there is between Western New York in 1808 and in 1900,

To pass by the purchase on July 20th, 1793, of the lands west of the Genesee River by the Holland Land Co. except the eleven Reservations, and the settlement of the eastern part of that tract with a settler here and there miles part in the western part, we come to March 11th, 1808, when Niagara, Cattaraugus, and Chautauqua counties were set off from Genesee county, and Niagara County embracing what is now Niagara and Erie was made into three towns, Cambria now Niagara County and Clarence and Willink, now Erie County.


The dividing line between Clarence and Willink was the centre, east and west line of the Buffalo Creek Reservation. This line remained when Willink was changed to Aurora and when Lancaster was set off from Clarence as the line between Lancaster and Aurora.

At this time, 1808, there were about twelve families, a store, a sawmill, and a grist-mill, in what is now Aurora, with scattering families in Wales, Colden and Hamburgh, and in the present town of Lancaster there were about twelve or fifteen families, a saw-mill, and a store. After 1808, settlers came in more rapidly but they were nearly all very poor.

As a rule, but few were able to pay more than five, ten or fifteen dollars as a part payment on a one hundred acre lot; and so many were not able to make that small payment that finally six shillings was the price required by the Holland Land Company for an "article" as the contract was called.

Generally, if the family came in the summer, it was with oxen and cart; if in winter or spring, with oxen and sled, and if not too poor, they would have with them a cow, a few sheep and a supply of clothing, a small stock of household furniture with sufficient provisions to last the family until they could raise some corn, potatoes and wheat.

The first thing after selacting a lot was a shelter. If there were no near neighbors, the man would fix up a cabin of small logs that he and the other members of the family could handle and the body of the house was thus constructed. If there were four or more neighbors within two or three miles, they would come on a set day, and a log house of suitable size for the family would be constructed, having a roof of bark or shakes, a puncheon or earth floor, a fireplace built in one end of the house with common stones for materials, plastered and laid up in clay mud for mortar, with stick chimney laid up cob-house fashion and plastered outside and inside with clay mud when the house was ready.


Ever man needed to bring with him, as his outfit of tools, an axe for himself and one for each of his boys, a hand saw, a drawing knife, one inch and two inch auger, a gimlet, one or two iron wedges, hoe, sickle, and sap gouge; and for the house, andirons, fire-shovel and tongs, trammel and hooks and chain for the fire place, a one pail iron kettle or pot, tea-kettle, spider, bake-kettle, skillet, and a two or three pail kettle for washing days, one or two wood pails and a few keelers. The table furniture was neither extensive nor expensive; very few earthen dishes, the pewter plates, or plates of wood called trenchers, pewter platter for the center of the table, a few pewter or iron spoons, iron or steel knives and forks, made up the list. At meals the meat, if they had any, would be cut into small pieces or mouthfuls and put in the platter in the center of the table, and each person would reach to the platter with his fork for a piece of meat or to sop a piece of bread as they would individually want. When the family had no meat they would prepare their potatoes and salt on the trencher, and while eating, occasionally' point with their forks toward the platter, and in that way make the motion for meat; they would call the meal "potatoes and point." This with the early settlers was a common dish.

The principal meat was pork, with an occasional change to bear, deer, partridge, pigeon or fish. The steel and flint, with punk and tinder were a necessity; for the fire in summer would sometimes go out, and there were no matches in those days, and neighbors were not near enough so they could go to them to borrow fire.

With the few tools brought along the man could make the stools, benches, bedsteads, tables, and other necessary things as the time and requirement came along. After 1808 and 1810, saw-mills were built so that people could have boards for their floors and roofs and doors of their houses. None other than log houses were built for several years.

The men and boys were busy chopping, clearing, making fence; and raising such crops as they could of potatoes, corn, wheat, rye, beans and flax; caring for the oxen, cows, sheep, hogs and horse, if they had one, for not more than one family in ten had a horse before 1816 in all Western New York, and that was only used for horse-back riding, or to take a grist to the mill. The three-cornered drag was made from the crotched part of a tree, each prong about seven or eight inches in diameter flattened to a proper thickness, with two inch auger holes at proper distances apart in which would be inserted wooden teeth, made from hard, strong wood; generally hickory, oak, or iron wood. The oxen would drag this over the ground among the roots and stumps of the newly cleared field, and thus scratch up enough of soil to partly cover the grain that had been sown by hand broadcast; or this dragging would prepare the ground to be planted to potatoes or corn. The first crop of corn on a newly cleared field was generally planted Indian fashion; that is, strike the axe into the ground where the hill was wanted, drop in four or five kernels of corn and step on the hill.


The plow, when one was used, was of rude construction and in later years, the share and mould-board were of cast iron with large wood beam, known as ''Wood's Bull Plow," a heavy clumsy thing to handle, but it was strong and, with enough of team strength, would break the roots and tear up considerable soil.

The wheat, rye and oats were always cut with the sickle, and where several hands were in the harvest field, the head man would cry out, "Band 0!" and every man would cut a handful of the grain, and tie the knot to make the band, and lay it on the ground; then they would cut the grain by handfuls, lay them on the band, and when enough was so placed to make a bundle, then the head man would sing out, "Bind 0!" and every one would bind his bundle; then " Band ! " and so on across the field. To reap, bind and set up one-half acre of common grain was a good clay's work.


Of the wheat, rye, and oats stored in the barn, enough would be threshed with the flail in the fall for immediate use, if needed; the balance would be threshed in the winter. Men and boys learned to use the flail, and two or three hands, keeping stroke with flails - tap, tap, tap, so as not to hit another flail, made the winter music in the barn; the straw and chaff being fed to the cattle. If, for any reason, there was not enough straw and hay for the cattle in winter or spring, the men would go to the woods and chop down elm, birch, beach, or basswood trees, and the cattle would eat the small twigs and many times the entire stock would be carried through the winter on this browse.

Making sap troughs, tapping the maple trees, and work in the sugar bush was the gala time and to make a year's supply of sugar and molasses for the family was part of the early spring work.

On pleasant days in March, the men and boys, if they had flax would use the flax-break, then the swingel to separate the shives from the flax, followed by the hatchel to separate the coarse part of the fibre or two from the fine part, which was to be used for thread and fine linen cloth; then the flax and tow were ready for the mother and girls. They kept the house, did the cooking over the fire in the Dutch fireplace that occupied one end of the living room, and it was in many of the houses the veritable living room, being used for kitchen, pantry, dining-room, reception room, bedroom and parlor so far as they had need for a parlor.  There were no cook stoves in those days and not a piano on the Holland Purchase before 1824, and there was no good place in the house to put one, and no time nor use for cheap novels, embroidery or fancy work.


The mother and girls carded the wool and tow into batts with hand cards and from these they spun yarn on the big wheel. Every girl then learned to spin, not street yarn or on a bicycle, but the real yarn from wool and tow, and it was their pride to see how evenly they could draw out the thread, and get off their day's work of four skeins of filling or three skeins of warp. The warp was spun cross banded, and was hard twisted, and so required more work. Each skein contained ten knots of forty threads each, and each thread to be two yards in length; so each skein consisted of a continuous thread eight hundred yards, or twenty-four hundred feet in length. The four skeins made nine thousand six hundred feet, nearly two miles in length of thread, for a days work; but a smart spinner would get off her day's work by 3 o'clock p. m. From the wool yarn thus spun, then colored and woven, would be made the best dresses for the women, and the best clothes for the men, and from wool spun for that especial purpose were knit the stockings for the family.

From the tow thus carded and spun, they would make cloth for the girls' summer dresses, and frocks, pants and shirts for the men and boys.

The flax, after being thoroughly hatchelled and nicely placed on the distaff would be spun on the little wheel, and thread be thus prepared for sewing, and to be woven into fine linen cloth for family use. The big wheel, the little wheel, and the reel were a part of the furniture of nearly every house. Of course, the weaver had in addition, the loom, the swifts, the quill-wheel, quills and spools, the warping bars, and sets of coarse and fine reeds.


The fire in the fireplace would generally give out light enough. If, for any ordinary purpose more light was required, a tallow candle in an iron candlestick would supply the need, but for especial occasions, as when they had company and wanted to show that they could put on more style, two tallow candles would be brought out. The tin lantern, with a piece of tallow candle furnished the light for going around on dark nights and to do the chores in the barn.

The oxen and cart or wagon for summer and the oxen and sled for winter were the means of conveyance.

While the whole country was covered with one dense forest, the conditions were not favorable for sudden changes of weather; thaws in winter were not common and generally, November snows would remain until April. There were no snow-drifts, for the windstorms passed over the tops of the trees, as the snow remained where it fell, a road once broken through the woods would remain good all winter.


Boots and shoes were for winter and special occasions only. Many were the boys and girls who never had a shoe for every day wear before they were twelve years old, and very often not then.

On going to the village or to church they would carry their shoes to within half a mile of the village or church, put them on there, wear them to where they were going, and back to the same place, then take them off and carry them home, thus prolonging the serviceability of the shoes.

The country or village stores did not have boots and shoes as a part of their stock in trade. In every village, you would find the shoemaker and in almost every neighborhood would be a cobbler who would mend shoes and sometimes make a pair. In the fall and winter, the traveling shoemaker with his shoe-bench and small kit of tools and lasts would go from house to house and as they called it, "whip the cat," and stay with the family while he made or mended their boots and shoes for the winter's supply.

After 1818, a tannery was started in nearly every village on the Holland Purchase, and from these the necessary supply of leather was obtained.

The merchants obtained their goods from New York or Albany; the goods being hauled from Albany with four or six horse teams; the teams taking potash to Albany, and loading back with merchandise and iron. The iron was necessary for the blacksmith who in addition to his regular trade, was a nailmaker, and from the nail-rod he made the nails used in his neighborhood. The long distance from which the iron was brought, made nails very high even at the low price of labor. In 1820, a few merchants in the larger villages brought in a few cut nails, coarse and clumsy things as compared with the nails of 1900. Eight and ten penny nails were then sold for sixteen cents per pound, while wheat at that time was worth only thirty cents per bushel at the village mill. A bushel of wheat then would not buy two pounds of nails, while in 1900 a bushel of wheat at eighty cents will buy at retail thirty pounds of very nice steel nails. Farmers in. 1900 complain of hard times; how was it in 1820?


Schools were started in every neighborhood where a dozen or more children could be found. The schoolhouses were generally log buildings with a Dutch fireplace in one end. Later, in the villages and occasionally in the country you would find a frame school house. Education was what every parent wanted his children to have; not the high school education of 1900, for that was not known on the Holland Purchase for many years; but a good, liberal education, consisting of a fair knowledge of the three Rs, as ''Readin, Ritin, and Rithmetic," was called, and to this education the children generally attained.

Churches were built in the villages with forenoon and afternoon services summer and winter. No fire was kept in the churches until 1824, as there were no box stoves until about that date.


The completion of the Erie Canal from Buffalo to Albany in 1825, caused a great boom on the Holland Purchase. On October 26, 1825, at 10 o'clock a. m., the Seneca Chief left Buffalo for Albany with Governor Clinton and others on board. The departure from Buffalo was announced by the discharge of a thirty-two pound cannon. Other cannon along the canal at convenient distances repeated the shot, and in that way the news was telegraphed to Albany. That was the best way to telegraph in those days.

The opening of the canal enabled people to come into Western New York with less expense and hardship, and the merchant was able to get his goods from New York at less cost, and very much quicker than the old way of having everything hauled from Albany by teams. It also opened a better market for the farmer for his surplus product. Horses were required to haul the boats and they required feed, so horses, hay, and oats found a ready market on the canal. After this date most of the houses which were built in the older part of the Holland Purchase were frame houses, only a few log houses remaining, except in some back or newly settled portion. The pewter plates and trenchers give place to crockery and all kinds of tin ware, with better buildings, farm tools, and better cultivation and better crops and roads. The whole face of the country shows that the infant stage has passed.


We can readily see that with the early settlers in Erie County, for many years, improvements came very slowly, as only the actual necessaries of life were to be had, or were expected, while luxuries were not to be thought of. It was only by slow, hard labor, persistently followed, that change was made from poverty to competency, by the people who by their crude surroundings were forced to their severe manner of living. Their very existence demanded and forced upon them industry and rigid economy - that sharp, strict, close economy which in these days of extravagance and luxury would be called niggardly meanness. This is a fair statement of the mode of life of a great majority of the early settlers on the Holland Purchase before 1826, in what is now Erie County. A goodly number of persons who were born and raised to manhood and womanhood under exactly such conditions and surroundings as have been here stated, are residing in the town of Elma in the year 1900, and they have been and are today among the best and most highly respected citizens of the town and county. There can be nothing but honor and praise for those honest, hardy toilers, who, by their industry and perseverance overcame so many obstacles and discouragements, and opened the way so that the present pleasant and prosperous conditions of the people in the town of Elma were made a probability and possibility and later, a certainty.

SOURCE:  History of the Town of Elma Erie County, N. Y. 1620 To 1901; Warren Jackman; Buffalo; G. M. Hausauer & Son; 1902