This is a guest post by Millie Sommers (1889-1971), my grandmother. In 1969, at my request, she wrote a memoir of her life, mostly telling about her early days, around 1900. She wrote 13 pages, in clear, crisp longhand. I have broken it into three parts for easy reading. It is verbatim, straight from her pen, except for a few additions of my own, in [square brackets].
I was the oldest at home, and was more of a homebody, not caring so much for getting out and tearing around as some liked to do.
There was always plenty to do at home outside of school hours, and then we didn’t have automobiles those days to race around in. We had parties of different kinds quite often especially in the winter. When they were out of town we often went in bob-sleds—a farm wagon bed on sled runners, with straw in the bottom to sit on.
Of course there were dances, but I didn’t care for them, and my folks didn’t like them either.
They were mostly public dances in a hall, and some not very nice to go to.
They didn’t have dances in schools & for teenagers as they do today.
Roller Skates and Old Maid Decks
Then Roller skates came in & as we had no cement walks those days, the skating rinks were in a hall or opera House. Very few had their own skates, whoever operated the rinks had skates for rent.
I was never very good at it, but I always went and tried. But ice skating was simply out for me. I was too clumsy or too big a coward or Something.
My father was never a very religious man, but he never would allow a deck of cards in the house, even a deck of “Old Maid” as was popular then.
So I never learned to play cards & didn’t care enough for it to play much, or try to learn.
At school we played BaseBall, jumped rope, drop the Handkerchief etc. (I expect you think “Some Fun”)
In summer & fall when the leaves came down, we would rake the leaves into ridges or walls for the houses we would layout, marking off rooms etc. This was mostly the girls games. We also played hide & seek quite a bit in the evening, and caught lightning bugs under the street lights.
When some cousins or neighbors came to visit in the evening, especially in the winter, we kids would play what we called “Dark Room,” which was Hide & Seek in the comparatively dark bedrooms or other unoccupied rooms. It was a lot of fun but I wouldn’t have liked my children playing that game, as the rooms were not very presentable when we were through, as we crawled over & under beds and other furniture etc.
My one enjoyment was reading, and I had a little trouble with my eyes. The folks would hide any books I was reading, but I usually dug something out to read. My grandmother [Johnanna Marie Elizabeth Nybro Gunstenson Reierson Anson] lived next door at the time, and she was as much of a reader as I was. Of course they didn’t have magazines and librarys in most every town as they do now.
One day she bro’t out some magazines that were yellow with age, but they surely had a lot of good stories in them. I don’t know where she got them, but she had a lot of them & would bring out a few at a time. So I had a “Field Day” for quite awhile. She came from Norway, but these were American magazines.
My younger brothers and sisters cared for a few different things that I did not.
But as I write it, it seems like practically nothing compared to what they have today, but we never knew about anything else, so we were satisfied.
We always had an organ, a reed organ as practically everybody had. We didn’t have pianos at that time.
My mother taught me a few pieces to play by ear when I was quite young, long before I was of school age. & soon I could play practically anything by ear, or rather any tunes I had ever heard.
Then one day while looking in the instruction book I accidentially [sic] caught on as to how the notes were placed on the scale & what it all meant. So after that I played also by note. None of my sisters or brothers ever learned to play much.
I have always played in churchs [sic], Sunday Schools, School etc. without ever having taken a lesson.
I never have learned the pipe organ & very little on Electric organs, tho I have always wanted to, and still do.
Being oldest of the family, I naturally learned to cook & sew very well & did most of the sewing for the family. Those days we couldn’t go to the store & buy ready-made clothes as we do today.
But I never cared too much for sweeping, dusting etc. I would rather do outside work, such as shoveling snow, carrying coal, wood etc. and as my brothers were a lot younger than I, I could always do that. One thing I remember that I had forgotten about, where a short time ago something in a paper mentioned the fact that when we set the table, we always turned the plates upside down over the knife, fork & spoon. I think maybe on account of dust etc. as we usually left them on the table from meal to meal along with salt, pepper, Sugar, vinegar etc. which were in a caster (a sort of merry-go-round) which was in the Center of the table & was high and would hold up the Cover.
We always covered the table with a thin white cloth or a mosquito bar or something.
Feel the Burn
We usually had a summer kitchen for summer use, as we had no gas, electricity, or even kerosene stoves at that time.
We would move the kitchen stove out there every spring, unless we had two stoves as some had.
But it was nice to get the stove out of the way so we didn’t have to look at it in hot weather.
Then there was usually a rag carpet, which had to be taken up each spring & cleaned.
We burned quite a lot of corn cobs in the summer as they made a quick fire & would cool down quickly when we were done with it.
Later we had a kerosene stove, and then a gasoline stove. That was something! but a lot of people were afraid of them.
There were no furnaces in those days. As for heating stoves, they were also moved out and in, spring & fall, or at least set back in the corner, and decorated a little during the summer. These burned coal or wood.
Then there was the Base Burner which was a large heating stove, with small squares of ising glass [sic] all around, through which the fire glowed and looked real nice. They burned hard or anthracite coal with very little smoke or soot.
We didn’t always have transportation of our own but our grandparents lived near, on a near farm at first, then in Middletown they lived next door. So we went with them quite often. Of course we didn’t go places like folks do now a days, and if we went to Springfield or some place farther, we went on the train. To go to Greenview (10 miles) on the train we had to change in Petersburg. But we went that way every once in a while.
While living in the country, we went to Church & Sunday School sometimes at a Country Church.
Then there were always Decoration Day services at the Cemetery about 2½ miles from town.
There was a speakers stand, and they would take an organ out from town. I sometimes played the organ at these services. Later when a band was organized they played too.
Then on 4th of July we usually went to Greenview. They had a large grove there at the edge of town, and there would be a program. Everyone took a picnic lunch, but I can’t remember that there were any tables. They just spread the lunch on the ground.
The water supply was in large barrels, set around the grove. There was ice in them, and about a dozen tin cups fastened to the barrel with long chains, and eveyone drank. (Real sanitary)
They also had fireworks, but of course not as elaborate as they have today. But we all had firecrackers, sparcklers [sic] etc.
Next Week: All the Comforts of a 19th Century Home
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)