Imagine summer heat in a Greene County log cabin

So it’s been beastly hot in Greene County the past two weeks or so. More days like it could be on the way — it’s only mid-July after all.

We can escape into the air conditioning as needed. Couldn’t have done that in Greene County back in early settler days, say the 1850s and 1860s.
Days like this, with temperatures reaching into the high 90s, must have been unbearable on the Iowa prairie frontier.

Back in January 2014, during a bitterly cold spell, I wrote a column about life on the prairie during an Iowa winter. This column discusses the other extreme.

Iowa’s white settlement began in earnest shortly after 1830, after the U.S. government “persuaded” several Native American tribes to cede their claims to land in what became the state of Iowa. Starting in the extreme southeast corner of the state, settlement moved pretty rapidly to the northwest, until by 1870 or so small farms and towns dotted the entire state.

The first white settler in Greene County, Truman Davis, brought his family up along the banks of the Raccoon River from Adel and built a small log cabin south of Squirrel Hollow in 1849.

A few other settlers soon followed, and Greene County was officially organized in 1854. Population on the lush prairie hereabouts mushroomed for several decades thereafter.

Greene County settlers were more fortunate in at least one respect than those who came later and settled farther to the northwest: there was timber in the bottom lands along the Raccoon River and several good-sized creeks. That meant there was building material for houses, fencing and outbuildings, as well as fuel for the cabin fireplaces.

So Greene County settlers could live in log cabins. Those on the high prairie in northwest Iowa had to cut four-inch-thick prairie sod bricks for sod houses, a backbreaking and tedious job.

It was only 17 years from 1849 until the first railroad reached Greene County in 1866. At that point lumber could be shipped in, and frame houses became state of the art in the county.

But the early-day log cabins did the job for the first few years. They were serviceable, but that’s about all.

Most log cabins on the prairie were 16 feet by 20 feet, with a single room.

They generally housed a husband and wife and their several children of various ages. Such domiciles boasted very little furniture.

Several occupants slept on blankets or straw mats on the hard-packed dirt floor. If the roof were high enough, the cabin would sport a loft for additional sleeping space.

The single room served as living room, bedroom, kitchen, dining room and recreation room.

Toilet facilities, of course, were outside.

A stone fireplace occupied much of one interior wall, and it provided heat in the winter, too much heat in the summer, and flame for cooking.

An interesting bit of trivia: fireplace chimneys of log cabins in the southern United States were constructed with three of their four sides on the outside of the cabin to avoid extra heat in the interior. Those in the north had three sides on the cabin’s inside for the opposite reason.

Women did most of the cooking, then as now. They knelt on the rough floor, maybe on a mat or something, in front of the fireplace. Aprons back then covered the lower half of the body, since the fire was at ground level. Today aprons start at the neck and go down to the knees, since stovetops and ovens are now much higher and spatters could daub the top part of the body.

Shirts and dresses were always long-sleeved to protect the arms from the direct heat of the fire. That was true even outside: back then a tan was thought to be decidedly unladylike.

Clothing for both men and women had to serve in all ranges of temperatures, so summer days would have been particularly oppressive.

Men wore loose-fitting trousers and shirts of linen or wool. Women wore high-necked, ankle-length dresses to keep the hems out of the dirt and mud, generally dark so as not to show stains, and at least one petticoat at all times. Buttons served as fasteners for all clothing.

Generally the cabin roof was of sod or rough-cut cedar shakes. Leaks were a chronic problem, and sometimes the roof became waterlogged and fell in.

The cabin’s door faced south to let as much light as possible, since one or two windows were generally the maximum for a log cabin. The home was square with the compass to keep occupants and visitors straight on their directions.

On hot summer days, with the cooking fire going in the stone fireplace and the entire family crammed into the single room, the temperature in the cramped cabin must have been unbelievable.

And if one or more family members were hot-tempered or difficult to live with, arguments, shouting matches and even physical attacks would have been the rule, not the exception.

You couldn’t send someone into another room, or another building, to “cool off” — that term had no meaning on a hot summer’s day on the Iowa prairie.

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