Excerpt From Samuel Moore's Memoirs

 

 

OUR OLD CELLAR
AT
Brimfield, Illinois between 1870 & 1890

Our old cellar was not called a basement when I was a boy. It was called a cellar. Out on the farm place, it was under the main part of the house 24x32, about 7 ˝ feet high or deep. It walled up with lime rock laid in mortar. The floor was cemented, and it the center was a drain that was made out of wood and ran about 20 rods to a little slope or wash in the prairie. It was divided into three rooms, the partition ran full length four feet on one side of the center and the small side was divided into two smaller rooms. The main room was where the stairs came down from the dining room, and there was an outside stairs that was entered by lifting up a large door that was part of the front porch floor, and was called a trap-door. We only used this when we brought in a lot of apples or potatoes, etc. Vegetables were also stored in the main room. Along with the south and part of the east walls was an apple bin 3 ˝ feet wide and two feet wide. The balance of the east wall was a large bin for turnips and cabbages.

The first small room was used for a milk room, and butter room. Here, real butter and buttermilk were made. We youngsters thought so anyhow. The other room was not used at all.

Shortly after we moved there, father killed a big rattle snake out in the field near the house and he dragged and half carried it to the house to show us all. The next night he went down into the cellar and was sure he heard a rattle snake rattling in that dark room near his legs. He came up and got the old tallow candle lantern and a club and went back down, but here was nothing that he could find. But the rats had dug the mortar out and made a big hole or passageway near the ground leading up to the yard outside, and father thought it had escaped out that way. It had been told him; he remembered that if you kill a snake there will almost sure to be its mate beside it the next morning. In a few days he killed another snake of another variety, and dragged it in too, then threw it as far as he could and sure enough, the next morning there was a snake where he stopped dragging the dead one.

This made this room a real haunted place, and it was a real terror of a room to us children. Then, to add to this, the rats made a horrible noise in there, also a raid on the milk room. The partitions were lath and plastered on both sides of the walls, and the rats went thru it and ruined the milk. Mother got crock covers and put them on the crocks, but she would find them thrown off in the mornings. Thoroughly angry, she got big rocks and placed these on the covers on the milk crocks, some of them weighing 10 pounds. And, believe it or not, they would be off the next morning. Then the folks set traps but caught “nary” a rat.

Then one night I saw father get out an old tin box of razors and sharpen four of them up sharp. Then he lit the old tallow candle lanterns and went down to the ghost room. I watched him. He fastened the razors (lengthwise) in their holes or passageways out thru the rock walls and when the rats came in they had to crawl over these blades of the razors and it would be a squeeze to get through, and in doing it this would slit their bellies and let their guts out, and going out it would cut them up in good shape. He sure had them dead to rights; he got them coming and going. Father said something desperate had to be done and he had done his best. In a few minutes after setting the razors, we heard the rats squealing. Father said to let them have all the fun they wanted as they has destroyed over $200 worth of milk, butter and vegetables. The next morning we went down. No covers were off the crocks of milk but there was a lot of blood and hair on the razors. That was the last of our rat trouble while we lived there, but that scare never left us children. We never used that room again and seldom went in there the 20 years we lived there.

We also keep our drinking cider down in the cellar so it would be handy to get in those long winter evenings. Sometimes the cider boiled down one-half, and it would keep indefinitely that way. I remember we had several sweet apple trees, and father tried to sell the apples but—no sale. So he brought hem home and filled the wagon box with more sweet apples and took them off and had cider made of them. Say, Reader, have you even drunk cider made of real ripe sweet apples? Well, if not, you certainly missed something. Then father boiled this down he said one-half, maybe so, but I know this, that when they served this sweet they always watered it one-half.

One day some company came and they were all at the table talking like they did in those olden times and drinking watered cider and eating sponge cake, then all of a sudden in came the twins (I had a brother and sister two years younger than I who were twins) yelling and got under a big lounge in the room and kicked all the slats out and let down the mattress of straw. The twins were about four years old, and talk about antics, they went the limit. Mother began scolding them; father got up and took them to the kitchen to give them a good spanking when he asked Jess what was wrong. He wouldn’t tell, but father found that hey had drunk a glass of this cider (and then some), that had not been diluted, and they just as full as an old toper. Father could hardly keep from laughing. He called mother and she took them out on the porch and around the house and put them in another room and locked them in until the guests were gone. Then she had them drink strong coffee and cold water. It took a long time to get them down to normal. The folks would often speak about what they did and the funny pranks they cut up, for they would holler and laugh, fall down and roll over and sing. It was real entertainment while it lasted, but the guests never did say anything, but I was sure they made a good guess as to what the trouble was.

I remember once father brought a half beer barrel and filled it with cider and thought he would try a new way of keeping it fresh. He dug up a lot of horse radish, washed and cut it into strips and dropped them into the barrel and then drove the plug in tight so we could roll it down the cellar without it running out. He forgot to loosen the plug for about 10 days when on evening he lit the tallow candle and went down in the cellar. I went with him. He looked at the barrel. The cider was fizzing out between those big heavy beer staves. Father said to run upstairs quick, which I did, but stopped at the top and peeked down. I will never forget what I saw. Father picked up a piece of board and hit the bung a lick on each side to loosen it, then all at once the bung flew out and hit the ceiling like it had been shot out of a gun. The cider followed with a crash, flew up and struck the ceiling and flowed all over the cellar. It did not leave a half-gallon in the half-barrel. It put the candle out and drenched dad. He couldn’t find the stairs for two reasons. First, it was dark and next, his eyes were full of cider. Finally he came crawling up the step. He was soaked to the hide with cider. It was unbelievable the crash it made. We were all scared as we couldn’t tell what really all happened. Father said, after he got his clothes changed and got himself washed up, that he was glad he went down when he did. He said it might have blown up and ruined the house and killed some of us, as it must have had not less than 100 pounds pressure and maybe more. It was just fizzing out of every crack in the whole barrel. He said, “I bet I’ll leave the bung out of the next experimental cider”

We had a hired man who thought he was a real “dandy.” He thought he was the whole thing with the girls. He went to every dance in a circle of 10 miles and would slip into the house quiet as a cat, when he returned home so as not to let dad know when he got in, in the morning. It was three o’clock on one occasion. He had taken off his shoes and had them in one hand, and made a quick quiet dice across the dining room floor to hit the hall door, but right there something happened. The cellar door was within 10 inches of the hall door and in the dark it was difficult to tell which was which, and the hired man opened the cellar door instead of the hall door. He shot down the cellar—bump! crash! bump! bump!. Then all was still for an instant. My mother said she never heard such swearing in her life as he uttered while lying down there on the cellar floor. Dad said that ma got right up in bed and hollered and laughed. The hired man swore all the way up the stairs and to bed; he said the man who planned such a house ought to be shot. He said he didn’t know where he was going—it seemed like going into space.

Not long after this, Dad heard a noise in the cellar so he called Tip, the smaller of our two dogs and went down in the cellar carrying him (He didn’t wait to put on his britches). He said “Sic”. The dog made a jump forward kicking his hind legs out behind and caught Dad’s knees and scratched both legs terrible. The dog grabbed the noise maker and a fight started. Dad soon found what it was by the scent—it was a skunk! It let it fly. Oh! Oh! The “Evening in Paris” came clear up to the top of the house. Apparently the skunk got in the cellar window and fell inside. We did not have screens in those days. This all happened after we had gone to bed and of course we all got up. Dad surely looked funny walking around in his short shirt and no britches and blood running down his legs. It was a hot night. Pajamas had not been invented then, and Dad had to change his shirt and take a good scrubbing. But before he got started good, the big dog Old Jack—ran into the skunk’s mate on the porch on the cellar door, and soon killed it, though not before skunk’s defense flew all over the walls and on the dining room door and kitchen door. I went down into the cellar where Tip was still barking and he had only stirred the skunk up good, so we raised the big door from the outside and let Jack down and he soon killed the first skunk, but not before he had shaken another message of skunk rose water on the walls. Oh Lord! Whoever smelled such a mix-up in the house?

The worst of it was that we had to feed the corn shellers and haulers about 25 men. It was then 3:00 a. m. so we did not go back to bed, but opened all the windows and doors. Ma started to burn brown sugar and the smoke seemed to deaden the skunk sent some. But gosh, there was so much of it, the full supply of two full-grown skunks, and they had been in good working order. The milk was all spoiled, but it was milking time that morning, we kept it out in the shop. The meat too was cooked, was spoiled by the scent so Mother sent me to town on a hoarse to get meat, 3 ˝ miles away. On my return with the meat, Ma opened it up and what do you think? As she turned it over, there were a handful of maggots on it and it was almost rotten. The butcher was drunk and had run out of ice. Ma almost cried. She prided herself on the fine meals she always put out to the working man. She said, “Go catch four hens and do it quickly and cut their heads off.’ So Jess and I did and helped pick them and soon had them on the cook. Then she went to the big pantry where all her cakes, pies and cookies were kept and found them all right. She had forgotten to raise the window and the door was tight, so saved all her good things for dinner from the scent of the night before. By noon they had the dining room and kitchen pretty well fumigated. My four sisters got in and peeled potatoes and went to the garden and got onions, beets, tomatoes and cucumbers. Of course they didn’t have skunk scent on them as my Mother said and added, “Thank the Lord for that.” So the dinner was a success after all.

On Ma, said she wouldn’t have been surprised at what might have happened after going through all that. No words have been invented that could describe or express the real smell that went through. That cellar door alongside the hall door surely had it tragidies.

My sisters gave a party for their friends. Kissing games were played then. There were always girls who pretended they didn’t want to be kissed, when (if truth were known) they were just dying to be kissed. Some would put up a losing fight and others would start on a run to get away. Well, on started on a run for the hall door and missed it and went through the cellar door. Her partner caught her by the wrist and down they both went. He reached and got hold of a projection on the side of the wall with his free hand, stopping then two-thirds of the way down. He drew her up and they came up out of the cellar together, she declaring he didn’t kiss her, and he insisting that he did two times. To settle the argument, he caught her and kissed her again before everyone, so we concluded she did pretty well to get three kisses instead of one. If she was satisfied so were we. You should have heard the scream that the crowd let out when both disappeared through the cellar door into the dark below.

My father chewed tobacco. That was in the time when most men wore long whiskers and either smoked or chewed and lots did both. When Dad ran out of tobacco, nothing went right and we all just had to keep out of his way. After he had been without a chew for a day and a half, he was getting ready to go to town and he was on the warpath bad. He was growling about something and looking back at Ma as he started for the bedroom to dress, when he missed the door by two feet and down into the cellar he went; Well, when he hit the cement floor, he began to cuss as if he not belong to the Presbyterian church, he cut loose and I never heard a straighter line of cussing. It seemed it would raise the house off its foundation. Ma stood still with her hands up as he went down as soon as he began to cuss she ran into the kitchen and shut the door and put her apron up over her face and laughed until tears came into her eyes. When Dad got relieved of his thoughts, he came up and out of the cellar door looking like a sheep-killing dog. He just didn’t have anything to say—the joke was all over him and he knew it. He was not hurt a bit and it seemed odd that not one who ever fell down those old cellar steps ever got a scratch.

In a wet springtime, the old wooden drain didn’t work good and sometimes the water would get two feet deep. We two boys with the twins would get the washtubs and go rowing around in these pools. Oh, it was lots of fun as long as we could keep the tubs balanced. When one of us got a dunking, the fun stopped and sometimes we all got it bad. The worst trouble that I can remember was the water went down the doors and windows were opened and it soon dried out.

I can never forget how e dodged into the cellar in some of the big windstorms. We used to have terrible wind-storms. At night after we had been asleep, a storm came up, we went one by one until we were all downstairs in the sitting room. Then father would watch out and of he thought the storm was getting worse we ducked into the cellar. Our house was strongly built and when it began to tremble and the shade trees looked like they were half bent over, it was time to go below. I t was almost as light as day by the lightening flashes. The thunder crashed, crashed, but nothing serious ever happened to the buildings in the immediate neighborhood. However, damage was done a few miles distant. Sometimes the crops were blown flat, both corn and oats.

We got a lot of enjoyment out in our old cellar in the lone winter evenings. One of would go down and get a big basket or pan of apples and bring up cider if we had it. We piled apples in bins when we picked them according to their keeping qualities; some in the far end would keep till spring.

Summing it all up, Father seemed to get the worst of the happenings of the old cellar. Once he was almost bitten by a rattler and got a big scare. He goat a soaking with cider; got his legs scratched; got baptized with skink perfume and fell down the cellar steps. Well, the joke was on him and the worst of it all was that the family knew all about them and this sort of annoyed him. When we children kidded him about some of his cellar experiences we told him not to forget to tell whenever he related his life experiences. And he certainly had plenty of those experiences in those olden days of the middle of the eighteen hundreds. Before we sold the old farm this was all changed. One cold winter when it froze, most of the trees were split wide open and later died. The orchard was the pride of our childhood. After the trees were dead, the orchard looked like a graveyard.

I forget to tell about the hot summer days—how we played down in that cool cellar. But the rattler and the squeal of that lot of rats never left that room and was always shunned. Those memories! Now, it is only part of our lives. In those days, it was just a part of the passing of time.

THE END

 


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