The first home for most early settlers in East Texas was a small log cabin built with pine logs and “chinked” or daubed with clay. The clay was mixed with straw, moss, or other fibers to help hold it together. Floors were usually dirt or rough-hewn boards. Cabin roofs were made of boards, shakes, or shingles, typically hand-split from oak or cypress. Shingles were either held down with square cut nails or with weight logs. Door and window frames were secured with wooden pegs. A small loft usually provided the children with a sleeping area. Jones Park’s cabin replica is furnished with handmade furniture, such as the rope-spring bed and cornhusk mattress, which typify the sleeping comforts of this period.
Rocks were largely unavailable in Houston or the southeast Texas area, so most chimneys were constructed of a framework of sticks covered with thick clay called “mudcats.” These chimneys sometimes caught fire, so they were built slightly out from the cabin and could be knocked over if they began burning. Such fireplaces were usually the sole heating and cooking source in the house. In the summer, a separate outdoor cooking place was used to avoid excessive heat in the cabin.
Early settlers brought herbs to America for use as remedies for illnesses, flavoring, storing with linens, strewing on floors, or burning for their pleasant fragrances. Some herbs were used to improve the taste of meats in the days before preservation techniques were developed. Other herbs were used to dye homespun fabrics. Herb gardens were almost an essential feature of pioneer homes. They were placed in sunny corners near the house to be readily available to the busy homemaker. As the population of the new country grew, people from many nations brought herbs with them. This resulted in an exchange of slips, seeds, and plants. Many herbs familiar to settlers from other countries were found growing wild in the new country. These included parsley, anise, pennyroyal, sorrel, watercress, liverwort, wild leeks, and lavender. Native Americans had a use for almost every wild, nonpoisonous plant, but they used the plants chiefly for domestic purposes – tanning, dyeing leather, and eating.
A clay bread oven was often built outside the cabin to save space and eliminate excess heat in the tiny cabin. A hot fire was built in the oven and once heated, the coals were raked out or pushed to the back. Bread dough or batter was then placed inside and the oven door was closed. The residual heat in the clay would bake the loaves. This area’s climate is too hot for the successful cultivation of wheat, so cornbread was standard. One day each week was usually set aside for baking.
The smokehouse was a small, but essential, homestead building. Since there was no refrigeration to preserve meat, animals were butchered then hung from the curing racks inside and slowly smoked over a small fire. Oak or hickory was used during “smoking” to add flavor to the meat. Once the meat was smoked, it was usually hung from rafters for use as needed.
Root vegetables and other perishables were often stored in an underground cellar where temperatures remained fairly cool and constant. These structures were built into a hillside where possible, and doubled as a “storm cellar” in threatening weather. Milk, butter, eggs, turnips, potatoes, carrots, and other root vegetables would last much longer in the cool interior of this earth-insulated facility.
Early gardens in Texas consisted of greens such as collards, turnips, and mustard in the winter, and potatoes, squash, beans, and peas during the warmer seasons. Kitchen gardens were a vital supplement to the cornfield, livestock products, and wild game in the settler’s diet. A crude fence was often used to keep out rabbits and deer.
Gourds were also grown by settlers and American Indians alike, then hollowed out and fashioned into water dippers, ladles, storage jugs, bowls, and other necessities.
The early settlers allowed their chickens to roam nearby during the day, but shut them in the chicken house at night where they would be protected from foxes, bobcats, and other predators. Inside the structure were nesting boxes and roosting poles. Chickens obtained much of their food by foraging for insects. This was supplemented daily with an ear or two of corn. Chickens were highly valued for their eggs and were cooked for dinner only a few times a year on very special occasions.
The shed was a handy place to park the wagon and store farm tools such as the plow, hoe, and harness. A corncrib was usually attached to the shed. Corn was kept in the husks for use throughout the year both as a primary staple for the settler family and as supplemental feed for the livestock. Hay might also be stored here.
The earliest settlers laboriously dug a shaft well down to the water table, then used a crank or sweep with a rope and bucket to draw the water. For safety’s sake, Jones Park installed a hand pump, which was a later improvement on the shaft well. This pump has a modern “foot valve” underground so it does not require priming. Wooden buckets were used to carry water for the family and livestock.
THIS WATER IS NOT TREATED OR TESTED. PLEASE DON’T DRINK IT!
An emissary of the Mexican government observed in 1835 that East Texans considered their pigs to be of almost equal importance with their children. Pigs provided ham, bacon, sausage, and lard; they were essential for cooking, meat preservation, and lye soap. Early settlers commonly owned “Razorbacks” or “Piney woods rooters.”
Without running water or a modern toilet, settlers relied on an outhouse located downwind from the cabin. The refuse would be dug out once or twice a year, or the outhouse was moved and the hole covered. The settlers’ toilet paper was a small stack of corncobs or leaves. A winter trip to the outhouse could be an agonizing adventure.
The log barn was usually built of pine logs, with a hayloft above and stables below. Feeding stalls and a milking area would be on the ground floor and provide shelter for the livestock during bad weather. A “strap and rider” corral fence of oak kept the settlers’ precious horses, plow oxen, and milk cow/s close at hand. Barbed wire was not invented until the 1870s.
Wood was an unlimited resource for East Texas settlers and was used for building everything from hinges to houses. Tools such as the froe, draw knife, gouge, auger, and shaving horse could turn out the necessities for frontier living. Wooden bowls, spoons, shingles, tables, and toys are made here, just as the settlers made them. This shop would typically be found in a community setting.
If a horse lost a shoe, a wagon wheel rim broke, or a plowshare needed repairing, prompt attention was necessary from the blacksmith shop. Here, an early 1800s bellows provides the wind through burning coal sufficient to bend and fashion iron for the needs of a settler community. If coal was unavailable, charcoal would be produced and utilized to make a hot fire. Red hot metal would be beaten on the anvil into the desired form.