by E.Lowell Jacobs,   "Delaware's Sea-Level Mountainer"


At the time of the Revolutionary War in 1777, a significant portion of the American people were living lives of independence and self reliance either on the western frontier or in the undeveloped countryside near eastern population centers. Economic conditions often dictated life styles then as they do now. When resources are limited, a certain number of people will try to live off the land. These are not easy life styles. They are particularly difficult on the women and children, with limited formal education and very limited medical and dental care. Children tended to grow up economically, culturally, and socially deprived, with limited personal resources to go into the mainstream of society. The settlers were often, however, fiercely proud of their self reliant independence, and were willing to defend that independence by serving in the Revolutionary forces.


The frontier settler had to take everything he needed with him to build a life in the wilderness. A wagon with at least a single horse (two were better so they could be bred) and certain tools were essential. An axe, a handsaw, perhaps a cross-cut saw, splitting wedges and a mall, a carpenters hammer, files, knives of various sorts, nails, ropes, a hand drill and bits, chisels, etc. Everything for farming had to be taken, including a single-point plow for the horse to pull and the man to spend endless hours walking behind, such other specialty implements as he might need, and enough seeds for a year or two's worth of plantings. If there was room, they took along chickens for eggs and meat, pigs for meat, maybe a milk cow, all of whom could live off the land. What they didn't use themselves could be traded for other goods and services and sold for the few supplies they needed from town, such as salt, sugar, flour, coffee, cloth, sewing needles and thread, writing paper and pencils, blacksmithing for the equipment and animals, and if times were good, maybe a small treat for the children. Many of these services and supplies were available at the mills, which served as centers of commerce and often had several supporting businesses associated with their primary activity of grinding grains for flours and animal foods. Locally, one such center was the Christina River just south of Newark which had a succession of water powered mills from the early 1700's culminating in the present remaining mill undergoing restoration activities known as Dayett Mills. Several of the hydraulic structures (dams, millrace, control gates) from the 1700's remain and were probably involved in the Battle of Cooch's Bridge during the Revolutionary War in September of 1777.


The American settler in the wilderness used the axe to chop trees to and build a log house of modest size to shelter his family. The house would be of a size where he could handle the logs by himself when necessary, so most settlement cabins would be no more than 10 or 12 feet on a side. They had no running water, no electricity (which hadn't been invented yet), no plumbing. The roof, of split wood shingles, probably leaked when it rained, and the entire wooden structure was home to a myriad of insects. And the families lived there with independence and pride and collectively subdued the wilderness. Land was supposed to be cleared and farmed. This was a time consuming and arduous task, requiring a considerable period of time. To get land for growing vegetables, sometimes the settler simply killed the trees by girdling them with the axe and left them in place, so sunlight could reach the ground. Later he would take down the dead trees. The livestock lived off the land, eating nuts and vegetation as appropriate, and often had to be hunted down for harvest like wild game. Absolutely essential for survival in the wilderness was the muzzleloader, either rifle or shotgun, which served only a minor role in self defense, but was in constant use to harvest food, which in the East was principally squirrels and wild turkeys and occasionally a deer.


The presence of a remarkable variety of woods made the settlement of America possible. The settlers learned which woods were best for which purposes, and built this civilization around that knowledge. Species we still have locally today include the Walnuts, Maples, Cherries, Pines, and others. The dominant tree pre-1900 would be considered the American Chestnut, which was exterminated by a blight disease in the early 1900's. It constituted the majority of the forest and was reportedly up to 80 percent of the natural food in the forest due to its abundant nut crop. Both the wild animals and the settler's livestock foraged on the Chestnuts, and many settlers made a little extra income by harvesting the abundant and easily worked timber. Its loss was an enormous blow to the frontier lifestyle.

Wood could be used to make some farm tools like rakes and pitchforks, wagons and wheelbarrows and skids, kitchen tools like spoons and bowls, children's toys, and, occasionally, in the winter months when time permitted, an occasional musical instrument. Both the fiddle and the banjo and latter the dulcimer were known on the frontier pre 1800 and crude versions of these could be made by a dedicated country whittler, because they are essentially carved wood creations. The builder could harvest the woods from the forest, and the only thing he had to actually buy from town would be strings. This was not common but it did occur. The time required was significant as a banjo could take 100 hours of time and a fiddle more than 200, and time was a commodity the settler had to use carefully for basic survival purposes.

As soon as he could be trusted with a pocket knife (shortly pre-teen), Mr. Jacobs began carving his own toys from salvaged produce ("orange") crate wood. Fifty years later, he's still whittling his own toys. Most of the objects in this exhibit are his work. The really early work has been lost.


After a certain age, there was little play for the children. As soon as a child could pay attention and follow the simplest of instructions, they went to work helping their parents with the innumeral chores around the homestead. What little free time they had would largely be spontaneous pick up games and making do with whatever they found. Formal manufactured toys were very rare. Sometimes the father would whittle wooden toys in the off season if there weren't other chores to do. These would most likely be carvings of the farm animals they were familiar with. Moms could make corn husk dolls for the girls. Toys from that era that might be available would include barrel hoops, skip ropes, marbles, tops, the yo-yo, ball-and-cradle, climbing monkey, model boats, small versions of real objects like doll cradles, rocking horses, stick horses, sleds, doll houses, toy dishes. Families with stricter religious prohibition against play on Sundays sometimes allowed what were called "Sunday Toys" with a biblical theme, such as Noah's Ark, to be used under supervised conditions. There would sometimes be small school houses within walkable distances, but a lot of home teaching was also the norm on the real frontier, and sometimes not more than a little bit of reading, writing, and arithmetic, just enough to get by with in the outside world.


What we have called here the frontier lifestyle is often the result of economic necessity, and did not end with the Revolutionary War. Small log cabins and one room school houses were still in existence in Delaware in the early 1900's, and this exhibitor, Mr. Jacobs, lived a similar lifestyle in Southern Illinois in the Shawnee National Forest until his mid-teens in a 20' x 24' house his father built from salvaged materials, with no running water, no plumbing, and no electricity. They had a vegetable garden and also harvested food from the forest and the farm ponds in the area. The family has eaten squirrel, deer, groundhog, raccoon, opossum, rabbit, dove, quail, duck, goose, carp, catfish, bass, bluegill, snapping turtle, bull frog, domestic rabbit, chicken, and turkey; pig, goat, calf brains, homemade headcheese from hogs head, chicken feet (from where the small end of the drumstick ends down through the toes), the unlaid eggs from old no-longer-productive laying hens that become chicken and dumplings; wild blackberries, persimmons, walnuts, hickory nuts, poke and planktion (wild greens), and ground-fall peaches from a neighbors orchard. Water was carried in a bucket from a small stream and everyone drank from the open bucket from a common dipper. When the stream periodically dried up in the summer, water was hauled from a neighbors well. Baths were once a week in a galvanized bath tub in the living room which is where the wood or coal burning stove to heat the house was. Mom cooked on a wood burning stove, and washed clothes by hand in a washtub with a washboard. Clothes that had to be ironed were ironed by a flat solid-iron iron heated on that wood stove. Lighting was by kerosene lamps. The sanitary facility was a two-hole outhouse out back with the front wall a common wall to a tool shed, the right-hand wall was common to the laying-hen hen-house, the left-hand wall was common to a lumber storage rack, and the back wall was part of the fencing for the hog pen. This was as late as 1950. Economic necessity created that situation. It remains in some areas of America today.