My Year in a Log Cabin
MY YEAR IN A LOG CABIN
W. D. HOWELLS
HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS
Harper’s “Black and White” Series.
Illustrated. 32mo, Cloth, 50 cents each.
My Year in a Log Cabin. By William Dean Howells.
Evening Dress. A Farce. By William Dean Howells.
The Work of Washington Irving. By Charles Dudley Warner.
Edwin Booth. By Laurence Hutton.
The Decision of the Court. A Comedy. By Brander Matthews.
Phillips Brooks. By Rev. Arthur Brooks, D.D.
George William Curtis. By John White Chadwick.
The Unexpected Guests. A Farce. By William Dean Howells.
Slavery and the Slave Trade in Africa. By Henry M. Stanley.
Whittier: Notes of his Life and of his Friendships. By AnnieFields.
The Rivals. By François Coppée.
The Japanese Bride. By Naomi Tamura.
Giles Corey, Yeoman. By Mary E. Wilkins.
Coffee and Repartee. By John Kendrick Bangs.
James Russell Lowell. An Address. By George William Curtis.
Seen from the Saddle. By Isa Carrington Cabell.
A Family Canoe Trip. By Florence Watters Snedeker.
A Little Swiss Sojourn. By William Dean Howells.
A Letter of Introduction. A Farce. By William Dean Howells.
In the Vestibule Limited. By Brander Matthews.
The Albany Depot. A Farce. By William Dean Howells.
Published by HARPER & BROTHERS, New York.
For sale by all booksellers, or will be sent by the publishers, postageprepaid, on receipt of price.
Copyright, 1893, by W. D. Howells.
All rights reserved.[Pg 1]
MY YEAR IN A LOG-CABIN
A BIT OF AUTOBIOGRAPHY
|I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII.|
In the fall of the year 1850 my father removed with his family from thecity of D——, where we had been living, to a property on the LittleMiami River, to take charge of a saw-mill and grist-mill, andsuperintend their never-accomplished transformation into paper-mills.The property belonged to his brothers—physicians and druggists—whowere to follow later, when they had disposed of their business in town.My father left a disastrous newspaper enterprise behind him when he cameout to apply his mechanical taste and his knowledge of farming to thecare of their place. Early in the century his parents had brought him toOhio from Wales, and his boyhood was[Pg 2] passed in the new country, wherepioneer customs and traditions were still rife, and for him it was likerenewing the wild romance of those days to take up once more the life ina log-cabin interrupted by forty years’ sojourn in matter-of-factdwellings of frame and brick.
He had a passion for nature as tender and genuine and as deeplymoralized as that of the English poets, by whom it had been nourished;and he taught us children all that he felt for the woods and fields andopen skies; all our walks had led into them and under them. It was thefond dream of his boys to realize the trials and privations which he hadpainted for them in such rosy hues, and even if the only clap-boardeddwelling on the property had not been occupied by the miller, we shouldhave disdained it for the log-cabin in which we took up our home till wecould build a new house.
Our cabin stood close upon the road, but behind it broadened a cornfieldof eighty acres. They still built log-cabins for dwellings in thatregion forty years ago, but ours must have been nearly half[Pg 3] a centuryold when we went into it. It had been recently vacated by an oldVirginian couple, who had long occupied it, and we decided that itneeded some repairs to make it habitable even for a family inured tohardship by dauntless imaginations, and accustomed to retrospectivediscomforts of every kind.
So before we all came out of it a deputation of adventurers put it inwhat rude order they could. They glazed the narrow windows, they relaidthe rotten floor, they touched (too sketchily, as it afterwardsappeared) the broken roof, and they papered the walls of theground-floor rooms. Perhaps it was my father’s love of literature whichinspired him to choose newspapers for this purpose; at any rate, he didso, and the effect, as I remember it, was not without its decorativequalities.
He had used a barrel of papers bought at the nearest post-office, wherethey had been refused by the persons to whom they had beenexperimentally sent by the publisher, and the whole first page was takenup by a story, which broke off in[Pg 4] the middle of a sentence at the footof the last column, and tantalized us forever with fruitless conjectureas to the fate of the hero and heroine. I really suppose that a cheapwall-paper could have been got for the same money, though it might nothave seemed so economical.
I am not sure that the use of the newspapers was not a tributaryreminiscence of my father’s pioneer life; I cannot remember that itexcited any comment in the neighbors, who were frank with their opinionsof everything else we did. But it does not greatly matter; thenewspapers hid the walls and the stains with which our old Virginianpredecessor, who had the habit of chewing tobacco in bed, hadineffaceably streaked the plastering near the head of his couch.
The cabin, rude as it was, was not without its sophistications, itsconcessions to the spirit of modern luxury. The logs it was built of hadnot been left rounded, as they grew, but had been squared in a saw-mill,and the crevices between them had not been chinked with moss and daubedwith clay in the true pioneer[Pg 5] fashion, but had been neatly plasteredwith mortar, and the chimney, instead of being a structure ofclay-covered sticks, was solidly laid in courses of stone.
Within, however, it was all that could be asked for by the most romanticof pioneer families. It was six feet wide and a yard deep, its cavernousmaw would easily swallow a back-log eighteen inches through, and wepiled in front the sticks of hickory cord-wood as high as we liked. Wemade a perfect trial of it when we came out to put the cabin inreadiness for the family, and when the hickory had dropped into a massof tinkling, snapping, bristling embers we laid our rashers of bacon andour slices of steak upon them, and tasted with the appetite of tiredyouth the flavors of the camp and the wildwood in the captured juices.
I suppose it took a day or two to put the improvements which I havementioned upon the cabin, but I am not certain. At night we laid ourmattresses on the sweet new oak plank of the floor, and slept hard—inevery sense. Once I remember waking, and seeing the man who[Pg 6] was alwaysthe youngest of his boys sitting upright on his bed.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Oh, resting!” he answered; and that gave us one of the Heaven-blessedlaughs with which we could blow away almost any cloud of care or pain.[Pg 7]
In due time the whole family took up its abode in the cabin. Thehousehold furniture had been brought out and bestowed in its scantyspace, the bookcase had been set up, and the unbound books packed ineasily accessible barrels.
There yet remained some of our possessions to follow, chief of which wasthe cow; for in those simple days people kept cows in town, and it fellto me to help my father drive her out to her future home. We got onfamously, talking of the way-side things so beautiful in the beautifulautumnal day, all panoplied in the savage splendor of its paintedleaves, and of the poems and histories so dear to the boy who limpedbarefooted by his father’s side, with his eye on the cow and his mind onCervantes and Shakespeare, on—
But the cow was very slow—far slower than the boy’s thoughts—and ithad fallen night and was already thick dark when we had made the twelvemiles, and stood under the white-limbed phantasmal sycamores beside thetail-race of the grist-mill, and questioned how we should get acrosswith our charge. We did not know how deep the water was, but we knew itwas very cold, and we would rather not wade it.
The only thing to do seemed to be for one of us to run up under thosesycamores to the saw-mill, cross the head-race there, and come back toreceive the cow on the other side of the tail-race. But the boy couldnot bring himself either to go or stay. I do not know just how it iswith a boy’s world now, but at that time it was a very dangerous world.It was full of ghosts, for one thing, and it abounded in Indians on thewar-path, and amateurs of kidnapping and murder of all sorts.
The kind-hearted father urged, but he would not compel. You cannot welluse force with a boy with whom you have been talking literature andphilosophy[Pg 9] for half a day. We could see the lights in the cabincheerfully twinkling, and we shouted to those within, but no one heardus. We called and called in vain. Nothing but the cold rush of thetail-race, the dry rustle of the sycamore leaves, and the homesicklowing of the cow replied.
We determined to drive her across, and pursue her with sticks and stonesthrough the darkness beyond, and then run at the top of our speed to thesaw-mill, and get back to take her in custody again. We carried out ourpart of the plan perfectly, but the cow had apparently not entered intoit with intelligence or sympathy.
When we reached the tail-race again she was nowhere to be found, and noappeals of “Boss” or “Suky” or “Subose” availed. She must have instantlyturned again, and retraced, in the darkness which seemed to haveswallowed her up, the weary steps of the day, for she was found in herold home in town the next morning. At any rate, she had abandoned thefather to the conversation of his son, for the time being, and the sonhad nothing to say.[Pg 10]
I do not remember now just how it was that we came by the different“animals of the horse kind,” as my father humorously called them, whichwe housed in an old log-stable not far from our cabin. They must havebeen a temporary supply until a team worthy our new sky-blue wagon couldbe found.
One of them was a colossal sorrel, inexorably hide-bound, whose barrel,as I believe the horsemen call the body, showed every hoop upon it. Hehad a feeble, foolish whimper of a voice, and we nicknamed him “Baby.”His companion was a dun mare, who had what my father at once called anitalic foot, in recognition of the emphatic slant at which she carriedit when upon her unwilling travels.
Then there was a small, self-opinionated gray pony, which, I think, camefrom one[Pg 11] of the saw-mill hands, and which was of no serviceconjecturable after this lapse of time. We boys rode him barebacked, andhe used to draw a buggy, which he finally ran away with. I suppose wefound him useful in the representation of some of the Indian fightswhich we were always dramatizing, and I dare say he may have served ourturn as an Arab charger, when the Moors of Granada made one of theirsallies upon the camp of the Spaniards, and discharged their javelinsinto it—their javelins were the long, admirably straight and slenderiron-weeds that grew by the river. This menagerie was constantlybreaking bounds and wandering off; and I believe that it was chieflyemployed in hunting itself up, its different members taking turns inremaining in the pasture or stable, to be ridden after those that hadstrayed into the woods.
The origin of a large and eloquent flock of geese is lost in an equalobscurity.