|In the pioneer days of Wisconsin, a doctor Benson left he city of Green Bay to locate his homestead in the wilds. He was a lover of nature and a poet as well. The scenery and forests, the rivers and creeks that abounded with trout and other fish at that time had a great fascination for him. He was a daydreamer as well as a good physician. His good wife was a born pioneer, although she had been reared in the midst of plenty, out on the rich prairie of Illinois.|
At the time the Bensons located on their homestead, their oldest child was nine years old. She had many duties to perform that girls of this day know nothing of. Her father was her instruction in books, and Mary was expected to have all her lessons perfectly, which she always did, but being of a sensitive temperament, she sometimes became frightened when her father pronounced the words for her to spell, and then altho she had known them all perfectly she misspelled the word. For this she was punished, for the doctor, though an educated man, believed it was his duty to use the rod, and this rod was a good-sized withe from a tree.
Now life would have been hard enough for Mary without this the worst of all her suffering, for she was compelled by her mother to knit her own stockings, both wool for winter and cotton for summer. She had the care of some of the younger children, and besides that must often watch that the kettles in the great fireplace where the cooking was done, that they did not boil dry.
Mary was often sent to the spring for water, which she brought in a wooden pail. This task she rather enjoyed, for she could look down into the cool sparkling spring water and see reflected there her pretty face and wonderful auburn hair that hung in curls below her waistline, and the fresh breezes came up from the meadow blowing the curls about. Sometimes she tarried too long, for there were trout in this spring that the Doctor had placed there when only tiny things, two or three inches in length; they had grown to be nearly a foot long. Mary always took a few crumbs to feed them, for she loved to watch their graceful movement. As they came up to the top of the water and opened their mouths to swallow the crumbs, their bright red speckles shone in the sunlight. But Mother was calling, so she hurried with the water, feeling that perhaps the kettle was dry.
Mrs. Benson was a very busy woman, for the pioneers of those times sheared their own sheep and carded the wool, spun their own yarn, colored them, and many of them wove their own cloth for clothing and bedding. This Mrs. Benson did, excepting the weaving. She had a neighbor some miles distant, a Mrs. Price, homesteaders like themselves, who did her weaving. To be sure, the homespun cloth lasted for years, and the home-knit stockings did duty for more than one season. People used the strictest economy: clothing was never neglected when it became worn, but was patched and darned. Even people who were considered well to do did not despise a neat patch.
But there were many pleasures as well as hardships for these hardy pioneers. One of the most enjoyable things that could happen in those days was when a new family took a homestead and moved into the community, or when a new resident was added to the village. A store or blacksmith shop, an inn or other enterprise, caused quite a stir and furnished a subject for much speculation and gossip.
Sometimes parties, picnics or dances to which all were invited both old and young were enjoyed. The local violinists and the man with the accordion were in demand to liven up the occasion with music. Songs were sung, and the children congregated in a comfortable corner, told riddles, played guessing games, and ate candy that the young men generously bestowed upon them to keep them out of the way. And generally there was someone popping corn and passing it around at intervals, and to this the youngsters could help themselves. And if it was a house gathering, there would be the serving of substantial refreshments such as ham sandwiches, pie, pickles, salads, jams, and fresh fritters, and hot coffee with cream and sugar. At picnics the repast consisted of the best each household could ... and fried chicken in abundance was no ... nor a roast of venison.
If the gathering was in wintertime, it was doubly enjoyable because of the sleigh ride with the tinkling bell at the horses necks, and large warm stones tucked away under the straw and robes in the bottom of the sleigh to keep warm the feet of the occupants.
And in springtime, the maple sugar making was a busy and happy season.
In summer, wild berries and plums were gathered for use on the table and to be preserved for winter. There was pickling and drying of sweet corn, the beans to harvest and thresh, vegetables to store carefully away, and wild nuts to gather, dry on the woodshed roof and ... later shell. ...
Autumn days had ... flurries of snow ... seemed to go cheerfully ... making ready for the long ... winter when many days must be spent indoors.
Though there was always work to do, even in winter. The men cut and hauled in wood; the women knit and sewed and made tallow candles. Even the cast-off clothing was well utilized in the making of rugs. Scraps of calico, gingham and worsteds were carefully pieced up into quilt tops, the prettiest of which were used for the guestroom.
A company of Indians came every year to make sugar from the maple forests on government land not far from the Benson homestead. Now this particular band had a red-haired Indian queen. Though her complexion was somewhat swarthy, her red hair and blue-gray eyes caused much comment among the white settlers, for some thought she was a stolen child. Others thought perhaps she was the child of an Indian mother and white father. However, the Indians kept their own counsel, and adored this beautiful queen. She was skilful with bow and arrow, and did not have to do the drudgery of the camp as the other squaws did. But she was shy and reticent.
One day she returned from the hunt with a pair of fine antlers hung from her shoulders. Then there was a great to-do set up. The young braves began to sing (in their peculiar way) her praise, and two or three were off at once for the venison, which the old squaws were to make into the most savory barbecue possible. However, the chief himself must mount his mustang and ride over to the homestead and present Mrs. Benson with a ham of the deer. This was no uncommon occurrence, though another chief sent a boy who carried the gift on his shoulders, but the old chief wanted to tell the Bensons what a good shot and brave woman their queen was.
And many a winter evening did the young Indians call at the Bensons', for they had tasted the sweet fritters that Mrs. Benson had sent from time to time to show her appreciation of the many venison hams they brought to her. She never let them stay long, however, for they would get too familiar if allowed to do so. The young squaws begged to plait Mary's long auburn hair, and wove their strings of bright beads among her tresses. This they greatly enjoyed, though she did not, and would have her stand out on the floor and turn round and round. At this they would laugh and clap their hands with delight.
But Mrs. Benson wished to treat them kindly and make allowance for their simple ways and uneducated minds. However, she never let Mary out of her sight while the Indians were around, for she feared they might carry her away.
When Mary was ... Dr Benson was called ... some fifteen or twenty ... the family had sent an ... asking if Mrs. Benson could not ... the Dr. on this trip as the woman was a very dear friend of Mrs. Benson, both families having formerly lived in Green Bay city. After talking the matter over, they thought well of the plan, as they felt sure the child would be safe. Mary could feed the chickens and do the few necessary tasks outside. She was quite willing, as she would neither have to knit nor spell while her parents were away.
The messenger spent the remainder of the night with the family; then all three set out before sunrise. Their fresh ponies made good time ... day went pleasantly enough for ... children. Mary brought fresh water for the day, and no kettle was on the fire. Plenty of food to last them had been placed conveniently for their needs, so there need be no fire. The children played and gathered flowers near the house, for they were instructed not to go far from the door, as wild animals were plentiful in the nearby woods. There was no thought of Indians, as it was well into summer now and they had been gone from the sugar groves for many weeks.
The long day came to a close; the little ones became sleepy end were tucked away for the night. But Mary was nervous, and though she counted one hundred over and over, yet she was wide awake. She saw the beautiful full moon rise, saw the pale stars peep out, and heard the sighing of the winds in the pines. She shuddered, though she knew no reason why she should fear, as this night was like others. At last she thought of how glad she was that Mother could, by her willingness, be able to drop - if only for a day - the work and care of the family, and ride through the shady forests all attune with the song of birds and chirp of squirrels.
Her eyes were growing heavy with sleep, when she was startled, and in great alarm sprang from her bed trembling. For the yell of a wild Indian had turned her blood numb in her veins, and her eyes almost started from their sockets. All was still - had she had a nightmare? No. That sound was real. Then she cautiously peered down into the yard below. There in the white moonlight stood a stalwart Indian. He was pulling his red flannel shirt over his head. This finished, he waved it aloft and let go another wild whoop.
If Mary's blood was numb before, now it seemed to freeze. She shook from head to foot; dared not take her eyes from the red man. He gathered his shirt in a bunch, picked up his blanket, which had fallen to the ground, wound it around him, and walked away through the forest path. Mary returned to her bed, but not to sleep, nor could the warm blankets dispel her shivers at once.
Morning light came stealing in through the window. Then she slept until the younger children called her. They had not been disturbed, for very young children do not waken easily. But Mary never liked the sight of an Indian again, and always kept close at home when she knew they were around. However the Indian who had given her such a fright was drunken, for a whiskey flask was found in the forest path next day, and that was the cause for his strange behavior.
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[ This page was last updated 19 February 2012 ]