121 – Domestic Chores

Life in pioneer Kentucky was not for the faint-hearted. It was hard-scrabble.

Yet land was cheap, game was plentiful, and timber was all around. The necessities of life could be found within the confines of the homestead and farm. Self-sufficiency was paramount.

Women, girls, and younger boys had an overwhelming number of tasks.

Margaret Jarvis was fortunate to have several daughters of age to help.

Daughter Sarah married neighbor John Hazelwood in 1807, when she was 22. So she began her own life of domestic chores with her new husband.

In 1807, Elizabeth was 17, Malinda was 11, Margaret 6, and Susannah 5.

Sons Parker and James were 15 and 13, so old enough to help William in the field. Sons Gilbert and Harvey were 9 and 4.

Food and Cooking

As important as shelter, procuring and preparing food required the bulk of the settlers’ everyday effort.


There was a surprising variety of available foods, especially in spring, summer, and fall.

The family’s livestock provided eggs, butter, milk, cheese, as well as meats.

The farm and gardens contributed corn for many purposes and garden vegetables.

They dried fruits and vegetables for winter.

They salted or smoked meat to preserve it.

Game was plentiful. Turkeys, squirrels, and rabbits, and wild fowl provided many meals.

Many families kept bees, as the honey could substitute as a sweetener.

In the early spring, maple trees could be tapped for their sap, which boiled down into a thick, sweet syrup or a granular sugar.

Wild berries were gathered in the early summer and made into pies. Nuts and autumn fruits, such as wild grapes and crab apples, added a welcome change to the diet.

Kentucky’s Story – KET Education

Many a pioneer woman brought her carefully selected seeds along with her “over the roads”, vegetable seeds, apple seeds, peach stones and even a few flower seeds. These she kept in gourds, dividing and exchanging them with her neighbors.

The Settlement of Pendleton County – Mildred Bowen Belew

They carried water from a spring, or directly from Fork Lick Creek. Rainwater may have been collected in a barrel.


Cooking was done at the open fireplace using kettles and spits. The dinner kettle was the Swiss Army Knife of the kitchen. It was used to roast meats, make soups and stews, and to bake bread and cakes.

To cook breads we would put hot coals on top of the kettle;
therefore, the bread would get brown on top. If you saw that the
bread was getting brown too fast, you could take some of the
coals off the top.

Kentucky Folk Architecture – William Lynwood Montell and Michael L. Morse

Kitchen tools and utensils were few – iron pots and skillets. Plates were tin or pewter or even wood, and cups and spoons could be made from gourds or wood.

Drawn from the original articles, in the United States National Museum. The articles in the group are a hominy mortar and pestle, water gourd and gourd dipper, wooden pails and tub, and a wooden piggin

They gathered wood for cooking, and set in enough for winter for both cooking and heating.

Corn and Hominy

Every farm family grew corn. It was a staple of the diet, food for livestock, and a cash crop.

Drying Corn

Corn meal was used in baking, hominy for grits and other dishes, and of course ears of corn for roasting.

Hominy Block

The hominey block was made from a stump, the middle of which was burned out to fit the pestle.

Meal was made by grating the corn by hand on a crude homemade grater. By mixing the meal and water to a certain consistency, the housewife made her “Johnny cakes”

The Settlement of Pendleton County – Mildred Bowen Belew

They made their alkali by leaching wood ashes and made their own soap from this alkali and kitchen grease. They made a lye hominey by steeping new corn, in whole grains, in this strong alkali to remove the outer husks.

The Settlement of Pendleton County – Mildred Bowen Belew

Candles and soap

They made their own lye, and from it made soap. Candles were made by dipping a wick into tallow, then repeatedly dipping again in tallow to build up the thickness.

Saving and borrowing fire

We’re all familiar with the concept of borrowing a cup of flour from a neighbor. But I’d never heard of borrowing fire.

It was necessary to save fire in the fireplace from breakfast until dinner, and from dinner until suppertime. If it died out, they’d have to create a new fire. To do this, they would usually take and go to their neighbors and borrow fire.

Kentucky Folk Architecture – William Lynwood Montell and Michael L. Morse

And I’d not heard of getting a chunk of fire to take home. Like carry-out.

It seems that people, at least those in central Kentucky, would go to the new ground at the onset of winter and start a stump burning. When in need of new fire, neighbors could go to the stump and get a chunk of fire to take home with them.

Kentucky Folk Architecture – William Lynwood Montell and Michael L. Morse


… and fashioned the family’s clothing from animal hides they tanned and from yarns they spun, dyed, and wove into cloth.

Kentucky’s Story – KET Education

Grazing the livestock

It was common to keep the livestock in a small corral or fence at night, but to turn them out to graze during the day.

The best that could be done was to pasture the live-stock in the woods near by, where they found plenty of green food. Each cow wore a bell; therefore, as long as the herd kept together there was little difficulty in finding them at night, but we had a task when any of them strayed.

Soon after our fathers went away Israel and Billy made a rail fence inclosing a small bit of land in the rear of the cabin, where the animals could be kept together during the night; it was the duty of Jemima Boone and me to drive the herd home before sunset.

Hannah of Kentucky – James Otis

Is there anything else?

Well, yes. Families tended to have lots of children. Those children could help with chores and farming.

But it also means the woman of the house was pregnant and had infant children to care for while being responsible for all these other tasks.

Were those the good old days?

Margaret Jarvis had given birth to nine children over her married life. By 1807, her children were ages 22 to 4.

Margaret had come to Kentucky fifteen years ago, when she was 30. In 1807, Margaret was age 45.


2 thoughts on “121 – Domestic Chores

  1. Louise Longworth December 4, 2020 / 7:18 am

    What a tough life !
    We don’t know we’re born, do we.
    A great insight into our amazing ancestors’ lives.


  2. Mark Jarvis December 4, 2020 / 10:44 am

    You’re so right Louise. And it seems like the women did most of the work… …and had babies.

    Good to hear from you. Hope you’re well and no virus.


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