December 26, 2004

Family, home resurrects quiet appreciation of life

Holidays remind us of the value of home - for even if we do not experience the coziness of family gathered in the living room, perhaps about the Christmas tree or with the Menorah lit in the window, we take great joy at finally returning to our own cabin, where the noise of relatives disappears and peace can be found.

Such silence struck me a few weekends ago when visiting my brother. As the family genealogist, I drove my 5-year-old nephew around the county to show him our ancestors' old haunts, at least on the patriarchal branches of the tree. His parents appreciated the quiet.

So did I - once we reached the cabin that our great-great-grandfather had built. He'd settled in one of the last places west where you could build in a woods before the whole continent opened onto a sea of grass.

No trace of the cabin exists these days but its foundations, and only the remnants of a fence guided us along the overgrown trails to its wooded burial place. I recalled it in better shape - my great-uncle, a man with a Walt Whitman beard, lived there into his 90s, and I remember briefly visiting him as a child, when the house stood on its last splinters.

Chunks were missing in the stones that formed the cabin's base, and swatches of wily shrubs concealed most of them. Tucked into a hollow, only the occasional rustle of evergreen boughs and our own breathing could be heard.

As my nephew crawled about the stones, thinking it a grand adventure (he must have fancied it some great fort), I kept my mind on more practical, adult matters: A cabin there must have been quite wet - but I soon saw the builder was ingenious enough to ward against that; the foundation sat on a rectangular area raised slightly higher than the rest of the forest floor. Their lawn probably was leaves and roots rising out of the dirt, or at least the woods had reclaimed it.


Out on the windswept plains, the only timber most pioneers could find outlined the occasional creek. Some-times when a homesteader claimed his stake, for lumber he'd simply dismantle his wagon that very first night he arrived.

"In every case the pioneer's first thought was to prepare a home," wrote Mildred Sharp in a 1921 recollection of her days as a young girl with homesteading parents, now collected in the Iowa History Project. "It would be a dwelling place for his family, a fortress against the Indians, a nucleus for civilization. Under these conditions building the cabin came to be an event of great importance and produced a thrill of pleasure that could hardly be understood by those who had never suffered the same privations."

Of course, such structures hardly compare to our houses of today with several bedrooms, formal dining rooms and finished basements. Indeed, when Robert Lucas, Iowa Territory's first governor arrived in Iowa City during 1839, he set up his headquarters in the lodging room of our town's most commodious cabin: An attic reachable only by ladder through a small opening in the floorboards.


When my nephew grew tired of defending the hollow against the barbaric hordes, we headed back up the trail.

I imagined my great-great-grandfather as a young man, his family on Christmas morning eating corn bread and bacon (a delicious baked bean recipe survives from my great-grandmother who grew up there, but I do not know if it's her own invention or a tradition she continued). They shared presents - likely simple gifts such as a rag doll for the little girl, a sled for her brother, made or stuffed with the pine wood and needles nearby.

A great noise of joy must have filled that cabin.

(originally published Dec. 26, 2004)

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