Nathan Allen - Historic Trades/Maintenance Manager
To say the landscape of Indiana has changed is a gross understatement. Originally, the fabric of this state was chiefly composed of vast stretches of hardwood forests with some swamps and open prairie land thrown in for good measure. The saying that a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic to the Mississippi without touching foot to the ground highlights how expansive the forest was. It is the forest that was both friend and foe to the earliest pioneers.
To equate the trees and woodlands that modern Hoosiers are familiar with to those virgin tracts settlers of the 18th and 19th century encountered is not a fair comparison. Trees of many species with diameters of 5-8 feet were commonly encountered, some specimens growing even larger. Fortunately, the state does have some small tracts of untouched forest in Spring Mill, Turkey Run and Shades State Parks as well as some small tracts in the Hoosier National Forest. If you get a chance to explore some of these areas, I would highly recommend it.
It is to this environment that farms, villages and factories were carved. One of the first tasks to accomplish was clearing the land itself. With modern equipment, logging trees of the size encountered in virgin forest is a challenge. How was it done with only hand tools and muscle? For the largest trees, removal was not an option. Instead, “girdling” was used. A cut was made all around the base of the tree, deep enough to go through the bark and sapwood. This in effect, strangled the tree, allowing enough sunlight through to permit farmers to plow and plant. Eventually the tree would rot from the top down. The smaller trees would be cut, piled and burned in place to make room for planting. The stumps would be dug and pulled out utilizing levers and ox or horse teams. If a farmer could get 2-3 acres a year cleared in this manner, it would be an accomplishment.
Because of the seemingly unlimited supply, wood prices were not dictated by species, as they are today, but merely the cost of labor was the factor. In looking at old accounts most entries will read to the effect of “163 feet boards .63”. On the occasion that a species, such as Walnut or Cherry, is mentioned it is still .10 per foot (a board foot is 1” x 1” x 12”). The exception to adjustment in prices was for “scantling wood”, which was bundles of basically scrap quality, sold at a much reduced price.
Because of the great abundance of timber resources, and the many ways in which wood was used in daily life, it is no
surprise that in census records, woodworking trades were most common, such as house wrights, cabinetmakers, gunsmiths and coopers. Other professions used wood in other forms that are not commonly thought of such as colliers who made charcoal for iron furnaces and smith’s forges and tanners who used oak bark for tanning hides. As something used in daily life, most 19th century Hoosiers would have had knowledge of the uses and properties of wood. The following is a list of 10 interesting wood facts:
1) Black locust is very rot resistant, and when put in the ground is said to last one year longer than stone.
2) The sapwood on a hickory tree makes the best handles. Ash is a close second.
3) One ton of hickory has more B.T.U’s than one ton of coal.
4) Poplar trees produce a beautiful flower in the Spring, and is Indiana’s state tree
5) Beech wood was traditionally used to make wooden planes, being very hard and tight grained
6) The cell structure of red oak is very porous. Air can be blown through a red oak “straw” making bubbles in a glass of water.
7) Figured hard maple (often referred to in 19th century as “sugar tree”) was prized for making gunstocks
8) Large sheets of Poplar bark would be stripped off living trees by Native Americans to use as coverings for longhouses and weigas.
9) Dogwood was often used for wooden machine parts and gears because of its toughness and wear resistance.
10) Willow charcoal was needed as one ingredient to make gunpowder.
Ellen Van Zanten - Experience Specialist
Hello to all of you out there in internet-land! My name is Ellen Van Zanten and I work for Conner Prairie with the Agricultural and Livestock department. Thinking about what to write for this first blog, I realized that there really isn’t a lot going on out here in the wintertime. This is the time of year we focus on training, coming up with ideas for new programs, and catching up on the chores that are difficult to get done during the regular season. So instead of making you read about all of that, I figured I’d walk you through a day for the Agricultural Staff in pictures.
When we are open during the summertime, we are often asked by our guests what happens to the animals in the winter when Conner Prairie is closed. With very, very few exceptions, our animals stay with us year-round, which means they need to be fed year-round. A typical morning for us means feeding. We put in some face time with all the animals on the property. And let me tell you, when you spend that kind of time with an animal, you get to know their personalities after awhile, their likes and dislikes, etc. Sometimes, any given animal could just wake up on the wrong side of the haystack. It’s very easy, when you see the same animals everyday, to forget that they are not pets.
Here at Conner Prairie, the animals we have perform a job, whether it is providing milk, pork, wool, or eggs. All of those things are important just as much today as they were in 1836. That’s part of why I love my job so much, it’s a daily reminder of where our food comes from and now how about another picture, eh?