The winter was unusually brutal in 1850. The snow had been building day after day with many of the old-timers saying that they hadn’t heard of such an eternal winter like this since that awful winter when General Washington was leading his troops.
The winds howled like a woman screaming in the pain of childbirth. The little country schools had been closed down for a week now; no loving parent could endure the thought of their children trudging the paths through the woods for five miles. Services had been discontinued at church as there was no way to block the cold winds from seeping through the missing chink
Fathers were thankful they had laid up an extra stock of firewood and was kept busy hauling wood in from the wood shelter to keep the fire blazing. Mothers were mentally counting how many jars of preserves were left; if there was enough smoked meat to last out the storm and worrying about their new baby who was bundled in her little crib as close to the fireplace as would be safe.
And, Christmas was a few days away. Johnnie and Sarah were playing make-believe games before the fireplace, unaware of all the dangers of being stranded so far from their neighbors.
Why did Susan plan her marriage on Christmas Day? Susan, age 16, had fallen in love so early in life with Robert, son of their nearest neighbors five miles away. He came from a good family; Robert Sr and Susanne Peterson were both hard-working, God-fearing people who had moved from Virginia before the snows flew last winter. Robert Jr. was 18, strong of back, totally dedicated to Susan and it was said he was studying with a lawyer in Pleasantville, an elderly man named Mr. Moneyham who was about to retire. Yes, Robert would make a fine husband for their Susan He had already saved money enough to buy a piece of land from his father and had spent every spare minute clearing the land, building a cabin and digging out the soil with a borrowed team of oxen in order to plant crops comes spring.
But, how would family be able to come for the Christmas wedding? Robert and Susan had already been to town to get their marriage license. It had been predicted that this nor’easter was coming in. Susan’s father William had hand-written a consent for her marriage since she was underage. Two friends of the family had posted bond, one being her uncle George; the fee was mighty high for Robert to come up with by himself. He had dug through every hiding place where he kept his meager savings to come up with $50 saved back from his small tobacco crop. Thankfully, he had no intention of deserting Susan; he certainly didn’t have a wife already and he’d never gotten into any trouble before. Except perhaps the time when a mere 13 years old and he had gotten into trouble at school for not coming in from play time when Miss Spinster rang the school bell. So his money would be safe and used to finish the cabin.
Susan’s mother, Isabelle (named for her grandmother), knew that things would work out somehow and continued cutting out a hand-drawn pattern for a wedding dress for Susan. No fancy frills would decorate this special dress, but it would be made with love. Tears spilled over as she thought of Susan’s childhood days. Inquisitive, a book reader, a lover of every one of God’s creatures, a gentle girl but with a tomboy’s ambition. It seemed like yesterday when Susan would run into the cabin calling “Mama, come see what I found!” Now she was ready to embark on a life of her own, so young, but wise beyond her years. She’d learned to cook as a young child; she could knead bread, milk the cows, make the spinning wheel hum; a good catch she was!
Late that night, the younger children were tucked into their beds in the loft; William had just finished a straw mattress for each of them and stretched ropes back and forth between the bed frame to hold the mattress firm. Quilts dating back two or more generations were over them and they dreamed of Christmas; not much interested in the wedding! Baby Rachel had been fed and rocked to sleep by Isabelle; she was warm by the fire, but not close enough for a spark to reach the crib. Only William, Isabell and Susan remained awake and Susan was stifling a yawn. They had plans to make for the wedding, and for Christmas. The cabin was small and so not many people would be coming to the nuptials. This was Parson Brown’s week to preach had there been any services scheduled, so he had promised to come by the cabin and unite Susan and Robert in holy matrimony. Robert’s parents would be there; Angela Downing, a dear friend of Susan’s, would be there as her witness and Robert’s brother John. With the children, that would make ten people. It would be close, but with a little shifting of the table and the two chairs, they could do it. If it quit snowing!
Early next morning, William braved the snow drifts and, after feeding the cows and seeing that they were protected the best they could; he walked a ways into the timber and cut down branches of a pine tree. He laid each bough carefully on the hand-made sled he’d brought with him and pulled off all the pine cones he could find that hadn’t fallen into the snow. Slowly he made his way back to the cabin, trying to walk in his own footsteps lest he take a wrong turn and be lost. The decorating would be done that evening as they drank some chicory tea. There would be no tree this year, most settlers didn’t have the room for fancy trees so they made do the best they could. The boughs were tied along the walls with the pine cones fastened here and there. The younger children liked the next thing; Papa brought out the “magic corn” and for the next few minutes all that could be heard was the popping from the fireplace in the covered pan. Only the parents could hold on to the handle, it became a little hot for little hands. Mama brought out some of her precious thread left over from the wedding dress and Johnnie and Sarah were instructed how to thread the popcorn with one of Mama’s needles. Soon long strings of popcorn hung along the walls, woven in and out of the boughs. Papa had also found some wild berries frozen to a tree and picked them also. A little more thread and a streamer of little red berries shone out through the boughs and popcorn.
Paper was hard to find in 1850. The ragman hadn’t brought many old rags and clothes to be turned into paper this year, so everything was written on the tiniest scraps of paper available. The children wanted to decorate some more so Isabelle looked and looked and found a few pages of a magazine that she had found outside of the mercantile. It had some bright colors on it so she helped the children make a few paper decorations to go on the wall. Tomorrow, the day before the wedding, the cooking would start!
The day woke drear, cold … and still snowing. Susan’s heart was sad; not only would the children be disappointed if Christmas didn’t arrive on schedule, but Susan’s wedding day might have to be postponed. Isabelle however was cheerfully getting organized for the big meal. She had set out her best dishes, chipped though they may be from many miles bouncing along in a wagon on the way to Pleasantville from Virginia. No flowers from the garden would grace the table this year, but she had found some small old decorations from her parents and grandparents to add a little brightness to the room. Robert’s mother was to bring some food with them, if they could get the buggy through the drifts; Isabelle was preparing wild turkey, cornbread, beans canned from last year’s garden. She knew Robert’s mother was baking a cake for the bride and groom. The children braved the elements long enough to gather some snow to be made into snow ice cream. Everything was ready for the grand celebration tomorrow – perhaps.
Christmas Day, miracle of all miracles, broke with a glorious sunrise and clear blue skies. The turkey was cooking over the fireplace and the entire cabin smelled of spices. Isabelle had taken some of her hand-made candles flavored with honeysuckle and roses and put them on the table to be lit at the appropriate time. Susan was nervously pacing back and forth in the small cabin, dressed in her finest homespun dress. And they waited. Father kept going outside to be sure the path to the cabin was clear. He had arisen early this morning and in the bitter cold, shoveled a path wide enough for the wagons. Robert and his family arrived some time later; Robert decked out in his finest homemade janes with a white shirt and suspenders. He joined Susan in pacing back and forth. Everyone was here, except Parson Brown and Susan’s friend Angela. The Parson had a difficult course to take; he had to cross a river on horseback. Praying that the ice would hold, he would have to guide his horse carefully, each step safely taken a prayer of thanks was issued.
It was growing toward evening when the sounds of neighing was heard outside the cabin. Everyone inside rushed to the door at the same time and Papa threw it open. There stood Parson Brown, so cold that his long white beard glistened with ice. But he stood proud, his Bible in his hand. He was rushed inside to thaw out before proceeding with the ceremony; the food by then well cooked. Angela was no where to be seen and the family realized that her parents would not let her embark on such a dangerous trip with the paths not cleared. But Parson Brown allowed as much that there were enough adults present to proceed with the ceremony.
Holding hands in front of the fireplace, Susan and Robert Jr. pledged their troth to each other and became husband and wife. The plans for a cabin finishing would have to be delayed until the temperatures rose a few more degrees. Robert had finished most of their future home in the fall, with only a few more things to be done. But thankfully, for a couple of nights they took over the loft at Robert’s house as they had no other children at home. Thankfully, the snows receded and the cabin was soon finished.
As Robert and Susan walked through the door of their new home, another generation of Kentucky pioneers set forth to make their mark in the world. Robert soon became a noted Kentucky lawyer and represented the Commonwealth ably in both the House and Senate. Susan continued her reading while caring for five children of her own and soon became a school teacher. And the pioneer spirit lived on.
© Copyright 18 Dec 2008, Sandra K. Gorin, All Rights Reserved