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History in the Hills: Remembering pioneers

A few years ago, on the occasion of a holiday, my wife purchased for me a wonderful book that she thought I would enjoy. This book, called “Your Cabin in the Woods,” is a reprint of one Conrad Meinecke wrote in 1945. Actually, the reprint is a compilation of that book and one he wrote in 1947 called “Cabin Craft and Outdoor Living.”

The subtitle of the books explains that these are “a compilation of cabin plans and philosophy for discovering life in the great out doors.” This book quickly became one of my favorite books. Not because I am building a cabin in the woods, but because of the stories, advice and simple philosophy for living therein. I won’t spoil it for you, but it is certainly worth the read.

Conrad was born in 1883 of pioneer parents in a log cabin in northern Wisconsin, and in those days, according to his biography, “he worked on a farm with his family, roamed the woods with Native Americans, hiked across the prairies, climbed the Rockies, fished in Canada and traveled in Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa.” After all of this travel, he set up a homestead in New York and devoted his life to others, especially the Boy Scouts of America. From 1923 through 1948, he was the chief executive of the Buffalo, N.Y., Boy Scout Council.

What I like most about Meinecke is that he was a tangible link between our pioneer past and the present. Even though his books came out more than 70 years ago, they still are relevant in our world. He was practically a pioneer in and of himself, but he knew how to articulate these homespun values of the past and make them valuable to a modern reader. One trait he talks about often is the pioneer spirit. In describing an ancient rock wall in his farm community built by early settlers, he writes, “They, (the hand-built stone walls) tell, also of the endless effort it took to clear the land that food might be raised for family and occasional friend. Boulders, rocks and more rocks which had lain undisturbed since the glacial days, gave way to the strength and determination of these early Americans. In turn, they gave these qualities to America. The labor was toil of devotion and high courage. It was given willingly to fight the elements, wild animals, unfriendly Indians to wrest security and a home from the native soil. It bespeaks love of home with all its love giving implications. Here were men unafraid of hard work. They called it not toil. To them it was life and liberty their path to happiness, security and God.”

This long quote I believe speaks truly of the pioneers of our area as well. I have always been surprised reading the history of the state of Ohio when it was open to settlement in the late 18th century and that it didn’t take long for it to become a state in 1803. In our area, the land was opened to settlement in 1800 with the establishment of the First Federal Land Office in the Northwest Territory. Steubenville was already an established community, but for those going out into the wilderness to settle on their land, it was still wild country.

When visiting the land office, one had to choose their plot of land consisting of 640 acres minimum. At that time, the cost for land was $1 an acre. That might not seem like much but one had to pay for the land in hard money, that is, gold or silver. Spanish dollars, British Pounds, and the like were only accepted. No paper currency was allowed. After the American Revolution, paper currency lost its value. In selecting land, the pioneers had the option to look at the surveys of each plot as described by the original surveyors of 1786-7.

There the pioneers would discover if the land was good for farming, if it had good soil, was rocky, had access to a creek and a nice stand of trees, etc. These details would greatly serve the pioneers in their selection.

When the pioneer got to his land, it would need to be cleared for farming and a home needed to be built so the settler had a place to lay his head. By 1840, the land office in Steubenville closed, as a majority of the land had been sold. I would love to think that there are still some original log houses out there among the quiet places of Jefferson County.

Across the river in Weirton, the oldest structure in the county is the Truax House on Seneca Street, which was built around 1785.

This structure was built by Benjamin Johnson, who received a large land grant in our area from the state of Virginia. Later this farm was the home of Lewis Truax, who wrote a wonderful manuscript of his life growing up there before the mills came to the area. His life story is available at the Mary H. Weir Public Library. Truax was another man who, like Conrad Mienecke, came of age at a time when the agricultural and a simpler way of life was being superseded by industry, connectivity and technology.

Truax writes of his memory of sitting by the hearth in his family home, cracking nuts, playing the fiddle, reading and listening to the stories of his family. Mienecke has similar recollections, and one thing is certain — these gentlemen were not afraid of hard work. It made them who they were.

Mienecke writes “You must recognize by now that I, too, was reared in this hard school of trial and toil. I am glad for the lessons it taught me. I am sorry for the lads of today who are born with a ‘silver spoon’ and who never have the opportunity to face life’s realities or learn the relationship between work and reward, responsibility and privilege: I like Teddy Roosevelt’s thinking when he said, ‘When you play, play hard. When you work, don’t play at all.'”

These traits set our pioneer ancestors apart.

Visit Historic Fort Steuben this weekend for Ohio Valley Frontier Days to learn more about pioneer life. Whether our ancestors were here for hundreds of years in the new world or they came over as immigrants, these folks persevered in the face of trial and tribulation. This is the pioneer spirit — “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, mind your own business and work with your hands.”

(Zuros is the executive director of Historic Fort Steuben.)

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