The life of a woman in frontier America was anything but easy. This was demonstrated on Monday, July 14, as Summit Historical Society member JoAnn Mulcahy presented an interactive lecture about daily life in the Old West as part of the Historical Society’s Pastry and the Past series.
Mulcahy is from Iowa, where she has built a log cabin on her property and dresses in period clothing to show people what it was like to do chores such as spinning, churning butter, doing laundry, weaving rope and more. Attendees of the lecture had the opportunity to try their hands at the daily grind of the Old West.
“Women had the chore of keeping house,” Mulcahy said, adding that though families at the time didn’t have much, they took good care of what they did have in order to make it last.
It helped to have a weekly routine, Mulcahy said. For many, Monday was laundry day. It was customary to have a large dinner on Sunday night, meaning there were cold leftovers for the meals on Monday. This freed up the day to do laundry, which was a time-consuming task.
Water was carried in hollowed out gourds, canvas totes or buckets, often using a shoulder yoke to distribute the heavy load. The water source for most homes was a well, which could be a fair distance from the house. Large buckets of water were heated on a stove to start the laundry process.
“Fire was one of the leading causes of death for women,” Mulcahy said. “They would get their long skirts caught in the fire.”
Flaked bar or lye soap was mixed with the hot water, and the clothes were agitated with a stick. A stick was also used to remove the clean laundry from the basin because the water was so hot. Starting with the collar of a shirt, each item was fed through the wringer to press out excess water before being hung on a line. Though it sounds fairly benign, doing laundry was fraught with danger, from fire to hot water burns to hands and arms being caught and crushed in the wringer.
Butter and rope
Mulcahy moved about the room from one chore station to the next, first demonstrating the steps of the laundry process and explaining how soap was made, then leading a short discussion of an array of irons used to press clothes and on to the task of churning butter.
She checked the progress of volunteers Phyllis Palmer, of Dillon, and Jane Guletz, of Breckenridge, who had been working the churn for more than an hour to turn the heavy cream into butter.
“They made butter about once a week,” Mulcahy said, checking the consistency of Palmer and Guletz’s work and deeming it not quite done. Butter was pressed into a mold or scooped into a dish for storage “They typically had a spring house to keep things relatively cool.”
Every ranch and farm also had a tool to twist and wind rope, a task that anyone in the family could handle, Mulcahy said, and the work didn’t end with that. There was always a chore that needed completing in the Old West, and it took a hardy lot to handle it all in stride.
“One of the things that as a child I romanticized was history,” Mulcahy said. “I started demonstrating spinning, then weaving. I was inspired by the hardiness of the women.”
Learn about the past
The Pastry and the Past series continues with a special panel of early residents of Old Dillon on Monday, July 21, led by Tom Foster. Each lecture is $5 for members of the Summit Historical Society and $10 for nonmembers, $5 of which can be put toward a membership for those who wish to join.