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Life in Emmitsburg in the mid 1800's

Interview with Nathaniel Rowe

[Originally published in March 1908 in the Emmitsburg Chronicle]

"Well, when I was about sixteen I came to Emmitsburg to live. The town didn't look very different then from what it does now. It was built up about the square but with an indifferent class of improvements. There were then many log houses in town. They were warmed with big open fire-places and wood stoves. We knew nothing about coal. We lived well and comfortably, however. Locks on the doors were unknown-we had no thieves. There were no butchers nor bakers. We eat pork more than any other kind of meat. Once in a while a farmer would kill a calf and divide it up amongst the neighbors, each taking his turn at butchering. We wore homespun clothing. Everybody had his own patch of flax.

To prepare the flax for spinning the straw was first passed through the breaker which loosened the woody part of the stem; then it was scutched in a hand machine to take out the 'chive' and waste matter. Next it was buckled by combing to take out the tow. The women spun the flax by the big fire place in the long winter evenings and then it was taken to the country weavers to be made into linen cloth. That made the fine shirts I have some of the old country-woven linen yet. I can't say much for the breeches they made out of the tow. They were mighty uncomfortable but they wore well.

"We raised our own sheep and, of course, had our own wool. There were lots of little woolen miles around the country driven by water power. I remember three that were near Emmitsburg. The cloth was mostly of three shades, gray, brown and black. The town tailor made our clothes for us and if they were not stylish they were, at least, warm and comfortable. As for shoes, the farmers would buy a side of sole leather at the tannery and take it home until the traveling. shoemaker, who went around the country with his bench on his back, should arrive. When he came he would make shoes for the farmer and his family. They weren't very comfortable and they didn't keep the water out but we had to get along with them the best we could.

"We didn't have many games. I only remember two, Alleyball and Longball. The former was played with a soft ball which was knocked against the side of a house with the bare hand. The fellow who could keep it going longest without its touching the ground won. The alley alongside of Mr. Motter's house was the favorite place for playing this game. Longball was played in the street with an iron ball about the size of a croquet ball. It was generally played for the drinks - the one who rolled the shortest distance had to buy. It wasn't much of a game and was dying out when I came to town to live."

"Oh, yes. We knew what whiskey was in those days," replied Mr. Rowe to the reporter's inquiry. "It was good whiskey, too. There were lots of distilleries around here. Whiskey only cost 20 cents a gallon and sold in the taverns a gill for a fip. A fip was a Spanish coin worth six and a quarter cents, about the size of an old three cent-piece. Most all of our silver was Spanish. But about the Whiskey. It was usually bought by the barrel for household use and everybody could help himself when he wanted a drink. Ah, those were good old times. There was much less drunkenness than there is now in spite of the fact that whiskey then was almost as cheap as Emmitsburg water is now."

"I was apprenticed to a gunsmith named John Armstrong. We used to buy the barrels and make the stocks and other Parts. The first barrels were made by welding two bars of iron around a solid core. Later old horseshoe nails were made into gun barrels. Some of the barrels we bought in Lancaster, Pa., and some were made around here. We bored out the barrels ourselves testing the accuracy of the work by squinting through the bore at a bright light; any inequality would cast a shadow on the opposite side of the barrel. When I first apprenticed, the old flint-lock muskets were quite common but they were rapidly being replaced by the percussion-cap guns The choke barrel was unknown in those days. We had lots of game to shoot. Partridges and pheasants were plentiful and the wild pigeons came in clouds. There were deer and wild turkey on the mountains, too."

"I must tell you a story - I used to hear the old folks tell about a preacher in the Lutheran church in the days when the services were held in German. He used to tell his congregation, that if they were not careful to mend their ways sermons would someday be preached in English in their church. That was to scare them into good behavior. We were good churchgoers. The farmers mostly came to church on horseback with their wives perched up behind them. The sermons were longer than they are now but I don't know that they were any better,"

"Mr. Rowe," said the reporter, you have drawn a most interesting picture of the old times. Now tell which. you like best-the old ways or the new?" Mr. Rowe thought for a moment and then slapping the reporter on the knee said emphatically: "The, old ways for me - I like them best. I guess I can't help it. I was raised that way. I won't say that the world hasn't grown better in some respects but I liked the simple life we lived. Everybody was independent. We raised our own flax, our own wool and our own food. We made nearly everything we used.

There was no stealing and very little drunkenness. Gossip and slander were almost unknown and children were more obedient and respectful to their parents than they are now. But I have no complaints to make of the world as I know it now. I enjoy good health. I can, with the aid of my glasses, read all day and when the weather is fair I go out for a walk every day. I don't feel good unless I get my exercise in the open air every day. My hearing is a little heavy and I have to be careful about what I eat, but for a man eighty-six years old I am doing pretty well. I am going to pay the Chronicle a visit sometime and then maybe I will tell you more stories of the old days."

Read other stories in this series of first hand accounts of
life in Emmitsburg in the 1800's

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