A Barn Raising on Stillwater Creek
Old Time Tales of Warren County


A Barn Raising on Stillwater Creek

The summer of 1850, Darius Brown was building a barn on his farm near Still Water Creek, in Sugar Grove Township. It was to be a big, roomy barn, costing a lot of work and some money, and there was to be a party afterward with a dance in the house, two fiddlers for which, had already been engaged. For weeks Darius Brown and a carpenter, who made a specialty of building barns, had been hard at work with axe and adze and chisel and cross-cut saw, shaping the heavy hewn timbers as they lay on the ground. Sills, girts, braces, purlines and plates had been hewed from beautiful white pine, cut on the flats along the Still Water. The ground was piled with sweet-smelling white chips where the barn builders had mortised and shaped the timbers, fitted some of them together, ready to be pushed up with pike poles on the day of the raising.

It took a real carpenter to fashion the timbers for a barn and have everything come out right when the raising took place. Measurements must be carefully made, mortises must fit when put together. A carpenter would never live it down if his timbers failed to fit properly at a barn raising. With such a crowd present to witness his bungling, the barn builder who made a faulty frame simply had to quit his trade in that section. But it rarely occurred, barn timbers were carefully shaped, well before the day of the raising and usually went up smoothly, amid the shouts and cheers of the crowd.

Every barn raised in Warren County in the early days was a community affair. As a matter of course the neighbors gathered together to raise the frame, and there was usually a frolic when the work was done. The same fine neighborliness applied in the gatherings for apple parings, log rollings, corn huskings and other jobs that were dull labor if done alone, pleasant enough work when performed by groups of neighbors, glad of an excuse to assemble and enjoy the sociability; glad of a chance to talk over what was going on in their little world bounded by the forest skylines of the woods, anxious to discuss news of happenings that had filtered in from the great world outside. In the year when Darius Brown raised his barn on Still Water Creek the population of the United States had reached the proud figures of twenty-three millions. Utah had just been made a territory. A wonderful machine that would do sewing had been invented four years previously, but no sewing machine had reached the region of Still Water Creek.

Morse's telegraph was just beginning to be used in a commercial way. The price of sending a letter from Sugar Grove to New York had recently been reduced more than half. Indeed there were plenty of interesting things in the great, growing, rapidly changing world beyond the boundaries of Still Water Creek for the people to discuss at a barn raising in Warren County in the year 1850.

And then there was no scarcity of local happenings to furnish interesting talk in that year at the middle of the eighteenth century. The county then contained thirteen thousand, six hundred and seventy inhabitants. A list of the mercantile establishments then in the county disclosed the fact that they nearly all sold "Liquors",---surely there must have been something going on. During March of the previous year Warren County had acquired its first telegraph line, from Fredonia, N. Y. to Warren. The California gold fever was getting some Still Water folks in its grasp; James G. Brookmire of Sugar Grove had about decided to sell fifty acres of his farm and use the proceeds in a trip to the Pacific coast.

There were eleven teams of oxen at Darius Brown's barn raising and not one horse. Horses were still scarce in Warren County in 1850. The yoked steers were unhitched from the wagons and tied to convenient trees. The neighbors began arriving before the dew was off the grass, riding in ox-drawn wagons, walking along the bridle paths that led through dense, fragrant woods. Whole families arrived. One grandmother was transported in her rocking chair in a wagon, her chair extra cushioned to offset the jolting of the springless vehicle. The women brought pans and pails of food with white cloths tied over the top. It was to be a picnic as well as a barn raising.

The crowd gathered 'round the barn timbers, a rosycheeked girl in a gray blue gingham dress mounted the sill and recited the "christening verse", spoken at the raising of many buildings.

"We build this house on this good land, Long may it sound and solid stand.

When winds blow east and winds blow west May this good house stand every test."

A shout of applause went up as the girl bowed, blushed and scampered away. Then the work of the barn raising began. Men lifted the heavy bents shoulder high, got pike poles under them and pushed them up. Other men steadied the raised bents till girts and braces could be put in place. There was much shouting and loud talk. With a heave-ho the heavy timbers went up, stood upright, the big barn rapidly taking shape in outline. Post, purline, beam and plate were raised, fitted into place. The work went smoothly, the carpenter knew his job. When the warm June sun stood straight overhead at noon the barn frame was up, sweating men stood about mopping their brows with red cotton handkerchiefs, or with no handkerchiefs. The big barn was raised. The siding boards, sawed out of good pine with a water-power mill would be put on later. The barn raising was over, the large frame stood, white and new against the sky, and now for the dinner.

Long before the last timber of the barn had been hoisted into place the one-story home of Darius Brown had been clattering like a hen house with the excited voices of women and girls. All morning a thin ribbon of blue wood smoke had been curling up from the stone chimney above the kitchen, wandering into the high green branches of some neighboring pine trees and lingering there. There was no cook stove in the house; stoves were scarce on Still Water Creek in the year 1850. One thrifty Scotchman of Sugar Grove, had recently carried a cast iron stove from Philadelphia to Sugar Grove on his back.

The thin spiral of smoke that rose out of the chimney came from a huge bed of hot beech-wood coals that filled the wide stone fireplace and sent out little blue flickers of flame. Buried in the hot embers of the fire, with handles protruding on the hearth were six large, covered pans. Bread was baking in these heavy, cast iron pans, soft, steamy bread without a crust. On this special occasion of the barn raising, white flour had been used in the bread, making it a delicacy, a special treat such as many of the guests would not likely taste once in a year.

Over the fire, hanging from an iron rod rigged across the fireplace especially for the day, hung five fat turkeys, slowly roasting above the clear-burning beech logs. Iron drip pans were set beneath the birds to catch the savory juices that came dripping down, sometimes igniting with a sudden sputter the contents of a pan which would be hurriedly withdrawn and smothered by one of the watchful cooks. As the turkeys roasted they were kept turning slowly with the poke of an iron fork, now and then a woman pricked them with a fork prong to "see how they were coming." The fat, browning turkeys did a slow, turning dance above the fire, spinning slowly in one direction, stopping and turning the other way.

Farther back in the fireplace, on a strong iron spit hung a huge piece of pork, roasting ruddy brown and sending off savory odors as it was turned with a crank.

The fireplace, large as it was could not accommodate the cooking for the barn raising. Near the house, tended by a half dozen women were two monster kettles of boiling potatoes. Barn raisers had enormous appetites and Darius Brown was not a man to offer his helpers short rations.

A temporary table, fifty feet long with benches had been built near the kitchen door. On it were piled the favorite delicacies of the day. Dishes of wild honey, irregular chunks of yellow comb dripping sweet. Brown cookies, made with molasses brought to Pittsburgh from New Orleans by steamboat and up the Allegheny to Warren by horse-towed flat boat, cakes flavored with maple sugar and iced with the same brown sugar of the maple tree, doughnuts as large as saucers made with eggs and sour cream were set out on the long table that awaited the hearty appetites of the barnraisers. And there were wonderful stack-pies, ten pies in a stack. They were sliced down through like a cheese. The stack-pie was a piece de resistance among the dessert at most great dinners in Warren County long before and after the year 1850. These pies were often baked two or three weeks before they were eaten, put in stacks and set on pantry shelves. Among them were dried apple, dried blackberry, dried pumpkin pies; canned fruit had not yet arrived. And no festive occasion, winter or summer was complete without the prime favorite, mince pie, made with generous quantities of brandy and boiled cider. Stacked mince pies were often kept a month or more, the plentiful brandy they contained preserving them perfectly. If one did not particularly care for pie one could hardly fail to appreciate the spirit in which they were baked. The Warren County mince pie of 1850 could be felt clear to the toes.

Tarts, too, were on the long table at Darius Brown's barn raising. Tarts made with strawberry jam, and red raspberry. It was a royal feast the good folks of Still Water sat down to that June day with the white frame of the new barn looming above them.

For a moment heads were bowed while a good elder said a blessing, then knives and forks began to clatter, tongues made still more noise and platters were quickly filled and passed. Women went up and down the long table with large kettles of steaming tea. Each guest reached his cup around for convenient filling. Few people in that gathering had ever seen or tasted coffee, it was sold in small quantities by a few grocers but was little known in Warren County till ten years later.

The dinner at Darius Brown's barn raising was above the average for such occasions. Not every dinner offered turkey and such an array of desserts. But most Warren County folk fared well in the matter of food in the years around 1850. The forests were still full of deer; venison was as common then as beef is today. Every woodland stream teemed with trout. Nancy Skinner who lived on Hosmer Run in Pittsfield Township used to send the boys to the run to catch enough trout for breakfast while she was building up the morning fire. In fifteen minutes they would be back with a skillet full of fish. Squirrel, "pattridge", woodcock, brown and white rabbits were plentiful everywhere. A good bee hunter could always find a "bee tree" with maybe fifty pounds of golden comb. Red raspberries grew in profusion in the slashings, the creek bottoms were full of butternut trees, black walnuts were fairly plentiful. Apples were not so common in Warren County at the time of Brown's barn raising on Still Water, the orchards had not had time to grow.

Dessert was eaten from the well polished plates that had held the first course, it was difficult enough to get together enough plates to supply one each, no one expected changed plates for dessert. The stack-pies were cut and passed along, thick, juicy wedges the shape of a piece of cream cheese. The women with the tea came 'round again. Satisfied diners began to nibble lumps of maple sugar. It was three in the afternoon before the last man swung his boots over the bench and left the table.

A game of Three Old Cat was started among the young men, a game played with a yarn ball. There was only one base. The batter ran to it and tried to get back home before a fielder hit him with the ball.

After the game a jumping match, standing broad jump. Some of the men jumped in their boots, others slipped off their boots and leaped in their gray wool socks. A mark was scored on the ground, the contestants toed it, teetered a couple of times like a hen getting ready to fly up on a roost, and jumped, alighting with their heels as far forward as possible. They jumped with weights, heavy round stones held in either hand and cast backward to give the jumper more momentum. Had Billy Ray, who was then twenty-six years of age and living on Ray Hill, in Eldred Township, come to the barn raising that day, there would have been no use any other man jumping. Billy would have beaten all comers easily, with his boots on.

Watson Holmes had come all the way from Pine Grove, hunting a wrestling match. Holmes was considered a good man in his community, he met another good man at the barn raising, LeRoy Bates, a powerful chap who had wrestled on the rafts going down the Allegheny and once invited the bully of Freeport onto his fleet for the pure pleasure of throwing him over his shoulder into the river. In 1850 wrestling was the king of sports in Warren County. It was a rough game, without any well defined rules.

When the jumping contests were finished the crowd formed a ring and Bates and Holmes went to it, catch as catch can. The hammer lock and scissors hold, the half-Nelson and other holds were known by other names in the days of Darius Brown's barn raising. The men plunged, twisted and rolled in the deep June grass. Holmes' belt gave way, Bates butternut jeans were ripped to the knee. As Uncle Jimmy White said afterward, "They wrastled all over th' place and like to tear up th' sod on a half acre." The contestants were so well matched it was half an hour before a fair fall was the signal for a great shout from the crowd, a crowd now nearly all men, the game being too rough for women to watch. Bates won the fall, and soon won a second, putting an end to the match which was for "the best out of three." Holmes refused to shake hands with the victor, wrestling was a serious business in those days and his reputation had been dimmed.

The barn raising ended with the wrestling match. It was high time to be thinking of the chores. The oxen were yoked, those who had come in wagons climbed in for the trip home. Young folk of the romantic age walked off down the road together, loath to leave the society of each other. Warren County had made another step toward civilization, the strong framework of another good barn had been set up. And the barn is still standing, with cows and horses in it today.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 201-210: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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