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article number 129
article date 05-17-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
The Pioneer Settlement Life Around Sidney Illinois
by Virginia McElroy

From the book, History of Sidney 1827 to 1976.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The author made many source references throughout this article. While any recollection of these early days will not be perfect or [true in every case], let this article give us a feel for life off the land. We will also see terms like jonny board, linsey-woolsey, sad iron and johnnycake which have left our vocabulary years ago. Enjoy the reading.

While many of the early settlers were not poor men when they came to Illinois, they nevertheless had to endure hardships that we can scarcely comprehend.

Their cabins were small in size, usually 12 feet or 14 feet square, but never over 20 feet. The furnishings were crude as their method of travel allowed room for very little to be brought from their old homes. A four legged table made of puncheon boards served as a place to eat as well as to prepare the food, and for many other uses needed by the family. Chairs were three or four legged stools. Beds were often made to fold up against the wall to make more living room for the family during the day. Knives and forks were scarce and many used their hunting knives at the table. Many wooden dishes and cups were made by the householder. The men of the family hunted wild game for food and fur pelts in the winter, when they had free time from clearing their land and fencing it.

Food was furnished by the family. Wild meat was plentiful. Indian corn from their small patches was beaten into meal in a mortar. This meal was wholesome and was used for johnnycake or pone dinner and served as mush and milk as a favorite dish for supper. On the fireplace hung a crane or two. Each family had one or more huge iron pots to hang on these cranes for cooking meat and vegetables. A Dutch oven was used to bake bread, cakes, sweet potatoes and other foods.


The jonny board was said to bake the best bread ever made. This was a smooth board about two feet long and eight inches wide. The ends were usually rounded. The dough was spread on the board and placed leaning before the fire. When one side was baked the dough was changed on the board so that the other side was turned to the fire. This johnnycake was very good if the proper materials were put in the dough and it was properly baked. Many kinds of greens such as dock, poke, wild lettuce and wild beet were eaten.

The truck patch furnished roasting ears, cabbage, pumpkins, beans, onions, squash and potatoes. The wife and daughters dried corn, pumpkins, green beans and squash for winter. Sulfured apples, dried peaches and apples, kraut, pickles and relishes added variety to their winter diet. At reaping bees, log-rolling and house-raisings, the standard dish was pot pie, which was made with meat and vegetables, thickened and served with corn pone or johnnycake.

Coffee and tea was used sparingly. The men thought this drink was only fit for women and children. They preferred their whiskey, which they said would “stick to their ribs”. Maple sugar was used and wild honey was theirs for the finding or could be bought for five cents a pound. Each family had their cow to provide milk and butter. Butter sold for three cents a pound.


When a hog was killed all the community shared it. Chickens were raised in great numbers. Wild turkey and duck were plentiful. Wild grapes and wild plums could be found along the streams which abounded with fish to be had for the taking.

The early settlers had to travel to other settlements to buy necessary materials they could not raise themselves. In 1834 Henry Sadorus and his son Henry from Sadorus, Matthew Busey and sons Fountain, from Urbana, William Nox, Sr. and Pete Bailey from Nox’s Point and Hiram Jackson, location unknown, took four wagons drawn by five yoke of oxen per wagon to Chicago for needed supplies. Each took produce to exchange for those supplies. The only product named in the account was oats taken by Mr. Sadorus. Due to the weather, the oats had one to two inch sprouts on them when they reached Chicago.

The wagons assembled at Poage’s home north of Homer and went north by way of Pilot Grove and Bourbonnais, through Kankakee. It took them twenty-one days to make the trip and it rained almost every day. They swam streams and Creeks eleven times before they reached Fort Dearborn, where Mr. Sadorus sold his oats for fifty cents per bushel. The men traded their supplies to the widely known trader, Gurdon H. Hubbard, who later Opened a store in Danville.

When their business was completed, the return trip was made by way of Spring Creek and Mink Grove. They did not see a house between Kankakee and two miles north of Urbana, where Charles Busey made his home. They reported the city of Chicago was very scattered and that dog fennel grew in the streets. Dog fennel is not a weed native to Illinois, but was carried there by the wheels of wagons from the east.

Most of the clothing was manufactured by the wife and daughters of the family. Linsey-woolsey was worn by the ladies of the family. Linsey-woolsey was worn by the ladies in cool weather. This material was woven on a hand loom, the chain thread being made of Cotton and the filling of woolen yarns. Both of these threads had to be spun on the spinning wheel from their own cotton, flax and wool before the material could be woven. The colors were blue, copperas, turkey red and light blue. Dyes were made from plants gathered in the timber. Considering the time needed to prepare and weave the cloth, two dresses per person was a luxury especially as families were large, often ten or twelve per family.


The men in the family needed warm clothing as they were more often out of doors. They wore “jeans” and “linsey-woolsey” shirts. The “jeans” were light blue or butter-nut in color. Dressed skins of deer also were used for men’s clothing. Caps were made of skins of wild animals and the tail was often left on the cap. These skins were tanned with the fur left on. Both sexes wore home-made moccasins. One pair of shoes was highly prized.

After the clothing was made, the wife and daughters knit countless numbers of socks, mittens, caps and scarves for all members of the family. All clothing had to be made by hand, as were the quilts needed to keep a family of ten or twelve members warm during the cold winter nights.

For the womenfolk, their Sunday or better dresses took from twenty to thirty yards of material. This was usually bought on their few trips to a town for other supplies. The dress was usually plain with four widths to make the skirt, with the two front ones gored. The waist was very short with a drawstring across the shoulders and tied behind. The sleeves were enormous. They were tapered from shoulder to wrist and were padded to resemble a bolster at the upper part. These “mutton-leg” or “sheep-shank” sleeves were kept in shape by a heavily starched lining.

Those who could afford it, used feathers in their sleeves from the elbow to the shoulder. This gave the sleeves the appearance of inflated balloons and they were called “pillow sleeves”. Many ribbons and bows were worn, but scarcely any jewelry. In going to church or other public gatherings, the girls would often go barefoot until near their destination and then put on their shoes or moccasins.

The material needed to make a dress changed as the years went by. In 1878 it was said it only took ten yards to make a dress.

For laundry the clothes were pounded on stones, rubbed on a wash board (a roughened board of metal or wood), then boiled in an iron kettle, rinsed and dried. A sad iron was used to iron the wrinkles out of the clothes. These early irons were heavy, iron, wedge shaped articles fitted with an iron handle. To heat these irons, they were stood on the wide end, facing the fireplace with the handle turned from the fire. To use them, a heavy cloth was folded over the handle and they were carried to the table that was used as an ironing board. With all the work necessary for existence, it is remarkable how well dressed the family looked when they attended church or a social function.

These early settlers had fun. They used house or barn raising, corn husking, hunting, quilting and patriotic holidays as means of recreation.

Picture courtesy of Jim Sanford and Clarke Historical Library.

If a family needed a house or barn, the men cut, notched and hauled the logs to the building site and notified his neighbors of the time of building. Early on the designated day the people began to arrive. Often the families brought food to help out with the dinner. While the men built the building, the women prepared the food and visited. Whiskey was often furnished by the host, but no one overindulged. After the meal was eaten, the women either helped the hostess quilt a quilt or each brought her own knitting or spinning wheel, and together they visited while they worked.

After the evening meal, the new building or the home was cleared for dancing. Music was furnished by some members of the community. All participated in the dancing. Often the cabin was so crowded the people had to stand and dance in the same place. There were no chairs to sit out a dance, so the dance continued until everyone was exhausted, but usually they lasted all night. If it was necessary to sleep that night, the men and boys slept in the barn, haystack or outside while the women and children slept on the floor of the cabin. The next morning each family started on their way home. Some rode horses but many walked. There were no buggies, carriages or other means of travel. Many of these people came from twelve to twenty miles.

Another means of recreation was husking corn. When a farmer gathered his corn he snapped the ears without husking them. The Corn was hauled and unloaded by the corn crib and the neighbors were invited to a husking bee. When the people arrived, two captains were chosen and the people were divided into two teams. The corn was divided by laying a rail in the middle of the pile. Each team tried to finish their corn first. The person who found a red ear received a kiss from a member of the opposite sex. Whiskey was passed around when the people had worked a while. Each person drank from the bottle or jug and passed it to the next. The women drank as well as the men. After the corn was husked, a meal was served and the evening usually ended with a dance.


Often a circular hunt was organized by the early settlers. A center of the circle was set and the men and boys, with their dogs, would start from all edges of the circle and drive the game toward the designated center. The men and boys did not carry guns on these hunts, but each was armed with a heavy club. When the center of the circle was reached, the animals were killed with the heavy clubs. The game was divided among the participants. Usually a cook out was enjoyed at a central location by the families of the hunters after the hunt. The day often ended with a dance as on other Occasions.

Thus the need to meet together for recreation was used to help neighbors and in turn to be helped with the labor of others. Later, when the country was more settled, a “beaus and bows” club was organized by the young people of the county. These young people would ride twelve to fifteen miles to dances held in each part of the county. [An announcement in the Urbana paper said a dance would be held at Linn Grove on the following Saturday night.] These dances took two days. After the dance the girls slept on the floor of the host’s home and the young men in the barn. Next morning the horses were saddled and the young people returned to their respective homes. Many courtships were carried on at these occasions, which led to marriages and the founding of new homes.

Fourth of July was a time of celebration. All the families gathered in the town in their best clothes to spend the day. Everyone brought their own food. There were parades, games and speeches. Freedom was a thing prized by all, and all were thankful for it. At the end of the day the tired happy families returned to their homes, looking forward to the next fourth of July.

Amusements of the day were athletic. The settlers prized themselves on their physical abilities, skills in woodcraft, accuracy in shooting, swiftness of foot and superior muscular development rather than mental development. This is understandable as these skills were necessary for survival among the rigors of the frontier. Every man had a riffle, flints, bullet-molds, screwdriver, awl, butcher knife and tomahawk, which were fastened to a pouch strap or around his waist. Jumping and wrestling were indulged in as well as target practice. Shooting matches gave turkeys as prizes. Disputes were usually settled by the fist. After the fight no grudges were held. The rule of the winner, was to pour water on the loser’s hands to wash away the traces of the fight.

The End of Settlement Living

As the country became settled, stores were opened and merchandise hauled in by wagon until the railroads were built. The settlers were then able to buy more supplies and the pioneer settlements began to disappear. A farmer or townsman could make the trip to Urbana in a day and usually spent the night in the city and returned home the next day. [Grist mills added equipment to produce flour so the people’s diet quickly changed. Home canning became a popular way to preserve food for the farmer’s wife.]

In 1854 the Illinois Central railroad was built through Champaign. The country’s products were then no farther than the Champaign depot. By 1856 the Western railroad was completed through Sidney. The people felt liberated. For the next fifty years this served as a gateway to see the world. Excursion rates were offered to all sections of the country. While road travel was still confined to the spring and summer and most people had buggies, surreys and carts, the way to get out of the community was by train. People traveled all over the country to visit relatives and friends, to attend concerts and shows in the cities, and even to visit Europe and England.

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