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Columns

Reflections: Full Snow Moon offered hope spring was coming

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, this month’s full moon will rise tomorrow evening, March 10.

By the time February rolled around for our pioneer ancestors, they’d been coping with a frontier winter for a couple months, and were watching their food and firewood consumption pretty carefully.

The Native Americans of the region who had been displaced by the pioneers had looked on February with some trepidation, an attitude that shows up in their nicknames for the month’s full moon.

The February full moon was called the Full Snow Moon in some tribal traditions, and it’s not hard to see why. Even today, February is the month when we’re likely to get the most winter snowstorms.

Its alternate, grimmer, nickname was the Full Hunger Moon, which suggests a time of year when food was running low.

Those nicknames were embraced by the pioneers as well, because life on the frontier was hard for both Indians and whites alike.

Some winters were, of course, a lot harder than others. The Winter of the Deep Snow, 1830-1831, was one of the harshest ever in the Upper Midwest, and was a bleak milestone for those who had arrived and were trying to survive. Forever after, those who lived through the Winter of the Deep Snow considered themselves the real pioneer settlers of northern Illinois.

The struggle to merely survive the fierce winters of the settlement era had effects that extended throughout the subsequent months. Usually, winter was the time when a variety of upkeep chores were done, from repairing harnesses and plows to make sure they were ready to go on the first spring day farmers could get in the fields with their teams, to threshing and winnowing the grain that had been harvested the previous autumn.

Threshing during that era was a labor-intensive family affair with wives and children all pitching in, first to beat bundles of dried wheat, oats, rye, and barley with flails to separate the grain from the stalks and then to winnow it to separate the kernels of grain from the chaff.

And no matter how much firewood had been stockpiled the previous summer and fall, it always seemed like more was needed to heat the pioneers’ drafty log cabins. During a northern Illinois winter, a cabin fireplace consumed between 11 and 17 cords of firewood, each a stack of wood 4 feet wide, 4 feet high, and 8 feet long that weighed more than two tons when the wood was still green.

Harvesting firewood went on nearly all year round as time permitted. Trees had to be felled and then cut into lengths to be hauled to the cabin where the logs could be split for use in the fireplace. The old saying that firewood warms you twice, once when you cut it and once when it’s burned for heat, was never truer than during those pioneer years.

During the winter months, men took care of the farm’s livestock, hauling forage for cattle and horses and feed for the farm’s pigs. Meanwhile, farm wives worked at spinning and weaving along with the usual cooking and cleaning.

Flax grown during the summer was laboriously processed until it was ready to be spun into linen thread, which then could be woven into linen cloth on the family loom. Likewise, farmers who raised sheep had accumulated a supply of wool their wives could spin into wool thread and then weave into wool cloth. Sheep were typically sheared of their woolly coats in the spring. The fleeces were then either cleaned and stockpiled for later use by the farm wife, or sold to neighbors for their use or taken to market.

Many pioneer families owned looms that could be used to weave either linen or wool cloth. Sometimes entire looms were brought west, but more often only the necessary metal fittings and the specialized parts such as the reed for the beater and the shuttles were brought along because the countermarch looms of the era were so massive. Then a new loom was constructed in the pioneers’ new home. That’s apparently the method my great-great-grandparents used to build my great-great-grandmother’s countermarch rug loom – a piece of historical equipment we still have stored in our basement.

The isolation of those pioneer families during northern Illinois’ long winters was profound. There really weren’t any towns close at hand when the earliest settlers arrived; often neighbors were miles away. But those sparse and scattered farm families did their best to try to get together to create their own social situations. Shelling bees, where neighbors would get together to shell corn from cobs, quilting bees, sewing bees, and other events making the drudgery of early 19th century rural life go by a little quicker were popular pursuits.

In the years after those first ones on the frontier when families had the wherewithal to buy sleighs, February became a popular month for hitching up the team and heading across the fields to visit friends or attend church or gather at the local one-room school for an evening of socializing.

In the 1840s, many of the settlers who arrived were from New York and the New England states, folks who took both religion and education seriously. Schoolhouses often did double duty in those early years as school rooms during the week and churches on Sunday. The communities that grew up around them considered those early schools and churches to be the equivalent of modern community centers.

As February wore on, the days began getting longer and the cold nights shorter, fortunately because lamps and candles were expensive and always in short supply. Abraham Lincoln’s reminisces of using the light of the family’s Kentucky farm home fireplace to read by was not uncommon into the mid and late 19th century.

But each of those lengthening days was a promise that better, warmer times were on the way. As long as provisions and firewood held out, it gave pioneer families keeping close to their cabin’s fireplace something to look forward to as the Full Snow Moon lit up the Fox Valley’s frozen winter landscape.

• Looking for more local history? Visit http://historyonthefox.wordpress.com.

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