Back in the 1970s when our three children were grade school and junior high age, after lunch one fine Saturday in May, I laid out a stack of typed pages and said, "I want to read this to the family." Mixed emotions appeared on the children's faces: fear of entrapment, mild curiosity and stern duty. No one fled however, and I proceeded to read. Soon all were still, quiet and attentive - even the youngest, wriggliest one.
"I was born on May 6, 1855 in the old log cabin on Clear Creek," I read. "I was married in that same log cabin [in] 1872 to Jacob Thomas Kelso. I grew up in the time of the Civil War. We lived in what we called the Ozarks....the garden spot of Missouri."
So my own family first heard the "Memory Story" of Margaret Gilmore Kelso, 1855 1949, a pioneer of Greene County - our county. Her memoir was given to me by a member of the Gilmore family, who called her Aunt Margaret. I introduced her to my family as Aunt Margaret, which she has been to us ever since.
Aunt Margaret was born to the pioneer life, though she was of the third generation of Gilmore settlers here. She was born in a pioneer place, too. The Ozarks did not develop as quickly as other rural regions of Missouri. Indeed, the Ozarks can best be understood as a frontier, whose people continued to live much of what we term the pioneer lifestyle for several generations.
"When [my parents] went to housekeeping, they moved into an unfinished log cabin on a dirt floor, and they built a fire in the wash kettle until father could make a fireplace and build a stick chimney and daub it with mud. [Mother] made her beds on the dirt floor until he could get time to bore holes in the log walls to put in poles, with the bark on, to make a frame for her beds.
"Our first lights were grease lamps which were a saucer of iron with a small lip on the side and a braided rag wick that hung over the lip.... The first remembrance I have of my mother was of waking one night and seeing her sewing...by the light of a grease lamp, stuck in a crack in the chimney wall.... It held about two tablespoons full of grease. Sometimes we tore a strip of cloth, doubled it back, and twisting it, pushed it down in the grease for a wick. It made a light, but a very poor one.
"The next light was a tallow candle in a candle stick with a small base and a long hook that could be stuck in a crevice between the logs, or between the stones of the chimney. We would melt beef tallow, put in a little beeswax to harden it. We had a candle mold. First we placed a wick in the mold, then poured the melted tallow and beeswax around, leaving it to harden. Then the candles were ready to pack away for winter use.
"My father often sat making shoes for the family by the poor grease light."
Aunt Margaret's memories of pioneer life were not romanticized. But on one subject, they seem idyllic - her description of the wild things.
"I remember one morning when mother got up, the fire was out. She wakened me, and I started on the run to borrow fire...to Uncle George Thomas's place. On the way, the wild turkeys were coming off the roost and running out into the road ahead of me.... There must have been 75 or 100 in the bunch, maybe more.
"There were so many wild turkeys then. We had turkey salted down in the smokehouse with the [hog] meat, and mother would slice the breast and roll it in flour and fry it for breakfast. You can't imagine how deliciously good it was.
"Some families caught so many quail they saved the feathers and made feather beds of them. I have watched mother and grandmother make traps. Quail were driven into them until the birds filled the pouch, at times hundreds of them. Brother Jimmie and I made traps and set in the cornfield for prairie chicken, sometimes catching four or five of them in one night. Mother made a snowbird pie from snowbirds we caught by the haystack near the barn. One morning we had 25 of them in the trap. The small breasts were tender, sweet meat."
Passenger pigeons were the first wildlife species to become extinct that received wide public attention. The end of the big beautiful birds occurred in Aunt Margaret's middle age. She remembered her experience with them as a child:
"Passenger pigeons had a roost on our place. They came from the west and the noise of their wings was like a distant thunder. They came in such numbers it was like a dark cloud. I liked to stand in the doorway and watch them. They were flying low as they neared the roost. I often went down to the roost after they had settled. They were so thick on the limbs that they bent the trees almost to the ground.
"I could have picked them off by the hundreds if I had wanted to. I would stroke their wings and they would coo and let me pet them. They sat on limbs as close as grapes on the vine, and at times would break the young trees and limbs down with their weight. When they cleared away in the morning, there would be crippled pigeons, some with broken wings, others with broken legs. We would take them to the house for use for meat. They were so good. I don't remember anyone molesting them.
"They were about one-third larger than our tame pigeons, and were a bronzy blue in color, with a heavier twinge of bronze about their neck and shoulders. They were in such numbers it is hard to realize they are now extinct."
When I read Aunt Margaret's memoir to the children, our son was at the age where he enjoyed being horrified; so the snake stories were his favorites - and she told many of them:
"Snakes surely were plentiful. The old road to the spring was in a work with them, whipsnakes, with about a foot of red on the tails, which they held up straight, and made a blowing noise when they ran.
"They used to cross the path ahead of me when I went to the spring, and almost scared me to death. The clumsy, bunty-tailed moccasin and cotton mouth and spreading adders would lay in the path and flatten themselves out and look so much like the ground we could hardly see them.
"One morning I went to the spring to get the milk for breakfast. I got down on my knees and reached my hand in to get the bucket of milk and a great big old moccasin slid down over my hand into the water. If you ever had a snake touch you, you will never forget the feel of it. It is like an icicle sliding over you.
"Rattlesnakes were very common. Father told of helping to clean a gravesite in an old cemetery when they found a den of rattlesnakes. They killed 23 of them."
For me, Aunt Margaret's most striking memory was that of the Battle of Wilson's Creek fought some 15 miles from her home:
"The day the Wilson's Creek Battle was fought, on August 10, 1861, my mother walked the floor all day, and wrung her hands and cried, until the noise of the big guns ceased. It must have been five o'clock in the evening before she got us anything to eat.
"We children were too young to understand, and followed her around and begged her to tell us why she cried. She would place her hands on our heads and say, Oh, children! Oh, children! My brother and I would lay our heads on the ground, and we could hear the guns and feel the earth tremble."
I explained to the children that Memorial Day was begun after the Civil War to commemorate the soldiers who had died, and then expanded to include remembering all who had gone before. The girls said, "Could we decorate Aunt Margaret's grave this Memorial Day?" Our family album now contains a picture of two little girls kneeling by a gravestone in a country churchyard, a fruit jar of
wildflowers between them.
Margaret Gilmore Kelso wrote her story in 1940, when she was 85 years of age. At the conclusion she reflected on change:
"I have lived a long time, and I consider this a wonderful period of progress. It is a far cry from the ox team to the automobile and the flying machine; from the Indian trails to the paved highway; from the log schoolhouse to the well-equipped consolidated school; from the weekly mail delivered to the post office on horseback, to the daily mail delivered to our door; from the grease lamp ... hung from a crack in the chimney wall, to the incandescent light.
"The improvement over the old ways is so great, I certainly am not among those who are crying for 'the good old days.'"