The core of Ozark life was the family. The church, the trading center, the schools—everything—depended on the family unit to support their existence. As the community depended on the family units, so the family needed and depended on each member. Their livelihood came from the family enterprise, such as the farm, store, mill, blacksmith shop, or some other community service, and the main source of labor was the immediate family.
Each member had his or her recognized place and job. Though these were stereotyped as to sex and age, no one thought much about inequality. Someone had to do the work from which all benefited, and all worked equally hard. The man and his sons did the heavy outside work, such as the farming, the haying, and working with the livestock. The man, as head of the family, was in charge of the farm (or the business), but his authority ended in the house.
The house was the wife's realm. She and her daughters did all the jobs inside, and helped with those closely related to daily family life. No lilies-of-the-field, they were partners in a struggle. Pioneer women did toil and spin, but they also cooked, baked, brewed, preserved, and pickled, make soap and candles, knitted, sewed, mended, quilted, and embroidered, all while caring for the many children they were blessed with. They also gardened, raised the chickens, and sometimes did the milking.
Many jobs, however, were done cooperatively, each helping the other whenever needed. If the man needed help gathering corn, the wife was probably beside him, often stooped over gathering the down row (the row knocked down by the team and wagon) while her husband gathered two or three rows next to the wagon. If she needed help with big housecleaning jobs, such as the annual task of taking up and cleaning the rag carpet, he gave a hand.
Lighting was poor compared to modern standards. Most homes had at least one kerosene lamp to light the interior of the cabin or home. Lanterns were also used, not only in the house, but to light the path to the barn, the chicken house and the outhouse. Some people used a reflector lamp which was also fueled by kerosene. It was usually kept on a shelf on the wall and had a metal reflector behind the flame to throw off more light. All of these devices required almost daily cleaning, and this chore also fell to the women of the family.
There could be many annoying little headaches for the lady of the house. Before doors and windows were screened the biggest problem in the warm months was insects. In the country there was much to draw flies to the house. The livestock of course, but nearby fruit trees, and water from the slop bucket dumped outside the kitchen door would also draw flies. Small tree branches or dish towels made handy items to shoo flies outside. Everything was covered to keep out flies. Food left on the table or sideboards between meals had to covered with a cloth to protect it from the annoying insects.
Though the yard and house were in the woman’s sphere of responsibility and influence, her special domain was the kitchen. There she was the absolute monarch, but also served as a cook, maid, and serving girl as well. The kitchen was the busiest room in the house, and most of the essential activities of living took place there. It was there that she prepared three meals a day for the family; it was there also that the meals were eaten. The woman of the house also prepared and canned in the kitchen—or supervised the other female members of the family in doing so—the various fruits and vegetables grown on the farm. She did the washing and ironing there, and it was there that she bathed the smaller children. No other room in the house had the same warm appeal—especially for the children—for it was often filled with pleasant cooking odors.
Before the early pioneers had stoves the fireplace was used for cooking. In practice it was done in a cast-iron skillet hung from the top of the fireplace opening, or in a kettle with little legs which was placed directly over the fire. When the heavy cast-iron wood-burning cook stoves became available they were received as a dramatic step forward. People continued to use the open fireplace for heat, but pioneer wives now could cook with a heat source that—with the adjustable dampers and flues—was somewhat controlled, and the flat surfaces provided a convenient place to set pans and pots. The wood stoves were such an improvement, and so satisfactory, that many older back country wives continued to use them long after kerosene kitchen ranges came into wide use.
Most of the food was prepared at a cook table that was usually located close to the stove. Baking powder, soda, sugar, spices, as well as other staples, were usually kept on a shelf within easy reach as well. Some housewives would tack a curtain around the bottom of the cook table behind which they could store some of their pots and pans.
Most of the dinner tables were long with backless benches, although the man of the house, sitting at the head of the table, and his wife at the other end, might have chairs to sit on. A pioneer husband would quite often construct his own table, as well as other furniture. A handmade table, benches and split-bottom chairs of hickory bark may not have been fancy, but they were durable. On hot summer days the family frequently moved the table to an outside porch or lean-to in order to escape the heat of the hot kitchen.
Many farm families were practically self-sufficient. They grew or produced most of what they needed, and bought only staples. Most pioneer families had a few dairy cattle that provided milk for drinking and for making butter and cheese. Poultry houses furnished fresh eggs daily, and provided chickens for baking, stewing, and frying.
Farm folk usually butchered their own meat, but only in the winter months when it would keep. It was common for two or three families to get together to butcher a steer. The meat was shared, and in so doing all the beef could be consumed before it spoiled. Pork, on the other hand, was salted in barrels, cured, or smoked and stored by hanging in a secure smokehouse.
Fresh vegetables such as beans, potatoes, greens, lettuce, beets, and cucumbers were grown in large gardens, and fruit from the family orchards included apples, peaches, cherries, and pears. When winter came root vegetables and fruits, including potatoes, turnips, and apples, were stored in the cellar or put in the ground and covered with straw.
To add variety to the menu, or stretch out the meat supply (and because it’s great relaxation), the men and boys would fish for crappie, bass, goggle-eye, catfish, or suckers, and hunt wild rabbit, quail, squirrel, possum, and coon. Women and children picked wild dock and carpenter's square in early spring for a mess of greens. They gathered blackberries, dewberries, and huckleberries in the summer, and hazel nuts, hickory nuts, and black walnuts in the fall.
The pioneer woman’s place was indeed in the home, but her domain, and where she reigned supreme, was in the kitchen.