Part two of a series
A piece of straw was placed inside the oven to test the temperature. If it burnt to ashes immediately, the oven was too hot and would need to cool for a while. But if the straw became “nice and brown,” the oven was ready for the bread to go in. It was during the 1870s when young Augusta Burow Arnett (1865-1947) saw her grandfather test the temperature of the pioneer family’s outdoor oven. She wrote about it in the 1940s. They were among the first settlers to homestead a 160-acre claim on South Ridge in Houston County, Minn.
There was an indoor oven as well – with the cooking top only about two feet from the floor. The baking oven was placed on top of the stove. As many as four loaves of bread could be baked at a time. There came a time when the growing family needed a greater quantity of bread. The solution was a larger outdoor oven, which they built themselves.
Key ingredients were stone and clay, which were used to build the platform. A large barrel was sawed in two, lengthwise, and then placed on the platform, round side up. Clay was applied to the barrel until it was five or six inches thick. The clay was a mixture of earthen clay and water that was strengthened with some straw as it was molded over the barrel. The half-barrel was covered completely except for an opening at the front end about 13 by 15 inches. On top, at the other end was an opening large enough for a common stovepipe.
The outdoor oven was left to dry and harden. Then Augusta’s grandfather started a fire inside and burned out the wooden half-barrel. It was then ready for baking. On baking day, Grandpa would start a fire in the oven and keep it going until he thought it was hot enough. He would scrape out the coals and then with an old broom, sweep out the ashes. It was then both hot and clean and therefore ready for the temperature to be tested with straw.
This oven was large enough to bake 13 to 15 loaves at one time. Augusta and the other children would carry the loaves out to Grandpa, who was waiting with a wooden shovel with a long handle. The kids would place loaves onto the shovel, and he would place the bread in the oven. Augusta remembers the bread coming out “nice and brown.” Her mother would sometimes use the oven to dry apples or bake coffee cake after the bread came out.
Wear it, eat it or even drink it – much was homemade on the frontier, including the bread molds that Augusta’s mother used to mix the bread dough. Augusta wrote, “They were made by cutting a big log into the right length about 80 inches long, take off all the bark, cut the piece through lengthwise, hollow it out and keep at it until it was nice and smooth. I remember Father had made two of them, and they sure were smooth, so no danger of getting slivers in your fingers. We called them baking troughs. Now, we use a big pan to make bread in. When I was a girl, I did not even see a dishpan ‘til I was almost grown up. We used to wash dishes in a milk crock or milk pail.”
Before they had access to “real coffee,” Father made a substitute. He took either barley or wheat, cleaned it well and then roasted it in the oven or on top of the stove. After it was sufficiently browned, it was stored in containers. When they wanted coffee, they took the roasted wheat or barley and ground it in a little coffee grinder. “Them days, each family had their own private little grinder,” said Augusta.
When they were finally able to buy “real coffee,” it was “green coffee” they had to grind themselves. Before being roasted, coffee beans were grayish green and shaped somewhat like peanuts.
Decades before electricity, Augusta’s family first used tallow candles for nighttime light. Her father kept sheep, which provided the family with meat, wool for yarn and tallow (hardened fat) for light. In the three-generation household, it was usually her grandmother who made the candles. The forms that she used were made of “tin tubes, tapered on one end and fastened together on a tin plate, the tapered end down. She would draw a thick cord in each tube, put a knot in it on the tapered end and fasten the other end to a little stick. Then she would fill each tube with melted tallow, and when they were cold, she would warm the outside of the form and pull them out.
Candlelight flickered so much that it was challenging for sewing or reading. Oil light was much better. One day when Mother went to town with Father, she saw a small oil lamp – all glass. She inquired about the price and was pleased when told 25 cents. Since the storekeeper filled it with oil and put in a wick as well, the lamp was ready to light when she returned home. “And what a bright light it gave,” said Augusta, “so very much brighter than even three or four candles.”
Spinning wool was another job that belonged mostly to Grandma, who would spend most of her time during winter at the spinning wheel. Mother, however did most of the knitting. “Everybody wore woolen stockings in the winter time those days,” recalled Augusta, “and it sure was a job to knit for so many.” Mother was also adept at sewing. “Dresses and even underwear were homemade. They even made men’s underwear and overalls and jackets, and what’s more, they did not even have a sewing machine. Oh no, it was by hand, and the weekly washing was also done by hand, on a washboard. Sometimes, when the wash was big, their hands would get pretty sore.”
Source: booklet, “My Parents,” by Augusta Burow Arnett, written 1944, published 2015