Most Floridians, whether native or transplant, prefer warm and/or hot weather. Most of the time, winter isn’t too bad. We get a good, low-swinging cold front in December, or sometimes November, and we get a dip or two in January and February. And then there is the Easter cold snap that those of us who grew up around Florida panhandle farmers know was the point at which you knew you could plant the fields and garden. Most years the cold is down into the upper 20s a time or two and some years we will get into the lower 20s for a night and very occasionally into the teens. This past winter was a bit of a challenge for those of us who prefer warm weather to cold. We just aren’t adapted to week-long bouts of cold. Have you thought about what our ancestors did to cope when the miserable winter hit? The houses sometimes had gaps in the walls big enough for fingers to go through and heat was the fireplace at one end of the house that would need one hardy soul to get up and stoke it during the night. Let’s visit our ancestors for a look at what that was like.
Log Houses and Warm Spots
I’m guessing that one of the motivators for our earliest ancestors moving into the Florida panhandle was it was warmer in the winter than say Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina or North Carolina. Of course, the flip side of that was the heat, humidity, malaria and yellow fever in the summer, but that’s another story. When these frontier families settled in the panhandle, their first activity was building shelter and that shelter would have a large fireplace at one end of the home, for warmth and cooking. If the family had some money, the house might be more than one large room, it might be a dog trot with two rooms separated by the “trot” and there would be a fireplace in each section. But often the effort was to get the shelter up, so houses often started out as one room and the family added on as the need arose. Eventually, a number of families built separate kitchens, to keep cooking smells out of the house and to remove the heat produced during summer. Houses also had a bad habit of going up in smoke when cooking occurred in the fireplace in the house.
Now those of us who grew up with the one oil heater in the hallway know that the race to the heat and the dancing up and down until the critical parts warmed up could be a bracing way to start the day, but I’m guessing that the old oil heater was a more consistent heat than a large fireplace where more heat went up the chimney than went into the room. And the poor person who had to get up and stoke the fire deserves some serious respect.
Never End to Preparing for Winter
Heat from a fireplace meant cutting down trees long before winter set in so they wouldn’t be green and keeping the logs split into kindling and stacked near the front or back door for the last move into the house for adding to the fire. If you’ve never split wood with an ax, splitting wedge and maul and you are still young with a good back; you should give it a try. In my younger days, my first house had a wonderful fireplace and I had a permit to pick up downed trees from a local forest and split my own wood. It is a good form of exercise. No need for a gym membership! My fireplace was not the only heat in this house, I had the ever-present oil heater in the hallway which meant I didn’t have to bank the fireplace enough to keep the fire going all night. But I did get better at doing that as I used my new skills each winter. Nowadays, I have a propane insert in the fireplace. Good heat, no wood splitting. I’ve gotten soft in my old age.
Cold Winds and Early Deaths
Regardless of how good the fire-tender was at banking the fire, the house temperature would drop substantially during the night, especially in a log house with nothing but mud chinking and wads of paper in the cracks between logs. For those early winters in the Florida panhandle when the temperatures dropped well into the 20s that had to be hard on anyone in the house that was young, old or had a compromised immune system. Malaria was endemic in the panhandle during the 18th, 19th and first-half of the 20th century. My Mom had multiple bouts of malaria as a child and says she always had a cold during the winter and pneumonia twice. My great-grandfather had pneumonia early in his life that left him with only partial lung function on one side. When he caught pneumonia again in his later years, he died. These conditions greatly contributed to the high infant mortality rates during our ancestors’ years.
Quilts: the Functional Art Form
One means of coping at night was lots of quilts. During these years, quilts weren’t necessarily meant as an art form but as a functional art that provided warmth, while giving creative expression to the women of the household. Quilting was a means for women in a community to sit down together and talk while they quilted. Just as men raised barns and houses in a community effort, women made quilts in a community effort. It took a community/village, to keep its members sheltered, safe and warm. When the Singer treadle sewing machine appeared in the 1850s, it must have been a God-send for women trying to keep up with the family’s sewing needs, especially getting the quilt blocks and backing together. My grandmother had hooks in the ceiling in the living room where the quilt frame made by my Grandfather was hung when they were quilting. In later years, one of her sisters-in-law made the blocks and then Grandmama would put them together into a quilt.
I remember many a winter at my Grandparents’ house. They would tell us we could turn on the small space heater in the living room, next to the room we slept in, but my Mom would usually tell me that we should leave it off because my Grandparents couldn’t afford for us to run it all night. When I first jumped into the bed, everything was cold and no matter how young or brave, I would find yourself rolling into a fetal position and shivering a bit as my body tried to stay warm until the sheets warmed from body heat and the multiple quilts on top. If it was very cold I would find myself pinned to the mattress due to the weight of the quilts, but boy when things warmed up it was marvelous under there. The next morning about the last thing I wanted to do was get up, pull on my clothes and race to my Grandparents’ bedroom where the fireplace was located and which was next to the kitchen and dining room. They were already up and busy with early chores and the smell of Grandmama’s hand-sized biscuits filled the air with goodness.
Cold Rooms and Hot Sermons
My Mom says that the Yellow River Baptist Church had a wood stove that the head deacon had to fire-up for church and she laughingly admits that if it was really cold, most folks stayed home. For many years that head deacon would have been my great-grandfather William Franklin KING. They owned hundreds of acres around the church but on those really cold mornings in the 1930s, he likely drove his Ford Tudor Model A to the church. Even with the transportation, that would not have been a chore I would be eager to do in the winter. A week of cold like we had earlier in the year would likely have kept all but the hardest at home. I would hope the preacher would have been cold enough to keep the sermon moving along since many during the Depression didn’t have good, heavy coats and warm clothes.
Waste Not, Want Not
Back during this period and well into our past, our ancestors did not waste energy. Every bit was precious, no one thought it would just magically be there if they needed it. There were, and had been, too many days and nights when it wasn’t there and the family had to manage until it warmed up. Burying young children and older members of the family was an event that touched every household at some point. I often wonder how my Grandmother managed to raise all eight of her children during difficult times. Food wasn’t always plentiful, the house wasn’t always warm, and malaria impacted several of the children as did colds, flu, and pneumonia. It had to have been even harder for ancestors well back in the 19th century. If we add on top of the ongoing challenges, the conflict and chaos of the War for Southern Independence (aka Civil War, War Between the States) with its serious lack of food, we can just imagine how tough it was to get through each day.
When we identify our ancestors, we should try to get to know them by understanding the ongoing and daily challenges of their life, as well as the major sweeps of history that ebbed and flowed around them. People who do re-enactments want to experience an event from the past, if only briefly, and with the means to exit the re-enactment and go back to the comforts and safety of today. But re-enactments can be a good way to understand some aspects of our ancestors’ lives. If you have a fireplace, try it as the sole heater in one of next year’s cold snaps. Your respect for your ancestors will be elevated significantly.
Until Next Time
- Classic Cracker: Florida’s Wood-Frame Architecture by Ronald W. Haase
- YouTube: Splitting Wood with a Wedge During the Second Great Depression
- Florida Quilts by Charlotte Allen Williams
- Bringing Your Family History to Life Through Social History by Katherine Scott Sturdevant