We often view frontier life as vastly different from life today, mostly because we are comparing our modern conveniences to what we perceive as a simplistic lifestyle, lacking in the technological luxuries of today. What we often fail to look at are the day-to-day interactions, experiences and personalities of those who came before us.
Take the pioneer experience of children, for example. Some of the most famous historical accounts and photos of children focus on sad experiences like child labor or child and infant mortality. The reality is, even though it was tough, pioneer children were not always forced to labor from sunup to sundown. Like kids today, they played, they were mischievous, they went to school and some even had pets.
The Stephens family, whose Cracker Gothic house is a feature of Manatee Village Historical Park, had five boys and five girls in their household. Some of the children shared their fondest memories in the book “Stephens Ancestors and Pioneer Relatives.” Carl and Hicklen, the middle sons, seemed to be quite the little rascals! When the two were around 3 to 5 years old, Carl was using a hatchet to chop at chips on a fallen log. As brothers are known to do, Hicklen decided to give Carl a hard time and refused to move his hand from the log as Carl was getting closer to him. The result: Hicklen lost a finger. In a panic, from the screaming and mess, Carl tossed the finger away and to everyone’s dismay, it was promptly gobbled up by a nearby turkey gobbler! According to the book, “Carl was properly disciplined. Only the turkey was happy. The event was not forgotten.”
On another occasion, the boys (now about 14) thought it would be a good idea to mimic the prisoners they saw working turpentine on the family’s leased land. The workers would chop the bark off the trees in a “v” shape to make the rosin flow out of the tree and into clay cups hanging from the trees. The workers would sing out their assigned prisoner numbers each time a tree was finished, and if they worked too slow they were punished. Rather than using an ax, the two would take turns whacking the tree with a heavy stick, which broke the clay cup. They continued going tree to tree and singing out their “number,” trying to out-do each other, and breaking several dozen cups along the way, when they were unexpectedly caught by the inspector. Their parents were informed and Carl and Hicklen were “punished” like the real prisoners would have been. According to Carl, he couldn’t recall playing that game again!
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Like kids of today, pioneer children tested boundaries and the patience of their parents!
The Stephens Settler’s House is located at Manatee Village Historical Park at 1404 Manatee Ave. E., Bradenton. It can be viewed during park hours: Monday through Friday and second and fourth Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The house is featured each October in the original outdoor drama, “Spirit Voices from Old Manatee,” where the (true) tragic death of 15-year-old Delia Stephens is portrayed with a mock Victorian wake and sparks the journey into the Old Burying Grounds.
Melissa Porter is education and volunteer coordinator at Manatee Village Historical Park. She can be contacted at Melissa.firstname.lastname@example.org.