'Heirloom crafts' were once survival skills

Ann Gorman

In today’s world, our homes are illuminated with compact fluorescent light bulbs, not hand-dipped candles; handmade soap is sold in specialty shops, not made in an outdoor kettle; hardware is purchased at big-box stores, not forged by local blacksmiths; and we store our goods in plastic containers, not hand-woven baskets.

A century ago, though, it was the opposite. And there remain folks working to preserve that history by demonstrating these age-old skills and passing them on to others.

“(Some people) don’t realize how hard the early settlers had to work just to sustain their lives, and how important it was to do with what they had and make things for themselves,” said candle maker Barbara Lagier, 70, of Petersburg, Ill.

Today, when quilts, woodcarvings, furniture and other objects are made according to traditional methods, these items often are referred to as “heritage” or “heirloom” crafts.

That wasn’t so in the 1800s.

“These were life skills,” said soap maker Deann Shelabarger, 65, of Oakford, Ill.

“They just didn’t have the wherewithal to buy these things,” Lagier said of pioneers. “And some of these things were unavailable out here on the frontier.”

“If you didn’t know how to do these things, your family would be going without,” added Phyllis Hitchcock of Emden, Ill., who weaves intricate bed coverlets, shawls, tablecloths, rugs, towels, aprons and other items.

Lagier, Shelabarger and Hitchcock have been seasonal workers at Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site near Petersburg for years. Dressed in period clothing, they interpret and do demonstrations for the visitors who tour the reconstructed log village where Abraham Lincoln lived and worked in the 1830s.

Hitchcock, 71, learned to weave from Bonnie Newman and Sharon Stovall. But the barn looms used at New Salem are “a different breed of cat” from the Union rug loom Hitchcock bought at an auction.

“We adjust the looms at New Salem all the time, because the ropes we use stretch. My loom at home has chains, and I don’t have to mess with adjusting them,” she said.

Before the Industrial Revolution, Hitchcock said, fabric from England was expensive and most professional weavers in America were men.

“The housewife, of course, had a profession — it took her all day just to keep her kids fed and clothed,” she said. “And women probably wouldn’t have had the strength to (operate) the big looms that some professionals had.”

Women with looms at home would “weave off” enough yards of material to make several tablecloths, dozens of towels or other textiles.

After the invention of the cotton gin, coverlets usually were woven from cotton or wool, rather than linen, which is made of flax. However, mice chew on cotton threads, so Hitchcock uses linen in her reproductions at New Salem.

Settlers “lived by the season,” Lagier noted.

Candle dipping, for example, typically took place in the fall, when butchering was done, because candles were made of tallow, or animal fat.

Braided cotton wicks tied to sticks or rods would be dipped into melted fat and hung to cool. It could take up to 60 to 80 dips per candle, and women often made enough candles to last all year, Lagier noted.

“The trick was to get the tallow to the right temperature,” she said.

Paraffin, an oil derivative, wasn’t introduced until the 1850s, but that’s what Lagier uses for candle making.

“Tallow candles smoked, dripped, smelled bad, mice ate them and they did not get firm,” she said.

Key ingredients for making soap included water, lye and animal fat or lard, said Shelabarger, who is 65 and retired from AT&T.

Lye, the liquid obtained by leaching wood ashes, was combined with water and added to the melted fat. That mixture was stirred in a kettle over an open fire until it resembled “heavy cake batter,” and then poured into a cloth-lined wooden box to cool and firm.

Bars then were cut and aged, so they wouldn’t fall apart.

“It was like making fudge,” said Shelabarger, adding that today’s store-bought soap is made with palm, coconut or olive oils.

The soap was used for not only “washing up” and bathing, but also for cleaning dishes and laundry.

Shelabarger uses commercial lye because of time constraints, but explains the original process when interpreting at New Salem.

These chores were not without potential danger. Fire, hot wax and lye made candle and soap making very dangerous, according to Lagier and Shelabarger.

“Lye’s an alkaline — it will burn you. You have to be extraordinarily careful. And anytime you’re working with an open fire, you have to pay attention,” Shelabarger said, noting that long skirts could be set ablaze and burns could become infected.

Hitchcock pointed out that “no matter what these (pioneers) did, it was all very time-consuming.”

“There was nothing quick and easy,” Lagier said.

Jim Winch spends countless hours in his shop on Irwin Bridge Road in rural Sangamon County, where friends, home-schooled children and others come to watch the blacksmith at work.

A former lineman who did horseshoeing on the side, Winch took up blacksmithing in 1981 after he was severely injured on the job. He prefers creating practical items rather than ornamental pieces.

With locking pliers attached to his prosthetic arm — a result of his work-related accident —Winch heats metal in a coal-burning forge and then shapes the piece on an anvil, striking it repeatedly with one of his many hammers.

“It’s extremely satisfying to take a piece of hard, cold metal, put it in the fire, form it, finish it and see it work or see a piece of broken machinery actually used again,” said Winch, 61, of the barn-door hinges, horse-drawn wagon brake assembly, old plow and tractor parts, and other things he’s made and repaired.

Penny Newton of Lake Petersburg, Ill., began weaving baskets in 1994 after taking a class at Sievers School of Fiber Arts on Washington Island, Wis.

“I loved it,” said Newton, 61, noting that she returns to the Door County school each year.

Baskets historically have been used to gather and store produce, eggs and other food, stow items when traveling, hold needlework, serve as purses and more. However, there’s a trend today among new basket weavers “to make works of art out of abstract things,” Newton said.

“I don’t do that. I want my baskets to be used, not just displayed,” she said. Newton, who is a retired nurse, U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel and Menard County domestic violence court advocate, volunteers regularly at New Salem.

Newton tries to incorporate American Indian designs into her work and enjoys giving her baskets as gifts or donating them to certain causes, including the Lincoln League’s gift shop at New Salem.

“I give them to people who truly appreciate the work that goes into a hand-woven basket,” she said.

Paulette Doellman of Athens, Ill., learned to quilt as a girl and remembers attending family quilting parties, which still take place in her hometown of Aviston. She recalled taking a pieced top to Aviston after her first of seven children was born.

“I didn’t think I could quilt it by myself,” said Doellman, 57. “We invited all the neighbors over and had it done in a week.”

Doellman has lost count of the patterned quilts she’s stitched on her large quilting frame, but she recalled an appliqued one that took about 30 years to complete.

“I started it before my kids were born and discovered it was too complicated to do with babies (about),” said Doellman, whose quilts have been displayed at the Athens Public Library, where she’s an assistant librarian.

Friend Marilyn Tobias, 77, also of Athens, took up the craft about 15 years ago.

“I cut out all the pieces and sew them together, piece by piece. That’s my therapy,” she said, adding that the coverlet’s three layers — the top, bottom and batting in between — are then quilted by women at a Williamsville church.

The women said yesteryear’s quilts usually were made from scraps of material and old clothing; modern quilts often are machine-stitched, using new, coordinated fabrics.

The Doellman children, ranging in age from 14 to 31, have been taught such skills as embroidery, blacksmithing, weaving, spinning, beading, leather crafting, basket weaving, woodworking and corn grinding and milling.

“We’ve tried everything, so they could see what they liked,” Paulette said.

“It gives the kids more self-confidence, because they realize they can do these things,” Paulette’s husband, Tony, said of the experiences. “You never know what skills you’ll need in life.”

Springfield resident Ken Guernsey attended St. James Trades School in the 1950s. He later was employed at Vredenburgh’s planing mill and Barker-Lubin Lumber Co. in Springfield before retiring from Stott Millwork in Petersburg.

As a seasonal worker at New Salem, Guernsey depicts a wheelwright/woodworker — telling visitors how drawknives, snitzelbanks or “shaving horses,” lathes, chisels, mallets, planes, squares, braces, augers and other hand tools were used to build wheels, furniture, barrels, buckets, churns and other necessities for villagers and surrounding farm community.

He explained, among other things, how two pieces of wood are put together using a tenon and mortise joint.

“That joint is about 6,000 years old. The Egyptians made chairs that are hardly different than what you’d see today,” said Guernsey, 71, who also has portrayed Santa Claus at White Oaks Mall for several years.

Forty years ago, Janet Thomson and other members of Petersburg’s Junior Women’s Club (now Town and Country Women’s Club) were asked to learn and demonstrate “old-time crafts” at a local festival.

“I’ve chair caned since then. It’s fun and relaxing,” she said, showing onlookers at Petersburg’s recent Harvest Fest the process of weaving a new seat for a chair.

“I like to teach people to do it, so it doesn’t die out,” said Thomson, 63. She also encourages people to learn caning because it can be expensive to have the work done, especially if several chairs need to be repaired.

Sharon Sponsler of Oakford enjoys sewing doll clothes, weaving “hand-loomed” rugs, crocheting and more. She learned woodcarving from her husband, Twain Sponsler, who has sculpted horses and other figures from wood and founded the Sangamon Valley Woodcarvers club.

At festivals and flea markets, Sharon sells the ornaments, novelty jewelry and wall hangings she’s carved from basswood or cottonwood bark. She also displays her finished projects at woodcarving shows.

“Everyone shares what they know and has fun with it. You get so many ideas,” Sharon said of the shows, where youngsters often are given soap to carve.

“Children spend a lot of time in front of the television or playing video games,” Sharon said. “If you get kids interested (in woodcarving) at a young age, they can entertain themselves and be creative.”

For centuries, woodcarvers have embellished furniture and caskets; added decorations to moldings, mantels and other architectural pieces; and created religious and other figurines and statues as well as toys.

Woodcarving tools include carving knives, gouges, V-tools, chisels and mallets, veiners and sharpening equipment.

“You’re less likely to get cut on a sharp knife than a dull knife,” Sponsler, 68, pointed out. “And wear a carving glove and thumb guard. You can cut that thumb — I know; I’ve done it.”

Lagier hopes those who see her and others’ demonstrations are “grateful for what we have and remember the people who worked so hard to get us where we are.”

“I think young people need to know how very right their ancestors were, how smart they were,” Hitchcock added. “They were persistent, and they were tough.

With the future of some state historic sites in jeopardy because of the state’s budget problems, there is concern among New Salem’s seasonal workers, who recently were laid off.

“If we don’t have the historic sites to demonstrate, to keep alive history, then a lot of these (skills) will be lost,” Lagier said. “You can read about some of these things in books, but to have people show you how to do them — it sticks with the children.”

Thomson has demonstrated chair caning at festivals in Rochester and Jacksonville, as well as at the Illinois State Fair and New Salem. She’s also taught classes at the Springfield Ceramics and Craft Club.

“It’s important to keep our heritage alive — that’s our makeup, and where we came from,” she said. “We never want to lose those roots.”

Ann Gorman can be reached through the State Journal-Register features desk at (217) 788-1512.