How Did the Settlers Prepare for Winter?
Updated: Oct 5
The area west of Chicago, including Brush Hill (which became Fullersburg), experienced an influx of white settlers soon after the Black Hawk War in 1832 and subsequent 1833 Treaty of Chicago, which ultimately resulted in the forced removal of most of the region's Native Americans to reservations west of the Mississippi River. Benjamin Fuller arrived on horseback in 1834 from New York and chose a suitable location for his large extended family. The timing of the Fuller family's move to this area in 1835 allowed for the construction of a suitable home before winter arrived. The Fuller family probably would have been aware of the need to prepare for winter because of the legendary 1830-31" Winter of the Deep Snow," which severely impacted pioneers, Native Americans, and wildlife in much of Illinois as they struggled to obtain sufficient food and shelter. (See blog post "The Winter of the Deep Snow" in the blog section of this site.)
Most of the early residents of Brush Hill built log cabins, which first required the clearing of land that had been purchased from the government for $1.25 per acre; the Fuller family initially purchased around 160 acres to allow for planting crops and building a home. In order to build a cabin, trees were cut down and logs were fitted together with carved notches; spaces between logs were filled with grass, mud, and other material. George Ruchty, author of The Fullers of Fullersburg, writes that the original Fuller cabin was about twenty-five feet long and fifteen feet wide, with a flagstone floor and a roof made of overlapping pieces of bark, which did not prevent snow from blowing in during blizzards. (See The Fullers of Fullersburg in the Sources section of this site.)
The cabins of the early settlers were usually temporary structures and often crowded due to their size. The Torode family also arrived in Brush Hill around 1835, and many of their experiences are documented through letters. On 5/21/1836, J.J. Torode wrote about adding an addition to their cabin, writing, "... we are building it 21 by 14 at the west end of this one there is so little room in here that at knight when our beds are out there is hardly room to open the door and every thing is piled on each other so that we can hardly find aney thing when we want it." (See The Fullers of Fullersburg in the Sources section of this site.)
The fireplaces that provided heat were primarily fueled by firewood, which meant that the settlers needed an ample supply of wood before winter. Storing the wood and keeping it dry was also a challenge for the pioneers. As matches were not readily available until around 1900, the pioneers used flint and steel to start their fires, which were probably kept burning. However, even a very efficient fireplace could not keep an entire cabin warm in very cold weather. For example, in a letter written by Fullersburg settler Nicholas Torode Jr. to his father on 1/30/1836, Nicholas writes, "it is now 3 o'clock I will close and go to bed my ink frezes so hard... ."
As it was back-breaking work to chop enough wood for the winter, the settlers of Brush Hill attempted to use machinery to help them with this task. In 1837, Nicholas Torode and Sherman King constructed a sawmill, which was powered by a dam built from logs and brush over Salt Creek at the current site of historic Graue Mill. Benjamin Fuller also devised a way to cut firewood; as written in the Fullersburg Chronicles, Ben used the flow of the water in Ginger Creek near his cabin to supply energy for a small paddle wheel that he constructed, which transmitted power to a hand saw used to cut firewood. (See Fullersburg Chronicles in the Sources section of this site.)
Warm clothing was also a requirement for the early settlers of this area, who often made their own clothes. While animal skins or fur could be used for warmth, wool long johns were also worn. Wool from sheep and linen from flax plants were spun on reels such as the one that was constructed by Benjamin Fuller in 1840, which had hand-cut gears. (See photo in The Fullers of Fullersburg.) Feathers from geese were also used to create down comforters. In his 1/18/1836 letter, Nicholas Torode writes about comforters being used to keep him warm during a bitterly cold wagon journey; he then placed the comforters on his horses after arriving at his destination, which was a grist mill in Naperville, where he pleaded to have his corn ground.
Food insecurity among the pioneers of this area was a serious problem. While the early settlers of Fullersburg raised some crops for profit, food preservation was an integral part of preparing for winter. In his 1/18/1836 letter, Nicholas also wrote that his neighbors had given him some frozen corn that had been pounded into a hominy block to eat. J.J. Torode writes on 6/15/1836 about his family's peach trees, apple trees, strawberry plants, and blueberry seeds, but complains that mice had eaten their mulberry seeds. The family was attempting to avoid another difficult winter by ensuring that they had enough to eat.
The Torodes also attempted to catch fish in Salt Creek with limited success, and planning for the preservation of protein sources proved to be more challenging. On 11/26/1838, J.J. writes in another letter, "The wolves are very numerous and destroy a great number of our pigs one of our neighbours has caught 3 this fall... ." The Torode family also kept chickens and cows, which were difficult to keep from wandering. Meat could be preserved in barrels with salt and brown sugar in preparation for winter months.
Most pioneers also had a cellar and/or root cellar, which were dug underground to protect the food that was stored from freezing and to safeguard it from animals. Root vegetables that could be kept in the cellars included potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, beets, and carrots. While some fruits and berries could be dried, others, such as apples, kept well below ground. Corn, squash, pears, and pumpkins were also able to be canned for winter consumption. (See "Winter Survival Skills that Kept the Pioneers Alive" by Tammy Robinson at Off the Grid News' website.)
Food was necessary for survival, and the friendly Potawatomi and local pioneers helped each other in this regard. Potawatomi chief Aptakisic taught the settlers near his camp how to plant their crops, and he was a frequent visitor at a maple grove near Fullersburg, where the Potawatomi made syrup before their forced removal from the area. The Blodgett family, who moved from the Naper Settlement to another homesite just west of Fullersburg, shared food with the local Potawatomi. In Pioneer Recollections of Avis Dodge Blodgett, Avis's granddaughter writes, "The Indians would come in groups, several in number and ask for food. Often the larder was nearly empty but she never denied them, knowing it was greater security for her family to give them food." . Later, The Graue family, who bought the sawmill over Salt Creek from the Torode family and converted it to a grist mill, gave Native Americans who lived in huts on the north side of Salt Creek syrup spread over corn cakes. (See Village on the County Line in the Sources section of this site.)
Life was quite difficult for the early settlers of Fullersburg, particularly when preparing for winter. The kinship between neighbors and between the white settlers and Native Americans appears to have been a strong factor in their survival, as neighbors helped each other when called upon. In his 1/18/1836 letter, Nicholas Torode writes that his neighbor's son assisted him late one winter night when his wagon got stuck in Salt Creek. Despite life's challenges, however, the settlers found time to enjoy the beauty of their environment, despite the cold. George Ruchty writes, "Winter days and evenings found just about everyone skating on the creek. In extremely cold weather large log fires burned brightly along the shoreline, giving warmth and comfort to those brave enough to venture outdoors." Our primary historical sources collectively indicate that the settlers of this area were brave, generous, innovative, and determined to create new lives for themselves, regardless of any challenging conditions.
Sue Devick, M.A.