History of Conecuh County Alabama Chapter 3
Early Privations and Struggles – Unparalleled Difficulties – Scarcity of Shoes – Undaunted Heroism – Meagreness of Blacksmith Facilities – Joshua Betts – A Barefooted Population – Scarcity of Grist Mills – Georgia Currency, & etc.
Notwithstanding the luxuriant abundance of natural elements, with which the early settlers found themselves surrounded, they were not exempt from the privations then universally incident to pioneer life.
Vast forests had to be felled, and the fields to be cultivated, but most scanty was the supply of implements with which the formidable task had to be undertaken; and the few in hand were of the rudest character. A few axes and grubbing hoes, such as the daring emigrants had brought with them from their distant homes, were the only utensils that could be brought into practical requisition.
But with that heroism which had prompted them to penetrate these forest wilds, they energetically addressed themselves to the stupendous task. But at every step, they encountered new difficulties; one overcome, another was introduced. By dint of arduous and tedious toil, the forests were partially cleared away – but where were the implements of agriculture with which the soil was to be tilled. A few shovels, spades and grubbing hoes, of the rudest character, and an occasional scooter plow, were the only implements with which these primitive agriculturists were to raise their virgin crops. The only instrument used by many of the wealthiest farmers, for several years, was a sharply-flattened hickory pole, made somewhat in the shape of a crowbar, with which holes were, made in the soil and the seed deposited. An embarrassing difficulty arose from the absence of smithy facilities among the early farmers, and hence many saw but little hope of subsequent relief from their perplexity. This embarrassment, however, was partially overcome in upper Conecuh by the possession of a few blacksmith tools by Joshua Betts. He was reinforced by his brother, Isaac – who had, by the aid of the enterprising settlers in that region, supplied himself with a complete outfit of blacksmith tools, for which he agreed to pay with work done in his shop. But one of the severest privations to which the pioneer families were subjected was a great scarcity of shoes. Many of the fathers and grandfathers of the influential families now resident in Conecuh, were, from necessity, barefoot laborers. The early soil was tilled, through heat and cold, by barefooted men. The game was chased over the hills by men wearing no shoes. Men and women taught school, and attended church, with feet totally unprotected. And to show that it was not incompatible with primitive dignity, one of the earliest aspirants to Legislative honors – Captain Cumming – actively canvassed the county of Conecuh, on horseback, with his feet clad only in their native nudeness. It is said to have been not an unfrequent occurrence to meet men, on horseback, with their naked feet armed with a pair of rude wooden spurs.
The year 1816 was noted as being one of sore privation to the heroic families who had confronted the perils of these forest wilds, nerved alone by the hope of future reward, which itself was dependent upon their tedious exertion. To appreciate their struggles with formidable difficulties, one has only to be told that during the year 1816 the settlers of Conecuh had to procure their corn from Claiborne, which had to be transported in sacks across the country on horseback –
and that, too, amid the constant danger of falling into the hands of roving bands of savages, who prowled like beasts of prey in all directions. This stupendous disadvantage was further enhanced by the utter absence of grist mills; and hence the planters had to have recourse to a rude contrivance of their own manufacture, which was called a “sweep.” This consisted of a pestle, fixed into a horizontal pole, which rested upon an upright forked beam, securely fixed into the ground. Beneath this was placed a mortar, which contained the corn. By the perpendicular operation of the pestle, the corn was gradually pounded into a mealy state. This inconvenient usage was at length obviated by the erection, in upper Conecuh, of a grist mill upon the identical spot where Ellis’s Mills now stand. This was built by Captain Cumming. Shortly after this, a similar enterprise sprang up on Mill creek, near Bellville. This was erected by Bartly Walker.* These were the only mills that existed in Conecuh for many years. And such rare enterprises did not fail to become centres of influence for a long time. They were the points of popular resort, whither the fathers of yore would gather, each bringing his ponderous sack of corn on his horse or mule, and accompanied by his trusty rifle. And as the miller would reduce their corn to meal, many would be the feats described, and the adventures recounted, by the hardy fathers of the long ago. Among other hardships encountered by the early inhabitants of Conecuh was that of being forced oftentimes, by stress of necessity, to consume meal made of corn which had molded through age and exposure. And their rapid prosperity becomes to us, more a source of wonder, when, superadded to all these hardships, was that of being compelled to use Georgia currency, which was below par ; so that even though the injured corn was conveyed from such distances, it cost from four to seven dollars per bushel.
But, rising above all these stupendous difficulties, these hardy sons of energy laid the foundations of wealth, and transmitted to the succeeding generation not only the results of their toils, but, besides, the power of a physical and moral courage, whose strength ever rose higher than the confronting barrier, and enabled them to prevail against odds the most formidable. Verily, more than any ever experienced by their offspring, “these were times that tried men’s souls.”
* The mill rocks used here were dag from the earth near Joseph Burt’s, where an abundance of similar stones may still be found.