Christmas in the Great Black Swamp
By Becky Brooks
GIBSONBURG —Imagine a Christmas where your most cherished gift was a simple orange.
For a young girl on a farm in Northwest Ohio prior to the Civil War, that may have been a gift from a suitor. Plus, it would have been shared with her whole family.
Farm families who lived in Northwest Ohio during the 19th century truly knew a hard life — yet while many left the region — others stayed and conquered the Great Black Swamp.
Debbie Haubert, education specialist for the Sandusky County Park District, shares the tales and a first-hand demonstration of life during a 1850s Christmas at the cabins in White Star Park during a series of dinners each Christmas season.
The Christmas at the Cabins program is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and the 10 dinners set for the Reineck and Schlea-Swartzlander cabins were booked solid in under a week of reservations being opened for 2012.
In late November, Haubert was decorating the Schlea-Swartzlander cabin for the upcoming Christmas dinners. That cabin was originally built in 1874, while the Reineck Cabin was built in 1950. Both were originally from the Gibsonburg area and donated to the park district, which moved them to 800-acre White Star Park.
“Neither of our log homes had fireplaces when they were built,” Haubert said as wood cracked in a large four-burner cook stove.
The entire floor area of the Schlea-Swartzlander cabin would fit in most of today’s living rooms. Yet for a family in that region of the state, the cabin was kitchen, bedroom, living area and work space.
Haubert said this cabin was the bigger of the two as it was newer and built at a time when families in the Great Black Swamp were seeing just a bit more prosperity by the 1870s. The swamp was starting to be drained just before the Civil War, she said.
She also explained that the two log cabins at the park were built at a time when Ohio was modern enough that families could buy cast-iron pot belly stoves for their homes instead of building a fireplace into the wall.
That stove would have set in the center of the cabin for heat with a stove pipe leading out a side wall instead of extending up through the loft where other family members would be sleeping.
Like others living at the time in Ohio — fires were always a concern for people living in log homes.
Haubert pointed out that for much of Northwest Ohio — the Great Black Swamp was part of daily life until nearly the 1900s. The swamp stretched from mid-Sandusky County near Clyde north to nearly Sandusky (then called Portland) and then west all the way to Fort Wayne, Indiana. Wood County, for example, the home of Bowling Green State University today, was completely covered in swamp.
That swamp affected families who moved to the region to farm and how they celebrated Christmas.
Just as people realized they could drain swampland for clearing and farming — the Civil War came and postponed improvements, Haubert shared.
After the war, families used drainage pipes made from the clay under their feet and a system of ditches to change the landscape, she explained while sitting at a cabin table covered in oil lamps being cleaned and wicks trimmed for the upcoming dinners.
Because of the Swamp, Ohio has a system of drainage laws that remain in effect today, she added.
The people who lived in the Great Black Swamp changed over the years in the 1800s — First it was trappers like the French who moved through the area, and then German families and others came to the area to claim land for farming. They discovered the difficulties of life in the swamp. Farming was not easy and the land quality was poor, Haubert said.
“Life in the swamp was difficult,” she reiterated.
Some city homes and a few farm homes from the same period in Northwest Ohio had more amenities. For farms, it depended on the type of land the family had to work — and on the geography. Some areas were higher and more workable.
U.S. Route 20 that is a major east-west corridor — then called the Western Reserve Road — played a major role in Northwest Ohio.
“It was one of the highest roads going through the swamp,” Haubert pointed out.
Living in the swamp changed the way many families celebrated Christmas in the 1800s, she added.
In the cities and in years prior to the Civil War era, Christmas was a community event or celebration where people would come to the square of a village.
“By 1874, Christmas had evolved to a family tradition,” she pointed out. Especially in Northwest Ohio, traveling to cities was a day-long journey and traveling at night was just dangerous, according to Haubert.
“We did still have wolves in Ohio,” she commented about the dangers. “You faced natural dangers by being out.”
“Things revolved more about the family and you stayed in your area,” she added.
German families were already known for being frugal — for any farm family in the Black Swamp that was doubly so.
Haubert said families on the farms in the region would decorate for the holiday with greenery hanging in the cabin by the mid-1800s. In the cities — you would see families putting up tabletop trees adorned with candles — a tradition brought with the German immigrants.
“Families out in the swamp – you’re not going to waste candles,” she said about having setting up a tree with candles. “And it’s a fire hazard, and you’re living in a wood house.”
Homes in the cities had finished walls unlike cabins homes on most farms then.
Haubert said that the idea of using greens to decorate actually came from Greens and Romans. Evergreens were the only thing that would show life in the darkness of that time of year. The greens were also viewed as a protection from illness and bad spirits, she added. Plus since families lived in log cabins the evergreens could be put up for a day or two during Christmas and tossed outside.
“It wasn’t a huge fire hazard,” she pointed out about greens.
Besides greens in the cabins, German families influenced what type of gifts and decorations were being used in the Black Swamp after the 1850s.
“Your decorations could be a gift you could give away,” she said about the frugal ancestors of the region.
One of the most expensive gifts someone could give in the Swamp was a piece of fruit, like an orange, the park district official said.
“It was hard to get and expensive,” she said. While less frugal city dwellers might take an orange and pepper it with cloves for a hanging decoration, in the Swamp that orange was a gift between a suitor and his lady and was properly shared with family for its health value, she said.
In the city in the mid-1800s, more glass ornaments were becoming part of the Christmas traditions. Those traditions were slow to move to the farms of the Swamp, however.
In cabins like the Schlea-Swartzlander home (named for the family who donated it) most gifts would have been handmade. What gifts were given would have depended on the skills people had — smithing, sewing, or cooking.
There would have been tin-punch ornaments, tin ice cycles, fabric stars, dolls of cloth, applesauce dough ornaments and dried apple garlands ornaments. Apples were a fruit that was available in the region, and they could be kept nearly year-round with the aid of a fruit cellar.
“They did have access to some spices,” Haubert said about families.
“If you had a relative who sent you some fancy paper,” she said that could be turned into a paper doll garland. Haubert said the German culture also used Marzipan as decorations, which could be shaped into fruit and colored — then eaten later.
The Christmas dinner on the farm would be different than most people might expect for the times. In the Swamp — livestock was kept for its value not as a meat product. Chickens produced eggs, cows milk and oxen were needed to pull the plow and wagons. Horses were for single person travel and did not handle mud well.
An old laying hen could be saved for a holiday dinner — or wild game like turkey, deer or pheasant served. Haubert said even muskrat was used for a meal.
Desserts were few, because sugar was expensive. Farm families may have had access to maple syrup — but it would be difficult to make it last until Christmas. Haubert said they would have access to honey, but collecting that had its own challenges. Dried fruits could be used for special occasions — apples, cherries and wild fruits.
As for a holiday drinks — Haubert said whiskey was kept on hand for its dual purpose of medication and drink. There could be cider, milk, plus tea and coffees. The latter were most likely made from locally grown items like herbs or chicory. Haubert said chicory and dandelion root — common for the time — are very strong.
After hanging some of the period decorations on the greenery in the cabin, Haubert said that her Christmas in the Cabin program includes food being cooked in the cabin stove and that the meals are a little more modern — with beef roast, carrots and onions plus cherry cobbler.
The cabin holiday visitors today also have a chance to make their own ornaments, and they string popcorn and cranberries. Compared to the 1850s, the visit to cabin is a somewhat plush event.
“Their traditions were quite simple,” Haubert said about old farm families of the region.