Decatur County History

Frontier Life

The first settler of record in what was to become Decatur County was Jimmy Harris, who came to be known by the affectionate name of "Uncle Jimmy".  At some time during the first decade of the 1800s, Harris paddled the Tennessee River and landed at the mouth of a little stream that he later named Cub Creek because of the numerous cub bears he had killed in that vicinity.  "Uncle Jimmy" was of that intrepid breed of adventurer-hunter who traveled ahead of civilization.  Finding the lay of the land to his liking, he put down roots and waited for American civilization to catch up with him.

He did not have to wait long, for when Decatur was officially recognized as a county in 1845, approximately 300 people were living there.  As in the development of a photograph negative, all parts of basic civilization quickly came into focus.  The county was ideally situated for settlement; it could be reached by river as well as by land.  Early immigrants found the arduous task of settlement eased somewhat by the towering poplars conducive for building; by hills which served as a protection against floods; by plentiful game for hunting, and fish; and by fertile bottomland for farming.

All the work involved in establishing a farm required many hands, so big families were the rule, often with as many as 12 to 14 children.  It was typical for the men to work the fields and provide game for the table and for the women to do domestic chores.  Many local residents still remember the weekly routine of frontier life endured by their grandparents.  Keeping a home then was far different from now due to the conveniences provided by current labor-saving devices.

Clothes were washed not in a washing machine, but in a big black pot filled with water and heated by a fire.  The clothes were rubbed clean on a brass washboard in large washtubs.  Then they were boiled for a while, rinsed several times, including once in blueing water.  Next the clothes were hung to dry on a line or anything else convenient.  In the summer the water from the washing was poured on the flower beds.

Since most clothes were handmade the value of care to prolong their use was great.  Large families dictated the need for hand-me-downs.  Besides normal deterioration, "bob" (barbed) wire fences were always around to snag and to tear clothing.  Saturday was frequently spent by going into town.  The farm housewife would see the latest products, styles, and fabrics, but usually could purchase only those things necessary.  Sunday, of course, was the time for both religious and social activities held even if the church could not afford a full-time preacher.  Following church, there was usually a big dinner for guests and relatives who came home with the family.

Frontier life was not easy, but essentially, it was peaceful, if drought, pestilence, or some other malady did not strike.  The farm family was able to live a full life of simple well-being, with gardens for vegetables, cows for milk, steers for beef, hogs for pork and lard, chickens for eggs, and wild game for the killing.  Farm life was a mode of existence that fostered stability and continuity, and a farm would stay in the same family for years.  For example, Solomon Wyatt was granted 150 acres in Decatur County by the state of Tennessee in 1852.  This same farm has been in the Wyatt family since that date, presently belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Lealon Wyatt, of Bath Springs.  The Wyatt farm was the first farm in the county to be honored in the Farm Land Heritage Program in 1976, since it has been owned and continuously operated for over 100 years by the same family.  Three other century farms also were honored:  the Welch farm on Highway 69 where Weldon Welch now lives; the Keeton farm, operated by B. B. Keeton; and the Moore farm located near Decaturville on which Mr. and Mrs. Roy Moore live.

Any dreariness in frontier living was relieved by recreation in which everyone participated, unlike much of today's passive entertainment.  There were quilting bees for the women, square dances for the younger set, corn husking and log rolling for the men, and games such as mumble peg, horseshoes, and pitching dollars for the children.

At the square dances, partners danced to the calls of dosi-do and promenade.  Ladies were usually clad in colorful calico dresses in shirtwaist styles with full skits.  Their partners were usually dressed in homespun clothing.  Corn huskings were primarily for men.  The contest was started when they were gathered at the barn.  The man who shucked the most ears of corn in a given period of time was the winner.  Log rolling was really more work than play.  Logs were stacked high by hand, then rolled to the desired location.

Games were a common form of amusement for young as well as old.  Due to the economic conditions, sometimes instead of pitching dollars it became necessary to pitch washers.  Another game of interest was called "Jack Marbles".  One big marble was placed with four smaller ones making a square around it.  The object of the game was either to knock the "Jack Marble" out of the center first or knock all five marbles out.  This game interested the youth and also men, who played it in town as they waited for the livery stable man to hitch up a horse.  Other popular games were "The Farmer in the Dell", "London Bridge is Falling Down", "Red Rover", "Go In and Out the Windows", and "Crack the Whip".  These games were common in schools at recess and lunch hour.

More to come.

From Tennessee County History Series: Decatur County by Lillye Younger 1979. ISBN 0-87870-077-3