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The first home on the “Butter in the Well” homestead was a dugout. Two years later in 1870, the Svensson family built the first section of their wood-frame house. They added on at least two more times over the next two decades.

Here are excerpts from Butter in the Well, as well as a copy of the first photo taken of the house in 1881. It shows the front of the house, which is the second addition to the house. The stone section was on the west side and did not show on this photo.

June 4, 1870
We finally have enough stone to start building our house. We have been collecting sandstone rocks whenever we come across them in the field or the creek. It has been hard to find enough rock nearby.

Yesterday Carl picked up the last wagonload of local rock. There is a rise of hills two miles south that has an outcropping of stone. The rains last week loosened the sod enough that it was easy to dig out the rocks with a spade and pick.

The cellar is dug. It will be used as storage for our preserved food, and as a root cellar for our vegetables and fruits from the garden. We also need a place for shelter from tornadoes, the cyclone winds that Kansas is known for. We’ll have one entrance to the cellar from outside on the north, one from the porch on the south and one inside the house. After the stone walls are in place in the cellar, and the floor is laid for the house, I want to move into the cellar. We’d have more room than in the dugout and the cellar floor seems drier than the dugout floor. We have had water seeping up from the floor of the dugout this spring. It is always muddy and doesn’t want to dry out. It will be so nice to get out of the damp ground and live on a wooden floor when the house is done.

Our house will measure 16 feet square. Imagine all the space we’ll have. It will consist of one big room with a loft above it. We hope to add on more rooms as we have the time and money.

Carl bought glass for three windows, a door, shingles and more lumber when he was in Salina last week. One window will go in the middle of the west wall, one in the middle of the south wall, and a little window in the west end of the loft. The front door will go in the southeast corner of the house.

Carl also bought a big cooking stove with the money he received from selling some of last year’s wheat. It will go on the west wall, just to the right of the window so I can gaze out at our farm while I’m cooking.

We’ll have a ladder on the east wall to get up into the loft, which we’ll use as storage and for an extra bedroom. I’d like to add a porch to the south eventually. Then I can sit and watch the children play while I’m sewing, snapping beans or whatever needs to be done. 

June 12, 1870
Rock by rock we are slowly building the walls. We are mixing a plaster of sand, clay and lime to cement the rock together. Benjamin and Mr. Lapsley are helping today. Adelaide came over to watch the progress and help me fix the meals for the extra hands.

As I stood inside my partially built house tonight, I tried to imagine what it will look like when it is done. I want to put up red gingham curtains that I can tie back during the day, and braid some rag rugs for the floor. The old hides have worked well in the dugout, but I want our new home to look like a real house, like the one we had in Sweden.

March 16, 1876
With four growing children, our house has become too small. We had hoped to add on sooner, but it hasn’t been possible until now. It is going to be an American two-story frame house.

I will have to move my flower bed from its place on the east side. I’ve collected wildflower seeds in the fall from the open prairie and now I have a beautiful variety of flowers around our home. Columbine and daisies bloom in the spring. I enjoy the primrose and phlox in the summer and the goldenrod and asters in the fall. The wild rose roots I dug up have spread everywhere so I have a nice stand of them. I throw my wash water on the flower beds when I empty the tubs, so they are well watered. I love the splash of color the flowers have added to the homestead. We dug up several small cedar and ash saplings from the riverbank and transplanted them around the house, but they are out far enough that they won’t have to be moved.

We have bought lumber, glass for windows and doors to build on four rooms. We will add two rooms to the east part of the stone room, with two rooms directly above it. Since the cellar is already a nice size, we will not dig a basement for the new section.

Carl will put in a staircase to the upstairs and seal off the hole in the ceiling we have been using to get to the loft. We’ll add a door to the side of the loft at the top of the stairway and use that area for an attic. The southeast room will be our bedroom. A smaller bedroom to the north will be used as Alfred’s nursery, and we’ll have a storage closet under the stairwell. A stove in our room will heat the new section of the house.

At the top of the stairs will be one small room for Willie and a larger room to the south for the girls. The girls are excited about having their own room, away from their brother! The upstairs will be cold during the winter, but the children can come downstairs to dress in front of the kitchen stove.

The walls will be plastered and eventually papered. There is enough wood for trim inside around the windows, doors and baseboards. I’ll need to make more curtains and Carl will have to make more furniture.

Carl even bought extra siding to cover the sandstone walls on the old part of the house. After we paint, the house will be done.

May 5, 1881
A photographist stopped by to ask if I would like a picture taken of us and the farm. He has been traveling around the area this week. I decided it would be a good idea because we do not have such a picture. Carl and I had talked about it, but we never found the time or money. We brought the animals out of the barn to show how well we are doing. We stood in front of the house. I asked Peter to be in the picture also, since he helps us out so much.”
(Excerpts from Butter in the Well, © by Linda K. Hubalek)

Perishables, before the days of electricity, were kept in crocks and buckets, and lowered down with a rope into the well to be stored right above the water level. The well was a cool place to store food that would otherwise spoil.

According to a family story, one time the rope broke so there is a crock of butter in the bottom of the well. Now you know how I came up with the title for this book, Butter in the Well.

Looking closely at the homestead photo, can you find the well? Post a comment when you find it- and anything else you find interesting or have a question about… (You can go to my Facebook page to see a larger copy of it and comment there too.)

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Tags: Kansas, book, fiction, historical, homesteading, hubalek, linda, pioneer, women

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Comment by Linda Hubalek on March 16, 2012 at 7:03am

Thanks for the note Ruthann. I usually post on Wednesdays, so watch for more old photos and stories.

Comment by Ruthann on March 15, 2012 at 12:04pm

I love these photos and the stories and all the memories the familys must have are just precious, and we would never have thought life was so rough and also so family oriented back then, was just over a hundred years our greatgranparents have lived this .. awaiting more photos and stories, I recently did my family ancestory and was some intresting and alot of research but well worth it..

Comment by Linda Hubalek on March 15, 2012 at 11:45am

The first section of this house was our living room when I was growing up. I can't imagine the 6 in our family living only in that space for everything... I'm glad the original family added on to the house three more times! Thanks for your note. It's always fun to hear from readers, like you. :)

Comment by Pam/NY on March 15, 2012 at 6:48am

Linda, once again, you share with us a great story of the past. We have a 720 sq.ft. summer cottage, I can only imagine having to live with 6 family members in such a small space. The joy and pain of building a house can be felt through your words. We can only imagine the joy of finally having a well and a dry floor beneath us. Thanks again for sharing!

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