When surviving winter meant fur and firewood

It’s definitely been an atypical Illinois winter so far. Surprisingly warm weather—the warmest Christmas for 30 years or so—has been punctuated by sub-zero windy weather that literally makes it a pain to go outside.

Living in northern Illinois and surviving both the scorching, humid summers and the cold, windy, (and up until recently, anyway) snowy winters has been a challenge ever since the first settlers arrived following giant herds of woolly mammoths and giant bison and elk during the last Ice Age.


Northern Illinois’ first inhabitants probably arrived following the giant Ice Age mammals they relied on for food, such as mammoths and giant rhinoceroses. Hinting had to continue year round.

Back in those times, the politically correct notion that it’s bad to wear furs was a few hundred centuries away from being dreamed up. Furs, in fact, were required garb during the cold months unless frostbite was the desired result. Unfortunately, no one knows exactly what those first Paleo hunters wore because none of their clothing has survived. But we can speculate that they wore moccasins made from thick elk hide, probably lined with mouse nest filling or dried grasses. Animal skin clothing, with the fur on the inside, was also probably very popular with the fashionistas of the era.

In fact, the winter clothing of American Indians didn’t change a whole lot for a few thousand years. When weaving was invented in North America, narrow strips of rabbit skin, tanned with the fur left on, were made into blankets and capes that were warm, and soft besides. Moccasins stuffed with grass were favored right up until shoes and boots were introduced by the Europeans, and sometimes afterwards by both whites and Indians living on the northern frontier.

Snowshoes were required to get around in deep snow, with most Native Americans from this region favoring the smaller and more maneuverable oval “bear paw” design.

When the first settlers arrived in the Fox Valley, they didn‘t live all that much differently from the Native Americans they displaced, with the exception of their homes. Instead of loaf-shaped bark-covered lodges, American settlers built log cabins with wooden gabled split shake roofs.

Nevertheless, winter was as much a problem for the settlers as it was for the Indians. Log cabins were drafty and cold, and the earliest fireplaces actually had wooden chimneys. Although thickly lined with clay, wooden chimneys often burst into flame. Needless to say, stone or brick chimneys replaced the wooden variety as soon as possible.

The roads the first settlers encountered were no more than faint dirt tracks across the prairie, running from one ford across a creek or river to another. It was actually a bit easier to travel in the winter because the dirt tracks were frozen solid. Spring was the bad time because dirt roadways turned into virtually bottomless quagmires.


Horse-drawn bobsleds are still used on farms and ranches during the winter to haul forage and feed to livestock, and they’re also sometimes still used by small logging operations in New England and elsewhere.

Sleds and sleighs were used for winter transport for people and freight alike. During the winter months, animals were slaughtered and then the frozen carcasses were hauled to market in Chicago on bobsleds, usually pulled by ox teams. Early on, both pork and beef were transported from the countryside to Chicago in this manner, where the carcasses were salted or smoked, to be shipped east via the Great Lakes or used for food by the residents of the growing city. Real change in that process had to wait a couple decades before railroads reached Chicago.

The only heat available in those earliest of log cabins was firewood. And it took a LOT of wood to heat even a small cabin. Pioneers generally chopped about 30 cords a winter, a cord being a tight stack of wood measuring four feet wide, four feet high, and eight feet long. Firewood was so valuable, in fact, that several of the county’s groves were subdivided into woodlots owned by farmers in the surrounding prairie. Wood, it was said then, warmed you twice, once when cut and split, and again when burned.

Meanwhile, down at the local mill dam, the millers had to work hard to keep the ice from damaging their machinery. Periodically, ice had to be broken away from the millraces and sluice gates that powered the turbine-style mill wheels. While the activity was going on, there was always a danger that a worker would fall through the ice and drown.

After rail lines began running along the Fox River in later years, the ice itself was turned into a commercial product. Each winter, the thick ice that formed behind the mill dams at Yorkville and Oswego and other Fox Valley towns was harvested using horse-drawn ice plows and hand ice saws. The blocks were hauled to shore by teams of horses, and stored in huge ice houses along the river bank. During the summer, the ice was transported to Aurora and Chicago via rail car, where it was used to keep food from spoiling through the use of iceboxes.

It wasn’t until the advent of the automobile that roads had to be kept reasonably clear of snow. Unlike horse-drawn sleighs, autos could not travel overland across the frozen fields, but had to keep to the roadways.

Dashing through the snow

A one-horse open sleigh dashing through the snow was a common sight in town and country alike until the first couple decades of the 20th Century.

Nowadays, we expect the snowplows to head out at the first sign of snow, and demand that salt, sand, or both be spread on icy streets and roads as soon as possible. The idea of hitching up old Dobbin to a sleigh and heading off across country is only remembered when we sing a few choruses of “Jingle Bells,” and even then I suspect a lot of folks don’t understand what the song’s words mean. For instance, what are “jingle bells” and why would they “make spirits bright”?

Granted, things are a lot more complicated these days, but they are also a lot more comfortable. It’s doubtful folks would tolerate packing their moccasins with dried grass each morning before heading off to work in a one-horse open sleigh. Instead, we sit in our warm autos wrapped in goose down coats and listen to weather reports detailing the wind chill factor and predicting weather based on satellite photos and Doppler radar.

Once in a while I muse about what it would be like to go back to the good old days of Model T’s with side curtains, horse drawn open sleighs, and fireplace heated homes. But not for very long.



Filed under Environment, Food, History, Illinois History, Local History, Technology

2 responses to “When surviving winter meant fur and firewood

  1. Bert Gray

    “Heated autos … wearing down coats???” Guess you haven’t experienced the new phenomena of heated car seats.
    Roger, this is a splendid review of winter over time. Congratulations on such a well crafted piece.
    As for me … I LOVE going north, lighting the two wood stoves (one in the kitchen we cook with all winter), and putting on the snowshoes for a moonlight hike. Only need boots to bring in a few loads of wood from the woodshed to replenish the supply on the porch and in the kitchen woodbox.
    Yes … that is wood that heated once when it was split 18-24 months earlier and now comes in to heat the second time.

    • RAM

      Heated seats came with Sue’s new Equinox back in 2010, and we both thought the idea was a bit frou-frou. But we came to love those darned things, so when I got my ‘new’ 2014 Town & Country last spring, we made sure it had them, too. And I’m not at all stingy with their use, either. Getting soft, us Americans, that’s all I can say. My grandfather’s probably turning over in his grave…

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