We’ve a cold snap or two this winter, and it made me think of how our forbears endured winter in Montana’s Gold Country during the Vigilante era. When you step into a nice hot shower on a frigid morning, think of them.
If you’ve read the books in my “Vigilante Quartet,” you’ll find the people breaking the ice on the water buckets in order to get a drink of water at night. Washing in the morning was usually confined to faces and behind the ears because they had to find water and tote it home in buckets. Many people drank the water from the creeks, and used it to wash themselves and their clothes. Dan Stark, the hero in my four novels, has dug his own well, but to have water in the house he pumps it out of the ground and carries it into the house. Once the water is in the house, his wife Martha, boils it to be sure it’s clean.
Men either shaved in icy water or they heated it on a fire or stove before shaving. They coated their faces with lather from soap, or special shaving soap – if they could find any, or if they could afford it.
People recycled water. They had a system of buckets for clean water, once-used (gray) water, and slops. Slop buckets were emptied anywhere in the yard, as were the gray water buckets when they grew too dirty.
Winters were colder then, started earlier in the year, and lasted longer. The stories you’ve heard about sewing children into their long underwear for the winter may have been true in many cases, but the sad fact is that before central heating, the only warm spot in a room was in front of the fireplace or the stove. If you faced the heat source, your back was cold. If you turned your back to the heat, your front was cold.
It took a brave person to take a complete bath when the outside temperature hovered around thirty-below. Or colder. Mercury freezes at -37.894 F and -38.83 Celsius. Accounts of life in Gold Country during the winters of 1862 through 1865 often refer to mercury freezing in the thermometers, so people did not really know how cold it was.
The old Christmas poem, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” refers to “Ma in her kerchief and I in my cap.” People covered their heads at night, and often slept with bed socks on, too.
Parents of small children rose several times in the night to be certain the little ones had not come uncovered, and it was not unusual for babies to sleep between their parents for warmth before they moved to a bed with their older siblings. Again, stories you might read or hear about children sleeping 8 to a bed arose from the need to keep warm.
One very brave woman, Anna Gould Hough, was married to the Rev. Asahel Hough, the first Methodist missionary to Montana. A story about her reveals her determination and courage. When the Methodist bishops offered her husband an opportunity to carry Christianity to Montana Territory, they told Rev. Hough he could not bring his wife with him. The region was considered no place for a decent woman, and in fact, the bishops said, “There are no decent women in that place.” *
When she heard that, Mrs. Hough replied, “Then it is high time there was one.” She refused to be separated from her husband.
The men had no choice but to yield.
The Houghs founded a Methodist congregation in Virginia City and built the Methodist church at the foot of Jackson Street. The cold winters defeated Mrs. Hough, though, and her health broke. She developed a “pleurisy of the ear.” (Pleurisy is an inflammation of the pleura, the lining of the chest cavity and the lining around the lungs that makes breathing painful and difficult.) Her hearing was damaged, and her general health was affected so that after four years, the Houghs moved to Los Angeles, where he helped to found a Methodist college now known as the University of Southern California. Mrs. Hough (1829-1919) was an older sister of Jay Gould (1836 – 1892), known as “the robber baron’s robber baron.” He was also very generous to his sisters and brother, however, and helped them and their families financially whenever they needed it.
*Had they known about that remark, Mary (Mrs. Sidney) Edgerton and her nieces, Harriet (Mrs. Wilbur) Sanders and Lucia Darling, would have been insulted.