From Tapping Trees to Computer Keys

I’m currently sharing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series with my daughter. Unable to locate my childhood set, I bought a new one 5 years ago when Katie was just 2, knowing we would find a time to read them together. That time has come.

We burned through the first book, “Little House in the Big Woods,” then moved on to the famed “Little House on the Prairie.” We recently finished book three, “Farmer Boy,” a story about Laura’s husband, Almanzo, during his childhood in upstate New York. We’re now reading book four: “On the Banks of Plum Creek.”

While reading “Farmer Boy,” I couldn’t get past Laura’s meticulous recounting of Almanzo’s boyhood chores. She detailed the time- and labor-intensive work he was expected to accomplish during the course of his 10th year. It blew me away.

Take the job of filling the icehouse, for example. Refrigerators had not yet been invented, so early American families stored blocks of pond ice in icehouses to keep their meats and cheeses cold. Cutting ice was no simple task. Pioneers had to do it during the coldest weather imaginable, so when they lifted it from the pond after cutting it, the ice would instantly freeze to facilitate a clean, drip-free removal. The ice might be 20 inches thick, so the job required men with axes and cross-cut saws. (A cross-cut saw had a long narrow blade with wooden handles on both ends so two men could saw back and forth with it.)

Children didn’t do the cutting, but they did stack and organize the ice in the icehouse—hard work, to be sure. Consider this description from chapter 6 of “Farmer Boy.”

The ice-house was built of boards with wide cracks between. It was set high from the ground on wooden blocks, and looked like a big cage. Only the floor and the roof were solid. On the floor was a huge mound of sawdust, which father had hauled from the lumber mill.
With a shovel, father spread the sawdust three inches thick on the floor. On this he laid the cubes of ice, three inches apart. Then he drove back to the pond, and Almanzo went to work with Royal in the ice-house.
They filled every crack between the cubes with sawdust, and tamped it down tightly with sticks. Then they shoveled the whole mound of sawdust on top of the ice, in a corner, and where it had been they covered the floor with cubes of ice and packed them in sawdust. They covered it all with sawdust three inches thick.
They worked as fast as they could, but before they finished, Father came with another load of ice. He laid down another layer of ice cubes three inches apart, and drove away, leaving them to fill every crevice tightly with sawdust, and spread the sawdust over the top, and shovel the rest of the mound of sawdust up again.
They worked so hard that the exercise kept them warm, but long before noon Almanzo was hungrier than wolves. He couldn’t stop work long enough to run into the house for a doughnut. All of his middle was hollow, with a gnawing inside it.

As I write this, my 11-year-old and 10-year-old sons are lounging lazily on the sofa watching “The Clone Wars” and snacking on Crunch-n-Munch. Do I feel a tad guilty? Sure. Kids today may make up their beds, take out the trash and pull weeds once in a while—if that. Come to think of it, none of my childhood chores during the 1980s involved breaking calves or rolling logs onto bobsleds. Did yours?

The fact is, technology has changed so much about the way we live today that there is really no need for children to tend to the endless chores they were charged with 150 years ago. Instead of learning how to tap maple trees to make syrup, today’s kids are tapping on computers to take state-required typing courses in middle school.

At the same time, our kids face challenges American pioneers never dreamed of: easy access to drugs and alcohol, deadly choking games, “sext” messages, intense academic pressure, highly competitive sports, Internet bullying and ever-changing family dynamics—from an increasing number of single-parent households, to families with two working parents, many of whom travel frequently. This was all unheard of during the frontier years.

As a parent in today’s environment, I consider it exceedingly important to expose my children to the foundation America’s pioneers set for our country. How? By reading historical stories to them, like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. By signing them up for scouting organizations, such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Y-Guides and Princesses. By exploring history museums and historical monuments. By carefully preparing and thoroughly enjoying family meals the way pioneer families did.

Why? Because beyond the arduous details of early frontier life—from living entirely off the land to keeping up with endless seasonal chores—lies a compelling story of hard work, humility and patriotism. When we teach our children about those days, we’re not only rediscovering our American values, we’re celebrating our country’s foundation. Perhaps most important, we’re teaching our kids to appreciate—not take for granted—the fruits and freedoms of America’s progress. That, to me, is what being an American parent is all about.

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