Cabin Fever

By this time of year many of us are experiencing Cabin Fever – loosely defined as “irritability, listlessness, and boredom from long confinement or isolation indoors.” That feeling of being trapped is generally caused by snowstorms when you can’t go out even if you wanted to – those severe blizzards where they’re telling people to stay home, off the roads and wait for the snowplows to do their thing – but it’s been made even worse this year by the pandemic lockdowns. 

Although we may be stuck inside, we have all the comforts of home – a warm dwelling, good food and plenty of entertainment available.  It’s even possible to ignore things altogether if you don’t look outside, especially if you have a cozy fire to sit beside, a hot beverage and a good book or movie.  Winter can be very hygge.

While I would normally appreciate these quiet January days after the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, lots of time to read and write and putter about pretending to reorganize, this year when we’ve been cooped up inside so much already, it seems downright claustrophobic.   So let’s call it pandemic fever instead.  In fact the term cabin fever had an early association with typhoid fever and quarantine.

As the term originated with the pioneers who spent long winters by themselves, when severe weather and long distances from neighbors were truly isolating, let’s take a look at how people coped with cabin fever way back when there were cabins.

The Log Cabin

I often wondered how my ancestors survived their first winter here.   They came from Ireland in 1846 during the potato famine, three brothers and their families, and after jumping ship in the St. Lawrence to evade the cholera epidemic, arrived in Toronto, starving and penniless.   They had to borrow one pound from the Immigrant Land Agent (National Archives Document Oct 16 1846) to pay for water transport to the area where they would settle.  The land was all wilderness then, and arriving so late in the year, they would never have survived the first winter were it not for the help of the Indians and a neighbor who helped them build a hut dwelling and showed them how to hunt for game.  (Most likely they ate a lot of venison stew).  They were unprepared for the cold and the snow as the posters advertising Upper Canada boasted about its abundant game (true) and tropical climate (well maybe in the summer).   Did they even have any warm clothing?   My great-grandfather, who had stayed behind to go to school, arrived later wearing a straw hat.  They would gladly have returned to the misery of Ireland in those early years. 

The First Winter

Their first homestead was on swampland and the water was bad, so eventually they moved to a different site a few miles down the road, where they build a log cabin, similar to this one I blogged about in my Pioneer Village post.   

The inspiration behind the painting….

This cabin dates from 1870, and is fairly large, with room for a farmhouse table and a sleeping loft above.    

A warm stove…

Another cabin on the site of the local Heritage Museum is much smaller, and housed just two people, a widow and her young son.  

The original Tiny House…

It was constructed in 1857 of lumber rather than logs, as there was a sawmill nearby – the interior is pine. With only two rooms, this typical first home was built quickly, as more effort went to clearing the land and planting crops.

While small in size, it was snug and warm with the long stove pipe circulating the heat across the house.  There was an additional sleeping space in the attic over the kitchen.

The rope bed was covered with a straw or feather mattress.

While the quilt is nice, it does make me grateful for my comfy bed, with its deep mattress, soft sheets and down comforter, and there’s certainly not much counter space in that kitchen!   

Now the local heritage museum is fund-raising to restore another log cabin.  

This one has an interesting and well-traveled history.   Originally built in 1840 in the Goderich area, it was disassembled in the 1930’s and floated down Lake Huron to a lakefront property where it was used as a summer cottage. In the 1970’s it was donated and moved to it’s current site in a local park where it was used for community events such as Christmas in the Park, until it fell into such a state of disrepair that it was deemed unsafe and they decided to tear it down and build a replica.   A great hue and cry ensued from the public and the local historical society, so they relented and at a cost of $50,000 are paying to have it relocated to the museum site for future restoration.  I know, it seems a lot of money to spend on a derelict old building but they waste money on other things, and how many 180 year old log cabins are left?  This will be it’s third move, but just look at that solid construction.    

No chilly drafts would come through those thick walls, but they do need to do something about the broken windows.      

I’ve been feeling bad about my house lately. My renos remain undone, dust bunnies abound and I don’t seem to have the energy to give it a good cleaning. My cleanliness standards have slipped considerably since no one is seeing it but me. Hopefully in March I’ll be motivated to give it a good spring cleaning.

But after a look at these humble abodes, I’m appreciating my own home and hearth more, and feeling better about cabin fever. We have so many more creature comforts today and all the modern conveniences. Maybe it really is all about perspective.

With no internet or Netflix to occupy themselves with what did they do for entertainment back then?   Being Irish, I’m sure there was music – the fiddle – and story telling often took the place of books, and I hope there was comfort food too – warm bread and  apple pies and taffy treats.  

So perhaps some things haven’t changed – after today’s dose of wintry weather it’s time for some beef stew. 

Supper by candlelight…

PS.  While researching this, I came across two books, The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie by Cecily Ross, a fictionalized historical novel based on the life of Susanna Moodie, a genteel English writer who immigrated to Canada in 1832. Moodie wrote about her experiences in the Canadian wilderness and subsequently published her memoirs as Roughing It In The Bush and Life in the Backwoods. I enjoyed the fictionalized book more, as it was rich in historical detail, although the first half in England was not as interesting. Both books depict a harsh life with many hardships and little in the way of fun or luxuries, a sobering look at the reality of pioneer life for many women.    

(1128 words)       

Pioneer Village

Victorian Tea China        Last month I blogged about a Victorian tea party I attended on the grounds of a local museum.    If you are a history lover, please join me for part two of the tour,  a visit to yesteryear.   

Moore museum collage

While the Victorian cottage is one of the original buildings on the museum site, there are many others.   Most have been moved to the site, including a one room schoolhouse, a small church and a log cabin from the days of the early settlers, as well as a local lighthouse.           

The 1919 church with the original pipe organ in the corner.

 

The one room schoolhouse.

schoolhouse

At the risk of sounding like someone from Little House on the Prairie, I seldom admit I once attended a one room schoolhouse.   It was located less than half a mile down the road from our farm, within walking distance even for a first grader, and was the same school my dad and all his ancestors had attended.   In 1963 the government closed all the remaining rural schools, and our parents drove us into town to the Catholic school until the bus system was started a few years later.  

What do I remember from my year and a half there?   Not much, as I was only six.   The big wood burning stove, so hot you could cook hot dogs wrapped in tin foil on top for lunch, schoolhouse

games of baseball for all ages at recess, getting the strap once (just a little tap on our hands) for talking in class and being made to stand in the corner with my cousin – much more humiliating.  schoolhouseThe teacher was always yelling and in a bad mood – can you imagine trying to teach 40 kids of all ages.   It may sound archaic, but I suppose it would be similar to home schooling now, with different age appropriate lessons.    As there were only three of us in grade one, myself, my cousin and an unkempt boy whose family no one knew, we did not get much attention, but I must have absorbed something from listening to her teach the older grades, as when we were given tests at the new school I passed with 92%.  (They thought we were country hicks who would have to be held back a year).   My new grade two teacher was pleasantly surprised and told my parents I was smart, a moment I remember to this day.   I always had a friendly rivalry with the boy sitting in front of me over who would get top honors, sometimes it was him, sometimes me, and as I went on to graduate from the University of Toronto, it didn’t to me any harm, although I admit some kids who needed extra attention were not as lucky.    

Compare this slate with the tablets of today.   I vaguely remember the sound of the school bell being rung.  

schoolhouse

At the one room schoolhouse the grade ones were let out half an hour early, and my cousin, who lived next door, and I would dawdle along, catching tadpoles in the ditches, playing in the snowbanks and making up fairy stories, the road being lined with beautiful trees, (channeling Anne of Green Gables here), and arrive home the same time as my siblings.    It seems I remember more than I had thought.   

Here is a picture of the class of 1934, with the school in the background appearing larger than I remember. 

schoolhouse dad

This is a log cabin from 1874, not a replica but an actual cabin moved to the site to preserve a part of history. 

cabin

My great-grandparents John and Ellen were married in 1870 and I try to imagine my Irish ancestors living in such a small drafty house during their early years on the farm.  The old white farmhouse I grew up in had two parts, the initial smaller dwelling and a larger addition with bedrooms upstairs to accommodate their growing family of nine children. 

This picture of an old stove certainly puts my complaints about the ongoing delays in my kitchen reno into perspective.   What my ancestors would have given for such modern conveniences as a stove you could turn on with the touch of a button.

cabin

Not too keen on the sleeping arrangements, a loft accessed by very steep stairs.    I remember my dad saying some of his uncles slept upstairs in the granary when it was new, which probably looked like this.  I imagine it was freezing in the winter, hence the quilts. 

cabin

Open concept floor plans were popular back then too!   We have an antique farm table dating from 1870, longer than this one.  

cabin

While most farms had large vegetable gardens, including rhubarb, and were mainly self-sufficient,

cabin

there were times you simply had to go into town for a few provisions at the general store,  

general store

and perhaps a new hat.

general store hats

The model train room, which boasts three large train sets, is always a hit with the guys.  

model train

 As well as the individual buildings, there is a large agricultural building full of old farm implements such as this cutter/sleigh.    We had one just like it and my dad sometimes took it for a spin behind the Clydesdales.

cutter sleigh

There is also a large exhibition hall, with a marine room and different display rooms and lots of historical archives.   It does seem strange that my Barbie/Skipper carry case has now achieved vintage status.   

vintage toys

I remember playing with this doll house too. 

vintage doll house

Several volunteers were setting up the loom for a display of weaving the day of our visit, a time consuming process.   There was no fast fashion back then.  

loom

And of course, I always enjoy looking at old medical exhibits, such as this infirmary,

infirmary

and pharmacy.   

pharmacy

The tools of my trade

Perhaps somewhere among those antique bottles is a clue for my (long neglected) murder mystery?    Agatha Christie used the knowledge acquired during her days as an apothecary apprentice when writing her books.   

When I think back to the changes in my profession over the past one hundred years – the invention of penicillin and antibiotics, vaccines, insulin – these are discoveries which saved lives.   In my student days pharmacy labels were prepared on typewriters, not as ancient as this one as ours were electric with correcto-tape.

typewriter

The last forty years of my career has seen the implementation of computers (a massive improvement for record keeping, drug information and drug interactions), clot-busters for preventing damage in heart attack and stroke, palliative care measures for end of life, improved chemotherapy, drugs for depression and mental illness, biologicals for autoimmune diseases, and more new drugs on the market than you can possibly keep up with.   When I think of the future – targeted chemotherapy, gene therapy, cures for diseases never thought possible – it is amazing the amount of change that can happen over the course of a century. 

One Christmas my father was given one of those autobiography books to document your life for the grandchildren.   One of the questions was what are the most important changes you have seen in your life as compared to that of your grandparents.  

“When my grandparents settled here the land was all bush.   Roads were Indian trails.  People lived far apart.   They had to build houses, barns, roads, clear land.   Walking and horses were the main modes of travel.   Machinery was crude or non-existent.   Since then tractors and combines have been invented.  Hydro, paved roads, cars, radios, toasters, tvs, micowaves, computers.   Household goods and furnishings have changed such as washers and dryers, refrigerators and stoves, air conditioning in summer and furnaces in winter instead of a wood stove.    My mother churned butter and we had an ice box and a root cellar for vegetables, an outhouse, no running water in the house and having to heat water on the stove for a bath.    Materials are softer now than the scratchy clothes I wore as a child.  You have toys now that we never dreamed of.   The biggest changes are education and modern schools, and medicines and childhood diseases.”

My father was a child of the Depression, and one of changes he recalled was hydro.  The farm didn’t get hydro until after WW2, 1947, and all of a sudden you had lights in the barn and weren’t milking cows by lantern light, and you could stay up late with hydro in the house.   Worth thinking about  the next time I grumble because the power is out a few hours due to a storm.   As to the future, he commented on computers and the internet which was just starting up.   In the twenty years since he died we now have – Google, Youtube, Facebook, Wikipedia, Skype, Instagram, Twitter, Siri, Spotify, Netflix, IPods, IPads, GPS, digital cameras and clouds which are not rain clouds, although we have plenty of those too!   We are now testing cars that drive themselves, robots and artificial intelligence.   It feels like something out of the Jetsons –  that old 60’s cartoon about a futuristic world which was very predictive.   Does anyone else remember the theme music?

What will the future hold?    Maybe someday my old 1986 DOS computer, currently residing in the basement, with it’s orange blinking screen and large floppy disks, will be on display at the museum, resting behind the electronics exhibit, along with a  Sony Walkman and a ghetto-blaster.

As a history lover, I feel it is important to preserve our heritage, and I hope you have enjoyed this peek into the past.  

Postscript:   My mother painted the log cabin (two versions), but she placed it in winter time, as my ancestors arrived here in late October, not expecting snow.   Is the lighthouse a beacon to the new world?    You can tell I’ve been hanging around the art world too much…

Postscript:  This is my 100th post.  I never would have imagined that!