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History of Guthrie and
Adair Counties, Iowa, 1884

Adair - Pioneer Life.

  
 

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Chapter III.


PIONEER LIFE.

One of the most interesting phases of national or local history, is that of the settlement of a new country.  What was the original state in which the pioneer found the country, and how was it made to blossom as the rose?

Pioneer life in Adair county finds its parallel in almost every county in the state, and throughout the entire West.  While some of the customs here given may not be entirely applicable to pioneer life in Adair, they are a truthful representation of pioneer life in general, and are thus worthy a place in this volume.  When William Johnson, William McDonald and others of that noble band of pioneers settled here, they found an unbroken wilderness.  Wild beasts, and but little less wild savages, roamed at will over the prairie, through the forests, and along the waters of the Middle and Grand rivers, and their numerous tributaries.  Forests were to be felled, cabins erected, mills built, and the river and creeks made to labor for the benefit of mankind.  The beautiful prairies were to be robbed of their natural ornaments, and the hand of art was to assist in their decoration.  Who was to undertake this work?  Are they qualified for the task?  What will be the effect of their labors upon future generations?

The Adair county pioneers had many difficulties to contend with, not the least of which was the journey from civilization to the forest homes.  The route lay for the most part through a rough country; swamps and marshes were crossed with great exertion and fatigue; rivers were forded with difficulty and danger; nights were passed on open prairies, with the sod for a couch and heavens for a shelter; long, weary days and weeks of travel were endured, but finally the "promised land" was reached.

 

EARLY MANNERS AND CUSTOMS.

The young men and women of to-day have little conception of the mode of life among the early settlers of the country.  One can hardly conceive how so great a change could take place in so short a time.  The clothing, the dwellings, the diet, the social customs have undergone a total revolution, as though a new race had taken possession of the land.

In a new country far removed from the conveniences of civilization, where all are compelled to build their own houses, make their own clothing, and procure for themselves the means of subsistence, it is to be expected that their dwellings and garments will be rude.  These were matters controlled by surrounding circumstances and the means at their disposal.  The earliest settlers constructed what were termed "three-faced camps," or in other words, three walls, leaving one side open.  They are described as follows:  The walls were built seven feet high, when poles were laid across at a distance of about three feet apart, and on these a roof of clapboards was laid, which were kept in place by weight poles placed on them.  The clapboards were about four feet in length and from eight inches to twelve inches in width, split out of white oak timber.  No floor was laid in the "camp."  The structure required neither door, window or chimney.  The one side left out of the cabin answered all these purposes.  In front of the open side was built a large log heap, which served for warmth in cold weather and for cooking purposes in all seasons.  Of course there was an abundance of light, and, on either side of the fire, space to enter in and out.  These "three-faced camps" were probably more easily constructed than the ordinary cabin, and was not the usual style of dwelling houses.

The cabin was considered a material advance for comfort and home life.  This was, in almost every case, built of logs, the spaces between the logs being filled in with split sticks of wood, called "chinks," and then daubed over, both inside and outside, with mortar made of clay.  The floor, sometimes, was nothing more than earth tramped hard and smooth, but commonly made of "puncheons," or split logs, with the split side turned upward.  The roof was made by gradually drawing in the top to the ridgepole, and, on cross pieces, laying the "clapboards," which, being several feet in length, instead of being nailed, were held in place by poles laid on them, called "weight poles," reaching the length of the cabin.  For a fireplace, a space was cut out of the logs on one side of the room, usually about six feet in length, and three sides were built up of logs, making an offset in the wall,  This was lined with stone, if convenient; if not, then earth.  The flue, or upper part of the chimney, was built of small split sticks, two and a half of ghree feet in length, carried a little space above the roof, and plastered over with clay, and when finished was called a "cat-and-clay" chimney.  The door space was also made by cutting an aperture in one side of the room of the required size, the door itself being made of clapboards secured by wooden pins to two crosspieces.  The hinges were also of wood, while the fastenings consisted of a wooden latch catching on a hook of the same material.  To open the door from the outside, a strip of buckskin was tied to the latch and drawn trough a hole a few inches above the latch-bar, so that on pulling the string the latch was lifted from the catch or hook, and the door was opened without further trouble.  To lock the door, it was only necessary to pull the string through the hole to the inside.  Here the family lived, and here the guest and wayfarer were made welcome.  The living room was of good size, but to a large extent it was all --- kitchen, bed-room, parlor and arsenal, with flitches of bacon and rings of dried pumpkin suspended from the rafters.  In one corner were the loom and other implements used in the manufacture of clothing, and around the ample fire-place were collected the kitchen furniture.  The clothing lined one side of the sleeping apartment, suspended from pegs driven in the logs.  Hemp and flax were generally raised, and a few sheep kept.  Out of these the clothing for the family and the sheets and coverlets were made by the females of the house.  Over the door was placed the trusty rifle, and just back of it hung the powder horn and hunting pouch.  In the well-to-do families, or when crowded on the ground floor, a loft was sometimes made to the cabin for a sleeping place and the storage of "traps" and articles not in common use.  The loft was reached by a ladder secured to the wall.  Generally the bedrooms were separated from the living-room by sheets and coverlets suspended from the rafters, but until the means of making these partition walls were ample, they lived and slept in the same room.

Familiarity with this mode of living did away with much of the discomfort, but as soon as the improvement could be made, there was added to the cabin an additional room, or a "double log cabin" being substantially a "three-faced camp," with a log room on each end and containing a loft.  The furniture in the cabin corresponded with the house itself.  The articles used in the kitchen were as few and simple as can be imagined.  A "Dutch oven," or skillet, a long handled frying pan, an iron pot or kettle, and sometimes a coffee pot, constituted the utensils of the best furnished kitchen.  A little later when a stone wall formed the base of the chimney, a long iron "crane" swung in the chimney place, which on its "pothook" carried the boiling kettle or heavy iron pot.  The cooking was all done on the fire-place and at the fire, and the style of cooking was as simple as the utensils.  Indian, or corn meal, was the common flour, which was made into "pone" or "corn-dodger," or "hoe-cake," as the occasion or variety demanded.  The "pone" and the "dodger" were baked in the Dutch oven, which was first set on a bed of glowing coals.  When the oven was filled with the dough, the lid, already heated on the fire, was placed on the oven and covered with hot embers and ashes.  When the bread was done it was taken from the oven and placed near the fire to keep warm while some other food was being prepared in the same oven for the forthcoming meal.  The "hoe-cake" was prepared in the same way as the dodger --- that is, a stiff dough was made of the meal and water, and taking as much as could conveniently be held in both hands, it was moulded into the desired shape by being tossed from hand to hand, then laid on a board or flat stone placed at an angle before the fire, and patted down to the required thickness.  In the fall and early winter, cooked pumpkin was added to the meal dough, giving a flavor and richness in the bread not attained by modern methods.  In the oven from which the bread was taken, the venison or ham was then fried, and in winter, lye hominy, made from the unbroken grains of corn, added to the frugal meal.  The woods abounded of honey, and of this the early settlers had an abundance the year round.  For some years after settlements were made, the corn meal formed the staple commodity for bread.

These simple cabins were inhabited by a kind and true-hearted people.  They were strangers to mock-modesty, and the traveler seeking lodgings for the night, or desirous of spending a few days in the community, if willing to accept the rude offerings, was always welcome, although how they were disposed of at night the reader may not easily imagine; for, as described, often a single room would be made to serve the purpose of a kitchen, dining-room, sitting-room and parlor, and many families consisted of six or eight persons.

 

CHARACTER OF THE PIONEER.

The character of the pioneers of Adair county falls properly within the range of the historian.  They lived in a region of exuberance and fertility, where nature had scattered her blessings with a liberal hand.  The inexhaustible forest supply, the fertile prairies, and the many improvements constantly going forward, with the bright prospect for a glorious future in everything that renders life pleasant, combined to deeply impress their character, to give them a spirit of enterprise, an independence of feeling, and a joyousness of hope.  They were a thorough admixture of many nations, characters, languages, conditions and opinions.  There was scarcely a state in the Union that was not represented among the early settlers.  All the various religious sects had their advocates.  All now form one society.  Says an early writer:  "Men must cleave to their kind, and must be dependent upon each other.  Pride and jealousy give way to the natural yearnings of the human heart for society.  They begin to rub off the neutral prejudices; one takes a step and then the other;  they meet half was and embrace; and the society thus newly organized and constituted, is more liberal, enlarged, unprejudiced, and of course, more affectionate, than a society of people of like birth and character, who bring all their early prejudices as a common stock, to be transmitted as an inheritance to posterity."

 

CLOTHING.

The clothing of the early pioneers was as plain and simple as their houses.  Necessity compelled it to be in conformity to the strictest economy.  The clothing taken to the new country was made to render a vast deal of service until a crop of flax or hemp could be grown,  out of which to make the household apparel.  The prairie wolves made it difficult to take sheep into the settlements, but after the sheep had been introduced, and flax and hemp raised in sufficient quantities, it still remained an arduous task to spin, weave and make the wearing apparel for an entire family.  In summer, nearly all persons, both male and female, went barefooted.  Buckskin moccasins were much worn.  Boys of twelve and fifteen years of age never thought of wearing anything on their feet, except during three or four months of the coldest weather in winter.  Boots were unknown until a later generation.  After flax was raised in sufficient quantities, and sheep could be protected from the wolves, a better and more comfortable style of clothing prevailed.  Flannel and linsey were woven and made into garments for the women and children, and jeans for the men.  The wool for the jeans was colored form the bark of the walnut, and from this came the term "butternut," still common throughout the West.  The black and white wool mixed, varied the color, and gave the name "pepper-and-salt."  As a matter of course every family did its own spinning, weaving and sewing, and for years all the wool had to be carded by hand on cards from four inches broad to eight and ten inches long.  The picking of the wool and carding was work to which the little folks could help, and at the proper season all the little hands were enlisted in the business.  Every household had its big and little spinning wheels, winding-blades, reel, warping-bars and loom.  The articles were made indispensable in every family.  In many of the households of Adair county, stowed away in empty garrets and out-of-the-way places, may still be found some of these almost forgotten relics.

The preparations for the family clothing usually began in the early fall, and the work was continued on into the winter months, when the whirr of the wheels and the regular stroke of the loom could be heard until a late hour of the night.  No scene can well be imagined so abounding in contentment and domestic happiness.  Strips of bark, of the shell-bark hickory, thrown from time to time in the ample fire-place, cast a ruddy, flickering light over the room.  In one corner, within range of the reflected light, the father is cobbling a well-worn pair of shoes, or trying his skill at making new ones.  Hard by, the young ones are shelling corn for the next grist.  The oldest daughter whirls the large spinning-wheel, and with its hum and whirr trips to the far side of the room, drawing out the thread, while the mother, with the click of the shuttle and the measured thump of the loom, fills up the hours --- the whole a scene of domestic industry and happiness rarely elsewhere to be found.

It is well for "Young America" to look back on those early days.  It involved a life of toil, hardship, and the lack of many comforts, but it was the life that made men of character.  Adair county to-day has no better men than the immediate descendants of those who built their cabins in the forest, and by patient endurance wrought out of the wilderness the landmarks for prosperous commonwealth.  One of these writes that "the boys were required to do their share of the hard labor of clearing up the farm, for much of the country now under the plow was at one time heavily timbered, or was covered with a dense thicket of hazel and young timber.  Our visits were made with ox teams, and we walked or rode on horseback, or in wagons, to 'meeting.'  The boys 'pulled,' 'broke,' and 'hackled' flax, wore tow shirts, and indulged aristocratic feelings in fringed 'hunting shirts' and 'coon-skin caps,' 'picked' and 'carded' wool by hand, and 'spooled' and 'quilled' yarn for the weaving till the back ached."

Industry such as this, supported by an economy and frugality from which there was then no escape, necessarily brought its own reward.  The hard toil made men old before their time, but beneath their sturdy blows they saw not only the forest pass away, but the fields white with the grain.  Change and alterations were to be expected, but the reality has distanced the wildest conjecture, and, stranger still, multitudes are still living who witnessed not only the face of nature undergoing a change about them, but the manners, customs, and industries of a whole people almost wholly changed.  Many an old pioneer sits by his fireside in his easy chair, with closed eyes, and dreams of the scenes of the long ago.

"The voice of Nature's very self drops low,
As though she whispered of the long ago,
When down the wandering stream the rude canoe
Of some lone trapper glided into view,
And loitered down the watery path that led
Thro' forest depths, that only knew the tread
Of savage beasts and wild barbarians,
That skulked about with blood upon their hands
And murder in their hearts.  The light of day
Might barely pierce the gloominess that lay
Like some dark pall across the water's face,
And folded all the land in its embrace;
The panther's screaming, and the bear's low growl,
The snake's sharp rattle, and the wolf's wild howl,
The owl's grim chuckle, as it rose and fell,
In alternation with the Indian's yell,
Made fitting prelude for the gory plays
That were enacted in the early days."
"Now, o'er the vision, like a miracle, falls
The old log cabin with its dingy walls,
And crippled chimney, with the crutch-like prop
Beneath, a sagging shoulder at the top,
The 'coon-skin, battened fast on either side,
The whisps of leaf tobacco, cut and dried;
The yellow strands of quartered apples hung
In rich festoons that tangled in among
The morning-glory vines that clambered o'er
The little clapboard roof above the door;
Again thro' mists of memory arise
The simple scenes of home before the eyes;
The happy mother humming with her wheel
The dear old melodies that used to steal
So drowsily upon the summer air,
The house dog hid his bone, forgot his care,
And nestled at her feet, to dream, perchance,
Some cooling dream of winter-time romance.
The square of sunshine through the open door
That notched its edge across the puncheon floor,
And made a golden coverlet whereon
The god of slumber had a picture drawn
Of babyhood, in all the loveliness
Of dimpled cheek, and limb, and linsey dress.
The bough-filled fire-place and the mantel wide,
Its fire-scorched ankles stretched on either side,
Where, perchance upon its shoulders 'neath the joints,
The old clock hiccoughed, harsh and husky-voiced:
Tomatoes, red and yellow, in a row,
Preserved not then for diet, but for show:
The jars of jelly, with their dainty tops;
Bunches of pennyroyal and cordial drops,
The flask of camphor and vial of squills.
The box of buttons, garden seeds and pills.
And thus the pioneer and helpsome aged wife,
Reflectively review the scenes of early life."

 

WEDDINGS.

The wedding was an attractive feature of pioneer life.  There was no distinction of life and very little of fortune.  On these accounts the first impressions of love generally resulted in marriage.  The family establishment cost but little labor --- nothing more.  The marriage was always celebrated at the house of the bride, and she was generally left to choose the officiating clergyman.  A wedding, however, engaged the attention of the whole neighborhood.  It was anticipated by both old and young with eager expectation.  In the morning of the wedding day, the groom and his intimate friends assembled at the house of his father, and, after due preparation, departed en masse for the "mansion" of his bride.  The journey was sometimes made on horseback, sometimes on foot, and sometimes in farm wagons and carts.  It was always a merry journey, and to insure merriment the bottle was always taken along.  On reaching the house of the bride, the marriage ceremony took place, and then dinner or supper was served.  After the meal the dancing commenced, and generally lasted until the following morning.  The figures of the dances were three and four-handed reels, or square sets and jigs.  The commencement was always a square four, which was followed by what the pioneers called "jigging," --- that is, two of the four would single out for a jig, and were followed by the remaining couple.  The jigs were often accompanied with what was called "cutting out" --- that is, when either of the parties became tired of the dance, on intimation the place was supplied by some one of the company without interruption of the dance.  In this way the reel was often continued until the musician was exhausted.  About 9 or 10 o'clock in the evening a deputation of young ladies stole off the bride and put her to bed.  In doing this, they had to ascend a ladder from the kitchen to the upper floor, which was composed of loose boards.  Here, in the pioneer bridal chamber, the young, simple-hearted girl was put to bed by her enthusiastic friends.  This done, a deputation of young men escorted the groom to the same apartment and placed him snugly by the side of his bride.  The dance still continued, and if the seats were scarce, which was generally the case, says a local witness, every young man, when not engaged in the dance, was obliged to offer his lap as a seat for one of the girls, and the offer was sure to be accepted.  During the night's festivities spirits were freely used, but seldom to excess.  The infair was held on the following evening, where the same order of exercises was observed.

 

SHAKES.

Another feature of pioneer life, which every old settler will vividly recall, was the "chills and fever," "fever and ague," or "shakes," as it is variously called.  It was a terror to new-comers, for in the fall of the year almost everybody was afflicted with it.  It was respecter of persons; everybody looked pale and sallow, as though frost-bitten.  It was not contagious, but derived from impure water and air, which was always developed in the opening up of a new country of rank soil like that of Adair county.  The impurities continued to absorb from day to day, and from week to week, until the whole corporate body becomes saturated with it as with electricity, and then the shock came; and the shock was a regular shake, with a fixed beginning and ending, coming on, in some cases, each day, but generally on alternate days, with a regularity that was surprising.  After the shakes came the fever, and this "last estate was worse than the first;" it was a burning hot fever, and lasted for hours.  When you had the chill you couldn't get warm, and when you had the fever you couldn't get cool.  It was exceedingly awkward in this respect --- indeed it was.  Nor would it stop for any contingency -- not even a wedding in the family would stop it.  It was imperative and tyrannical.  When the appointed time came around, everything else had to be stopped to attend to its demands.  It didn't even have any Sundays or holidays.  After the fever went down you still didn't feel much better;  you felt as though you had gone through some sort of a collision, threshing-machine, jarring-machine, and came out not killed, but next thing to it.  You felt weak, as though you had run too far after something, and then didn't catch it.  You felt languid, stupid and sore, and was down in the mouth and heel and partially raveled out.  Your back was out of fix, your head ached and your appetite crazy.  Your eyes had too much white in them; your ears, especially after taking quinine, had too much roar in them, and your whole body and soul were entirely woe-begone, disconsolate, and, poor and good for nothing.  You didn't think much of yourself, and didn't believe that other people did either, and you didn't care.  You didn't quite make up your mind to commit suicide, but sometimes wished some accident would happen to knock either the malady or yourself out of existence.  You imagined even the dogs looked at you with a sort of self-complacency.  You thought the sun had a sort of sickly shine about it.  About this time you came to the conclusion that you would not take the whole state as a gift; and if you had the strength and means you would pick up Hannah and the baby, and your traps, and go back "yander" to "Old Virginny," the "Jerseys," Maryland, Pennsylvania, or "York State."

"And to-day, the swallows flitting
Round my cabin, see me sitting
Moodily within the sunshine,
   Just within my silent door,
Waiting for the 'ager,' seeming
Like a man forever dreaming;
And the sunlight on me streaming
   Throws no shadow on the floor;
For I am too thin and sallow
To make shadows on the floor ---
   Nary shadow any more!"

The foregoing is not a mere picture of imagination.  It is simply recounting in quaint phrase of what actually occurred in hundreds of cases.  Whole families would sometimes be sick at one time, and not a member scarcely able to wait upon another.  Labor or exercise always aggravated the malady, and it took General Laziness a long time to thrash the enemy out.  These were the days for swallowing all sorts of roots and "yarbs" and whiskey straight, with some faint hope of relief.  Finally, when the case wore out, the last remedy got the credit of the cure.

 

WOLF HUNTING.

In early days more mischief was done by wolves than by any other wild animal, and no small part of their mischief consisted in their almost constant barking at night, which always seemed to menacing and frightful to the settlers.  Like mosquitos, the noise they made appeared to be about as dreadful as the real depredations they committed.  The most effectual as well as the most exciting, method of ridding the country of these hateful pests, was that known as the circular wolf hunt, by which all the men and boys would turn out on an appointed day, in a kind of circle comprising many square miles of territory, with horses and dogs, and then close up toward the center field of operation, gathering, not only wolves, but also deer and many small "varmint."  Five, ten or more wolves, by this means, would be killed in a single day.  The men would be organized with as much system as a small army, every one being posted in the meaning of every signal and the application of every rule.  Guns were scarcely ever allowed to be brought on such occasions, as their use would be unavoidably dangerous.  The dogs were depended upon for the final slaughter.  The dogs, by the way, had all to be held in check by a cord in the hands of their keepers until the final signal was given to let them loose, when away they would all go to the center of battle, and a more exciting scene would follow than can easily be described.

 

SNAKES.

In pioneer times snakes were numerous, such as the rattlesnake, viper, adder, blood-snakes, and many varieties of large blue and green snakes, milksnakes, garter and watersnakes, and others.  If, on meeting one of these, you would retreat, they would chase you very fiercely; but if you would turn and give them battle, they would immediately turn and crawl away with all possible speed, hide in the grass and weeds and wait for a "greener" customer.  These really harmless snakes served to put people on their guard against the more dangerous and venomous kind.  It was common practice, in order to exterminate them, for the men to turn out in companies with spades, mattocks, and crowbars, attack the principal snake dens, and slay large numbers of them.  In early spring the snakes were somewhat torpid, and easily captured.  Scores of rattlesnakes were sometimes frightened out of a single den, which, as soon as they showed their heads through the crevices of the rocks, were dispatched, and left to be devoured by the numerous wild hogs of that day.  Some of the fattest of these snakes were taken to the house and oil extracted from them, and their glittering skins were saved as a specific for rheumatism.  Another method for their destruction was to fix a heavy stick over the door of their dens, with a long grapevine attached, so that one at a distance could plug the entrance to the den when the snakes were all out sunning themselves.  Then a large company of citizens, on hand by appointment, could kill scores of the reptiles in a few minutes.

 

AGRICULTURE.

In the earlier settlements of this section, ponds, marshes and swamps abounded where to-day are found cultivated and fertile fields.  The low and flat places were avoided for the hgiher grounds, not only on account of the wetness, but for sanitary reasons.  Agricultural implements were necessarily rude, and the agriculture of a corresponding character.  The plow used was called a "bar-share" plow, the iron point of which consisted of a bar of iron about two feet long, and a broad share of iron welded to it.  At the extreme point was a coulter that passed through a beam six or seven feet long, to which was attached handles of corresponding length.  The mold-board was a wooden one split out of winding timber, or hewed into a winding shape, in order to turn the soil over.  In the springtime, when the ground was to be prepared for the seed, the father would take his post at the plow, and the daughter possession of the reins.  This is a grand scene --- one full of grace and beauty.  The pioneer girl thinks but little of fine dress; knows less of the fashions; has probably heard of the opera, but does not understand its meaning; has been told of the piano but has never seen one; wears a dress "buttoned up behind;" has on "leather boots," and "drives plow" for father.  In the planting of corn, which was always done by hand, the girls always took a part, usually dropping the corn, but many of them covering it with the hand-hoe.

In the cultivation of wheat, the land was ploughed the same as for corn, and harrowed with a wooden-toothed harrow, or smoothed by dragging over the ground a heavy brush, weighed down, if necessary, with a stick of timber.  It was then sown broadcast by hand at the rate of about a bushel and a quarter to the acre, and harrowed in with the brush.  The implement used to cut the wheat was neither the sickle nor the cradle.  The sickle was almost identical with the "grass hook" in use, and cradle was a scythe fastened to a frame of wood, with long, bending teeth or strips of wood, for cutting and laying the grain in swaths.  There were few farmers who did not know how to swing the scythe or cradle, and there was no more pleasant picture on a farm than a gang of workmen in the harvest field, nor a more hilarious crowd.  Three cradles would cut about ten acres a day.  One binder was expected to keep up with the cradle.  Barns for the storage of the unthreshed grain are comparatively a "modern invention," and as soon as the shock was supposed to be sufficiently cured, it was hauled to some place on the farm convenient for threshing, and there put in stack.  The threshing was performed in one of two ways, by flail or tramping with horses, generally the latter.  The flail was used in stormy weather, on the sheltered floor, or when the farm work was not pressing; the threshing by tramping commonly in clear weather, on a level and well tramped clay floor.  The bundles were piled in a circle of about fifteen to twenty feet in diameter, and four to six horses ridden over the straw.  One or two hands turned over and kept the straw in place.  When sufficiently tramped, the straw was thrown into a rick or stack, and the wheat cleared by a "fanning-mill," or sometimes, before fanning-mills were introduced, by letting it fall from the height of ten or twelve feet, subjected to the action of the wind, when it was supposed to be ready for the mill or market.

 

RELIGION.

The religious element in the life of the pioneer was such as to attract the attention of those living in more favored places.  The pioneer was no hypocrite.  If he believed in horse-racing, whisky-drinking, card-playing, or anything of like character, he practiced them openly and above board.  If he was of a religious turn of mind he was not ashamed to own it.  He could truthfully sing,

"I'm not ashamed to own my Lord,
Or blush to speak his name."

But the pioneer clung to the faith of his fathers, for a time at least.  If he was a Presbyterian he was not ashamed of it, but rather prided himself on being one of the elect.  If a Methodist, he was one to the fullest extent.  He prayed long and loud if the spirit moved him, and cared nothing for the empty form of religion.

 

 

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