Vol. IV, No. 2, Fall 1990

Margaret Gilmore Kelso

A Memory Story

Margaret Gilmore Kelso (1855-1949) was the daughter of Ozarks pioneers. Her long life spanned revolutionary episodes of modernization, as she put it, "from the covered wagon to the flying machine." Like other people of her generation, she was urged in her later years to write down her memories. She demurred at first, pleading that she would make many mistakes, that her writing might be an embarrassment to the family who wished to have it as a legacy. She finally gave in and produced a superbly written memoir, historically significant, often gripping and dramatic.

We begin its publication, fittingly, in the "Women" issue. It will be continued in future issues of Ozarks Watch.

Margaret Gilmore Kelso
Often I have been asked to write a memory story of my life and have hesitated to do so because I have had so little schooling. This story, I know will have many mistakes, but it is true, every word.

I was born on May 6, 1855 in the old log cabin home on Clear Creek. I was married in that same log cabin on Feb. 9, 1872 to Jacob Thomas Kelso. I grew up in the time of the Civil War.

We lived in what we called the "Ozarks," which is the garden spot of Missouri, called the "Land of Smiles." Fine fertile land, beautiful scenery, many fine springs of cold sparkling water, rivers and lakes in which fish abound, where the sportsman can cast his hook and catch a fine string of fish almost any day during the fishing season, where the big ones do not always get away.

I have heard my father say that my grandfather James Gilmore made five trips from Tennessee to this country on horseback, all alone through the wilderness, to spy out the land. On the fifth trip, he split rails and built a pen around the spring to hold down his claim, then went back to Tennessee and brought his family. Several families came here with him at that time, all in ox-drawn wagons. They were six weeks on the way.

My father was only a few years old when they came from Tennessee. I have heard members of the party that came over with my grandfather laugh and tell a funny little story. They said that on the way, after a long day's travel and finding no water, they had to make a dry camp. One of the men said, "Well, what will we do?" There was one old fellow, a fine old man they called Uncle Abner. He was smart too, but a little absent minded. He said, "Oh, just make a pot of coffee and drink it and go to bed, and shut up about it." He had lost sight of the fact that they must have water before they could make coffee.

My father was six years old when grandfather built a cabin--the cabin near the spring where he had built the rail pen. He homesteaded his land, cleared his farm, raised his family and he and my grandmother, and some of my uncles and aunts, are buried not far from the old spring. The place is about two miles west of where Willard now is.

Grandmother Polly Julian Edmonson wore a little white bobinet cap with ribbon ties. She was so pretty, with her lace-edged cap, with the starched, hand-crimped frill around her face. I used to just love to stand and gaze at her.

Grandmother could weave coverlids [coverlets] and tablecloths from a pattern. She called it "double weaving." When she saw a pattern she liked, she would take a strip of paper and put down figures above and below, and take the pattern off. She would put that strip of paper on the loom and follow the pattern in her weaving. She wove white bedspreads and tablecloths. She had a pattern for tablecloths she called "dimity," a pattern of small white dots. She was an expert in dying and weaving all types. She made her own dyes, using cochineal for scarlet, and madder for a dark red or maroon color. The hulls of black walnuts was used for dye for dark brown. Brown or black was used on linsey-woolsey clothing, mainly used in men's suits, bedding, etc. She used a soft yellow stone called ochre, which was pounded fine and boiled for dying yellows.

There is in existence today blocks of quilts that were made in their entirety, thread and all, by Grandmother Polly Julian Edmonson, for the express purpose of covering her growing family of boys. The materials are made in plaids and stripes, with an undyed linsey-woolsey back. The dyes are clear and unfaded today, more than a hundred years later. This was not a work of art, but without a doubt it shows much artistic ability. There are also bedspreads of white, handmade in an intricate pattern, and plain white stripes. The block pattern she called her "Sunday Best" spread and the plain stripes her "everyday" spread.

My father homesteaded land on Clear Creek, in Boone Township, near Ash Grove. Nathaniel Boone, son of Daniel Boone (The Pathfinder) settled the land [near] where the town of Ash Grove now stands. The township is named in his honor, a more lasting monument than marble! He is buried just a little way north of the town. A number of his descendants still live in the Ash Grove community.

I have heard my mother say that when she and father went to housekeeping, they moved into an unfinished log cabin on a dirt floor, and they built a fire in the wash kettle until father could make a fireplace and build a stick chimney and daub it with mud. She made her beds on the dirt floor until he could get time to bore holes in the log walls to put in poles, with the bark on, to make a frame for her beds.

When she got her beds made up on these pole frames and spread on her clean covers that she had made by hand in blue and white patterns, woven from wool, washed, carded and spun into yarn by herself, she stood off and admired her room and beds and thought they were so pretty. She was so proud of it.

We spun and wove all our own materials, for men's clothing and also for women's clothing. We also made material for our own bedding. We sheared sheep, scoured the wool before it could be carded and spun into thread.

The school houses were few and far between and we had to walk three and four miles in the wintertime, through mud, slush, and snow to a one room, poorly equipped school house. We used slabs for benches. There was a little square opening in one of the side walls of the building to furnish light. There was no blackboard and we used slates.

I was too young to do much figuring, but I used to beg to borrow a slate at noontime from the older pupils and drew pictures of men, women and animals. I admired my work very much, but I don't think anyone but myself could have decided what my drawings were intended to represent.


When I was a child and my father had occasion to go to Springfield, he went on horseback. Sometimes I begged to go with him. He would spread a blanket on behind his saddle and put me up behind him and take me along. We traveled about four miles through timber, winding along the rocky road, then we came onto "Grand Prairie." From there we just traveled in the general direction, through the tall prairie grass toward Springfield. I don't recall a field, a fence or a house until we were in what would be the suburbs of what is now Springfield.

My father led me around by the hand until his errands were finished, then he would buy a little "poke" of cheese and crackers, and we would eat it on the way home. We started in the early morning and were back home about sundown. The trip was about twenty-five miles each way.

Our first lights were "grease lamps" which were a saucer of iron with a small lip on the side and a braided rag wick that hung over the lip. I think the first remembrance I have of my mother was of waking one night and seeing her sewing with her finger by the light of a grease lamp, stuck in a crack in the chimney wall. The stem turned up at the end to hang it by. It held about two tablespoons full of grease. Sometimes we tore a strip of cloth, doubled it back, and twisting it, pushed it down in the grease for a wick. It made a light, but a very poor one.

The next light was a tallow candle in a candle stick with a small base and a long hook that could be stuck in a crevice between the logs, or between the stones of the chimney. We would melt beef tallow, put in a little beeswax to harden it. We had a candle mold. First we placed a wick in the mold, then poured the melted tallow and beeswax around, leaving it to harden. Then the candles were ready to pack away for winter use.

Later on we bought a coal oil lamp. When mother went to fill and light the lamp, she would send all of us children out into the yard. After she had lighted it we would gradually venture nearer, until we were back around the table to see the new light. It was a wonderful sight to see, for us--the brightest light we had ever seen.

My father often sat making shoes for the family by the poor grease light. I was a big girl, about twelve years old, before I ever had a pair of "store-bought" shoes. One day my father went to Springfield and bought all of us a pair of shoes. He tried them on our feet. He felt my foot over and said he thought they were a little too small. He thought he had better take them back. I told him, "No, they are a good fit." He let me keep them, but they were too small and almost ruined my feet. I was afraid that if they went back, I would never get another pair of store bought shoes.

We went barefooted until about Christmas. We had to make one pair of shoes last until it was warm enough to go barefooted in the spring. Our feet would chap and crack open and bleed, and mother would make a salve of mutton tallow and turpentine and bind it over our feet and heal them overnight.

I remember so clearly seeing my father make fire. He made a little nest of cotton on the fire shovel and put about a teaspoon of gunpowder on it. He then made fine shavings from a piece of pine and stacked around the cotton. He then took two pieces of flint and struck the edges together over the powder until the sparks caught and made a flame. He then built the shavings around it and soon had a fire going. We had no matches at that time, and everyone tried to keep a little fire covered in the fireplace. If it happened to go out, then we either had to make a fire again or go to a neighbor's. We called it "borrowing fire."

I remember one morning when mother got up, the fire was out. She wakened me, and I started on the run to borrow fire. I went to Uncle George Thomas's place. On the way, the wild turkeys were coming off the roost and running out into the road ahead of me. They kept to the road until they had to cross a little branch, and there they scattered. I did not think much about it then, the wild turkeys were so plentiful, but I know now there must have been seventy-five or a hundred in the bunch, maybe more. I went on to Mr. Thomas's place, got my fire between two long pieces of bark and ran all the way home. When I reached home, mother was standing at the door waiting for the fire, which was blazing, and she soon had breakfast ready.

There were so many wild turkeys then. We had turkey salted down in the smokehouse with the meat, and mother would slice the breast and roll it in flour and fry it for breakfast. You can't imagine how deliciously good it was.

Quail were also plentiful in those days. Some families caught so many they saved the feathers and made feather beds of them. The men made nets of heavy twine and set traps then drove the quail into them. The nets were made in a sort of pouch in the middle, with wide wings on each side. They were staked out in a wing-like position and quail were driven into it until they filled the pouch, at times with hundreds of quail. I have watched mother and grandmother make traps. Brother Jimmie and I made traps and set in the cornfield for prairie chicken, sometimes catching four or five of them in one night. Mother made a snowbird pie from snowbirds we caught by the haystack near the barn. One morning we had twenty-five of them in the trap. The small breasts were tender, sweet meat.


Passenger pigeons had a roost on our place. We had a strip of young timber, about three or four acres, I suppose, and the pigeons came over to roost there of evenings. They came from the west and the noise of their wings was like a distant thunder. They came in such numbers it was like a dark cloud. I liked to stand in the doorway and watch them. They were flying low as they neared the roost. I often went down to the roost after they had settled. They were so thick on the limbs that they bent the trees almost to the ground. I could have picked them off by the hundreds if I had wanted to. I would stroke their wings and they would coo and let me pet them. The sat on limbs as close as grapes on the vine, and at times would break the young trees and limbs down with their weight. When they cleared away in the morning, there would be crippled pigeons, some with broken wings, other with broken legs. We would take them to the house to use for meat. They were so good. I don't remember anyone molesting them. They were about one-third larger than our tame pigeons, and were a bronzy-blue in color, with a heavier tinge of bronze about their neck and shoulders. They were in such numbers it is hard to realize they are now extinct.

There were wild ducks, prairie chicken and quail by the thousands. When we went to the spring of mornings, the ducks would be swimming up and down the creek, as far as we could see, and the prairie chickens would alight by the hundreds in the cornfields.

I have seen father walk on his knees to cut wheat with the reaphook. Mother quilted pads for his knees, and when he threshed our grain, he tossed it onto a big canvas threshing floor and started the horses round and round to tramp out the grain. He would pour the grain into the old fanning mill and blow the chaff away. One evening, father was building a rail pen and lining it with straw to store the wheat in, and when he reached down to pick up a rail that was on the ground, there was a big rattlesnake stretched along the side of the rail. Father killed it with a pitchfork. He then skinned it, and its hide was covered with fat. Mother fried out the oil and saved in a bottle for rheumatism. The skin of the snake was stuffed with bran and kept on the mantle for a long time. It measured the full length of the mantle.

Snakes surely were plentiful. Father told of helping to clean a gravesite in an old cemetery when they found a den of rattlesnakes. They killed twenty-three of them. The old road to the spring was "in a work" with them, whipsnakes, with about a foot of red on the tails, which they held up straight, and made a blowing noise when they ran. They used to cross the path ahead of me when I went to the spring, and almost scared me to death. The clumsy, bunty-tailed moccasin and cotton mouth and spreading adders would lay in the path and flatten themselves out and look so much like the ground we could hardly see them. Rattlesnakes were very common. One morning I went to the spring to get the milk for breakfast. We had a little wall built where we dipped the water. It was covered with boards, and we kept our milk there. I got down on my knees and reached my hand in to get the bucket of milk and a great big old moccasin slid down over my hand into the water. It had been coiled under the boards. If you ever had a snake touch you, you will never forget the feel of it. It is like an icicle sliding over you.

A long time afterwards, we were staying all night with Henry and Gusta Kelso. The weather was hot, and I had my feet outside the covers. Toward morning I felt a snake crawl over my foot. I lay perfectly still, trying not to move until Henry got up. When he passed through the room I said, "Henry, be careful, there is a snake in the house...one crawled over my foot last night." Gusta said, "Margaret, what do you mean, a snake in the house?" I said, "Yes, a snake crawled over my foot." They began to search, and found the snake lying stretched along the wall at the foot of the bed. I knew it was a snake for I had never forgotten the feel of the old moccasin that crawled over my hand.

(To be continued)


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