Vol. V, No. 3, Winter 1992

Fall, 1990

A Memory Story

By Margaret Gilmore Kelso

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


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 February 9, 1872 to Jacob Thomas Kelso. I grew up in the time of the Civil War ....

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 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 ....

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 ....

I have heard my mother say that when she and father went to housekeeping, they moved into a unfinished log cabin on a dirt floor, they and 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 in the walls to put poles, [with 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 hand made in blue and white by 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 ....

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 table cloths. 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 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 ....

Our first lights were "grease lamps" which were a saucer of iron with a small lip on the side with 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 ....

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. They 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, others 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 it 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 ....

When I was 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 .....

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.

Spring/Summer 1991


When we moved back to the old home on Clear Creek, (northwest Greene County, Missouri) at the beginning of the War, in 1861, my father joined the "Home Guard" and was a staunch Union man. We suffered from the raiding of what we called the "Secesh." I remember one time when father was away, there was a forage train of I don't remember how many wagons. They took all the corn we had in the crib and all the hay we had. They also went into the smoke house and filled one wagon box full of meat. Everybody cured their own meat, then sold the bacon. The foragemaster paid mother in Confederate money. It was perfectly worthless, he knew, but he put up a good show of being honest.

While General Price occupied Springfield, after the Battle of Wilson's Creek, two men came to our place, went to the barn lot, and caught a horse we all loved. He was a fine dapple gray that we called Old Jim. The horse seemed to sense something was wrong and snorted and ran around the lot several times before they finally caught him. How we children hated to see Old Jim go. He was a fine looking, gentle horse, and a very fine saddle horse.

The bushwhackers also raided our house. They were men who did not belong to either army, and kept themselves hid away in caves and in the deep woods, and were mostly Union sympathizers. They went on parties when they knew the women would be at home alone. They had their lookouts and their get-together signals, and we could hear the whistles, and their horns when they planning a raid. They usually disguised themselves and dressed in Union uniforms.

One evening, in the fall, we were at the barn lot milking. Four men came riding up to the gate, dressed in blue uniforms of the Union soldiers. We thought they were soldiers coming to spend the night, until one of them jerked the gate off its hinges and rode right over it. Three of them rode in and one kept watch at the gate. Mother stopped milking, and when we reached the house they were tearing up the beds, emptying trunks and boxes on the floor and taking everything they happened to want. One of them said to mother, "Where is your money...where is it?" Father had just returned from St. Louis, where he had sold some wheat. Mother answered, "There is no money in the house." Then one of them cocked his pistol in mother's face and shoved her about the room, saying, "Tell me where your money is!" But mother kept insisting there was no money in the house. One of them threw a shovel of fire from the fireplace onto the floor, scattering it all over. Mother very carefully swept it up. They scattered another shovelful, which she swept back into the fireplace. She was so mad at the scattered fire she would not let them see that she was badly frightened. When they had gone she began to tremble and was so weak she could not stand. By that time the man at the gate was getting nervous and kept calling them to "come on boys, hurry up!" She always thought she knew who they were, but of course she couldn't be sure.

They took their plunder, stopped at the door and cursed mother and told her if she reported them before morning they "would come back and burn the damn house down over our damn heads."


They said they didn't care what she did the next morning as they would be in Arkansas by then.

Sister Melissa was crying and one of the men stuck his head back into the house and said, "What you crying about, Sissie?" She said, "I want my new shoes back." All of the shoes had been hanging on the wall, and they had taken every pair of them. He said he couldn't give them back to her as number fourteens would just fit his wife in Arkansas.

They had gone no further than the gate when mother had a big lump of brown sugar about the size of a teacup in each hand, holding it out to my brother Jimmie and myself, telling us she would give them to us if we would go by the path, the short way over the hill, to our nearest neighbors and tell them the "Bushwhackers" were coming. Money was scarce then, and sugar was high. Scared as we were, the BIG lump of sugar was great temptation to us, so we took it and ran through the dark as fast as we could go to warn our neighbors. We followed the footpath through the timber, and we could get there ahead of the bushwhackers. It was misting rain, but we reached there and told our story. Mr. Thomas, Cass, and Uncle Jim were home on furlough. They began loading their pistols, and the women began to hide things, and we started on our way home.

We crossed the lot, and were just about to climb the fence into the road when we heard the robbers coming. They were riding slow and talking low. We dropped down into the fence corner and hardly breathed until they had passed. They went a little ways past us, then stopped and talked low for quite a while, then rode on and passed the corner, turned toward the house and stopped and talked again. They turned back past the place where we were hiding. At the comer, they took another road and went to Aunt Lucinda Gilmore's home and robbed her. She was alone. Uncle John had not been dead very long, and she kept his clothes in a little side room. They were taking his clothes, his hat and his guns. She clung to his gun and begged them to let her keep her husband' s things. They knocked her down and kicked her, breaking her ribs, and beat her over the head with the butt of the gun.

When Aunt Lucinda heard the bushwhackers had been to our place, she came over to see us. I can see her yet, as she sat there in the chimney corner, crying and telling us how they abused her, and how bruised and battered she was. How black her poor face was! It was just as black as flesh can be. She died a few days after she visited me, from the terrible beating they had given her.

Mother always thought she knew the hooded men who came to raid us time after time. She thought they were men who lived in the neighborhood, as we could hear unexplained signals and they were always just before raids. What they took from us on those occasions represented much hard work, and many times was the difference between us being able to eat, and starving.

They wanted money, but never did find any. The money was in a big, green, jug-shaped bottle with a large neck and mouth, and it was nearly full of gold and silver coins. Mother always told the raiders, "There is no money in the house," and that was true...there was no money in the house. It was hid in the ash-hopper. I saw the bottle, with the money in it, after the war was over. None of us had known anything about it, only pa and mother, at that time.

The day the Wilson's Creek Battle was fought on August 10, 1861, my mother walked the floor all day, and wrung her hands and cried, until the noise of the big guns ceased. It must have been five o'clock in the evening before she got us anything to eat. We children were too young to understand, and followed her around and begged her to tell us why she cried. She would place her hands on our heads and say, "Oh, children! Oh, children!" My brother and I would lay our heads on the ground, and we could hear the guns and feel the earth tremble.

In later years we could understand mother's grief, as her relatives and friends were divided in ideals and politics, and many families had relations fighting on both sides...some of them with the Union Army and others with the Confederate side. In some instances brothers were fighting against each other in some of the battles.

We could hear the lamentations of neighbors when their husbands and sons were brought home dead. Cass Thomas was killed during the war, but not in the Battle of Wilson's Creek. He was a fine young man, not more than twenty-two or three-years old. It was a sad day for all of us when his body was brought home and buried. As long as Grandma Thomas lived, she went to Mt. Pleasant Church and would go and weep over his grave. It was such a waste of human life.

The Civil War was a cruel, dreadful thing. Old men were called out and churches and school houses were burned to the ground, and houses destroyed wantonly. So many families moved into our neighborhood from Arkansas who had lost everything they had. We called them refugees. Father gave them work, let them have corn and wheat for bread, cows to milk, and a team to plow with. They were all honest and industrious, hard-working people. Some of them stayed on after the war was over. Some of them went back to Arkansas and rebuilt their homes on their own land.

After General Lyons was killed at Wilson's Creek, his soldiers passed the Uncle Hope Skeen place on a forced march. The neighborhood gathered to see them pass by, and to serve them coffee and a bit of something to eat. The weather was hot, and the poor, tired soldiers were black in the face with dust and sweat. They had carried their knapsacks on their backs, their guns in their arms, and their canteens swung under their arms at their side. Now and then one would drop out of the ranks and fall down under the shade of a big tree that stood in the yard near the road. The women would run with cups of coffee and pie or ginger cakes, or whatever they had, and the poor soldiers would rest on their elbows while they ate. After they rested a bit, they would fall in line again. They marched four abreast all day and were still going by when we went home about sundown. I never pass that place now but I think of those poor tired soldiers, black with dust and sweat.

[86 ]

I saw the army in camp before the battle. It was a city of tents in the open prairie. The guns were stacked, and it looked like shocks of corn, only they had bayonets on the top. They were camped on what is now part of the old Renshaw place, but it was then open prairie that extended from near Cave Springs up to what we called Waterloo then, it was most to Willard.

My mother baked ginger cakes and pies, a large box of them, and my father took us all to see the camp, and to sell the pies, etc. When we got to the

camp grounds, I could see the soldiers drilling in companies. Their guns and bayonets flashed in the sunshine. It was frightening and I thought sure we would be killed. When we got onto the ground, Pa lifted me out of the wagon and gave me a pie and told me to go and sell it. He gave Melissa and Jimmie one, too. He went about among the soldiers, shaking hands. That frightened me, too.

I looked for quite awhile before I could muster courage to go and sell the pie. Finally I saw one man, quite a bit away, walking to and fro, all alone, so I went up to where he was, but crying when I got there. I held up the pie and said, "Do-you-want-to-buy-a-pie?" He took his handkerchief from his pocket, wiped away my tears and patted me on the head until I stopped crying. He then pointed to a tent where there were three or four soldiers sitting in front and said, "You go right over there, they will buy your pie." I went over, and they bought my pie. I went back to the wagon Pa was not there, but Jimmie and Melissa were selling pies and cakes. We sold all we had. I did not venture out again.


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