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We are embarking on a new world that is heavily reliant on technology and convenience and forgetting about basic skills our ancestors relied upon. We are weaker because of it.
Our grandparents and their grandparents knew how to get things done without technology. They didn’t even think twice about whipping up some butter for dinner or baking a loaf of bread from scratch. For them, it was the only option. They knew nothing else.
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You could say they took the skills their parents taught them for granted. Progress has made many of the skills our ancestors relied upon obsolete. They are no longer being passed down to future generations, which is a tragedy.
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Gardening was the way things were done a hundred plus years ago. If you wanted to eat, you grew a garden. Pioneers that were settling new, unsettled areas didn’t have access to grocery stores. They couldn’t count on deliveries either. They had to grow as much of their own food as possible. They had to grow enough food to sustain their families all year long, even through the winter months.
Survival gardening is a skill every single person should know how to do. It’s all about making the most of space, big or small. Understanding crop rotation and how to enhance soil to get the best harvest possible. It’s about growing plants that will produce seeds that can be harvested for the next crop.
You will need to know pest control and the best way to fertilize your garden when Miracle-Gro isn’t available. Harvesting seeds and storing them for the following year ensured they would always have food to put on the table.
2. Animal Husbandry
Raising animals for eggs, meat and milk was just part of life back in the old days. Dairy never came from the store. It was either traded amongst the pioneers or they raised their own. Chickens, goats, cows and pigs were all very common animals on the homestead.
Pioneers knew how to raise the animals as well as how to keep them healthy. They built pens and knew how to feed them and make sure they produced offspring. It’s a skill most people in the modern world don’t even think about.
3. Making Butter
Can you imagine life without butter? Neither could the pioneers. It was a normal chore to churn butter every week. The butter was stored in a jar and usually kept at room temperature—remember, they didn’t have refrigeration. Fresh, homemade butter is a real treat. It’s very easy to make as well.
4. Making Cheese
Cheese was another staple in the pioneer pantry. The cheese the pioneers made wasn’t the perfect blocks we see today. It took weeks to produce a hard cheese from fresh milk.
However, they did make a processed variety that they would preserve with vinegar. Pioneers had to ‘put up’ food to last them through winter and cheese was one of those dairy products they stored.
Pioneers didn’t get to call a real estate agent and go on the hunt for a home when they moved out west. They had to build their own houses, sheds and animal shelters. It wasn’t a choice. They had to know how to construct cabins with wood they cut themselves.
This explains why the first pioneer homes were small, typically with just one room. They did it all by hand without the benefit of electric tools and chainsaws. The cabins made back then are still found today because the quality of the construction was that good. They also needed to make their own furniture.
6. Baking from Scratch
Baked goods were a daily part of life for pioneers. Typically, the women would spend their days baking various breads and biscuits that were served with every meal. They didn’t have the luxury of buying a loaf of bread or a can of biscuits.
They used their hands to knead the dough and used minimal ingredients. They didn’t typically have yeast either. Bread was sometimes the only thing a pioneer had to eat for an entire day, which made it an absolute must.
7. Food Preservation
With no refrigerators or freezers, pioneers had to get creative when it came to preserving their food. They would use pickling methods for some things and dried meat, fruits and veggies to carry them through the winter.
Root cellars were a standard part of any homestead. They could store root crops and apples in the cellars. There are various types of cellars, not all need to be big underground rooms. They would have to hand dig and sometimes, all they needed was a small hole they could line with straw.
8. Candle Making
Candles were a part of life. Today, we flip a switch, back then, they made candles that would provide them with the light they needed to read, cook or eat by. The cabins they built didn’t typically have more than one or two windows.
Glass wasn’t readily available, which meant a lot of cabins didn’t have windows at all. They needed light which meant they had to make their own candles. This would be a chore they took on a few times a year.
9. Tanning Hides
One pioneer motto was something along the lines of want not, waste not. Everything they managed to get their hands on was useful, that included all parts of the animals they harvested. The hides were necessary for survival.
They could be worn, used as window or door coverings to block out cold wind or traded for other supplies. The key is to never let anything go to waste. If they were going to take an animal, it made sense to make use of the hides.
10. Cooking over a Fire
Pioneers didn’t get to set an oven temperature, put a dish in and set the timer and forget about it. They had to cook over an open fire, which if you’ve ever tried it, it’s not easy. There’s an art to it and they had it down pat.
Cast iron cookware is a must. A Dutch oven was regularly used. They made bread, biscuits and stews over an open fire. Today, we’re lucky enough to have some pretty cool tools that make cooking over an open fire a lot easier.
11. Water Sourcing
Water is necessary for life. The pioneers didn’t have taps. They had to find water. Sometimes, they were lucky enough to find a running stream or a lake. Other times, they had to dig wells. Typically, they weren’t going to waste their time or energy hand digging a well unless that’s where they were going to homestead.
When they were on the trail, they had to look for signs that indicated water was available. There were many ways they did this from listening, watching animals or getting to a higher viewpoint and looking for patches of green.
It was hunt or die. Period. If the pioneers wanted to eat, they had to hunt. In those days, people learned to hunt from the time they could walk. Knowing how to hunt was just one of those things people knew how to do like people in today’s world know how to go to the grocery store.
They weren’t always all about the big game. Big game meant they were going to dry their meat for later. Often, it was rabbits, quail and even squirrels. Hunting in general requires knowing where to aim and how to track.
Sometimes, it didn’t make sense to spend days hunting which is why they would set traps. It meant they could get more animals with less effort. Trapping was especially useful during winter months when it wasn’t safe for pioneers to be outside for hours on end.
Trapping was also used as predator control. Coyotes, wolves, badgers and so on would kill the pioneers’ animals that they needed to survive. To eliminate the problem, they resorted to trapping.
It might seem like a no-brainer, but fishing back then wasn’t about sitting around with some buddies. It was about survival. They made their own lures and used bait they typically caught or got from the kitchen scrap bucket before it went into the compost pile.
Fishing is time consuming, which pioneers didn’t have a lot of. They used traps and nets to bring in a big haul to feed the family.
15. Herbal Medicines
Pioneers needed to be well educated in herbal medicine and would often pick the plants they knew would be beneficial and dry them to be used later.
Pioneers were on their own. They didn’t have phones, email or nine-one-one. They had to figure it out for themselves. If something broke, they fixed it. If they didn’t have something, they figured out how to do without or get it.
Pioneers were all alone with only other pioneers to count on. Families were often separated by ten to a hundred acres. It’s something people in this day and age have taken for granted. Being self-reliant is a confidence booster. Pioneers didn’t think about being all alone—they just were.
Building a community is just as important as knowing how to handle yourself. Pioneers built small towns to make life easier. There would typically only be one doctor, one saloon and sometimes, only one law officer. The communities they built allowed more people to settle in the area. More people meant a more diverse set of skills and ultimately, more trade.
18. Weather Predicting
Because so much of their lives depended on growing their own food, staying warm or surviving natural disasters, pioneers needed to be able to predict the weather. They didn’t have satellites or radar. They didn’t have phones that let them know rain was coming.
The weather determined when to plant and when to harvest. Your grandparents will probably say things like ‘weather’s coming’ or something like that and most of the time, they’re right. That’s because they learned it from their parents. It’s a valuable skill we should all have.
The lost art of blacksmithing was a part of daily life two-hundred years ago. Blacksmiths were some of the most important people in the old days. They did everything from making tools, weapons and fixed wagon wheels. Modern times made the blacksmith extinct, but you can still find a few who practice the old ways.
Leatherworking was something else the pioneers did. It was one of those things they could do at night by candlelight. It was another way to use the animals they butchered to make things they needed from clothes to toys for the kids to tools.
Babies happen but back then, they didn’t have obstetricians. They were lucky to have a doctor available, which meant women helped other women deliver their babies. A midwife was a bonus. She would help deliver the child and make sure the baby was healthy. Back then, there wasn’t any formal training. It was all hands-on experience.
22. Weaving and Sewing
Without stores to run out and buy clothes, pioneers had to sew their own. They used a needle and thread to sew clothing as well as mend clothing that was falling apart. Women made their own dresses. Because there weren’t fabric shops readily available, some pioneers had to weave their own from raw wool they sheared from the sheep they raised.
23. Navigation and Reading Maps
Imagine heading West with no map or navigation system. No roads, no signs, nothing. Pioneers just knew how to get where they were going using some of the most basic, age-old navigation skills. They used compasses, the stars and their inner sense of direction, something many of us struggle with. If they were lucky, the pioneers got a very primitive map, but still, there weren’t any roads to follow.
24. Bartering and Trade
Pioneers weren’t generally wealthy people, which meant they didn’t have a lot of cash or coin. To get the things they needed, they had to barter or trade. The system wasn’t always cut and dry. They had to learn the value of an animal hide or a loaf of bread. The pioneers had to have some skill they could barter whether it was a tangible item or a service.
Schools only showed up once the pioneers set up a community. Even then, it wasn’t always possible for children on the homesteads to travel to the schoolhouse. Parents were the ones tasked with teaching their children what they needed to get through life.
They had to teach reading, writing and math along with some kind of skill. Teaching was part of daily life. They didn’t have summer breaks or vacations. Teaching requires patience, something we all need more of.
Men, women and children all knew how to shoot. They knew gun safety and how to take care of the firearms they had. Guns were a necessary part of life to protect themselves as well as to procure food. There are plenty of groups and businesses that teach everyone from young to old how to use a gun safely.
27. Surviving Harsh Weather Conditions
Pioneers were smart when they built their small, windowless cabins. That’s how they stayed warm in the harsh winters on the prairie. The small dwellings were easier to heat and needed less fuel, aka wood, which they had to cut down and chop on their own. They prepared for the weather to keep from having to expose them to the harsh conditions.
28. Firewood Cutting and Collecting
Cutting firewood today is a chore with a chainsaw. Imagine doing it with an ax or a crosscut hand saw. The pioneers knew which wood to cut to maximize heat output. Cutting firewood is a bit of an art form.
There was also the task of storing it to keep it dry. Wet wood would smoke out their cabins. It’s a good idea to brush up on your wood cutting skills without a chainsaw including how to fell a true safely.
Butchering the animals they harvested from the wild or the animals they raised was just one of those things that had to be done. There wasn’t an option to be squeamish. Women would often handle this job.
They could cut and quarter meat, pluck chickens and skin rabbits and other small critters. Butchering isn’t as easy as slicing and dicing. It’s important to learn the proper way to butcher an animal to prevent contaminating the meat with a gut cut or wasting precious meat by sloppy cutting.
Foraging for nuts and berries was a necessary chore. When pioneers were first setting up their homesteads, they had to find food while they waited for their crops to grow. They had to know where to look and which berries were safe to eat.
It’s a good idea to take some foraging classes or do some research. Foraging diversified their diet, but picking the wrong berry can be deadly.
Pioneers had to be carpenters as well as masons. They needed chimneys that would hold up. In some cases, pioneers chose to build stone homes which were very durable when done right. Not only did they have to know how to build the structures, but they also had to source their stones. Masonry is one of those skills that is still very usable today.
32. Waste Management
Everyone poops. It’s a fact of life and even the pioneers knew they needed to handle the waste properly. Outhouses were built to keep things tidy. They understood they couldn’t put the outhouse next to their water source or too close to the house.
The outhouse also needed ventilation. It’s not something we think much about, but it’s a good idea to learn how to build your own.
Pioneers had to make their own soap to wash themselves as well as their clothes. Typically, it was one and the same. Sometimes they would get fancy with lavender or rose petals, but typically, it was a very basic soap made from animal fat.
When they did get supplies, they would use lye, sometimes charcoal. Surprisingly, soapmaking hasn’t changed much over the years.
34. Knot Tying
Tying the right knot for the right use was an invaluable skill. Knots were needed to hang an animal in preparation for butchering to something like keeping a door closed.
If you’ve ever had to tie anything down, you know certain knots are better. You might need easy release or something that’s going to withstand a great deal of force. Knot tying is something that is still a huge part of our lives today.
35. Flint Knapping
We don’t even think about knapping today. If you don’t know what it is, it’s the primitive version of blacksmithing. If a pioneer didn’t have access to a blacksmith or have the tools and know how to do his own, it was back to the stone age.
Knapping is what you do when you sharpen a stone to make it into an ax head or a hoe for the garden. They had to go old school if they needed a knife or an arrowhead for the arrows. It was part of their toolchest. If they didn’t have the knowledge to get what they needed, they improvised.
36. Making Cordage
There are numerous ways pioneers made cordage. It could have been from plants, trees or sinew from the animals that were butchered. Cordage is one of the most important survival tools now, and it was back then as well.
To keep their knives, axes and saws sharp, the pioneers had to do it themselves without the luxury of a grinder. Stone sharpening is one of the oldest methods. It’s all about the right angle, which they knew.
They also had to keep the sharp tools free of rust. Sometimes they would use animal fat to achieve that, but usually, it was just using the tools regularly that kept them from getting rusty.
It’s a good idea to learn these skills just in case we’re tossed back to the days of no electricity or modern convenience. If you can, find someone that was taught these skills by their ancestors.
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