The Fact of the Matter Is…
From the Files of Gustavus Historical Archives & Antiquities
Q - What kind of activities occupied the time of the homesteader’s children during the long winter hours of darkness?
A - In the words of Glen Parker (who was 8 when his family arrived in Gustavus in 1917) winter was a time of “hunkering down”. Of course, the entire family was involved in daily chores associated with cattle raising, and gathering and chopping firewood. Late fall harvesting had to be completed before freezing temperatures set in which sometimes meant working by the light of the moon. Sawmill production to support the never-ending construction of shelters, (accommodating the basic needs of both man and beast) were ever present no matter what time of the year. In addition, the planning and building of boats, bridges, and floats, (working with middle of the night tides) plus the general difficulty of transporting goods, whether over land or sea, were all major time consuming hurdles to be fought and won. An extra set of hands, no matter how small would have had a contribution. Bert Parker often said that by the time he was a teen he was “bucking up against a man’s job”.
Nonetheless, long evening hours around the fire by kerosene lanterns and Aladdin lamps were a time of family fun for both the children and adults. Lots of music—guitar, pump organ, and piano with everyone in Gustavus at one house or the other, and hilarious, original music flowing like a river. Saturday nights were the regularly scheduled “get together” times with all-nighters not uncommon. But any night would do, and it usually did.
There was a favorite game or two that the small band of settlers never seemed to tire of. These could best be summed up by three words—beans, feathers, and “cooties”. Beans could be hidden around the house and the children turned loose to see who could stuff their pockets with the biggest number. There was also the bean version of button, button, who has the button? The good thing about the beans was they could be fun one night and stewing in the pot for supper the next. (They were also used for math and a host of other inventive schemes)
The “Feather Blow” game was perfect for rousing competition among the children. Four players were arranged around a table with a feather in the middle. At the word “go” the players blew with all their might to send it off the table in an opponents territory. If you didn’t defend your side and the feather blew past you, there was a penalty of 5 points. If you touched the feather the penalty was 2 points. This would go on indefinitely and at the end of the game, the player with the lowest score was declared the Feather Champion.
Probably the most favorite of all when the “hunkering down” had “hunkered” enough was the game of “Cooties”. We had heard about the game from long deceased family members, but didn’t know the rules until just this year when GHAA uncovered an old Parker book of games with their favorite ones marked and there it was—“Cooties”! Before our enlightenment “cooties” was what one sex attributed to another in a disgusted tone of voice. Webster says “cooties” is actually a louse! So, we are very happy to clear up the entire matter by giving the rules of the game—“guaranteed to keep your guests in an uproar for the entire evening IF you can ever get them to go home” (that’s what the book says anyway!).
You’ll need several sets of dice, one die for each player, and paper and pencils for everyone. The object of the game is to draw a complete “Cootie”—including body, head, mouth, 2 eyes, 2 feelers, and 6 legs—before anyone else. The “Cootie” is drawn by throwing the die—1, representing the body; 2, the head; 3, each of the two eyes; 4, the mouth; 5, each of two feelers; and 6, each of the six legs. There are 13 parts to the complete “Cootie”. The body (number 1) must be drawn first. The eyes and feelers can not be added until the head (number2) has been thrown. The first to complete their drawing yells “Cootie” and all players stop. The rest of the players count their points and a new round begins.
So there you have it. Get out the oil lamps, turn off the lights, and relive a little bit of Gustavus history in your own homes. And appreciate the amenities that make it so easy for all of us to function and live (winter or not) and so easily come and go, all of which would have been unfathomable to the earliest settlers.
Copyright 2006 Gustavus Historical Archives & Antiquites (GHAA)