Union Township: How the Pioneers Lived.
By Beverley Bittner, From the spring, 1978 issue of Reminisence.
By the 1790s the great western migration that followed the Revolutionary War had begun in earnest. The Indians had been pacified. The deep forests, game, clear rushing streams and rivers and the opportunity to live free, away from the crowded eastern seaboard attracted restless men and women to northwestern Pennsylvania.
Most arrived in the summer months, but by the time they had cleared land, built cabins, and cut trees, it was too late to plant crops. The settlers were dependent on provisions brought up rivers by barges, then carried overland. Many were in debt. Some left to seek better fortune further west, or to go back east where families and friends still lived. Only the most hardy remained in the Union (Township) area.
Those who stayed settled in and made comfortable homes for themselves by much hard work. The names are legend: Matthew Grey, John Wilson, James Grey, William Miles.
By the Fall of 1799, the first comers found themselves with corn, potatoes and vegetables grown in their little clearings. Now a new difficulty presented itself. There was not a mill within one hundred miles to grind the first crop of corn.
Some of the women knew how to make the corn into hominy, which was nutritious and palatable. They also contrived to pound their corn into meal in mortars. The mortars were generally made by cutting off the top of a solid stump, and burning the center of the stump down lower than the rim, making it the shape of a bell turned upside down. The coals were carefully dug out and the mortar was ready for use.
Leather was always in demand. Matthew Grey set up a small tannery sufficient for the needs of the area. Hides were brought to him from miles around.
Daniel Herrington set up a blacksmith shop at the foot of Ox Bow Hill and did all the work of smith for the area until Able Thompson set up the trade at Union (now Union City) in 1801. Thompson bought forty acres from William Miles and his mill was set up within a half mile of the site Miles intended to build a grist mill.
Thompson brought with him a family of five sons and two daughters. The men were all mechanics and very ingenious. Besides blacksmithing, they were also stone cutters, and out of the flinty boulders which they found in the woods, made grinders for the new mill. All the tombstones in the area which are of native stone, showed son Joel’s handiwork.
The Thompsons also for many years made all the farming and household utensils for the county, which were made of iron or steel, such as hoes, hay and manure forks, harrow pins, and plow irons, which they had to sharpen frequently. They also made the shovels and tongs which were used at every fireplace.
They had a set of moulds for running spoons, and if any of the citizens could afford pewter, Abel Thompson would make them spoons of it. Jeb, another son, preferred to work in wood and set up a shop at the mouth ofCarroU’s run, and put in a turning lathe to go by water. He made wooden bowls and many other articles, including wheels for spinning flax and wool.
Abel’s son, Caleb, became a farmer, but was also a carpenter and jointer. Charles, Abel’s fifth son, was a shoemaker.
The building of the grist mill was an important event and took many months of work. A dam was built. The race above and below the mills had to be dug, and all the logs cut and hewn by hand. The nails and spikes in the mills and all the houses built for many years were drawn out on the blacksmith’s anvil, for cut nails were not yet invented.
Besides the grist mill, William Miles constructed a saw mill at about the same time. The benefits of the mills had been enjoyed only about a year when they caught fire and burned down. This was a great calamity, not only to the people of southeastern Erie County, but also those in eastern Crawford County. All the settlers patronized the mills except those who lived nearer to Culbertson’s mill on Conneaut Lake, which was built about the same time as the Miles’ mills. Everybody believed the mills had been set on fire deliberately, but no one was ever convicted of the crime.
The mills were rebuilt and life went on.
As we go to the stores now we expect to find whatever we need or want. We seldom think of our ancestors who had to make what they needed or go without!
Beverley Bittner (1930–2006) was born in Dunkirk, NY, a daughter of Paul and Doris Blakeslee. She was raised and educated in Spartansburg, Pennsylvania where she graduated from Spartansburg High School in 1948. She moved to Corry, Pennsylvania in 1960, and resided there until 1979 when she moved to Cleveland, Ohio, for several years. She was the Associate Editor for the Union Gospel Press in Cleveland, and was a free-lance writer for various religious publications. She had a special interest in history, wrote about veterans of World War II, and wrote and published a series of five novels about the history of western Pennsylvania and the origins of the local oil industry. She founded the Writer’s Block in 1999 after moving back to Corry and served as a mentor to other writers until her death in 2006.