A Letter from Illinois Written in 1836.
The writer of the letter, which we print in full below, was Richard H. Beach, who was born in New York City in 1808. Mr. Beach was married in that place in 1832 to Eliza H. Baldwin. The young couple came west and settled first in Morgan county, Ill., where Mr. Beach taught school. In 1834 they removed to Springfield which was their home the rest of their lives, and where they raised a family of children.
Mrs. Eliza Baldwin Beach died in 1865, and two years later Mr. Beach married Sarah Lavinia Pearson. Sarah Lavinia Beach was known as Lavinia Beach. She was a great worker in the cause of charity and temperance in the city of Springfield. There is now a reading room and mission in the city of Springfield known as the Lavinia Beach Mission. Mr. Beach was engaged in the mercantile business in Springfield and with his partner, E. R. Wiley, established the first clothing store in Springfield, under the firm name of Wiley, Beach & Co. This firm was in business many years.
The letter, which has never before been printed, is interesting because it furnishes information as to the manner and cost of living in the early days of the settlement of central Illinois.
The letter is as follows:
Springfield, Illinois, April 4th, 1836.
The following pages were written something like twelve months since, with a view of sending them on by Mr.
92Baldwin for your perusal, as well as the rest of my friends, but as Mr. B. did not take Illinois on his return you and the rest of our family were disappointed in not receiving the long expected "Manuscript" and as it was too voluminous to be sent by mail it has lain unfinished until now. An opportunity offers of sending it by private conveyance, and I willingly embrace it. It is well perhaps that you did not receive it sooner, as my impressions were written down at the moment and I find on looking over my lines that in some instances many of my views were incorrect. Even now I do not wish to convey the idea that the view I have taken of things is such that a person wishing to make the western world his home may implicitly rely on them. What is here written is to be read this way, "to the best of his knowledge."
The information I can give may be of use to yourself and others who are thinking of the "Far West" as a home. Read and judge, then form your own conclusions. The subject has three points which are particularly prominent and for the sake of order I shall notice under these points, whatever I deem worthy connected with them, viz: Agriculture, Commerce and Manufactures. Everything comes under these three, although in estimating the relative value of each, the order in which they stand would have to be altered. I mean their value as to making money fast or slow. I would place the order thus, First Commerce, Second Manufactures, and Third Agriculture. I am aware that the farmer is the bone and sinew of my country, but the merchant possesses the most power, because he turns the most money, altho perhaps in the end he does not possess as much as the farmer. But of this I shall say nothing further, my business is with facts.
The agriculture is of a different character to that of the east; the farmer raises his corn with half the labour we used to do; his pork costs him but little during the summer and his cattle and horses also, with the exception
93of salting them, say once a week. Pasture during the summer costs nothing, the cattle, hogs and horses range at large undisturbed on the Prairies. Fields for pasture alone are not common, unless it be indeed for oxen or working cattle, that they may be found at any time. This is the state of the case at present; when the country is all settled and the land generally enclosed, every farmer will have to provide his own pasture. The cows, after calving in the spring are not separated from their calves, as with us, and fed by hand. This would prevent their coming up regularly to be milked. The calf is shut up during the day, and at night when its mother comes home it is allowed to have a taste and but a taste, for after a few draws or two on the teats of its mother it is driven off very unceremoniously and shut up in the pen for the night, to eat straw, hay or cornstalks for the balance of his supper.
The principal crop is corn, and to the Illinois farmer this is everything. It feeds and clothes him and pays his store account sometimes without any money, or but little, passing through his hands, as the merchant receives his corn and pork and produce in general, in exchange for goods. The farmers' business commences generally from the middle of March or first of April. I Judge not sooner, often. Oats are raised in great abundance; that is when they come to perfection. They are not a sure crop. It is often the case that a few days before they are ready to cut, a storm of rain or wind lays them level with the earth, and not saved at all. I have seen whole fields thus prostrated and going to waste. They are not altogether lost however, if the succeeding winter is open and no use made of the land, hogs, horses and cattle make good use of the privilege they have of seeking for the grain and straw. My oat field of about four acres gave my cattle, from twenty-five to thirty head, employment for a considerable length of time. My hogs were by far the most diligent. The cause of this
94failure of oats is the richness of the soil. They grow tall and have not sufficient strength to withstand the wind. The general price of oats is 25 cts. There have been great wheat crops in this country, but not since I came into it. Last year the wheat through the country generally was lost. It froze out, as there was but one fall of snow during the winter of '35, and that did not lay but two or three days. This season it is the same as far as my knowledge extends. The winter has been very open. Some farmers begin to turn their attention strongly to winter wheat. Good crops have been raised, but last year, in many instances the ground on which it stood was ploughed up and planted in corn. Flour sold one year ago, or eighteen months, for $3. 00 per barrel, now it is $8. 00 and $9. 00. As I have said, corn is the principal dependence of the farmer. When he cannot buy flour at a reasonable price, he can use "corn dodgers" or hoe cake, in other words, corn bread. Corn in a good season sells for 20 to 25 cents. The usual plan of the farmer is to feed his corn to fatten his hogs, which is better than selling it for 25 cents. Pork sold last season at $3. 00 per hundred. It was from two and a half to three the year before. Beef is not very abundant, from some cause or other; it usually sells for 21/2 to 3 cents a pound, tallow eight to ten and twelve cents and quite scarce at that. Lard is often made a substitute for tallow and burnt in an open lamp, which answers every purpose, although not so handy. It sells from 4 to 6 cents a pound. The corn in this country is never hoed. The plough is used altogether, and one man will plough and tend from 25 to 30 acres, which when gathered will yield from 40 to 60, or 80 bushels an acre. It has come up to 100 by good management. About the first of June or thereabouts, they begin to "lay it by" as the term is. From that time on to the first of October and so on till January, nothing is done to it. It is then gathered, either by shucking, husking or cutting it up for winter fodder. Shucking is by far the most common way. The
95corn is pulled off with all the shucks on and carried to the crib, generally a square pen made of rails, and thrown in, to be fed out when wanted, to the hogs, cattle, etc. etc. When husked on the stalk there is more care taken of the corn, but the husks and stalks are left to bleach in the storm and sun until the ground will bear the cattle, when they are turned in and no care taken of them for six weeks or two months. Wheat is often sown in the corn between the rows, which in my opinion is a very slovenly way, but it is very common. Perhaps one cause of the failure of the wheat crop is this careless way of putting it in. I leave this for the more experienced to determine. It has struck me as very odd that farmers here do not cut any hay, or but little, some of them, I mean. Their dependence is upon corn stalks, and yet the cattle appear to do well. Manure is no object. It is not saved at all, and I have heard of men who, when their stable became filled, instead of cleaning it remove it to another place. Chickens are raised in great abundance and sell for a dollar a dozen; eggs from 6 1/4 cents up to an Illinois shilling 16 2-3 cts. Butter is 8,10 and 16 cents, according to its abundance. Through the summer it will command 8 cents and in the winter double this sum.
This land is destined to become the greatest grazing country in the world. Its advantages for that branch of business are very great indeed, and at the present time many are turning their attention to it entirely, to the exclusion of everything else.
It will be perceived from the tenor of my remarks that all the necessaries of life are abundant and cheap. The only articles to be purchased are tea, coffee, sugar, clothing, and even this last may be made in the family and often is. The principal wealth of the farmer at present lies in the rise in value of his land, but this will not be the case always. Past experience has shown that as the country becomes settled, produce rises in value, markets are made where none was found before. By means of
96railroads and canals the surplus will be transported to less favored portions of our land and find a ready market Some years ago pork could be bought in abundance at $1. 25 per hundred, butter at a "Picaoon" (6 1/4) a pound and a half bushel of eggs for 25 cents, other things in like proportion. It was because there was no market. I have heard a story since I came here of one man who took a half bushel to Springfield and not being able to get even 25 cents a 1/2 bushel, took them out into the Prairie and broke them all. This may be true or not, I can not vouch for it. Upon the whole I think this is the greatest farming country in the world. Farms are made the quickest here, of any place that I ever read or heard tell of. No trees to cut down or stones to pick off. The only thing to be done in making a farm is to fence, plough and plant, and the first year's crop will go a great way towards paying the price of the land and fencing.
As yet there is but little manufacturing done in the county, the supplies necessary are brought from the east. But still the mechanic has a fair field open for his enterprise. All kinds of trade do well, such as are adapted to a new country. Especially carpenters, blacksmiths, shoemakers, tanners, cabinet-makers, turners, wheel-wrights, masons, tinners, etc. The finer kinds of trades are not much carried on at present, but still there is room for them and enterprising young men in particular, whether mechanics or not. The trades I have mentioned are much wanted. Binding can not be put up for want of workmen. Carpenters command good wages; many are in the business who are but quacks in the art. What wages are I can not say, but from the scarcity of hands I suppose they are high.
A french bedstead sells for from $8. to $10.; a cherry table, turned legs with halves, for $7. Cabinet work 18 high as well as mechanical work in general, owing to the scarcity of hands and high price of lumber, many who would build are obliged to defer it till a more favorable
97opportunity. The price for brick, every expense, included, in the walls, is $10. per thousand. Whether this is high or low I am not sufficient judge to say. Brick alone sells for $4. and $5. per thousand at the kiln. There is a great scarcity of houses in this place, so that persons who wish to be any way comfortable are obliged to build for themselves. Still after a residence of two years I think this country just the place for a poor family, and for a poor young man of any enterprise at all, the best place I know of. A shoemaker might, I should think, do well here in the mending and making line. I mean to carry on his business pretty extensively, I know of no reason why the making of boots and shoes could not be carried on to great advantage. Let an enterprising man come here from shoe-making New Jersey or Connecticut and establish himself as a manufacturer not of customers work entirely, but with the idea of carrying on his business as he has been used to, and I have no doubt he will do better than he could at home. It is true he will have to pay a higher price for his leather and materials, but he also will get a higher price for his manufactures. If he should import his leather direct from the East the only additional expense in the price of a pair of shoes to him would be the cost of transportation; then add to this the cost of house rent, fuel and living, and the result would be a larger profit on his labour and capital than he can get at the East. A word or two here about the expense of living. In Springfield perhaps this is nearly the same with New York. This depends in some measure according as you are situated. House rent is nearly the same. Firewood about one-half; groceries higher, clothing higher. Flour at present $9. and $10. per barrel, but this uncommon. Beef and pork very cheap. My family of six persons has lived on beef twice a day for a week at a cost of seventy-five cents! Beat this in New York if you can. But the cheapest way of living is to have a small garden spot and raise your own vegetables, potatoes, cabbage, etc., and rear and fat your own hogs.
98I think take all things into consideration, living is much cheaper here than with you and I wonder that many who are now struggling in New York with high living do not seek this western world and better their condition, as assuredly they would. I often think of our Cousin Daniel Hulse. I think he might do well here, and a hundred others I might mention.
I am glad to hear Charley is getting to be such a smart boy. Tell him to go on and get a good education; it is a fortune in itself. Remember me to Mr. Beahs folks. I should have written to them but have not time.
Rich'd H. Beach.