A Log Rolling in Old Lowndes County, GA

When Dr. Jacob Rhett Motte arrived at Franklinville, GA in the fall of 1836, he became perhaps the first surgeon in Lowndes County, GA, which then encompassed a vast area including most of present day Lowndes, Berrien, Brooks, Cook, Lanier and Echols counties. Motte was the first of the medical men anywhere in the vicinity of the pioneer homesteaders at the settlement now known as Ray City, GA. Dr. Motte, a U.S. Army surgeon detailed to serve under the command of Major Greenleaf Dearborn, had come to Franklinville, GA at the onset of the Second Seminole War.

1836 map showing relative location of Franklinville, Camp Townsend, Camp Clyatt, Squire Swilley's, Warner's Ferry and other locations. Source: A Journey into Wilderness

1836 map showing relative location of Franklinville, Camp Townsend, Camp Clyatt, Squire Swilley’s, Warner’s Ferry and other locations. Source: A Journey into Wilderness

While encamped at Camp Townsend, Lowndes County, GA in 1836, Dr. Jacob Rhett Motte recorded many details of local folk life, which continued despite the threat of Indian attacks. In the fall of 1836 Dr. Motte  and Major Thomas Staniford were invited to a log rolling event held at the home of an unnamed Lowndes County resident.

A log rolling. Pioneers clearing the land.

A log rolling. Pioneers clearing the land.

Log Rolling was, according to Ward’s History of Coffee County, GA,

When a farmer decided to clear up a piece of land he split every tree on the land that would split into fence rails. The logs that would not split were cut up into pieces twelve or fifteen feet long to be burned at some convenient time in the fall or winter. The farmer gave a “log rolling, quilting and a frolic.” The neighbors were invited to a big dinner and a “log rolling.” The wives and daughters came to sew and to quilt.

As with many southern narratives, historical accounts of log rollings tend to ignore the role of enslaved African-Americans in the settlement of the southern frontier. Dr. Motte’s journal does not acknowledge the presence of slaves.  But slave narratives from Alabama recorded by the Works Project Administration relate, “When they had a log rolling on a plantation, the Negroes from the neighboring plantations came and worked together until all the jobs were completed.” After the log rolling the slaves were given “molasses to make candy and have a big folic.” For slaves, log rolling:

was great times, cause if some of the neighboring plantations wanted to get up a house, they would invite all the slaves, men and women to come with their masters. The women would help with the cooking and you may be sure they had something to cook. They would kill a cow, or three or four hogs, and then have peas, cabbage, and everything that grows on the farm. And if there was any meat or food left they would give that to the slaves to take home, and just before dark the overseer or Ol’ Master would give the slaves all the whiskey they wanted to drink. Sometimes after the days work, they would have a frolic, such as dancing, and old time games.

Cordelia Thomas, born into slavery on a Georgia plantation, shared the following memories of log rolling:

On our place they spent about two whole days cookin’ and gittin’ ready. Master asked everybody from far and nigh, and they always come ’cause they know he was going to give ’em a good old time. The way they rolled them logs was a sight, and the more good corn liquor Master passed ’round, the faster them logs rolled. Come night time, Master had a big bonfire built up and set lots of pitch-pine torches ’round so as there would be plenty of light for ’em to see how to eat that fine supper what had done been set out for ’em. After supper, they danced nigh all the rest of the night. Mammy used to tell us ’bout the frolics next day, ’cause us children was made to go to bed at sundown.

Irving Lowery, born into slavery on Puddin Swamp plantation, South Carolina, described the significance of log rolling in slave life:

A day was set on which the log-rolling was to take place, and then invitations were sent out to the neighboring planters, and each sent a hand. This work was returned when the others had their log-rolling. A log-rolling always meant a good dinner of the best, and lots of fun, as well as a testing of manhood. This testing of manhood was something that everybody was interested in. The masters were concerned, and consequently they selected and sent to the log-rolling their ablest-bodied men; the slave women were concerned: for they wanted their husbands and sweethearts to be considered the best men of the community. Then, too, the men took great pride in the development of their muscles. They took delight in rolling up their shirt sleeves, and displaying the largeness of their arms. In some cases, their muscles presented the appearance of John L. Sullivan–the American pugilist.

The woodlands of the South were covered with a variety of trees and undergrowth. Among the trees, were to be found the majestic pine, the sturdy oak, the sweet maple, the lovely dogwood, and the fruitful and useful hickory. When a piece of woodland was cleared up, and made ready for planting, it was called “new ground.” In clearing up new ground, the undergrowth was grubbed up and burned; the oaks, maples, dogwood, and hickories were cut down, split up, and hauled to the house for firewood; and the pines were belted or cut round, and left to die. After these pines had died and partially decayed, the winter’s storms, from year to year, would blow them down: hence the necessity for the annual log-rolling. These log-rollings usually took place in the spring of the year. They formed an important part of the preparations for the new crop.

On the appointed day, the hands came together at the yard, and all necessary arrangements were made, the most important of which was the pairing or matching of the men for the day’s work. In doing this, regard was had to the height and weight of the men. They were to lift in pairs, therefore, it was necessary that they should be as nearly the same height and weight as possible. The logs have all been cut about twenty feet in length, and several good, strong hand sticks have been made. Now, everything is ready, and away to the fields they go. See them as they put six hand-sticks under a great big log. This means twelve men–one at each end of the hand-stick. It is going to be a mighty testing of manhood. Every man is ordered to his place. The captain gives the order, “Ready,” and every man bows to his burden, with one hand on the end of the handstick, and the other on the log to keep it from rolling. The next command given by the captain is, “Altogether!” and up comes the big log. As they walk and stagger toward the heap, they utter a whoop like what is known as the “Rebel yell.” If one fails to lift his part, he is said to have been “pulled down,” and therefore becomes the butt of ridicule for the balance of the day. When the women folks learn of his misfortune, they forever scorn him as a weakling.

At 12 o’clock the horn blows for dinner, and they all knock off, and go, and enjoy a good dinner. After a rest, for possibly two hours, they go to the field again, and finish up the work for the day. Such was the log-rolling in the “days before the war.”

At a subsequent day the women and children gather up the bark and limbs of these fallen trees and throw or pile them on these log heaps and burn them. When fifty or seventy-five log heaps would be fully ablaze in the deepening of the evening twilight, the glare reflected from the heavens made it appear that the world was on fire. To even the benighted and uneducated slave, the sight was magnificent, and one of awe-inspiring beauty.

As an urbanite, Dr. Motte was unfamiliar with the frontier traditions of log rolling. According to Encyclopedia.Com,

A farmer chopped enough logs for a log rolling only when he had to clear acreage, so chopping frolics and log rollings primarily took place on the frontier. Work frolics derived from similar European and African traditions of communal agricultural labor. An individual, family, or community confronted with a task too large to complete on its own invited neighbors to help them. In return, the host provided refreshments and revelry. Work frolics composed a vital segment of the rural economy in America until the late nineteenth century. For over 200 years, the relatively low cost of renting or owning land in America resulted in a shortage of rural wage laborers. Faced with scarce labor and high wages for the few laborers available, farmers relied on the work frolic as a means for exchanging labor. Attendance at a work frolic granted neighbors the right to call on the host when they needed help. Besides meeting economic realities, work frolics contributed to the formation of communities by tying people into local networks of obligation.

Farmers called work frolics to accomplish a range of tasks, including corn husking, house (or barn) raising, quilting, sewing, apple butter making, chopping wood, log rolling, sugar (or syrup) making, spinning, hunting, and nut cracking. These events required planning and preparation [and followed] seasonal cycles of agriculture…To ensure farmers did not deplete their labor force by planning frolics on the same day, families collaborated to produce a frolic schedule. Hosts also finished preliminary tasks to allow visitors to focus on the large projects that the host family could not complete alone… Competition drove workers to accomplish their tasks quickly… Log-rolling teams strove to move the most wood. Obligatory reciprocity promised hosts that their neighbors would show up, but the party after the work served as a secondary lure. Most workers felt short-changed when hosts did not meet traditional expectations of decent food and alcohol. Entertainment at the parties consisted of music and dancing.

Ward’s History explains how the task was done in a competitive spirit.

The method of rolling logs was to take hand spikes, prize up the log, and put about three hand spikes under the log with two men to each stick, one on each side of the log. Many a contest in strength was made in lifting logs. If the log was very heavy, the men had to be very strong in their arms, legs and backs to lift. If the man at the other end of the stick was not likewise a very strong man, he could not come up with his end of the log and so he became the laughing stock of the crowd. It often happened that a small man was much stronger than a big man. I knew one little man who could lift as heavy a log as any man; the harder he pulled at his hand spike, redder and redder his face got, the veins in his neck bulged larger and larger. When a man claimed he was very much of a man and then wanted the light end of the load he would bluff the crowd by saying, ” I can carry this and then some. Jump on my end of the log and take a ride.”

While the men were busy rolling logs in the fields, the women and girls at home were busy making quilts and cooking dinner. One of the main dishes for dinner was a sixty-gallon sugar boiler full of rice and chicken and backbones. The largest dinner pot was full of greens and dumplings. When the greens were served on the largest dish a boiled ham was placed on top, while sweet potatoes, cracklin bread, potatoes, mudgen [lard] and cakes, two-story biscuits which were served in large quantities. When dinner time comes some one blows a big cow horn loud and long. All hands took a drink and went to dinner. All sorts of dishes are used on the table, broken cups, cracked plates, knives without handles, forks with but one prong, but they all had a good dinner and a bushel of fun while they ate.  When the log rolling and quilting is over and the sun sets into the West, old Bill Mundy, the colored man, came in with his fiddle. A lot of sand was put on the floor and everything is cleared for the dance. The dancers get on the floor with their partners, the fiddler starts up “the One-eyed Gopher,” and the frolic is on. The tune “One-eyed Gopher played by the fiddler was a repetition of the words, “Oh, the one-eyed gopher, he fell down and couldn’t turn over,” etc. He would play it high, play it fast, and play it slow. When the dancing was over, “They got Sandy Moore to beat the strings while he played “Squirrel Gravy,” and thus the frolic ended.

Dr. Motte wrote in his journal about the Lowndes County log rolling, which was held about six miles from Camp Townsend:

“[The host] and candidate for the legislature having given out that on a particular day he intended to have a log-rolling, quilting, and dancing frolic, and having sent an especial message to Major Staniford and myself to attend; our curiosity was excited to witness the originality of such an affair of which we had heard, but never witnessed; so we determined to go.

Thomas Staniford, major of the Regiment stationed near Franklinville, GA in 1836.

Thomas Staniford, major of the Regiment stationed near Franklinville, GA in 1836.

We had to ride six miles and arrived there about sun-set not caring much to participate in the log-rolling part of the entertainment; the [host] was busily engaged erecting a long table out of rough boards in the open air; while his wife was as busily engaged in cooking pork and cabbage in the kitchen, into which we were invited, being informed that it was the reception room. We there found the company assembled, and on entering would have removed our hats, to show our breeding in the presence of the fairer sex; on looking round, however, we noticed that such a procedure would not have been in conformity with the rules or customs of the company, and being decidedly outré would only have exposed us to their ridicule; so quaker-fashion we remained; and the fair angels whose gaze were fixed upon us, seemed by their approving smiles not to take our conduct amiss, – probably liked us the better for appearing to disregard their presence. The pork and cabbage were in due time dispatched, and a few of the gentlemen put to bed, in consideration of not being able to use their legs from a too free use of our host’s whiskey.

Then began preparations for the double-shuffle. There were three fiddlers; but unfortunately for the exercise of their united talents, only one fiddle; and that deficient in some of its strings. The three votaries of Apollo therefore exercised their functions successively upon the cracked instrument, and did not fail to produce such sounds as would have attracted the admiration of even the mighty goddess of Discord herself. Their chief merit seemed to consist in all producing a similar concatenation of sounds, which they persisted in dignifying with the appellation of tune; the name of which, however, was more that the brightest faculties could call.

The Major could not be induced to venture his carcase in the violent exercise of double-shuffle and cross-fling; so I had to support the credit of our camp by my own exertions; and so successfully, that the [host] was in raptures, and made an attempt to exhibit his admiration by embracing me before the whole company; but I could not stand such a flattering display, so bolted.

The intervals of the dance were filled up by the gentlemen handing round in a tumbler, what I thought was whisky and water, but which the Major asserted, from closer in inspection, was unadulterated whiskey; the younger ladies were generally satisfied with one or two mouthfuls from each tumbler, but as the same ceremony was to be gone through with each gentleman in rapid succession, the fairest of creation did not lose their proper allowance. The old ladies, who were veterans in the business, never loosened their grasp of the tumblers until their lips had drained the last drop of the precious liquid. As a necessary consequence it was impossible for them to sit up long, and soon all the beds were occupied by these ancient dames; the gentlemen who afterwards got into a similar predicament were compelled to lie wherever they fell.

At one o’clock fighting commenced, when the Major and myself, not being ambitious of distinguishing ourselves in the pugilistic art, made a retreat; and at two in the morning we were in our tents, after a bitter cold ride.

 

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