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A Memoir of Del and 
Ella May (Cornell) Ferguson

Pioneers of Near Kirksville, Missouri

A Memoir by Sandra Ammerman-Paser

Editor's note -- Ella May (Cornell) Ferguson was the daughter of Missouri pioneers Sebastian and Margaret E. (Pring) Cornell, and the daughter of Indiana pioneers John and Caroline (Minerd) Pring. In 1904, Ella May married Clarence 'Delmar" Ferguson, and they resided together near Kirksville, Adair County, MO for nearly a half century. This memoir was lovingly written by the Fergusons' granddaughter.

Del and Ella May came from a long line of self-sufficient  farmers. Their ancestors were among the "pioneer farmers" who kept pushing westward as new lands were opened up.  These farmers were among the first who established permanent homes in a new area, often moving in groups with other relatives and neighbors from the same eastern towns.  They made the first rough dwellings and laid out the first passable trails through the underbrush or across the plains.

As year after year passed and more and more land cleared, there was enough under cultivation to support these farm families.  Then additional timber was cut to produce crops for export.  As additional people moved in, roads reaching back to the eastern towns and cities were improved, and the forests were replaced with open country.

At this point one of two things usually happened: first,  the pioneer farmers' land had increased in value as others came from the east eager to buy the established farms. It was tempting to sell out and move on to another newly opened land farther west to begin the process anew--and many of them did.  The second event was usually due to the farmer's family, itself.  They all had large families, and with good fortune many of the children lived to adulthood.  When the patriarch of the family was aging and nearing the end of his life, he would usually plan to divide his land among his surviving children.  As initial farms started in the 40-80 acre range, the children would not inherit much land unless the parents had continued to buy and enlarge their holdings.  The children would often take their share of the inheritance (or even the anticipated inheritance) and move on westward on their own.

Three factors contributed to every man's decision to move to the new frontiers:  Conditions at home, the ease with which he could reach the West, and the attractiveness of the region ahead.  Many times the lands "at home" were depleted and no longer able to sustain the family. The promise of better soil or a more favorable climate were great magnets. Increasing populations caused these independent souls to want to go to a location where they could have some solitude and be their own bosses. Many left the East in search of adventure and romance.

As stated in Billington's Westward Expansion, describing the migrations from New England:

Those, who are first inclined to emigrate, are usually such as have met with difficulties at home.  These are commonly joined by persons, who, having large families and small farms, are induced, for the sake of settling their children comfortably, to seek new and cheaper lands... Others are allured by the prospect of gain, presented in every new country to the sagacious, from the purchase and sale of new lands.

Not all easterners were able to take advantage of the frontier opportunity. "Every individual's migration depended on three ingredients:  proximity, skill in pioneering techniques, and capital...Unless blocked by some natural obstruction, each new region was settled from neighboring areas rather than distant points.  Most moved farther west in the State where they lived, or into the State immediately adjacent to that of their birth.

Distance and inadequate training in agricultural pursuits closed the frontier to eastern workingmen; instead America was settled by successive waves of farmers who were already skilled in wresting a living from the soil.  Farming, even before the day of mechanization, was a highly technical profession.  Frontiering required a knowledge of even more specialized techniques.  Clearing the land, building a home, fencing fields, raising animals, solving problems of defense and planting crops on virgin soil all demanded experience few easterners possessed.

The cost of moving to the West was also a barrier that few could overcome.  If a prospective pioneer wanted to begin life anew cheaply, he must move to the extreme edge of the frontier, obtain government land, clear his own fields, and personally conquer the wilderness; this required technical knowledge acquired by generations of pioneering.  Few eighty-acre farms were established that did not cost their owners at least $1500.

Little wonder that most new areas were occupied by trained farmers from nearby regions who had either the frontier skills to begin life anew cheaply or the capital necessary to put land into production.  Through the history of America's westward expansion the farmer, blessed with wealth, skills and proximity, was the average frontiersman.

Del's father and grandfathers were descended from the Ferguson family which originated in Virginia in the 1600's. In the 1630's they lived in eastern Virginia in Little York, on the James River. During the Revolutionary War, they moved first to the western Virginia frontier, and then to North Carolina. Del's great great grandfather, John, served in the Revolution in both Virginia and North Carolina. Indiana Territory was organized in 1800.  The last Indians left the southern part of the State in 1811 after the Battle of Tippecanoe.  About 1810, the Ferguson family moved into southern Indiana; in the 1830's to northern Indiana; and on into Iowa in the 1850's.  Madison Ferguson, Del's father, knew and lived near his grandfather, William in Iowa.  William was born in North Carolina and lived on the farms that were established in southern and northern Indiana.  Madison and Mary Ann (Drake) Ferguson married in Iowa in 1874, but moved to Adair County, Missouri in 1888--probably because the land was still relatively cheap.  Mary Ann had been born in Adair County, and still had uncles and cousins from her Drake and Clark families living there.  Their farms were all in Clay Township.

Mary Ann Drake's father and grandfathers also were of this "pioneer farmer" stock, beginning as early settlers in Hopewell, New Jersey in the 1630's and moving on into Pennsylvania and Ohio after the War of 1812. There are still Drake "cousins" in New Jersey and Perry County, Ohio. In the 1850's, the government was selling swamp land in Missouri for 50 cents an acre under a Congressional order to encourage the re-claiming of these swamps and converting them to productive lands. Mary Ann's parents, Andrew and Lucinda, moved to Adair County in the early 1850's, taking advantage of this "bargain" land. They moved their family to Iowa during the Civil War and had a self-sufficient farm in Buchanan County.  I have visited the site of the former Andrew Drake farm.  It is still a gorgeous piece of rolling farmland in a region crossed with creeks and rivers.

Sebastian Cornell's father and grandfathers followed a migration path that began in Massachusetts in 1635.  The first Cornell established a farm  on Long Island in the 1640's, while under Dutch rule. He moved the family to Portsmouth, Rhode Island after an Indian raid that killed some of his family. One of his great-grandsons, William Cornell, moved to New Jersey. In fact, in the late 1600's and early 1700's our Cornell and Drake ancestors lived in the same town of Hopewell in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. The next move westward for our Cornell ancestors was to Frederick County, Maryland, where Sebastian's father, William, was born in 1813. (This part of Frederick County became Carroll County in 1837.) In 1839, some of the Cornell brothers moved into northwest Ohio and northeast Indiana as the frontier was pushed farther north and west. William and Mary (Heck) Cornell arrived in DeKalb County, Ohio in 1850. They had to cross "The Great Black Swamp" in northwestern Ohio--the reason this area of Indiana was the last to be settled. The large farm and farm house that was established in DeKalb County by Sebastian's father still stands, with the foundation of the barn and the hen house still in existence. The house is on the National Historic Register.

Margaret Pring's family, too, was one of the first families in NE Indiana.  Her parents, John and Caroline had the second log cabin in Cedar Creek Township, near Ft. Wayne. (This was when Ft. Wayne was still a fort!) They moved to their Cedar Creek property in Allen County shortly after their marriage in 1844.

The common denominator in all of our ancestors is the fact that they, and their parents before them, were all born and raised on a "pioneer farm."  They all knew how to survive on their own. The men wielded axe, plow and rifle.  The women raised and preserved food, made clothing, quilts, and candles.  They worked the fields with the men and the families were teams committed to the good of the family.

Grandpa Del and grandma Ella Ferguson, too, carried on this tradition of self-sufficiency.  Their farm sported two beautiful barns, two chicken houses and a pig pen. Grandma had a wash house and a smoke house. The farm first consisted of 80 acres  located in Clay Township, Adair County, Section 24 (later expanded to 120 acres).  It was about a mile from the S.H. Cornell and M.L. Ferguson farms.  It was at the top of a hill and had a long, dirt drive that began at the dirt road.  Actually, the "driveway"  was more like a series of ruts.  It seems that every time we went to visit, it had just rained or snowed, and the drive was a mess of sticky, slippery red clay.  We would have to leave the car at the bottom near the road and walk up to the house. I can't remember if or how we ever got the car up the hill at these times. Uncle Clarence says that his dad had a mare named "Maud" and he would lead her down the hill and hitch her up to the car and pull it up the hill.

Clarence says the farm land was "rolling." Grandpa kept it in grass & hay and some corn for the horses. He had a cane patch to make sorgum (molasses). He had all kinds of breeds of cattle and kept a few pigs to butcher.

Grandma and grandpa Ferguson raised their own animals and grew the feed for them.  Grandpa would plow the fields walking behind a team of horses that pulled the plow. He never had a tractor. They lived about 8-9 miles from town, and the horses provided their transportation as they pulled wagons and buggies as well as serving as their farm "machinery." They finally got a 1925 Model-A Ford touring car and later a 1933 Chevrolet.

They butchered and prepared their own meats and sold the surplus animals and grains. Clarence said that grandma raised the chickens and sold the eggs to a hatchery.  The chickens were "Silver Wyandots."  They also sold milk & cream.  They lived 13 miles from Kirksville and 8 miles from Brashear.  Clarence remembers the bad roads and how his dad and a neighbor would take a high wheel wagon and 4 horses to pull it and start early in the morning to take the eggs to the hatchery.  They wouldn't get home until late at night.

Grandpa farmed the Sebastian Cornell farm after his in-laws retired and moved into Kirksville. He kept some horses in the Cornell barns and Ike Rummerfield lived in the house and worked for him. The farm was later sold to Warren Pierce.  Del later also farmed his father's land, when Madison and Mary Ann moved to Kirksville.  Del's health was already beginning to be a problem by the 1930's.  Clarence helped with much of the work. Wayne had bought a truck and was working at building roads.

Apparently, the winters were much colder 80-90 years ago, as Uncle Clarence Ferguson tells how his dad would butcher a beef and leave it hanging in the smokehouse all winter.  He would go out and cut off a piece at a time, as needed.  I remember once when I was visiting the farm, and grandpa came from somewhere outside with steaks for breakfast. I could not imagine how he got them unless he had just gone and butchered the cow that morning.  Now, I understand.  Grandma would smoke meat in the smoke-house. She also prepared dried and canned meats.  She made a divine canned sausage. She cooked on a kerosene stove, and also had a wood stove in the kitchen. She dried fruits on the roof. She  milked cows and made butter and gathered eggs from the chickens.  She grew a garden, tended fruit trees and canned the produce.  She really did make dresses from flour sacks! The only things they bought were flour, salt and sugar. Grandpa built his barns in 1928 and 1932.  He had the money saved to start on a new house, but when the banks failed during the Depression, he lost all of his savings and never was able to recover fully.

The new house was never  built.  I remember the old house.  Small, but homey. The kitchen floor tilted so much you had to lean to the side to walk straight.  There were many kerosene lamps for light and down comforters and feather beds for warmth at night.  The kitchen table held a spoon-holder, which looked like a vase, but was full of spoons. Grandma and grandpa had their own dinner plates: one pink, one blue. They used these every day for all their meals.  Grandma made bread or biscuits almost every morning, and a breakfast of her biscuits with her canned sausage ranks up at the top of my memories.  She used one of those three-tined "granny forks" when she cooked.  (Uncle Clarence has her fork now).    There was an old pump-organ.  My mother, Opal, said that grandpa traded a calf for that organ so that he could give it to her.  She never knew what happened to the organ after he died and the farm was sold. The bathroom was outdoors--cold in the winter and full of spiders and wasps in the summer.  I was terrified of it.  Baths were either outdoors or in the kitchen in a big washtub in water heated on the wood stove.  Every day washing-up was at a wash basin on a stand in the kitchen or outdoors at the water pump. Grandma ironed with an iron that was heated on the wood stove.  They pieced quilts during the long winter nights. I remember once, when my mother and I took the train to Missouri, we took a cab from the train station to the farm.  No one was home.  (I don't know why.) Grandma had a jar of lemon cookies on the table.  Mom and I sat at the table in the light of the kerosene lamp and ate cookies with coffee. Every time I eat lemon cookies, I still think of that day in grandma's kitchen.

The living room had a radio, where grandpa would listen to the farm reports early every morning. Clarence said they got electricity in 1935 and 1940. The house wasn't fully wired, and that's why they still used the kerosene lamps and stove and the wood stove.

Grandma belonged to the Church of God (Holiness)--first in Hazel Green, near the farm, and then in Kirksville. It was a very conservative, and evangelical Baptist church, also called Holy Rollers.  She was very devout and lived her beliefs.  She never cut her hair, but wore it in a bun.  always wore dresses with long sleeves long stockings, and almost always wore an apron.  I do have a picture of her standing in the yard next to grandpa in her bare feet.  I don't remember ever seeing her in bare feet, though--at least not in public.  She had an intolerance for the sun, and the long sleeves plus a sunbonnet protected her from the hot Missouri sunshine.  She had scoliosis, although I never noticed that, either, until I saw it in a photograph.  In her later years, she had Parkinson's disease with quite a tremor.  She lived alone in Kirksville after Grandpa died.  I imagine she was living off the money from the sale of the farm.  It couldn't have been much. I know she didn't have Social Security.  I think she ate pork & beans and Postum every day.  She was a wise woman,  and could easily cut to the heart of a subject and speak out about it.  Her father was an educated man and a Socialist; her mother a school teacher. they were among the founders of the Sabbath Home Methodist Church, located near their farm. I imagine Ella had been raised in a home of vigorous discussions of religion and politics.

Grandpa was prematurely bald.  He seemed older than his years.  The hair he had was curly.  He seemed to work all the time and smelled of hay and barn and animals.  He chewed tobacco (from tobacco ropes) and spit a lot.  He had a twinkle in his eyes and sincerely seemed to enjoy his grandchildren.  I don't remember him well. Once, I really had my heart set on riding one of the horses.  He said, "Well, I don't know--they aren't really riding horses," but he put a saddle on one of the old draft horses.  The back was so broad I had to do splits to sit on him.  He led him around the farm yard a little, and I was satisfied. I wish I could have known him better. He died when I was 9 years old.  I remember how upset I was at his funeral.  Since we lived in Chicago, we didn't get to Missouri to visit more that 2 or 3 times a year, and it seemed like it just wasn't fair.  He died of a heart attack, but had been having heart problems for quite some time.  When you were a farmer, you had to keep working.

The children all went to "Hazel Green," a one-room schoolhouse about a mile away if they went across the fields. By the time they were grown, there was no more "frontier" to conquer. Wayne and Clarence bought a truck and did some hauling in Missouri, Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin during the Depression.  They later  teamed up as contractors in Illinois and built houses, starting in the spring of 1939.  By 1942, they had built over 40 houses They were both excellent carpenters and cabinet makers. They would often return and help their dad on the farm.

When they weren't able to get plumbing and electrical supplies during the war, they they knew the days of building houses were over for a while.  They both bought farms in 1941.

Eventually, Wayne and Clarence did buy their own farms. Wayne remained in Adair County almost all of his life, and his home was on the farm that had originally belonged to his grandfather, Sebastian Cornell, and then Uncle John. Wayne kept buying more and more neighboring farms, and had the largest farm in the county when he died.

Clarence did most of his farming in Illinois--buying, improving and selling several farms there. He and Lena loved to remodel and update the old farm houses. Clarence and Wayne both continued the traditions of self-sufficient farms,and theirs were marvels of efficiency and productivity.

Opal, too, was an all-purpose housekeeper.  She was skilled at cooking, food preservation, sewing, etc.  She could improvise and "make-do" under almost any circumstances.  She, too, loved to "make-over" old houses and would plan her own remodeling projects.  She knocked out walls and designed her own cabinets and closets. (Then my dad would have to build them.) She said she did the designing and measuring and he did the cutting and hammering. She never wanted to live on a farm again, "because they are too much work."

Copyright 2002 Sandra Ammerman-Paser. Published with permission