Throwback Thursday by Matson Insurance: Brookville’s Shanties

Matson Insurance is partnering with Jefferson County History Center to offer readers a look into Jefferson County’s past. Today, Brookville’s “shanties” are being showcased.

(Above: Joshua or Thomas Reynolds built a “shanty” in Reynoldsville about 1845. Mrs. Thomas Reynolds is pictured.)

The following article was written by Carole A. Briggs, Curator, Jefferson County History Center:


Brookville was a “town of shanties” when McKnight wrote his childhood memoir that covered the years 1840 to 1843 “when my feet were bare and my cheeks were brown.” He included it in his two-volume history printed in 1917.

The word “shanty” may be derived from two sources. The French word “chantier” in Canada means a lumber camp. An Ohio source in 1820 describes people living in a shanty—an 8×10 foot hovel. Or it may be derived from the Irish sean tig, “old house,” supposedly supported by the large numbers of expatriate Irishmen who were employed on projects and lived in the earliest shanty towns.

No matter the derivation, we know daily life in a shanty could not have been easy. McKnight’s memoir describes it quite well. Unlike the first small log homes built by the earliest settlers, these shanties were put together with “frame timbers, mortised and tenoned, and fastened with oak pins, as irons and nails were scarce, people being poor and having little or no money.”

Soap-making, dying, and some cooking were done in the back yard where there would be an “out-oven,” an “ash-hopper,” a “dye kettle,” and “a rough box fastened to the second story of the necessary, in which to raise early cabbage plants.” The “necessary,” of course, was the outhouse or toilet facility. The garden included the usual vegetables as well as catnip, peppermint, sage and tansy, herbs used by the woman of the house for dying, cooking, and medicinal purposes.

Inside the shanty, women cooked over a fireplace. A crane swung in and out over the fire and nearby were the poker, tongs, and a shovel for removing ashes. The crane included a set of rods of different lengths so kettles could be suspended at the proper height. Mothers used a long-handled frying pan, a short-handled three-legged “spider,” and a griddle. They used a “bake-kettle,” a kettle with a tight-fitting lid and legs to bake the daily corn pone. A split broom handled the sweeping.

The earliest tableware was perhaps whittled from wood unless a few treasures of pewter or iron had been carried over the mountains. Knives and forks made of iron with bone handles and china came later.

Some of our early pioneers brought furniture with them. Others built their tables, stools, and beds from materials at hand. For those early pioneers living in log cabins, one method of building a bedstead was to use the corner of the room and place a forked branch in the dirt floor as the bed’s fourth corner post. Poles could then extend from the forked branch into the spaces between the log walls. These poles would make the “springs,” upon which lay the bedding―a tick filled with straw or corn shocks, a quilt or hap, and pillows stuffed with down. The folks living in the shanties on Main Street most likely used a roped bedstead.

[email protected] County Historical Society, Inc.

Throwback Thursday is brought to you by Matson Insurance in Brookville.


Submitted by the Jefferson County History Center.

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