Preparing for construction was heavy, muddy work

muck shoes
Shown is a pair of muck shoes that allowed horses to work in deep mud. Visible are the wrought iron cams that helped to secure the curved iron pieces around the front of the horse’s hoof. (Locher collection)

Although the trees to be used in the coming construction of the barnhouse for the pioneer family and its livestock have all been hewn into acceptable building material, that didn’t mean that there was smooth sailing ahead for the project. Far from it.

All the activity that had been taking place during the past couple of months — the felling of the trees, the grubbing out of some of the tree roots and stumps to do planting, the hewing process and the horses dragging the large trees around — had turned the site into a mudhole, a mire from which neither man nor beast could readily extricate oneself to even walk around. Horses struggled through mud up to their knees trying to pull ponderous loads. Men sank into the thick mud beyond the tops of their boots with every step. The entire area had become churned into a quagmire almost beyond comprehension, even though rain had been sparse.

What caused the mud? Before widespread settlement occurred and ever-increasing numbers of people started digging wells, the natural water table was extremely high, almost to the surface. The woods, shaded by the canopy of huge trees, were always very damp. Natural springs pooled at the surface of the ground, which was sponge-like and squishy. Anywhere that regularly saw foot traffic had to have split logs — known as puncheons — thrown down to create a stable walkway.

Muck shoes

Because horses struggled to work in the muddy morass, they had to have help, and that aid came in the form of so-called “muck (or marsh) shoes.” The equivalent of snowshoes for humans, equine muck shoes were made of a flat, sturdy board that had a trio of refinements. An iron strap across the bottom of the shoe not only prevented the grain of the wood from separating under the pressure applied to it ,but was often the attachment point for various styles of small spikes that provided the horse with needed traction in the mud.

To secure the shoe to the horse’s hoof a blacksmith would make an iron framework for the top of the shoe into which the front of the horse’s hoof would fit. An iron cam with lever-like action helped secure the hoof to the top of the board. A bracket mounted just behind the hoof prevented the shoe from slipping forward. Finally a series of leather straps that went around the horses’ hoof and were securely attached to the board completed the attachment.

Once the muck shoes were properly attached, the horse could more easily maneuver in the mud with less likelihood of sinking, falling or breaking a leg.


soapstone boot dryers
Pictured (right) is a pair of soapstone boot dryers which were heated in front of a fire or on a stove before being placed in wet boots overnight. At left is a rectangular slab of soapstone with a wire handle. After being heated it could be dragged over the bed coverings on cold nights to warm them up. (Locher collection)

And what about the settler who worked in muck up to his boot tops? By the end of the day, his boots were wringing wet, and he had to climb back into them again early the following morning.

Well, the solution for that was soapstone boot dryers. Soapstone (steatite) is a metamorphic rock that also contains (depending on the quarry) chlorite, mica, quartz, carbonate magnesite and amphiboles. It is relatively soft, but extremely dense. One of its most noteworthy properties is its ability to absorb large amounts of heat.

Many, if not most, people in early America employed blocks of soapstone with metal handles as a source of heat in times of cold weather. Slabs of soapstone could be heated in front of a fireplace or on a cookstove until hot, then carried to the bedstead to drag over and warm up the cold covers before retiring for the night. Heated soapstones could be wrapped in towels and placed in buggies or wagons or taken along to church services as a portable heater for cold feet.

But soapstones of proper shape could also be used to dry our wet and muddy boots overnight.

Soapstone boot dryers were typically about eight inches long with one end tapered or rounded at the front. That configuration allowed the stone to settle further into the toe of the boot. The surface of the soapstone boot dryer incorporated ridges and hollows which created more surface area and allowed for a greater radiation of heat than would a flat surface. The boot dryers also had wire handles that allowed them to be lowered into the boot and withdrawn without having to turn the footwear upside down.

If there was something good to be said about all the mud that was present at the building site, it’s that it perhaps made for ease in skidding around all the heavy material that was involved in the project.

And that’s a good thing, because another chapter of heavy work needed to be completed before the structure was able to rise.


The corners of the planned barnhouse had to rest on something solid — footers, if you will.

The materials to make those footers were rock — large rocks, to be more specific. And rocks were something that the soils of the Ohio Country seemed to absolutely abound with, as any plow-pushing farmer would readily attest.

A substantial number of large, more or less flat stones needed to be located and dragged to the building site. Holes for the largest stones would be dug down below the frost line so they would not be affected by seasonal freezing and thawing. The others were organized into short columns at each corner of the structure, and leveled in height so as to be able to support the large load of logs that would shortly be sitting atop them.

To drag large stones, the tool of choice — if one was available — was a heavy, wrought iron stone puller. This was a U-shaped iron rod, the ends of which were curved, hook-like, so as to be able to snag and grasp the edges of the stones. An iron ring at the end opposite the hooks was the attachment point for a rope or chain that would then go to the horses’ work harnesses, allowing the rock to be skidded across the muddy ground to where it was needed.

See, sometimes mud can actually be a good thing.

stone puller
This heavy wrought iron tool was used to snag and drag large rocks. The ring was attached to a rope or chain, which was then connected to a horse’s work harness. (Collection of the Buckeye Agricultural Museum & Education Center)

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