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04/05/09: Flax — a forgotten fiber of the frontier

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In the pioneer era, many of the first settlers to Central Illinois killed (in the case of animal furs and skins) and grew (in the case of cotton, hemp and flax) much of what they wore.

Although there were early attempts to grow and gin cotton in this area, flax and hemp, for reasons primarily having to do with climate, became the all-purpose fiber crops of the prairie.

Flax is not only valuable for its fiber, but for its seed as well. Flax seeds can be crushed for linseed oil (also known as flaxseed oil), and the pressed remains (sometimes called oil cake) can be used for animal feed. Flax fiber is soft, even lustrous, and stronger than cotton. During the early settlement period, flax was cleaned, combed and then spun to create a wide variety of linen fabrics, with the finest thread used for lace, cambric and the like.

Pioneers also weaved wool and flax together to create a practical, durable cloth known as linsey-woolsey. McLean County settler Jonathan Coon remembered wearing buckskin "jeans" and linsey-woolsey in the winter months, and cooler all-linen garments in the summer.

Flax was a friend of the humble farmer, as nineteenth century English poet Mary Howitt wrote:

"Oh! 'tis a goodly little thing-

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It groweth for the poor;

And many a peasant blesses it,

Beside his cottage door."

"Every farmer raised flax," Blooming Grove settler John Berry Orendorff told Etzuard Duis, a chronicler of McLean County pioneer life. On the frontier, processing flax involved five main tasks: retting, breaking, scutching, heckling and spinning.

Flax is a slender, single-stalk plant that generally grows from one to three feet in height. During pioneer days, the plant was pulled out of the ground when the base of the stalk began turning yellow. The flax was then "retted," either by laying it on the ground and turning it over or placing it in water. Retting speeds decomposition, making the stems brittle, and thus helps loosen the woody cellulose from the filament-like fibers.

After retting, the stems or stalks were broken using a hand-break. This device, also known as a flax-brake, consisted of two sets of wooden teeth or blades hinged together. The flax was inserted between the blades and the user would bring the upper set down on the plants, crushing the stems and breaking up the woody core (or "shove") while leaving the thread unharmed.

"This primitive implement of pioneer husbandry, when operated, somewhat resembled the action of the jaws of a large alligator," observed McLean County historian Milo Custer.

A scutching knife was then used to scrap the remaining straw, or broken pieces of stalk, from the fiber. "The shives (or bark) were separated by striking the flax with a wooden knife, as the flax was held over a board, called a scutcheon board," Duis noted.

After scutching, the settler would pull the flax through a board of sharp iron nails called a hackle or hatchel (see accompanying photograph) in order to untangle and smooth the threads.

Finally, the thread was spun, much like wool and cotton, though flax wheels are different in appearance and design. Coarser flax, much like hemp, was used for things like grain sacks and rope and twine.

As mentioned, linseed oil was also valuable, though most farmers lacked the capital to extract profitable amounts of this product.

Bloomington entrepreneur Matthew Huston Hawks, however, processed linseed oil on a relatively large scale in the mid- to late-1840s. During the processing season his mill on South Center Street produced from one to two barrels of oil per day. Then, as now, linseed oil was used in paints, varnishes and solvents. Years after the fact, Bloomington resident James S. Ewing recalled accompanying Hawks and his father John W. Ewing on an 1847 trip to Chicago with three wagon loads of linseed oil.

There are two pioneer-era linen dish towels on display in the new McLean County Museum of History exhibit "Come and Get It! The Way We Ate 1830-2008." The towels, which are part of the exhibit's recreated frontier kitchen, include one from the family of Asahel Gridley, a founding father of Bloomington and the city's first millionaire. The towel, which dates to around 1830, was made from flax grown by Gridley's father in New York, and then spun and woven by his mother.

With the emergence of cotton and wool cloth manufactured in textile mills and transported by rail, Central Illinois farmers abandoned flax. Today, the plant is commercially grown in the Dakotas and elsewhere, and linseed oil is found in everything from wood finishes to nutritional supplements.

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