Life in a 1779 Pennsylvania Farmhouse

Posted by on Apr 2, 2014 in Colonial Articles, Historical Articles | 12 comments

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to live in a house built during colonial times? For over 60 years, my aunt and uncle and their children lived in a brick farmhouse built in 1779 in Pennsylvania. As a frequent guest, I had a unique view of the old house and its history.


Acquiring the Land –

In 1773, John Montgomery acquired farm land in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. Located near the center of the state, this area was part of the American frontier. After choosing a site for his house, John and his sons began clearing the land, using some of the cut trees to build a log cabin. A spring located about 80 feet away from the house provided the family with fresh water.



The Scary Summer of 1779 – 

During the summer of 1779, British troops, allied Indians, and Tories terrorized this area, burning settlers’ cabins and barns and massacring those who resisted. Hearing spirited gunfire from nearby Fort Freeland on July 28, three miles distant, John sent two sons to investigate. Upon their return, the boys reported that the small fort was under siege by a large group of Indians, British, and Tories. John promptly loaded his wife and children into the wagon along with the few possessions they could grab and fled to the safety of Fort Augusta, some 25 miles away.


A New Beginning – 

When peace was restored to the area, John and his family returned to their farm and found their cabin in ashes, the British and Indians having burned it the same day of the Fort Freeland attack. Close to the site of the log cabin, John built a two-story brick home. As a child, I marveled at the 1779 date carved into one of the house’s foundation stones.


A Wedding Gift –

When my aunt and uncle married in 1944, they were given the farmhouse and adjoining farm as a wedding present from the groom’s parents. This generous gift provided over 60 years of incredible experiences for my aunt and uncle, their children, and their extended family.


The Kitchen – 

The house’s original source of heat was a large brick cooking fireplace in the kitchen. During the bitter Pennsylvania winters, heat produced in such fireplaces went straight up the chimney and left the room cold and drafty. At some point, possibly in the 1800s, a wood burning cook stove was installed to the right of the fireplace, replacing the hearth cooking. After 20th century renovations, an electric stove replaced the wood burning cook stove.



The Pantry – 

Food was stored in the pantry, a large room separate from the kitchen. Along three walls, numerous ten-foot tall doors covered ceiling-to-floor shelves of home-made canned goods, dry goods, and kitchen equipment. My aunt’s delicious homemade cookies were kept in a cookie jar on the counter. I accompanied my older cousins on many daring cookie raids while Auntie was occupied elsewhere in the large house.


Heat and Light Come to the Old House –

During the early 1940s, electricity was installed throughout the farmhouse and a coal-fired furnace was set up in the basement, providing heat for the first floor only. The second floor was never heated.


Running Water – 

Until the mid-1960s, the only indoor plumbing consisted of a small metal hand pump and sink in the kitchen that had been installed around 1900. Because its water source was the natural spring close to the house, the water was c-o-l-d year round. In order to get water for drinking or chores, one had to prime the pump (pump the handle numerous times) until water traveled through the pipe from the spring to the pump in the kitchen where it poured out of the spigot. The water drained from the sink into a pipe that exited the house and ran above the ground to a nearby muddy leech bed, a trap for the shoes of unsuspecting city cousins.


The Secrets in the Wood Paneling – 

The kitchen wall containing the fireplace was covered with wood paneling, but a close inspection revealed two doors cleverly hidden in the wood work to the left of the fireplace.


The Necessary Room – 

Behind the small hidden door next to the fireplace was a tiny walk-in room, about 4-feet wide x 4-feet deep x 4-feet high. Due to its low ceiling, a child could easily stand while an adult had to bend. Coat hooks protruded from a wood strip along its three walls. Because no plumbing had been installed in the house when I was a little girl, a chamber pot sat in the middle of the floor. As a toddler, this “necessary room” was my first introduction to colonial life. And hardship. During winter, a person could choose whether they used the chamber pot in the cramped room or braved the bitter cold in the small unheated privy that stood in a corner of the rear yard, about 200 feet from the house. As a small child who lived in a house with modern conveniences, neither choice looked good to me during a visit on a severely cold Christmas Day, nor was I anxious to return until warm weather arrived.


The Hidden Staircase – 

To the left of the necessary room, another door concealed a narrow curved staircase which led to the master bedroom directly above the kitchen. This room received heat from the brick kitchen chimney, although in the middle of winter, the lack of insulation in the house walls, basement, and attic still made the room unbearably cold.


Unheated Bedrooms – 

Because no heat had been installed on the second floor where all of the bedrooms were located during the 60 years my aunt and uncle lived in the house, people only went into their bedrooms to sleep. As one of my cousins explained, “Before going to bed at night, you laid out the next day’s clothing so you could jump out of bed the next morning and dress as quickly as possible before hurrying downstairs.” After one teeth-chattering over-nighter during the winter, I saved my long visits for summer months.


Wavy-glass Windows – 

Single-paned wavy-glass windows were equally spaced in each room on the first and second floors. In winter, heavy curtains vainly attempted to stop cold from entering through the thin glass and wood frames.


The Secret Ingredient in the Plaster Walls – 

Original plaster containing protruding horse-hair covered the interior walls.


Priceless Handmade Chestnut Flooring – 

The floors were made of wide chestnut planks, burnished to a honey-gold patina through the years. Due to shrinkage, there were gaps between the floor boards. Square nails held the boards to large beams in the basement that still carried axe marks.


A Time to Say Goodbye – 

Several years after my uncle passed, the house, then 228-years old, was sold. While I’m no longer able to spend time there, I’m grateful for my many memories.


Please note: the photographs are not of my aunt and uncle’s house, but of houses similar to theirs.



  1. Cynthia, Wonderful post! Love hearing about your history with this family heirloom of a house – and all the little details! My dream has always been to own a house like the one here. In heaven, maybe – and with indoor plumbing:) My passion for history only goes so far. I used to think I was born 3 centuries too late but now that I know a wee bit more than I used to about sanitation and hygiene in that era, I’m so thankful for modern conveniences!

    Bless you and thanks for a refreshing stop here on a Friday…

    • Oh, Laura, I’m so glad you had a chance to read this article. It would have been really fun if you could have gone to this house with me! We would have had a great time!

  2. Cynthia,
    I enjoyed reading your blog today! Many of the ‘inconveniences’ I recognize as the home where my husband’s grandparents lived in Louisiana. He went there to live with his mother and 3 siblings when his father was drafted in WWII. By the time I visited the old home place it had been modernized with indoor plumbing! I saw in the old kitchen where a water pump was used for transporting water from the cistern…We are so blessed today and don’t know about these things unless they are shared as you’ve done! Blessings, Sheri

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed this article, Sheri! It brings back nice memories for those of us who have experienced these situations. I think it’s so important for people to remember what those who came before us went through.

  3. You are blessed to have these precious memories.I feel as if I walked through the rooms with you! Thank you for sharing such an important part of your childhood.

    • Oh, Dee Dee, I wish you could have visited the house with me. I know you would have enjoyed it. I always wanted to do an archaeological dig in the back yard to try to find the foundation of the Montgomery’s log cabin that was burned by the British and Indians, but never had the opportunity.

  4. Loved your story about the old homestead. The home looks beautiful even though I understand it is not the exact home you are writing about. My grandmother lived in a house with no indoor plumbing during her lifetime and she died in 1953 and this was in the City of Sunbury. The heating for the second floor came from a stovepipe through the ceiling of the first floor. But I loved visiting my Grandma. This story makes me more grateful for all the conveniences I have today.

    • I am so glad you enjoyed this story, Suzanne. Sometimes hearing true stories from the past not only gives us an appreciation for what those who came before us went through, but they also make us appreciate what we have.

  5. Great reading. We are sure spoiled today. Most people today think the world has come to the end if the hot water heater is broken and you have to take a cold shower.

    • Hi, Don, I never could get used to the chamber pot – freezing in the privy was actually a better choice! LOL.

  6. What great memories to have had a house like that in the family for so long. So many families sold their original homes so long ago that they don’t have the kinds of memories of actually life going on in homes that have now become museums. Sure would have loved to see the secret doors and staircases, but don’t feel at all like I missed out on the necessary or the unheated bedrooms!

    • So nice to hear from you, Twyla! I wish you could have visited the house – it was really something!

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