Rachel Miller

Harry Funk/The Almanac

The women of Western Pennsylvania’s frontier had plenty of responsibilities, some of which are represented by Rachel Miller during a July event at the Oliver Miller Homestead.

Visitors to the Oliver Miller Homestead in South Park have a tendency to learn how much is taken for granted in the 21st century compared with the 18th.

“When you think about cooking a meal, you didn’t just go to the refrigerator and get your butter,” Paula Bowman said. “First you milked the cow, and then you churned the butter.”

Beth and Jim Chatham

Bethel Park residents Beth and Jim Chatham participate at the Oliver Miller Homestead in a re-enactment of an 18th-century "shift" wedding: “If a woman was widowed and unable to pay her previous husband’s debt in full, she could be stripped of everything, including her own clothing.”

Cooking, of course, was almost solely the province of the woman of the house back in the 1700s. So were such responsibilities as making dyes for various purposes, identifying and growing appropriate herbs for their medicinal value and bringing newborns into the world.

To help illustrate the essential roles of the era’s females, members of the Oliver Miller Homestead Associates – the volunteer curators of the homestead, Bowman included – will host “Women on the Frontier.” The event is from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. June 9 on the grounds of the pioneer landmark, 1 Stone Manse Drive.

“We’re going to have women stationed in various places, and in first person, they’re going to tell what their life is like and what kinds of contributions they’re making,” Bowman said.

The idea for the program came from her husband, Fred, who read a magazine article that led to a certain realization.

“Like many places, we tended to overlook all of the contributions that women made on the frontier,” Paula said. “The women definitely had to be hardy, knowledgeable and talented in order to allow their families to survive.”

Paula Bowman

Paula Bowman speaks during the Hogmanay celebration held in December at the Oliver Miller Homestead.

The family herb garden, for example, was key to survival at a time predating modern medicine, and a volunteer will tell guests about the garden’s contents and maintenance.

“She is going to talk about how she actually is starting now to think about feeding her family next year,” Bowman said. “She’ll have to make sure that she preserves enough things and saves enough seeds to plant next year.”

Other demonstrations focus on the details of dyeing and midwifery, along with the essential activities of spinning, weaving, sewing, quilting, preparing meals and teaching children.

At 2:30, Homestead Associates member Lin Pelan will present “A Look Back at My Life,” a monologue that sums up what it was like to be a woman in Western Pennsylvania 250 or so years ago. Another volunteer plans to talk about the legal status of women at that point in history, and spoiler alert, it’s changed significantly for the better.

Bowman and fellow event planner Beth Chatham of Bethel Park have gathered numerous books that further address the day’s topic, and they’ll be on display for perusal.

And for interested guests, Fred Bowman will provide instruction on the use of the Pennsylvania long rifle, knowledge of which by women also was essential for survival. Attacks, after all, didn’t occur only when men happened to be home.

The Oliver Miller Homestead is the preserved property of a pioneer who settled at the site with his family in 1772. Members of the Oliver Miller Homestead Associates have added numerous buildings to the grounds to complement the stone house built there in the early 19th century, and they regularly host events to interpret, demonstrate and promote pioneer skills, values and lifestyle.

For more information, visit olivermillerhomestead.org.

Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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