The Frontier’s Edges

Something Old and Something New

As with the old frontier, people reclaimed the center of the country along the rivers and useable passages.  The more interesting of those reclamations were the fishing villages up and down the altered course of the Mississippi River.

As in centuries past, fishermen loaded the supplies needed for an outbound voyage to the Gulf.  Their suppliers arrived by boat or cart to stock the larger sea going vessels with anything useful for long voyages.  Other fishermen unloaded their catches while crowds of purchasers jammed together eagerly checking out what was coming off the boats.

What was hidden from view was the clash of modernity and antiquity.  Joe was able to catalogue some curiosities and odd happenings.

Revaluing Food

The entire commercial seafood industry was based on sail and oar power.  This meant delays and unpredictable arrivals, and shortages.  Many of the catches that came into port were suspect, contaminated by oily residues or partially spoiled by lack of proper storage.  Availability of a specific seafood item was uncertain and guaranteed quality involved a huge markup in price.  Speedy consumption was essential to maintaining the nutritional value of the food and to avoid the intestinal cramps and bowel diseases.  An intelligent buyer knew his ship’s captain.

Because of uncertainty, a cottage industry of “fish” people sprang up.  They would wait in line just to get product and then turn around and sell it to preferred customers.  The markup for their stand-in duty was phenomenal, as much as 5 to 10 times the purchase price.  Notably, the “fish folk” waiting lines could be found at the makeshift docks and seafood distribution centers scattered up and down the Mississippi.

Some “fish folk” pitched tents or set up small cabins to ensure that they could quickly get to a good spot at the front of the line.  Some formed teams to check boat traffic on the river.  Teams would employ runners to send a coded signal about the catch and, therefore, gain a line advantage.

As one might expect, there was a dark side to the “fish folk” situation.  Since gold, precious metals and other tangible valuables were required for someone to buy seafood, theft and strong-arm extortion took place.  Eventually, a voluntary police force ended up maintaining a full time presence around any fish distribution facility.

The voluntary police force became a permanent paid fixture of the docks after a number of women were raped and murdered.  Speculation, of course, was that some of these women had been caught line jumping.   Such behavior violated the code of conduct of the “fish” people, and forgiveness was not in their code book.

Revaluing Clothing

One good thing about modern clothing was often flexible in use.  Protection from flies, mosquitoes, chiggers and the tortures of sun, temperature and dampness was always an issue, and it required variations in the layering of inner and outer wear.  Modern clothing was simply more easily adaptable to climate and the needs of the wearer.

Unfortunately, unlike clothing in the old world, modern clothing was a consumable.  As a result, the art of preservation and repair had been lost to the hustle and bustle of a consumption-oriented society.  Long gone were the coin-operated laundry, street tailor, shoe repair shop, and even the knowledge of how to use a needle and thread.  However, these skills were needed on the edges of the new frontier because new clothing was too difficult and expensive to obtain.

One of the more humorous aspects of the clothing situation was the rise of the “Granny Brigades”.  These were older “white haired” women who many younger women assumed knew about the old skills of the frontier homemaker.  The reality was that many “Grannies” were just old, had learned their skills by reading a book, and really weren’t particularly practiced.

Revaluing Shelter

The homes built prior to the industrial revolution had been optimized based on the technology of the time.  There was no electricity, gas, or internal plumbing.  The modern home, therefore, had to be adapted to meet these antiquated conditions.

With the electric utilities damaged or destroyed, candles were substituted for light bulbs.  But candles were expensive, and the average candle burned out in a little more than an hour or so.  They were essentially useful for a nighttime dinner and to light the way to bed.  People only burned additional candles if security was needed or an emergency occurred.

Cooking was an adventure.  If you were fortunate enough to get the occasional shipment of propane, you could heat and even cook inside your house.  However, after a few houses burned to the ground when someone tried to cook in the undersized fireplace of the modern home, cooking went outside and away from anything combustible, including the cook.

Food storage was an onerous task, the damp environment of the Mississippi quickly lead to spoilage.  Air conditioning was the luxury of a bygone era.  Regardless of the difficulties, some enterprising souls would head North during the summer to bring back ice for a price.

Water treatment plants no longer existed so it was left to the individual and family to find a relatively clean source of drinking water as far away from any raw sewage as possible.  Bathrooms were essentially useless without running water so many were converted into storage, additional bedrooms, a library, or even a security area.  And bathing was severely restricted, a once a week luxury at best.

Eating out meant going to a neighbor for lunch or dinner.  Evening way stations for sleeping and bars for eating and drinking were few and far between, – and often dangerous places frequented by criminals and their hangers on.  If a traveler had to go to such a place, it was best to pack a close quarters weapon such as a multi-shot pistol or a large hunting knife.

Recreation went outside away from the “dead” radios, televisions, and computers.   Some folks had hand crank or solar portable communication devices, but their range was limited and service virtually non-existent.  Some enterprising and technologically astute individuals did try to rig up horse, man, or wind powered generators, but most modern electrical equipment required a controlled environment, clearly a luxury along the devastated Mississippi.

Protecting a house and family against creatures, large, small and human, was a real chore with the modern house.  Although generally tight when air conditioned and secure when alarmed, they became inviting opportunities to any and all when it was necessary to open windows and doors to capture a breeze.  The worst aspect of “modern home openness” was that it allowed people to observe what was going on inside and pick many different avenues for both stealthy and home invasion attacks.

There were, of course, “Survival Brigades” to teach frontier skills, including the “how to use” aspects of such common tools as a hammer, handsaw, chisel, wrench and level – as well as a gun or animal trap.  Joe was not surprised that many younger men had little experience with guns and traps.  Political correctness had been quite effective in suppressing anything to do with “uncivilized” violent behavior.  However, he was amazed that many younger men had never used a hand tool, apparently preferring to simply throw out whatever was broken or dented.


The frontier’s edge was obviously a strange hybrid.  However, through its daily functioning in the harshest of environments, a great many questions about the adaptability of mankind were answered.  What was also brought to the fore were the issues and uncertainties that lay ahead, and how these would limit or prevent progress toward recapturing the best that civilization had to offer.

The lessons of the frontier’s edge were not without their observers.  There were a variety of alternative futures under consideration, and decisions had to be made as to how to proceed, and how to invest increasingly scarce resources in a potential extinction environment.

About Robert Warren

Research, Development and Engineering Consultant; Marine Accident Investigator; Author and Lecturer; CEO of Expertise, Inc.; Doctorate
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