Before the Civil War engulfed his life, my great-great-grandfather labored making barrels. In the 1860 census, Abraham Bates Tower, age 22, lists cooper as his work. It shows him as living in Jennings Township, Crawford County, Indiana and I’m guessing that he wasn’t very many miles from Leavenworth, an active shipping point on the Ohio River.
A cooper’s workshop at Strawberry Banke in New Hampshire.
He was not the only one, many other coopers worked in that township. Other occupations in the census included river pilots, wagon builders, river loaders, skiff maker, carpenters, merchants, and farmers. Probably, the local farm produce was packed into boxes and barrels for shipping on the barges that plied the Ohio River.
Barrels at a museum in St Louis showing how goods were shipped in the early days.
Abraham had married Nancy Angeline Long two year earlier and they had an 8-month-old child named Laura Ann born 29 September 1859. Their son, Erastus was born August 7, 1861.
The household included Abraham’s mother-in-law, 55-year-old, Nancy Ann (Daggs) Long who was separated from her husband. Six years later, she and Thomas Long divorced.
The family shared the house with another cooper who had a wife and child. His name was T.J. Linn (age 22) and his wife was Rebecca Z. (or J) Linn (age 21). The age of this Rebecca isn’t right to be Nancy Angeline’s sister Rebecca Bolton Long who was born January 14, 1829. None of Abraham’s sisters or nieces were the right age to be Rebecca Linn. Perhaps the two families just shared housing and were not related.
Before long, Abraham Tower would go off to the Civil War as part of Company G, 93rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry. He barely survived starvation and disease in the notorious Andersonville Prison and at the end of the war reunited with Nancy Angeline in Missouri where she’d moved to be with her sister’s family.
Despite long-term health issues, he farmed and there was no mention of being a cooper again. I imagine that it’s a skill that you can put to use on a farm if you have the tools. There’s always a need for barrels and wooden containers.
The Tower family traces its ancestors back to Hingham, Massachusetts. Apparently, there’s a long history in that town of coopering. Recently, I found an article called Bucket Town: Four Centuries Of Toymaking And Coopering In Hingham.
Numerous settlers became coopers and the streets were lined with bucket-making shops. Thomas Lincoln, who arrived from southwest England, was considered the first cooper in the town. In 1636, he called himself a maltster and an occasional carpenter. Coopering developed into a major trade by the mid-1600s, with 30 craftsmen joining Lincoln in the trade by 1700. Unlike their peers in Boston, who were making barrels, casks and kegs, the Hingham coopers were skilled in fabricating pails to transport milk and water; tubs for curing meat, dyeing fabrics and laundering; churns for making butter; strainers and hoops for cheeses; boxes to store spices; and a number of different woodenware to carry related goods.
Since these woodenwares were a necessity for settlers, Hingham craftspeople rose to the occasion. It was not until the mid-1800s that these products were sold in wholesale stores in cities like Boston. Earlier, they were purchased onboard the Hingham Station packets at Long Wharf. “The shipping records in Boston,” explains Bray, “were loaded with woodenware that was going up or down the coast, overland, to Canada or the West Indies.” Jackson adds that the Hingham buckets also traveled with prospectors out to the Gold Rush and even with the missionaries to Hawaii.
So, even generations later and a third of the way across the country, a Tower descendant carried out the tradition of coopering.
hoops for barrels
All sizes of barrels and buckets
More metal barrel hoops
Shavings from barrel making
A cooper demonstrating at Strawberry Banke museum.
In visiting historic villages in Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, and also New Brunswick (Canada), I had the chance to see coopers at work and admire the useful buckets, washtubs, and barrels they created. All the photos are by Virginia Allain and are from those trips.