John and Roxanna Ray House

Wilson's Creek National Battlefield

The Ray House was built in 1852, and with the Ray well house, is the only surviving building on the battlefield. During the battle, John Ray would sit on his front porch and watch the entire battle. His wife, Roxanna, along with the children, their slave and her children, and a neighbor, would hide in the basement. This house would become a Confederate hospital after the battle, and Gen Nathaniel Lyon, the first Union general to die in the Civil War would be brought here and laid in the very bed the house has on exhibition today.

The house looked much different than today. This photo, courtesy of Dr Thomas Sweeney, a noted museum curator and historian, shows the house as it appeared in about 1882.

This is how it appears today after the National Park Service renovated it to preserve its historical content, and also to make it safe for park visitor's to tour.

The road sitting in front of the house is the Interstate 44 of its day, called the Old Wire Road. As of 1861, the day of the battle, the farthest west the railroad had come was St Louis to Rolla. Beyond this, travel was by foot, horse, or wagon.The road stretched from St. Louis to Fort Smith, Arkansas. The telegraph had just reached Springfield the year before. And this house was also used as a Post Office,  part of the Overland Butterfield Mail Route, which had started service in 1858. John Ray was the postmaster and a neighbor boy, being his assistance. This road would become the main avenue of travel for soldiers heading to Arkansas and back.

Learn more about the "Wire Road"

In the house you will see a bed similar to this.

This was called a rope bed. Instead of a mattress full of water or plush material like today, the beds then were filled with straw. Since straw had no rigidity, wood slates that hold up mattresses today were useless. Instead, ropes were wound underneath the mattress. Two interesting stories..

#1 The ropes had to be tightened periodically. If you have slept in a waterbed low on water, you know you will slide into the middle during the night. Straw was the same. As the ropes loosened, everyone, and I mean all the people in the bed, started sliding toward the middle. This made it very unhealthy and uncomfortable for the poor person in the middle, who might wake up "under" the rest of the family. Since this person could be your brother, or sister, or more likely, both, it was not a pleasant thought. To prevent this, the ropes were tightened using an instrument that resembles a "T" called a "bed wrench".

#2 The straw used in the beds was brought in from the field and stuffed into the bed with all the little bugs and critters that came with it. During the night, these bugs could become very annoying moving underneath you, and when they discovered a way out, they usually always left you with a nice bite, to show their appreciation for moving them away from their loved ones. So, when you felt a bug moving under you, you would get up, and guide the bug to the edge of the bed the best you could, where you could pinch him into the after life.

Before going to bed, a mother might say "Sleep tight" (referring to the ropes) "and don't let the bed bugs bite". Yep...that' where the saying came from.

Most frontier women's prized possession was her spinning wheel. With it she turned wool into thread that she could make all the clothing with. To get color in yarn, you used different plants or objects as dye. This could be flowers, leaves, nuts, or berries.


Beside it was an instrument used to measure the yarn. Tieing the end of the yarn on, you spun more yarn on. One turn equaled six feet of yarn. The wheel was built to measure 600 feet, or 100 turns. When this happened a small piece of wood moved and a popping sound was made. As the mother, or typically, one of the daughters, spun the wheel, she would try to kill the boredom by singing. One little tune in particular caught on. The instrument was called a "weasel". The tune...yep, you guessed it..."Pop, goes the weasel"

One of the bowls you might see in the house, looks much like this.

This pot was very common in most every home in America in the 1860's. It came in all shapes and designs. So, what was it. Well, in the woods of the Ozarks in those days, wild and dangerous animals were very common. The only place to go to the bathroom, was in the outhouse outside. During the night, it was neither safe, nor smart to use the outhouse. So... you used the chamberpot, like the one above. Everyone in the house, used the chamber pot to go to the bathroom. The next morning, this naturally had to be cleaned out. And since most people didn't have slaves to do their dirty work for them, the task fell to the children. Considered a cleaning chore, the oldest daughter usually got the privilege. Any of your chores this bad?

Something else that young people today will find equally disgusting (well maybe teenage boys won't). In the old days we didn't know anything about disease and germs. So, the saying "cleanliness was next to godliness", was not thought to be true. In fact, many felt the dirtier you were, the better off you were. Why? Because that greasy feeling you get that tells you to take a the old days they felt the oils of your skin protected you. So, the greasier, the better. In fact, most people only took 3 to 4 baths a year. And when you wanted to take one, how did you do it? Well, if you lived near a river or creek, like here... you used it. But if you didn't, or if you were a city dweller... then you bathed in a tub. Now..remember there was no running water, and it takes forever to fill a big tub of water by hand. So everyone used the same water. Dad went first, mom next, and then the kids in order of their age, oldest to youngest. By the time, the baby was bathed in it... it was nearly mud. One could easily disappear into this muck, so thus the term ..."Dont throw the baby out with the bath water"

It is also interesting to note that many people got married in June, because one of the annual baths was usually held in May and everyone smelled fairly decent still (May was unlucky according to superstition). But there was an odor arising, so the young bride always carried a bouquet a flowers with her. They still do today, but for different reasons.

Pork was a delicacy in the old days. Their meat could keep a family alive over a bad winter. When guests dropped by, it wasn't uncommon to pull out some raw bacon and share it while talking. Thus the term "chewing the fat".

Matches, as we know them, were a relatively new invention in 1861 and yet to make their way to the "frontier". It was absolutely essential to keep a fire going at all times in the house. If it went out, you had to start a new one with flint, which was not easy and very time consuming. The other alternative, which was common when possible, was to walk to the neighbors and "borrow" some fire. When the term "keep the home fires burning" was coined, it truly meant something.

Other civilians on the battlefield

If you have other stories to share that you think teachers will find useful, please let me know. Stories should be applicable to the period, and remember "you keep a young person's attention if you make it a 'neat' or 'funny' story"

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Wanna meet my favorite history teacher? His site is really uncool but hey, you can see his picture and he was a great teacher. Don Smith (He actually puts all his web site efforts into his church site. It looks very good!)