163 years of Rockwell Reunions; August 7

Making clothes for yourself by hand , so you and your family could survive on a circa-1830 subsistence farm, is an art and a craft of personal self-reliance necessary in the days before the Industrial Revolution’s factory cloth.

The public is invited to see the first stage of making clothes — the spinning of wool from newly-shorn sheep — at the 163rd annual Rockwell Family Reunion planned for August 7 at noon, at the pavilion of the New Life Church between Canton and Alba, Route 14.

Joy McCracken, of Hughsville, Pa., will spin wool on a ca.-1830 large spinning wheel — a so-called “walking wheel” –a family antique that was used in the Rockwell farmhouse in pre-Civil War days. She’ll also gather the spun wool on a “yarn winder” that was with the spinning wheel in the 19th-century farmhouse. Both are handmade wood, with the yarn winder’s gears carved from wood.

The Rockwell family reunion has met for 163 years and celebrates the descendants of one of the original settlers / farmers — Sam and Hannah Rockwell and son-in-law David Pratt — who were among the first settlers in the Canton/Alba area with their arrival by ox and sleigh in the winter of 1804.

A member of the board of the Home Textile Tool Museum of Orwell, Pa., McCracken is keen on preserving pre-Industrial “survival skills” and “the history of the everyday life of ordinary people.” Her interest has changed the life of her husband, Alan, “forever,” McCracken says with a laugh. “Now we have sheep!”

It’s not just history that fascinates McCracken. The aesthetics, the feel of working wool, the tactile sense, is also satisfying. “Spinning and working with fiber is very, very tactile, and people who use spinning wheels love the touch, and I can really relate to that,” McCracken says.

McCracken’s presentations at the Home Textile Tool Museum emphasize the role of children in a farm household of the early 1800’s. “By the time children were five years old, they were expected to be able to spin on a drop spindle for their own socks and mittens. They had a much better feeling then of how their clothes were produced and their value, not like a pile of clothes thrown on the floor,” she says.

“Spinning and making textiles is a long, involved process which fascinates me,” McCracken says. “If you had six girls and six boys in your farm family, you were lucky. The six girls would be needed to spin and weave. But if you had mostly boys, you’d switch with a neighbor, borrowing their girls and sending your boys to be farm hands.”

The Rockwell family reunion presents speakers and programs each year. Previous speakers have included a Civil War re-enactor; Deb Twigg of the Susquehanna River Archeology Center, Sayre; and how-to advice on how to do genealogy research. A sizable database catalogues thousands of descendants of Sam and Hannah Rockwell and includes many scanned photos of 19th and early 20th-century family members. It was compiled by genealogy sleuth Bonnie Isaacs, a Sayre resident. More than 350 people from almost every state attended the 150th reunion at the family farm in 1997.

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