1845: Adam Drysdale to Andrew Cunningham

This letter was probably written by Adam Drysdale (1806-1886), a native of Scotland, residing in Howard, Canada West.

He wrote the letter to fellow Scotsman, Andrew Cunningham (1806-1895), who married Ellen (“Helen”) Allan (1812-1880) in 1836 and lived on a farm some three miles northeast of Virginia, seat of Cass County, Illinois. It is said that Andrew arrived in New York in 1834 and came westward on the Erie Canal, by stage, and by foot to Cass County. He started a tannery there which became quite profitable but apparently made him a target of needy relatives.

A 20th Century photograph of Cunningham's 1852 adobe home
A 20th Century photograph of Cunningham’s 1852 adobe home

This letter reveals the source of Cunningham’s information for constructing an adobe house on his farm. An article in Volume 28 of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society written by Lorene Martin claims that Cunningham took common mud and “mixing it with ground tanbark, using hair scraped from hides before tanning as a binder, he molded large blocks (6 by 12 by 18 inches) and baked them in the sun. The result was satisfactory, and from these adobe bricks a substantial and well proportioned two‑story house, having nine large rooms, besides two broad halls, was built. Upon completion the exterior was given a coating of cement plaster for protection against a possibly unfavorable effect of the Illinois climate. Overhanging eaves — supported by braces of ironwork beautifully designed by Mr. Cunningham himself, who had a strong artistic sense — were added for further protection against the weather and gave as well a pleasing balance to the architectural lines.”

Mr. Cunningham completed his house in 1852 and it still stands — the only adobe house to be build in Illinois. Regretfully I cannot find any more information about Mr. Ross of Toronto who shared his formula for making mud bricks with Adam Drysdale.

Drysdale also takes notice of the apparent policy of the United States to bully its way in world politics — a practice started by Jackson and carried forward by Polk.

1845 Letter
1845 Letter

Adressed to Mr. Andrew Cunningham, Virginia, Cass County, Illinois
Postmarked Detroit, Michigan

Howard Western District [Howard, Canada West]
8th May 1845

Dear Andrew,

I received yours of the 10th February and would have answered it sooner but waited for an answer from Toronto regarding mud houses to which I have just received. I am very happy to hear of your Brother’s marriage. Give them my kind respects when you write. Better late than never, say I, in such affairs. I have the pleasure to inform you of the marriage of Mr. [Adam] Laidlaw to the daughter of one of the easy going farmers in the neighborhood (a Miss [Mary] Gillies). In the house the system of management is somewhat altered, I must say greatly for the better, although pipes are banished as I expected. She is good looking and lively girl, and I find myself all the better of the change.

Regarding the cheap publications, I asked Balfour. He informs me that the Colonial Edition of Reviews &c., and the Colonial Library are not so cheap as the American Edition, but are much superior. They sell the Ed____ Quarterly & other reviews for 22/____ per annum. Blackwood 27/, Bently 27/ & so on. My opinion is that the prohibition of the cheap publications from the states is doing a decided injury to the people of Canada and only benefits in publisher in London; give the people reading matter cheap, even although it may be only light reading, it will create a thirst for more useful works.

Mr. Ross, the builder of mud houses in Toronto has been kind enough to send me information that you wanted which I give you verbatim. Although you ,ay not make much use of it yourself, it would  give me much pleasure to hear that others around you were making use of it. Mr. Ross stays that he thinks they will do much better in Illinois than here, there being less frost which is injurious to the buildings.

The mould for mud brick is to be made of 1½ inch stuff, 18 in. long, 12 in. broad, 6 in. deep. The ends to be double tennond, also to be let in to the sides, let it be ½ in check or grove to keep the mold strong & square. To mix the clay & straw & hay, make a pit 12 feet square, 12 in. deep laid in bottom with boards and a board all round the edge, put in as much clay all over 8 in. deep, let it be well broke free of lumps, then pour water over it sufficient to make it soft & pliable. If the clay is very dry & tough, prepare it in the evening and let it lay all night. In the morning, cover it all over with straw about 2 inches deep. Then tread with one or two horses or oxen and keep turning it over as it gets trod. If any more straw is necessary, sprinkle a little on after it is well mixed and let the straw be kept from getting in lumps. Level a piece of ground convenient to the batch to lay the brick on, lay your mould on the ground, let it be plunged in water before you fill, then fill, press it down gently, brake off like a bushel of grain pull up your mould, throw it in the water, sprinkle sand over the soft brick, and lay them side by side say 6 in. apart for air. When fit to turn, let them be set on edge to dry and so on. It will require one may to mould, one boy to carry the mould out of the water, vice versa, one man to wheel it to the moulder, and so on. So much for mud houses. If you should find any difficulty in comprehending the foregoing instructions, write me and I will with the greatest pleasure procure further information.

Business is very dull here at present and I find no joke to be kicking one’s heels in a store. Books are scarce. I miss your library very much. There are two or three cronies who sometimes look in on me and talk a little. One of them, a grandson of the traitor Gen’l Arnold, a gentlemanly fellow but at present sowing his wild oats that is, gets drunk sometimes and plays the devil. There is too much of the Republican in me for the very loyal folk around so that I rather back out of political squabbles. Affairs look a little stormy at present between the states and the old country, but I have no doubt they will get over it and settle it amicably. I wonder if it is part of the policy of the Democrats in the states to talk loud & strong to get affairs settled with the powers in Europe. Gen’l. Jackson did so with France and got settled in the same way the Eastern Boundary question, and here goes Polk strong on Oregon. Well, it is the new line of policy. May they succeed in it.

I should take it kind if when you are writing your brother you would mention to him that I am anxious to hear if Mr. Gourlay is settled with. I have paid Laidlaw principal * interest, God be praised. I believe Gourlay is in Glasgow in partnership with his brother.

Write me soon and tell me all the news. Tell Robert Taylor  he has come up to time but he is indebted to me for a wrinkle ir two in that affair. Give my regards to Mrs. Cuningham & little ones. I sometimes think of the on a Sunday. My best respects to Mrs. Taylor & Robert Thomas Russell & family and last but not least David Blair. If i had anything worth telling him, I would write.

I remain, dear Andrew, yours most sincerely, — Adam Drysdale

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