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|Chapter 58: Short Short Stories About Farmers||Contents||Chapter 56: Fencing|
My wife sometimes calls me “M. C. P.” when she is angry with me, for some male fault, such as forgetting an anniversary. It means “male chauvinist pig,” which is one of the terms current in the feminist movement. I will have to admit to it, in the way I have defined “farmer” in this book, I have left women out pretty entirely, even though they have played as important part in farming as men. That is because they have played a quite different role on family farms.
I see movies where the background is larger farms in pre-industrial Europe, and they show women handling sheaves of wheat, digging root crops like turnips, etc., much like men. Some women have done field work in Central West Virginia, witness the hay shock making of my mother, and the washing of milk bottles and cans by my Aunt Lotta. Some have helped take care of baby animals, and so forth. But mostly they have played another role.
Farm women, like their urban cousins, kept the home. They provided meals, cleaned, took care of the sick, cared for children, made clothes, kept the garden, processed and preserved food for the winter, saw that the yard around the house was kept. My mother was the last in our line to play this role in its traditional form. My Aunt Lotta, who lived next door, was a teacher (and unmarried), and lived a more modern life, buying such convenience foods as were available, utilizing more appliances, and not storing much food for the winter. My wife taught most of her most productive life and brought up four children, so there wasn’t time for gardening, food preserving, etc.
Look at life of a farm wife in the time of Rebecca Bond, Booth’s wife, who lived on Hacker’s Creek in Upshure County in the second half of the 1800’s. She cooked on a wood stove, used wood for house heating, both of which required carrying in several hundred pounds of wood a week in winter, plus removal of the ashes. When the fire went out the process to start it again was tedious, even with matches. Light at night was provided by kerosene lamps. Traditionally, it was the duty of the oldest daughter to trim, fill and light the lamps each evening. The house was never warm enough in the cool season to wear one layer of clothes, so people had to keep warm by wearing several layers and hovering around the fire or by going to bed.
All those clothes and bed linen had to be washed but not so frequently as in our time. Water had to be drawn from the well, heated on the stove, and clothes had to be washed in a tub, using a washboard and home made soap, then wrung out by hand. Then the clothes were carried outside and hung on a rope to dry. Taking a bath was a major operation. Water had to be drawn and heated; a tub in the kitchen served as the bath tub. Taking a bath in the creek was a good alternative in warmer weather, especially for men and boys, and sometimes clothes were washed there also. Going for a swim often served as a bath, too. There were many sly references to “the Saturday night bath” after bathtubs became common, and bathing more frequent. It is hard for me to reconcile the hard physical work men and women did, with the absence of a convenient shower. This item alone helps understand the distinctions between working and owning classes in the old order in Europe and America.
Meal preparation was an endless chore. Raw homegrown food had to be prepared. Often there would be only one or two items for a meal, not the variety we have today. Certainly not the inevitable “dessert” course that is de rigueur today. Dishes were washed by hand with water drawn from the well and heated with wood.
The diet consisted of potatoes and parched (dried) corn, which were staples, beef or pork and milk products (if you were fortunate to have animals), or perhaps wild game. Beans, bread from home grown wheat, cabbage, turnips and apples, all of which could be preserved, along with dried onions, squash, and carrots. You had lettuce, green onions, cucumbers, tomatoes (once thought poisonous) and other vegetables in season, as well as peaches, pears, mulberries, blackberries, raspberries, grapes (the Concord grape was a favorite) in season. Each had to be grown and, for those which could be, preserved with its own separate technology. The Lady of the House was the overseer of all these technologies for growing vegetable food, with the exception of tree crops. Nuts were a treat; shell your own.
Booth and Rebecca Bond before they left the farm on Hacker’s Creek to live in Salem
I suspect that by her later years Rebecca Van Horn Bond, my great-grandmother, purchased most of her cloth and some ready made clothes at a store. In early life she and her daughters made all of the clothes, and repaired them when necessary, with nothing but needles and scissors and also made the cloth. In Rebecca’s early years, women knew how to make thread and weave cloth. Rebecca had a spinning wheel; I know, because it is in our good living room. There were two types of spinning wheels, the smaller one for wool and the larger for linen. No cotton was used until trade began, just wool and linen. Wool is rough and hot, thus linen for underclothes, an invention of the Dutch, which allowed one’s outer, finer clothing to be worn longer between washings (or allowed for somewhat less body odor, if one changed one’s underclothes but didn’t bathe). Not much earlier female family members made thread for weaving in every spare moment, since so much of it was needed. A spinster was a daughter living with her family after the age for marriage, continuing to make thread. Making shoes was men’s work, usually done by someone who worked at it as a trade.
Preserving food was a major item. Each person needs about 1500 pounds of food a year, and much of that is consumed out of season for growing plants at 38 degrees North Latitude, where we live. Potatoes, other root crops, and cabbage can be buried. Meat could be preserved by salting. In cooler weather, salting was not needed, hence butchering in the fall. Indians made jerky by drying meat, but Europeans did not do this much. Some foods were dried, however. My father was very fond of “parched corn” made by his mother.
Canning was reserved for vegetables and fruits and rarely, meat. The old stone jars used before factory made glass jars are very much in demand as home decorations. They were difficult to seal and difficult to process (sterilize so the food wouldn’t spoil). My wife is proud of the half dozen she owns and displays in our house. Sugar was not so common, and corn syrup, the cheap sweetener used extensively in manufactured foods today, was unknown. Honey and molasses were in great demand. To provide variety many foods were pickled: allowed to ferment in the absence of air so that the acid content became high enough that microorganisms could not destroy the food. A favorite was sauerkraut, cabbage pickled with salt in its own juice. I remember pickled peaches, which required sugar and cloves, and fresh onions and cucumber slices in vinegar, a sort of instant pickling, now served and considered a salad by the ladies in my family. And there seems to be an infinite number of ways to pickle cucumbers, a vast technology largely forgotten today.
Today the only bitter in the diet today is hops in beer. Once, before sugar and corn syrup, bitters helped to vary what came to the pallet, as did spices. Nutmeg, cloves, paprika, cinnamon, oregano, pepper, sage, cumin, and mustard, all fragrant, dried herbs played an important part in giving variety to the diet.
Rebecca Bond’s floors had some carpets since they were relatively well off. Floors would have been wood. They would have been cleaned with brooms and mops. There was dusting to do, and the slop jars (used in place of today’s commode) to carry out, empty and clean every day.
Old folks lived in the home until they died. Sickness was often prolonged and medicine primitive. There was lots of labor in caring for the elderly and sick, although everyone was expected to do what work they could. Someone who was quite weak could do some of the routine chores. One of Rebecca’s daughters, Xenia Ethyl Bond, graduated with a M. D degree in1905 at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, University of Illinois, Chicago. (More about her in the “Aside” at the end of Chapter 36.)
Families provided the “Social Security” of the time: no family, no security. It was something of a disgrace to have to go to the “Poorhouse.” Or to let your relative go.
Come back nearer the present now. My mother’s family was desperately poor. Mother and her sisters slept four in the bed, crossways, and grandfather Kennedy’s mother and sister, Eunice, lived in one room of the house and shared the kitchen. Eunice never married, but she went to college and became a schoolteacher, and had some money. I suspect she contributed cash to the family, in the way my unmarried, schoolteacher Aunt Lotta did. Aunt Eunice supported her mother, and they had some comforts in their room beyond what was enjoyed by the rest of the family. She had many nice books, one set of which I now own, and she had taken some trips to White Sulfur Springs with a teaching friend. Great-grandmother Kennedy was cared for by Aunt Eunice until she died. Mother took care of Aunt Eunice in our home after we kids left, and was paid some of Aunt Eunice’s money for it. This was typical of the older era, there was no such thing as a “nursing home.”
Since a woman in her child bearing years was pregnant much of the time, this must be figured in, too. The weight of one child inside and another on her shoulder must have been familiar to most women. Child care was soon given off to older daughters, though.
The male boss with a subjugated female “family model” that feminists center their thinking around was not the model I remember from my farm youth. Things were pretty well balanced, because there was so much for both to do. It took a lot of initiative on the part of both the husband and the wife to have any kind of decent life. There was little room for “fooling around” with others of the opposite sex. Both had absolutely important responsibilities to the family: The husband to produce income and the wife to make a comfortable life. Of course there were some differences in individual families, but both the male and female had similar objectives, and I can remember some families in which the woman definitely was the prime mover.
I remember that old adage, oft repeated, from earliest childhood,
“ Man’s work is from sun to sun,
Woman’s work is never done.”
Aside . Archeologists recognize three main cultures of Indians in West Virginia, and the United States: the Archaic Indians, the Woodland Indians, and the Late Prehistoric Indians, who were present when the Europeans arrived. The Late Prehistoric Indians had few permanent settlements in West Virginia. They simply used it as a hunting ground. It is interesting to note that the Woodland Indians, the last large scale, permanent inhabitants of West Virginia before the European settlers, whose culture disappeared about 1200, used nuts as a major part of their diet, presumably because they could be stored. The “nutting stones” still lie on our hillsides, over eight hundred years later, largely unrecognized. I have found two of them. Previous generations found many arrowheads in plowed lands, mostly from the Modern Indians. We have a “stone pot” on our farm where the Indians developed a spring.
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Copyright © 1998, 2006, 2008, 2011 S. Tom Bond (stombond at hughes.net)