Tuesday, August 17, 2010

History, Up Close and Personal

I've been meaning to post about a very special document that came into my hands some time ago.  It's a personal history of childhood(s) spent on a dairy farm right where I grew up.  It's not even entirely clear to me who wrote the work, but it appears to be the transcribed memories of at least one brother and sister, recalling their lives during the 1920s to the 1930s. Some stories are told twice, from slightly different perspectives.  My sense is that some sort of record was made of each person speaking, and someone later typed out the account, page by page, on a typewriter.  There are many amateur line drawings to accompany the text.  And when I say these siblings lived on a dairy farm where I was raised, I mean exactly where I grew up.  My parents bought the farmhouse that belonged to the long-since closed dairy farm in 1973.  They still live there, though the acreage of the original farm was reduced to less than two acres by the time they bought it.

When the parents of these sibling authors bought this farm there was no electricity or running water.  The pump that they used to draw water stood in the front yard, as it still does today at my parents' home.  I remember the Concord grape arbor, planted to shade the pump, still bearing fruit shortly after we moved in.  The farm's summer kitchen, which doubled as a smoke house, was enclosed and attached to the main house during my childhood.  We still call that section of the house the "summer kitchen."  My memory of early childhood is good enough to remember many things which echo the stories told in this document.  The pear tree they mention was gone, but the wisteria they remember growing up around it was still there when my family moved in. 

If you've read stories from the Great Depression, you've read similar recollections.  What makes this so special to me is that I know where these people cut their ice in the winters.  I ice skated there, with borrowed skates, as a child.  I know how long a slog it would have been from the farm to the dammed creek that made a pond to turn the millstone in the old grain mill, and incidentally provided ice to those willing to brave the weather to cut it. I can only imagine the drive over snow-covered roads on a wagon pulled by horses - a real test of fortitude and of strength.  I know the creek that the children were allowed to refresh themselves in as a special treat after summer chores were done.  I played and waded there through all the summers of my childhood, though I never knew the kind of toil the authors did.  I know how the well water tastes that these people grew up drinking.  I've seen the accounts their father kept for bacon and sausages sold to neighbors, penciled on the painted wooden walls in the dirt floor cellar.  I know where they took their horses to be shod, and where they took their apples to be pressed into cider. I've seen the attic floorboards stained black by years of hams dripping moisture and fat as they cured.  I know the screened porch on the second floor, used for sleeping on the hottest summer nights.  It was closed in by the time my parents bought the house, and used as a playroom for my brother and me.  I wasn't there in the 1920s, but still I know this story, these lives in a more immediate way than any other account of that period I've come across.  I'm not kin to the people who wrote these stories, but there's a proximity like no other.

What I don't know in my bones is the kind of hard work it took to raise a family and run a successful dairy farm on a property without electricity or running water.  If you want to know what's in these stories, it's hard work and thrift on a scale few of us have ever known.  And yet, true to form, these recollections are not told with resentment or complaint for the work done nor the austerity they were raised with.  There's evidence of an enormous body of practical knowledge.  The parents of the authors knew how to make soap, butcher chickens, hogs and cattle, how to cure meat, make sausages, raise all kinds of crops, make sauerkraut, mend burlap feed sacks, keep horse tackle clean and supple, can all kinds of foods, resole shoes, press cider, sharpen all manner of tools, and run a raw milk dairy in a hygienic manner without indoor plumbing.  They did all these things and more besides.  Make no mistake, this is very credible documentation of what would be considered extraordinary effort today.  Though they clearly were not even moderately well off by the standards of their day, they had enough extra food to share with relatives who were in even more straitened circumstances.  The family was Pennsylvania Dutch, a culture with a reputation for extreme frugality almost to the point of notoriety; nothing in this account would belie that reputation.

Here's an excerpt that gives the flavor of the whole:
Apple butter making was a yearly get together with my uncle, aunt and cousins.  We youngsters just loved this affair because there weren't that many social things to attend.  Anyway this was always done in fall after the apples were ripe.  Neighbors usually offered Dad apples from their orchards.  So Dad would hitch the horses to the wagon and we'd go for a ride into our orchard and theirs, taking us along to pick apples and pick up fallen ones.  Then he'd take them home and we'd give them a good washing.

Then Dad would take them down to Powder Valley, to Robert Schultz's cider press and have cider made for use in the apple butter.  A lot was kept for drinking, which really was tasty and refreshing after those long chores of picking up and washing all those apples.  Dad's next job was to go out into the woods and find a sassafras tree.  He would dig around the base of it and get some of its roots.  If he went after school hours I would tag along.  We would then bring the roots home.  Then it was usually Mother who would wash and scrub them, then scrape off the outer shell of the roots, put them into small cloth bags, tie them up so they were ready to put into the boiling apple butter.  What a delightful aroma, and then a taste of the finished product!

Dad would have to get out the old copper kettle to replace the cast iron kettle in the little old house. The men would gather wood from the woodshed. Then Dad would build a fire underneath the old shiny copper kettle to get the cooking started. At the same time we youngsters were peeling apples with the peeler which was clamped to the kitchen table, then placing them into a dishpan or other clean vessel. Then my mother and her sister Alverda would sit coring and cutting the apples so they were ready for cooking. The men would put 2 or 3 gallons of cider into the kettle, the small bag of sassafras root, then the apples the women had prepared. We usually had between 4 or 5 bushels of apples. As they boiled down, more apples were added, and more, and more. About 10 pounds of sugar was added to the cooking apples. Later on in the process that small bag of sassafras was removed for the last hour of cooking.

While cooking apple butter on the farm it had to be stirred continually as not to burn. Dad had a special paddle to stir the mixture. It was shaped to fit right into the kettle. It had four sections for scraping at the bottom of the kettle. He had a ten foot handle to connect to the paddle upright in the center of this paddle so no one had to sit that close to the hot kettle that was cooking, bubbling and steaming to get that apple butter thickened. There was a leather sling from the ceiling joist of the little house to hold this long handle which worked just fine to stir that apple butter.

This was an all day job. Then after it was finished and cooled we had a good tasting party with fresh bread, cottage cheese and extra fresh apple butter. Gallon crocks had to be gathered, cleaned and ready to be filled with the apple butter. Also, clean washed sugar or flour sacks were cut into squares to fit and tie over the crocks to make sure that no kind of insects or flies could get to that scrumptious spread. The crocks were left setting to cool completely. Later on, most of it was placed in the attic, so we had apple butter all year long.

We youngsters all remember real well all the fun we had taking turns peeling those apples. Some of the peelings came off all in one piece. They would look like real long curls. They were also tempting for eating, which we at times would do. But that was cheating the hogs because they also were anxiously awaiting them. Apple butter custard was my brother Earl's favorite dessert that Mother used to make.

Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?  Reading these stories brings home to me that people really, really lived this way.  Not in some fairy tale, or in a time so ancient that it is shrouded in mystery.  And not in a far country with a tradition different from my own.  As I read the stories, I could see them happening in a real place, just a few short decades before I lived there.  These were all ordinary lives, full of unstinting industriousness, thrift, and skilled work. 


Maria said...

Great Blog! You are so lucky to have that kind of provenance for your family homestead. What a beautiful living tribute. And you are so right, those skills will be needed again!

Diana said...

Oh my goodness. You are so lucky to have that - WHERE on earth did you find it? I devoured the bit you posted; I love reading about how things used to be done before all these modern luxuries, because I harbor a niggling fear that some day we may be forced to figure out how to live without them. I don't suppose you know where others can buy copies of that book, or if it could be scanned and shared? I wish I had such a resource!

Bellen said...

Wonderful post and I agree we may very well need all these skills that are being lost day by day.

Report on the news that students now don't use watches or even tell time by analog clocks! What are they going to do if the system collapses?

Also, on Google Books, I've been searching Victory Gardens from WWII and War Gardens from WWI - results have been amazing - plans, details,
how-to's, etc. Good for ideas and what our country went thru.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this amazing find with us! I wonder how well items would last in my attic. It is so humid right now; difficult to think of anything lasting for long.

Dani said...


Thank you for this blog. It details just the kind of book I am hoping to write with the assistance / memories of the elder people in the village near our plot / farm, before that information is lost forever.

Those memories and that information is priceless and, will, I feel, stand all of us in good stead as we simplify our lives - have you thought of transcribing that document and getting it published? Would love a copy if you do - am willing to pay for it. And if it doesn't get published and you decide to make scan / photo copies for release, please let me know!

Are there any recipes for cooking in a wood burning cast iron stove in the document?

What kind of tree is a "sassafras"? And what purpose would the roots of that tree serve?

Thank you again - really enjoyed the post.


Anonymous said...

That is awesome! My family still makes applebutter outside in a copper kettle. We used to peel, core and cut the apples as well, but 20 years ago, we started taking the apples to a cannery to make applesauce. We then turn the applesauce into applebutter. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

Wendy said...

What a great find! And I know how amazing it must have felt to you, because you have a connection with these people through the house your parents own.

I completely agree that those skills will become much more important in the coming years, and I think you're lucky to have found that amazing primer on how-to survive in extreme austerity ;).

The 4 Bushel Farmgal said...

Your book is a perfect example of how good a simple life can be. Folks enjoyed doing the work together, with everyone involved. I loved the explanation of how the long-handled rod was hooked up, so no one had to sit too close to the heat - they figured out how to deal with problems.

As much as we enjoy learning these things, I can imagine how special it is for you to have this connection with the history of your childhood home. Thank you for sharing it with us!

Kate said...

I'm glad you all found it enjoyable to hear about this document. A few responses to points raised here in the comment section:

The booklet was given to my parents by members of the family who owned the farm. There are still several descendants living in the immediate neighborhood. It was never published, and no copyright is asserted. This was clearly something put together just for family members to have as a personal history of their grandparents or great-grandparents. As far as I know, my parents, as current residents of "the farm," were the only ones outside of the family to receive a copy. My parents gave it to me because they know my interests.

So it's not possible to buy a copy of this booklet. And though there's no copyright on the work, I don't feel I have any right to publish something that was intended for a specific family. There are a few details in the writing that are somewhat private, and some which may touch on medical issues of people still alive today. But even without those concerns, I don't feel I have any claim to publish other people's work.

It strikes me that is not a how-to manual, and perhaps the excerpt I chose was misleading in that regard. Primarily the stories are mere recollections. The people speaking were not trying to tell anyone exactly how to do the things they did in low-energy world. Like the people the document was written for, the author's didn't believe those times would ever return. They felt they were speaking about a vanished era, telling curious stories to their descendants so that the younger family members could have some idea of how they had lived. But there is no sense here of trying to preserve specific knowledge. The part I chose to excerpt here was unusually detailed in talking about how things were accomplished.

Kate said...

Loved reading this for many reasons. I could read this type of thing to no end. I love historical fiction but non-fiction is even better.
We am currently on this same path of trying to learn to do things for ourselves as people have done for countless years before us. I recently posted on how my daughter and I made applesauce for the first time. We enjoyed the process and the fruits of our labor.
The other reason this story is of interest to me is that I feel I too was just given a glimpse of my past. By coincidence, I also stumbled upon a bit of history. I came across a family geneology that was about my great-great grandparents and all of their descendants. (My GG grandfather was a first generation immigrant from Germany.) It turns out in their final 20 and 30 years of their lives they lived one block from where I live today. Of all the places in the world, state, or even city I could have chosen to live, I chose a house built in the early 1900s that is one street away. I have walked by their house a hundred times. It gives me the sense that I am in the right place and on the right path. It also makes a life that seemed so far away in terms of time suddenly feel so close.

karl said...

in the near future not just the skills will be necessary but the immense fortitude to pull off a modest livelihood. most people today don't work that hard.

that would be really cool project to make an exclusive blog of.

Anonymous said...

That is so amazing! What a wonderful treasure!

Anonymous said...

Hi Kate,
Sorry this comment isn't to do with your post, I just wanted to pick your brains.
I want to start bottling more than fruit (eg tomato sauce, meat, maybe some veg) and pressure canners don't exist over here.
I've looked at lots of sites, and am now fairly baffled! It seemed to come down to a Presto or All American. As I would have to ship over any replacement parts, like a new seal, I'm tempted to pay the extra and go with the AA.
I was just wondering what you thought, and also what size you have. I have a bigger family, but you can fairly hefty quantities :-)
I hope you don't mind me asking, but I don't know anyone here who even HWB bottles, and I'd value the opinion of someone with some experience.
I can post my email address if you'd rather not go public!
Thanks, Hazel

Kate said...

That is indeed a wonderful treasure you have. I note your remarks about not publishing, but if there are still members of that family around, perhaps you could come to some arrangement over an edited version. With all parties sharing any profits perhaps.
It seems a pity not to have a wider audience for this.
(I'm another Kate :) )

Kate said...

Hazel, I'm sorry for the very belated reply. But I'm really no expert at all when it comes to evaluating pressure canners. The two that I have were given to me as freebies and are very old, and not of the brands you mention. My canners can hold seven quart jars at a time. Occasionally I wish for more capacity, but usually small batches work best for me anyway. I don't like marathon canning sessions. I suspect there were probably basket inserts which would allow stacking of pint or half-pint jars, but I don't have these. I'm guessing they would have been ordered separately. I could probably hack something rather easily from hardware cloth for this purpose. All that's needed is something to keep the weight of the second tier of jars distributed over the tops of the lower tier. I hope you've come to a decision that works well for you.

Hazel said...

I've just found your reply, thank you. I'm sorry to misuse your comment section :0)
I'm still dithering over my decision. I'm sure either canner would be fine, it's justifying the outlay that's tricky!
Thanks again.

Jennifer said...

I realize this comment is a bout a year and a half too late, but I just recently discovered your blog and am working my way through the archives. I am 38 years old and I have good childhood, and adulthood, memories of making apple butter just as this text describes. My extended family used to get together every year and would hand peel, core, and chop up enough apples to make a batch of apple butter in a big copper pot over a fire, complete with the stirring implement described in your post. The last time we made any was a couple of years ago, and it will probably be the last time, but man does it sure taste better than the apple butter I make inside on the stove! Anyway, I just thought you might be interested that someone was still doing this =). Thanks for all the great posts.