The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Work and Play Down On the Farm

By Nancy Cornette Kessler © 1987

Issue: January, 1987

I was born and raised on a mountain farm in Southwest Virginia and grew up in the early 1920's and 30's.

My father started farming from scratch you might say, on his share of the land from his father's (a Civil War veteran) farm and the shares he bought from his brothers and sisters, about 100 acres. Gradually he bought adjoining land and increased his acreage to well over 200 acres, clearing most of it himself with pick, ax, and shovel.

He was an honest, hardworking, God fearing man with as much education as the local school offered at that time, and he dearly loved the land and his farm.

He and my mother were married on Valentines Day, February 14, 1906, at her father's home and began housekeeping that same year in a four room house he helped to build. More rooms were added as the family increased. Eventually there were nine children, four boys and five girls. (In order of birth; Lenora, Jessie, Richard, Nancy, Edna, Edward, Gwun, Traver and Lois.)

When we children were mere toddlers, we were taught to contribute our share of work, according to age and ability. One of the first chores I recall was for my younger sister, Edna, and I to carry in buckets of wood chips from the nearby wood house for Papa to kindle the numerous fires he built each morning before he went out to do the early morning chores.

Another task for preschoolers was to carry water from the spring for household use each day. This spring came from a mountain stream, cold and pure and ran into a concrete enclosed pit. The spring water ran continuously into the "drene" in the spring house. The "drene" being a long narrow pit below the floor level, which ran the length of the spring house. The path to the spring house ran along the side of a slight rise, and below this narrow ledge one looked down several feet over a steep bank to the branch below.

We children trudged several times daily winter and summer, carrying buckets of water to the house, but never do I remember one of us falling down that embankment. But one summer when we were supposed to be tending to our little brother Edward, probably two and a half or three years old, my mother came to the door and called out, "Where is the baby?" We all immediately began calling him and looking about the yard. Again mama called, "Go look at the spring." I was the first one there; and there in the spring with the water up to his shoulders stood my young brother, laughing. How he landed feet first, we never knew, but a few days later, my father had erected a gate to the entrance of the spring, with a lock too high for a small child to reach.

At the foot of this bank the water ran several yards, flowing from the spring house to a watering trough made of wood, where the stock was brought to drink; especially the horses at noon and late evenings, after a hard day's work in the fields. Behind this trough was a plank fence and growing nearby was a beautiful wild dogwood tree. It was a delight to me in the springtime with its snowy white blossoms, and in the fall with its clusters of bright red berries. What a thrill when Papa lifted a five or six year old girl onto the horse's bare back to ride them to the watering trough.

The old weather worn spring house was the scene in summer of much fun and laughter when we dipped water from the spring and had water battles with each other (and sometimes visiting cousins and neighbor children) using gourd dippers with long handles. We literally soaked each other until we were dripping wet and had to go to the houses to change into dry clothing. We would return to the cool shady spring house with glasses where Mama usually kept a large container or crock of chocolate milk with which we refreshed ourselves. On rare occasions, a pitcher of lemonade was there. Lemons were hard to come by at country stores in those days.

My father had firm ideas about "Remember the Sabbath day and Keep It Holy." The only work (no exception ever) he ever did on Sundays were the necessary chores such as milking the cows, feeding the stock and chickens. Of course Mother cooked breakfast and dinner at noon, but we always ate cold leftovers for supper except when Papa would roast potatoes in the hot ashes under the coals in the fire place. While they were piping hot, we cleaned the ashes off and split them open and filled them with butter.

That was the extent of our hot Sunday night suppers. We children adhered strictly to the rule too, of no work on Sunday. Mama would not allow us to sew doll clothes on Sunday.

I'll never forget one Sunday night everyone was in bed, or so I thought, but I awoke very thirsty and got up and went down stairs to get a drink of water. I saw a light under the door of Mama and Papa's room. I had to go through this room to get to the kitchen and Mama was sitting near a table by a lighted lamp, patching a pair of Papa's overalls. I was shocked because it was still Sunday and I exclaimed, "Mama, you are sewing on Sunday!" She pulled me to her side and put her arms around me and said, "Honey, God understands when we sometimes find it necessary to work on Sunday. Your papa didn't have a clean pair of overalls to put on in the morning, so I had to patch a pair that I didn't have time to do last week."

I understood and went back to bed, knowing that I still could not break the rule of no work on Sunday.

Sundays were for church going and rest. Every Sunday morning after breakfast we would find Papa dressed and ready for church, sitting by the fire place or on the front porch, studying his Sunday School lesson, while Mama helped us younger children into our best clothes for Sunday School and church. Papa would then hitch our faithful "Ole Thelma" to the buggy and pile all of us children who were big enough in it, sitting on laps or sitting at Papa's feet, and off we would go the two miles to church. Mama usually had a baby and a younger child to keep at home.

Our church was on a circuit and our preacher lived in the parsonage near the church, but served other churches in the area. Also, we were lucky (or so the grownups said) to have church and a sermon every other Sunday. We youngsters were happy when we didn't have to sit through a long drawn out sermon after Sunday School.

One of the necessary chores that fell to us children every Sunday evening while Mama and Papa milked the cows was to fill the large black iron kettle and two or three tubs with water from the spring for Monday's wash. These stood in a covered area in the end of the wood house near a large opening, where it was safe to have a fire under the kettle to heat the water and also under a shelter where one could be protected from the cold in winter. Many families including my grandparents had regular wash houses with a fire place. This did not alter the fact that the clothes had to be hung on lines in the yard to freeze dry in the winter time. No automatic dryers in Mama's time.