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 - Part 2

By Nancy Cornette Kessler © 1987

Issue: February, 1987

As we grew to school age, we were given more chores inside and out. The two older girls, Jessie and Lenora helped with the milking before and after school and the older boy, Richard helped Papa with outside chores.

Edna, my sister two years my junior, and I filled the wood boxes with wood in the kitchen and on the back porch. In the winter we built a fire in the dining room, set the table for supper and tended the small children or baby while Mama prepared supper. In the mornings before breakfast, we made our beds, built a fire in the dining room, set the table and packed lunches for the school age children, which consisted of ham or bacon and apple butter on biscuits, and most mornings Mama made an extra treat for the lunch boxes; tart shells filled with chocolate or vanilla pie filling; or a large skillet of sweet buns, which we called stickies.

These were biscuit dough rolled thinly and covered with a mixture of brown sugar, butter and cinnamon, sometimes sprinkled with chopped walnuts or raisins. This was rolled into a long roll and cut into individual pieces, placed in the iron skillet with the bottom covered with more brown sugar and butter and baked while the biscuits were baking for breakfast. When done and a golden brown, the skillet was turned upside down onto a tray to cool and the tops were sweet and sticky (and delicious).

Other days we might have fried apple pies. These were rounds of biscuit dough; one half covered with cooked sweetened apples. The other half of dough was turned over to make a half moon and fried. I can taste them now.

Later when we were 9 or 10 years old, we helped Papa cultivate the fields of bird eye beans, corn and potatoes which were coming up about the time school let out for the summer. Hoeing corn on a large steep hill was not one of my favorite jobs, but none the less, it had to be done; so off we went early in the mornings and hardly stopped until noon and lunch time. Papa plowed between the rows and we followed behind to dig out the weeds and uncover any plants that might have been covered with the plow or to push more soil carefully around each plant. Papa would stop at intervals and come back to inspect our work and give his approval or disapproval if he thought we might be getting careless. He was always quick to praise our work if it met his careful scrutiny.

After these crops were laid by and on their own, the wild strawberries were beginning to ripen, but they were usually too far away for the younger ones to go alone, so Papa took us in the wagon and made a day of it.

This was an outing we looked forward to as we took a picnic basket and along with a favorite aunt or uncle, we spread our lunch on an improvised picnic table; sometimes on oil cloth on the ground, or the tail gate of the wagon let down. This back breaking task, stooping over, looking for those small berries was fun time for us, and Mama always made strawberry short cake for supper that night. The remaining berries were made into jam or jelly to go into the fruit cellar for the winter. We were coached by Mama before we left on this outing to be sure and cap the berries as we picked them. If we were lucky enough to pick enough berries to have some left after Mama used all she needed, we could sell the rest and divide the money for spending money. The going price was 50 cents per gallon, the same for huckleberries.

Following the end of the strawberry season it was cherry picking time and then blackberry and dewberry picking time, not to mention huckleberries. There was a huge red heart cherry tree outside the yard fence and an equally large black heart cherry tree near the log house where our black friends lived, who worked for Papa. What fun and adventure to climb those trees with a lard bucket with a wire hanger Papa had contrived attached to the bucket handle and the other end shaped to fit over the tree limb. We thought nothing of filling a large wash tub in one afternoon. After we picked all Mama needed, we could again sell the rest for 15 cents per gallon. This was not a get rich quick scheme.

Following this we headed for the blackberry patch. Usually we could pick fairly close to home without an adult; but at least once during the season, Papa would take us in the wagon with neighbors or relatives, leaving early in the morning and arriving at the foot of Point Lookout Mountain about the time the sun had dried the bushes. This spot was known for an unusually large patch of blackberry bushes, covered with the largest sweetest berries anywhere else. Again at noon we spread our picnic lunch and ate and rested for about an hour, then back to filling that large tub to the brim.

We would arrive home just in time for chores and supper. We usually picked over and cleaned the berries to be stashed in the spring house to be canned and preserved the next day.

In early autumn the time drew near to dig the potato crop. This was one chore I truly enjoyed. I liked getting my hands in the rich soil and filling buckets with smooth, firm potatoes and emptying them into the wagon bed, fastened to a large wooden farm sled. Papa had gone ahead with a special type of plow and dug up the potato vines and uncovered the potatoes. When the wagon bed was full; the team of horses was hitched to it and pulled to the cellar and emptied into the large storage bins.

One morning, Papa was plowing between the rows ahead of us when he suddenly stopped the horse at the end of a row and said, "You babies keep picking up and I'll be back in a little while." I might add Papa was full of surprises. We were his babies until nearly teenagers.

He came back shortly with a big grin on his face and said, "Well, when we finish this evening we'll have a watermelon feast. I put a big watermelon in the spring house to get cool." We had been so busy we hadn't seen the watermelon truck come down the road. Our seasons were not early enough to grow this particular crop, so we relied on the trucks that came through from North Carolina. We did however grow delicious musk melons and cantaloupes in the garden. And we did indeed feast on watermelon in the yard when we came in from the field, hot and tired after a long day's work.

With the canning season nearly over except for some late garden crops, Mother started the sewing on the pedal "Flyer" sewing machine to get our clothes ready for school. She made practically everything we wore, including underwear, boy's shirts and Papa's work gloves, but relied heavily on hand me downs from our city cousins. Much later I told my own children that the first and only brand new coat I ever had was ordered from Sears Roebuck mail order catalogue in my second year of high school, a momentous occasion for me.

There still remained one big job for us in the fall and after school started and that was pulling those big fields of bird eye beans. This was the money crop that Papa relied on to get us through the winter.

Mother raised a large flock of turkeys, another source of much needed money for winter clothing and perhaps a household improvement or two, with a little left over for Christmas spending.

But back to the bean pulling. We got to the bean patch early, before the sun dried the bean pods out to prevent the beans from falling on to the ground. We pulled the vines out of the ground and stacked them in piles while they were still wet with dew. After they were dry and set, the thrashers came to the field with the trashing machine to finish the job. We usually had to miss a half day of school, but we took written excuses to our teacher the day before, and then made up the time we had missed during recess or after school.

When school let out, we hurried home and covered the entire area to pick up any beans that might have dropped out when the bean piles were removed by the men to the trashing machine. This was another source of spending money. Papa's motto was, "Waste not, want not." After this came apple butter making time, but that is another story.

It was not all work and no play, but we had to supply our own forms of amusement. There was no money for store bought games or toys, with one exception. I recall another one of Papa's surprises. He had told our Uncle Tom who lived in Galax, to bring us a croquet set the next time he came for a visit. This was indeed a welcome surprise. We enjoyed this game for several summers and wore most of the grass off the front yard in the meantime.

Most of the time we improvised. Jack rocks were small smooth stones. Bubble blowers were wooden thread spools, rubbed on a cake of Mama's home made soap. Jump ropes were lengths of rope cut from Papa's supply of worn rope. Our basketball goal was a large unusable bucket with the bottom knocked out and nailed to a tree or outside shed. The basket ball was a large rubber ball, a Christmas present to one of the younger boys which we had to grab on the sly when they were out of sight.

This was probably the beginning of my dream to play basketball on the girl's team in high school, which I did as long as it was legal. This game was finally prohibited as being too rough for girls, but it was the joy of my life. We traveled once a week to distant schools to compete with other teams or had visiting teams at our school until cold weather. Only one team we played had an indoor court and our games there included the tournament games for both the girls and boys teams and was the highlight of the season. This took place at Fries, Virginia.

The first year I played was also the first time the girls wore shorts and jersey tops, provided by the county, but we had to make our own letter E (for Elk Creek), cut from red felt and sewed onto the navy blue tops.

Previously the girl's team, of which my older sister Lenora was a member, wore black sateen bloomers with white middy blouses with large black looped ties.

Fun time also when we were growing up included swimming in the old swimming hole, or in our own "pool" which we dammed up in a stream of water that ran through our farm.

In the winter, snowy weather was a delight, even walking two miles each way to school on unplowed roads, but a chore for Papa and brother Richard who arose by 4:00 am to shovel paths to all the out buildings and spring house. I remember walking through the paths that had been shoveled and it was so deep I could not see over the top. Papa always found time to make us a sled with runners to which tin had been fastened with a nail on the front end with a rope attached for pulling back up hill. We spent many happy hours sledding, throwing snow balls and making snow men. Our older sister, taking Home Ec., always made a large bowl of snow cream for supper, a combination of snow, pure cream, sugar and vanilla.

One Saturday in late November when our morning chores were done and we had a free afternoon, looking around for something to entertain us, we discovered a large pile of wooden shingles taken from the wood house roof where a new one had replaced the old one.

We immediately hit on the idea of building a play house from these shingles. This turned out to be octagon shaped and was perhaps 10 or 12 feet in diameter. Starting at the bottom, the shingles were stacked end over end and built to the top, which took some ingenuity and a ladder to reach.

We pulled out shingles in the middle of the structure, at the bottom, to make a door or opening and stooping to get inside, we had a room tall enough to stand up in. We were so proud of our accomplishments we could hardly wait until the next day after school to play in our little house.

The next morning we awoke to a snow covered world, at least 8 to 10 inches. We raced out to look at our little house and low and behold, we had a perfect igloo, covered completely with nearly a foot of snow. Inside it was snug and warm.

That night we begged Mama to let us sleep out there, but of course, nothing doing. The ground was too damp and cold and too much danger of flu and colds; the thought of which never occurred to children.

Eventually our perfect play house was torn down, the shingles dried and used for kindling fires. What fun while it lasted.

This is only a few of many happy memories from a childhood of long ago and of a way of life gone forever.