The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Stove Irons and Octagon Soap

By Margaret G. Murray © 1988

Issue: November, 1988

When I was around five or six, my grandfather retired from the mines and moved away from the coal camps. His new home was a sharecropper's farm about a mile back in the mountains from the main road. This area, in the southwest corner of Virginia, is called the Wild Cat section. It was here that I spent most of my time before starting school.

There was no such thing as electricity or indoor plumbing. Bathrooms consisted of an outhouse way up on the hill and a #10 washtub in which to bathe. Bathing took place beside the kitchen cookstove. A big tea kettle with steam rising from its spout provided the hot water.

Kerosene lamps provided a warm glow to eat by, work in and to welcome callers at our door. An aluminum bucket with a long handled dipper held cool, refreshing spring water.

When it came time to do the laundry, the washtub was placed on a long wooden bench on the back porch. Out came the Octagon Soap and the washboard. When all the washing, rinsing, stretching, and wringing was done the clothes were hung on several lines in the back yard. Later the clothes came down to be dampened and wrapped in a sheet for the next day's ironing.

Bright and early the next morning, long before sunup, three stove irons were on the coal burning cook stove to get red hot. Each time an iron was used until it began to cool and then it was replaced by one from the stove top. This pacing back from the stove to the ironing board lasted throughout the day. Sheets, pillow cases, scarves and clothing were ironed to perfection.

During those years I had the best of both worlds. I enjoyed the close confinement of the coal camp where everyone knew what their neighbor was all about. In my mind, I relate the United Mine Workers of America slogan with my life in the camps. "I am my brother's keeper" held true for all of us. At the same time the wide open expanses of my grandfather's farm gave me a sense of freedom.