The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Wash Pot Memories

By Bob Heafner © 2001

Online: January, 2001

On a side street in the township of Clifton Heights near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in a yard filled with flowers sits an old black iron pot. It too is filled with flowers now, but in years long past it played a role in the lives of a Carolina family...

We lived in the country outside Cherryville, North Carolina in a house that was 126 years old when we moved in. The outhouse was out back down the hill toward the garden. Tall oaks and boxwoods surrounded the old place and the yard was hard packed Carolina clay. A fig bush stood in the corner next to the chimney and there was no underpinning to stop cold winter wind from whistling beneath the old house.

The house had never been painted and the old weathered boards were gray with age. The main part of the house was two stories and the one story kitchen was connected to it by a narrow room and a porch. The well with its hand crank was on the porch.

The house stood on rock pillars located in strategic places and it was here beneath the house that a red headed eight year old boy once spent days playing in the dry red dirt with blocks of wood that became trucks and cars along imaginary roads. Time here was also spent trying to coax doodlebugs from their holes with a twig of grass and a chant of "doodlebug, doodlebug come out, come out your house is on fire." By gently rubbing the twig across the funnel shaped hole and repeating the chant the doodlebug would poke his head up from his hole to investigate.

The old house was home to Mom, Dad, my brother Ken and I. My sisters Jeanette, Betty and Louise were already married with families of their own. Mom and Dad were in their fifties and in poor health and Ken was fifteen. The only modern conveniences we had were electricity and an old arched-top wood radio that served as our family entertainment center.

As a child, living in the country at Cherryville, life didn't seem so bad. There was always something to catch the imagination and energy of an eight year old but looking back those were hard times for Mom and Dad.

Once a week Dad, Ken and I would gather firewood and Dad would build a fire beneath the old wash pot while Ken carried water to fill it and a number 2, galvanized washtub. Mom would carry the dirty clothes out to the yard and do the laundry.

She started by getting the water almost to a boil in the wash pot, then adding the clothes and stirring them with a stick while they soaked in the hot water. After they had been stirred in the heated pot she would take them out using the stir stick and scrub them, one item at a time, on a scrub board. The water would be so hot Mom's hands would turn red but I can't remember her ever complaining. After she had boiled the clothes in the wash pot and scrubbed them on the scrub board she would rinse them in cold water in the number 2 washtub. She always used bluing so the colors would stay bright. Washday was a family affair and we all pitched in to help, but it was Mom who had the hard part.

The wash pot was set on rocks so the fire could be built beneath the pot. Adding wood to the fire was no simple task, because if it were just pitched in, ashes would rise and settle in the pot with the clothes and stain them. Wood had to be added carefully so it didn't "raise" any ashes.

After the clothes were washed they were hung up to dry on a clothesline that was as far from the red dirt road that ran in front of the house as possible so dust wouldn't get on them before they dried.

Today we think nothing about putting another load of laundry in the washing machine but back then it meant carrying more water, emptying and cleaning the wash pot and washtub and starting all over. Washday always started early in the morning and it was really a "wash day" with the job lasting well into the afternoon.

After the washing was done we'd empty the wash pot and turn it upside down to keep it from rusting and getting dirty inside. The washtub would be emptied and carried back to the side porch near the well where it would be used for baths. The scrub board would be hung on a nail on the porch ready for the next washday.

After the clothes dried on the clothesline Mom would carry them in and iron using an old flat iron that she'd heat on the stove. There were no permanent press clothes back then. Mom ironed everything from aprons to underwear; if it was washed it would be ironed and every pair of pants had a cutting edge crease. Our clothes were always so clean they seemed to sparkle. I never knew my Dad to wear any color shirt but white and they were always bright white and starched. Mom starched all our shirts and pants with starch that she mixed from a round starch cake. The ironing usually didn't get finished until the following day.

Years later, after Mom had a washing machine, she gave the old wash pot to my brother-in-law Bob and today it rests in his yard in Clifton Heights. Today it's filled with dirt and planted with flowers. It will never again be called to duty on washday or feel the heat of a fire beneath it, but in years long past it served our family well.

One walking along the sidewalk or driving by Bob and Jean's home today will see a beautiful yard with an old black iron pot filled with flowers, but when I visit and sit in the yard an gaze at that old pot, I can smell wood smoke and soap and hear the swoosh of clothes across the scrub board in a country yard years ago. Sitting there in my sister's garden, even on a hot day, I can still feel the welcome warmth of the fire beneath the wash pot but more important I can feel the warmth of a country family on washday long ago.

In Mom's later years she suffered with arthritis in her hands that drew her fingers almost into knots. No doubt those washdays with the old wash pot played a role in her suffering, but I'd not hesitate to wager that the most modern washing machine available couldn't do a better job than that old black iron pot and Mom.