Tuesday, April 22, 2014

An Appalachian Tale – Morning on the Farm

I am writing this as a 55 year old, and the farm was sold when I was 12, so I am not in possession of the details of acreage, price, etc. All I have are memories of a young girl, and bits and pieces gleaned from conversations throughout the years. We said hail and farewell to both of them the year I turned 28, and I beg the forgiveness and understanding of my relatives for any inaccuracies or inconsistencies in these remembrances.

MawMaw and PawPaw married young. They had 4 children, losing their firstborn as an infant. MawMaw was a farm-wife, multidimensional and adept at numerous tasks. PawPaw was a farmer who supplemented his income by various means throughout their life. At times he drove a produce truck, worked as a school custodian, and drove a school bus.

Early in the marriage they lived in a small wood frame house on the farm where he was raised. When their little family outgrew the little house, opportunity arose to purchase a farm of their own and they lived there for about 40 years.

For a young girl, having a farm on which to spend a summer week or two is akin to heaven. My older sister, my younger brother and me, we had opportunity to live the stories we read in school. Trees to climb, rocks to clamber upon, water to splash and fields to explore. There were dairy cows, mules, pigs, chickens, ducks and sheep. They had an apple orchard, a plum tree, blackberry canes and wild strawberries.

The garden was a cornucopia of fresh herbs and vegetables, I shall try to name all I remember eating. Disclaimer: My father and mother had an extensive garden at our home “in town” as well, so if it were not raised on the farm, it was at home. Everything listed I have eaten straight from the garden.

  • Tomatoes, yellow, red, cherry (we called them tommy-toes)
  • Cucumbers, pickling and larger ones as well
  • Bell peppers, green usually but there may have been red
  • Dill
  • Sage
  • Corn, sweet yellow and silver queen
  • Cabbage
  • Lettuce
  • Onions, scallions (though we called them green onions) and regular 'cooking' onions
  • Beets
  • Cauliflower
  • Yellow crook-neck squash
  • Zucchini
  • Pumpkin
  • Cushaw melon
  • Butternut squash
  • Peas, green ones that you shell and sugar snap
  • Beans – green, lima, october
  • Potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Parsnips
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Eggplant

As you can see, we ate well. My mother and both grandmothers were prolific at home canning, and we had jams, jellies and preserves, relishes and pickled vegetables in addition to the usual canned tomatoes, beans and such.

So much to tell, so much to share. I have decided to focus on a typical early morning as I have reconstructed in my memory to attempt to share the joy and love, the sweat and tears, the day to day life my grandparents shared up on their mountainside farm. The beauty and grit of a life shared for over 50 years.

The day began early, long before the rooster would herald the rising of the sun. Roy made his way to the kitchen, where the old cast iron cook-stove was cold and silent. He used the lid lifter to set aside the two eyes, then the long rectangular section to access the fire box of the stove. He laid a fire as he had more mornings than he could count, using the supply of kindling kept in a pail behind the stove and adding a few sheets of crumpled up newspaper to catch the flame from the wooden kitchen match. Once the kindling had caught fire, he would lay on a few pieces of firewood, or lumps of coal, to get the stove heating up. If it were a chilly morning he would sit in a slat back chair by the stove as he pulled on and laced up his brogans. He wore a pair of bibbed overalls over his short sleeved work shirt and a t-shirt that is now called a “wife-beater”. In the front pockets of the overalls were his pipe, a tin of tobacco, and a box of matches. Examples of what an old cook stove looks like are shown below.

About the time he was dressed, Ethel came in the kitchen, having gotten dressed while he was starting the fire. She was wearing a simple cotton dress she had made from yardage that came in the form of feed-sacks, a bright cheery floral print in hues of blue with bright green leaves. Her apron covered most of the front of her dress, also made by her hand. She always trimmed the generous sized pockets with lace or rick-rack, and the apron strings were made long enough that she could tie them in front. It was easier to keep the apron secured as she went about her day. She was wearing a white slip under the dress, and her support hose were rolled at the knee rather than being attached to garters. Her footwear was an old pair of canvas shoes, slip-on because she disliked the aggravation of tying a pair of shoes. The rubber soles helped her keep sure footed when she was going about her housework.

Roy made his way to the barn to do the morning milking while Ethel set about preparing breakfast. She put ground coffee in the basket of the percolator, filled it with water and set it on the stove to brew. An iron skillet was set on the stove as well, soon to hold either bacon or ham and sausage. She turned to the Hoosier cabinet to begin making biscuits after she had set the biscuit pan on the table, ready to receive the light pillows of dough she would produce.

(At this point I will attempt to describe in detail the making of the biscuits. I stood at her elbow, being in her way, so many times as she did this. She made biscuits every single day, sometimes twice.)

There was a flour bin built into the cabinet, with a sifter attached. She held the bowl in one hand as she sifted the flour into the bowl. The flour (I think) was self-rising. About 8 cups of flour went in, and then she added a generous tablespoon of baking powder to the flour and lightly mixed it in with her fingers. Using a serving spoon, she measured out 2 heaps of solid Crisco shortening onto the flour and began to work it into the flour with her fingers. Once she had done this for a bit, she began to add fresh buttermilk, ice cold from the refrigerator, stirring it into the flour in with a steady and practiced motion. When all of the flour was wet, and the dough was formed (wet but not sloppy is the best way to describe the consistency) it was turned out onto a floured dough board. She would turn and pat the dough, forming it into a flat disc before using the heavy wooden rolling pin to quickly roll it out about ½ inch thick. The biscuit cutter was an old evaporated milk can that the bottom had been cut off of to make a sharp edge. The top of the can was left intact, and the two triangular holes that had been made with a can opener to pour the milk would emit little bursts of flour dust with each swift cut of dough. She worked in a circular pattern, leaving little geometric shapes of dough between each round. After placing the cut biscuits on the waiting pan, she gathered the scraps, cut another set of biscuits and used the second set of scarps to make one last biscuit, called the hoecake. I always wanted that one, because it was bigger, and uneven in texture, I always thought it tasted the best. I would also nab little bits of raw dough and eat them. She tried to convince me the raw dough would make my belly swell and burst but I never believed her. The pan of biscuits (probably at least 30) was covered with a towel and left to rest while she waited for the oven to be the right temperature to bake the biscuits. When I bake biscuits now, I like 425-450 f to get a good color and crust, so I guess this was about the temperature she was waiting for. I think there was a thermometer on the oven door but I am not sure.

She made the gravy in the skillet the sausage and bacon had been frying in, using the grease from the meat for the roux. I did not know the term roux when I was young, I just knew you took out the meat, sprinkled in enough flour to soak up all the grease, added a dash of salt and a good shake of pepper, stirred it around so it would not burn or taste raw, added crumbled sausage, and stirred in milk so it would not lump. When all the milk was added and you had the consistency you wanted, you let it bubble slow, stirring it occasionally, while the biscuits baked.

Right about the same time the biscuits and gravy were ready, the coffee has finished perking. Roy came in, washed up at the sink, and Ethel cooked the eggs, fresh eggs from the hens they raised. They had a successful though modestly sized egg business, and actually sold fresh eggs, milk, buttermilk, and butter to a regular client base 'in town'.

I know this sounds like a lot of food, but before their children were grown there were 5 mouths to feed, and sometimes more because they had fostered less advantaged young men in their teens several times. Once the grandchildren came along, my mother's two oldest sons lived on the farm full-time, and they had very healthy appetites. Farm chores build healthy bodies, and healthy appetites. By the time breakfast was consumed, the cows (upward of 6 or 8 I believe) had been milked by hand, the cows had been fed, as had the mules and/or horses.

Hogs and chickens and other feeding was done after breakfast, but the milking was done at a regular time, and the milk was brought to the spring house for Ethel to process. Many chores, hard work, all day. Every day chores, no weekends or holidays. Seasonal variations, but irregardless of weather or season the daily responsibilities were ever present.

Health, age, and the approaching adulthood of the two grandsons all played a role in the selling of the farm, and when I was 12 that wonderful part of my youth went away. I am so grateful to have been able to experience firsthand those moments, and I have many memories yet to share of that farm on the side of the mountain at Bluestone. But those will wait for later days.


  1. I much enjoyed these early memories on the farm. I could clearly see the morning unfold, with the scent of coffee and baking biscuits curling in the air.

    1. Thank You, Evi. I appreciate the comment, and you taking the time share in a little trip down Memory Lane with me today. I had a very fortunate childhood in many ways.