Sunday Stories: Grandma Van Part 2

From the memoir of Nellie Thurman Williams VanArsdall, 1888 - 1993

One of my earliest recollections is of me and my youngest brother, Tom, playing in and around the ruins of the old “soddy” where we were all born. And nearby was the old open well, which had been our source of water before the new buildings were put up. At this time two regular wells with pumps had been put in – one with a windmill near the barn, and the other with just a pump, close to the house.

Previous to the installations of the two pumps all water used, both for the livestock and for the house, had to be lifted by pail and windlass from the open well. The pail of the open well resembled a length of stove pipe, but made of heavier material. It had a valve in the bottom which opened as the pail went down into the water, and then closed as the full pail was lifted.

A small pasture – about 10 acres – was some distance from the pump at the barn, so a pump was installed in the corner nearest the house. With this pump we watered the horses and cows in the pasture. My sister, Myrtle, brother Tom and I pumped water for the stock. There was a long trough, about 16 inches deep, 18 inches wide and perhaps 10 feet long, homemade of heavy planks, into which we pumped the water.
The horses always drank first, being able to drive the cows away. By the time the horses were satisfied, we were tired, and there were still about 10 large red and white cows to be filled up. We were sure that each cow drank a trough-full. I can still recall vividly the smacking and sucking sounds they made, as they drank up the water faster than we could pump it. This was always a chore that we dreaded, as it was really hard work.

But fortunately we didn’t need to pump water only during extremely dry spells, as there was a slough that ran diagonally across the pasture, and water from the Beaver Creek backed up into this and provided water for the stock most of the time.

We also did the milking – from five to ten cows. Since there was no refrigeration at that time, we cooled the milk by lowering it onto a platform in the excavation beneath the pump where the windmill was. This was about 10 feet deep and 3 feet square. And since the windmill pumped most of the time, this “hole” was kept quite cool as the pipe came up through the center of it. After a day or two, the cream was skimmed from the milk, and when enough cream was accumulated, it was churned into butter.

Mother packed this butter into a one pound mold and delivered it to regular customers in St. Edward. One of the customers was a friend of mother’s, and the proprietor of the hotel. Of course, enough butter was always kept for our own use, which was considerable.

The money which this provided, along with the income from the sale of eggs, provided the wherewithal to buy coffee and tea, sugar, salt, spices, etc., the things which the farm did not provide.

Our flour came from the local flour mill. We usually raised some wheat, and each year at harvest time, a certain number of bushels were taken to the mill, and we were given credit for so much flour, so much bran, and so much shorts. When we needed flour, we went to the mill and got a 50 pound bag, which was checked off our account. The shorts and bran were fed to the livestock and chickens. We always took enough wheat to the mill to supply us with flour until the next harvest.

Mother, of course, baked all of our bread and all baked goods, which required a lot of flour.
Our syrup, or sorghum rather, was provided by a small patch of sugar cane, which we raised each year. There was a sorghum mill east of St. Edward where we took the cane to be processed into sorghum. We all had to help prepare the cane for the mill. This was done by knocking the leaves off the cane with a stick, cutting the seed heads off, and then cutting the stripped stalks and placing them on a wagon. There were always enough of us that we had a driver for the wagon, too.

This job was looked forward to with great anticipation, especially by the younger children, as one of us always got to ride with our eldest brother on the loads of cane to the mill, where we were fascinated by the one-horse power press. This horse went ‘round and ‘round and provided the power for the rollers which squeezed the juice from the cane. This juice was run into large shallow pans, where it was boiled until it was the right consistency for sorghum. We usually had a large barrel full of it made.

I know from very real experience just what the saying “slow as molasses in January” meant, as I was often called on in cold weather to go to the cellar and get a pitcher full of sorghum for our hotcakes for breakfast. It seemed to me that it wasn’t possible for anything to move as slowly as that sorghum did. But, of course, being young, a minute seemed like an hour.

Towards spring, what sorghum was left in the barrel had a habit of turning into sugar, and when that happened, it would no longer run from the spigot. So the barrel head had to be taken out, and mother ladled the sugary mass into kettles and boiled it again. This restored it to its original consistency. By this time of the year, many glass jars had been emptied of fruit, pickles, etc. So mother canned the hot syrup and we used it up before it sugared again.

Mother always raised a huge garden which supplied a major portion of our food the year round. Of course, during the spring, summer and early fall, vegetables were used fresh, then in the fall the rest were canned, pickled or stored for winter use. And such vegetables! At that time, diseases and insect pests were seldom bothersome, and the soil was rich and new and produced wonderful vegetables and grains.

We even raised winter radishes, which were stored in the cellar for winter use, as were carrots, beets, etc. Parsnips were left in the ground and used in the early spring, after the frost left the ground. If it so happened that we had some mild weather during the winter, some of the parsnips could be used then. Some of the beets were pickled, as were some of the cucumbers, but everything that could be preserved without using glass jars, was put down in brine or stored some other way. Glass jars cost money, and that was hard to come by.

Mother usually put down a large barrel full of cucumbers in brine. When these were to be used, some of them were taken out of the brine and soaked overnight in water, then pickled in the usual manner, with vinegar, sugar and spices. Then, as glass jars were emptied of other food, the cucumbers were taken from the brine and pickled for use until another crop came on.

The bursted heads of cabbage were made up into delicious piccalilli, but the bulk of the cabbage was preserved by digging a trench about 16 inch or perhaps 20 inches wide and about 18 inches deep, and as long as needed. This was lined with straw and the whole cabbage, including root, was placed head down in this trench, and straw was packed snugly around the heads, leaving the root sticking out. A small amount of soil was packed on top of the straw to hold it from blowing. When a head of cabbage was wanted for use, we chopped away the frozen soil and straw, and lifted the head of cabbage out, as fresh and sweet as the day it was packed.

Potatoes were stored in much the same way, except that they were covered over deeply with soil. We had a small bin in the cellar in which we kept a few bushels for immediate use, but the bulk of the crop was stored in a pit about 5 feet deep and as large as needed, according to the number you wished to store. This pit was also lined with straw and the potatoes covered with straw, and quite a deep layer of soil – enough to prevent freezing. A ventilator pipe was sometimes placed in the center of the top, before the dirt was filled in. When the weather was cold and the ground frozen hard, it was quite a chore to open this pit to take out potatoes to replenish the dwindling supply in the cellar, but it had to be done a few times.

Then when spring came it was the children’s job to sprout the remaining potatoes in the cellar. Ugh! How I detested this job, as there were so many of those sow bugs among the potatoes, and I was afraid of them. But the potatoes had to be taken care of. The bin was all cleaned out and the potatoes remaining in the pit were stored in the bin, to be used until the new crop came in.

There was always a lot of friendly rivalry among neighbors to see who could have new potatoes and chickens large enough to fry on July 4.

We always had plenty of meat too. We usually butchered two hogs during the winter and sometimes a yearling calf. The pork was always preserved in brine, and of course, there was always enough fat to provide us with all the lard we needed. The beef and pork was supplemented with chickens, many kinds of wild game and fish. Prairie chickens and quail were very numerous so when mother decided she wanted some wild meat, she would have one of the boys go out and shoot two or three prairie chickens or a bunch of quails.

There were plenty of wild ducks and geese too, in the spring and fall. My oldest brother, Harry, lived to fish, and when he had the time, he caught a great many of them, and would eat fish three times a day if mother would cook them for him. There were no restrictive game laws at that time, so game could be taken at any time. The boys were never allowed to kill more than could be used.

Rabbits were also very plentiful, and in the very cold winters, the boys would kill several, dress them, and hang them high in the trees to freeze. I can remember seeing a whole 80 acre field almost solidly covered with geese, at one time, during one of their migrations. I can’t remember whether it was spring or fall.
Prairie Chickens often came and alighted in the big cottonwood trees surrounding the house. I remember my brother lowering the upper sash of a kitchen window one morning, and shooting prairie chickens right out of the trees.

And we didn’t suffer from lack of fruit, either. At that time there were very few bearing fruit trees, as everyone was too busy getting settled and trying to make a living in this brand new country, to take time to plant fruit trees and care for them. But there was an abundance of wild fruit – choke cherries, some gooseberries, and several species of plums, some of them truly delicious.

Oranges and bananas were a very special treat and we had them only occasionally. We used quite a lot of lemons for lemonade when we could afford it. This was enjoyed only in hot weather. Our grandparents in Ohio sometimes sent us a barrel of apples in the fall, and needless to say they were received with great pleasure and appreciation. When brother Tom was about 8 and I 10, we discovered in our ramblings up and down the Beaver Creek, some summer crab apples – White crabs I think they were called. They were at an abandoned farmstead, and nobody was using them, so we would take a gunny sack and fill it about half full and hide it in a straw stack near the barn, and eat them whenever we wanted. We didn’t tell Mother as we were afraid she would feel that it was stealing and put a stop to it. But now in the light of mature judgment, I know she would not have done so, as the apples were just falling off the trees and rotting on the ground, and so were wasted.

We gathered choke cherries soon after harvest. We would take a horse and buggy, with a lot of pails and sometimes even a tub, and pick cherries all day. We always took a picnic lunch, so we could stay until we had filled all of the containers. Mother worked these into jams and jellies, often combining them with other fruits for a variety of flavors. This jelly as well as all other jellies and jams were made without the aid of pectin. And this meant long hours of standing over the stove to stir them, especially the jams.

Mother became so proficient at making jelly that she could usually tell by the consistency of the hot syrup when it was right to jell. If it were possible to get green apples, Mother would use the juice from them to help thicken the jelly, but green apples were often hard to find.

Then later in the summer, after school started, the plums were ripe, and we had to hurry home from school and gather them from the thickets along the creek. There were several varieties of these wild plums – small red ones, very sweet and juicy, larger ones that were very sour. Then there was a large yellow plum, which had a very meaty firm flesh. These were as large as a medium-sized apricot. Mother used to peel these by the bushel, dry them and store them for winter use. When we used these, they were placed in cold water and soaked all night, then stewed very slowly on the back of the range, until tender. Sugars, and sometimes spices were added. This made a very delicious sauce.

As soon as the corn reached the roasting ear stage, it was cut from the cob, dried and stored for winter use. We usually had a 50 lb. flour sack full of this. We always raised a small patch of sweet corn for drying, and roasting ears. When this dried corn was used, it too was soaked overnight, and then cooked slowly until tender then seasoned with butter and cream. It was very good.


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