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THE EVERYDAY LIFE OF A MOUNTAIN FAMILY

Circa late 1920s

 

          We can all imagine the hardships and toils, the everyday stress that life in the mountains can create.  However, the reality of what day to day survival was like is nothing until you hear about it from someone that has lived that life.

 

Mrs. Hazel Farmer was born and raised in these beautiful mountains.  She grew up, got married and raised her family in both Union County and Fannin County.  Along the way, she lived in Florida and in Atlanta at various stages of her life.  Today, she still lives on the same land in Union County that was settled by her great-grandparents in the 1800s.  Her house, built by her father in 1926, is located down a long graveled road at the end of a cove, surrounded by the mountains. 

 

Recently celebrating her 84th birthday, Mrs. Farmer graciously invited me in to “sit a spell” with her.  I introduced myself and spoke of why I wanted to interview her.  Before we got into talking of “the old days” she astonished me with the fact that she is still an active participant in the theatrical production based on Byron Hubert Reece’s “The Reach of Song.”  Here is an accounting of how she came to have her part in it:

 

“I participate in “The Reach of Song.”  A friend asked me to go up and try out for the part to replace her.  I had only acted in school plays and in church.  The first thing the guy (the production director) asked me was how I felt about being in front of an audience, in front of so many people.  He taped everything I said and asked me to tell everything about my life story.  He wrote the script from my tape.  When Robert (her husband) and I went hunting for a preacher to marry us, they (the church) were practicing for a Christmas play.  The preacher asked if we were married yet we said no, that was what we were there for.  He gathered all the congregation together right there and then and married us on the spot…and that’s in the play!  I still drive to Hiawassee (where the play is performed) day and night to do that.”

 

She spun an amazing narrative, one that depicts the sense of urgency of always being prepared.  Those of us today that are so used to having a fully stocked grocery store or a big retail store nearby would have a hard time coping in the life “back then.”  Could we have been as strong and resilient as these mountaineers once were?  Read on and see if you could have live through those demanding times!

 

Nothing that I can write could possibly substitute for the pure gold that came from Mrs. Farmer’s narrative describing her growing up years.  I will let her own words flow, and hope that you, the reader, can lose yourself to your imagination while you read.


Mrs. Hazel Farmer


 

“What do you want to know?”  (Mrs. Farmer)

 

“Anything interesting that you have to tell about your growing up years or your family history…anything that would interest someone that perhaps lived far away that couldn’t come to Union County or to you for research.”  (Martha Clement)

 

“You’re not interested in how folks eat and lived and done all that stuff?”  (Mrs. Farmer)

 

“Oh yes! That’s exactly what we want to know!”  (M. C.)

 

“Well, I got down here “how we preserved food” (she was checking her notes…she told me beforehand that she wrote herself notes in order to not leave anything out!).

                                         
Mrs. Hazel Farmer
 

“When the weather became cold enough to freeze, a dirt bed was built and covered with wheat straw and crab grass.  It’ll hold layers of cabbage and turnip greens, turnips and parsnips and stuff like that.  The outsides would mildew and you’d have to peel them pretty deep to eat them. Then we dried leather britches, peas, pumpkins and peaches to eat through the winter time.  Do you know how to make leather britches?  You’d string your beans with a needle and string that you'd unravel from flour sacks and they’d dry out on the porch.  You’d pull them off then soak them overnight to cook for the next meal.  We stored apples and fodder and stuff like that in the barn loft so it wouldn’t freeze. We’d also make dried apple pies and stuff.  You’d cut a stake with a fork in it and another one and put a pole between them.  You’d peel the pumpkin in rounds, peel it and hang them.  They’d dry and make the sweetest, best pies!   We raised corn, wheat and rye for bread and pancakes and to make cakes out of.  People made meal mush with hot water and sift the meal.  Cook it till thick with a little salt, butter and sugar and make it into a little dessert.  I’d make rye mush and pound cake and things.  We had cane and beets; sugar cane, you know for their sweetening and to eat and to cook with and honey also was for making medication.  Everybody had honey bees and a cane patch. Honey was used for cough syrup.” 

 

“We pickled.  We made pickled corn, kraut, and pickled beans.  Green tomatoes and peppers were pickled in brine salt.  You’d make pickles with honey and cucumbers and kraut.  To make kraut, set your churn jar down there.  After you put all your kraut stuff down, you'd pack it with salt and you’d put clean leaves on top and put rocks on it to crush it down. You’d pickle beans and corn the same way.”

 

“We raised chickens for their meat and their eggs; for making chicken and dumplings. For meat, we killed hogs and had mutton and beef and meat from all kinds of wild things.  You’d kill your beef in the wintertime.  Hog killing was a value for rendering out your lard and make your cracklings and we use the scraps to make soap out of.  The way we made lye was everybody had an ash hopper.  You ever hear of that?”

 

“A what?”

 

“An ash hopper.  Well, it’s a big square box and you put all your ashes in it that you take out of the fireplace.  You put it where you tilt it just so water runs in and drips out at one side and it makes lye.  We use lye to render the husks from hominy and also to make lye soap with.  And when the men folks decide to tan a hide, to make leather, the lye was used to remove the hair and everything off of it.  Lye was a very important thing.  You’d use tallow to waterproof stuff with.  You’d do your washing on a washboard with lye soap.  I can remember Octagon soap and powered soaps…they were the first ones I could remember.”

 

“Everybody had milk cows.  We churned the milk to make butter.  We had our own butter molds.  We used it for drinking and for seasoning and stuff.  Onions were tied in bunches and hung under the shed or in cold boxes.  Freezing don’t hurt onions.  In the summer, you’d pick berries.”

 

“The men hunted and made a little money from the pelts.  They got chestnuts, walnuts, chickpennys (chinquapins) that we’d have during the wintertime.  We’d roast the chestnuts.  We still have a few (chestnut trees), not many.  (Writer’s note: the great American Chestnut tree was once a flourishing vital species that ranged over a good portion of the U.S.  Well established in the Blue Ridge mountain area, it provided food for man and animal, its lumber was used to build houses and split rails for fencing, furniture and other needs.  The demise of this great tree is presumed to have been from a fungus that came from a shipment of seedlings from eastern Asia in 1906.  This blight nearly eradicated the chestnut tree from existence by the 1930s.  Very few survive today.)  We had sheep and made socks, gloves and knitted sweaters from their wool.”

 

“We’d make cracker-jack!  We boiled syrup until it spun hair (got thick and stringy).  You take two hands full of butter and grease your pan.  Make it into balls with popcorn and you’ve got cracker-jack.  We called them popcorn balls.”

 

“The chimneys you’d build out of rock and mud from your own place.  You’d have an iron rod across the fireplace with a chain with a hook on it where you’d hang your black pots and cook from.  You’d build your own hearth where you‘d bake potatoes and cakes and bread.”

 

“Hay, corn, oats and stuff for fodder fed your livestock.  Cane seed, corn, sunflower seeds and such were to feed your chickens, geese and your ducks.  The duck feathers were plucked for your pillows and your beds.  I would pluck for hours to make my pillows.”

 

  “At thrashing time, the neighbors would all come in and work together. You had your small grain that was cut with a sickle, chopped and stacked in the fields.  There’d be one family that would have a thrashing machine that would go all over the county and thrash everybody’s grain.  Instead of paying money for that, he’d take a percentage (a toll on the grain).”

 

“We’d plow our crops with oxen or mules.  Hogs and cattle would run loose in the mountains.  The fields would be fenced in with railings cut from the dead chestnut trees.  Your cow had a bell on it and your hogs would have markings in their ears and you had a certain feeding place where the cows would come in to be milked and fed.  When the fences rotted down, the men in the community would come in and split rails and rebuild the fences.”

 

“Before electricity, we had lamps for light.  We’d go to bed pretty early because there was no radio and no television.  My brother would make light to read and we’d play checkers.  When it got too dark, we’d study for school by lamplight and get up pretty close to daylight and work in the fields.”

 

“My dad died when I was 8 and my brother was 10.  We were able to live in the house that my dad didn’t finish (he died in 1930, suffering from what was called “salt dropsy,” which would be diagnosed today as congestive heart failure).  He built this house but ran out of money. We grew what we ate and raised some chickens to sell.  We worked on other farms and picked beans for 10 cents a bushel.  That was our way of life.  We didn’t think anything of it.  Sometimes we’d work in the field for 10 cents an hour.  After working all day, we’d come home and do what we had to do on our own farm.  My husband was 20 when we married.  We had it rough.  We had good times, we had bad times. Back then, you didn’t hear of divorces or separations.  You’d just kiss and make up.  Having illegitimate children wasn’t thought of as nothing!  A girl named Ella had a girl that was my age – we went to school together.  Earlier than that, my momma told me not to sit next to her in church.  This made me mad.  But that’s the way it was back then.”

 

Mrs. Farmer went on to reminisce some more on the way things were in the late 1920s.  We talked about mutual folks that we knew, about mountain religion, about hardships endured and changes that have happened over the years.  We took a driving trip to see the old home site where she was born and to a place called Coletown (outside of Copper Hill), where she lived during her childhood years.  She wanted to visit her parents’ graves so we took a side trip to the little cemetery at Mobile Church in Frytown (Fannin County). 

 

By the time we got back to her home in Union County, we both were tired but glad to have had the time together.  She told me that she was “honored to have had someone take an interest in her life.”  This is the one time I will have to disagree with her…the honor is mine, because of her generous gift in the telling of her story, she has allowed me an insight into what families had to endure and accomplish in those beautiful Blue Ridge mountains.  With her avid contribution to the mountain theatrical production, “The Reach of Song,” generations can discover what the world was like for their ancestors and know exactly how life was “back then.”   Perhaps then will we come away with a deeper appreciation for those that have gone on before us to pave the way.


Mrs. Farmer at parents' graves





 




Mrs. Hazel Farmer

At the graves of her parents

Mobile Church Cemetery, Frytown, Fannin County











 
Martha Clement
cJune 2005