by Ruth Mohundro Gunn
We lived on a farm of
about 200 acres. The house was made of logs. There were two
huge rooms, each with a fireplace, a hall between the rooms, and a porch
in front the entire length of the house. Side rooms were on the back
for the kitchen and bedrooms. My daddy lived in the same house all
his life, and there they reared 10 children, 5 boys and 5 girls.
They all lived to be married and have children of there own before our
parents passed away. Our home was the typical farm home. We
were proud of it and were satisfied with what we had. We had no luxuries,
but no one else did in our community. We all worked and played together.
They wanted things to look nice and clean. There was no paint on the market then, so they would go to a certain hillside in the community and find dirt they called "white dirt." This would be mixed with water and salt. With homemade brushes, they would paint the walls and ceiling in the rooms. Later, I remember they bought lime and used it instead of the dirt. After painting the walls and scrubbing the floors with a mop made of shucks from corn and using homemade lye soap, they left a nice clean smell in the house that I can still remember.
As the years went by, some remodeling was done but the two big rooms remained the same. All houses were covered with boards which the men split themselves from the big timber. There was no screen wire then, so, of course, they had a problem with the flies and mosquitoes. Cloth netting was used over the babies' cradles.
The farmers raised almost everything that they ate. I remember when my daddy would plant a field of wheat. It ripened in early summer and was a beautiful sight waving in the breeze. The men would cut it with a scythe which was a very sharp, crescent-shaped blade. Then the wheat was ready to load on wagons, which hauled it out to a suitable spot for the thrasher. This thrashing separated the grain from the straw and chaff. The grain was sacked and carried to a mill, which was several miles from home, where it was ground into flour There were three grades of this, shorts were fed to hogs, and the seconds, though dark in color, could be made into biscuits with a very good taste. The flour was put into barrels to be carried home. People would come from far and near to get the wheat straw for their beds. No one had a cotton mattress. They filled a tick with straw, and those that were fortunate had feather beds to use on these. While cutting the wheat, they would find partridge nests full of eggs. Sometimes the bird would not come back to the nest. However, birds were bountiful then, as we never know of anyone hunting with dogs and guns. Some children would build little traps and catch one now and then.
Every farmer planted corn. No one ever heard of buying corn meal at the store. Every Saturday morning my daddy would bring a big sack of white corn to the house, which he and the boys had shucked. A big quilt was spread on the floor and we children would gather around dad. He sat in a chair and with a crude corn sheller, would rip a strip form the side of the ear and drop it for us to grab and shell the rest by hand. When we got a big bushel shelled he would sack it and throw it across the back of his saddle and carry it to the mill, which was run by a stream. This meal would have to be sifted, but it made such good corn bread. Corn was the principal feed industry, as it not only furnished bread for people, but was used as feed for the horses, hogs, chickens, geese, ducks, sheep and sometimes for cows.
As the corn began to ripen, the leaves or blades were stripped off, tied into bundles, and hauled to the barn loft, after a few hours of drying. This was called fodder and was used as a rough feed more than hay, as there was not so much hay harvested then. The fodder had a very good, mellow aroma. It was a pleasure to climb into the barn loft and find nests of hen eggs nestled around the fodder.
Our family kept from two to four milk cows. We were fortunate to have a good spring of cold water. They made a wooden box and placed it below the spring so the water could flow through it. After the milk was strained, it was put into big pitchers and carried to the spring. When suppertime came, someone went for the milk, and that with a big pone of cornbread was usually our supper. Everyone liked it and wished for nothing more.
Every farmer raised hogs for their meat supply. They waited for freezing weather to kill the hogs, and it was always a very busy day. The big pots of water must be just right so the hair could be scraped off easily. Everything that could be used was saved; scraps were grounded into sausage. The liver and lights were made into what was called "hashlets," and the head and feet made into "souse meat." A lot of red pepper was used in this, and all could eat it without complaints. No one had heard of stomach ulcers. Everyone raised chickens and sold the young ones as broilers to help out with buying spring clothes. They also sold eggs and had chicken for Sunday dinner now and then.
We had our own garden. We planted seeds for cabbage, collard, and tomatoes, and fixed a special bed for seed sweet potatoes. We grew the plants for them, as no one ever bought plants at the store. They hadn't learned to can vegetables, so they let the peas and beans dry for shelling. Everyone had orchards. They never had to spray them but had a lot of good fruit, and a lot of it was dried.
My daddy always had a sorghum patch. When fall came, they would strip the blades off first, then cut it. Someone followed and cut the heads of the seed off. After it was hauled and piled in a rack the meal was brought. We all looked forward to that. The man that made the molasses was a real jolly old fellow and the molasses was so good ad fresh off the pan. First, they ground the cane. One hand would keep cane carried ready for the feeder to put in into the mill. The mill was a crude looking outfit placed on a wagon frame. There were three huge steel tube like wheels. The cane was fed about five or six at a time, so it would go between these wheels and was pressed so hard that all the juice came out and ran into a trough, which carried it to a barrel. These wheels turned, one turned one way and the other one the opposite way and it was run by the power of mules which were hitched to a lever. The mules went around in a circle all day long. The man that carried the cane would also carry away the "punmies" as it accumulated. One worker carried the juice from the barrel to a vat next to the cooking pan where it was run through a sput onto a pan. This was a long pan that fit over a furnce, which was dug for this purpose. A tin flu was at the opposite end from the juice barrel. One man kept the fire going under the pan; another helper kept the skimmings dipped off as the juice started cooking. The cooker could tell when the molasses was ready to use. It was run into a barrel where each man hoped to have enough for his family until the next fall.
Doctors were scarce in those days with just one doctor for a wide community. He rode horseback, and even if it was an emergency someone had to catch a horse and ride for ten miles to get the doctor. In later years a rural telephone line was put up, many party lines with the crank type telephone, but it was worth a lot in times of need. At night you could listen in ad hear five or six conversations going on at the same time.
We didn't know much about chewing gum. The men would cut a strip of bark form the big sweet gum tree, and the wax would "ooze" out the cut. When we wanted to chew gum, we would go to the pasture and pick it off with a knife until we had all we could chew. Some children would chew risen form pines, but not me!
My mother used molasses a lot to make cakes, gingersnaps and pies. Very often a bunch of youngsters got together and cooked a pot of molasses into candy. After it was taken from the pot and cool enough, they would grease and flour their hand. Each one took a portion and started pullin it out into a long, round strip, laid it out until it hardened then put in into sticks. It was so good. My mother raised geese in droves Ever so often they would herd them into a pen. She would get her chair and a barrel with a cloth over it. The children would catch the geese for her and she would pluck all the feather except the wing and tail feather. These were put into the barrel, later she make them into feather beds or pillows. The feather beds were used on top of a mattress, which was made of straw.
My daddy raised sheep. These were also herded into a stable every spring and he sheared the wool with some big shears. Some of the wool would have cockle-burrs in it as the sheep ran where they grew. I have had some very sore fingers from helping my mother pick the burrs from the wool. It was then washed and spread on to shed to dry. She had some new utensils she called "cards" that looked like a small tennis racket. One side was covered with steel pliable needles. She used two of these by placing a handful of wool on one side then stroking through this the other card until the wool was light and fluffy. Then with skill ad experience she maneuvered the two cards until she had a perfect roll about one inch in diameter. She would card a lot of these, then get the old spinning wheel out. Carefully, she would walk backwards; holding the wool while the spindle turned and made it into a thread. Then, she walked forward and let it wind onto a quill. So, back and forth she would walk for hours filling one quill after another. After several days of spinning thread, she would be ready to have my dad help to put the big wooden loom together. It took a large part of one room and although I remember seeing her getting it ready, I can't explain what she did. After it was all threaded up with some there and she had put through a process called sizing, she then started weaving. She used a homemade shuttle through the warp with her right hand and then shoved it back with her left hand.
She pressed a pedal with her foot, which caused a wooden lever to swing and press every thread together. This procedure was followed all day long. I don't know how may yards a day she wove, but we had blankets and wool for making clothing. Sometimes she spun cotton thread to make towels, sheets ad panties. Then I remember one year, after she quit spinning cloth, we helped tear old clothes into strips tacked them so they could be wound together into a big ball. This was woven into a big carpet, eighteen by twenty, one for our living room and one for our aunt. They were adored by everyone and so warm and useful.
When they wished to dye cloth they gathered sumac berries and bailed them to get red dye. Walnuts made a brown color, as did different barks from the trees, Mother would buy some thread to knit our stockings. She made all our clothes except maybe Sunday pants and coats for the men. No matter how hot the weather when ironing day came, a fire was built into the fireplace to heat the irons. The women and children wore bonnets, which were starched very stiff and ironed carefully, as well as dress, aprons and shirts.
At that time, small girls up to about ten years of age wore dresses to their knees. All other wore long dresses. The older ladies wore theirs to the floor. Everyone wore long hose or stockings every day. We didn't feel dressed without them. Most people wore high-top shoes, either buttoned or laced. All children went barefoot during the summer months. Almost everyone liked to sing and went about their work singing or whistling. If men happened to be on the road, horseback or walkin at nigh, we could hear them long before they got home singing and yodeling. Musical instruments were scarce, but some did have guitars, violin, and banjos. These were handmade and it was a pleasure to hear anyone playing a chord and singing a ballad. In 1900 I saw and heard my first graphophone. An elderly lady in our community sold "Dr. Ordway's Plasters," and for a prize she got a small graphophone with three or four records. The records were round tube-like shapes, and the tone was muffled but we all thought it great!
Children in those days didn't get many toys. Little girls made dolls out of corncobs and dressed them. They also used dry stalks of corn to split and make into beds and chairs for their dolls. They carved little dishes form soapstone. The boys made bows an arrows, kites, whistles, and sling shots, using hickory limbs. They made ball from raveled woolen socks. If they wanted a hard ball, they would put a small rock into it and wind yarn into it. For a seesaw we put a plank across a log. For a merry-go-round we had flying Jennies, which were formed by fastening a pole on a stump. For cards to play with, we made them and played a game called "Authors." The boys went swimming in the creek. At school we used a slate, which we could writeon, figure erase, and write again. Men and boys made corn -cob pipes. Some smoked tobacco which they raised and cured.
They kept big fires burning in the huge fireplaces throughout the winter and liked to burn a lot of hickory wood. It made a good heat and good ashes which were saved for making soap. They had a big hopper made of long boards in a V-shape. As the ashes were carried out they were poured in to this hopper until spring. Usually every few days bucket of water was poured over the ashes which were covered. After enough water, a dark red dye would begin to flow form the bottom through a trough into an iron pot. This was kept emptied into a big wash pot until full. Then, they built a fire under it and added a lot of meat scraps and bones, which had been kept all winter. The lye was strong enough to dissolve all this. It was cooked and stirred constantly until it began to a spin a thread when dripping from the paddle. The soap was done and when cooled, was put in to a long wooden trough made by hewing the heart from a huge log. This was used for washing clothes and scrubbing floors. It was very hard on the hands, as it was so strong.
I remember a little about the "battling block" as they called it. It was a big block sawed form a tree and placed near the spring to be used when they couldn't clean the heavy work clothes with the wooden wash board. They would place a garment which had been smeared with lye soap on the block and pound it with a paddle similar to a baseball bat. Everyone could tell when the neighbors were washing by the pounding of the "battling block." Later, a tintype washboard was invented and the women felt they had something wonderful.
The little one-room schoolhouses were scattered widely over the area. Some of the children had to walk three miles to school. One teacher taught them from primary to advanced, or some called it "big geography," arithmetic and history. After they finished they quit school and were usually married or worked at home with their parents. They had only four months of school in a year. We had concerts now and then at the close of school. As the schoolhouses were small, the men and the boys would build and arbor of pins tips and fix a rough stage for the actors. It was really thrilling and fun for the children and parents.
We were devout Christian people who tried to live by the Ten Commandments. Churches were far apart. Some worshipped in the little schools. We had services once a month. All tried to attend. The big summer revival or " big meeting" was something to look forward to. A lot of preparations were made for it, and we had much company during that week. The preparations included getting everyone's clothes clean, starched and ironed. All bedclothing, tableclothes, napkins, scarves and centerpieces had to be washed and ironed. They scrubbed the floors, swept the yard with a broom made of dogwood limbs. Mother would bake a big batch of cookies or teacakes make a big stack of apple pies. Put up some chickens to fatten, and sometimes kill a sheep to have mutton to cook. Some would come in wagons from several miles away to attend these meetings and it was a happy day at he close of the week when we gathered down at the creek and witnessed the baptizing. Travel to these meetings were by wagon, buggy, surrey, or horseback. I remember a few families did travel by ox wagons, which moved at a very slow speed. We rode horseback a lot, but never saw a woman astride back then. We all had sidesaddles, which had two small horns, one knee went over one of the horns and a foot in the stirrups. The other horn was to brace the knee and for safety too.
This article was donated by Terry Gunn, Ruth Mohundro Gunn's son. Mrs. Gunn was born on February 23, 1893, in Walnut, Mississippi. Her parents were Pitser Miller Mohundro and Martha Ollie Paralee Adams.
© 1998 by Melissa McCoy-Bell. All rights reserved.