Transcribed by Timothy R. Meador, Jr.
* CAL’S COLUMN *
In the years long gone by, the writer of this “Colyum” was a farm boy. At this season of the year, our father, Thomas Morgan Gregory, known by the “nickname” of “Dopher” Gregory, began his preparation for a tobacco crop. He usually would say: “Boys, it is time to burn a plant bed.” Then he would have us boys to go with him to select a place for the plant bed, in which tobacco plants for the crop that year were to be grown. He usually tried to select a sunny slope as nearly free from adjacent trees as possible. He would dig down into the earth to find if the soil was suitable for the growing of the tobacco plants. He wanted fresh, uncleared land, free from clay soil, with no rocks close to the surface.
When he made his selection, he generally had us boys to rake all the dead leaves from the ground and then we would “grub” off the bushes that grew on the ground. We sometimes did this work in January, but generally would take place “during the pretty spell in February.” It seemed to us that there always came a period of perhaps two weeks of bright, sunny weather in February. Sometimes it was delayed until March and then our father, “Pappy” to us, would worry quite a lot because he was afraid he would not be able to grow his dark tobacco plants with so late a start.
Generally he would select a place to “burn the bed” near to dead timber or dead logs and brush. It was very difficult to burn a plant bed with nothing but green fuel, so it was needful to find wood that was dead and dry so that it was not difficult to have a big fire, hot enough to consume a lot of green brush and limbs of trees. After the bushes had been removed from the ground, long, slender poles were placed on the site of bed. These poles were for the purpose of holding the burning logs off the ground and thus giving air to the fire.
These plant beds were in our father’s day and time generally 24 feet wide, although he had no set pattern so far as width is concerned. Generally he made them of the width of so many yards, the covering, called canvas, being in strips a yard wide. We recall that one of the largest plant beds we ever helped burn was 27 feet wide and 210 feet long and was located in the very bottom of the valley, just above the old Gregory family burial ground. The present-day nine-foot beds were not at all to our father’s liking, his idea being that they were so narrow that they would not produce many plants. We never knew him to burn a nine-foot bed.
After the poles to carry the logs had been put into position, we would then cut a number of rather small logs of half the width of the bed. These were “bed logs,” and generally they were such as would roll easily. They were either propped in their proper position at the upper part of the bed with large stone, or more generally stakes were driven into the ground to hold the burning logs till the ground had been burned. After these logs had been put into position, they were then covered with brush and small parts of limbs and trunks of smaller trees. Then the fires were “sot,” as we heard many farmers of that day and time say. Generally the fires were started with big bundles of weeds, sometimes with dead cornstalks, and now and then with shavings. Anyway as soon as the fires began to get hot and buds that began to swell on the green trees being used for fuel began to get hot, they would burst with a loud “bing” that we can almost hear even today after 50 years have passed by. That was rather sweet music in the ears of a country boy of the years long ago. The roar of flames, the bursting of swelling buds, the crackle of flint rocks getting hot enough to burst and other features of plant bed burning time are as vivid in our memory as though they had taken place just yesterday.
After the fire had been allowed to burn the ground thoroughly, it was necessary to make a “move.” The logs were propped and the stakes driven into the black earth at the first to hold the logs in place, were knocked loose with an axe and then moved down the hill about four feet and then again driven into the ground. With hot fires raging, it was rather uncomfortable to move the logs. This was specially true where the ground was nearly level. We used long “hooks” to move the logs that were beginning to burn fiercely by this time. These “hooks” were sometimes made in shop, being iron on a long pole. Our father generally cut a long limb from the lower branches of a beech tree and fashioned a rather crude “hook,” one of our well-remembered hardships being the nature of this crude hook to turn in the hands of the “firemovers.” Gloves for this kind of work were practically unknown. It was hard work but we did not mind it then.
As the day wore on, and the lengthening ground covered by ashes indicated that we were making progress, the noon hour came and were we hungry! It was one of the few days on the farm when “dinner” was brought out to the workers. Our mother, to us “Mammy,” would fix enough dinner for the hungry “men folks” who had to stay with the plant-bed burning and some member or members of the family would bring the delicious meal to the “sons of toil.” For drinking water we usually “tapped” a sugar tree, which meant that an axe was used to cut a notch in the tree, with the back portion of the cut placed lower than the front. This would speedily fill with “sugar water,” and then the boys of the group, and we were once in that number, would take a cane quill and insert this in the chopped out notch, which in a few minutes would fill with the nectar of the gods. It was cold and sweet and delicious to the taste and even now we recall the frequent visits we made to the “running” sugar tree. As to the meal we had on those days long ago, we have not the ability to describe them. We often spread the food on the stump of a tree which had been sawn down for the burning of the plant bed. We would set out dish after dish of the best food we have ever eaten, cornfield beans of a sort that only our “mammy” could cook, boiled shoulder meat, with an abundance of lean and the right proportion of fat meat; Irish potatoes that had been boiled in the grease from that shoulder bone, cornbread such as we do not find nowadays, turnip greens that were cut from the "patch," and cooked with “hog jaw," and sometimes cabbage that had been grown at home and had been “put up” in the ground for winter. Then we had for “sweets,” generally a half-moon peach pie, as large and long as our foot. Such delightful eating does not come to us anymore. Perhaps we have lost our keen appetite of 50 years ago because we do not do the hard, manual labor we did then. Then “eating out” added zest to the meal as we sat on logs or stumps and devoured enough food for two grown men. We listened to the crackle of the fire, the zing of flying, hot flint rocks, the roar of the big fires and the plaintive bursting of the swelling buds. Truly “Them were the days of carefree and happy living for a farm youth who had no dread of the future and to whom the whole world looked bright and beckoning.”
After the burning of the bed had been completed, then we raked away the remaining logs and chunks still burning and smoking, and took a plow and “broke up” the plant beds. Sometimes we used a “grubbing hoe” and digged up the bed. We removed the roots from the ground and we still recall the wonderful odor of a freshly plowed or turned plant bed.
After the bed had been made free of roots, rocks, stumps and other things, the seed for the coming crop was sown, broadcast by hand and then followed the “tramping” of the bed. We had big feet and were almost an expert at “tramping” a plant bed.
A short time later came “canvassing time,” or the time to put a cover on the plant bed. This required some hard work, but usually did not last very long. Poles were cut as long as the bed and shorter ones for the width. Then we cut a lot of bows and pushed the sharpened ends into the ground, to hold up the canvas from the ground. Generally our father sowed around the plant bed mustard seeds for “greens,” the called “sallet.” On the steep places sometimes used for a plant bed, we had a delightful time as a small boy in rolling small stones and clods down the canvas and watching them jump into the air as they struck the pole across the lower end of the bed.
We recall two incidents about canvassed beds in our boyhood. One of them took place on the hill above our old home. A dog that we loved had gone with our brother to the plant bed and was walking about on the canvas when the dog stepped on one of the nails that held the canvas in place. The dog’s toes spread apart enough for the nail head to come between his toes, which held him fast. He then began a yelping that we can still almost hear after 50 years or more. The dog never could free himself from the nail, but our brother assisted him in getting his foot free.
One other incident will do for this time. After the sowing of the tobacco seed, our mother sent some of our sisters to remove part of the canvas and make a shallow furrow in the plant bed and then sow red pepper seed in the furrow. Our sisters, who had not learned how to handle red pepper, broke up the pods of seed pepper and sowed them in the furrow according to “Mammy’s” instructions. It was not long till they rubbed their eyes for some cause or reason. The red pepper began to burn their eyes in a terrible way and the girls, all rather small, came off the big hill above our father’s old home, crying and squalling as if their hearts would break. Our mother told the girls first to wash their hands and then to get clean water and wash their eyes. Instead of heeding this last admonition, they washed their eyes in the same water that had been used to bath or wash their hands. Then the “howling” was renewed in earnest. Finally our mother took lard and greased the eyes of her daughters to give them relief. It is sufficient to say that those who were affected by the red pepper never forgot the lesson they had learned the hard way.
If any of our younger readers do not understand what we are trying to relate, just ask your father or mother or grandparents to explain and we are sure they will know exactly what we mean.
Or father and mother have been gone for more than 40 years, but memory, bright and cheerful, rolls the many scenes of our happy childhood before us with a clearness and a joy that the passing years will never blot out. God bless the memories of our “Pappy” and “Mammy,” and our seven sisters and two brothers, the old home, the little hill farm, the old school house and the loved spots about which cling a thousand happy thoughts of that day and time when youth, and not old age, held sway; when life was sweet and the days were filled with the peace and joy.