Times Past, Pausing to Remember

by Helen Strowbridge Sutherland

Page 5

When the mincemeat was made in the winter I had to help chop it in a large wooden bowl and seed the raisins, which then came in a flat wooden box between layers of paper. They were on the stem, just as they grew, and were a great luxury. This mincemeat was put in large stout jars in a cold place - for making pies through the winter. Mother’s pie pans were long ones, like biscuit tins with corners. She had a dozen of these pans and would make mince pie in them all. When cold I could put them in a large cupboard in the summer kitchen where they would freeze solid. When we wanted one for dinner it was put in the oven to heat.

And cider applesauce: oh how I disliked this because we had it for breakfast and supper all winter. Sweet apples of a certain variety, Tallman Sweets I think, were peeled and quartered and steamed until tender. They were used because they held their shape and did not cook up soft. Then sweet cider was boiled down till it was like syrup and poured over the apples - this too, was kept in stout jars in the cold pantry. These jars had heavy, stout, covers and mother had at least a dozen. Butter was packed in these also.

Sausage was packed in tin pans and in cloth cases. When the oven was not being used for anything else at the time, mother baked sausage for dinner in a large "dripping" pan.

Candles were made of clear tallow. This was the fat from a beef that was slaughtered in winter for family use. The fat was "rendered," or melted, then the clear fat was poured into pans to harden. Candle making had to be done in very cold weather. The candle moulds would hold an even dozen. The wicks were held by a stick at the top and then threaded through the small end. Then the tallow was melted in a large coffee pot and carefully poured in. When cold, a slight jar would loosen them and they could be drawn from the mould smooth and perfect. Nettie made fifteen dozen, enough to last all the year. We had a wooden box, just the right size, with a hinged cover, to keep them in. The were stored in the cellar for later use. Some people dipped their candles but I never saw it done.

Soft soap! The making of which was a hard, disagreeable, job that was always done in the spring of the year. A barrel was set up on a high standing platform - filled with wood ashes - then water poured on until they were soaked. An iron kettle, set beneath, caught the liquid lye as it drained from the ashes. When the soap kettle was set up in the wood yard on stones - a huge cauldron at least three feet high - into which was put the winter’s accumulation of meat rinds and fried or boiled meat-fat or grease of any kind. Tallow left from candle making also was saved for soap making. This was put into the lye, a dark brown liquid that would eat the skin right off your fingers if you did not take care, was poured over the hot fats; and then the boiling must be kept up for hours. Water was added to this mess. It had to be kept in motion, stirred so it would not burn or scorch. It was generally done on a pleasant April day. While this soap was still warm and of just the right consistency it was strained and dipped into wooden buckets and carried down cellar and poured into a cask kept for the purpose. This soap was used for scrubbing floors, washing clothes, and dishes. Mother also made a small quantity of hand soap. We only used toilet soap for our baths.

One time the cover on the soap barrel was not put in place as it should have been and a cat fell in. Oh what an awful noise he made! Somebody fished him out and to our surprise he lived.

Housekeeping tasks that little girls were expected to do were very irksome to me and I escaped them whenever I could and with brother Charley for company, we roamed the fields and woods. Mother used to tie my sunbonnet under my chin so that I would not get tanned by the sun but I took it off as soon as we were out of sight of the house and tied it around my waist so as not to lose it.

At night, just before dark, we had to go to the pasture field and drive the cows to the milking yard to be milked. The hired man did the milking and carried the foaming buckets of milk down cellar. There it was strained into large shallow tin pans, and, in 24 hours, the cream would rise in a thick yellow layer. This was skimmed off into a stone crock or jar and when enough had accumulated and it was all sour it would be churned. The hired girl would bring it up onto the south porch and pour it in the dark churn. It was a long hard job to "bring the butter." The well was near this south porch and I could pump the water to wash the butter after it was taken from the churn. Then it was well salted and mixed, or "worked" we called it, thence put in the cool dark cellar to ripen. It was sometimes sold as low as ten cents per pound.

We helped in every way a child could. We picked and pitted cherries - gathered beans and peas from the garden - and, in the fall of the year when plums were ripe, we had to help pit them for drying. Those were laid out on long racks in the sun - if it rained they had to be brought inside - and taken outside as soon as the sun shone again.

It was hard work for small hands and there were so many tasks that we often cried from weariness. But worst and hardest of all was the peeling and drying of apples. There was a market for these and it is a bitter memory that I have of having to sit at this work all the long hot summer afternoons when I wanted to wade in the cool water of the gully or go to the fields where father was at work. At this time the life of a gypsy seemed to be, without doubt, the most delightful and carefree in the world. To wander from place to place, sleeping wherever night overtook you, seemed the very sum of human enjoyment.

Every summer you would see bands of gypsies trailing by in strings of gaily colored wagons. To be sure the women did not look clean but the idea that there was no housework was entrancing. In the winter there was one band of these people who used to camp in father’s woods. He did not like this very well as he said gypsies were thieves. And we kept the smoke house well locked when they were living in our wood lot. The women told fortunes and the men traded horses. Father took Charley and me to see the camp once. We held tight to father’s hands and did feel a little less enchanted by their way of life. Father talked with the head man and told him not to cut any large trees.

One time Nettie and I had gone to the upper barn to hunt eggs. The turkeys roosted there and our old gobbler was very cross and used to run after us. This time Nettie threw a stick to frighten him away and, to our surprise, he fell over. As we supposed, dead. We left him where he was. We did not tell of this, but the next day what was our astonishment to see Mr. Gobbler strutting about as usual. He had only been stunned - not killed by the blow. When the turkeys were small in the spring it was my job to shut them up in a safe place at night and let them out in the morning when I fed them. One hot summer morning we were getting ready to go to a picnic - to be gone all day. Mother and Dora and Nettie had baked and prepared all the previous day. We had to start early in the morning and owing to the excitement I forgot to let the turkeys out. Not until we got back did I remember. I flew to let the half starved little birds out- shut up all that long hot day without food or water Nobody needed to scold me, for I cried. In these days I wept easily and often. If I felt an emotion everyone knew it. The suffering of man or beast or bird touched my heart. This incident made a deep impression on my mind.

One time when I was very small I had a bright red calico dress of which I was very proud. My clothes were generally "made over" ones, but this one was new. My hair was kept in a tight pigtail down my back except when I went away from home - then it was combed out in what I fondly believed to be a lovely wave that hung below my waist. This day I am telling you of, mother had dressed me up and let my hair down. While mother was dressing I ran out in the driveway to see if the horses and carriage was ready. There was old gobbler strutting his stuff - dragging his wings - puffing out his chest, the way proud males do. I paid no heed to him but went skipping along enjoying the fine appearance I made, when suddenly the gobbler made a dive for me and landed on top of my head. He seemed to be tearing my hair out and I stood in my tracks and yelled. Mother came and drove him away and smoothed my hair.

The turkey is an interesting bird with wild instincts and wandering habits and needs constant watchfulness to keep them at home. Sometimes, in the late fall, I have seen a large flock feeding in a field, quietly and peacefully. Then suddenly all would begin to run, one way and then another, as if at play. Then all together start off running - half flying - taking a straight line as though playing a game over fences and stone walls and then as suddenly come to a halt and begin feeding quietly again. Mother used to say it was a sign of a storm or a high wind. At nesting time turkey hens are very secretive about hiding their nests in the weeds or fields if not watered and tended. Foxes got some of them but there was not disease in those days.

About Thanksgiving time was when the turkeys were sent to market. Everyone of the family had to be up very early as it was a hard day’s work to pick so many large birds. Father and the boys went to the roost long before light while the turkeys were still there. They would come to the house with their hands full of the poor fowl. We had helped to raise them and we felt sorry to have their heads chopped off. Oh, what a job to pick the wet feathers. We stood in a steamy cloud most of the day. The feathers sticking to your fingers and hair and clothes. When all was finished, the birds were hung on a long pole to cool off and the next day packed and sent off to the market. When the price was high father was jovial and all the family in good spirits for there would be new clothes and other extra treats for us children. Father thought it very foolish to indulge children with too much attention. Christmas was not made much of - though we hung up our stockings and always had them filled.

Our parlor was my favorite retreat on many warm summer afternoons. It was kept carefully closed and only opened for use when we had company. The carpet was gorgeous in color with roses the size of cabbages. The walls were covered with white and gold paper - the furniture of haircloth. Here was a marble-top center table and, most interesting, the "what-not" or corner cupboard for the display of curios or decorative articles. There were shells that Uncle George had brought from the South Seas and gift books and photograph albums. It was here I loved to come to read when I did not want to help in the kitchen. And woe betide me if Nettie found me there. It was here she entertained her beaus and she wanted the room in perfect order, not a book or chair out of place - to her, reading was a foolish waste of time.

The house had a cupola where one could get a wide view and where we children loved to play. This was a good place to read too, for you could come in and surprise us. On rainy days the attic, or garret, was our main resource. You could slide down the banister, the stair rail, in three seconds and generally did. Another place you like to hide in when Nettie wanted you to help in the kitchen, was under the front stairs. It was a dark closet and you couldn’t stay long. We were ready, always, to do any work that led us out-doors, picking berries or getting wood for the stoves.

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