The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Do You Remember - January On the Farm

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1990

Issue: January, 1990

January - that time of the year when cold winds howl, snow swirls around the corner of the house and you try to get just a little closer to the old wood stove, dreading the time to go outside and get in another armload of wood.

In days gone by, it must have been a harder time to cope with, without central heat in houses and any mode of travel certainly didn't have a heater that could be turned on with a switch as soon as the motor warmed up.

When bedtime came, bottles of hot water were carried to warm the foot of the bed in unheated bedrooms. Sometimes large rocks were heated on the stove or flat irons. These were wrapped in towels and placed in the bed. The same "portable heaters" could be used in a buggy too.

Many old timers have mentioned waking up in the morning and there being snow on the foot of the bed or on the floor, having come in through a crack in the wall, the roof, or around a window.

How did old timers cope with the chill of winter? They certainly didn't have insulated boots or down filled jackets guaranteeing protection against temperatures up to so-many degrees below zero.

Have you ever carried buckets of milk replacer from the house to the barn in January, only to slip on the ice and spill it all over yourself and find that your clothing is frozen solid before you can get back to the house? Have house plants ever frozen to death in the room you were sleeping in? Have you ever put up with frozen pipes that refused to thaw, no matter what you did to them for days, sometimes weeks? Have you ever pitied the farm animals when their own breath froze in the fur around their mouths and hung like icicles from their chins?

What made it worthwhile? What were the compensations?

Just picture what an evening was like in January, on a farm in the Blue Ridge. The late evening chores were finished and everyone would be hurrying in to get warm. Chickens all but quit laying eggs in winter, so that wouldn't take much time. The cow would probably be getting large, expecting a new calf soon, so around this time of the year, you quit milking her until she comes "fresh." The fields were prepared for spring several months ago and all the harvest from this year's crops are in storage bins in the springhouse, attic or cellar. The canning and preserving of food is over for another year. Outside chores consisted mainly of feeding the animals and bringing in enough wood to last through the night.

This was the time of year to look for animal tracks in the snow and do a little rabbit hunting.

This was the time of the year to get down your musical instruments, tune up and enjoy a little homemade music and perhaps, dancing.

This was the time of year to catch up on your reading, quilting and sewing; a time to make new ax handles, baskets, and such.

This was a time of year to tell tall tales around a wood stove or fireplace. Ghost stories were always much more scary with the wind whistling out eerie tunes. It was a time when parents and grandparents had time to tell the young ones stories passed down for generations.

It was a time when firing up the wood cook stove was welcomed for the extra warmth, and much more baking was done than in the summer months. Everyone can remember how much more pungent the aroma was in the tightly closed up kitchen in winter, when you first came in out of the cold. It seemed like there was always a pot of hot coffee and soup, stew or beans on the back of the stove. Potatoes and corn might be laid in the ashes of the hearth to parch slowly for an evening treat. Nuts that had been stored were brought out and cracked, sitting by the fire. Usually a flat iron was placed in your lap with the flat side up and a nut was placed on it. Then you would use another flat iron to crack down on it.

The whole family might gather at night to listen to mother or father read a new episode of a serial published in a mail order periodical. Farm families used to subscribe to more publications than they do today. They might have been more isolated geographically than farm families today, but in some ways, they were a lot more aware of current issues, history and geography.

In short, even though the weather outside might be raging, the farm family of yesteryear would, more likely than not, be enjoying a warm, cozy time of togetherness on even the worst of January winter evenings.