The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Blackberry Picking Time

By Sophia Servis © 1990

Issue: July, 1990

Midsummer is the time when the blackberries ripen in the mountains of Virginia. Even today, forty years away from my berry pickin' days, it is a time of nostalgia for me.

My grandparents had a two hundred acre farm in Carroll County where blackberries abounded. Each summer my mother packed up the household and her canning jars and Daddy took us to my grandparents to pick and can blackberries.

As the four of us children spilled out of the car, Grandma was at the front door to greet us with one of her rosy smiles. She always looked the same in a dark colored dress that covered her to her wrists and ankles, thick stockings and black square-heeled lace up shoes. When I was little I thought Grandma dressed the way she did because she was a grandma, and that was how grandmas were supposed to look. As I grew older, I learned that it was the dress code of her religion, the Primitive Baptist, which flourished in that area among the older generation.

We were greeted inside by Aunt Mary and our younger cousins who, along with Uncle J.C., my mother's youngest brother, lived there to look after my grandparents.

After a brief visit, we organized our gear, gathered our buckets and headed for the hills. The worst part of blackberry pickin' was having to wear shoes. There was just no way one could make paths through the tightly grown thickets without shoes, but they were oh so ungainly after the freedom of going barefoot for two months. I felt as if my feet weighed ten pounds, and would not fit wherever I set them down when I put on shoes for blackberry pickin'.

Somewhere on the farm we usually came across Grandpa and his white, wooly herd of sheep that he raised for wool. He looked so dignified on his big, red horse with his black and white border collie at attention beside him. Like Grandma, he was dressed to the tips of his extremities, even on the hottest of days, but it never seemed to bother him. He had a smile and warm welcome for us and directed us to the plumpest berry patches. He always knew where all the berries were located and the exact day they would be at their peak of ripeness.

Before we arrived at the patch, we were firmly instructed to not eat a single berry until the buckets were full. My mother knew that once we started eating, it was hard to stop, and the buckets would never be filled. The first purpose of the day's enterprise was to have blackberry pies and jelly for the winter. I understood this, but do you have any idea how difficult it was to pick that first plump, juicy berry - the first fresh one I had seen since last summer - and drop it in the bucket instead of my mouth?

Many of the berries were up too high for me to reach, but I picked as fast as I could on the lower branches. The sooner I filled my bucket, the sooner I got to sample the fruit myself.

Once as I picked, I looked up at a movement in the tree above me to find a huge black snake resting on a limb. I looked at the patch of exceptionally plump berries and calculated my chances. If he dropped on me, surely he would squeeze me to death before I could call for help. If I tried to run, I knew he could outdistance me with my feet in clumsy shoes. I crept stealthily backwards, all the time holding my breath, until I was out of the ticket. Then with pigtails flying, and berries spilling, I ran until I was in the safety of Grandma's kitchen.

Following berry pickin', we "looked" the berries for leaves and chaff and put them into quart jars with lids that would seal. Grandma had an old wood stove in the kitchen as there was no electricity, and when the fire was going strong, the berries were placed in a canner with water and left to boil.

Now came the really fun part to berry pickin'. Little Reed Island Creek ran through Grandpa's farm. As my grandparents didn't have an indoor bathroom with a tub, we had the marvelous excuse of using the creek to wash off the chiggers we always accumulated; they guarded the berry patches. We didn't have swimming gear, so leaving our shoes on the bridge; we jumped into the creek with our clothes on, and spent the next two hours in water combat and crawdad trapping.

Even after this ritual though, at least one or two tenacious chiggers usually found their way to the folds of skin beneath my arm or behind my ear - there to imbed themselves in my skin and create an itching that even the chicken pox couldn't compete with.

Another of the highlights of berry pickin' was Grandma's creamed berries. She made blackberries taste like ambrosia just by mashing them thoroughly with her potato masher, adding sugar and milk with thick, rich cream. She sat them in her springhouse to chill overnight, and we devoured them for breakfast each morning.

After Mother had all the berries canned that she needed for the winter, we picked even more berries and Uncle J.C. took them to market to sell for wine. Usually we already had a goal in mind, such as a back-to-school dress or new pair of shoes selected for the Sears and Roebuck Catalog. When our goals were reached, we packed up our gear and freshly canned berries and jelly, and left my grandparents farm in peace for another year.