The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

This Cake is Musty

By Kenneth A. Tabler © 2015

Online: May, 2015

We could always count on Mrs. Hattie Rakestraw's colorful character. Five of my boyhood years were filled with trips down the hill, sometimes just to borrow a cooking ingredient or deliver a message. Miss Hattie was widely known and sought after for her kitchen table wisdom. This older, plain-spoken lady was Mama's trusted friend and they worked together shoulder to shoulder during such busy times as butchering and threshing.

Miss Hattie's early life was filled with several tragic events. Somewhere along the way she'd married and moved to Philadelphia. While the family lived there her daughter was killed in an automobile accident. At some point, Miss Hattie returned to Martinsburg a widow.

By the time I met her she lived as a companion and helper to Charles Locke, nicknamed "Booze." I never knew him to be an immoderate drinker, though he was temperamental with animals. Physically, he was a barrel shaped man, with the waistline of a food lover.

It was clear that Miss Hattie's involvement in the farm's affairs extended far beyond the responsibilities of a mere helpmate, making her an indispensable partner to Mr. Locke, both in age and disposition. Booze wasn't much into handling the finances of the farm and so Miss Hattie became the de facto paymaster and bookkeeper. She was resourceful and proudly told Mama about secretly squirreling away extra funds under her mattress for safekeeping until the rainy day that inevitably hits every farm operation.

Their late nineteenth century farmhouse was the centerpiece of a 160 acre spread. The massive canopies of two reigning maples cut great swaths of shade across the landscape, tying the sky to the front yard. A certain grandeur surrounded the brick, two-story abode and the knoll on which the carefully crafted fieldstone foundation stood.

The Locke homestead had a tangible presence and permanence reflected in the architectural construction. The dwelling's interior had an Old World charm, whose design and solid workmanship created a comfortable atmosphere. The wide board flooring was burnished by time, and Victorian era wall brackets held coal oil lamps. The lofty 10 foot ceilings added to summertime living comfort. The grand scale country kitchen warmed the very heart of the home.

The slope and depth of the front yard kept the ravages of Dry Run's occasional floodwaters at bay. The creek was ordinarily a meandering placid stream, where minnows and muskrats found a natural home. On warm summer evenings we could hear the low, incessant croaks of bullfrogs singing into the night. The livestock herd of milking cows, a flock of sheep and several teams of draft horses depended on this slow-moving run for drinking water. Farm equipment and motor vehicles repeatedly drove through the streambed, thereby wearing away the shallow bank and creating a convenient watering hole.
It required a balancing act to negotiate a narrow footbridge located on the upstream side of a swinging floodgate. Looking down, I could see the walkway was just a splash or two above the gurgling water. Yet these crossings exposed an uneasiness I have about heights, which time has never erased.

Curtis, Booze's younger brother and a widower, also worked on the farm. Curt liked his liquor and was known to go to town to "get on a toot." The other steady farmhand of the Locke household was their nephew, Joe Harris. He delivered seven or eight ten-gallon cans of milk each day to the Farmer's Dairy in Martinsburg. Every Sunday, nearly without fail, one of the workers made sure he'd come home in the family Dodge coupe with a sampling of extra special hand dipped ice cream. Booze thought nothing of consuming a quart of frozen dessert at a time. Without the convenience of electricity or refrigeration, he was merely enjoying a weeks' treat in one sitting.

Joe had an impish streak and once deliberately caught me in his crosshairs. Prior to the advent of harvesting hay with balers and portable elevators, these grasses were gathered up loose, taken to the barn, and stored in large haymows. The upstairs complex of the Locke barn was equipped with a labor saving device known as a hay-carrier outfit. These rigs were mounted on a steel track installed high in the ridge of the gable roof. During the season, Joe would pull up a wagon piled high with freshly cured hay and park it inside. Then he'd hitch a horse to a hay fork hoisting apparatus. This mechanically operated equipment was designed to pull a large section of hay free from the rack body and lift the load to the overhead track. After the hay traveled to one of two mows, Curtis pulled on a trip rope that released the fork and the stuff dropped with a resounding thud. But these were all details I was about to learn the hard way (after first getting my cage good and rattled!)

One day I climbed a heavy plank stairway by the cow stanchions and found Joe sweeping the threshing floor. My newness to the farm scene made me curious about all the endless ropes and pulleys. He walked over to the granary at the other end of the building for a moment and I began idly tugging on the hay carrier ropes. The dangling hay fork began moving toward me from high up in the mow. Joe stealthily returned and was sizing up what might happen next, though he wasn't concerned about any particular danger. Just then the carrier hit the preset stopping mechanism with a loud clicking sound that startled me. "Holy cow, what caused that?" I gasped.

Joe now realized just how unfamiliar I was with the workings of the rig. There surely was a twinkle flashing in his eyes as he called out from behind in mock horror, "Now look what you've done!"

Fear welled up in me as the hay fork began a slow descent. It was a tense moment. "Do you think something is broken?" I blurted.

Without cracking a smile, he replied "Don't know yet" as if implying big trouble.

Knots were tying up my stomach. I looked at him with terror stricken eyes and exclaimed, "Gosh, how bad is it?" Joe paused, letting me twist back and forth in the same way one of the bundles would swing at the end of the hay fork. He solemnly spit out part of his tobacco chaw, but there was definitely a change in his countenance.

Finally, he relieved my panic. "Relax, Kenneth, that's the way it's supposed to work," he said with a reassuring chuckle. Then he added, "Next time, don't go messing around with somebody else's equipment. Ask permission, then make sure you know how the dang thing operates!"