The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

Visit us on FaceBookGenerations of Memories
from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Country Living 1850-1900

By Addie J. Wood © 1985

Issue: September, 1985

Prior to, and for over a quarter of a century after, 1900, farmers had to raise their food to feed the family year round. They raised hogs and cured the meat in winter to have through summer months. This included hams to eat, bacon to season vegetables and grease to make gravy. Other meats like beef and mutton were used in winter.

In the summertime, all men and boys were good hunters. There was plenty of wild game - deer, quail (bob white), squirrels, rabbits and fish in the rivers. Anytime people wanted a mess of wild game, they went in the forest and killed what they could use in a day or two, or the stream for a mess of trout.

Squirrels, pheasants and quail made good dumplings and gravy. They fixed them like stewed chicken. Most everybody raised chickens, so they were handy food. People raised fryers during the summer and used eggs of older hens.

People kept cows and had plenty of milk. With this milk, they churned butter and made cottage cheese. Most farmers had a spring house where they kept milk and butter in a box with cold spring water running through it. The box was built with different depths of water in it. At one end it was only about an inch deep for a butter stand to sit in. This graduated to another depth for small jars. Another depth was for large jars and the churn to set in for cold milk.

Cream was skimmed from the drinking milk and saved until you had three or four gallons. (It depended on the size of your churn.) This cream was set out to "turn." Then it was churned. The butter was taken from the churn, salted and molded into prints. These prints were packed into small jars and set back in the water to keep cold. The churn with the buttermilk in it was set back in the deep water to keep cold to have to drink at meals. Sweet milk was kept in the same way. Things were kept in the spring house winter and summer alike, since the constantly flowing spring water did not freeze. In winter, sausage was ground and packed in two or three gallon crocks and put in the spring box to keep for several weeks.

People grew several different types of grain - rye, buckwheat, wheat and corn. They had four kinds of bread if they wanted it. Corn was also made into hominy.

Of the vegetables, people raised Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, and turnips to store in fall for winter use. If they had no cellar, they dug a hole in the ground 4' x 4' or 6' (what size they needed). In this hole they put the vegetables on layers of straw or leaves, then put planks across the top and mounded dirt over it. One side was fixed to open in winter to take out vegetables as they needed them. This way, the vegetables like potatoes would keep until you grew more in the spring.

Cabbage was kept by cutting a trench a foot or so wide and deep. Cabbage was pulled up root and all, and placed head down in the trench. Dirt was then mounded around the roots so water would drain away from them. They would keep all winter if you raised enough to last that long.

Beans were raised and dried for soup beans. They were allowed to mature and shelled in the fall.

Most everybody had apple orchards and apples were put away for winter also. Rail pens were built about 8' x 8' or 10' x 10' to store apples. These pens were filled with leaves from the woods and the apples were poured in the middle and covered with more leaves to keep til spring. A lot of apples were dried. People also dried cherries, peaches and prunes to fry and make pies.

Most every family made a boiling or two of molasses, a kettle of apple butter and a barrel of kraut. About six or eight weeks after making the kraut, it was uncovered and the top inch or two removed. It would keep until warm weather.

Brine cucumber pickles were put up in stone crocks. Usually about 10 or 20 gallons were made per year. Things were kept in stone crocks or barrels because they had no canning jars then.

Beets could be stored in the pit with potatoes. Parsnips could be left in the ground and dug as you wanted them throughout the winter.

Sheep were sheared to get wool to weave into warm cloth for winter clothes. Flax was grown to weave into linen cloth for summer clothes, bedding, towels, and other articles the family needed.

Families were large back then and as each child grew large enough, they were assigned chores to help the family make a living. Boys were taught to help Dad with the farming. Girls were taught to help Mother cook, weave spin, sew, wash, churn and any other household chores.

Still, neighbors had time to visit each other and spend the day. How we would rejoice when we saw one of our neighbors coming with her children to spend the day with mother, for we children knew we were going to have time to play together as soon as we got water and wood carried in for them to cook dinner for us. Our mothers would spend the afternoon knitting, patching and telling jokes and enjoying being together.

Young people visited and gathered at neighbor's houses and had a party or square dance once or twice a week. We played games like Dusty Old Miller, Skip to My Lou, Fruit Basket, Post Office, Drop The Handkerchief or General Scott.

There were a few fiddles, banjoes, mouthharps, dulcimers and Victrolas in the neighborhood. Women would have quilting parties Men would have corn shuckings, log rollings, land clearings, then a party or dance that night.

Sometimes if a season had been too dry or too wet, it was hard to take care of the crops and get enough put away for winter. Winters were much more severe than they have been for the last several years. People who didn't own a farm would help farmers gather the harvest and take food in pay to put away for their family. Meat, vegetables and fruit were traded for labor.

If you played the 'ant" - and stored away vegetables and the men were good hunters, you could make it. But, if you played the "grasshopper" in the summer, there would be some lean days for you in winter.

During the depression in 1882, which was also a dry growing season, farmers that had horses and wagons hauled corn from Burnt Chimney near Wirtz, Virginia, so people here on the mountain could have bread.

Soap was made from grease saved from scraps of meat. Lye was made from wood ashes. A lye gum was made from a section of hollow tree. The wood ashes were put into it. Water was poured over the ashes and caught when it ran out the bottom. The water was poured back through the gum until the lye water was strong enough.

Lye soap would cut dirt from white clothes when you boiled them. Lye soap was rubbed into collars and scrubbed on washboards. Flat irons were heated at the fireplace to iron wrinkles from clothes.

Women made large molasses cookies and stacked them with apple butter or dried fruit cooked and put between the layers. If they could get enough sugar, they made a pound cake to have on Sunday.

Maybe it was a hard way to live, but people seemed to enjoy life back then more than they do today.