The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Blue Ridge Mountains Harvest Time Traditions

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1984-2012

Issue: October, 1984

harvest time traditionsPeggy Barkley and her son-in-law, Gurney Royal are pictured stirring apple butter. They and others in their family are still carrying on the ageless tradition of gathering wild fruit and “putting it up.”Among old time mountain crafts, one emerges every fall of every year and it is timeless - apple butter making.

Peggy Barkley has been making apple butter every year since she was 20. The recipe she uses is her Aunt Addie Wood's mother's recipe, making it well over a hundred years old. Each weekend in October (except the second weekend) until the weather gets too bad in November or December, Peggy and her family will be making apple butter at Addie Wood's Mayberry Trading Post at milepost 180-181 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. That second weekend in October, they will pack up their apples, kettle and jars and head for the Autumn Leaves Festival in Mount Airy, North Carolina.

Peggy said to make three kettles of apple butter a weekend, on Friday they go after the apples - 27 bushels of them. (The kettle is a 50 gallon one.) Then six or seven hours are spent peeling and cutting the apples. Next, the apples are made into a sauce. On Saturday morning a fire is built under the 50 gallon kettle and the applesauce is started on its way to becoming apple butter. The pot is filled at the start and then the apples are cooked down til there is enough room to add the sugar. The finished product, golden brown apple butter, has three pounds of sugar to the gallon. One kettle full usually yields about 23 gallons. It is cooked 4 hours after the sugar is added.

Helping Peggy are her daughter, Pam and son-in-law, Gurney Royal as well as their children, April and Bo, Peggy's father, Bert Stanley and Tina Houle. Her 82 year old grandmother, Bryda Wood also helps when she has time. At 82, Bryda Wood is a lady who still has, "a lot of irons in the fire." Each weekend she is at Mayberry Trading Post selling her homemade fried dried apple pies and country ham in home baked biscuits.

Three generations in one family, grandmother, mother and daughter, are working together, continuing a tradition as old as the first apple trees in the mountains. Pam, already a mother herself, is expecting a baby; maybe twins or triplets - it runs in the family. Most probably her children, growing up stirring apple butter, will continue the tradition and pass it on for generations to come.

They call the family enterprise, "US'ENS & CO.". Apple butter is only one of the home canned products they make and sell. In early summer, when wild strawberries ripen, they start their work. Through the season they make wild strawberry preserves, blackberry jelly and preserves, peach butter, apple butter, wild grape butter and jelly and three types of chow-chow (contains cabbage, onions, green tomatoes and red and green peppers) - sweet, semi-hot and hot.

Take time to consider how much time goes into wild strawberry preserves. First, you have to hunt for them, pick the tiny berries, most of which are only the size of the tip of your little finger and then, probably the most time consuming thing of all, you have to cap them. Wild grapes aren't easy either. They don't grow in clusters like domestic grapes and aren't always growing conveniently close to the ground.

In one season, they use over a thousand cases of canning jars from a half pint to half gallon size and about 300 pounds of sugar a week. They attend festivals, but only ones where they can set up the kettle and actually let the people see what they are making. Peggy said, "We don't go only to demonstrate or only to sell. We do both wherever we go."

Peggy Barkley is a native of Meadows of Dan, Virginia and also has "a lot of irons in the fire." It must run in the family. Her day starts at 7:00 am when she drives a Patrick County School bus and ends when she works 2 or 3 nights a week at Meadows of Dan Food Market until 10:00 pm. In between, she helps with the family farm and picks wild fruits in season and puts up preserves. What does she do in the winter? She says, "I enjoy all the goodies I put up in summer and fall."

US'ENS & CO. preserves and butters are sold all year round at Mayberry Trading Post, Route 2, Meadows of Dan, Virginia and may be mail ordered from there or from Peggy Barkley, Rt. 2, Box 106, Meadows of Dan, Va. 24120. The following is a list of different products and a price that may vary slightly, but will give you an idea of the products and price ranges. The prices are for pint jar sizes only. Products are put up in half pints, pints, quarts and half gallons.

Apple butter $2.25
Peach butter 2.35
Grape butter 2.45
Wild Strawberry preserves $7.00
Blackberry Jelly & preserves 2.75
Grape Jelly 2.75
Chow-chow, sweet $1.75
semi-hot 1.85
hot 1.95

For those of you who remember our article last fall about Tella May and Bunny Cockram making molasses, you will be pleased to know they plan to make the molasses again this fall. They will also be at Poor Farmer's Market in Meadows of Dan making apple butter until the sugar cane ripens to make the molasses.