The Family Farm
It always makes me sad when I hear talk of the vanishing family farm as I knew it 50 years ago. I was not fortunate enough to grow up on such a farm, but I was a regular summer-time resident there with my aunt and uncle and my three cousins. On second thought, maybe I had the best of both worlds, the joys of great fun, with only enough chores to keep me out of trouble and from under foot.
As memory takes me back over half a century, you will forgive me if the word pictures I paint are slightly different from that of the ones under whose oversight this large farm was run.
I see it as one large unit which covered many acres, was a community complete with its own 32 volt generator (lights were kinda' dim) and it was home to many people. There was the "big house" which housed the uncle's immediate family and all sorts of folks who wanted or needed a place to stay "during hard times." I don't sppose anyone was ever turned away from that never-locked door.
The house was a large two storied building with a wrap-around porch on three sides, and a big screened in back porch where one could draw the coldest, sweetest water from a big well. The house also sported a dogtrot (also known as a breezeway house, dog-run, or possum-trot). Part of the front porch was shaded by vines and on the other side grew a huge Magnolia tree which provided both shade, beauty and wonderful fragrance!
My greatest fear was of the lizards. One little beady-eyed chameleon could keep me captive in a rocking chair for hours, and of course nothing gave the boys in the family more pleasure than to make my life miserable with those lizards.
I still taste that cold, sweet water, drunk from a gourd dipper hung on the side of the well. The front porch consisted of an assortment of furniture including rocking chairs and benches. These were utilized in the morning for sitting while shelling peas, snapping green beans or preparing whatever vegtetables had been gathered as soon as it was light enough to see. In the afternoon and evening the porch was a place for relaxation and entertainment. Someone usually sat busily plunging the dasher of the churn up and down, waiting for that yellow butter to rise to the top. This golden delicacy would cover the corn bread for supper.
Then there was the sight, sound, smells and tastes of baking day. One of my favorite picture memories is of my aunt standing by the kerosene stove frying corn bread "pones." I don't know how she ever got enough made, because the stove was right by the back door. As fast as she would fill the plate busy little (and big) hands would grab some while they were hot and escape through the back door before they were punished by a large spatula wielded by a frustrated cook!
The dog-trot area provided a place for celebrating Christmas time and other special occasions. Tables would fill the entire space and the grown-ups would eat, and eat, and eat while the children waited anxiously on the front porch or in the fireplace room during cold weather, smelling that good food and longing for the days when they would be grown up and could eat first. Somehow it didn't turn out that way. By the time I grew up, plates for the children were fixed first and WE waited.
In most homes the kitchen was the hub of household activity. When I came along, the wood stove had been replaced with a shiny kerosene one with a removable oven on top of the burners. In one corner of the kitchen stood a large cream separator. I was fascinated by it but my cousins hated it. My fascination was probably because I was too small to be required to clean it after use. There was always something going on in that kitchen. Oh, the joy of getting to lick the bowl or spoon of delicious pull taffy, cake topping or whatever was being prepared on baking day.
Remember the cup towels embroidered with a certain activity each day? These were not merely decorations, they were accurate accounts of the weeks work. I'm sure I don't remember the proper sequence, but I think that Monday morning was wash day.
A fire was started under the large, black wash pot. I can still see the washer-woman stirring the clothes with a long stick. The detergent they used was home-made with wood ashes, hog lard and lye. You can be sure the white clothes were white!
Next, there were the row of irons in the glowing coals of the fire place and what a mountain of stiffly-starched clothes were ironed.
The back porch was used for preparing pickles, sauerkraut, hominy and so much more. Just behind the main house stood the smoke house filled with all sorts of meat; hams, bacon, ribs, sausage and every kind of good meats imaginable.
Going out the back yard gate was a trail leading up to a long row of buildings which housed the milking area and feed storage room. I remember that the very last door gained access to the three-holer privy. The thing I remember most was that to reach it one had to go through the pasture occupied by huge creatures with long horns! I always tried to time my visits when I saw someone else going up the hill.
Farther up the hill under a group of trees was uncle Ed's blacksmith shop. I think I should interject here that there was not one place of operation on that entire farm where, at one time or another, I didn't get into trouble. My insatiable curiosity and active imagination, plus my ignoring warnings, were my downfall. It was on one such occasion, after being warned to stay away from the horse shoeing area, that I plopped my little bare foot on a very hot horse shoe which uncle Ed had just taken off the anvil. I'm not really clear on the meaning of his descriptive language to me, but I seem to remember that it was the same words he used when I was about three or four.
My aunt and uncle heared a sound; "splat, splat, splat." When my aunt asked what the noise was, uncle Ed calmly announced, "that little _____has been to the hen house and she is breaking eggs!
Scattered over that large farm were many small houses where the share-croppers lived. At lunch time, my brother and I would often show up at the door of one of these houses where we never lacked a warm welcome to share their collard greens and cornbread with them.
The most fascinating place on earth to me was the cotton gin, built and operated by uncle Ed with the capable help of the resident workers. In the vicinity there was a little general store provided by uncle Ed for his workers. Things such as cornmeal that was ground in the gristmill attached to the gin and syrup in tin gallon buckets, made from sugarcane, produced by a juice squeezing machine powered by an old mule, going around and around. The juice was then boiled in a large vat until delicious syrup was made.
Materials and notions for sewing were stacked on shelves. And. oh, those glass jars filled with all sorts of candies and goodies!
Attached to the gin was a large cotton seed storage room. I can't say which was more fun, climbing on those cotton bales or sliding down the mountain of cotton seed. I can still smell that delicious aroma of the fresh seeds.
Most years a roving band including a carnival, medicine show and even a moving picture show (housed in a large tent) would come and set up near the "big house." At other times, late in the evening, the farm hands would gather around the store and, oh, how their voices echoed over the surrounding hills as they sang their spiritual praises to the Lord.
Occasionally there was a Joe Lewis boxing match on the battery powered radio or perhaps, Fibber McGee and Mollie. When evening chores were completed all family members and field hands gathered around to enjoy this treat.
Sometimes there would be an evening when we would listen to records on the old Victrola. I can say one thing for sure, I never heard anyone, young or old, say "I'm bored" or "I don't have anything to do."
One of my most precious memories was Christmas time. Oh, the joy of waiting while the men harvested and set up the tree. Then we would string chains of popcorn, berries, home-made garlands and other goodies on the tree. There were the stockings, hung on the mantle, stuffed with apples, oranges, tangerines, candy and nuts. Santa would always find us and leave something for everyone. However did they manage it all?
The thing that stood out most in my young mind was the freedom we enjoyed. We were free to explore any place we were brave enough to go. We ate fruit from the apple trees and plum bushes. I had a passion for green plums - causing my mother lots of anxiety.
I loved building a play house around the trunk and roots of a big tree. What a wonderful wardrobe one could make from big leaves held together with twigs, decorated with lovely flowers and berries.
I remember my brother, Jim and his buddies operating a watermelon stand, built on the side of the country road by my cousin, Edwin. The melons were contributed by uncle Ed from his huge patch. Jim would entice his buddy to stand beside the road and holler "Wallamillon"! Eventually someone would stop to inspect our wares. They consistently insisted that we "plug" the melon to insure that it was the proper ripeness. When one summer ended, Jim went home with $50 generously shared by uncle Ed.
I am blessed to have had the opportunity of being part of such an experience. How thankful I am that I grew up in those simpler times when all one needed to be happy was a little imgination, people around to love us, and acres of good ole' Texas farm land to explore.
Written in 2005 by Marjorie Johnston Baker
Copyright © 2011 Marjorie Baker