Quilting, Farming, Variety

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Christmas Eve Surprise

(The family and I seem to have stayed for the last five days in the only hotel in America without free wireless internet. So this post is later than I would have liked.)

We've been visiting family near Washington, DC, for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, we needed something to fill some time while waiting to go to my brother-in-law's house for an evening get-together. We didn't have enough time, really, to go into the city, so we scanned the map for something closer to our evening's destination, something that would take only a couple of hours or so. We found Harper's Ferry, which we thought would meet all our criteria for a day's outing. So that's what we did on Christmas Eve afternoon, and it turned out to be my favorite place on our trip so far.

All I knew about Harper's Ferry was that John Brown had led some kind of rebellion there just before the Civil War (and as it turned out, what I thought I knew wasn't entirely accurate!). I'm not ashamed to admit that I was completely amazed to find the town has a fascinating history that goes back to before the Revolutionary War, when Robert Harper chose this place where the Shenandoah River joins the Potomac to locate a ferry. A couple of decades later, George Washington urged the Congress of the new United States to make an armory at the strategic location. Merriwether Lewis used the town as a base while he got together the supplies (mainly weaponry) he would need for his exploration of the new Louisiana Purchase. A school to educate former slaves was started at Harper's Ferry not long after the Civil War, and W.E.B. Du Bois met with a group of African Americans on the college campus early in the 20th century to plan the first stages of the civil rights movement. All this, and John Brown, too! There was a museum that did a very thorough job of explaining the whole set of circumstances that led to John Brown's death.

As if all the history that happened in the town was not enough, there were also a plethora of other museums that gave me a chance to see what life was like in days past. My favorite was a dry goods store, which I told my kids was the 19th-century equivalent of Wal-Mart. This store was stocked with everything from (wax) hams and fruit to bolts of fabric to dishes to pieces of leather to medical remedies to a small collection of toys. Unfortunately, we could only step about three feet into the store because it was roped off; I would have loved to have been able to go from shelf to shelf, looking at all the wonderful things. Of course, it's probably a good thing I couldn't - I don't think my family would have appreciated having to wait for me!
I have to also say the physical location of the town was fascinating to me, as well. I didn't realize the Potomac was so rough and rocky, or that it lies between such imposing bluffs. The town itself is literally built on the side of a steep hill. We climbed a set of winding steps that were carved into the rock to get to the old Catholic Church at the top of the hill (which tolled a solemn, resounding tone throughout the valley on the hour).

My daughter (age 10) kept saying she was afraid of the ghosts in the town. Of course, we told her there were no ghosts, but I can understand why she was saying that. It was a cloudy, cool day with some blustery wind, and there were only a few other people wandering through the deserted streets between the old buildings. But while she saw the "ghosts" as something to be afraid of, I think of them as possible friends, waiting to tell me their stories.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Greetings from East Tennessee!

The family and I are on our way to visit family near Washington, DC, for Christmas. Today we traveled from Nashville to Knoxville, Tennessee, a distance of about 160-180 miles, which took about 3 hours on Interstate 40. As we were speeding along, I couldn't keep from thinking about my historical novel Dancing in the Checkered Shade (to be published next year by EMZ-Piney Publishing). In the novel, a young pioneer couple travels roughly the same distance in the opposite direction, from Campbell County to Nashville. However, since it's 1823, they are on foot and leading a horse carrying all their worldly possessions, and progress is definitely slower. Given those conditions, I estimated that the couple would be able to travel about 11-12 miles per day. That means it would take them about two weeks to make the same trip we made in a morning!

I think in our mobile and super-connected society we forget what our forefathers and foremothers faced when they had to travel any distance. I'm not talking about a trip to see nearby family or to a local trading post; I'm thinking about those trips when a farmer might be taking a load of produce to market in New Orleans or when, as happens in my book, a family decided to strike out for land in a different part of the country. They might travel by wagon, or by flatboat if their destination was downstream, or if they had little means, on foot. Regardless of what method they took, more than likely traveling meant they were losing contact with their family for an extended period of time - at least until mail routes were established in the area they were traveling to. What a far cry from picking up the cell phone or shooting off an email to let everyone you care about know you've reached your destination safely.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Warming the Body and Soul

It's been really cold the past two days. The temperatures have been in the mid-20s, which I guess is not all that cold compared to the 20 below people in Montana have been dealing with. But it feels cold, piercing and damp. How nice it is to have a fire to cozy up to on an evening like this! I love to back up to the fireplace and feel the warmth soaking through my clothes.

But what if the fireplace was my only source of heat, as it was for the pioneer family? What if it was my cookstove?

There are a few things I've noticed about having a fire that might be tiresome if I had to have one all the time instead of just when I want one. For one thing, it takes quite a bit of wood to keep a fire fed. In the age of the chain saw, it's an afternoon's work to cut up and stack enough wood to last for several days or even a couple of weeks. Imagine if every piece of wood that went into the fireplace had to be chopped with an axe. How much of a man's time would be taken up with providing enough wood to keep the family warm all winter? And how tired would his back get after splitting the logs into pieces small enough to manage?

All that wood that burns makes a lot of ash, too. I imagine cleaning ashes from the fireplace would be a job that would need doing every few days. And what a nasty, dusty job that would be! I always have trouble figuring out what to do with the few ashes that come from our fireplace. What would I do with them if I had to get rid of some every few days?

Finally, it seems to me that a fireplace requires a lot of attention to keep it going well. If it's left too long before new wood is put in, the coals will burn down to the point that more kindling has to be put in to get the fire started again. I am never able to keep a fire going overnight so there is something to restart the fire in the morning - I have to start from scratch. Did the pioneers get up during the night to add wood to the fire? I've read in different places before about people "banking" a fire, but I don't really know what that means. I always assumed it meant scraping the burning coals together into a pile and then pulling ashes around them to insulate them through the night so some of them would still be glowing the next morning. I never seem to be able to do that, though, so maybe I'm wrong about what it means.

Still, for all the work and trouble it takes to have a fire, there's nothing as cheery on a gray winter day as a glowing fire.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Christmas Doll

I don't consider myself as being a pioneer, but I was raised in the early "40's -50's" when things were much simpler than today. As children, we had to use our imagination in our play and be creative with what was around us. I don't remember getting toys from town too often so Christmas was special. Our tree was a cedar cut from some fence row, decorated with a few glass balls and icicles, kept from year to year and probably taken from the discarded tree used at the church program. Mama usually allowed $5.00 each for the limit on what she could spend on her two children's gifts. My gifts might have included "store bought" paper dolls, a jigsaw puzzle, and a baby doll. Dolls she could afford in those days usually had heads made of compressed sawdust so it was no wonder that I longed for a prettier doll; however, I don't remember ever not liking what Santa brought to me.

The following is an excerpt from my book, In the Shade of the White Oak:

Outside the theater, Charlotte waited in line to get on the school bus. She turned around, and there, in a window next to the theater, was the most beautiful doll she had ever seen! She was wearing a white satin wedding gown. Spread out all around her were clothes of every kind: pants and shirts, a coat with a fur collar, flannel pajamas, and a red taffeta evening dress. The doll had silky blonde hair and blue eyes with long lashes
Charlotte tugged at Wanda Sue's hand. "Oh look at that beautiful doll! Wouldn't you love to have a doll like that?"
A sign near the doll had these words: Win this beautiful doll! Buy a chance on her today! 25 cents per chance!...
Charlotte thought about nothing else but the doll the rest of the afternoon. She told Mama how pretty it had looked...Whenever Mama had seen the doll, she said to Charlotte, "You didn't tell me someone is selling chances on the pretty doll. We don't buy chances on things. If we spend money we have to make sure we're getting something for it."...

Have a wonderful day, and stay warm!

Friday, December 12, 2008

It's Beautiful, Whatever It's Called

I heard on the radio today that tonight's full moon is supposed to be the biggest one of the year, because the moon is at the point in its orbit when it's closest to the earth. I just happened to catch a glimpse of the moon out of the corner of my eye as I was cooking supper. It had just risen and was hanging heavy and orange over Tater Hill. I took a moment to go outside and just look at it. (Sorry the photo's a little blurry. I tried to use the zoom to bring the moon closer, ha ha.)

According to the Farmers' Almanac, Native Americans had a name for each full moon of the year. December's moon, the almanac said, could be called the "Cold Moon" or the "Long Nights Moon." It makes a lot of sense. I can't help thinking about our ancestors who didn't know about the orbit or the varying distance of the moon from the earth, but who looked up at the big, bright moon on a cold night in December, one of the longest nights of the year. Were they glad to have the moon's silvery light during those long hours of cold and dark?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

String Quilting

What a cold, cold morning we've had! Didn't the quilts feel good last night? With all the fine fabrics we have to make our quilts from now, it's tempting not to use the beautiful creations for bed covers. In days gone by, they were a necessity; with no electric blankets or automatic heaters to keep one warm, the quilts were piled high each night on several beds in the household. Fabrics to make these quilts were most likely not purchased in yardage as we know of today. For utility quilts, as these were called, most every little scrap was put to use, no matter its shape or size or color, and patterns were kept simple. String quilts, being the easiest and fastest to make, were found on beds in most homes. The strings were probably not even the best scraps, such as those left from making dresses and shirts.

To make a string quilt, a woman would first decide what size blocks she wanted to make, and did she want the strings to run up and down the block or diagonally. The blocks required a foundation block on which to sew the strings. Unless she was fortunate enough to have newspaper or catalog pages from which to cut the foundation, it had to be made from fabric: pieces from a worn sheet or feed sack. If she decided to make her blocks six inches square, she would cut a piece six and one half inches square to make allowances for seams. Sewing by machine would make the task go smoother, but it could be done by hand too. So, with foundations in hand, the stash of strings was brought out and the construction began.

1)The first string was placed right side up on the foundation. 2)A second string was laid along the edge of the first with right sides together and sewed, using a very short stitch. This made it easier to tear off the paper later. 3)The second string was then flipped out and pressed (for best results this step needed to be done after each seam was taken.) Now it was time to pick another string and sew it to the second string. When the foundation was covered, the block was flipped over. 4)It looked rather messy at this point, but after trimming the excess off even with the foundation, she had a neat block. 5)Tear off the paper and it's ready to sew to another block to make a quilt top. With her own carded cotton and a lining made from feed sacks, the top was ready to be quilted and put over the little ones for the rest of the cold winter.

I use string piecing quite often in my doll quilts. Here are some examples of how I have turned strings into quilts:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Another Autumn Treat

A week or so ago, a man we know gave us a little bag of persimmons.

A pioneer cook would no doubt know just what to do with these sweet fall fruits; I did not. The persimmons sat on the kitchen cabinet until my husband pointed out they were starting to get very soft. I knew I had to do something with them or let them go to waste. I went to the handy-dandy internet and found a recipe for persimmon bread, something I thought a pioneer cook might have made if she had gathered a bag of persimmons. The recipe was on the Allrecipes site. I thought it seemed like something with simple ingredients that a pioneer cook would have had in her kitchen (although I do wonder - was cinnamon available? Probably not on the frontier, I would guess.) I substituted pecans for the walnuts and left out the raisins (personal preference - I hate the way they get all swelled-up and soft!)

The worst part of preparing the recipe was making the persimmon pulp. It seemed that it would be impossible to peel the persimmons with a knife, so at first I tried to pull the skin off - it was a mess! Finally, I had the bright idea to scrape the pulp from the skin with a knife, and that worked much better. I was also pleasantly surprised that it was easy to remove the seeds. A persimmon has several seeds about the size of a thumbnail. Once a long time ago, I picked up some wild persimmons and tried to make bread with them - all I remember is that there seemed to be as much seed inside that skin as pulp, and it was almost impossible to separate the pulp from the seed. Of course, these persimmons were a domesticated variety, so the job was easier, and it didn't take as many persimmons to get my one cup of pulp as it would have taken if I had been using wild persimmons. I guess, though, if you didn't have sweets very often, it would be worth it to sort through those wild persimmons to get the pulp.

End result? The bread was very dense (I guess since soda was the only leavening agent) and dark, but moist and sweet. It reminds me a lot of pumpkin bread. It made a nice breakfast, something different from the typical sausage biscuit or cold cereal. The biggest drawback, though, is that this loaf of bread used only a few of the persimmons the man gave us. The rest are still sitting on the cabinet. I might try a cookie recipe, or I might put the rest of the pulp in the freezer to use for more bread later. Any suggestions?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Pumpkin - A Pioneer Cook's Treasure

"Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the hame. He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist. And he ate plum preserves, and strawberry jame, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie." -- Farmer Boy, Laura Ingalls Wilder

One of the staples of the pioneer diet was pumpkin. Not only could it be prepared in a variety of ways, but it also was one of the few foods that could be kept for a period of time and cooked "fresh" in the era before refrigeration. Stored in a cool, dry place, a pumpkin would go for months before beginning to deteriorate.

If pumpkin pie was on the menu, however, a pioneer cook had some work to do before she could mix up the pie filling. In the rest of this article, I'll outline the process of going from pumpkin to pulp.

First, the seeds and stringy matter inside the pumpkin had to be removed. Most pioneer women probably saved the seeds, either to plant the next season or to roast as a crunchy treat. The easiest way to separate the seeds is to dive right in with one's hands -- although it's not a job for anyone who doesn't like the feeling of something slimy!

Once all the stringy insides were removed, the pioneer cook had two choices of how to prepare the pulp. She could either boil the pumpkin or roast it. To use the boiling method, the cook would cut the pumpkin into chunks.

The chunks were put in a pan with a small amount of water and simmered until they were mushy. The excess moisture was then removed from the pulp. I used a sieve, running the pulp through several times, but a pioneer cook probably would use cheesecloth or something similar.

To roast the pumpkin, large pieces would be placed in a dutch oven and set in the coals until it was soft. Although the pumpkin could be peeled first, I left the skin on - because it's fun to peel it off once the pumpkin has been roasted!

Although roasted pumpkin doesn't have as much moisture as its boiled counterpart, there is still a lot to be removed, not surprising when you consider pumpkins are 90 percent water! The more patient the cook, the more times she will drain the pulp, and the better the end product will be.

A medium-sized pumpkin like the one I worked with produces a lot of pulp, and with no way to store the processed pulp, the pioneer cook would no doubt be kept busy making everything pumpkin - pies, bread, stewed as a vegetable. Although she wouldn't have known it, she was serving her family a tremendously healthy food packed with antioxidants and beta-carotene. She was probably just glad to have something to add variety to the limited choices in their daily diet.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Thank Goodness for Maytag!

Like one of my counterparts from the 19th century, I save all my laundry to wash on one day (Saturday in my case, most likely Monday in hers). I've seen articles before talking about what a chore it was to do laundry back then, but today I had an extra insight into what it really must have been like. Lately, to save on electricity, I've been hanging jeans and towels on the clothesline to dry. However, since the days have grown shorter, I have to get them on the line early or they won't have time to dry before the sun sets. This morning, I went out with a load shortly after breakfast -- and it was COLD! The temperature was probably in the 30s, which is not so bad, but there was a bit of a breeze that made it seem significantly colder. As I hurried to pin the eight pairs of jeans to the line, I thought about the women who didn't have the choice to throw their laundry in a dryer.

Now, it's possible people weren't quite so picky about hygiene on the frontier in the nineteenth century, so maybe if the weather was cold, a woman would just skip washing for that week. However, I think it's unlikely that she would be able to avoid the chore for the entire winter. So imagine what a dreadful job it would be. First, there would be all the water to haul -- from a well if you were lucky enough to have one, from the creek if you were not. There would, at least, be a fire to heat the water, although if you've been around a campfire you know your face can be burning hot while your backside is cold. Would a woman work up a sweat, even in cold weather, stirring the clothes in the tub? Her hands would be in and out of the water as she scrubbed dirty spots and as she wrung the water from the clothes. If she had dry skin like I do, before long her knuckles would no doubt be cracked from the constant change of temperature. That doesn't even take into account that she would be using lye soap rather than detergent, which if it wasn't made just right could be caustic. Once the clothes were scrubbed and wrung out, everything had to be hung out to dry, or spread over a fence or whatever was at hand if the family didn't have a clothesline. Although a little breeze would help things dry faster, it would feel quite cold to arms and hands still slightly damp from the washtub.

I'm sure washing was a job that had to be done outside, and I also imagine a woman washed only what had to be done during the winter months -- no bed linens. I'm very thankful for the machines that make it possible for me to have clean, fresh-smelling clothes and sheets year-round, with a minimum of effort on my part.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

What's It All About?

My favorite toys when I was growing up were the Johnny West action figures (of course, we called them "dolls" back then, lol). I spent a lot of hours making up all kinds of stories and acting them out with the Johnny West figures and the Barbies. The Barbies, whether they liked it or not, always had to be pioneer women, not fashion models; the Johnny West figures NEVER were transported to the 20th century! Even then, I had a passionate interest in what I think is now called "social history" -- how people lived in times past.

I never outgrew that passion. My favorite books are historical fiction, mainly about the 19th century, along with the occasional non-fiction book about some historical topic. My favorite family vacation was when we went to Fort Boonesborough in Kentucky, where they have displays of what the cabins probably looked like when people first lived in the fort and demonstrations of the skills people had to have to survive. My favorite hobbies are hiking through the woods, or sewing, or knitting, or something similar that my great-great-great-grandmothers probably did as a daily chore.

Lately I've found myself looking at things around me with that "history eye" again. When I'm hanging out clothes on the line, I think about what it must have been like for a pioneer woman to try to do her laundry without a washing machine. When I walk past the black walnuts crushed in the parking lot at work, I think about the pioneers who probably picked up and cracked out every black walnut they could find for a mid-winter's treat. Even a gloomy, cloudy morning makes me think about how very dark it must have been inside a cabin with only one window, or maybe none at all.

So that's what this blog is about. Sometimes we'll ask the question "What must it have been like?" Sometimes we'll tell the story, "Here's what it was like." Along the way, I hope we can stir that passion for things historical in a few more folks.