The Good Life, The Hard Life, And Days Gone By.
When I tell my grand children about my upbringing, they look at me like a calf looking at a new gate, as if they don’t believe me. I tell them about a twelve-year-old boy in overalls, barefooted, plowing a mule and helping Daddy bring in a corn crop or grain crop. I tell them about us milking Pet twice a day who was our Guernsey cow. I helped my Mother with the milking, as she would do the milking most of the time. We had hogs, and a garden, and my Mother would “can” all sorts of goodies for the winter. We drew our water from a “hand dug” well and carried it to the house a bucket at a time. In short, we were poor in monetary terms, but nobody bothered to tell us so we thought we were rich. We were rich in the blessings of the Lord.
The fruit of our labors was the cream of life. I used to love it when Mother would open a jar of her homemade vegetable soup on a cold winter day. She made vegetable soup that had a taste that was out of this world. I have never tasted any soup that good since my childhood days. Some evenings after I finished my homework, one of my nightly chores would be to churn. We had a big churn that sat in the kitchen with cheesecloth tied over the top to keep the flies out while it clabbered. When the time was right we would put the dasher in, put the lid over the handle and begin to churn up and down…ker chunk, ker chunk, ker chunk over and over until the butter separated out of the milk and began to form into big lumps in the milk. When the butter was fully formed into lumps of raw butter, Mom would take a strainer and separate the butter from the buttermilk left behind. Both were good products in their own rights. The butter would be good for cooking and table fare and the buttermilk was for drinking or making homemade biscuits, yum!
Mother put the fresh raw butter onto a plate and begin to work it with a butter paddle to get those little pockets of trapped milk out. Then, when she was sure she had it all drained and separated, she would salt it a little and mix it well. Then, she either put the butter into a butter mold and made a cake of butter or she would take the paddle and make a round cake of butter. Then, just for a classy touch she would take the butter paddle and carve little flowers on the butter. After she was finished with making the butter she would put wax paper over it and put it into the refrigerator for cooling. Oh man, that butter would make a biscuit open it’s mouth wide for a big pat. One of my favorite breakfasts was to take about three buttered biscuits, open them on my plate and pour some good syrup over them. Mother would always fry up some streak O lean or fatback and serve it with the butter biscuits. Oh, my mouth is watering right now just thinking about it.
Our mule that I mentioned earlier was named Kate. She was a good natured gal and a hard worker and I got along just fine with her except for the day she stepped on my bare foot. Kate could Gee and Haw with the best of them. I enjoyed following her barefooted behind a plow and in that fresh turned earth. It was warm but soft and my toughened bare feet stumped right through it at Kate’s pace. I love the smell of fresh plowed earth.
Plowing was a pleasure to me but I hated working the crops with a hoe. Hoeing around the corn and chopping out the weeds was too much like work. My Granddaddy Hethcox taught me how to pull the soil to the young corn stalk so it would get a good root structure and plenty of earth and moisture. He knew a lot about farming since he farmed all his life too.
Milking Pet was an adventure in itself, especially on those freezing cold winter days. I would take the milk bucket out to the barn early in the morning before school and mix some cottonseed meal and hull for Pet to munch on while I milked her out. The milk bucket always had some warm water and a clean cloth in it to wash her teats off before the milking began. All went pretty well and I was pretty good at getting the milk out of her and into the bucket.
But, as any of you who have milked a cow will know that sometimes the cow will pick her foot up and plant it right down in the bucket of milk or either kick it over. Oh, that would make me so mad. And she knew what she was doing with that cockle berry laden tail that she used so well to swish me in the side of the head. She could have swung her tail and slapped herself but I think she knew it was a formidable weapon and she was good at slapping me in the cold ears with her prickly cockle berry whip. Ouch! That usually made me so mad that I would take my fist and pop her in the back leg, which in turn would cause her to kick the milk bucket over. So, I learned to make a truce with Pet. You slap me in the frozen ears all you want but I won’t hit you with my fist. I just wore a sock cap over my ears and tucked my face beneath my shoulder and milked as fast as I could. As soon as I finished the milking, back to the house in a flash I went to get ready to catch the school bus. My Mother would take the foamy milk and first strain it through a screened funnel and then she strained it again through cheesecloth to get out any foreign particles before pouring it up into jars and putting it in the refrigerator.
Yep, we had electricity but not running water…well not the kind of running water you think. I tell folks that we had running water where we lived but it was not hot and cold but Jim and Steve. Mother would say, “Jimmy, run get me a bucket of fresh water” or “Steve, run get me a bucket of water from the well”. That well was about 60 feet deep, and it was hand dug right into the limestone where the sweet water was. Oh and it was so cold in the summer time. When I worked up a sweat and big thirst I would draw a bucket of water from the well and just tip it over and drink right from the bucket letting much of it pour onto my neck and chest. Oh that water was the sweetest and coldest water in the whole world. I would almost founder on water, it was so good.
We had a big oval galvanized bath tub out near the well sitting on about a 10′ X 10′ linoleum rug so you wouldn’t get your feet dirty when you stepped out. Here’s how it worked: we would draw that cold water out of the well and take it over to the bath tub and pour it in so the sun could warm it during the day. You had to plan your bath in the early part of the day so your water would be warm by nighttime. It was always after nightfall that we would slip out with a towel, wash cloth, soap and clean undies and get our bath. Steve and I would take turns going first. One time I would go first and the next time he got to go first, but we both bathed in the same water. In the wintertime we bathed from a wash pan in the kitchen with water warmed on the stove. My Mother insisted that we be clean before bed and she always made sure we wore clean clothes to school. They might have been worn and a little ragged but they were clean.
I have to mention a little about washday here. Washday; what can I say? I hated it with a passion. There was a lot of water to be drawn from the well. Mother had an old wringer type washing machine on the back porch that she used to do our washing. But not having running water, except for the kind mentioned earlier, we had to draw it from the well and carry it up onto the back porch in a number 2 washtub and lift it up and pour it into the washing machine. Mother washed the whites first, and then the color clothes in the same water, run them through the wringer to remove most of the soapy water and stack them onto a counter or into pans. All the while she was doing that, Steve and I were drawing the rinse water. When we had enough rinse water we would once again carry it up on the porch and when needed pour it into the washing machine again. Then, the rinse cycle would begin with the whites first, then the colors. Then, it was off to the clothesline to hang them up to dry. Some items, like our blue jeans, would be soaked in starch water, wrung out in the wringer and then Mother would put what she called “pants stretchers” in them before hanging on the line. That insured a good stiff starching with good permanent creases. That cut down on some of the ironing. She worked hard to make us look and feel crisp and clean.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention washday during the winter months. North Georgia can be a cold place in the dead of winter, but the chores must go on. So, my dear Mother would work just as hard on the back porch washing, rinsing, starching, and hanging clothes on the line. I’ve seen her hands red, chapped and cracked from the cold North Georgia wind and weather.
Right after the war…the Big One…my Daddy came home, married my Mother, had a couple of little boys, my brother and me, and began to farm on the GI bill, as they called it. Life was hard back then, but the country was being rebuilt by those men who had fought so hard in far away lands. Now their attention turned to making a living and rebuilding their own country.
As far back as I can find, my Daddy’s ancestors have always been farmers. Most of the time they were sharecroppers. That indicates poor people trying to make a living off the land but needed some monetary help with the seed and fertilizer for a share in the harvest to keep their families alive. There were enough wealthy landowners who were willing to buy seed and supplies for a share in the proceeds of the land. The labor was supplied by the sharecropper and his family.
When I look back at all the things I’ve experienced along the way I can truly say that I have done some things that people just don’t do any more. I’ve picked cotton for 25 cents a day, plowed a mule, milked a cow, drawn water from a well, and used an outhouse until I was married and moved out. I’ve worked on a chicken farm, gathering eggs and feeding and watering thousands of chickens daily. I’ve built and swam in a “wash hole” as we called it. I’ve built and set rabbit boxes and caught and eaten fried rabbit with biscuits and gravy. I’ve driven a team of mules and wagon. I’ve pulled and bundled fodder and stored it in the crib. I’ve kissed a girl in the hayloft and also in a corncrib. Country girls are really friendly. In short, I’ve done it all. We were poor but we were rich. I miss those slower times even though they may have been hard times. Some things in life are worth working for. You get the best quality goods when you grow or build them yourself. We grew organic and didn’t even call it that. We recycled and didn’t call it that. We used solar energy and didn’t even call it that. My Mother had a solar clothes dryer…you know, a clothesline and clothes pins.
Sometimes soon I think I’ll write a few lines on some sayings and phrases we used to say when I was growing up but don’t say any more, like “you boys help me get these clothes in off the line, it’s coming up a cloud“ or “Jimmy it’s your turn to empty the pot.” That is not a reference to marijuana. It has to do with the chamber pot, as they Yankees call it, and it was emptied out in the outhouse that I mentioned earlier. Another name we called it was the “slop jar”. Then, after emptying it, you had to draw a bucket of well water and wash it out and leave it in the sun to dry and disinfect. I’m really glad of some things today. Indoor toilets and showers are on the top of my list. You know, you will have a hard time even finding a slop jar today. All those things are now considered antiques. I have another name for them that I can’t mention here.
I see a lot of things in antique stores today that used to be commonplace around our farm and house when I was growing up. Things like the mule’s collar, haynes, and single tree, the slop jar, the churn, the well bucket, and a thousand little things like the butter mold and granny’s old foot pedaled Singer sewing machine. Oh, the things I’ve seen and done.
The next time you turn on a hot shower and stand there and enjoy the water running over your tired body while you relax, or the next time you go to the grocery store and pick up a gallon of milk or a dozen ears of corn, thank God for people who had to work to bring them to your reach and for your convenience. We have a lot to be thankful for today but we’re not a thankful people. Maybe if we all had to turn the clock back a few decades and try to survive the way the old folks used to do, we’d appreciate how easy life is today. Still, I miss working in the field, milking Pet, plowing Kate and swimming in the wash hole after a hot day in the field. Ah, the good OLD days. But, they are gone forever and live only in my memories. Thank God for those memories of bygone days of the good times, the hard times and the home folks.