Seasonal Farming Tasks in the Great Depression

December 28, 2014

Letty Owings, who turns 90 today, explains a few of the farming tasks that were seasonal, during the Great Depression.

Wheat shocking

In the spring of each year, the community farmers watched the sky and talked with each other about when to prepare the fields for planting. For corn, the fields had to be plowed and harrowed, and then the rows were set. The implements used to plow, break up and smooth the soil and form rows were horse-drawn. After the fields were prepared for planting, corn planters were also hitched to horses. A container on the corn planter was set to click open every three feet or so, and release three kernels of corn to the soil. So far, we are talking about mechanization.

The mechanization ended after the planting of the kernels. The next task involved human hands that belonged to kids, for the most part. Once the corn plants were about two inches tall, the kids in the community crawled up and down the corn rows, inspecting each three-plant corn hill, taking visual inventory. We crawled down each row with a knife and a bucket of kernels, to see if three plants were in each cluster. Less than three plants in a hill meant that there was a cutworm in the soil, dining. We dug and chopped the worm, and replaced the eaten kernel with the new kernel. This task was called “replanting the corn,” and if you were a kid, you got that assignment. Replanting the corn was labor intensive and ritually performed every year. In church, farmers would ask each other, “Did you replant your corn yet?”

Another task where fingers did the work was ridding each individual potato plant in any given field of the potato bugs. Potato bugs are fat with orange stripes, and they can completely decimate a field of potatoes. We crawled up and down the rows with a tin can of coal oil that served as our insecticide at the time. We looked at each leaf, picked off the bugs and the masses of eggs, and dropped them into the can of coal oil. These were days before pesticides. In addition to coal oil for the bugs, we rubbed coal oil and bacon grease on our skin to keep the chiggers away. Again, our fingers did the work and like replanting the corn, potato bug removal was extremely labor intensive.

Of all farming activities we performed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, two were notable because they involved the whole community: threshing of the wheat, and butchering the animals. Summer threshing of the wheat was the most exciting time of the year because it was a social time rolled into sustenance activity.

Farmers looked at the sky to determine when the wheat was ready to cut. If the dryness was right for thrashing on a Sunday, the farmers waited until Monday, figuring that God had good reason to wait the extra day. When the dryness was right, a horse-drawn binder (also called a reaper) cut and automatically tied the wheat into bundles weighing 50 pounds or so. The farmer would then pick up the bundles and put them in a shock. A shock of wheat consisted of four upright bundles together with one bundle on top. The shocks of wheat were left for some number of days to dry.

Only one person in the whole community owned a steam engine pulled thresher, and his name was Harry. Each farm set a day for the threshing of the wheat. The threshing of the wheat was special, dramatic, and planned in advance, almost as if the whole community was planning a state fair. The women all wore their best starched aprons and set their finest tables outside for the men to eat the finest meal of the year.

Each woman had a specialty, be it baked bread, custard, pie, butter, beans or canned goods, and all was brought forth on this day. The meat consumed was kept from the year before, unless they killed a chicken for threshing day. This was also the only day of the year for ice. A man would travel to the ice plant, get a hunk of ice, and put it in a gunny sack in a washtub. Then, each man at the table would chip off a piece of ice for his drink. On thrashing day, I woke at 4 AM, to listen for the steam engine. Children were on their best behavior, and they spoke only when spoken to. There was much bragging and comparing about whose wife could cook what the best.

The other community affair that involved mostly men and was not joyous was the butchering. The animal to be butchered was chosen in advance, and it had to be done in the late fall, so that the cold would preserve the meat. The man in the community who was the best shot would do the killing, so that the shot would not miss and the animal would not suffer. That man was usually my father. The community custom was that the man who helped with the slaughter got the best cut of meat from the animal, and that cut was usually the heart.

The women made the sausage, and in those days the intestines were used because there was no casing. The women cleaned, washed and boiled, then stuffed, the intestine casing. Butchering was not a social function as was threshing the wheat. Aside from making sausage was a practice called “frying down the meat.” This involved layering grease, then ground fried meat, then grease, ending with a top layer of grease. The mixture was compacted and kept cold in a shed. The supply of fried down meat lasted all year. My mother canned beef but this was not really a usual practice. Sealing wax was a real mess; jar rubber was, in the end, a great invention.

There was never any idle time in those days. We grew cotton and sheared sheep for our materials and in our spare time, such as it was, we either picked apart the cotton or the wool with our hands. Wool smells awful, and I once complained to my dad because I was dirty and tired of the work. He stopped what he was doing and said, “You did nothing to earn this. Everything is a gift from God.”

Off-topic: If you haven’t heard these guys, make time:

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Texas A&M University-Commerce Digital Collections on flickr.

 


The Fall Pie Supper Custom

October 4, 2014

by Crane-Station
cross posted at Firedoglake

Letty Owings, age 89, recalls the annual fall pie supper auction in a small Missouri farming community during the Great Depression.

The Fall Pie Supper Custom

Each autumn we had a pie supper at Cabbage Neck, the one-room school that served as our community center. The idea was that a woman, or usually a girl baked a pie, and the pies were auctioned off to men. When you live in a world where you are isolated, social functions are a big deal. Women did their darndest to outshine the other women for the pie supper, so the event was a contest as well as a fundraiser. The big deal was who was going to buy the pie.

The auction was held on the school ‘stage,’ which was a space where the teacher’s desk was pushed aside. The auctioneer, who was sometimes my father, would hold up the pie and chant, “Now what am I to give for this pie, ten cents who’ll give me ten cents, ten, and raise it to fifteen, ah fifteen and twenty, twenty cents over here and thirty thirty do I hear forty…” A girl would want a good price for her pie, and she may say, “My, they paid seventy-five cents for my pie!” Many of the pies were milk-based custards because mince was expensive. Pumpkin, squash and apple pies were popular, and on occasion when someone could afford raisins, there was raisin pie. If there was mince, the pie had a crust over the top, and often had green tomatoes, apples, and spices.

The rule was that the man who bought the pie shared the pie with the girl who baked it. The quality of the pie didn’t have much to do with the price of eggs, it was the gathering and the fun that mattered. People would discuss the drought and talk about their kids, and interject with who bought what pie for how much by saying things like, “Yeah, you know, he bought her pie.” The inevitable big ‘disappointment’ that would bring a good deal of ribbing and laughter would come when a fella would shell out a few coins for a pie, expecting that a girl had baked it, only to learn that he would be sharing the pie with grandma.

Nobody ever kept any of the money for the pies. The funds went into the school. One year the funds went to purchase a dictionary. Another year, the funds were used to purchase coal.

It is hard to explain the hype of the pie supper to people today, in a world where so much is going on. People gossiped about it for months. Women were jealous of each other. If your pie didn’t bring very much, it was like insulting the Holy Grail. The pie supper was one of the rites of passage of fall. My mother made pumpkin pies, but she never wrote down the recipe, so how did she make them?

Well, for one thing, grow the pumpkins. They can’t be too big. They can’t be too stringy. They have to be watered just right. Next, the milk has to come out of the cow. Set it on the stove for a while and let it clabber a little, to give it some taste. Set a crock on the back of the heating stove, and the cream will rise. Skim that off. You don’t want your pie too slick, or too rich. The only things purchased for the pie is the flour, and the spices. If you get too much cream, the pie will be too damn rich, but if you get too little, the pie will be too watery. Maybe two cups of cream will do, with two cups of pumpkin.

Depending on how the argument works out on any given day, the pie might require three or four eggs, and they might be separated or not, but you have to grab the eggs out from underneath the chickens. When eggs are this fresh- grabbed from under a hen- they are hard to separate- so you may have to wait a day or two, to separate the white from the yolk.

No one pulled a recipe book or a recipe card from the shelf to follow, to bake her pie, for the annual pie supper event each year. Pie making was an art and a creative endeavor that passed from one generation to the next by word of mouth. Read the rest of this entry »


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