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Food Storage in Powell Township, Comanche County, Kansas,
in the 1930s & 1940s

by Wendel G. Ferrin

In regard to some of the methods used to preserve food by my parents, Ernest & Nellie (Barnett) Ferrin, during the time I was growing up, I guess the most common way of preserving food was canning in Mason jars. I remember the cold pack method - not how to do it, just the name. I know that was the way Mom canned all the meat and she did can a lot of meat. We had no way to keep meat except to butcher it in the winter and hang the hindquarters up in the barn. The weather has changed a lot in 50 years. At that time you could always butcher a beef or two in Kansas and hang the rear quarters in the barn with a sheet covering it and the meat would stay frozen until it was used up. But the weather has warmed up considerably since then and the meat wouldn't stay frozen all winter just hanging in a barn anymore.

We would cut the balance of the meat into squares about 3/4" to 1" square and Mom would can them. It wasn't quite as good as fresh meat but it had a taste that compares to nothing I have eaten since. I'm sure that if any meat canned that way then could be found now it would still be good today. I never heard of any spoiling.

I don't know for what reason, but we also butchered hogs during cold weather. I guess the idea was that the meat would cool out overnight and we'd cut it up the next day. Dad always sugar-cured the hams and bacon and sometimes the shoulders. I'll say one thing for him, he never had any pork spoil and many people did. The only problem was that it was so salty I could hardly eat it. Mom always soaked it in clear water 2 or 3 times before she cooked it, but it was still salty, so many times I just passed on meat (at mealtimes) if it was ham or bacon. Mom canned the balance of the meat from the hogs.

One time during the late 1930s or early '40s, we butchered 28 hogs one morning. Hogs weren't worth much and Dad sold them butchered with the understanding that whoever bought one would help with the butchering. There were only 3 men who showed up that day to help butcher: Slim Masterson and Van Lott of Wilmore and "Mack" Payne of Alva, Oklahoma. Mack was a former barber from Wilmore who had retired in Alva. I guess it was good that some of the people who bought hogs didn't show up. Most of them would have just been in the way.

Other canning that Mom did was from the garden, especially green beans, corn, tomatoes, potatoes and peas. The young potatoes and peas canned together were a treat that can't be had unless you grow your own. Later on, Dad and Mom had an orchard and she canned a lot of apples, pears, cherries and apricots.

Another canned fruit that we always had was sand plums. Sand plums are native to Kansas and the midwest. They don't grow wild much east or west of Kansas and the other central states. There were sand plums growing wild around our farm nearly every year but, once in a while, there would be a crop so big that you could just rake them off the bushes into the baskets. We never ran out of canned plums, plum jelly or jam. Sand plums made good jelly or jam but they took a lot of sugar as did the plums Mom canned with the pits in to be eaten as any other canned fruit.

One year in the 1930s there was a tremendous sand plum crop when Dad simply didn't have the money to buy sugar to can the plums. He always bought sugar by the 100-pound sack; it was packed in a cloth sack on the inside and a burlap sack on the outside. Mom went ahead and canned plums without sugar, hoping to have money for sugar in the winter. I don't recall if we ever got any sugar for those plums or not but I know that we ate a lot of them without sugar. They didn't taste the greatest, but they sure didn't hurt us and we didn't go hungry as many people in the area did that winter.

Another method of preserving food was drying, which we didn't do much of. The folks had a chicken house with a nearly flat roof covered with corrugated metal roofing. Mom would send us kids up on the roof with a sheet to spread out and containers of sliced apples or corn cut off the cob. We put rocks on the corners of the sheet and scattered the apples or corn over the sheet. If I remember correctly, we had to turn the food 2 or 3 times a day and then fold the sheet in and take it in the for night. Had we left it out overnight the coons would have had a feast.

A horse-drawn slip used for digging trenches & moving dirt. Another method of food storage was basically used by us for turnips. It consisted of a trench dug in the ground. As far as I can remember, Dad always used a slip to dig the trench. The slip was a dirt-moving tool made to be pulled by horses, but Dad adapted his slip to a tractor and kept using it after he quit farming with a team of horses. Perhaps this sketch will give you some idea of what a slip looked like. They were approximately 3' wide and 3' long, and required a man on the handles to control the loading of the slip while it was being pulled. We dug a trench about 3' wide by 3' or 4' deep and as long as needed to store the turnips we had to store. First, we put a layer of wheat straw in the bottom of the trench and up the sides as the trench was filled with turnips to about 18" from the top, then we added another thick layer of straw on top of the turnips and then covered that with a layer of dirt. We could keep turnips fresh that way until late the next spring or early summer.

Comments by Jerry Ferrin, 22 November 2005:

I can recall seeing my grand-dad, Ernie, and dad, Wendel, bury turnips in a trench at the north end of my grand-dad's garden once, so he was still using this method of food storage until at least 1957. My grand-dad, "Poppy", had a storm cellar in the basement of the "old" (built in 1927) part of his house which he used to store apples and the cider he'd make from apples. He also stored other food in that cellar, but I don't recall what types, most probably potatos and other root vegetables.

Sand Plums were an important food source for early residents of the county and John Nelson was murdered in 1886 over an arguement with someone who had been picking sand plums from a thicket on his land without his permission.

When I was a child in the 1950's, my mother and Grandma Nellie would work together to make Sand Plum jelly for both their households, as well as on other home-canning and preserving projects.

It was common for women to work together to preserve food, such as Gertrude Cobb described in a 1991 interview about working with Grandma Nellie Ferrin to can corn:

Gertrude (Fisher) Cobb: I never will forget one time we went out there and Nellie and I went out to the corn field and picked the corn -- it was so hot we just stripped off and went into the creek to cool off. (Laughter from everyone at the table.)

Jerry Ferrin: We've just been joined by Gertrude Cobb.

Mary Lee (Cobb) Hough: ...and apple butter. Do you remember those cider presses? They (Ernie & Nellie Ferrin) always had this huge orchard and they'd press their own cider.

Gertrude (Fisher) Cobb: Nellie and I canned a hundred quart (sic) of corn that day. Now, you know we got up and started early. A hundred quart of corn we canned!

Jerry Ferrin: Did you can anything else with Grandma Nellie, Gertrude?

Gertrude (Fisher) Cobb: Apples, beans, corn and tomatoes.

Gladys (Rose) Wood: They (Ernie & Nellie Ferrin) always had a great, big garden -- a huge garden.

Gertrude (Fisher) Cobb: Yeah, and can't your remember when they'd have those great big "Corn Feeds"? My God, they'd have these great big, round kettles - those old iron kettles...

Mary Lee (Cobb) Hough: Yeah, and they'd also make apple butter in them. Ernie would always make a big fire outside and they'd cook their apple butter outside.

Gertrude (Fisher) Cobb: And they cooked that corn outside in those kettles and the whole neighborhood would come in to eat corn -- that was all, it was just a corn feed.

This web page was made by Jerry Ferrin on September 2nd, 2001. It was last updated 4 July 2008.

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