Historical Society of Southwest Virginia


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Too Late For Flowers 
Never Too Late For Tears

By Roy L. Sturgill

As I study and try in my uneducated way to search out the genealogy of my forefathers, I try to picture in my mind the way they lived, how , and if their lives were influenced by the hard times they endured; and most of all I find myself wishing that I could have been with them, in their endeavor to wrest from the earth an existence, and an independence beyond reproach. Earlier in life, and seeing it through the eyes of an inquisitive boy. I was made to wonder why my elders settled in mountainous northwestern North Carolina, Southwest Virginia, and Eastern Kentucky. Now as the sands of time have flowed constantly onward,
causing me to be older and perhaps a little wiser. I can understand their nomadic travels. 
Since most were small-time farmers, they were forever on the lookout for an abundance of wood and water. Numerous streams criss-crossed the land, and there were many trees for building homes. A casual observer might have thought that no farm land was to be found in this rocky hill country, but in the valleys and flats along the creeks and rivers, there was much fertile soil, and settlers went about clearing the brush and fencing their fields with the rocks strewn about or with split rails from the bountiful supply of trees. They had brought seeds with which to plant their crops, but only the barest necessities in the way of food to last until the first harvest. It was fortunate that fish abounded in the creeks, waterfowl came in the fall, and the woods were full of small game and birds. Black walnut trees grew along the creek banks and their nuts were gathered in autumn. There were wild plum trees, wild grapes, blackberries, and other wild fruits.
Corn was the main crop. It was a staple food for man, beast and fowl. As the garden was the housewife's domain, she saw to it that some land was left for that purpose. Some families brought small apple, pear, and peach trees, and these were set out. Almost everyone had a patch of cane for making molasses.
The setting of a new area always necessitated the building of homes. This required the cutting of trees for the erecting of log cabins. The timber was prepared by hewing both sides of the logs to flatten them. The ends were notched to form a locking joint at the corners. Once the logs were ready to lay up, there was a "house-raising." That is, the people would band together and most of the time the house would be ready for occupancy in a day. The cracks between the logs were chinked with small blocks of wood set at an angle and covered with clay. At one end there was always the large fireplace built from native stone and cemented with clay mixed with dry grass or straw to prevent crumbling. These chimneys would stand throughout the years; and in some cases, long afer the house had fallen or was torn down.
Furniture was the least worry of all. The bedsteads had only one leg. A large square stick was hewed, and a hole was bored in it and in the log of the house. A pole was put in for a side rail, and one was used for the back. Ropes were criss-crossed, or if the rope was not available, boards were nailed on for a top. If there were no nails, small wooden pegs were substituted. For closet space to accommodate the few dishes and utensils as well as clothing and bed clothes, holes were bored in the logs of th house, wooden pins put in them, a board laid on that and another above that, and so on, until they had all the shelves needed. Stools were made by sawing two or three inches from the end of a big log, boring three or four holes in one side, and driving in round pegs for the legs. This was the principal part of the furniture. Before the day of the cook stove, all the cooking was done on the hearth of the fireplace over hot coals, in large dutch ovens or "bakers" (as they were called). Our elders made all their own clothes. They had to card, weave, and spin every inch of cloth. They made their own shoes, quilted their own quilts, and weaved their blankets. Everything was sewn by hand. Dyes were made from bark and leaves of the oak. Walnut made a pretty
dark brown. Broomsedge made a light yellow. Moss and other things were used for coloring.
If you think most of our forebearers' time was spent in getting and preparing food, you would be right. After the hardships of the first year, think of the good eating these foods provided. There was fresh pork from hog (fattened on acorns), chinquapins and corns. There were eggs and chickens, milk and butter from "Old Bossy."
I wish I could once again open the door of one of those spring houses, so common in those days, and capture the tantalizing fragrance of fresh churned butter, crocks of sweet cream, and milk.  They were built near a spring where the stream could run through them. A race, built of whatever material was available, a foot or two wide on the floor, accomodated ample space for anything that needed to be kept cool. I'd love to hear, again, the sound of the little stream as it trickled around the crocks and pans in the race. There was always a cup handy for a cool, refreshing drink. The one I remember best, was a long-necked gourd with a leather throng for hanging on a nail near the spring.
Money was always in short supply, as it was not really needed. Almost anything could be exchanged at the store for a little coffee, salt, sugar, kerosene, and tobacco. Chickens, butter, corn, beeswax, feathers, animal pelts, and many other items were taken in exchange for these necessities. Trips to the store were made about once a month. Should one of these commodities play out, the woman of the house learned to make do until it was convenient to go again. I would like to go back some thirty or forty years and visit an old country store. One could never forget the smell of kerosene, coffee, spices, and new leather for mending shoes. All smells comingled to create a smell like nothing else in the world.
Early wintertime was the time for fresh pork, turnips and greens, sweet and irish potatoes, hominy, jams, jellies, and honey. Eggs were usually plentiful, as were milk and butter. The housewife prided herself on the good tables she set. As wintertime wore on, however, the green vegetables played out. The fresh pork became salt pork, the cow's flow of milk became scanty, and the hens stopped laying. Everybody's menu became limited to a steady diet of dried beans, salt pork, cornpone, and molasses or similar foods. Long before spring, a deep hunger for something green began to be felt.
The first warm day found the lady of the house outdoors in search of "garden sass" sometimes called "sallet." One of the earliest edible greens to appear was a plant called "lamb's quarter" (for what reason I cannot say). It was a bland, almost tasteless, wild plant. Since it was green and non-poisonous, the housewife cooked several messes of it seasoned with bacon grease. Cress or creases grew in old fields and came out early, too. Its tongue tingling spiciness added greatly to the menu, when it could be obtained. The most sought-after and most abundant green was the lowly pokeweed or "poke sallet" as it was called. This plant is a relative of our garden spinach. It grew in abundance behind barns, in old lots, and in fence corners. The mature plant and the root of the pokeweed are said to be poisonous. Only the new, green shoots were gathered for food. These were parboiled in a large quantity of water, drained, and seasoned with bacon grease. This was served with crisp bacon, boiled eggs, if available, green onions, and cornpone.
In some households, there was a superstition that poke should be eaten three days in a row as a spring tonic. There were some who did not care for it, however, they dutifully ate it rather than face the alternative of taking a dose of sulphur and molasses, to ward off the spring miseries.
One would think, no doubt, that our forefathers had a hard time, and I reckon they did, but they enjoyed life. There was happiness, and people loved each other. If a neighbor fell ill, they thought nothing of walking eight or ten miles to "set up" with the sick and administer to their wants. During the long hours, a coal oil lamp burned, and at least two people sat by the bedside, bathing down the fever and giving medicine...which no doubt was calomel, widely used at that period. This was followed by a big dose of castor oil. The patient either died or recovered. If the latter, the patient would be fed chicken soup for about two weeks until strength was regained. Neighbors pitched in and did all the work for the one who was ill. They brought in food that was already cooked. If the patient died, friends and neighbors came in and "laid out" the corpse, dressed, and prepared it for burial. Three or four of the men got together and constructed a coffin. The necessary components could be bought at the country store. The cost was as follows: $1.25 for one set of coffin handles, $.50 for one set of coffin hinges; $.50 for tacks and screws; $.03 for sand paper; $.50 for five yards of lining; $.50 for five yards of black damask; and $.10 for one cotton bat. (These prices are from an old country store ledger in the possession of the writer, dated 1884). Once the coffin was finished and the body placed therein, it was kept about two nights, and neighbors would come from far and near to the "wake" and thought nothing of "setting up" the entire two nights with their dead. Almost everyone brought food for their distressed neighbors. The grave was dug by the menfolk, the dirt shoveled on their departed friend, and they would drop a tear at the passing of one out of their midst.
Yes, I would like to go back in time to the country store where the air was soft and pure, where everyone went to the meetin', the women in their homemade bonnets and long dresses, the men in their Sunday best, which was pants and a shirt made from hand woven cloth and homemade shoes or boots. Where they pitched the tune with a tunin' fork, and sang through their noses with the fervor and spirit of the faithful. Some walked to church, and some hitched the horses to the wagon, which had boards placed across the wagon box for seats. The ones considered "well off" had buggies or surrys; others, rode horseback. The women who rode horseback, rode side-saddle. It was certainly not ethical for a woman to straddle a horse in those days.
Not everyone had horse stock to work their crops. Mostly, it was done with "goose-neck" or grubbing hoes. In the newly cleared ground or "new-ground", as it was called, the weeds and sprouts would smother out the planted crops unless the farmer kept them constantly chopped out.
The old ash hopper, my grandfather told about, always held a fascination for me. The top box of the ash hopper was built on the order of a pig trough. It was about thirty inches long with both ends closed and a small crack left in the bottom. The bottom box was about thirty-six inches wide and eighteen inches deep. The whole was made of rough lumber; of course, and the cracks in the lower box was sealed with pine pitch. It was held together with posts of oak or hickory, crossed in the middle and nailed securely to the boxes.
All the ashes from the stoves and fireplaces were put in the top box. If there had been no rain, then water had to be poured in on the ashes. This was called "primin". The water that dropped through into the lower box was lye water and used for washing clothes, making homemade lye soap, and making hominy.
Most families had a big black iron pot. When hogs were butchered, all the fat trimmings were put in the black pot. A slow fire was built under it to prevent scorching. A large wooden paddle was used for stirring until the fat was boiled out of the cracklings. These were skimmed off, and the lard was taken out of the kettle and put in jars for future use. They put the cracklings, along with the other meat scraps, back in the pot, put a fire and a lot of lye water under it. The mixture was boiled hard until the cracklings were eaten up. After cooling overnight, the soap was sliced into bars. The soap was always yellow.
Old timers made hominy by boiling corn in water, into which an amount of lye water was poured. I never found out how much lye was used. This was boiled until the lye had eaten the husks from the corn. It was then removed and the kernels were washed through many waters until all traces of the lye water were gone. The kernels of corn would be almost twice their normal size. Nearly all families made a batch or two of hominy. 
Schools were few and far between and in some places there were none at all. It didn't take a lot of book learning to make a living in those days, but it did take a lot of plain old common sense, a strong body, and a reliance on the Almighty for the courage to believe in ones self in order to overcome the rigors of a hard life.
After thoroughly reviewing the way my forefathers lived, and the hard times they endured, it's easy for me to see that actually, they were so much better off than the present generation. Back in those days, no one was in debt. There was nothing to go in debt for. Most of what was needed, was fashioned from the materials at hand. The little furniture they had was hand-made. An old wood-burning cook stove, a few pots, and pans of cast iron, and molded in the roughest form, was about all the furnishings needed. These were the days of make-do. If what our pioneer kinfolks wanted was not available, they made do with what they had, and did not complain.
(Having been born some sixty years ago, and being privileged to spend a part of my youth living with my grandparents on a mountain farm, I would certainly concur with the following article, taken in part from an old faded and torn publication, on which, even the author's name was not legible, and in which I have had to make many additions and deletions.)
Reflecting back on how I have lived in the heat and dirt and smoke of the man-made towns and cities, I am ready to scream. I have heard the screeching of horns, whistles, and sirens, and the braying of jackass politicians until I want to go back to the old-time way and hear the bray of a real simon-pure jackass. The change would be music to my ears. Here, the land is all covered with bricks and concrete, and the hearts of many of the people are as hard and flinty as the sidewalks.
"I would like to help grandma fill the lamps with oil or "ile" carried from a country store in a can with an "irish tater" stuck in the spout, and watch her trim the wicks so the lamps would glow more evenly. I want to eat some food cooked on an old "step-stove", sweet "taters" baked in an oven on the hearth over hickory and red-oak coals. It would be a welcome sight to see some of the womenfolks swing the fly brush to keep the pesky devils offen' the table. Right here, it might be said that a family rated according to the kind of fly brush it had. The very poor used a limb, cut from a mulberry tree, and the middle class had one cut out of newspapers, and the upper crust had one made of peafowl's tail. That family rated, and rated high, brother!
"I want to go back where all the common, everyday towels were made of salt sacks, and where there was only one "store" towel which was put out only when the preacher came. I want to see the man of the house take his tableknife of chilled steel and whet it on the tines of his fork before he carved the sow-belly that had been cooked with the beans. Did you ever eat any lye hominy or shuck beans? If not, you have never really lived...you have merely existed!
"Oh, to return once more to the days when they made real country sausage and souse meat! Where grandpa and grandma smoked their long-stemmed clay pipes and would light them by dipping a live coal from the old fireplace.
"I want to see the housewife reach into the salt gourd and get a pinch or two or salt to season the beans and taters, which were usually cooked by hanging on a hook in the fireplace to conserve stove wood. And who has not seen the home-made soap in the terrapin's shell soap dish on the wash bench just outside the door?
"Let's go into the "big house" and sit by the fire and see the old-fashioned dog-irons and the wrought iron shovel and tongs made in the country blacksmith shop. Did you ever see your granddaddy heat the old shovel on a bitter, cold day and hold it in front of the old clock to thaw out the oil in the old timepiece so it could go on tickin' off the hours?
"The parlor was the sacred place. It was there that all the sparkin' was done. There was the bed when company came...a fat straw tick and a big feather bed and a bolster or pillows. For the poor, there were no parlors. The houses were usually about three rooms. In the main room, was the fireplace. It was here that all the family congregated for warmth and family chatter. The head of the household and his spouse had their bed by the fire. The rest of the family slept in the third room. When company was visiting, they usually slept in the room with the rest of the family, or wherever there happened to be a vacancy.
"On the "center-table", or in some other safe place, was where the family album was kept. It held the pictures of the family dating back many years. The folks would usually pose with one hand on their knee and the other folded placidly across the stomach. I want to go back to the time when all the shoe boxes were saved to make splits for the women's bonnets. Remember 'em?
"I would like to go back and carry a few lap-links in my pocket, just in case the hoss busts a trace chain. I want to tie the rawhide ham-string once more and adjust the back-band til it is just behind the hoss's withers. I want to tie my shoes again with laces made of groundhog hide.
"I want to spend Christmas in the old way once more and get from the Christmas tree, one stick of candy, one orange, and one penny pencil. The rich ones gave their children a French harp and the "night" was filled with music and the cares that infested the day folded their tents like Arabs, and silently stole away.
"I want to go back where the ducks and geese are picked every month; where corn and taters are planted, and soap is made by the signs of the moon; where "warnits" and hickory nuts are gathered in the fall for the winter mast; where the folks still dig roots and herbs to buy their winter boots and shoes; and where these same boots and shoes are greased with sheep or beef taller; where the peggin' awl is still in use; where Arbuckles coffee is parched in the stove and ground in a mill held in grandpa's lap; where some of the menfolk tied the brooms with home-grown broomcorn; where they make popguns out of elders and shoot paper wads in them.
"Yes, I want to go back where they drink sassafras tea in the spring-time to thin their blood; where they churn with the old up and down churn-dasher; where they turn the churn of cream around as it sits by the fireplace in the big house, so it will get in the right form for churning; where goose quill toothpicks are still in use; where they still boil the clothes and use bluin'; where they refill the straw ticks right after thrashin' time and where they wear long flannel drawers.
"Yes, I want to go back to the country and get my fill of cracklin' bread. I want to see the people eat again and shovel it in with their knives. I want to go to the neighbors to borrow the gimlet. I want to go back where they eat three meals a day...breakfast, dinner and supper...and the word "lunch" will never be heard again.
"I would like to once more watch apple-butter being made in those huge old, brass kettles, where the long handled stiring wooden ladle never stopped, and that bubbling pot of apple-butter gave off an aroma that I haven't smelled since, nor can it be expressed in words on paper.
"Yes, I want to go back and make another corn-shucker out of locust. I want to strip some cane and top it and dip the skimmin's offen' the bilin' molasses. I want to go to the neighbors for a bushel of seed corn, or shell a 'turn' of corn and take it to the mill for bread and watch as the miller measured out his toll for the grinding. I'd like to call a few doodlebugs outen' their holes, but I want to avoid the spanish needles, the cuckleburrs, and the chiggers that make life unbearable, and to avoid stone bruises forever.
"I doubt if I could measure up to the hardy souls that were my forefathers. They lived by their strength, by the work of their hands and the sweat of their brow, by the faith they had in themselves. Theirs was a hard life, but it was honest. It was all they knew and they were happy in their way of life and helped themselves by helping others.
"I feel sad that they children of today's modern society are cheated by missing the things that in those days made families realize they had to work together to live, and in doing so, were kept in a mutual band of friendship.
"It doesn't seem possible in a span of 50 or more years that life has gone from ways of simplicity to what some of us consider utter confusion. People can't or won't take time to enjoy the natural things.
"We're living too fast. Modern society has filled us with tension, and unrest. Respect for the things we once held dear and made life worth while a few years ago are gone.
"And as our beloved forefathers rest and meditate in their eternal dreams, on the gentle slopes where once they erected their humble homes. We recall and reminisce about the ways and traditions of the past, realizing with a tear of sadness that we can't go back or live any of those happy times again.

 HSSV No. 12, 1979




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