Their Descendants...Their Stories...Their Achievements

Lifting the Mists of History on Their Way of Life

By: Ethelene Dyer Jones

Saturday, July 16, 2011

On the Farm—Interim Tasks Between ‘Laying-By’ and Harvest

Someone recently asked me, “What did you do between ‘laying-by’ of crops and time for harvest on the farm? Did you have some time off for vacations?”

Vacation was not a part of our vocabulary on the mountain farm where I grew up—not for us who lived on the farm, anyway. Yes. Our “city cousins” had a vacation, and oftentimes spent it with us and other farm relatives in the mountains. For these once-a-year visitors, their week or two weeks on the farm were to be a time of industry for them—when they would be taught how to milk the cows, feed and care for the animals, gather the vegetables from the garden and the fruit from the trees which defined our daily work in the “interim season” to provide food for the table.

Maybe we would find a little time to go to the Nottely River that flowed through our farm bottomlands and there play in the water and learn to swim. But there were dangers, too. We were warned to avoid deep holes and swift-flowing areas that could easily upset one’s balance and prove a hazard. And in late afternoon, we would take our fishing poles, an adventure the city cousins loved, and go back to the river to try our luck at hooking some fish. If it was a good “biting” day for the fish, we might catch enough for a fish fry for supper, always a treat. But I need to explain that the city cousins were appalled that we had to dig earthworms—and handle them, no less—to provide our bait for the fish hooks we used on a lead-weighted line attached to a pole cut from the canebreak along the river. They, no matter how much I taught them about baiting their hooks, would never thread the earthworm onto the hook. When cousins were present, I seldom ever got to fish myself, a past time I thoroughly enjoyed doing (earthworms and all!). My job was to keep their fishhooks baited and, if they caught a fish, to remove it from their line and place it on the forked stick we used to stash our catch until we went to the house to clean our fish and prepare them for the fresh fish fry supper.

But there were other interim tasks in our summers apart from entertaining our city cousins who were getting a little taste of what farm life was like, even in the more slowly-paced days of summer. In last week’s column, I told about the summer session of school and how we had classes at Choestoe School (and this was typical of the other country schools throughout Union County and the mountain region). We had to go to school, so the visiting cousins who were out of school because it was summer could choose either to go with us to school (visitors were welcomed then, but were subject to the same rigid discipline as were we regular students), or else they could stay home and follow my father on his many tasks of interim work between the time of ceasing cultivation (‘laying-by’) and harvest.

A very necessary task on our farm was to get ready for fall sorghum-syrup making, a period of at least six-weeks stretch of time. Six hard days a week, my father manned our syrup mill and saw to making about 3,000 gallons of sorghum annually, from his own cane patches and that of other farmers within our region. And to get ready for that fall task, there were necessary jobs to do.

First, a large pile of slabs and long firewood had to be hauled and stacked near the furnace of the syrup mill to provide fuel for cooking the syrup. Occasionally, we had a “traveling sawmill,” that is, a sawmill owned by someone else that set down for a while to saw timber from our own forest. The by-products of this operation were the “slabs,” or long pieces of bark and outer portions of trees that were first sawn off from a log and stacked to the side for just the express purpose of using later for fuel at the syrup mill or in our own household winter fires. These slabs were loaded on the farm wagon and taken to the syrup mill and stacked neatly for use in the furnace. These were especially useful, since they were cured, for starting the fire. But because they were cured, they would burn very quickly and had to be supplemented by “green” wood.

And this “green” wood, or uncured wood, had to be cut from standing trees, usually stunted or less-promising for timber. The workers used cross-cut saws, trimmed off limbs with axes, and cut the trees into either furnace lengths, or if the wood would be used for fireplaces or the wood cook stove, cut into proper lengths for these. Again, this newly-cut “green” wood would be loaded into wagon and moved to its destination near the syrup mill or the woodpile near the house.

With the wood cut, or in the case of “slabs,” retrieved from the sawmill, and hauled and stacked neatly awaiting use later in the fall and winter, one major “interim” job on the farm was finished.

Then my father (and other farmers in our area) directed their energies and attention to such interim but necessary tasks as fence-mending, barn and farm building repairs, and general upkeep, whether “cutting the branch or river banks,” (trimming the growth of weeds and sprouts that had to be kept under control beside streams), or helping a neighbor (or having oneself) a “roof-raising.” And this did not mean, as is commonly known now, a disagreement or argument of unfriendly nature. It was neighbor-helping-neighbor to put a new shingle roof on a barn or even a dwelling house, or perhaps to assist in building another corn crib or peripheral building on the farm. And another task I’ve left unlisted: cutting oak timber of good quality, and sawing logs into shingle-length, then riving (as this process was called) shingles from the logs, stacking so that air could flow through them to dry them, to provide wooden roof shingles for houses and farm buildings.

And always there was the “putting-up,” the preserving of vegetables, fruits, grains and dried peas and beans for winter use. This entailed gathering, canning, pickling and drying. Sometimes the processes turned into sociable gatherings as neighbor helped neighbor with these food preservation tasks.

Poet Byron Herbert Reece expressed well in his poem, “The Stay-at-Home” (from The Season of Flesh, Dutton, 1955, p. 34) this interim period between end-of-cultivation and fall harvest. There was no time to wander from the farm and take a vacation. Work was demanding and year-round:

“The fields of Hughly held him,
The land where he was born.
With fence to men and cows to tend
And care of wheat and corn.
He had no leif to wander
Beyond his place of birth,
But often he would ponder
The luring lands of earth.”
And so interim times on the farm passed, with necessary tasks accomplished, marked off one-by-one in the long list of things to do. Those thus bound to the soil “Who often thought of going/But had the will to stay”* did just that: they stayed and they worked. And there was a deep love for the soil, for the toil, for the ties that bound to the land, the people, independence and the way of life.

(*Reece: “The Stay-at-Home”, lines 13, 14).

c2011 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published July 14, 2011 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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