This is one of the things I decided to write a blog to share. This is just a chapter from the life of a poor dirt farmer from Mississippi. As time goes on I would like to break things down into more detail and explain how we did things, but for now, here is an overview. If you want to know what country means to me? Read on…
Warning; there are a couple of not so nice words, but I make no apologies. I write like I talk.
To start with… we were poor. I don’t mean “I didn’t get what I wanted for Christmas this year” poor, or “We had to eat off the dollar menu at McDonalds” poor, but honest to God, pinto beans for supper every damn night and if we were lucky “please pass the squirrel and dumplings” poor. As far as I can remember, until after I was 15 years old….
I had never ate out in a sit down restaurant, never ate a single cut of meat we didn‘t raise ourselves, hunt, fish or trap, never ate a pizza, never had a store bought hamburger, never had a pasta dish of any kind, never ate a donut, never seen a movie, rice and oatmeal were rare treats because it had to be bought at the store. I never had a new bicycle, never rode in a new car, never had hot running water, never used store bought toilet paper, never had shrimp, never ate store bought ice cream, and seldom ever heard a cuss word. We had a bare light bulb with a pull chain in each room and a receptacle in the kitchen and one in the living room. Once we got a TV it was black and white and we got three channels… sometimes…. If you were lucky and wiggled the antenna just right. One of us would turn the pole outside at the end of the house, holler to another youngun standing in the doorway relaying messages from Pa fiddling with the dial on whether it was working or not. Pa watched the news each night and the wrestling on Saturday and if us kids were good all week and finished all our chores we could watch the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers shows on Saturday afternoon. If the TV was turned on any other time, someone was going to be getting an butt whoopin’. The radio was turned on some Saturday evenings to listen to the Grand Old Opry on WSM.
We worked the garden with a mule, hand shelled corn we raised ourselves to feed the stock and if you wanted a drink you had three choices – water from the dipper at the well on the back porch, milk from our cow or damn well do without. No tea, coffee, juice, soft drinks, beer or whiskey. A few members of the family ran off some ‘shine, but Pa didn’t hold with drinking, so it wasn’t allowed in our house except for medicinal purposes. We heated and cooked with wood we cut ourselves, had our own meal ground from yellow dent corn we raised ourselves, played in the yard and got as dirty as only a farm kid can. We bathed either in the spring fed creek below the house or in a galvanized wash-tub in the kitchen floor depending on the weather. A quickie bath was a “whore’s bath” which was just washing off with a rag and soap from the wash pan on the back porch. Soap was usually homemade lye soap which we used on our skin, hair and to wash our clothes. I’d never even heard of shampoo or conditioner, clothes detergent, dish washing soap, deodorant or fabric softener. Clothes were washed on a rub-board, or later on in an old wringer washer out back and dried on the clothes line in the back yard. Once Ma started getting older and we started taking the clothes to the “washerteeria” we thought we were up town. Of course even then they were brought home to dry on the clothes line. Our towels were clean flour sacks and Pa pulled our teeth when needed with a pair of pliers and cut our hair with a pair of scissors sitting in a straight chair out on the front porch. We didn’t have air conditioning, a phone, a wrist watch, a car or fancy clothes. Our address was “Route 1 Glen, Mississippi” just like everyone else we knew. No house numbers or road names back then. We got a new pair of shoes every fall and if you wore them out before the next fall you just went barefoot and was more careful with them the next year. Everybody wore hand-me-downs and was proud to have them.
The out-house was built on a bank about 100 feet behind the house, around behind the smokehouse and there was always a bucket of corn cobs for wiping. Pa said “Use a red cob, then a white cob to see if you need another red cob”. The big Sears & Roebucks catalog was present in the two hole condo too. It came free in the mail, and although we didn’t have the cash money to order anything from it, it was nice to look at the pictures and it made good toilet paper (except for the glossy pages). We ate beans and cornbread every night along with whatever was in season and of course you could always find some poke salad growing wild in the woods or dig some ‘taters out of the sand box in the storm house if you hadn’t already ate them all that year. I think I saw a doctor twice the whole time I was growing up. Carbolic acid and lard was our salve and if you had a cold it was a small shot of a mixture of ‘shine, peppermint and honey. Camas root if you had the runs, slickem weed if you were stopped up, chew a little willow bark if your head was hurting or you had a fever and WD-40 or bitter melon soaked in alcohol to rub on your sore joints. If all else failed Ma would come at you with a spoon the size of a corn scoop full of either cod liver oil, Black Drought or Creomulsion. If you were too sick to work it was just assumed you were too sick to eat so your place at the old farm table would be empty come supper time. We weren’t sick much.
We never locked our doors or even had a key to fit them that I know of. The keys stayed in the old tractor and Pa’s old ‘49 GMC truck key was hung on a nail in a post beside the drivers door where he parked it in the shed. There were guns in every room of the house and all were loaded. Us boys were shooting by the time we were old enough to carry a rifle and keep both ends from dragging the ground. Hunting and trapping got us plenty of squirrels, ground hogs, rabbits, ‘coons, deer, doves, quail, wild turkey, and an occasional ‘possum or wild hog. Fishing and gigging brought in all kinds of fish, frogs, snakes and turtles. Wild fruits like turkey figs, peaches, pears, apples and crabapples, paw-paws, wild plums, may apples, wild grapes, Muscadines and sceptidines, berries like huckleberries, blackberries, dewberries, gooseberries, wild blueberries and fox grapes were all around in the bottoms and hollers along with the tame plants and orchards around the farm. Hickory nuts, black walnuts, pecans, chestnuts and the occasional wild almond could be found in the hills. Poke salad, comfrey, wild mint, dandelion greens and watercress were everywhere it seemed. If we needed a chew or a smoke we had tobacco, rabbit tobacco, cross vine and corn silk. We all drank from the numerous springs and streams and never got sick or died.
I got my first rifle on the Christmas I turned 11 years old and was spending nights out camping with my cousins and friends by the next summer. We would stay gone sometimes several nights just living off the land and enjoying being boys. No fancy tents, just the clothes on our backs, a rifle and a pocket knife and our kits which we all carried. My kit usually had some matches, salt, black pepper, a few fish hooks and a little fishing line, a little skillet, a tin cup, and some snare wire. We all had our own calls and signals out in the woods, even the girls. Mine was a whippoorwill, mainly because I can’t whistle for shit and never could. We would just sleep on a bed of pine boughs out in the open around a little campfire or if we had to because of the weather we’d throw a little shelter together out of pine boughs, wild grape vines and leaves or whatever else was handy. A few green leaves on the fire would keep the ‘skeeters away and we never failed to find something to eat. I have fond memories of falling asleep looking at the stars and thinking about the ghost stories we had told each other then waking up in the morning to the sound of birds calling and sipping pine needle tea while we watched the sun burn away the fog.
Us kids bickered and fought with each other constantly. Hardly a day passed without us playing pranks on each other. We hunted, fished, trapped, gathered wild plants and herbs, wrestled, chased cows and pigs, pushed each other in the creek, rode everything with fur we could catch, took our little cousins snipe hunting and just generally ran wild until we’d get a little too out of hand then Pa would put a stop to it with just a word or even a sharp look. We made pets out of everything from snakes to coons to foxes. Some of the family was closer than can be described, other members of the family would get something stuck in their craw and go to feuding. One thing was written in stone though – if any outsider started trouble with anyone in the family they had to face us all. It’s sorta funny looking back on it. Someone at school would want to whoop me and get their butts handed to them by three of my cousins before they could get to me. I probably got in more fights looking after family than I would have on my own. Our family was just that way. We stuck together no matter what.
It was the best life I can imagine.
Ma canned hundreds of jars of food every year. Some of those old glass jars had been in our family for generations. Jars of clear, green, blue and amethyst were filled with homemade vegetable soup, purple hull field peas, butter beans, corn, okra, several kinds of pickles, sour kraut, lots of jellies, jams and preserves, berries for pies and even some meat at times. We kept potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, pumpkins, winter squash and carrots in a sand box in the storm house cellar along with apples and other fruits. Once we got a deep freezer we froze corn, squash and zucchini, butter and some other seasonal items. Melons and such we just had to eat fresh as long as they lasted. Peanuts, gourds, peppers and some of the beans we dried to preserve them for winter. We butchered a hog or two every winter and salted and smoked the meat in the smokehouse to preserve it. We had a milk cow for milk, butter, butter milk, cream and a calf to butcher or sell every year. Chickens for meat, eggs and to sell occasionally. Depending on the year we also had turkeys, ducks, geese, guineas and game birds. Goats, sometimes a beef calf to fatten, rabbits and other critters for food came and went. Hides were tanned for using to put bottoms in straight chairs or for rugs. Offal was composted and even the bones were used in soup and beans then enjoyed by the dogs. Pa always said to waste nothing but the grunt.
Pa was a master of reusing and repurposing. Old tires were wore until any sign of tread was just a distant memory then used for planters, split to use for feed troughs or cut into diamonds for stable hinges. Inner tubes made great sling shot rubbers, patches on mud boots or could be cut into strips for tie straps. If we cut a tree we used what was suitable for building lumber, then cut the limbs and slabs for firewood and any leaves and twigs left were raked and piled up to compost down for the garden or burned for the ash. There was almost no waste. Even the ashes left after burning the wood to heat and cook our meals were either saved to make lye or spread on the garden for the fertilizer value. Some of the old lumber and tin around the farm was over 100 years old and had been used in several buildings before we got it. We would save anything usable, even the dozens of old coffee cans full of nails we pulled out of the old lumber and hammered straight. Milk jugs, egg cartons, even aluminum foil and waxed paper was cleaned and reused. Toothpicks were broom straws or splinters of wood, old jeans were cut up for patches on other jeans, a shirt got wore until the sleeves had the elbows out then we just cut the sleeves off to make a summer shirt. The sleeves were then used for grease rags in the tractor shed. A pan somehow became warped and couldn’t be used for cooking was pressed into use to feed the dogs or chickens out of.
A refrigerator was an icebox, a car a fliver, food was vittles, milk was sweet milk or buttermilk, dinner was supper, eggs were hen apples, over yonder was a place, fer was a distance, ya’ll was a noun, all dogs were hounds, a man’s handshake was better than a legal contract and if the Bible said it – it was so. Saying “Bless your heart“ made anything you said afterwards ok. When Ma would call us to supper it was by sticking her head out the back door and hollering “It’s on the board”. If your nose was itching then company was coming and work was from “Can see ‘til can’t see”. I got my first job doing a man’s work and drawing a man’s wages when I was thirteen and I started later than most of my uncles and older cousins. Putting sugar in cornbread made it corn cake. Sweet ‘taters and roasting ears of corn were baked in the coals of the fireplace. Kindling sized sticks were called “crow’s nest” and pine fatwood was called lighter knot. Biscuits and meat left over from breakfast were left on the kitchen table and had always disappeared by suppertime from us younguns running in and grabbing something to snack on during the day. Too many green apples would give you a bellyache and just bite a green persimmon and you couldn’t whistle if your life depended on it. Stealing watermelons was a sin, but eating a little one out in the field was just overlooked. Skipping school would get you a switching, but they would pull us out of school sometimes in the spring and fall for planting and harvesting.