I am now 91 years old. My father was born in 1899 and my mother was born in 1901. They both grew up in Appalachia and together brought with them accounts of “living off the land” — when people grew their own food and butchered their own livestock, be it cows, pigs or chickens.

Their foods were either canned, fermented, dried or cured. Hams and bacons were well-salted and often smoked with hardwood. This type of “treated meat” could keep perhaps a year. “Canned meats,” for example sausages or tenderloin, could be cooked and put in jars. The meat was then covered by the hot grease its frying had produced.

Fruits were ripened and then dried — for example, apples and peaches (even green beans might be dried also). Maple tree sap might have been condensed to syrup. Southern people also grew sugar cane, harvesting the mature canes by squeezing out its sap and then condensing it into syrup.

Hogs were fattened and butchered in the fall. The fat layers of the butchered hog were stripped off, cut into bits and cooked to release the lard. Those bits of heated fat scraps were called “cracklings”; they are now thin, crisp and salted and available as “treats” in our stores today. They also grew cabbages, which could either be stored, buried in straw-lined pits for the winter or perhaps fermented into sauerkraut.

Chickens were a vital part of their diet. Hatcheries were unknown. Fresh, fertile eggs were put under a “setting hen” — she wisely turned the eggs over each day and in three weeks most of her eggs would hatch. Then a “clucking hen” led her chicks about, teaching them what to eat and protecting them until they feathered out.

Tractors were unknown; a team of draft horses powered their farm equipment. A two-horse team could enable a “walking plowman” to cover an acre and a half of land a day. With a three-horse team, that plowman could ride a “seated plow.” (Those plows would turn over a strip of sod or soil 10 inches wide and four inches deep.)

After the soil dried, it would be leveled out with a harrow. A sled of wood with heavy metal spikes embedded in its wooden bars. That harrow would be dragged across the plowed ground, leveling the turned earth so it could then be planted with corn, wheat, rye or whatever the farmer chose to plant. After the planted seeds grew a few inches, a walking cultivator went between the rows or a riding cultivator pulled by two horses straddling the row. Its rider had foot pedals and could swing the cultivator’s blades right or left to till the growing plants.

Back before automobile traffic, the mountains and hills were termed free range. That is, your cattle could freely graze all over the mountain throughout the summer — often wearing cowbells, so they could be found — as winter approached. They were then driven back to the farm.

Refrigeration was unknown. If you lived under a hill with spring water flowing out, you would have a spring house to keep milk and other items cold. Or you had an old-time dug well (perhaps 20 feet dep) that might serve to keep milk and butter cool, if those items were lowered in a bucket down into the well.

Geese were kept for their feathers, which were made into pillows and sweeping tickets (a folk song says “the rich sleep in feathers from their birth”).

A newly-married coupe might be “belled” by their neighbors — early in the night, friends and neighbors gathered outside and awakened the young couple with a lot of laughter and noise, but they also brought usable gifts. A milk-giving cow might even have been a gift from the couples’ parents.

We have come a long way in the year 2019. But I wonder if we are as happy, friendly, neighborly or as helpful as the families, friends and neighbors were when they “lived off the land!”

Ben Edwards

The Plains

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