Old Times in Winston County
Written by: Perlean Gossett
We had to make lots of lye soap. You put water in a wash pot, and then you pour a can of red devil eye in there, build a fire, and get it to boiling; then you put about a quart or more old grease, hog jowls, or meat skins all in there. It will boil that meat skin and hog jowl which will keep the soap from eating your hands up. You then boil and boil and boil it. Then you take the fire out from around. And then take the contents out, let it sit there until morning, take a big butcher knife, and cut it out in bars, lay it up on boards, and let it dry. Then you take one of them and smear it on your clothes on the rug board when you're washing. And that's lye soap. I helped Mama make a lot of potfuls of it.
We had to go to the woods, miles and miles, and tote our drinking water up to the house. We didn't have any wells; no one ever dug any wells. When you moved to a place, you had to go and hunt water in the woods; then you went backwards and forwards to it until you got a trail padded out. You went there every time you had to get a bucket of water, whether it was a branch or spring.
We toted lots of water; when we went to wash, we would carry our wash pot to the spring gather wood to burn, to get the water hot and put our clothes in there and wash them through one water. Then we would fill up that pot, get it to boiling, and put our clothes in there We would have a long stick; mama would make us stand there and jab them up and down in it, and then take them out and rub them out, fill our tubs up with water and rinse them. Then we would hang them on the line. We didn't have any washing machine or anything like that.
We didn't have any refrigerators or anything like that, and we toted many a gallon of milk and tied strings around a gallon jug on the top of it, tighten the lid on it, and lay it down in the bottom of the spring. Then at dinner when we would come out of the field, we would go to the spring and get that gallon of milk, and it was good and cold. That's the only way we had to get it cold.
I toted water out from under the hills when I was about five or six years old. A half-gallon syrup bucket was all I could tote out from under the hill; I was so little I couldn't tote much. We would get right up to the top of the hill, fall down and spill it; Dad would make us go back and get some more. We then learned then that if we spilled it, we would go back and get some more and kept on until we got some to the house. Sometimes, my sister and I would have to make five or six trips to get enough to the house for us all to wash and clean up with and cook. If there was ice on the ground, we would fall down. Then we would have to go back and get some more, get nearly to the top of the hill, spill it, and go back.
We had coal oil lamps, sitting up at night with little lights in the house with kerosene in them. Sometimes if you didn't have a lamp, Dad would fix one. He would take him a coke bottle, or some little bottle, get a piece of rope and fill the bottle full of kerosene and twist it down in there real tight and leave a little of it sticking out. He would then set it on fire and we would have a light in the house.
I plowed from daylight to dark in the fields with our old mule. My sisters plowed with old yearlings before I come along. I would go out and graze the old mule at dinner while Dad was resting awhile and let him get him something to eat. I would take the mule to the spring and water him.
We had an old wood stove that we cooked on. And when it rained and got the ground wet, we couldn't go to the fields and work. Dad would put us out in a pine thicket sawing pine trees down; he would measure how long we had to have it and we sawed that up, busted it up, stacked it up until it dried out. Then we would tote it to the house in winter. He would make us stack it up in little blocks. It was enough wood all winter for us to cook with and for canning.
Sometimes it would be so cold we didn't have bedclothes to sleep in. We wouldn't have enough beds for us all to sleep in, and Mama would make us kids, the least kids, a bed down in the corner in front of the fireplace and pile us all in there together. There was four or five of us together.
We thought all this was fun. It was our regular thing to do. If we ever got to go out somewhere and play, it would be on Sunday evenings. They would let us out in the yard and let us play.
We used to live way back in the woods when I was about seven years old. We were making a crop and had it hard. We had to clear land up, cut bushes up, and pile them up. We made a big sweet potato patch. We had an old cow and had to make velvet beans to feed her and to get her milk. We had to raise them and pick them; they would sting you to death.
One day, the boys that lived on the other side of the hill from us came to the spring and busted our jugs of milk in the spring. That made my daddy mad; he told their daddy what they had done, and took them to the spring and showed him. He whooped the boys good, right there, and made them dip all the water out of the spring. There were other boys who got together with these boys every Sunday; there were about five or six of them. When the sweet potatoes were little, Dad wouldn't let us pick or dig them because it would kill the vines and they would die. He would make us stay out of them. The boys started slipping in there and digging the potatoes and eating them raw. Dad had been seeing where they were digging them one day, and he knew who it was. So he got his gun and went on top of the hill. He said he would break the boys from doing that. Two of the boys' names were Junior and Amos. Dad shot up over the potato patch and them boys hit the ditch running. Junior thought Dad had killed Amos. He was crying and screamed come here Amos; I am going to eat your potatoes! They run like everything. We all laughed about it.
Dad put us out in the field picking the velvet beans, and my brother, he was just older than me, got the sack one evening that we had been picking the velvet beans in and turned it down over his head while Mama was down there milking the old cow. He come to the house screaming as loud as he could scream, and we had to get a big tub of water and put him in it; he broke out all over. He never messed with any more sacks that we had picked velvet beans in!
We had a big rooster; we raised our eggs. Every time my younger sister would get out in the yard, that old rooster would get after her and flog her on her legs; it kept the back of her legs tore up all the time. One day, Dad told us to get out there and run that old rooster down, and we'll make dumplings on that tonight; he ain't flogging her anymore. We got out there and run that old rooster until it hunkered down and gave up. Dad killed him and we ate him that night for supper.
We lived way back in the woods; just two or three houses back in there, way down on Brown's Bottoms. We were just moving from one place to the other; we would make a crop at one place and clean our land up. Then someone would want us to move, and we had to start it over again; we were just little kids.
Dad would make us cut the corn stalks and pick every little piece of them up and pile them up in big rows in the field. Some of us were cutting and the others picking up. When it came dark, he would get us all down there and make us set those corn stalk piles on fire and burn them up so we could break the land up. We set one pile on fire with matches, and then we would get us one corn stalk and set it on fire, and we went from pile to pile to get the others burning. We would have to stay there until every pile burnt up.
When we would get our corn ready to pull fodder, we went to the cornfield, pulled fodder, tied it on the stalk and let it dry two days. Then Dad would take the old wagon and mules and go down in the field. We would have to wait until eight or nine at night until the dew started falling and then he would make us pack that on the wagon and take it to the shed for the cow to eat that winter. And we planted peanuts. Dad would make us pull them up and cut a big pine tree and make him a stob. We would cut pine limbs and put it around that stob. Then we would take the peanuts and pile them all around it. When we would get that stacked as high as we could put them on it, he would make us pull grass and put it on top to keep the rain from going down into the peanuts and getting them wet. Then we would have them to eat in the wintertime.
We had to wash our sheets in boiling water at the spring. My sister was dating, and my older brother had my baby brother to get up in the middle of the bed after my sister washed them. She was looking for a feller to come in that night; she had the sheets white and everything. My baby brother was about four years old; he jumped up and down in a mud hole in the yard, and run to the bed and jumped up and down on it. He made the sheets as muddy as they could be. She come in there raring and was going to whoop my baby brother for messing that bed up. And my older brother got her out in the yard and down in the mud hole and just rubbed her head in it and rolling her in it; she had just gotten a perm in her hair. I laughed until I liked to died. She had planned to tell Dad about it; he come in, but all he did was laugh. He said I ought to whoop all of you.
We had an old, big house; it was made out of planks. It wasn't painted or anything. Mama would make us dig white wash out of the banks and put it in a bucket of water and let it sit over night, which would soften it up. It looked like a bucket of milk by morning. And she would make us paint the walls white with a wash rag. It would be just as pretty and white. We had old straight chairs, not like we have now, no couches or anything, just a bunch of old straight chairs. We would have to take them out to the back of the house, dig white sand of the bank, and scrub them with a wash rag and rinse them good and let them sit in the sunshine and dry up.
I don't remember when my dad started making whiskey; he made it when we were young though. He would take some old tin and make him a big old thing to put his beer and stuff in. He would go get meal, sugar, and some yeast and put in it. He would let it sour and mess up for about two or three weeks. Then he would go and run it off in just a little stream like a pen or a match stem, and then he would take that and sell it for fifty cents a gallon. He made it way back in the woods where no one would find it; someone would get mad at him, report it, and the law would go in and cut it down. Then he would move on to somewhere else and put up another one, trying to make a living. He just took some poplar planks and most of the time he would go to the woods and cut a poplar tree and take it to a sawmill to cut up on the halves. Then he would take it and cut it out round and get his tin and nail all the way around it with big head nails. He had a big old round pot with a hole in the top of it to stir the beer; he had to go everyday and stir some to keep it working. He had seven kids, mama, and himself to feed when he started doing it. Also, he and Uncle Virgil would walk about twenty miles a day across the woods and had them a trail from way down in the bottoms to Lynn to dig ditches for fifty cents a day.
Dad would make crossties; after I got big enough to pull a saw, we would go to the woods to saw crossties; then he would measure them and make three, which was all he could haul on his mules to Nauvoo; they used them on the railroad. Then he would start over and make three more.
My two oldest sisters would tote corn about fourteen miles to Nauvoo and get it ground on the halves and tote it back; Dad put it in two flour sacks. We ate cornbread and syrup for breakfast and was glad to get it. We would make a big cane crop, strip all that fodder off for the cow; we had it made into syrup on the halves. We lived on that during the winter. We would put it in jugs and buckets or anything we could get it in to save it. Wild grapes were in the woods; there were not any bought grapes. If Dad wasn't busy on Sunday's, he would get him a flour sack and go to the woods and hunt those wild grapes up. He would pull them off in big wads. Mama would take those and put them in her five-gallon churn, and she would wash the grapes real good and make us get all the stems and trash out. She would then pour her half a gallon or a gallon of syrup in on them, put a white rag over that, set it back, and whenever we wanted grapes, she would go and dip out a cup full. Anything we found to eat, we ate it. We couldn't buy anything; we made our butter and our milk. All we had to buy was sugar, coffee, and Mom and Dad's snuff.
We raised hogs. We'd have to go out to the field and take the old cow and tie her at the end of the field where we were working at, and every chance we got we'd pull her a big arm full of grass and tote it to her for her to eat. That was giving us milk for the next day. Like if she done without feed today, we didn't get any milk from her tomorrow. We would take a knife and cut the grass or just pull it up, cram it down in a sack, and take it to her. Then the next kid would do the same. We were busy all the time, and we were just little kids!
We never did get to go to school hardly. I went until I got to the fifth grade; I did not get to go regular, I couldn't. We had to walk about three miles to catch the bus, and if it was pouring down raining in the morning, we did not go. Part of the time if Dad hadn't left to go to work, he would walk with us to catch the school bus, and he would build a fire for us to stay warm until the bus got there. We would have to leave before daylight to get there, and then he would have to go on to his job.