BAREFOOT GIRL AT WORK

I was born to Stanley and Hattie Martin on the day of the stock market crash in 1929. I was the youngest of Stanley’s and Hattie’s five children. Dot, Imogene, Leita, and Dale were my older siblings. I was always referred to as “the baby”, as though no matter what age I reached, they would never ever treat me as an adult. I did not like that. And, the implication was that since I was the baby, I was therefore spoiled. I did not like that either. My childhood memories are from the depression years of the 1930’s, and the war years of the 1940’s.

The following commentary may cause you to think we were living in poverty, but in our community, we were among the more prosperous farm families. We were not living a subsistence farm life because of the Great Depression, but rather just because it was our way of life. My parents had bought the old home place from Daddy’s mother, Vicky Sexton Martin. We owned it free and clear. No bank was threatening to foreclose on us. We had plenty to eat due to vegetable gardening, fruit orchards, a few cows for milking, chickens for laying eggs, and chickens for frying or cooking with dumplings. There were hogs for killing which turned into ham, salt pork, and sausage.

No family in our rural neighborhood had electricity, indoor plumbing, running water, or a telephone. Those amenities simply were not available in our rural area. This was before TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority, came along after World War II, and did rural electrification along the Tennessee River Valley. Our community of Standing Rock Creek in Stewart County, TN got electricity in 1951, but we had all moved away by then.

Labor on the farm divided up something like this. Daddy planted and worked crops in the fields, cut stove wood, and managed the horses, wagons, mules, and cows at the barn. Mama worked in the vegetable garden and in the kitchen. She also raised chickens and ducks, fed the hogs, and frequently worked in the fields. Dot, the oldest child, helped Daddy in the fields, plowing behind a mule, hoeing, or whatever was needed. She became a good farm hand and enjoyed the work. Imogene was good in the kitchen, and with needle work. Leita got the job of taking care of me, as she was nine when I was born and needed a plaything. Only son, Dale, helped Daddy with any job around the farm, and they went squirrel hunting together. I did anything I was big enough to do. Here are some jobs I remember.

I brought in stove wood. Each room was heated by its own wood stove. Each wood stove was made from an old metal oil barrel with a stove pipe running from the top of the barrel up through the ceiling. There was a small door on the lower front of the barrel for accessing the fire. Even in the hot summer, stove wood was needed for the kitchen cook stove. All cooking was done on a wood burning stove. The old, black, iron cook stove had an oven for baking, a generous top surface for frying in skillets, or boiling in pots, a reservoir for water which would get warm and stay warm for a while, and a warming closet up above for keeping cooked vegetables warm. There was no refrigeration.

In the summer, after breakfast, it was my job to take a gallon bucket of milk, still warm from the cow, to the spring and set the bucket, with lid on tight, in the cold spring water. The spring came out of the side of the hill and flowed into Standing Rock Creek right above the swimming hole. I walked up there via the old road that followed alongside the creek. It was not unusual to see snakes. In the summer I was always barefooted, by choice. At midday, when the noon meal was ready, it was my job to go back to the spring and bring the cooled milk to the house for drinking.

Toward the end of the day, It was my job to walk up past Mr. Herman Stavely’s house, on the way to the Methodist Church, to a pasture where our milk cows grazed during the day, and bring them home. All I had to do was open the gate, and the cows knew where to go, i.e., home to the barn. I just followed along behind them, barefoot on the dirt road.

I gathered the hen eggs daily. I learned it was wise to stand on tip toes and peer into a nest before reaching in with my hand. A chicken snake might be in there swallowing the eggs.

Emptying the chamber pots each morning was my job. There was an outdoor toilet, called the outhouse, which we used during the day, but at night we used the chamber pot beside our bed. Each morning I dumped the contents in a weedy spot downstream on the creek bank and rinsed the pot out in creek water. There were two pots, the upstairs pot and the downstairs pot.

I swept the floor, all the rooms and the porches, with a broom. Nobody had ever even heard of a vacuum cleaner. I rode along in the Model A Ford with my parents when they drove up Leatherwood to the Largent Hollow to get Mr. Largent to make us a new broom. He had the machinery for making a broom, but we had to provide our own broom corn.

I kept the kerosene lamps filled with kerosene. I washed the soot from the lamp chimneys. My arm was small and would fit inside the chimney. When the sun went down, the lamps were our only source of light.

Because my arm was small, I also got the job of washing out glass mason jars for canning fruits and vegetables. Those were hot steamy times in the kitchen in the summer at canning time, with the wood stove fire hot enough to boil water for scalding the mason jars before they were filled with food for the winter. There was no electricity for even a fan.

When Mama needed something like baking soda or baking powder, salt, yeast or gelatin, she would send me to Moore’s store. We called it T’s and Ben’s. I would walk there barefooted, across the Ribbon Branch Bridge, then past Mr. Crockett’s and Miss Ethel’s house, then along in front of Mulberry School house, then down the hill to T’s and Ben’s. They didn’t have electricity either. Nobody in our community did. So the store was tiny, with no perishable merchandise, but they did have one gas pump out front. Oddly, Moore’s store became a place to hang out, and see other people. I remember folks being shocked when the price posted on the gas pump rose to nineteen cents a gallon.

Our source of potable water was a well in the corner of the yard. It had the typical bucket attached to a rope, and a pulley for lowering the bucket into the well. When the bucket filled with water, you raised it by pulling on the rope, hand over hand, until you could grab that bucket with your hands and empty its contents into a bucket for carrying water back to the kitchen. Every drop of water used in the house was acquired that way. I am not saying I brought in all the water, but I brought in a lot of it. As I grew older, I could eventually carry two two-gallon buckets, one in each hand.

Wash day meant more water from the well was needed. First, we filled the iron wash pot which had a fire burning under it for heating water and boiling the dirtiest pieces. Several more buckets of water were needed to fill three zinc wash tubs: one with warm soapy water and a washboard, one with rinse water, and a second tub of rinse water with bluing in it. We wrung water out of the clothes by hand as they left each tub.  As soon as I was tall enough, I hung wet clothes on the clothes line to dry. All laundry was done in the yard, near the wash pot. Homemade lye soap was used. The soap was made by Mama using ashes from the ash heap and lard from the hog killing.

Picking blackberries was a more enjoyable task. We knew to expect chiggers and rattle snakes and sun burn. That was just part of it. The payoff was the wonderful blackberry cobbler or blackberry jelly Mama would make.

We made our own butter and buttermilk. It was my job to do the churning. Extra milk that was not taken to the spring for chilling, was kept in a churn until the cream separated and rose to the top. I stood by the churn and plunged the dasher up and down through the milk probably for about fifteen minutes until a blob of butter floated on top. Mama salted the butter and we slathered that on her hot biscuits, along with homemade molasses or preserves. What was left in the churn after the butter was removed, was buttermilk, and we crumbled up Mama’s leftover corn pone into a glass of buttermilk at night and had that for supper. The kitchen stove was fired up only for breakfast and the noon meal.

Tobacco planting day was exciting. First, the young tobacco plants were pulled from the home made tobacco bed and the roots kept wet. The plowed rows in the field had been prepared. Tobacco sticks had been hand carved from bent tree branches for poking a hole in the ground where the young seedling root would go. I was allowed the responsible job of dropping one plant by each poked hole. Sometimes, I could come along behind and pour a dipperful of water on each new plant. They were humoring me. The real work was being done by older folks. Sometimes neighbors would help, or Daddy would hire teenage boys from the neighborhood.

Daddy had beautiful tobacco crops. When the plants were more mature, tobacco worms had to be picked off the leaves and squished. I did it, but didn’t like the job, and I did not stomp on those fat, juicy, green, horned worms barefooted. Sometimes I was sent to a field where Daddy was working to deliver him a quart jar full of fresh cold drinking water.

For fun I played in the creek, or eavesdropped on my sisters when they were talking about their dates. There were always lots of boyfriends hanging around our house, but I was too little to participate in that. When my sisters wanted to say something they thought I was too little to hear, they sent me off on some phony errand, which made me very angry. I would leave, and sit pouting on the farm yard fence near the barn, until I got bored with pouting and went back inside.

This has been a summary of some jobs I did as my contribution to our way of life on the farm. We all worked. Everybody did their part. It was expected and we each did what we could. There were other activities that were more like play, and I will cover those in a separate writing. This piece is limited to my memories of work as a child. I never thought I was spoiled, or that I didn’t pull my own weight. My older family members are all long gone. Perhaps writing this will cure me of being on the defensive about their calling me the baby.

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