Volume II, No. 3, Spring 1975
While the man of the Ozark family may have been in charge of the almost self-sufficient farm living operation, his authority ended in the house.
That was woman's domain. And especially that was true of the kitchen, the busiest room in the house where most of the essential activities of living took place--preparing and eating three meals a day for the family, extra hands and friends; preparing food for canning and storing; washing and ironing; and family washing up and bathing. From building a fire in the cook stove in early morning before cooking breakfast until bedtime when the last family member washed up for bed, there was nearly always some activity going on. No other room had the appeal of this warm room filled with pleasant odors and interesting activity where mother could almost always be found.
Before electricity came to the rural areas in the late 1930's and early 40's, the normal kitchen did
not have much furniture or built-in cabinets. There was usually just a big table and chairs or
benches for eating, the iron cook stove, a cook table, a safe or cupboard and often a pantry.
The early pioneers used a fire place for cooking their food before they had a stove. Cooking with a skillet or a kettle with little legs which permitted it to set over the fire, they used the direct fire or coals for heat. When stoves became available, people continued to use wood for fuel, but contained the fire in the stove with dampers and flues to control heat better and provide a convenient place to set pans. The stoves were such an improvement and so satisfactory, that some country kitchens used them until recent times even after bottled gas and electricity came to the country.
Wood cook stoves were the most common and practical. Made out of iron, they were durable and did not need much repair, nor were they expensive to own or use. Of course, they had to have wood to operate, but the wood served a double duty by also giving off heat for the kitchen. There was usually a wood box behind the stove to store some wood.
Each day this box would have to be filled and the ashes from the stove would have to be emptied so the fire would burn better.
Later on some women got a coal oil or kerosene stove which usually had two to four burners. Some had a little oven that could be placed over a burner and used to bake bread and cakes, and others had ovens built permanently over one or two burners. This type of stove was not nearly as hot to cook on as the wood stove and was used mainly in the summer. Some families would even have both, the kerosene stove for summer and quick cooking, the wood stove for winter and heavy cooking. Refilling the oil tank was not such a frequent chore as getting wood, although some people thought kerosene gave off a displeasing smell. Most people in the country had all the wood they wanted free just for cutting and hauling it, but had to purchase the oil.
Generally most of the food was prepared at the cook table which was usually close to the stove. Baking powder, soda, sugar, spices and other staples were sometimes kept there to be in easy reach when mixing food. Some women would tack a curtain reaching to the floor around the table's edge behind which they could keep some pots and pans. Occasionally there might be a shelf above the table. It was used as a storage area for small utensils and it too was often covered by a curtain.
When preparing a big dinner, the wife might use the eating table for rolling out pies or kneading
bread. This enabled more people to help in the preparation.
Most of the dinner tables were long with a backless bench placed against the wall where the older children ate. The father sat at the head of the table and the mother sat at the foot with the younger children sitting between them. The youngest child usually sat by the mother and the next-to-youngest by the father.
Men would sometimes build their own tables. A handmade table may not have been fancy, but it was durable. Some of the better tables made out of quality wood are sought after by antique collectors today. Men made their own benches and sometimes made split bottom chairs of hickory bark.
On the hot summer days the family frequently moved the table to an outside porch away from the
stove in the hot kitchen. It was more pleasant outside and later when screen wire was used, the
wire helped keep insects away. Carrying the food outside was a bit more work, but it gave more
room in the kitchen and moved some of the activity from underfoot of the cook.
In addition to using the cook table as storage, some people used a safe. This was usually made out of walnut and was tall, with glass doors and a drawer.
It could be described as something like our china cabinets today. Everyday and Sunday dishes, silverware, and some staples might be kept there. Prepared food which would not spoil, such as pies and cakes could also be stored there.
Included in the kitchens of homes built after 1900 was often a little room called a pantry. This was used to store large packages of coffee, flour, sugar and other staple groceries bought at a store, as well as pots and pans, coffee and sausage mills, ice cream freezers, ironing boards, and many items of family living. Shelves were built on the walls with hooks to hang coats, pans and other utensils.
The pantry was not very big, about five by eight feet, but provided the storage which built-in cabinets give today. People bought on a larger scale and could have a ready meal without going to the store.
Most washing was done in the kitchen, whether it was washing hands before a meal, doing the dishes, taking baths or washing clothes.
Sinks were not common until long after electricity gave lights to the country. Some women were fortunate enough to have a well or cistern close enough to the house so they could have a hand pump inside. But most families carried the water inside in buckets which they placed on the wash stand. This stand was really a small table where the water for all the household chores was stored. A dipper, wash basin and soap dish sat beside the water bucket. The slop bucket sat under the table to eliminate a trip outside to empty the container each time water was used. All waste water, as well as garbage, was poured into this bucket. The contents were often fed to the hogs or chickens.
As soon as they were strong enough, a continual chore for children was to keep the water bucket filled. The bucket held about two and a half gallons and was wooden, granite, or, later on, white enamel sometimes trimmed in red.
When the meal was over, the wife washed the dishes. This chore was done first by heating the water, either in a teakettle or in the reservoir of the stove. Dish washing took two pans, one for washing the dishes, the other for scalding. Without a sink to wash in, many women washed dishes on the broad flat stove surface. An advantage of that was that the dish water stayed hot--almost too hot!
Homemade lye soap was put in the bottom of the dish pan. Hot water from the teakettle was poured directly on the soap to make suds. Cold water dipped from the water bucket was added to the dish water to make a comfortable temperature for the hands. Some women had a metal utensil to hold the soap.
At the end of the handle was a cage just the right size to hold a cake of soap. This could be put into hot dish water and shaken to make suds.
Dishes were washed and stacked into the other dish pan. Hot scalding water was poured over them. The dishes were then dried and put away.
Another kitchen chore was caring for the floor. Floors of homes in the pioneer days were plain dirt. The homemaker would sweep the hard packed dirt floor. It was hard work but that was all they knew and could afford. Then when local saw mills began operating, many built board floors of oak or sometimes pine. Using lye soap, the wife would scrub the floor with an old broom till it was clean. Some even crushed white sand rock to use as a cleaner. This would make the floors really shine.
In more recent times women livened up the kitchen with attractive patterned linoleum which was shiny, easy to clean and would cover the whole floor. Some people would put extra strips on places where there was traffic so it would wear longer. The linoleum would last three or four years.
Ceilings at first were plain, without paint or paper. Later kitchens were sealed and painted or papered. If the family could not afford paper, they might use newspaper to help seal the room and give the rough wooden interior a cleaner, brighter look.
Lighting was poor compared to modern standards. Most homes would have a kerosene lamp Which had to be cleaned every day. Lanterns were also used, not only in the house, but to light the path to the barn or chicken house. Some people used a reflector lamp. This lamp, usually kerosene, kept on a shelf had a metal reflector behind the flame to throw off more light.
Even when electricity reached the farm, most people used it only for lights, wiring their homes with one single light hanging from the ceiling in the middle of each room. If the kitchen had one outlet in it, it was lucky. The electric light was such an improvement over what they had before that they did not realize how much more useful electricity could be. Also, they were afraid of the monthly bill, for this was probably one of the first regular utility bills they had to pay.
There could be many annoying little headaches for the lady of the house. Before screened doors
and windows the biggest problem in the summer was insects. In the country there was much to
draw flies to the house--livestock, fruit trees and water from the slop bucket dumped outside the
kitchen door. Small tree branches or dish towels make handy items to shoo flies outside.
Everything was kept covered to keep out flies. Women who left food on the table between meals
covered everything carefully with a pretty cloth to protect the food from flies.
Many farm families were practically self-sufficient, growing or producing most of what they needed, buying only staples. The family usually had a few dairy cattle that provided milk for drinking and for making butter and cheese. Poultry houses furnished fresh eggs daily and chickens for baking, stewing and frying.
Farm people usually butchered their own meat. They cured and stored pork in the smokehouse. Before pressure cookers became available and long before freezer lockers, farm people butchered beef for use only in the winter when it would keep. Usually two or three families would get together to butcher a beef to have enough people to consume a whole beef before it spoiled.
Fresh vegetables like beans, potatoes, greens, lettuce, beets and cucumbers were grown in their gardens and fruit from their orchards included apples, peaches, cherries and pears. When winter came, root vegetables like potatoes, turnips and apples were stored in the cellar or put in the ground and then covered with straw.
To add variety to the menu or stretch out the meat supply (and because it was great relaxation as well as fine eating), men would fish for crappie, bass, goggle-eye, catfish or suckers, and would hunt wild rabbit, quail, squirrel, possum and coon. Women and children picked wild dock and carpenter's square in early spring for a mesa of greens. They gathered blackberries, dewberries and huckleberries in the summer and hazel nuts, hickory and black walnuts in the fall.
But not everything could be grown at home. Some things had to be bought at the store. Going to town on Saturday to get groceries was a weekly occurence for many Ozark families. However, some people who lived a long distance from town would perhaps make the trip only once every three or four weeks. People who came to town so rarely had to make sure they got all they needed to last until they could get to town again.
Because most families baked their own bread, they used a large quantity of flour and meal. They would not buy five or ten pound sacks of flour as many do today. The smallest purchase was a twenty-five pound sack. In the winter when trips to town were even less frequent they would often get a hundred pound sack.
But many households did not buy flour at the store. Instead they took their own grain to a nearby mill to be ground into flour or meal whenever they would run low. Some people who did not live near a mill had all the flour they would use ground once or twice a year.
Sugar was another one of the products besides flour that was bought in large quantities. This was especially true in summer when it was used for canning fruits and making jellies and preserves. In the very early days, people did not buy much sugar, but used sorghum instead.
The food a family bought was not prepackaged. The wife chose the amount she wanted, and the merchant put it into paper sacks. Food did not come in cans, jars or plastic bags as it does today. Crackers and tea were rarely bought except as a treat, or when someone was sick. When buying crackers the merchant would reach into the cracker barrel and get a handful of crackers, weigh it, and if it was not enough he would get another handful and put it in a small paper bag or poke. A dime's worth would fill a larger sack.
Beans, sugar, coffee and rice were weighed by the quarter's worth. That 25¢ worth would fill a big sack.
Foods we take for granted today, such as citrus fruits, were regarded by most families as a real
delicacy. Because there were no refrigerated trucks bringing produce to local markets, the cost of
buying such goods was prohibitive. Housewives would buy those foods only in season when the
price was not so high.
Preparing meals for the busy farm family of fifty years ago was no easy chore. Early in the morning the wife would bring in the wood to start the fire in the stove. If she was baking cornbread or biscuits, which was usually done every day for breakfast, she would have to wait at least half an hour for her stove to get hot enough to begin baking. While she was preparing and serving her breakfast, she would bring in water to heat on the stove for dish washing. When the family finished eating, she did her dishes.
Almost as soon as breakfast was over, she would begin dinner which took most of the morning to prepare. If she needed meat she might have to go out to the smokehouse to cut off some pieces of meat to fry. Or if she was going to have an old hen for dinner, she would go to the hen house to pick out a light combed hen that was not laying, kill it, dress and boil it, perhaps with noodles.
In season she would go to the garden to gather the vegetables she wanted for a meal, then wash, prepare and cook them. If she needed some canned vegetables or fruit, she would go to the cellar and carry back what she needed. Her home canned goods could be compared to our pre-packaged foods today. However, her pre-packaged foods were ones she herself had spent hours preparing the past summer.
There was not any hot or cold running water in the kitchen. All water had to be run in on two feet! Ususally the wife had to draw her water from an outside well or dip it out of a spring and carry it in bucketfuls into the kitchen, sometimes having to make several trips to get water in preparation of a meal.
There was not even a sink to carry away the waste water and there were no refrigerators for cooling milk or other foods. Because there were none of the modern conveniences and she had to do everything from scratch, it took almost twice as long to prepare a meal then. It usually took a minimum of two hours to prepare a main meal.
Meals with just the family at the table would be served family-style. The food put in serving bowls would be passed around the table. Each person ate what he wanted. If he did not want something, he usually was not made to eat it but would have to wait until the next meal for anything else, because the mother could not prepare several meals at a time for finiky eaters. Often there was not much choice for the cook to plan her menus. She prepared what dishes she could from food she had.
At threshing dinners the family whose turn it was to feed the workers would have to put all the leaves in the table to make extra eating space. Even then there might have to be a second or third setting to serve them all. After the men had eaten the women and children would get their turns. Often the children would have to wait until after everyone else had eaten. By that time there often was not much left.
Afternoon was usually the slack time in the kitchen. So during this time the wife cleaned the house, sewed, or did other chores. Or sometimes, believe it or not, she had a little free time!
Supper, which usually consisted of what was left from dinner, did not take much time to prepare. After supper was eaten there were more dishes to be washed. Then the family moved into the front room to sew, read, whittle and do homework for the short time before going to bed.
Besides being used as a place to prepare food, the kitchen was used as a bathroom. Men shaved
there, everyone washed up there and brushed their teeth. One night a week it was used for bathing
in many homes since it was convenient to heat the water there and it was the warmest place in the
house to take a bath. The tub of water was usually placed near the stove with every member of a
family taking turns bathing.
Big breakfasts were common and necessary on the farm for lots of energy was needed to do the chores and hard labor that came with being a member of a farm family. Breakfasts usually consisted of bacon, sausage, or sometimes fried chicken, and eggs, gravy and biscuits with molasses and butter. There was milk to drink for the children and coffee for the grown-ups.
The big meal was at noon and was called dinner. The noon meal usually consisted of meat and gravy, potatoes, beans, or other vegetables, and cornbread or light bread with butter. For dessert there would be either canned or fresh fruit, depending on the season, and perhaps fruit cobblers, pies or cakes.
When the farmers began to milk cows more frequently, their wives made cream pies and had whipped cream on fruit pies.
The evening meal was a simple, though substantial one, needed to sustain people who worked hard. Usually a farm wife would serve what was left over from dinner for supper. Often a pot of mush and milk or left-over cornbread and milk was served along with the leftovers. In summer supper would usually be cold for the fire in the stove would be allowed to go out after dinner. Since the fire would be maintained for warmth in the winter, food could easily be heated up for supper.
On Thanksgiving, Christmas, the Fourth of July, or other special days, treats were included in the daily meal. Oranges, rarely seen the rest of the year, could be found in Christmas stockings and also on the Fourth of July. Lemonade was a summer treat, too, especially with ice from the ice house.
It was not often the children had snacks, but when they did, they usually consisted of a cookie or bread and butter sandwich with a glass of milk. They could not buy lots of snack items as we do today. Years ago they did not have the money to buy treats even if they could find them at the store, nor could they get to the store often enough to purchase them.
The meals were usually simple fare, but they were good and nutritious, with no loss of food values from storage and no perservatives added to food. You might think the meals were bland or lacked variety, but they were probably more nutritious than our meals today since they were prepared straight from their sources.
In years past it was more difficult to keep food cool than it is today. Now deep freezes and refrigerators do our cooling for us, but before electricity came to the rural areas, there were few ways to keep things adequately cool enough to prevent spoilage.
The problem was not as great in the winter, of course. But in warm weather there was always the danger that the food would spoil from one meal to the next. Yet with typical ingenuity making use of what they had, the Ozark people had several methods of cooling their food.
These next three methods were common ones used in the winter, making use of the natural cold temperature. Food was sometimes covered and put in window boxes outside. Porches also served as winter refrigerators if the food was carefully covered so there would be no danger of animals eating it. Another way to keep food was to put it in the smokehouse where the meat was stored.
Storing perishables in hot weather posed a much greater problem, but again, taking advantage of natural conditions, their resoursefulness found ways.
Some people were lucky enough to have a cave spring near enough to use. The spring--clean, clear, and cold--would flow out of the ground from a cave opening. Often shelves to store food were built right inside the cave. The farm wife would put the foods she wanted to keep cool in water-tight jars, usually gallon or half gallon size, and place them on the shelves, letting the 52° spring water flow over them. Water tight jars were used to prevent water seeping under the lids and getting into the food.
Sometimes, however, shelves were built on the cave's side walls. The food could be put on these shelves and the cool cave temperature would keep the food from spoiling so quickly. Or pans containing food to be cooled were set in the water, but not completely submerged.
Other springs sometimes had spring houses built over them for the same purpose. The houses were small with only one door to enter. Food to be cooled, like milk, butter and sometimes fruit, could be put on shelves, submerged in the water or could be hung from the rafter in buckets. The house protected the food from stock and wild animals.
Cisterns and dug wells were two other popular ways of keeping things cool. Both functioned in about the same way as the springs. The food was put into a pail or bucket and lowered on a rope or chain down into the water, or just down a few feet into the well, to take advantage of the cooler temperature.
Another way to cool, similar to the well, was a pit. Some people would dig a hole in the ground several inches deep in a place protected from the sun, such as the north side of the house. They would put some river sand and gravel in the bottom. Usually this hole had a frame around it and a lid to cover it so nothing would get into the food. Water added from time to time to the sandy bottom and the natural coolness of the ground helped keep food somewhat cool.
As time passed and better transportation methods became available enabling people to get to town frequently to purchase ice, iceboxes became popular in summer months. They were usually small and square in size. Some of them had a square opening cut on one side of the top of the box so a block of ice could be put in from the top. Others had a door that opened from the front to put in ice.
The opening in the top had a cover which could be removed. In the compartment fifty, seventy-five or a hundred pound blocks of ice could be stored in insulated compartments. On the opposite side and underneath the compartment were doors which opened to expose shelves where food was stored.
Since the ice would melt little by little during the day, a pan had to be kept under the side where it was stored to catch the dripping water. This pan had to be emptied frequently or puddles of water would form and run across the kitchen floor. A hundred pounds of ice melting makes a lot of water. Carrying in the ice and emptying the pan both called for some mopping up. It was not as convenient as our frost-free refrigerators today.
The one hundred pound cake of ice would last about two days in hot weather. Because the ice had to be replaced so often, iceboxes were not practical to use very far from an ice plant. They were used mainly in or near towns and villages where there were sometimes ice routes.
As ice was often difficult to get, it was not used regularly for drinking water, but mostly saved for making ice cream, and served at dinners for threshing crews or on special occasions.
There was another method of cooling that was available to those who had access to a river and ice shed. In winter ice cut out of the rivers would last until midsummer if stored well.
Getting ice was usually a neighborhood undertaking, requiring several men to get the ice out of the river, load on wagons and take to store. As the men worked they would stand on solid ice near the river bank so they would not fall in. Using a cross-cut saw with one handle removed, the men would cut a long strip of ice. Then they would saw it into blocks small enough to handle. With ice tongs they lifted the blocks out of the river and loaded them on a wagon. The men would then drive the wagon to a shed where the ice was stacked solidly and compactly.
The shed would belong to one of the men of the community who would loan it for storing the ice. The ice was often used by the whole community. Anyone wanting the ice was welcome to help himself, taking what he needed.
Sawdust was used as insulation to keep it from melting. A space of about one foot would be left between the wall of the shed and the ice. Sawdust would be closely packed in this space and was piled at least a foot thick on the top.
The water which froze to form the ice was clean and clear. People used to use the ice with no thought as to its purity. It is unlikely that this practice of refrigeration will be used again.
The housewife's tasks were done without the aid of modern kitchen appliances and surroundings. You can readily see that homemaking was a full time job "back when," and the lady of the house had little time for outside activities. No Weight Watchers Or exercise class for her--she got all her exercise carrying water and wood, scrubbing clothes and floors.
That old saying, "Man works from sun to sun, but a woman's work is never done," seems to have been written especially for the busy Ozark farm wife. But in spite of all the hard work, she led a happy life as she labored in her home and garden with her children to help with the chores.
As she glanced around her kitchen before she blew out the lamp and went off to bed, she must have smiled a smile of contentment for a job well done, even though it would have to be done all over again tomorrow!
We would like to thank the following for giving us information on this story: Helen Bart, Myrtle and Elva Hough, Lois Roper Beard and Annie Fike.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
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