Volume VIII, No. 4, Summer 1981
by Kathy Long
"They didn't used to celebrate holidays when I was growing up down around in my part of the country like they do now," said Lucy Caffey. "We spent most of our holidays at home."
Of course, today with many family members living far apart, it is not unusual for people to travel many miles to be with their family during the holidays. However, years ago whole families often lived in the same communities, and in spite of bad weather, transportation difficulties and continuous farm chores, almost every family celebrated each holiday in some way.
This issue and the next three issues of Bittersweet contain a series of articles focused on the various ways old-time Ozarkians celebrated holidays as they grew up.
"We always celebrated Decoration Day," they told us. In rural Ozark communities, families often spent the entire day at the cemetery, cleaning it up, decorating graves and visiting with friends and neighbors.
Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as they all called it, was, perhaps more so than other holidays, a big event in Lois Roper Beard's life. Since the Roper Cemetery practically lies in her front yard even today, Lois accommodates a number of people visiting the cemetery each year as May comes to a close. She said, "I cook, as a rule, plenty of what I cook--a big pot of chicken and noodles, and I'll usually make a couple of pans of rolls, and I'll have the strawberry cobblers. I'll just have what I have. After being at the cemetery, I'll come to the house, and there's no telling how many people have eaten here."
Lois told about a special Decoration Day celebration held the day after her baby sister was born. "My mother was expecting her seventh child. And we girls, of course, were sent away from home."
The baby was born and shortly afterwards, Lois' brother sprained his ankle when he was thrown from a horse he was attempting to break for riding. Leaving their mother in bed with the newborn baby, seven year old Lois and her ten year old sister were left to care for their brother and to prepare dinner to take to the cemetery the next day. Lois remembered, "Aunt Sarah came over the evening before and helped us a little bit. But we had our big ole chicken and dressing and a stack of fruit pies. We had everything ready and put it in a number two washtub." Then, they carried it to the cemetery. "My brother had to walk with a crutch because he had the crippled ankle. He was the musician in our family. He played the clarinet. So he took the clarinet and stood at the gate on one crutch and played "Marching Through Georgia" for all the kids to go lay the flowers on the soldiers' graves. I never will forget that.
"Then we put out a tablecloth with all the other women, and I can just see the two of us trying to get that dinner on the ground, and that's where we put it. That's what you call a 'dinner on the ground.' But we managed it. We cut the stack of pies and cut up the chicken and dished out the food for the little ones.
"After the dinner was put away, then we had a very pretty service. We said our speeches, Uncle Jasper made a nice talk, and someone always read the Declaration of Independence on Decoration Day."
"It almost always rained," said Hazel Cravens. "Everybody had a new hat to wear Decoration, and most of the time, you got your hat wet and ruined it. Then there was no bridges on the creeks. A lot of times on the way to McBride Cemetery, you got stuck in the creek 'cause there was two or three little creeks over there, and especially if it had rained beforehand, and the creek was up, but I can't remember not going to the cemetery. That was Decoration in early days."
Usually, the day before Decoration Day, several families in the rural community met at the cemetery to clean off the graves, or each family would clean off its own graves early on Memorial Day. "We cleaned the graves off every Memorial Day, and sometimes in between times," said Lois Hough. "Since we spent all day working on the cemetery and cleaning off graves," Flora Lampoons said, "lots of times, we wouldn't go on Memorial Day if it fell on a weekday, because farmers had to work. They had to go to the cemetery on Sunday."
"Back when I was a little girl," remembered Hazel, "country cemeteries were not kept like they are now." Lois Hough added, "There was no special caretaker. We did it ourselves. And in our family plots there's more than one family, so we'd all chip in."
Hazel said, "Almost all country cemeteries now have a perpetual fund, and a caretaker, and they're well fenced, well mown, and flowers and shrubs are planted around. Well, it wasn't so when I was growing up. To look at those country cemeteries now, you can't believe the state they were in then. You had to take a shovel and a hoe and a rake and virtually weed and just clean the place up. The whole cemetery would just have to be raked, and it was weeds. Sometimes, they'd even burn it off to get the top weeds off." Flora explained, "They didn't have lawnmowers or anything like that. They would have to take their corn knives and cut the grass and weeds and brush and clean off the graves.
"We used to take sand and put on my baby brother and sister's graves to help keep the weeds down," Hazel said. "And a lot of people would haul in gravel," Lois Beard added. "Some of them had the graves covered with white mussel shells. They'd go to the river and pick them out and then bleach them out with lye water. Oh, they were pretty! They'd rake up all the gravel fresh and take those things off and put them back on in rows up and down the grave. I can remember one whole row down here at the cemetery was like that. They're beautiful that way, but you've got to take care of them. You just don't leave them year in and year out. They won't stay. You have to clean it up once in awhile."
After the cemeteries were cleaned up, families usually spent the rest of the day decorating the graves, eating picnic dinners and enjoying each other's company. In the days before artificial plastic flowers were manufactured, folks decorated graves with what they had, as Lois Beard told. "We didn't have flowers, only what we cut out of the yard. I can remember how we even had to gather wildflowers to have enough. But we all gathered at the cemetery, at eleven o'clock--the whole community--and there would be enough flowers to go around to all of the old soldiers' graves. The only soldiers we had in that time were the old soldiers of the Civil War. There would be a group of us smaller children that would be given a bunch of flowers apiece. They may be wildflowers, but we had flowers of some kind. We would take them and lay them on the graves. There was always one old soldier that would go with us, Uncle Jasper. He would always lead the way. And he usually had one flag that he'd put on some special soldier's grave.
He'd show us where to put the flowers. Of course, they would be wilted by the time the day was half gone, but then it was the thought of the laying them on. It was the honor really that we were doing to the soldiers that were gone. We had a sad time, but yet a time of reverence."
"That was in the day before plastic flowers ever thought about being," said Hazel. "Plastic came into being during World War II. Well, this was pre-World War II, and they made crepe paper flowers in those days. Oh, you could get books of directions on making crepe paper flowers. I never was very good, myself, but I had a sister just older than me, and she could make lovely crepe paper flowers--sweetpeas and tiny, miniature baby roses. She'd fasten them onto wire and wrap the stems in green crepe paper. We learned to dip them in melted paraffin wax, and that way, they stayed longer. Sometimes, they shaped them round like a wreath or long like a spray. They'd use a long wire and wire them out into a spray like you see the plastic flowers. Everybody made crepe paper flowers to take to Decoration.
"The reason we didn't take natural flowers to the cemetery was that they would be wilted. When I was real little, in the late twenties, the roads were terrible! The distance seems so short now, but it seemed so long then. Flowers just didn't last that long. Of course, sometimes, if Mother had anything that was in bloom at the time, she would take natural flowers. But I know my aunt, who lived real close to the cemetery, always put natural flowers in. She had lots of natural roses and things." Flora said, "We would always take fresh flowers. We didn't buy flowers. We didn't Know how to make paper flowers."
"Now I use a lot of natural flowers because I have a lot of iris, peonies and some of the roses are good the last of May, and mock orange," Hazel continued. "Of course, it depends on the season--what's really out for Decoration. Sometimes the weather doesn't cooperate. Sometimes, the peonies are open and gone and sometimes, they're not open. Weather-wise, whatever the season, I now use a lot of natural flowers. We still buy plastic flowers because they last, but we don't use crepe paper anymore. We did away with crepe paper."
To assure decorations on the graves that wouldn't wilt, some families planted flowers and shrubs on their families' graves. Hazel said, "Mother planted some roses on the graves once. I think peonies were favorite flowers. They'd put that at the head of the grave--something that would come back next year."
By noon, most families had finished decorating their graves, and everyone ate dinner together and visited at the cemetery. "You'd see them wagons and teams everywhere," Vohn Waterman said. "They'd go down there and meet their neighbors and even people they hadn't seen since the Decoration before and visit all day." Hazel added, "People would come back, oh, just from all over. Even a lot of times, people from other states would make that a vacation time till they could get back for Decoration.
"Back then many times, everybody took a basket dinner and had a big fellowship. They still have a big dinner down at Orla every Decoration," Hazel continued. "That was a big gala affair for many, many years at the McBride Cemetery. People came from miles around and brought a basket dinner. Then, they didn't even have sawhorses. They put the tablecloth down on the ground and set the food right on the ground."
Also, some families engaged in formal ceremonies at the cemetery or some kind of informal entertainment such as ball games for the young people. Grace Johnson remembered, "In town, they'd always have a big parade on Memorial Day. They'd have the old soldiers, and it got so they would ride in a car with the top down. 'Course, they were too old to march, and there would be four or five of them, and then it got down to three, and they would always be in the parade. The parade would end at the cemetery and there would be a speaker there and a eulogy to the dead. Somebody always gave the Gettysburg Address, I remember."
"Decoration Day was the one time that was really thought of in a reverent, very calm, quiet, sweet way," concluded Lois Beard.
FOURTH OF JULY
The Fourth of July, like Decoration Day, was a day for celebrating. But with no reminder of lost loved ones, the Fourth of July was exclusively a day of excitement and light-hearted fun. The objective of the Fourth of July then, as it is now, was to have a good time, whether you celebrated at home, watched the annual parade in town or attended a community picnic at a scenic spot in the country. From the first bang of a firecracker early in the morning, till the last skyrocket burst from the sky in the late evening, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that it was a very special day.
"Fourth of July and Decoration Day were days of celebration," said Grace Johnson. "The first thing I heard every Fourth of July was the blowing of the anvils at the blacksmith shop here in town. They put dynamite in them and blasted them up. It'd make a big noise as they'd come up and down, 'pop.'"
"We lived eight miles from town and we could hear that," added Lois Hough. "Then the church bells rang. Of course, we could shoot firecrackers in town at that time, because they were not dangerous. Being girls, maybe was one reason, but we never did have anything but the little tiny firecrackers."
"You couldn't burn yourself with them," said Grace. "The loudest one would be a pretty good 'pop,' but most of us bought little firecrackers about an inch long, about as big as a match, and they'd be ten or twenty in a package, and you could shoot them one at a time, or you could shoot them all and make them go 'pop,' 'pop,' 'pop.' Then we had Roman candles and skyrockets, too."
"We usually stayed at home," said Lucy Caffey, "but Dad would try to get us some firecrackers and things to shoot. We couldn't hardly wait till it got dark to get to shoot the firecrackers. We didn't have a lot of them then, and I can remember the first time I ever saw one of them things that you throwed up in the air and then it bursted. Oh, I tell you, I thought the world was coming to an end when that went off up there. I remember I screamed when that done that. I didn't enjoy that at all."
Hazel said, "We never had a lot of fireworks and didn't go to see fireworks. They used to have fireworks in town on the Fourth of July. Sometimes we had firecrackers, but not the kind you shoot off at night."
Bill Amos said, "Granddad Amos and Uncle Noah and Uncle Dee were at home then and we had an old muzzle-loading gun. It was quite a treat to get down Grandfather's gun of July Fourth morning and load the old gun. If you put enough powder in, it'd make a lot more noise than an ordinary gun. We always shot that off early on the Fourth of July."
Besides the traditional pop of firecrackers, whistle of skyrockets and bangs of exploding gunpowder, Lois Hough remembered hearing an extraordinary roar from the sky one Fourth of July. "We looked up in the sky, and lo and behold, we saw an airplane! That was the first airplane we'd seen, and it was on the Fourth. Now, that was something. And then there was lots of remarks made. Some of us said, 'Well, what if they dropped a monkey wrench out of there, what'd happen?' And then someone said, 'That'll scare the old cows out in the field and they won't give their milk tonight!'"
People who lived and worked in town usually had the day off and could attend fireworks displays and other public celebrations.
"On the Fourth of July, we always had a big town celebration," said Grace. "Everybody went out for that. We always had a big parade. The town band marched and led the parade, and we always had a big parade with a lot of floats--patriotic floats, and all the organizations. We'd have the Statue of Liberty on one, and one year we had Uncle Sam riding a big white horse. He was the marshal of the parade, I guess you could say. And one year forty-eight of us little girls marched. We wore skirts of red and white bunting and a white blouse and then a scarf across it--blue, with the white stars, the red, white bunting draped across the shoulder of one side and the name of our state in the blue. We were supposed to represent the forty-eight states, and I was one of them. Which one was I? Rhode Island, the smallest state, 'cause I was the smallest girl in there. We had all kinds of patriotic floats, and especially after World War I, we'd have the soldiers and the sailors on there and the old Civil War soldiers used to march, until they were too old. I know my grandfather was one of the last Civil War soldiers to march in any of these parades."
Even though Fourth of July celebrations may have been less extravagant in rural areas, they were certainly no less meaningful to those who attended. Hazel said, "A lot of people, if the Fourth of July was on a day through the week, they worked. But my dad usually just took off that day. It was just a day of rest and good times, and sometimes we went to Grandpa's or had people over. It was a day of get-together."
"On one Fourth of July," remembered Roy Amos, "the corn got its last plowing just about that time, and I do remember once, we were able to get away. We worked hard to get away in mid-afternoon to go to a picnic somewhere, but we were then up in our early teens."
"In some places--not in our immediate neighborhood--they would have all day picnics," said Lois Hough. "Of course, the visiting meant a lot to the young folks. Some of them would catch a new beau."
Vohn Waterman said, "They used to have picnics here at Eldridge on the Fourth of July. Picnics would last two days generally. Usually on a Friday and Saturday and wound up on Sunday morning after midnight. Everybody would go and see each other. Lots of times they would see each other only once a year, going to those gatherings. It would be four or five or six miles to go in the wagon. Sometimes they had hacks. If it was nice, sometimes, we would ride the horses. There was wagons tied all over the place.
"I remember a neighbor and his sister lived back the other side of Prospering, and they was going to have this Eldridge picnic up here. He said, 'My dad told me and my sister if we'd go down there and cut sprouts all week, he'd give us a dollar apiece so we could all go to the picnic on Saturday. Me and my sister went down there and cut sprouts for a whole week and we talked about the picnic all the time.'
"The neighbor would always save his money back. He'd buy that lemonade when they'd put it on sale and was trying to get rid of it. He said he'd really get tanked up on it. Lemonade was the cheapest drink they had. My mother used to have a big old jar, twelve gallon, and there'd kind of be a running race to see who'd get to borrow that jar to make the lemonade in.
"Of course, that morning real early, Mother would have that chicken all fried up in a big basket lunch, and we'd take off for the picnic. They had a hamburger stand there, but most of the people didn't have enough money to buy. They were buying a hamburger for a nickle. Think of that now, for a nickel! They had firecrackers and always fireworks of some kind.
"But now they did have a lot of fun. They'd always dance. Most of it was just for eating fun, but that usually wound up when you'd get a bunch of them together. They got to ganging up there at the old picnic grounds and got troublesome. Finally the picnics was run out. They've been out now for thirty years or longer.
"If there wasn't any picnic, they'd go to the river. There'd be four or five families meet down at the river and stay two or three days."
Flora agreed, "Lots of times we would go to the picnic at Lynchburg on the Fourth of July. They would have that every year. This would be through the week or on the weekends sometimes, but usually on the Fourth of July. Sometimes we would go to the river, take our dinner, and they would fish and build a fire to fry the fish on the river."
"One of the greatest things that I remember in the country is that the whole community would band together and go to the river or to a cave or some pretty spot," said Lois Beard. "One of the places where we used to go so much was to the Howell Cave, and there'd be maybe a dozen wagons, all on the road to Howell Cave early in the morning. It's a lovely place and there's a big spring."
Besides a scenic place to meet, lemonade was another necessity for an ideal community picnic. Hazel said, "Everybody bought lemons and had lemonade.''
"The Fourth of July means lemonade to me," said Lois Beard. I can just smell a lemon and think of the Fourth of July. Anyway, that's the only lemonade we ever had, unless it was in the wintertime when we could have it hot as a rule, That ice was something special. The day before, somebody would be elected to drive into Lebanon in a wagon or a hack, with a team, and get five hundred pounds of ice, wrap it up and take it on down to the river."
Hazel explained, "We had an ice plant in town then, and we'd get a great big chunk of ice. We had a fruit cellar, so we'd have an old tarpaulin or an old raincoat or something, and burlap sacks to put it in so you could move it. And then, maybe we'd put some kind of insulation down on the floor to keep it from melting. It would keep overnight. It would have begun to melt some, but not much in a cellar if you wrapped it up real well. There'd be a little water there, but you know, it's surprising, if you wrap up a chunk of ice, it will stay a long time.
"We'd use an ax and a butcher knife to break the ice. People who lived in town and had ice boxes probably had ice picks, but we didn't have because we didn't need them. We used a butcher knife, and we'd just chip across the top and just keep hitting and it'd break off. Then we'd put it in a sack and take the ax and hammer it and break it up into little pieces."
Lois Beard said, "When we'd get to the river, we'd start fixing lemonade. They'd break up a great big chunk of ice and put it in an empty zinc tub, and then squeeze the lemons." Lois Hough said, "They'd just roll the good old lemons out and then cut them and squeeze the juice out of them." "I can just see them," continued Lois Beard, "cut them up and have those little pieces of lemon floating around, mix up the sugar and make it real good and sweet and put it all in and fill up that tub over that ice with spring water. Nowadays everybody's scared to death to drink spring water. Oh, that was the finest lemonade anyone ever drank in their life."
"You know, a glass of ice-cold lemonade was just the best treat you could of had," Hazel said. Lois Hough agreed, "We didn't have lemonade just every whip stitch. That was something."
"Lemonade and the Fourth of July just went together, and ice cream," Hazel continued. Of course, we had our own milk and we had our own eggs, and we'd make a couple or three freezers of ice cream." "Ice cream was a treat then, too," Lois Hough said. "And we'd just have all we could eat that day. That was wonderful."
Lois Beard said, "There'd be a bunch of young kids turning ice cream freezers, while part of the men would go fishing. There was usually always a seine in the crowd somewhere. A seine is made out of twine and it's about as deep as I am tall, and maybe it would be sixty feet long. Several men would drag through an old slough where water stood, and there'd be fish go in there when the water got up, and they would go seine that thing out, and come out with a whole bunch of fish. When they got back, they'd go to cleaning those fish. Another bunch of women would get the fire going, and they'd go to frying the fish."
Besides the lemonade, ice cream and fresh fish prepared at the river, women brought already prepared chicken, fresh vegetables, homemade bread, pies, cakes and any other seasonal foods that could be conveniently packed in a box or basket. Hazel said, "Everybody raised chickens. Everybody had their own fryers, and by the Fourth of July, the fryers would be right. So you could always figure on ice cream and fried chicken for the Fourth of July. That was the treat of the season.
"By the time they got all of that stuff ready to eat, and then ate all of that, they'd be ready to go rest in the shade somewhere," said Lois Beard. "There'd be a good place cleaned off out there, and they'd lay down the quilts or blankets from out of the wagon. Everybody'd just lay down and rest and relax and enjoy that food, maybe get up and go back and eat some more fish or some more chicken and dressing or something."
After relaxing, enjoying a picnic dinner and visiting with each other, they might also go for walks, explore caves, swim or engage in some other physical activities. Then in late afternoon, families would pack up the left-over food, gather the children, load into the wagons and hacks and head for home in time to do the evening chores. Lois Hough said, "The Fourth of July was wonderful.'' "It was a big day," added Lois Beard. "We just had it once a year, but that's the way it was celebrated. That's the way it was taken care of.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.