Volume IX, No. 2, Winter 1981
ENTERTAINMENT IN THE COLD
Edited by Carl Davis and Illustrated by Jill Splan
"In the wintertime, when it snowed there where we lived, there was a hill, and we'd go down there of a night and we'd build a great big fire," said Vohn Waterman. "It was on my dad's place. We'd have all the young people in Eldridge down there. It was just a cold winter night, married people and all. They'd have fun. Just sleigh ride up and down the hill. One time in 1924, there was ice all over everywhere an inch thick. We sleigh rode all up and down the road and down at the old schoolhouse."
The onset of winter, especially the snow, was welcomed by youngsters in the early part of the century on Ozark farms and in small towns. The heavy workload of the growing and harvest seasons was over, leaving more time for fun. Even though there wasn't much to do compared to today's many forms of entertainment, the young people found things to do. The coming of snow and cold weather just added to the possibilities.
Even the weather in the winter seasons seemed a bit different years ago. Grace Manchester Johnson said, "When I was growing up, winter began around the middle of November, and by Thanksgiving, we always had cold weather and snow. December was the bad month and January. Then by February it began to let up. Now, winter's moved over. January and February seem to be our bad months."
With the ground and roads covered with snow, youths would quickly nail together a wooden sled to join a neighborhood group such as Vohn's or just slide down any hill, for one thing the Ozarks has in abundance is hills.
Sleds were easily made. "I had two boards on the side for runners and nailed a top on the runners," said Vohn.
"We had the kind of sleds that the boys made, little wooden sleds with runners. We lived on a hill--a perfect place to sled. We'd slide down and then we had to pull it back up and start over. We played a lot on sleds and made snowmen. It was a lot of fun!" said Hazel Cravens.
"The sleds were made out of lumber, of course," Bill Amos said. "Dad had an old blacksmith's shop on the farm. He had some blacksmith tools and carpentry tools. When first made, the runners were about three feet long. He cut one end with a saw and took a bowie knife and smoothed off the bottom of the runners so they would run easily and nailed another one-by-four across the front and maybe two or three in back to sit down on, and sometimes he'd notch those runners down three-quarters of an inch which made the sled much stronger."
The sleds were usually homemade, but some were purchased. Even if a child was fortunate enough to have a manufactured one, there was still no way to guide them. "They didn't have much way of guiding. You just hoped that you didn't hit a tree," Bill continued. "You usually went out in a pasture where there weren't any trees you could see, but we always had trees and stumps both. Sometimes sleds lasted till next year and sometimes they didn't"
Flora Lampkins remembered, "In the wintertime, when they would make their sleds, the runners would have to be the same width as the rut made in summer by kids riding down the hill a lot in a wagon. If there wasn't any snow on, why, they would take water and pour in that rut and let it freeze. And then they would ride down that hill on that ice. They would work half a day to get that all fixed up and then ride down there. They didn't have to wait for snow."
Flora remembered other ways of sliding down hills. "They used to have a hood off a car. It was round and it would slide. We had quite a steep hill. When it would come a snow, they would take this old metal and get it up on top of the hill. Somebody would get in there and sit down on a blanket or a rug.
There would usually be two--one would sit behind the other. Someone else would push them off down that hill. They would have to turn it, you know. They had a rope to turn it. Sometimes it spilled them out in the snow. But they would have to be careful about running into the fence. One time, one of the boys got into the fence. Sometimes they would have to go and get a rock out. They would go down in that or sometimes they would spill out. Then they would pull it back up and ride down again. And get wet! And come in and change their clothes."
"We used to go on sleigh rides with horse-pulled sleds," Vohn said. "The people around, back in my time, had sleighs, and they'd load up a load of people to take on a sleigh ride. When a big snow came and the weather was fine, that was every night, 'cause there wasn't anyone doing any work and that didn't cost them much."
Since Grace grew up in a small town, her opportunities for entertainment were somewhat different from those in the country. She said, "We lived in the middle of Commercial Street block and there used to be houses all along there. We didn't have many cars then, but the grocery stores delivered at that time, and they still had wagons and horses. The ice truck was an ice wagon with a horse. We would hitch our sleds to these wagons at one end of the block, especially the ice truck. There were people that bought ice even in wintertime sometimes. The grocery men would stop, too, and they'd let us hitch our sleds onto their wagons and then ride to the end of the block where we'd let go. My mother would let me hitch to the wagons, because the drivers would stop, and we'd have fun. They'd pull our sleds back and forth. I know one time Mother let me stay home by myself and play, and I stayed out too long because I let the fire kind of go down. We had a coal heating stove, and I had let it go down 'till it didn't have much fire in it. I had to stir it up. It got so cold in there--and my feet so cold I couldn't walk. I almost frostbit my feet, and I bet that's why my feet get so cold so easily now.
"We used to hook on rides like that, and then there was the sinkhole down at the end of Harwood Avenue that used to be all just park-like, and that sinkhole was just right to slide down without too much danger. On Saturdays we'd go down there, and, of course, we had to be careful, because as we came down the hill, either side, there was that cave you could go back in. That was quite a thing. But, we could slide down each side with our sleds. People that lived in the country had more hills than we had in town, but we'd do that."
Snow on the ground brought other fun things besides sledding. After a newly fallen snow, the school children in the one-room rural schools could hardly wait for recess to play games in the snow.
"You had to have games that everybody could play and that meant most of the children. There was such a difference of age there, it was difficult," said Roy Amos. "You chose your game and made your rules, so that everybody got a chance to play that wanted to. If there was a snow on, then there was such a thing as playing Fox and Geese. It was lots of fun. Make a large circle in the fresh snow and then a center. I remember it was like a large wheel with hub, spikes and rim. The players had to stay in the paths. The fox's den was in there where the hub was in the center. The rest of the people were the geese, and they could go down any one of these spokes towards the fox, and if the fox started after them, they could dash back. They could not get out on the untrampled snow. They had to stay in that path. When the fox started down that spoke after one, then people could cross over in a different path to get away. They could go across into the fox den, and on over to another place on the other side of the circle. You run the fox crazy trying to get somebody. That would last maybe just one-half day, and after that the track was in such bad shape, you couldn't make heads or tails out of it.
"The other game, while the snow was still fresh," continued Roy, "was Fox and Hounds. One or maybe two would be the fox. They'd start out through the woods, way off the school grounds, sometimes a mile or two away, and they'd go together and then they'd separate, if possible. They usually did. Then the hounds, the rest of us were the hounds, would try to catch them by tracking them in the snow. They had a reasonable start. That game could take up an hour, and there were times we just didn't get back to school in time."
"We used to snowball a lot--that was against the rules--and make snowmen," Flora said. "The boys, after they got pretty good-sized, they would see how tall they could make it. Well, they couldn't keep the head on very good, so they would go get a stick and stick down in there and then put the head around that. That stick would hold the head on."
Vohn also remembered making snowmen and having snowball fights. "We used to put a few rocks in them."
"Snow falling wasn't all fun," Bill said. "Naturally, it made it diffiuclt to get places, but school was rarely called off." Children went as they could, and even then as children everywhere do, they made fun out of the difficulties. Flora said, "When we would have snow, Dad would come after us. The snow would be deep and we would be there at school without any overshoes. He would come after us, take a log and drag it in the road, tie it behind the horse and drag it to make us a path so we could get home. That was when there was more of us than could ride a horse. We would walk one behind the other. And then, you know, every once in awhile we would have to get out of the path to see how deep the snow was. And Dad would say, 'Well, what's the use of me making a path if you're going to get out in the snow?'"
"Back when I still lived on Commercial Street," Grace said, "I was still in grade school. I must've been in the third grade. Of course, I was short, and I couldn't get to school in the morning 'cause the snow was too deep for me to make a path, so I had to wait till noon, for by that time they had shoveled a path. There were places where the snow had drifted higher than my head. I imagined all kinds of things walking through that tunnel of snow. Then, when the snow would get a little bad, my mother would make my brother take me on the sled. It kind of aggravated him. I couldn't break the path walking, so he'd take me, throw me on the sled, and I'd have to hang on 'cause he'd go fast."
When the weather was cold enough, ice skating was a favorite sport in the country as well as in town. Hazel said, "I never could ice skate, but kids did. They didn't even use skates, but just skated on their shoes. But I can remember when we were going to school, there was a pond not far from the schoolhouse. The teacher would take us there when that would freeze over. It didn't have much water in it anyway, but it would be thick enough and it was safe. We'd skate on that with just our shoes. But the only time I ever skated was when someone helped me. My brother skated and we had a pond at the foot of the hill."
"I recall ice skating. We had no ice skates then, but leather was cheap, so we would skate with our shoes on," Roy remembered. "The parents didn't like that at all because it just wore out the shoes. There was a pond across from our country school that we went to where they allowed us to skate. We had a lot of fun skating. It was just something like the Fox and Geese. You couldn't do it every day. You had to have special weather."
When a big ice storm fell, children could skate anyplace. Town children could even skate to school. Grace said, "I remember when I was in grade school.
I don't know the years now, but this must have been in 1919 or 20, I think. I was about in the fifth grade, when we had a spell of snow, and then it sleeted on top of the snow and made a solid crust. It stayed cold, and everybody skated everywhere they went. I had a pair of skates. I never could ice skate because my ankles were weak, but my dad bought me a pair of these duffle runners. They called them sled skates. You know what I mean, two sets of runners. I could skate on those, you see, because I roller skated, and I had no trouble with that all my life.
But everybody skated, we skated to school and at recess we skated on the school playground. Everybody skated out there. Even men skated to work. My dad was carrying the mail and he even skated carrying the mail. It was about a week of that. That was fun.
"That was mostly our winter entertainment--skating and sledding. I remember when I was growing up we had a roller skating rink that came to town, a tent. They had the floor and then the tent. It was mostly in the summer and the spring and the fall, but it stayed here for most of the year. Our whole family roller-skated. My dad and mother liked to roller skate, my brother, and we used to go to that a lot. We didn't go every night, but then we went several nights."
During the winter whether there was snow or not, it was the season to get out the rifle or shotgun, call the dog and go hunting. Not only did the boys enjoy it, it brought food for the table and pocket money.
"Hunting seasons were soon developed," Roy said. "When we first started hunting possums, there was no season. You could catch them anytime of the year. Later in 1915 or 16, when the seasons opened, you couldn't catch them until the season opened. Even before that, you didn't catch them too early, for you had to wait till they had put on their winter fur, which would make a much better hide. If you didn't wait, they didn't bring very much, so you waited for a better price for the fur."
The values of the hides varied. Roy continued, "They went to St. Louis, or Kansas City, one, but it was New York where they liked them. We'd sell them. We got six cents for one, maybe nine, ten cents, and they sold them there for twenty-five cents. The light fur of the possum wasn't very valuable, but skunk was very valuable."
"A skunk was always two dollars and a half, three dollars, some of them five," said Vohn. "I have sold for seven, and that was back when money was money, and that's why we skinned them."
Some of the people who bought the animals preferred the whole animal instead of just the hide. Vohn continued, "We'd sell them rabbits for a dime, or sometimes we'd get a quarter. That's when I really made the money! We sold the whole rabbit--just take the entrails out. Floyd Jolly was our mail carrier, and the storekeepers up here would buy them, I suppose everyday, if they had them. He'd go in town with a whole bunch of rabbits, take them to a produce house in Lebanon and send them on to St. Louis--rabbits hanging up, you know. But you can't do that anymore. There's no rabbits anywhere now, not down here.
"We'd go possum hunting fall, early winter and sell the hides. It would have to be cool weather so the hides would keep. Same way with rabbits. They decapitated many of them, but not all of them. Usually I think, they left the heads on. But they would take the insides out, sell them to the store, keep them cold or frozen separately. Those were shipped just like that to the big cities, like New York, where they liked them."
Skinning was a delicate operation once you'd caught your animal. Roy explained, "Rabbit skin is very pliable. You have to be very careful to get a rabbit skin off and squirrel skin. It's tough. If you pull hard on that, you pull it in two. There still is market for squirrels. There's still a market for rabbits."
"Hunting in the winter made money for some," Vohn explained. "I hunted a lot during the winter and I still do. Rabbits, squirrels. Some rabbits and squirrels have been playing around my peach trees. I killed two of them and the others haven't come back. I think I killed the wrong two. I've got a coon dog out there. I used to hunt a lot. I don't hunt as much as I used to, but things are different now. My oldest son puts his hounds in the pickup and hunts all over the country, but used to, we'd take out and walk almost from here to the river and back. It's nine miles to the river. Now they don't walk, they just drive around in the car. His dogs are trained to hunt by car. If you want to bring your dogs in, just go around and slam your pickup door and come in the house. I hunted all the time when I was growing up. That was a great lot of our entertainment. There used to be an old saying, 'Why, them are thicker than rabbits,' There are no rabbits now, but here there used to be a lot of rabbits. All the money I made in the wintertime was catching rabbits."
Some hunting was just pastime or for sport. Bill said, "One time there came a big snow, and next day at noon about six of us in a bunch got out in the field about a hundred yards from the school and caught a rabbit. We saw him go in a hole in the snow, and we reached down one at each end and caught him. So what were we going to do with him? Well, we'll sell him to the mail carrier tomorrow: So the next day, the teacher let us take him up to the mail carrier and got ten cents. Then the problem was, how are we going to divide the money? We came out with a little better than a penny a piece."
Bill told about possum hunting. "We'd go possum hunting. We used to do that in the fall of the year when it was rabbit season. Particularly late fall like November and December would be a good example. We'd work hard Saturday morning and try to get through by at least mid-afternoon Saturday in order to go rabbit hunting. We did that in the daytime. Possum hunting, we did that different. We called it 'possum' not 'opossum,' but that was at night and you could do that almost any night. Sometimes they let the girls go along. But Gladys, his wife, didn't like to go very much because usually when she went along, somebody caught a skunk.
"We nearly always had one good rabbit dog. We had one, old Fido, run up to a brush pile and smell a rabbit, and then he'd run around on the other side and wait for us to come up on the brush pile and run the rabbit out. He'd be setting over there just ready. He'd get them every time."
Another form of entertainment of a different kind from daytime hunting was fox hunting at night. Roy continued, "The men would take their dogs and go out and down on the farm. They would bring a hound and sit there and listen to that hound baying. It's the hound. They brag about the hound. 'That's mine. He's in front!' That was mostly for adults, but we kids got to go occasionally to that."
Hunting skunks was a big job for a little boy. Vohn said, "I used to get a great big thrill out of catching a skunk. Now, I don't. If my dog kills one now, I leave him in the woods. My mother used to render skunk oil. You'd go to school, and I don't care how much you washed--of course, in them days, we never had too many changes of clothes--you could always smell skunk on some little boy at school. If somebody would come in with a fresh skunk smell on them, you never thought anything about it. You'd get it on your hands, and I don't guess we had any bleach to get it off your hands. We'd take our clothes and take them out and dig a hole in the ground, cover them with dirt and let them stay for two or three days. That's take the scent out. Some old-timer told me that and it works."
No stories about hunting can beat snipe hunting. Snipe hunting shows the Ozarkian's sense of humor, but to the person this joke is played on, it isn't very funny. When they tell you about snipe hunting they say how great it is and invite you along. You carry the sack as they take you deep into the woods. They tell you that they're going to circle around and scare the snipe into the sack you are to hold open. They warn you not to move or make any noise. However, instead of flushing out a snipe (which is non-existent), they go home and leave you out there in the woods alone holding the sack. Roy said, "The only thing I can say about snipe hunting is my brother took me snipe hunting once when I was old enough to know better! You see how gullible Ozarkians are? We got a lot of fun out of that. Well, I told them I beat them back to the house. I didn't, but I told them I did. I climbed up the ladder outside, got upstairs, then came down. They were all sitting in there laughing about it when I came down the stairs, and I told them, 'Ail right, I beat you back!'"
Besides hunting, for young sportsmen who liked to get out, there was gigging or ice fishing. Vohn said, "I'm quite a fisherman. I never gigged as much as I would have liked, but I've been. My job was always paddling the boat when we went gigging. I been gigging when there was ice around in some places on the river in them big eddies. You'd scare them fish out from under that ice and gig them when they'd come out. They get under there and hide. I've been at night and in daytime."
Roy also enjoyed winter fishing. "The river would freeze and you'd go out and cut a hole in the ice and spear fish and pull them out the hole. Fish would come by. You didn't have to bait them because they needed oxygen, and they would come to those holes for more oxygen. You'd stand on the ice. Of course, there was the danger of falling through. We had only one person fall through. That was Uncle Noah--three hundred pounds. That was a joke with him. He had a little bit of difficulty getting out because he was so heavy. He'd try to hold the sides and the ice would break. To gig we used a gig with a long handle on it that was about twelve feet and a half long and had three prongs on the end of it. We'd go at night and put a light on the end of a boat. The fish often get away easily, boating at night."
While many winter pastimes for youngsters were strenuous outside activities, some of the most memorable were those inside at night by a warm fire eating or preparing homegrown snacks with the family or friends.
"Another entertainment at night in the wintertime was popcorn and popcorn balls, which isn't new to you, but what I think is new is pulling candy--molasses taffy pulls," Bill said. "After it set a long time that candy would get hard until finally next morning it was real hard. We used to go down to Aunt Rose's, and she knew how to cook molasses just right. We'd put flour on our hands so it wouldn't stick, and we'd pull that, wrap it over and pull it, till it became taffy, and, of course, by that time, it had a lot of flour in it and some dirt."
"Each one would get so much," Flora said, "and then just pull it, and then they would twist it and make a roll out of it. Then when it got done, they could cut it. Sometimes, the boys would be there, and they would get kind of ugly. They would get molasses in the girls' hair. You couldn't get it out without washing it out. The girls then all had long hair, you know. I know we had to watch that. We would have it in a braid, and it would just be at the bottom. Of course, the boys, it wasn't no trouble for them to wash their hair. We would do just most anything."
Taffy pulls were fun in the country or in town. Grace said, "We used to have taffy pulls. Somebody'd have a taffy party, they called it. We'd go to the house, and they'd cook up a big batch of taffy. Then the fun of that was to choose the right partner to help pull the taffy with."
"We grew our own popcorn," Roy said. "That was in the real early age--say 1908 through 1911. We grew a lot of popcorn. Nearly always somebody in the community grew it. I think occasionally we'd have to get it from somebody else. They would just give it to you. But it seems to me years later, about in our teens we bought some. We'd pop it in the big cast iron skillet with the lid on it, and heat it up over the cook stove and shake it over the stove."
Some industrious families could enjoy apples, other fresh fruits and vegetables in the winter because in the early fall, they buried them, some in pits with straw, some just covered with straw. Vohn said, "When we were sledding down the hill, they would bring things to eat at the bonfires--apples and whatever they had at home, 'cause they didn't have any money to go to the store and buy things like they do now."
And what is winter without old-fashioned snow ice cream? Flora said, "We would go out and get snow when there was snow on the ground. Then we would have snow cream. You stir the milk and snow in till it makes it thick, and that would be our ice cream. I used to love to eat that stuff. I always ate it too fast, and then I got a headache. That's about the only ice cream we would have, only when we would get together and make ice cream in the summer. We'd make it with the crank freezer for we didn't have electricity.
"But especially when it first began to snow, then they would always make it while the snow was fresh. But then after it got a crust on it, they would have to take the crust off and dig down and get the snow that was underneath. Of course, we had our own milk, good rich milk. Sometimes, some would want lemon flavoring and some would want vanilla."
Even the kids at town school could enjoy good eating in the winter. There were warm bread and things they could enjoy because of the bakery. Grace said, "I remember one thing we did that was interesting. We used to have the bakery that had a bread wagon. The wagon and horse came around, delivered bread to different people's homes, and they always made it to the school at recess time, just about ten fifteen in the morning. They'd have hot cinnamon rolls, hot cookies and hot bread, fresh right out of the oven. They had what they called a cream loaf of bread about six or eight inches long you could buy for a nickel. Two of us would buy a loaf of bread, I'd buy one day, and the other girl'd buy it the next day, and we'd break it in half. Oh, that nice warm bread was so good in the middle of the mornings. Some of the children would buy cinnamon rolls, some'd buy cookies. The baker came around at recess as long as he had the wagon, didn't make any difference if it was summertime or winter, and we'd get our little tidbit then instead of having to go to the slot machine and getting a candy bar. It was much better.
"But even in town there wasn't too much to do. We went to church, and we always went to choir practice add prayer meeting. Our family did that three nights, and sometimes we'd go to the picture show. Once a week was about all we went to the picture show. That was Friday night or Saturday afternoon. We used to have matinees--go for ten cents! And Mother would sometimes give me a nickel and I could either buy a big sack of popcorn or some candy or wait till I got out of the picture show and get a small soda--an ice cream soda, for a nickel! Isn't that something?"
Though the country folks didn't get to go to the picture show very often, they did go to church activities regularly and the end of the harvest season brought on pie suppers. "They usually had the pie suppers in the winters, mostly in the late fall," Flora said, "because most people were less busy. In the fall they would be getting in their corn and they just wouldn't want to go. Then after they got their fall work done, why, then they could go. So we nearly always had them spread out so that anybody that wanted to go to the other schools could. They wouldn't have them the same nights."
For many people, their work was their entertainment. "In the fall when we'd rake the leaves, we'd have a block party," Grace said. "The parents would all get out and rake the leaves down in the ditches, and then we'd set fire and burn them. Then the kids had a marshmallow roast. That was fun. Also, you know of course, the idea was to get us out there and help them with the leaves, get the leaves out there and get them in a big pile and we'd help rake them. After we got them all raked, 'course then we could have a marshmallow roast. A little psychology used there."
The youth of the early times in the Ozarks went to bed early after doing their lessons. They rose early, worked hard all day at school and with their various chores like milking, feeding, chopping wood and helping in the kitchen. They walked usually two to four miles a day to school and back. Therefore, there was very little time for play, nor was there any emphasis on having a good time. But they managed to have fun and probably enjoyed the breaks from work all the more because they were so few.
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