It’s fewyears af ter an EMP attack and you are safely tucked away in your retreat somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Your storage foods have mostly been used and your high tech electronics is useless. The really bad stuff is mostly past. Now it’s try to stay fed and alive and pray that civilization as you know it is coming back. You’re going to have to work your environment to live. Ever wonder what life might be like to Homestead? What would it really be like to have no running water, electricity, sewer, newspaper or Internet? No supermarket or fire department close at hand?
I have a good imagination but I decided to talk to someone who would know first hand what it was like: my mother. She grew up on a homestead in the middle of Montana during the 1920s and 1930s. It was a two room Cottonwood cabin with the nearest neighbor three miles away. She was oldest, so she was in charge of her brother and sister by the time she was 9 years old. This was her reality; I feel there are lessons here for the rest of us.
There was a Majestic brand cookstove that used wood and coal. The first person up at four thirty A.M., usually her father, would start the fire for breakfast. Then he would go out to take care of the livestock while his wife made breakfast. For the kids, it was a comforting start to the day but your feet would get cold when you got out of bed. There was no sleeping in.
FIREWOOD AND COAL
A crosscut saw and axe was used to cut wood for the stove and after that experience, you got pretty stingy with the firewood because you know what it takes to replace it. The old timers say that it warms you when you cut it, when you split it, and again when you burn it. The homes that were typical on homesteads and ranches of the era were smaller with lower ceilings than modern houses just so they could be heated easier. The saw and axe were not tools to try hurrying with. You set a steady pace and maintained it. A man in a hurry with an axe may lose some toes or worse. One side effect of the saw and axe use is that you are continuously hungry and will consume a huge amount of food.
Usually in the fall of the year, a wagon load of coal would be purchased. It was used sparingly and had its own dangers as it was known to produce a lot of carbon monoxide. They were lucky in that there were coal seams within thirty miles and they could use their own wagon for pickup. Even so, it was a large undertaking: travel to and from, loading the wagon and then unloading by hand; it wasn’t unusual to take a week from start to completion. The coal was really appreciated when a Blue Norther came whistling through and everyone huddled by the stove. Of course, the regular chores at home still had to be done. No excuses.
Also in the fall of the year, people would scour the rivers and creeks looking for a bee tree and the honey they could harvest. Somehow, ‘free’ honey in the wild tastes sweeter. One enterprising man cut a back door into a bee tree so he didn’t have to destroy the hive to get the goodies.
Lights in the cabin were old fashioned kerosene lamps. It was the kid’s job to trim the wicks, clean the chimneys and refill the reservoirs. Candles were in use as well, but any breeze could snuff out the flame and the risk of fire from a dumped candle was much higher.
The privy was downhill from the house next to the corral and there was no toilet paper. Old newspaper, catalogs or magazines were used and in the summer a pan of barely warm water was there for hygiene. During a dark night, blizzard, or brown out from a dust storm, you followed the corral poles-no flashlights.
There were two springs close to the house that ran clear, clean, and cold water. The one right next to it was a “soft” water spring. It was great for washing clothes and felt smooth, almost slick, on your skin. If you drank from it, it would clean you out just as effectively as it cleaned clothes. Not all clean water is equal.
The second spring was a half mile from the cabin and it was cold, clear, and tasted wonderful. The spring itself was deep – an eight foot corral pole never hit bottom- and flowed through the year. It was from here that the kids would fill two barrels on a heavy duty sled with water for the house and the animals. They would lead the old white horse that was hitched to the sledge back to the buildings and distribute the water for people and animals. In the summer, they made two trips in the morning and maybe a third in the evening. In the winter, one trip in the morning before school and one in the evening after school before supper. They did this alone.
Breakfast was a big meal because they’re going to be working hard. Usually there would be homemade sausage, eggs and either cornmeal mush or oatmeal. More food was prepared than what was going to be eaten right then. The extra food was left on the table under a dish towel and eaten as wanted during the day. When evening meal was cooked, any leftovers were reheated. The oatmeal or the mush was sliced and fried for supper. It was served with butter, syrup, honey or molasses.
The homemade sausage was from a quarter or half a hog. The grinder was a small kitchen grinder that clamped on the edge of a table and everybody took turns cranking. When all the hog had been ground, the sausage spice mix was added and kneaded in by hand. Then it was immediately fried into patties. The patties were placed, layer by layer, into a stone crock and covered with the rendered sausage grease. The patties were reheated as needed. The grease was used for gravies as well as re-cooking the patties. Occasionally a fresh slice of bread would be slathered with a layer of sausage grease and a large slice of fresh onion would top it off for quick sandwich. Nothing was wasted.
On special occasions, some of their protein came from dried fish or beef. Usually this had to be soaked to remove the excess salt or lye. Then it was boiled. Leftovers would go into hash, fish patties, or potato cakes.
Beans? There was almost always a pot of beans on the stove in the winter time, not so much in the summer as it was too easy for the beans on a cold stove to go sour. That pot of beans wasn’t just beans; usually leftover meat would be cut up and go in the mix to add flavor and variety.
The practice of leaving the food out for a noon snack also would lead to what was referred to as “Summer Complaint”, or as we would call it, diarrhea… which was probably a low level of food poisoning. The attitude was ‘So you have summer complaint? Don’t we all. Keep working.’
I’ll say it now, those were some tough people.
Chickens and a couple of milk cows provided needed food to balance the larder. They could not have supported a growing family without these two resources. The quality and volume of food from these resources was determined by how much work people put into them, especially the milk cows. Careful treatment, regular milking (you absolutely could not miss a milking session or it could ruin a good cow) and attention to hygiene was very necessary. The hygiene part was difficult to achieve when you consider the somewhat crude conditions, location of Bossie’s tail to the milk pail and the fact that warm fresh milk is great for growing any number of organisms.
The kitchen garden ran mostly to root crops. Onion, turnip, rutabaga, potato and radishes grew under chicken wire. Rhubarb was canned for use as a winter tonic to stave off scurvy. Lettuce, corn, and other above ground crops suffered from deer, rats, and gumbo clay soil. Surprisingly, cabbage did well. The winter squash didn’t do much, only 2 or 3 gourds. Grasshoppers were controlled by the chickens and turkeys. There was endless hoeing.
Washing clothes required heating water on the stove, pouring it into three galvanized wash tubs-one for the homemade lye soap and scrub board, the other two for rinsing. Clothes were rinsed and wrung out by hand, then hung on a wire to dry in the air. Your hands became red and raw, your arms and shoulders sore beyond belief by the end of the wash. Wet clothing, especially wool, is heavy and the gray scum from the soap was hard to get out of the clothes.
Personal baths were in a galvanized wash tub screened by a sheet. In the winter it was difficult to haul, heat and handle the water so baths weren’t done often. Most people would do sponge baths. Youngest went first in the tub, then the women, then the men.
Everybody worked, including the kids. There were always more chores to be done than time in the day. It wasn’t just this one family; it was the neighbors as well. You were judged first and foremost by your work ethic and then your honesty. This was critical because if you were found wanting in either department, the extra jobs that might pay cash money, a quarter of beef, hog, or mutton would not be available. Further, the cooperation with your neighbors was the only assurance that if you needed help, you would get help. Nobody in the community could get by strictly on their own. A few tried. When they left, nobody missed them.
You didn’t have to like someone to cooperate and work with him or her.
GATHERINGS AND HOLIDAYS
Several times a year people would get together for organized activities: barn raising, butcher bee, harvest, roofing, dance, or picnics. There were lots of picnics, usually in a creek bottom with cottonwoods for shade or sometimes at the church. Always, the women would have tables groaning with food, full coffee pots and, if they were lucky, maybe some lemonade. (Lemons were expensive and scarce) After the work (even for picnics, there was usually a project to be done first) came the socializing. Many times people would bring bedding and sleep out overnight, returning home the next day.
Christmas, Thanksgiving and birthdays were celebrated but the gifts were somewhat understated by todays comparison. There might be a shirt made from a flour sack, a homemade leather knife sheath, some colored thread or fancy buttons. The Christmas stocking might have an orange, or an apple, maybe nuts. Hard candy was always welcome. The holidays were made special by a batch of cinnamon rolls or special cookies. In the meantime, get those chores done first.
A half dozen families would get together for a butcher bee in the cold days of late fall. Cows were slaughtered first, then pigs, mutton, and finally chickens. Blood from some of the animals, usually cows, was collected in milk pails, kept warm on a stove to halt coagulation and salt added. Then it was canned for later use in blood dumplings, sausage or pudding. The hides were salted for later tanning; the feathers from the fowl were held for cleaning and used in pillows or mattresses. The skinned quarters of the animals would be dipped into cold salt brine and hung to finish cooling out so they could be taken home safely for processing. Nothing went to waste.
The most feared occurrence in the area was fire. If it got started, it wasn’t going out until it burned itself out. Kerosene lights, candles and wood stoves were not taken for granted as they could become deadly dangers. People could and did lose everything including their lives.
The most used weapon was the .22 single shot Winchester with .22 Short cartridges. It was used to take the heads off pheasant, quail, rabbit and ducks. If you held low, the low powered round didn’t tear up the meat. The shooters, usually the kids, quickly learned sight picture and trigger control although they never heard those terms. If you took out five rounds of ammunition, then you’d better bring back the ammunition or a critter for the pot for each round expended. It was also a lot quieter and less expensive [in those days] than the .22 Long Rifle cartridges.
If you are trying to maintain a low profile, the odor of freshly baked bread can be detected in excess of three miles on a calm day. Especially by kids.