Saturday, July 30, 2011

On the Farm…Threshing Time

Threshing time was important on our farm in Union County, Georgia during my growing-up days. I have two distinct memories of how we went about doing this task when the grain was cut, shocked to dry, and hauled to the barn awaiting the threshing.

If our crop was small, not much planted in either wheat or rye, we did threshing in the old-fashioned way, flailing the grain.

This was accomplished by spreading a canvas sheet on the ground and placing grain on it. Then, with another sheet over the grain, we took sticks and beat out the seeds, a process we called flailing. Before we put another supply of grain on the sheet to be flailed, the grain we had beaten out had to be separated from the straw and scooped up into containers for winnowing later. This process of beating a small amount at the time went on until our whole crop of wheat or rye was separated from the seed pods.

The winnowing, or getting the chaff out of the grain, was done by holding the bucket or other container at shoulder level on a day with a little breeze so the chaff would blow out of the grain as it fell from shoulder-level onto the winnowing cloth. All of this process was tedious and took much handling of the grain by hand. The grain was forced into a pile at the center of the cloth. Then it was picked up after the winnowing and stored in containers or special grain bins in the barn.

Then the threshing machine came to our community, and farmers grew larger fields of grain because the process of getting the grain from the pods was less time-consuming. My grandfather, Francis Jasper Collins, whom all the community—and even the county, for he had been a representative to the Georgia Legislature in earlier years—was the first in Choestoe to get a threshing machine. He purchased the machine before I was born, but in my childhood, I can remember “the threshers” coming. At first, I have been told, and an old faded photograph shows this, Grandpa pulled his threshing machine with a steer team, and somehow had it hooked up so that the animals provided the power to operate the machine, with necessary pulleys and belts.

Later he purchased a gasoline-powered tractor with huge steel wheels. This became the means of his pulling the threshing machine from farm to farm and also provided the power necessary to operate the thresher. The threshing team made stops at the farms on the circuit that had grain to be threshed. It was a sort of carnival day at our farm when all the threshing gear and the workers arrived. My mother and the neighborhood women—for they helped each other—depending on which farm was on schedule for the day’s work—fed the workers a great spread of food at the noon meal which we called dinner then.

I can remember the noise of the tractor’s operation and the threshing machine’s “putt-putt” forcing the grain from the pods and sending it down a chute to be collected in bushel measures. I was fascinated to see the straw blown out of the chute and stacking up. One worker with a pitchfork moved it to a growing pile to the side of the machine.

After the excitement of the day, the hard work but party-like atmosphere, and the enjoyable “threshing day” meal, we had work to do after the threshing machine moved on to its next location. Always after the fresh straw had been stacked up, we filled the freshly-washed bed ticks (straw mattresses) with the newly-threshed, sweet-smelling straw. On top of this straw mattress, our beds also had feather beds, another mattress filled with duck down. If we had allergies to fresh straw and duck feathers in those days, we never gave those maladies a thought.

Until the wheat and rye were used up, shortly before the next year’s harvest, we enjoyed breads made from home grown grains that had been ground into the respective flour at Souther mill, about a mile from our farm.

Remembering the practices on the farm of my childhood days, they all seem like a world removed from our present age of “store-bought” goods and prepared and preserved foods. Life in those days was filled with much hard work and a savvy for neighbor helping neighbor. “One good turn deserves another” was a well-practiced adage in our community as I grew up. The remembered sounds of the old steel-wheeled tractor chugging up the road and the operation of the threshing machine settled for the happy work day on our farm still produce music to my ears.

c2011 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published July 28, 2011 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

On the Farm - Sorghum Syrup Making

Sorghum syrup making was an important aspect of our production on my father’s farm. It was one of our major money crops of the year. In addition to our having fields of cane to be made into syrup, he also made syrup “on-the-shares” for other farmers who hauled their downed cane crops to my father’s mill for him to make into syrup in the fall. It was a hard six-weeks’ course of work, six days per week.

Much getting-ready for the work preceded the actual time of sorghum syrup making. In last week’s column, I mentioned how the wood to fuel the furnace had to be cut, hauled to a location near the furnace, and stacked in readiness for the weeks of boiling the syrup. If the wood supply was not ready in advance, there certainly would not be any time to gather it in after the actual process of syrup-making began.

My father had to make necessary repairs to the mill, the furnace and the long copper boiler in which he cooked the cane juice to make syrup. The heavy vertical rollers that squeezed the juice from the stalks of cane had to be oiled and in good mechanical condition. The lever that pulled the rollers had to be examined and the traces for hitching the mules made sturdy. The wooden boxes for catching and straining the cane juice must be in good repair and chinked so that they would not leak. The iron pipes through which the juice flowed downward toward the boiler likewise had to be attached properly and in good order. The long copper boiler, with its wooden dividers likewise had to be taken from storage, examined for any needed repairs to the copper bottom or the dividers, and cleaned thoroughly. The furnace was inspected to make sure it had withstood a year’s idleness and had no stones amiss or chinks unfilled. Then the boiler was placed gingerly on top of the long furnace and filled with clear water awaiting that final washing before the first “run” of syrup.

There was preparation, too for getting ready to gather the cane from the field. If it had been a good year and no storms had downed the tall stalks of cane that filled acres in the fields, the cane fodder could be stripped off easily with slender hand strippers that looked like two-sided swords. My father fashioned a dozen or so of these using hardwood to make the strippers, and cutting each side to a slender sharpness. However, I can remember, later on, he could actually either make or purchase metal strippers for cane-stripping. These did not dull so easily and made this task of harvesting the cane more efficient. However, if a heavy windstorm had occurred, the cane field would be twisted and damaged so that it had to be cut down and stripped by hand. This was always a tedious task.

To cut the stalks of cane, we used long-handled scythes especially designed for cutting the tall stalks of cane near the ground. The scythes especially fashioned, with shorter blades than those required to cut grain, had to be well-sharpened. It took two people for this cutting operation--one to hold an armload of cane and the other to cut it with the scythe. The cane would be laid in piles on the ground, several feet apart. The next workers, the cane-head cutters, would come along next and cut off the seed pods at the top of the cane. The seeds, too, were placed in neat piles beside each stack of cut cane, because the seeds were used to grind into a cane-seed meal to supplement animals’ feed--or else the cane seeds were sold.

The stripped, deheaded cane was loaded into a wagon and hauled to the syrup mill. Since my father made not only his own cane but also for other farmers in the community, he would designate (and remember) which stack belonged to which farmer as they brought their crop to his mill for processing. He would ask those who brought the cane to stagger bringing it, or he would know about which day he could get to their loads of cane so that it would not lie too long at the mill and dry out. It took good calculation to figure the time required for making the various farmers’ crops. But the cane had to be cut before frost or the syrup would not be good.

In advance, he would have to engage people to help with the process of gathering the cane and manning the syrup mill, and he also hired other teams of mules from nighboring farmers to pull the syrup mill grinder, as the work for these animals was grueling and hard. He used a team for only about three hours and allowed them to rest.

He hired one or two men or older boys to feed the mill--put the cane through the rollers to extract the juice. Another had the task of keeping the cane chews (or ground stalks) placed away from the mill in a huge pile of refuse. A third person assisted him at the boiler, although he himself--for the long six or more weeks’ duration of syrup-making-- boiled the syrup. The other boiler worker would stoke the furnace and measure out cooked syrup. My father trusted only his eye and learned knowledge of syrup-making to know when it was ready for the strainer barrel as good-quality, cooked syrup. He taught my two brothers and others how to boil syrup to the right degree. He could tell by how the syrup looked at the “lower” end of the boiler, and also would lift the wooden stirring block and let the syrup drip off. If it made a certain string to his liking, it was done and would be quality syrup.

The cooked syrup was measured from the retaining barrel into pint, quart and gallon continental cans (or buckets). Later, it became popular to put it in glass jars, pints and quarts. Sometimes buyers would come to the syrup mill and buy the whole day’s yield while it was still warm in the buckets (and later jars). If we had no buyers, we always had to take the syrup to a storage barn on the farm to place it in safety until it could be taken to Gainesville to market or until a regular buyer would come to purchase a load. And for the “on shares” making for others, my father got (as I recall) one gallon out of four or five (20% to 25%) that he made, depending on the cost of workers he had to hire and other expenses of operating the mill.

Syrup-making time was a hard six-or more-weeks period every fall. But we earned enough for paying taxes on our farm, purchasing clothing for our winter use, and maybe some money to spare for other essentials. It was hard work, but a time of socializing, too, as we always had visitors at the syrup mill, watching the operations and passing the time of day. And oh, the good eating, all year long, as we made gingerbread sweetened with sorghum syrup, and had syrup to eat with hot homemade biscuits fresh from the oven. Life couldn’t get any better than that!

c2011 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published July 21, 2011 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

On the Farm—Interim Tasks Between ‘Laying-By’ and Harvest

Someone recently asked me, “What did you do between ‘laying-by’ of crops and time for harvest on the farm? Did you have some time off for vacations?”

Vacation was not a part of our vocabulary on the mountain farm where I grew up—not for us who lived on the farm, anyway. Yes. Our “city cousins” had a vacation, and oftentimes spent it with us and other farm relatives in the mountains. For these once-a-year visitors, their week or two weeks on the farm were to be a time of industry for them—when they would be taught how to milk the cows, feed and care for the animals, gather the vegetables from the garden and the fruit from the trees which defined our daily work in the “interim season” to provide food for the table.

Maybe we would find a little time to go to the Nottely River that flowed through our farm bottomlands and there play in the water and learn to swim. But there were dangers, too. We were warned to avoid deep holes and swift-flowing areas that could easily upset one’s balance and prove a hazard. And in late afternoon, we would take our fishing poles, an adventure the city cousins loved, and go back to the river to try our luck at hooking some fish. If it was a good “biting” day for the fish, we might catch enough for a fish fry for supper, always a treat. But I need to explain that the city cousins were appalled that we had to dig earthworms—and handle them, no less—to provide our bait for the fish hooks we used on a lead-weighted line attached to a pole cut from the canebreak along the river. They, no matter how much I taught them about baiting their hooks, would never thread the earthworm onto the hook. When cousins were present, I seldom ever got to fish myself, a past time I thoroughly enjoyed doing (earthworms and all!). My job was to keep their fishhooks baited and, if they caught a fish, to remove it from their line and place it on the forked stick we used to stash our catch until we went to the house to clean our fish and prepare them for the fresh fish fry supper.

But there were other interim tasks in our summers apart from entertaining our city cousins who were getting a little taste of what farm life was like, even in the more slowly-paced days of summer. In last week’s column, I told about the summer session of school and how we had classes at Choestoe School (and this was typical of the other country schools throughout Union County and the mountain region). We had to go to school, so the visiting cousins who were out of school because it was summer could choose either to go with us to school (visitors were welcomed then, but were subject to the same rigid discipline as were we regular students), or else they could stay home and follow my father on his many tasks of interim work between the time of ceasing cultivation (‘laying-by’) and harvest.

A very necessary task on our farm was to get ready for fall sorghum-syrup making, a period of at least six-weeks stretch of time. Six hard days a week, my father manned our syrup mill and saw to making about 3,000 gallons of sorghum annually, from his own cane patches and that of other farmers within our region. And to get ready for that fall task, there were necessary jobs to do.

First, a large pile of slabs and long firewood had to be hauled and stacked near the furnace of the syrup mill to provide fuel for cooking the syrup. Occasionally, we had a “traveling sawmill,” that is, a sawmill owned by someone else that set down for a while to saw timber from our own forest. The by-products of this operation were the “slabs,” or long pieces of bark and outer portions of trees that were first sawn off from a log and stacked to the side for just the express purpose of using later for fuel at the syrup mill or in our own household winter fires. These slabs were loaded on the farm wagon and taken to the syrup mill and stacked neatly for use in the furnace. These were especially useful, since they were cured, for starting the fire. But because they were cured, they would burn very quickly and had to be supplemented by “green” wood.

And this “green” wood, or uncured wood, had to be cut from standing trees, usually stunted or less-promising for timber. The workers used cross-cut saws, trimmed off limbs with axes, and cut the trees into either furnace lengths, or if the wood would be used for fireplaces or the wood cook stove, cut into proper lengths for these. Again, this newly-cut “green” wood would be loaded into wagon and moved to its destination near the syrup mill or the woodpile near the house.

With the wood cut, or in the case of “slabs,” retrieved from the sawmill, and hauled and stacked neatly awaiting use later in the fall and winter, one major “interim” job on the farm was finished.

Then my father (and other farmers in our area) directed their energies and attention to such interim but necessary tasks as fence-mending, barn and farm building repairs, and general upkeep, whether “cutting the branch or river banks,” (trimming the growth of weeds and sprouts that had to be kept under control beside streams), or helping a neighbor (or having oneself) a “roof-raising.” And this did not mean, as is commonly known now, a disagreement or argument of unfriendly nature. It was neighbor-helping-neighbor to put a new shingle roof on a barn or even a dwelling house, or perhaps to assist in building another corn crib or peripheral building on the farm. And another task I’ve left unlisted: cutting oak timber of good quality, and sawing logs into shingle-length, then riving (as this process was called) shingles from the logs, stacking so that air could flow through them to dry them, to provide wooden roof shingles for houses and farm buildings.

And always there was the “putting-up,” the preserving of vegetables, fruits, grains and dried peas and beans for winter use. This entailed gathering, canning, pickling and drying. Sometimes the processes turned into sociable gatherings as neighbor helped neighbor with these food preservation tasks.

Poet Byron Herbert Reece expressed well in his poem, “The Stay-at-Home” (from The Season of Flesh, Dutton, 1955, p. 34) this interim period between end-of-cultivation and fall harvest. There was no time to wander from the farm and take a vacation. Work was demanding and year-round:

“The fields of Hughly held him,

The land where he was born.

With fence to men and cows to tend

And care of wheat and corn.

He had no leif to wander

Beyond his place of birth,

But often he would ponder

The luring lands of earth.”
And so interim times on the farm passed, with necessary tasks accomplished, marked off one-by-one in the long list of things to do. Those thus bound to the soil “Who often thought of going/But had the will to stay”* did just that: they stayed and they worked. And there was a deep love for the soil, for the toil, for the ties that bound to the land, the people, independence and the way of life.

(*Reece: “The Stay-at-Home”, lines 13, 14).

c2011 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published July 14, 2011 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

On the Farm…Coordinating Farm Work with School

Now we say “back in the olden days.” That can be a long, long time ago or when we ourselves were children. In those days, work on the farm had to be coordinated with the schedule of school in session if country boys and girls were to get anything like an adequate education.

During the twenty-five year tenure of Dr. Mauney Douglas Collins’s leadership as state school superintendent (1933-1957), Georgia schools went from seven to nine months of school. Having long times out when schools were closed for farm work was to be a thing of the past in Georgia. But memories of those times when farm work was coordinated with school sessions were a part of growing up on the farm. I recall how I started to the brand new building at Choestoe School in July of 1936, after “laying by” of crops when the summer session began.

“Time to get ready for school,” my mother gently shook my shoulder, awakening me.

Immediately I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Maybe I could beg off, tell her I felt ‘sick to my stomach’ and I wouldn’t have to go to school. It’s not that I didn’t want to go. I just dreaded the unknown. I liked staying home, the familiar places and routines. I liked watching my three-year old brother Bluford while Mother worked.

Things with which I was comfortable and familiar were about to change for an adventure called school. I reluctantly crawled out of bed, washed my face and eyes with the warm wet washcloth my mother handed me. Then I put on my new flowered dress with a white collar trimmed in rick-rack. Mother had made it especially for me to wear on my first day at school. It was a pretty “feed-sack” dress. My father had let me select the pattern of cloth on the feed bags when I went with him to the store to buy the feed. After the bags were empty of their contents and carefully laundered and ironed, then my mother cut out my dress and made it on her Singer treadle-powered sewing machine. I felt very dressed up. It would be interesting to see if any of the other girls at school would have a dress made from the same pattern of cloth as mine. If that happened, it would be all right, for we all knew that our mothers made use of feed sacks to fashion our wardrobes.

After a breakfast of oatmeal, scrambled egg, bacon, biscuits, gravy and a glass of milk, I was well fed and ready to leave for school after brushing my teeth. My mother walked the mile with me on this first day to get me used to going to school. After talking to my teacher, Mrs. Mert Collins, probably giving her information about my birthdate, my mother left. It was not long until Miss Opal Sullivan, the teacher of the upper grades, and considered the principal, too, rang a bell she held in her hands, the signal that “books” (as I learned the term later) or school-time was to begin.

We lined up in two rows in front of our beautiful, brand new Choestoe School building that had just been finished by men of the community working hard on it. This new building replaced a very old two-stories, two-room building that had served the community for years, with an upstairs where the Lodge met. The old building had been torn down to make way for the new one. The new schoolhouse had two rooms and was only one-story. One room was for grades Primer through third, and one for grades four through seven. Each room also had a “cloak” room, a small anteroom where, in wintertime, we hung our coats on pegs, with book shelves for textbooks built in one end of the room, and a low shelf running the length of the room on which we set our lunch pails we had brought with us.

Once inside, a sense of excitement prevailed. Mrs. Mert kindly showed each of the pupils where we were to sit by grades, although the size of the desks helped with that seating arrangement. The primer/first grade desks were smaller than those of the second and third graders. She explained that we were to go to the recitation bench alongside her teacher’s desk when we were having our lesson. When it was not our time to recite (I learned that meant to read or do our numbers), we were to work quietly at our desks, practicing our letters and numbers or reading quietly. She opened a cabinet in one corner of the room up front. She explained that it had additional books that we could get—one at a time—and take to our seat to read. She encouraged us to do this, assuring the primer/first graders that we, too, would soon know how to read.

And then class began. We stood and said the pledge of allegiance to the United States flag which was at the front of the room, in a little stand. Mrs. Mert (as she wanted us to call her) read a Psalm from the Bible and led in a prayer. And the first graders were called first to go up to the bench to begin learning how to read. Some of my classmates did not know the alphabet and the sounds associated with each letter, but I already knew my letters and their sounds. In fact, the little “Dick and Jane” reader Mrs. Mert gave us seemed so simple to me. I had already learned to read at home. My older sister, Louise, and my brother, Eugene (who were already in high school and met the bus at Morris Ford to ride it to Blairsville), had helped me with reading. So had my mother and father. I could already read straight through the Primer Reader. Mrs. Mert must have wondered what she would do with me to keep me on task and working. But I was to learn that she was attuned to pupils and had a good grasp of how to meet their needs.

When she showed us the books cabinet at the front of the room, I made a personal resolution to read all the books in that cabinet, one at a time, until I had read through all of them during the three years I was in this first through third grade classroom. That small library in the corner of our classroom held such a fascination for me that I was never bored while in that room. Later, to bolster our desire to read, Mrs. Mert made a reading chart with each pupil’s name. As we finished a book, and satisfied her that we had read it by giving an oral or a written report, she would place a star after our name.

We had a mid-morning short recess for water (we brought our own glass from home) and rest room break (outside toilets, one for girls and one for boys fulfilled this need). Then came more lessons, and at noon, we had a longer break. We took our tin lunch pails, got water in our glass from the water bucket in the cloak room (Mrs. Mert poured it so we wouldn’t spill it and make a wet mess), and then went outside to find a seat under the shade of the trees. In my lunch pail Mother had packed a piece of boiled corn and a baked sweet potato, a biscuit with bacon, and a piece of gingerbread. This fare was sufficient and would do until I went home in mid-afternoon when a snack would surely await me. Lunch break was a longer time. The upper grades played a game of ball. Some pupils laid off a hop-scotch form on the ground and played that in competition. We younger children had pretend games, made a playhouse under the trees, or played tag. No playground equipment was available for use. We made our own games.

Inside the school building, I began to feel quite at home. The dread of something new and different had quickly dissipated. That first day of school, in my first six-weeks session in July and August during the “summer school” and before we were out in the fall for harvesting crops—especially in my case working in the cane and assisting with sorghum syrup making—we had an idyllic summer. Books opened up for me to wonderful worlds of adventure. I liked my teacher and my classmates. In fact, I liked school. Maybe it was even then, in that wonderful primary grades classroom, that I gained my desire to become a teacher when I grew up.

Thirteen years into the future from my first day of school, I would return to the same school in 1949, then as the only teacher in a school that had been reduced from two-teachers to one because of school population. I was a brand new teacher, fresh out of Truett McConnell College with a two-year degree and a Georgia provisional teaching certificate. I had twenty-five students in my class that fall, grades primer through seventh, at least one in every grade, with the largest class being fifth grade with five pupils. To be able to teach was both a challenge and an opportunity. I remembered my first day of school in that very building, and had as my aim making school both enjoyable and profitable, as my teacher Mrs. Mert had done for me in 1936.

c2011 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published July 7, 2011 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

On the Farm – Planting, Cultivating and ‘Laying By’ (And Celebrating the 4th of July and Attending Protracted Meeting)

Last week’s column was on the subject of fertilizing, turning (plowing) the land, harrowing it, and getting ready to plant crops. On the farm, there was hardly ever a slack season, but that did not mean our lives were all work and no pleasure. The Fourth of July stood out as a favored holiday, and attending our nearby churches during revival season was a distinct pleasure (yes, plural, for we attended neighboring churches’ revivals, in addition to our own). These “high religious festivals”*—protracted meetings—came in July and August, after cultivating the crops had come to a halt and the time to ‘lay them by’ had arrived.

Planting was a solemn and thought-engendered process, as well as hard work on our mountain farm. After all danger of frost was past (he hoped) my father would “lay off” the rows in given sections of the farm for particular crops. Our main crop was corn, and we had fields of it, mainly in the bottomlands along the Nottely River. One year when I was a very young child (I don’t recall the year) a late snow and freeze came when the corn was already up and several inches high. That was a discouraging situation, for my father had to replant those corn fields after that cold snap had destroyed his early crop. But dealing with eventualities like the weather was all a part of planting and cultivating. It was known as “rolling with the flow,” praying a lot about what only the Lord could control, and trusting for a harvest in the fall. I recall not only the cold that sometimes required replanting of crops, but one summer it was so dry it looked like the crops would parch in the fields. Much like our hot summer in 2001, growth was at a standstill, and prospects for harvest were slim, indeed, unless rain came soon.

Our church leaders and pastors called a special prayer meeting for rain. As I recall, that meeting was on a Saturday afternoon, for we normally had “church conference” on Saturdays. We came from hot, parched fields where our work was not yielding results anyway. We cleaned up, dressed in our Sunday clothes, and went to church. A prayer meeting of great intensity occurred. I can hear some of those good old saints of God, like Hayes Hunter, and Great Uncle Jim Dyer, asking God to intervene and send us rain. When we finished the prayer meeting, dark clouds had already gathered. We stood at windows of our little white clapboard church and some at the doors, giving thanks for rain and answered prayers. Those who had faith enough to bring umbrellas began their walks back to their houses even before the welcome shower was over.

Cultivating the crops consisted of two processes. First, the farmer with his “one-horse” cultivator plow would go back and forth in the rows stirring the sod. This loosened any weeds growing, turned them over and covered them. It also gave fresh dirt against the growing plants and helped to nourish them. Then came the second step: Hoeing. Usually, women and older children did this work. This process got the weeds out of the row itself and from around the plant. We were also instructed to gently heap up the dirt around the stalks of corn. Imagine a cultivated field, free of invading and robbing weeds, and the crop of corn (or sorghum cane or potatoes or beans) growing inch by inch in favorable weather. A farmer’s field was his pride and joy and a testimony to his diligence as a good worker. “Laying by,” or the process of not cultivating any more but leaving the crop to grow on its own, came after about three times of plowing the middle of the rows and hoeing.

We didn’t usually get into town for the Fourth of July to participate in the celebration there, for we lived eight miles out in the country and didn’t have a vehicle to drive. We did, at times, however, have a celebration in our own community on our nation’s birthday—at the schoolhouse, close enough for us to walk—or at the church. We always had good orators and sometimes those running for some public office would take advantage of 4th of July celebrations to proclaim their merits for the office sought. We seldom had ice cream in those early years, for no one in our community had a source for ice needed to make homemade ice cream. But we would have cookies and other goodies to eat, whatever the housewives in our community could provide from their kitchens. By the 4th, usually fresh green beans were ready to pick, and the first potatoes ready to “grabble.” We would often have a celebration dinner at church, with fried chicken or fish (caught in the river) fried to a golden brown, fresh vegetables, and apple stack cakes made from fresh June apples. Choestoe Church still practices this 4th of July dinner-on-the-grounds, with a fish fry to which all have an open invitation.

And it seems that nearly always, some of the older boys had firecrackers to shoot on the 4th. Some might be shot toward the end of the gathering, outside away from the building. Or else at night, back home, if we listened, we might hear firecrakers exploding in the distance. As a small child, I was not thrilled by these little explosions and rather that had not been a part of our 4th observance. Simple though these 4th of July celebrations were, we came away with the distinct feeling that we lived in a good country. We were grateful for the gift of freedom.

Soon after the Fourth of July, our church would have summer revival, which we called then, “protracted meetings.” We would have a visiting preacher in addition to our own pastor, and sometimes a visiting song leader. It was customary for the revival team to stay in the community for the duration of the “protracted” meeting, so called because the revivals went a week, two weeks or sometimes longer, as long as the Spirit moved among the people and there was a harvest of souls for the efforts expended by the evangelistic team and the people who shared their faith. We always had the ministers in our home—to eat dinner (as we called the noon meal) and supper (the evening meal), and sometimes they spent one night with us as well. They traveled to several homes in the church community where they were invited.

It was a time when only necessary work was done on the farm, like tending to the livestock and milking the cows, gathering the eggs, and feeding the chickens. People visited one another and sat on porches, talking and enjoying a brief respite from the hard work expended on the farm up until “laying by” time. It occurs to me that the term had a multiple meaning: not only were the crops “laid by” to grow into their upcoming harvest, but the people themselves were “laying by” their troubles and concerns and enjoying spiritual, social and recreational time together.

In our fast-paced times now, it is hard for us to even imagine a time when general work was placed on hold and people enjoyed a time of refreshment (Going away for vacation now? Yes. But not having one right at home in your own community!) Maybe that’s what made us as strong as we were, a time-out, a time to gain perspective before the next season and its special demands descended upon us. And when our church’s “protracted meeting” came to an end, there was always another church near by holding meetings—near enough to walk. And everyone was always welcome, whether you normally attended there or not. That’s how it used to be in the country. A certain rhythm existed, and if you were fortunate, you joined in the song of the particular seasons and enjoyed each one.

(Note: *The term, “God’s high festival, protracted meeting” was used by poet Byron Herbert Reece in his poem, “Choestoe – A Dancing Place of Rabbits” published in The Prairie Schooner, in Spring, 1944. I highly recommend that you find a copy of the poem and read it. He gives many characteristics of our mountain people in that particular poem.-EDJ)

c2011 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published June 30, 2011 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.