Some years ago I brought in Dan Murphy from the Santa Fe office of the National Parks Service. He did a week-long workshop for us on interpretation that changed how we train and teach interpretation. I maintained a friendship with Dan for many years, bringing him back several times to speak to other groups and workshops. He had wonderful stories to tell based on his life experiences from singing opera in New York City to rafting the San Juan in New Mexico. He was a fascinating person who really understood interpretive communication. Dan eventually left NPS to become a river guide and slowly we lost touch, but his impact is still felt.
We talked about all sorts of interpretation, most based in the foundation of interesting life experiences. Once he related the story of staying a month with an old-timer at the foot of some New Mexico mountains. The old-timer lived in a cabin with no electricity, plumbing or indoor water. The thing that stuck with me was Dan talking about this experience being so close to the past – Jethro Tull – ‘Living in the Past,” past (if you don’t know 1974, nevermind).
Dan talked about how people had lived just like this old-timer for generations – hundreds, thousands of years. Without electrical and engine-based technology everything was done by hand, daily life changed very little from that of hundreds of years ago. I put this away in my mind.
Flash forward… three years ago I began having Saturday breakfast with my mother. I began to ask about her growing up and each Saturday she would relate stories of growing up in the early 1900s on a small farm: no electricity, no motors, but a horse and wagon and plow, gardens, small cotton field, water well, hog scalding, swinging, exploring and more. I was surprised at her memory, even to the details of how the garden was laid out and with what vegetables, and that there were flowers along the edges to attract pollinators and bird houses at the corner. Quickly I realized that her early life and that of Dan’s old-timer were quite the same, and both connected with the daily life of people stretching back through time. I began to make notes, and she began to sketch the layout of their house and their small farm. Here are a few of my notes. Anyone need ideas for living history?
Life on the Huggins’ place had changed little from that of the people who settled Arkansas 100 years earlier. They had no running water, but had a good well right at the end of the porch. They had no electricity: no radio, no light bulb, and no iPod., no phone. They did not have anything with an engine. But they had coal oil (kerosene) lamps, wind-up alarm clocks, a wood cook stove, a fireplace, and a treadle (foot-powered) Singer sewing machine. They worked the fields with mule and plow, and trips to town were on foot, horse, or wagon. They did not have a refrigerator, but later had an icebox. They smoked their meats and salted them down to preserve them, and they canned the fruit and vegetables they grew.
The Huggins’ had good, sweet water and that made life on the farm better. Plus, they didn’t have to go far to get it. They had a 20-foot deep well right at the edge of the porch. Many wells in the area went dry in late summer, but the Huggins’ well never went dry. Angilee, the youngest child, was responsible for getting the water every day. She remembers the well, well. It was always covered with big wooden doors that opened at the middle, were lifted up then laid back to each side. Milk was hung inside the well because the cool water protected by the big doors made the well cool year round.
Will Huggins bought the farm and began to work it, then died of pneumonia. The Huggins family members were not farmers. They had always had gardens but now they had to learn to run a farm— and with no help.
One thing they had to do each fall was pay the mortgage, and they did that with cotton. A large part of their 40-acres was devoted to cotton. If they failed to grow enough cotton they could lose their home. All family members planted cotton, chopped cotton, and picked cotton. Even little Angilee remembers picking cotton and chopping cotton. They would load the cotton into their wagon, the family piled on and they made the all-day trip to town. This was a once a year trip and it was exciting. At the end of the day they learned if they had enough cotton for one bale—500 pounds. That would pay the mortgage. If they had a few dollars left over they would get shoes, and maybe material to make clothes, and maybe a piece of candy.
She remembered bending a Prince Albert tobacco tin lengthwise and nailing it to a flat stick and run pushing a small barrel hoop around the yard. They had two sizes of hoops. She remembers having two small porcelain dolls with arms and legs that moved. In the evenings the family played Checkers, Chinese checkers, and Dominoes. Angilee learned to count and add by playing Dominoes.
On the back porch was a burlap sack on a nail. That was the rag bag. You had to work for everything you had, so very little of anything was wasted. Every scrap of cloth was placed in the rag bag, and occasionally her mother would go through the rag bag to see what could be used. Some rags were used for rags; some were cut into shapes to make quilts. There was a use for almost every piece.
They had three beehives they would move to different areas of the farm from time to time. They didn’t pay too much attention to the bees or the hives. The bees did what they do without much attention needed, and they were very important in pollinating the vegetables and other plants the Huggins family grew. Ever so often the family would clean the hives and get the honey and the honeycomb and store it in jars for use later. Angilee remembers how good that honey tasted. They would all suck the honey from the comb, then chew the waxy honeycomb like gum all day long.
They had a very pretty butter mold that gave the butter an oak leaves and acorn design. When the butter was pressed into the mold and it was ready, Steed (brother) would have his horse saddled and would ride with the butter as fast as he could to the general store, a mile or so away. The storekeeper would be watching for him, look at the butter to see the quality of the pattern, then hold it high above his head and shout: Mrs. Huggins’ butter is here! People would gather around and bid to buy the beautiful molded butter, and that was income for the Huggins family.
In the hog pen Steed shot the hogs between the eyes, brought them to the backyard on the sled with the mule (Maude) pulling it. They ran a strong stick through the tendon of the back legs and attached that to the block and tackle and pulled the hog up off the sled, then lowered it head first into a barrel of boiling water. After about ten minutes the hair and hide softened and they lifted it out and hung it from a tree limb. Three men began to scrape the hair off the hide with sharp knives, and a fourth began to gut the hog. Almost none of the hog went to waste. The entrails were set on the table for the women to sort and clean. Each part was washed and carefully set aside. The morning after the hog killing we looked forward to a breakfast of [hog] brains and scrambled eggs with hot biscuits with butter and jelly. That was a big, healthy breakfast.
Keeping things clean was a very important part of the Huggins’ way of life. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” was a saying Angilee heard from her mother every week. First, no clothes were placed on the floor – everything had a place and was kept in its place –and that wasn’t on the floor. When you took your shoes off, you put them under your bed ready to put back on the next morning; when you took your coat off, you hung it up. The house was always neat and tidy because everything was kept in its place.
They had two vegetable areas. One was a large field where Steed worked with the mule and plows to grow sweet corn, peas, sweet potatoes, and Irish potatoes for the family to use and to sell. They also grew sorghum for syrup and watermelons and cantaloupe. The other garden was the family garden, or kitchen garden. It was just across the road from the house and was large and filled with variety. It had two purposes; first, it was the source of food they could eat right away. Second, they grew vegetables they could ‘put up’ using the process of canning, and save for winter.
Nice Saturday mornings…oral history, family history, and living history.