When Folks Made Do
An old grocery store (Janice Waltzer CC)

A crisis or two from disaster … That’s how most folks live. Modern conveniences have spoiled the self-reliance right out of us. Thanks to stores like Kroger and Publix you can get most anything you need. Ease, however, extracts a price.

We’re nowhere as self-sufficient as our grandparents were. They lived in an era when folks made do. Not us, we drive to the big box grocery stores and plop down a credit card or sign a check. That’s how we keep life moving forward. It’s a tenuous way to live.

Ask the folks in Boston what it’s like to be on lockdown and multiply that by weeks or months. What if the economy collapses and folks demand gold for services and products? Or say gasoline dries up thanks to the latest Middle Eastern crisis and your car becomes a big dust collector? What happens if you can’t get to the store for a long, long time?

Hysteria aside, the truth is we are more helpless than ever because of how dependent we are on stores. Without access to stores most of us would become whining cripples in short order. The instinct to be independent has been bred out of us but it wasn’t always this way.

There was a time when a short walk outside put food on the table. People once got most of their fruit and produce from orchards and gardens. Now you go to the produce section and buy clementines, bananas, kiwi fruit, cantaloupes, and more. Asparagus, broccoli, greens, peppers, cucumbers, and squash are a breeze. Sure beats growing all that stuff. Well yes as long as the trucks and money keep rolling in.

Mom reminded me last week of how enterprising folks used to be. Folks grew what they needed and the seeds from all they grew were worth their weight in gold. People would spread tomato seeds on a cloth and let them dry. Then the cloth would be put away until planting time. They had a mighty motivator: necessity.

In a case of good timing the day after Mom and I talked about the old days and old ways, Charlie Smith in Wrightsville copied me on an email to his good friend David Taylor over Marietta way. David writes a fine column about the olden days, “The Kudzu Chronicles Of Spring Brook Farm.” Charlie shared “Episode 143” in which “Farmer Dave” writes about his mom, Ruby, and how she grew up in more self-sufficient times.

Farmer Dave—“Ruby lived through the Great Depression, but they were so poor it really didn’t affect them that much. They all mostly lived off what they could grow. Every summer they would can vegetables out of the garden in Mason jars to last them until planting time came again. The family kept hogs, milk cows, chickens for eggs, and chickens for Sunday dinners. Luella (Dave’s grandmother) also had guineas that laid eggs for them to eat and sometimes she sold the eggs so she could buy flour and sugar. They took the corn they grew in their garden to the gristmill and brought home corn meal for corn bread and other things. Hog killings were done when the weather turned cold and nothing was wasted; some was smoked and some was salt cured. Feet and ears were pickled. Pork bellies were cut up into bacon and streak o’ lean. Cows were milked by hand in the early mornings, all year long and some of the milk was churned into butter.”

All this prompted Charlie to ask Dave a question. “I wonder just how many families in the South went through the same scenario your Mom’s family did in the twenties and thirties. In some ways the country folk then had it better than the city people. They grew their own food, having to sell cotton or just enough foodstuffs to buy salt, sugar, flour, and clothes. Come to think of it all they really had to buy was salt and shoes.”

“Salt and shoes …” Imagine that. Well my mom went through the same scenario Ruby did. A few days after we talked Mom called and gave me her list of “Things You Don’t See Anymore.” These things you don’t see anymore became endangered species thanks to prosperity and the coming of grocery chains. How many of these have you seen or remember?

Southern Crabapple - Malus angustifolia (Steve Harwood CC)
Southern Crabapple – Malus angustifolia (Steve Harwood CC)

Root Cellars. RIP, killed by refrigeration. Folks used to have root cellars to keep turnips, potatoes, and other root vegetables from freezing in winter and spoiling in summer. Jams and jellies and salted meat found its way to the root cellar too. It was a good place to cool off pies too.

Crabapple Trees. Tart, tangy, and gone. Seen one lately? I bet not. You won’t find them in stores either. You never saw them in an orchard, generally just solo, off to themselves. Today they are the forgotten fruit. Time was they were good in sauces and made for a tasty jelly. These apples are North America’s only native apple by the way. Crabapple trees today are mostly ornamental and grown for show.

Grape Arbors. Most families had a trellis with clusters of grapes hanging all over it. They weren’t muscadines nor were they scuppernongs. No, they weren’t wild grapes. Often they were Concorde grapes. If you set things up right, you’d have a big mass of vines that yielded heavy clusters of grapes. You could eat them right off the vine and make them into jelly and wine.

Country well showing an old windlass and bucket, 1938. (Forsyth County NC Public Library)
Country well showing an old windlass and bucket, 1938. (Forsyth County NC Public Library)

Wells With A Windlass. Back before city governments piped water into the country, folks dug their own wells. Often they’d line them with rocks and build a shelter over them with a windlass. They’d draw up water with a rope hooked to a bucket. They didn’t have to worry about pollution and a well gave them a good source of water, which came in handy on washday. As did …

Black Iron Pots. These pots were essential for washing clothes as was a wash bench with three tin tubs. Charlie Smith recalls his family using No. 10 washtubs with a rough scrub board. Some folks used these pots to make soap from water, lye, and hog fat.

Sweet Potato Kilns. Because the sweet potato comes to us from the tropics it’s sensitive to cold. Thus folks had to build kilns to protect sweet potatoes. As cold weather approached, folks would pile dirt and hay around the potatoes and cover it all with corn stalks. Shaped much like a teepee, kilns kept potatoes from freezing.

Smoke house at Boone Hall Plantation. (Jan Kronsell)

Smokehouses. Nearly every farm had a smokehouse. A good supply of meat made for a less worrisome winter. Smokehouses often sat at the edge of a yard and faced the rear of the main dwelling. Access was easy and you could better keep an eye on your hams hanging in there. Meat would be salted a long time and then smoked for a week. After the meat was cured the smokehouse became a storehouse.

Canning. I see less and less canning. The abundance of commercial canned goods makes the laborious process of canning unnecessary. Scalding glass jars and melting wax gave way to newer ways such as tin lids and rubber seals but that gave way to a trip to the store. I have no doubt however that hardy traditionalists still practice the ritual of blanching and canning the bejeweled produce from their gardens.

Mom mentioned growing peanuts and dovecotes too where people housed pigeons. A hankering for squab meant building a dovecote. Out back a ways pigeons cooed and craned their necks about and when it was time for squab? Well folks say it tasted a lot like chicken.

So, there’s a list of things we don’t see anymore. The people who survived thanks to that list are gone and they took the list with them. The work was hard and it never ceased but a lot of good came from it. For one thing they didn’t need to send tons of plastic, cans, glass, and cardboard to the local landfill. That made them green in a way. And patient.

Grandmom Walker grew asparagus. It took seven years and a lot of work before she could eat one spear. Not only were the genuine, original survivors resourceful and self-sufficient, they were far more patient than we, the microwave mavens, are.

I hear people talking about the survivor shows on television. You know the corny, fake one with all the torches and drama and the more realistic one where a guy videos himself alone in some God-forsaken place. I don’t give either a second of my time. I know who the real survivors were. I can hear Hooterville’s Mr. Haney now from “Green Acres” extolling our parents and grandparents as the “gen-u-ine original survivors.”

There’s just no way our forefathers would panic and pitch a fit if a crisis hit today. In fact if going to the grocery store became impossible the original survivors would be in demand. A trip to their root cellar, smokehouse, garden, grape arbor, and orchard would scrape a pretty good meal together. The original survivors didn’t need plastic bottles of water either. A pail of well water could be turned into some pretty good tea.

One final thing … They didn’t worry about coupons or two-for-one Wednesdays. They’d already paid for things with good honest sweat. That no doubt made the food taste that much better.


Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.

He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine.
Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.”

Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.

Visit Tom's website at www.tompoland.net. Email him at [email protected].