Summer Riches: Coal Oil Lamps, Cool Well Water, and Blackberries with Cow’s Cream
Summertime stirs memories. Cool dank air rising from the well. And the warmth of sun and family love.
Mother and Dad taught eight months a year in the small town of Jonesboro in Southern Illinois. In the 1940s, that
meant no salary for four months. They survived summers by renting our home and moving to their farm near Goreville. Summer
cash income was mostly the rent money and a few dollars from eggs and cream sold at General Vaughn's store.
How rich we were however! As teachers, they felt life on the farm could teach their children about pioneer living.
I learned to milk a cow and to fish.
Mother gardened to feed us. Dad milked cows and taught me and Jim, my brother, to do so. We had mushrooms to hunt, poke
salad to cut, and blackberries to pick and feast on. Daddy took us fishing, and he taught us how to cane chairs with
hickory bark and to make wonderful horns to blow after he and his brother Autie dehorned the cattle.
Mother lit two kerosene lamps each night. My sister, Rosemary. was eight years older and she was allowed to light
them, but Mother was afraid for me to do so for many years. Because my hand was small enough to fit inside
the sooty globes, however, I had the honor of washing them in the hot soapy water left from doing breakfast
dishes. Mother taught me to be very careful as I did this task, and I felt important.
I was given a small kerosene lamp for the upstairs attic bedroom the first summer in that room without my older sister,
Rosemary. The upstairs was dark and shadowy at night, but my little lamp helped build confidence as I climbed the steep stairs
to the long narrow room with slanted ceilings. We slept in one end, and the other end was used for storage and it had
an opening going into the unfloored area over the kitchen.
Rosemary makes our stark attic room beautiful.
Rosemary had decorated our half of the room. To an old white woven bedspread, Rose added bright red print in
a ruffle that fell to the floor, thus covering the feather bed, which was laid on a straw tick on an old rusty bedstead. For
a dressing table, an orange crate was nailed horizontally to the wall to make two storage shelves and then skirted with the
same red print. Rose also skirted a wooden keg and padded the top for a seat. In my childish opinion, our more formal bedroom
with real furniture left behind in Jonesboro did not compare in beauty.
In July heat, Mother led us on blackberry expeditions. We ate the fragrant juicy jewels three times a day during season--on
cereal at breakfast, in pies and cobblers at noon, and with sugar and cream at supper. Mother invented blackberry
cream pies, and I can still imagine the creamy tart taste with bits of berry flecking the custard.
We put buckets of rich milk down in the well to keep it cool, and we drank milk to our heart’s content. Mother made
butter and cottage cheese. She and my brother loved to drink buttermilk although it made me make faces.
Mother and Aunt Grace blessed their families with thriftiness.
Mother and Aunt Grace competed and cooperated in helping their families live well on little money. Grace was her sister-in-law
who lived on the edge of Goreville year around. Both women were intelligent, well read, and industrious, and they succeeded in
their thrift. One summer they came up with a recipe for using all that excess milk and cream to make real cheese. Mother was
never satisfied, for the cheese lacked firmness and had the consistency of a spread. It tasted wonderful to youthful snackers,
however, and I considered the enterprise a great success. I also adored the homemade root beer Aunt Grace made and served
as refreshment on a hot summer night.
Home-made ice cream on Saturday night or Sunday afternoon was a treat to remember. Ice would be bought in town and
carried to the farm in a gunny sack. Then Daddy crushed it with the side of the axe that we used to chop our firewood for
the cook stove. Mother discovered she could buy broken peppermint sticks in great quantity for almost nothing from the wonderful
old-fashioned candy case at General Vaughn’s store. Crushing the sticks with her big wooden rolling
pin, and by adding the fragments to the junket mixture, she created a cherished treat.
Daddy and Jim were the ones who turned the crank until the liquid solidified in the shiny tin cylinder sitting in the middle
of the salty ice collar. Mother saw the men struggle to turn those final cranks to make the cream hard, and she suffered watching
me stir my ice cream until I got it back to liquid to drink from my bowl! Ice cream making was a tiring task for her at the
end of a full day. Yet she was conscientious to wash that tin cylinder, never letting it wait until the next day. The salty
water on the sides would cause it to rust, she explained
We sat outside and even slept under the trees sometimes.
We sat outside in the evenings, for there was always a wonderful breeze at Mt. Airy Farm on our hillside. When East St.
Louis cousins came down for a week or so to stay with us, we would even sleep on blankets in the front yard. The cousins were
Boy Scouts and eventually brought a tent. We really felt spiffy then.
We kept meat grease handy for spreading on the many chigger bites that came with camping outside. One of our great excitements
was thinking we had a thief when our meat grease kept disappearing. Then we found that Lucky was licking it up assuming it
was a doggie treat for him.
Daddy was a fanatic about washing before meals. We dipped the water into the metal wash pan on the water bucket table.
Daddy taught us to roll up our sleeves and wash those arms up past the elbows when we washed our hands and faces for mealtime.
There were no dusty people at Mother’s table.
We sometimes bathed in the pond.
Armed with soap and towels, we were sometimes allowed to take a bath in the mud-bottomed pond just over a hill in the cow
pasture and clean up for church the next day. We still had to wash our mud-entombed feet when we got out.
Other times we took that bath in one of the wash tubs that Mother used for doing the laundry. She scrubbed on
a washboard using the lye soap she had made from the abundant meat grease from the farm-raised pork. It was good to help her
hang up the clothes on the line and feel the cool dampness flap in my face on a hot summer day. Air conditioning never feels
better than those cool tappings of wet laundry.
Through the Rural Electrical Association, we finally got electricity at the farm, but we no longer summered there. As a
teenager, I loved summers in Jonesboro with my friends and the opportunity to participate in summer band. And I may have been
the reason my parents decided to stop moving to the farm each summer. But probably not. Although they were always concerned
for our welfare, my parents modeled living their own lives and not living through their children. Daddy continued making a
weekly farm trek to take care of things. When possible, I went with him.
I marvel at my parents' ingenuity at turning four months without pay into happy living history lessons for their family.
Perhaps I learned even more about positive attitudes during adversity and having a good time than I did about history.