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||Melva HESS Calaman's Memories
Melva Hess Calaman
Back in the 1920's, in north central Pennsylvania, I lived --with my parents and six brothers on a hill farm high on the Appalachian Plateau. Nowhere have I ever seen, for sheer beauty, another one hundred acres that could rival our home and land. To gaze from our vantage point and count seven successive waves of mountain ridges, the last ones so far distant that they disappeared in a blue mist, was something that I could do every time I looked down the road from our dooryard. And not until I had become grown and away from home did I appreciate the grandeur of the magnificent elm trees standing so tall and graceful in the fence row between the cow pasture and the cornfield above the barn. And the air--so clean, so clear that odors, sights and sounds were all intensified, as it were, by the rare quality of the atmosphere--I still feel the exhilaration that came from deep breaths that seemed to reach every pore in my being. Never was it damp air; even in the cold stillness, the gulps of air that we swallowed as we sailed our handsleds in winter down the half mile of hill road seemed to warm our insides with its dry sweetness.
It seems that most people tend to push unpleasant thoughts and memories away and to focus on that which gives them pleasure to remember. I must confess to being one of those individuals. So, with that in mind, I have decided to delve into my early childhood memories and drag forth recollections of experiences that caused pain or unhappiness. With that out of the way, I can then recount to my readers the pleasures of those times, of which there were many.
I do not recall that my father ever scolded me, or raised his voice to me, for that matter. On two occasions, my mother disciplined me strongly enough that I never forgot. At about age five, I pushed my one year old brother (he was next after me and I resented him) off the platform in the woodshed down into the wood chopping area, a drop of about eighteen inches. My mother said, "I'm going to give you a licking. You go sit in that chair and wait for me." I think that was the most agonizing wait of my whole life. She turned me over her knee--the only spanking that I ever got from her. Then, when I was about eight, I made a
remark to her that she considered improper, and she sent me to
bed without any supper (she brought me some bread and milk later and sat on the edge of the bed while I ate it). I honestly do not remember any other episodes such as those during my early childhood. Looking back, I feel blessed to have had them for parents--two young hardworking, frugal, compassionate (when my father found a bird's nest in his fields, he would always plow around it!), kind, generous, good natured people who provided for and cared for their family as only loving parents can do. I'm afraid I took them pretty much for granted at the time, but in later years I came to view them as two of the most wonderful people I ever knew.
In thinking of other unpleasantries, one word keeps popping up in my mind: COLD! We lived two and a half miles from town and
school and before getting on the schoolbus in the mornings, we had to walk an eighth of a mile to the bus stop (it seemed further!). The schoolbus was a horse drawn vehicle with canvas flaps on the open sides that were let down and fastened in the winter. While these curtains did keep out the snow and rain, they did little to soften the wintry chill that swept
relentlessly through the cracks. Needless to say, the warm schoolroom in the morning and the cozy kitchen with supper ready at night were a welcome change from the bone chilling rides on the schoolbus in winter. At home, the upstairs bedrooms were unheated except for the stovepipe coming from downstairs through the big front bedroom, or by opening the stair door to let some heat up from the sitting room. I remember, in cold weather, undressing for bed by the coal heater downstairs, then rushing up to bed carrying a warm flatiron wrapped in a piece of old sheeting to use as a buffer between my feet and the cold bed. A by-product of the cold weather were chapped hands. Hand lotion was not found on store shelves at that time (not in our town, anyhow) and our hands became rough, red and sore from exposure to the cold. The teacher kept a bottle of rosewater and glycerin on her desk at school, and at home we had access to the can of Wool Fat (a trade name, but literally was a lanolin-based cream) that my father used to treat sore udders on his cows. These emollients helped; however, nothing except the warmth and sunshine of springtime ever seemed to dispel thoroughly the -,uncomfortable and rough dryness of those winter-chilled hands.
One other discomforting situation of that time involved my mother's insistence that in the winter I should wear what had been my sister's stocking cap to school. It was all wool and warm and probably money for a different cap was in short supply, but it seemed that someone was always pulling the scarf section from around my neck or tugging at it when I despaired of trying to keep it in place. Moreover, my sister was twelve years older than I and stocking caps had gone out of style by the time I grew into that one!
From here on I can, like the sun-dial, "Count only the sunny hours", having hereto succeeded, hopefully, in allaying any skepticism as to my having been less than candid.
It was a happy childhood. There was a beautiful front dooryard slanting upward to the house from the road, with a high fence around (to keep the chickens out and the children in, I suppose).There were the rose bush, the lilac trees, the snowball bush, the Concord grapevine that grew alongside one of the pear trees near the woodshed, as well as the other flowers that my mother somehow found time for and took delight in. An apple orchard on the gentle slope back of the house and a large vegetable garden were the sources for the cupboards full of home canned food that filled one side of our cellar in the fall, while bins of winter apples and potatoes were on the other side.
Across the road from the house, the barns furnished hours of entertainment to boys and girls jumping from the high beam into the fragrant, prickly timothy hay in the loft or swinging from a hay rope, daringly, from one hayloft to another. In the winter, to go to the barn at milking time, especially, was something every child should experience. The rows of cows in their stanchions, softly chewing their hay and occasionally complaining when being milked, warmed the barn with their body heat. The barn cat, who more than earned her keep by keeping mice out of the grain bins contentedly lapped up warm milk from her dish, and sometimes an older brother would help his little sister to milk a few squirts into the pail. And, just once in a while, two brothers might have a friendly little interlude, when Papa wasn't looking, of squirting milk at each other. There was not yet electricity in the barn (or in the house) and part of the excitement of going to the barn, I believe, was generated by the prospect of sitting close by the kerosene lantern hung on a beam behind the cows and watching the flickering shadows being cast to every far corner. Such a warm, safe, comfortable place it was.
The house was an old Greek Revival-type structure; the main part, with a cellar underneath, consisted of a sitting room, parlor (one of my brothers told me that the parlor had originally been two small bedrooms and that our father had done the alteration and put sliding doors between the parlor and the sitting room), a back spare bedroom of good size (this was a room that my grandma occupied when she often spent the winter with us, and on very cold nights I was privileged to sleep with her upon her feather bed!). There was also a rectangular-shaped room at the back next to the kitchen, used as a pantry until my father converted it into a dining room in the late 1920's. The kitchen wing was one story high with a porch across the front and a woodshed beside it which was a part of the house. The door from the kitchen to the woodshed opened onto a well built platform extending about eight feet into the woodshed. The platform served as a laundry room when the weather was warm.(My mother did the laundry for this large family using a hand operated machine with the help of a washboard until about 1927 when my sister, who was earning money as a school teacher, bought her a gasoline powered Maytag washer. It must have been a wonderful escape from the drudgery of scrubbing pants and shirts by hand and washing for whoever happened to be the baby at one particular time). In the 1920's, my father built a pantry with shelves and counters, opening from the kitchen in the back corner of that platform. Beyond the platform to the end of the house was a ground level space for chopping and stacking wood for the kitchen cook stove.
The kitchen and the dining room were wainscoted. I do not recall that the other rooms were. We had a large kitchen table with several kitchen chairs,- pretty much mismatched, along with an assortment of silverware, plates and cups. There were seven or eight people to feed at every meal, just counting our own
family, and very often there would be relatives or neighbors to set more places for at the table. My mother had a kitchen cabinet which, besides the table, was her only counter space. There was no sink; her water supply was usually from a well at the other end of the house. Her source of hot water was from her big teakettle and a reservoir attached to the kitchen stove and heated by it. In the winter, we took our Saturday night baths in a washtub in front of the open oven door of the kitchen stove, and in the summer, on the platform in the woodshed. She also had a copper boiler to set on the stove to heat water. The kitchen floor was of bare wood, probably pine. There was wallpaper on the walls above the wainscoting; the other rooms in the house were papered, too.
The upstairs over the main part of the house had a hallway large enough for a bed and three other bedrooms. The boys doubled up for sleeping but since I was the only girl, I had a cot to myself in a corner of the big bedroom. My parents' big double bed had a store bought mattress but the others had straw ticks (filled with oat straw in the fall after the oats had been threshed). My mother, when she made the beds would reach inside the ticks to fluff up the straw.
We did our homework after supper around a round table in the sitting room that had an oil light set in the middle. About 1926 or 1927, the oil lights were replaced by two gasoline mantle lamps in the kitchen and sitting room. They gave off a bright white light and the neighbors going by at night (which wasn't
very often) would remark on how brightly our house was lighted up. The two original kerosene lights in the kitchen were mounted to the wall, and the wall behind them was protected by tin sconces fashioned rather ornately like scallop shells. My grandfather Hess and his father and his father were tinsmiths; I have often wondered whether those light holders were made by one of them.
Our sitting room furniture was well worn, and most of it had been handed down from Grandma and Grandpa Hess who had bought the farm in 1878 and had lived there until they died. There were a couch and Morris chair (an early version of a recliner) and an old fashioned reed organ that we played on in the winter because the piano was in the unheated parlor. My mother's treadle sewing machine sat by one of the windows, where she turned out numerous articles of clothing for family members and sometimes for neighbors, especially for new babies in need of layettes.
The parlor was mostly a Sunday room, although we were allowed in to practice on the piano. There was a faded red carpet, a library table with books and magazines, a glass-fronted bookcase and a pretty wooden rocker that had been a wedding present to my parents.
At the back of our house, the apple orchard seemed to be about as much a part of our lives as the house we lived in. In the spring it was a profusion of blossoms that gave way to cascades of apples that were tended faithfully until they were ready to be picked for storage in the cellar. Several times during the summer, my mother would have the boys move the kitchen table and chairs into the orchard for dinner or supper under one of the trees. A tree in the back row had grown on a slant with a split in the branches that made a perfect seat for a young reader, and I spent many happy hours sitting there and enjoying my favorite stories. One of my earliest recollections took place in the orchard when I followed some baby guinea chicks there and was strongly reprimanded by their mother who chased me toward the house, flying up my back with each step I took. I can just remember seeing my mother at the back door laughing, and rescuing me from what I was sure was my untimely demise. In the fall after the apples had been harvested, the children could pick up the leftovers on the ground and sell them for cider apples. After that, my father turned his pigs loose and they made short work of all apples left behind.
Food was in plentiful supply. We had cows, chickens, turkeys, pigs and at various times other barnyard fowls. Besides the vegetable garden, whole fields of potatoes, corn and beans provided food for the summer season and to be put away for the winter. Homegrown peaches, pears (in addition to the winter )ears, my father had grafted a Bartlett pear branch to one of the trees that produced abundantly),grapes and plums supplemented the apple supply. My mother did a lot of canning, meat as well as fruits and vegetables, since there were no freezers or refrigerators to use. She also dried corn and sometimes currants and berries. (I should note here that we did have an ice house where blocks of ice cut from a local pond were stored in sawdust and used to cool the milk that was sent to the creamery in Westfield. We usually could keep a block of ice frozen until the Fourth of July to be used to make ice cream). In the summer, we picked wild greens from the fields and fence rows: dandelion, red root, purslane, pigweed, curly dock, milkweed, buckwheat and cooked them for a green vegetable -- with some butter, salt, pepper and a bit of vinegar, m-mm good! We picked wild strawberries, red and black raspberries, blackberries and gooseberries for pies and shortcakes in season and canned or made jam for winter. We gathered nuts in the fall from two hickory trees on the hill behind the house. We had a sugar bush (that translates into a grove of maple trees) and made maple syrup every spring for our own use and sometimes to sell also. As I look back, I don't remember any time that we had a crop failure; it seemed that every fall our cellar was full as usual of what was needed to get through the winter. I wonder what we would have done, but probably our credit was good at the store in Sabinsville, and back then, neighbors always helped one another
in time of need.
These were the years of the Great Depression. I do not think that we had much income from the farm, but, as you have seen, we always had a good place to live and lots to eat. I believe that hard work must have been viewed as a way of life, but with all the improved ways of doing things that exist today, it's hard to comprehend and appreciate how much manual labor it took for our parents and grandparents to make a living. What we bought from the store consisted mostly of staples: flour, sugar, salt, rice (my father loved rice pudding!), raisins, cheese, all items that we couldn't provide for ourselves. We made lard for shortening from the pigs; we sold eggs at the store and usually made butter for our own use. If something happened that milk didn't get taken to the creamery, we made cottage cheese and butter.
In the 1920's automobiles were becoming more and more popular as a means of transportation. My sister bought a Model T Ford roadster about 1927 and some of our farm neighbors were using automobiles. Whether we could have afforded one, I'm not sure, because later, when my father was financially able, he scorned the use of cars on our dusty road and still drove to town in his horse and buggy or lumber wagon. I suspect that, to him, the trip to town was more enjoyable at the slow pace he had always been accustomed to. At any rate, he never bought a car for his own use and, I suppose, for this reason we never traveled far, many times, as a family. In his later years as a farmer, he did buy a tractor after his two workhorses grew too old to serve him. We children usually walked to Sunday School on Sunday mornings in good weather and stayed home otherwise. Since we had no other real need for transportation at that time, the lack of a car was not really significant.
In discussing what it was like to be a child in the 1920's in Clymer Township, Pennsylvania, it's likely that the question would be asked, "What did you do for entertainment?--no radio, no television, no stereo or vcr; it must have been a boring time." In fact, however, I do not recall having feelings of boredom until my teenage years when I began to long to see what was going on in the rest of the world. Then the quiet evenings and Sundays sometimes weighed a bit heavily on my psyche, but this would probably have been the case no matter where one lived. But,going back to the 1920's: by the time I was eight years old in 1927, there were three older brothers and three small younger brothers in our household. This meant that there weren't many hours when something wasn't going on. (My only sister, twelve years older than I and precocious, had entered college when I was about three years old and was home only in the summers after that). In warm weather, there were outdoor games including Hide and Go Seek, Tag, Red Rover, Ante, Ante Over. In winter, Fox and Geese was popular with the older boys along with sledding. I recall some bob-sledding, too and taking rides in our old cutter (at one time it had been quite ornate. It had belonged to my Hess grandparents, but its plush cushions and other fittings had become worn and faded) with the sleigh bells and hitched to our horse Fanny. Somehow I never felt too enthusiastic about winter sports and really preferred being inside where it was warm and dry! In addition to the reading material at home, our school and Sunday School had good libraries, so curling up on the old couch behind the stove with a book was to me a good pastime.
I marvel now in thinking of my mother, who cooked, baked, cleaned, sewed, tended garden, preserved food for winter for this household of nine persons(often cousins would be overnight visitors, too); yet she found time to tell stories, invent games to play and most of the time seemed to be on top of whatever situation arose. My father loved to play cards in the winter evenings and sometimes one or two of our neighbors would come in to share a card game--King Pedro was a favorite with the grownups--, and there would be buttered popcorn (my father grew that, too!), some apples and those delicious juicy winter pears that ripened during the cold dark days of December and January.
My mother's younger brother, Uncle Chub, was a frequent visitor. He never married and all his nieces and nephews looked forward eagerly to a visit from him; he was just a lot of fun. He worked as a machinist in Elmira, N.Y., but to us his main occupation was that of country fiddler, and a good one. The custom of people holding square dances in their homes was still popular in the 1920's in our part of the country, and I learned to square dance at an early age since I was allowed to go to neighbors' homes with Uncle Chub, the fiddler and caller, and my older brothers, to dances. At first I danced only with my brothers, then one memorable night at Helen and Will Butler's home, when I was about eight years old, Will asked me to dance! I couldn't believe that anyone outside my family would want to dance with me! I could hardly wait to get home to tell my folks. Uncle Chub taught two of my brothers to fiddle country tunes so later, they played at neighborhood dances, too. At home, we had the piano (I took piano lessons), the old organ, a couple of guitars and the violins and had a good time with the "family orchestra". Although my mother would usually be busy at housework, she would sing along enthusiastically.
Holidays were looked forward to and were occasions for merriment. April Fool's Day was a challenge to everyone's ingenuity in trying to outdo another's trickery. By the time I was three or four I had learned to expect to find bits of paper baked into my breakfast pancake on April Fool's morn, and thus reminded of the day, looked with apprehension upon all dealings with my siblings and schoolmates for the rest of the day. The Easter Bunny did not come around in the 1920's, but for days before Easter, my brothers would hide eggs (taken from the hens' nests) in various caches in the barn, then each would arrive in the kitchen on Easter morning with his pailful of eggs, eager to see who had collected the most. If one brother had come across and confiscated another's holdings, that was all part of the fun. Needless to say, there were several platters of fried eggs on the breakfast table, and then we had to see who could eat the most eggs!(Cholesterol levels had not yet become a part of our vocabulary, thank goodness!)
Christmas morning was one of the special events of the whole year. Our Christmas tree, always a beautiful, graceful hemlock from the grove in the edge of the sugar bush, stood directly across the sitting room from the stair door. If the children awoke early, they had to wait for someone to open the stair door announcing that they could come down. This was because Santa (or someone ) was busy lighting the myriad of tiny wax candles that adorned the tree. It would still be dark outside in the early dawn, and the effect of opening that door to see those gently arching branches bravely sporting their shining burdens of candles and colored glass ornaments was magical indeed. A soft yellow glow through the isinglass windows in the coal stove door provided just the right atmosphere for the hushed expressions of admiration before we began to notice that indeed Santa had been good to us and had left us presents underneath our Christmas tree. Two items I've always associated with Christmas: oranges and Brazil nuts(we called them nigger toes!), because we didn't see them at other times of the year. Ribbon candy, too. My sister had finished college and started teaching school when I was about six years old, and I'm sure her contributions helped to swell the volume of presents under the tree. One year I received the loveliest doll from her that any little girl could ever hope for and I remember hearing her say that it was the kind of doll that she had wanted when she was small. The set of silverware that she gave my mother one year made my mother cry, something that we didn't see very often.
Our Fourth of July celebrations were usually not much short of being spectacular for a farm family located in these rural hills. My mother must have done a lot of cooking to get ready for the day because there would be company (almost always Uncle Chub would be there to make a big to-do when someone lighted a firecracker near him-- one year he climbed to the top of our back door to the delight of his audience). The day would be filled with games, music, visiting and eating, all with a general air of enjoyment. In the evening came the real entertainment. The sale of fireworks was not restricted in the 1920's. I don't know where they all came from, but there was always a supply of sky rockets, thunder boomers and similar devices to light up the sky and make great noise. The meadow across the road sloped somewhat downward from our house, and being newly shorn of its hay crop (the farmers always tried to have their haying done by the Fourth), it was an ideal place for setting off fireworks that could be viewed to good advantage from our front yard. It was also far enough removed from buildings to eliminate a threat of fire from sparks.
Our celebrations may not have been the grandest or most glorious, but they certainly were memorable. And, if the ice held out that year, we all had homemade ice cream, too.
About 1928 or 29, my father bought the farm adjoining ours
to the west which provided more tillable ground and extra pasture land so that he could have more dairy cows. There was not much open discussion in our family about financial matters, but I knew that my mother was concerned that we would have to be making periodic mortgage payments (I don't think we had ever been a family to run up bills!). Later, she would say that it was surely providential that, just a short while after we had bought the upper farm, natural gas was discovered in northern Tioga County, Pa. and we began receiving extra income from the leasing of the land and from our share of the pooled proceeds from a gas well in the area.
1930 marked something of a milestone in our life as a family. It was in October of that year that our house caught fire from an overheated chimney. There were no fire companies in the area at that time, and it burned to the ground. We managed to save most of our downstairs belongings and the contents of the cellar, which, once again, had been filled with food for the winter. We were lucky that there was an old house, vacant, on the upper farm, that we could move into. My father had been using a part of it for storage- the kitchen was full of beans pulled, plants and all, from the field to dry and be shelled at a later date, or as needed. A day or so after the fire, several cousins (we had a good supply of them) appeared on the scene and we all shelled beans! Within a few days we were pretty well settled in, and we lived there for two years while another house was being built down the road.
The water supply had always been a problem at our old house, since the well by the house often went dry during the summer months. At the lower corner of the horse barn across the road, a horse trough there was supplied with water piped from a spring in our pasture, and that was our secondary source for water. Only a year or so before our house burned, my father had dug, by hand, a trench(part of it was through solid rock) deep enough to be below the frost line, and laid pipe from the horse trough to our cellar. There was not enough gravity flow to bring the water up into the kitchen, so a wooden barrel served as a repository in the cellar and a pitcher pump in a corner of the kitchen brought us a bit closer to having an inside convenience. Mainly for this reason, then, it was decided that the new house should be built across the road in the meadow and a bit downhill from the old dooryard. At that site, spring water would be available with enough gravity to provide a good flow of water. Our new house had a kitchen sink and a bathroom! Water for a hot water tank, was heated by coils installed in the kitchen wood stove and what
a wonderful improvement it was for us!
Somehow, though, things were never the same after that sad evening when we saw our house go up in flames. I suppose it was just happenstance that the timing of this loss seemed to coincide with the changes in the way of life of many people in the early 1930's. Automobiles were becoming commonplace, movies were a wonderful distraction, a radio became a standard item in living rooms (we had a battery-operated one) and in the mid-1930's the rural electrification program provided farm people with the wonders of modern power, lighting and
refrigeration. We had moved into what seemed like an almost entirely different world. Like all changes, enjoyment and regrets are mingled in our emotions as we view the passing scene and adjust to current affairs. I am happy that my parents, and other farm people of their generation, had some years of respite, because of these changes, from the hard manual labor that had been a necessary
part of rural life. However, these same changes were the cause of the breakup of the small family farm operations, since improved farm machinery made farming larger acreage necessary in order to be profitable. But, as for being a child in that farm family seventy years ago, I cannot think of any place that I would rather have been.
Melva Hess Calaman
RR#1, Box 403
Sabinsville, PA 16943
March 9, 1996
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