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February 24, 2018

Growing up in Louisa – The Root of it All!  

 Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

With all the snow we’ve gotten this winter and the cold temperatures many of us have suffered, I was led to pause and think about the logistical problems that make life a little harder. Of course, what I’m thinking about is making certain we get the nourishment our bodies need (want) when we’re snowbound. Sure, we try to pick up appropriate foodstuff ahead of the storm, but we invariably forget something, or find the store shelves empty. This time around we were safe because our refrigerators were still full of left-over holiday goodies.

Even putting away the newly purchased supplies required some thinking. Like a normal male, I scratched my head and wondered what I might do to make room. Then like a lightning bolt, it hit me. Sitting the frozen stuff outside on the back porch would work. Well, a second thought scolded me for this wayward idea. You see, our neighborhood has befriended a large herd of deer, several foxes, and plenty of other wildlife creatures such as raccoons, opossums, coyotes, etc. If I put out anything that was unguarded it would likely disappear overnight. On top of that I’m sure the forest fauna would remember my address and come back for more. There’s nothing like putting out the welcome mat and feeding them all.

So, keep the groceries under key, I did some shifting around to find sufficient space indoors. Because I write this column that focuses on the past, I began to wonder if man has always fought this same battle. After all, once the hunters/gatherers successfully snagged a buffalo, there was suddenly a lot of meat to drag into the house. I wondered. Now, please keep in mind that when I was growing up, I was just a kid. I wasn’t necessarily aware of everything that happened in life. I left the big issues in the hands of my ‘grownups,’ but I did observe a few things that rise out of the cobwebs in my mind.

 I remembered that the good folks from the country had places where they secured storage, such as barns, cribs, and other out-buildings. Townspeople sometimes had barns, garages, and sheds on the property, but rarely were any of these used for food. The occasional ‘smoke house’ may have been the exception, but another place wiggled through my mind to take its rightful position as perhaps man’s earliest refrigerators. I’m talking about the old root cellars and spring houses that I remember being used on some of the homesteads I remember visiting. These kept food cool in the summer and prevented it from freezing in the winter.

 It was essentially a hole in the ground that was insulated by the surrounding hillside and rocks. They often had an underground source of cold spring water that kept temperatures constant, usually around fifty-five degrees. The ones I remember had doors that were locked to keep food safely away from the abundant animals lurking about, and growing children that might claim it as a playhouse. While people had more than one reason to venture outside to little buildings, it could be rough trying to find the steps that led down into the cellars, especially during heavy snowfalls. Slipping might have been cause for a serious injury in that cold environment. Digging out a safe access route was a challenge, I’m sure. Hopefully, the privy was situated downstream of the root cellar. That would prevent contamination of any water source running into the little structure.

Of course, folks living in those conditions saw it as a routine task for the family to venture out. They still had to do the milking, feeding the chickens and collecting eggs (few to none during cold spells), slopping of the hogs, and maybe gathering, or splitting firewood, or filling the ash can with lumps of coal. That was just part of life for many. In the current generation the problem may be more about how to reach and clean the satellite dish. After all, it’s the weekend and I want to watch the ballgames. Things have a way of changing, don’t they?

In another recent article, I mentioned how much Tom Jefferson may be shocked by the refrigerators that we use today. What with ice makers, filtered water, freezer compartments, drawers, etc., it would have to be a shock to imagine for old Tom and his staff. Of course, today’s refrigerators wouldn’t have worked anyway. Monticello didn’t have electricity, and if they did the snow would have knocked out the power lines. Why, he couldn’t have even called the power company to complain…I digress.

 It was common on larger colonial estates that the cooking was done in another building to protect the main house from the risk of fire. I’ve been in many of the old plantation homes here in Virginia that still exist up and down the James River. They all had separate kitchens early in their life. The first kitchens didn’t have cast-iron stoves, later called ranges, which were fueled on natural gas, wood, or coal. Instead, they had open fireplaces that the cooks used by swinging great pots over the coals on iron arms designed to take the heat. I can see that being okay during cold winter months, but I doubt I’d like those sweltering summers much. It was a step better than using campfires, I guess.

To get back to food storage, when I was growing up in eastern Kentucky many of my friend’s families used the same methods for keeping food as did Mr. Jefferson, President Washington, and all our nation’s forefathers. Vegetables and roots were put away in the dark recesses of root cellars, spring houses, or basement dugouts. That reduced spoilage and kept many things reasonably fresh. I remember that even apples and homemade candy were sometimes kept there. Maybe that’s why they kept the key out of reach of children.

 Meat, on the other hand required cooking quickly, or had to be cured by using salt or other preservatives, or hanging it in the smokehouse. Smoking is still used to flavor meats, and it allows the meat to dry so it is usable over long periods of time. The Smithfield and Isle of Wight County museum near where I currently work has a display of what is thought to be the world’s oldest ham. It was cured way back in 1902. Even at over a hundred years old, I’m assured that it is still edible. It is unlikely this prize ham will ever feel the edge of a serrated knife since it is an important tourist attraction. Farms back in my day often had a smokehouse, as well as other ways to keep milk, meat and produce.

My point is this. No matter how rudimentary the appliances I remember from my early youth, I am still from a far different era than the forefathers that helped develop this great nation. I remember, as many of you might, the ice man who brought a block of ice for the ‘ice box’ in our kitchen. The ‘ice plant’ was located at the southern end of Lock Avenue when I was growing up. It was next to the high school football field. I was told that the large brick warehouse next to the railroad on Madison had been an earlier, and much larger ice plant, but the little one near the football field is all I remember.

I recall that our ‘icebox’ always seemed to smell of clabbered milk. No doubt, the ice could only do its job when it was kept fresh and the doors were kept closed. I remember that the tray at the bottom of the icebox was designed to hold the melting water, but it required regular dumping. As I toddler, I remember grabbing the tray and dumping it several times, that is, until finally I learned that spilling water on the kitchen floor was a ‘bad thing.’ While it was funny at first to see people slip, it was decidedly not funny after I was caught laughing.

I also remember that only a block down the track from the Louisa Inn, Bill Keeton once ran a frozen-food locker business. I was in there several times with my mother, but I don’t have any idea what we kept there. His locker was somewhere near the rear of Bradley’s Grocery Store and the barber shop, or maybe another door north. I’m sure it burned when that big fire happened that took many of the buildings in that area. In any case, refrigeration was a relatively new thing for many of us during those days. Freezers were even less common, and very rare in the early forties. I think I remember from somewhere that Bernard Nelson worked at the lockers briefly.

 It was the practice in northern climes for men to cut ice from the frozen lakes and rivers. They had to truck it (or wagon it) so they could store it in insulated rooms that was full of sawdust to keep the ice from sticking together. Mr. Jefferson had one of these rooms on the mountain just downhill from his dear Monticello. Historians tell us that he served up exotic cold desserts to his guests, such as the Marquis de Lafayette, or Merriweather Lewis (of Lewis and Clark), James Madison, or others that may have popped in. The ice would undoubtedly have caused a commotion and was to be greatly admired. These days, my mother and grandmother would be impressed with the refrigerator I currently have in my kitchen.

The wonderful small and large appliances of today, including: cook stoves, microwaves, air fryers, blenders, coffee makers, grills, sinks with running hot and cold water, stone countertops, and fancy cabinets would be cause for even my mom to shake her head. I mean, dishwashers? Get real! So, I ask you. Just when were the good old days?

Times change, but as the world’s wisest man once wrote, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” He was right, you know. Today, we approach things differently, and have a lot more conveniences, but there are also trade-offs. So, for me, I’m in favor of enjoying whatever toys I’m lucky enough to have. In fact, I’m lucky to have even lived when I could have them. I just need to remind myself that as fantastic as they are, they are just today’s ‘toys,’ but will be tomorrow’s junk. What I think is graceful living probably won’t be considered living ‘high on the hog,’ very long. Abe Lincoln, as a President living in the White House, didn’t have a life-style anywhere near as luxurious as some of our poorest people take for granted today. With that, I think I’ll take another shower and sit down in front of my wide-screen and relax. Maybe I’ll dig out a root cellar next summer… or maybe I won’t. Just remembering may be enough.     This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

                 

Comments  

0 #1 Bernard 2018-02-26 14:12
WOW lots of memories in this article Mike. Growing up in WV we had a "smokehouse" back of our house, where my dad & granddad would smoke meat & salted down slabs of bacon. This was in the late 30's. Later on in Louisa, yep you have it right, Rance Adams had the Ice Plant at the end of Lock Ave. near the football field. Bill Keaton had the frozen food lockers on Jefferson St. across the tracks from the depot. I worked for him, Eddie Bradley's Grocery, Ollie J. Moore's Grocery and Hile Fyffe's Service station during my growing up in Louisa from 7th Grade through High School. I remember your mom & aunt Shirley coming to the stores from time to time. We rented a food locker from Bill Keaton & dad would buy 100 fryers from Lawrence Prichard Poultry and they would prepare them for freezing. He also would purchase a hog and it would be delivered to the food locker for breaking it down to family size & freezing. But our modern home freezers & large super stores have done away with the mom & pop operations like we were use to as youngsters. Another Great on chucked full of great memories, "Thanks Mike" and as Bob Hope would say, "thanks for the memories".
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