Saturday, December 26, 2009

Two Mile Cornfield part II

   This is my second installment of stories about my mother's childhood in northern Arkansas.

The Two Mile Cornfield – Part II

            Cozette woke up early the next morning to the wonderful smells of side meat, fried eggs and freshly baked biscuits.  She looked out of the tent and realized that it was barely daybreak. Grandpa Enos was sitting on a small log, cooking at the camp stove. He looked over at Cozette’s head peering from the tent and nodded a good morning to her.  Cozette quickly got dressed, then asked Grandpa Enos what she could do to help.

            “You could take that water bucket to the creek and fill it.” Grandpa said, pointing at a wooden pail. “Hoeing corn is hot work and you’ll be glad to have the water close by.  Why don’t you bring one of the milk jugs back with you so we can have some cold milk with our breakfast.”

            Cozette carried the wooden bucket down into the ravine to Cunningham Creek to the place where they had put their milk.  After she had filled the bucket with cool water from the creek, she picked up one of the earthenware milk jugs and carried them both back up the ravine to their camp.  By the time she got back to camp, breakfast was ready.  Two fried eggs, two biscuits, a large slice of side meat, and a glass of milk.  Grandpa had cooked a lot more than they would eat for breakfast as he was also cooking their lunch at the same time.  He sliced the left over biscuits and made sandwiches with fried eggs and side meat as the filling. The biscuit sandwiches were put in a pan and carefully put back into the metal can that was their larder.  After breakfast, the remaining milk and the larder were returned to the creek to keep them cool.

            They were hard at work on Uncle Don’s cornfield by 6:00 am.  Grandpa Enos worked on one row while Cozette hoed the next row over.  The corn was already about two feet high.  The rows were three feet apart, just enough room for a horse to walk between the rows pulling a cultivator.  However, the cultivator couldn’t reach the Johnson grass that grew in the row itself in between the corn plants.  The only way to get rid of the Johnson grass was with a hoe.  Cozette worked hard to keep up with Grandpa Enos.  It was hot dusty work hoeing corn and Grandpa Enos had been right about the water bucket.

Finally, at about 11:00 a.m. Grandpa Enos said it was time for lunch.  Cozette headed back to the creek to fetch the biscuit sandwiches from the larder along with the milk.  As she was leaving, Grandpa Enos pulled out his file and started to file the blades on their hoes.  Grandpa was very fastidious about his tools and sharpened the hoes every morning and again during lunch.  When Cozette returned they found a nice shady spot to rest while they enjoyed their lunch.  By noon they were back at work in the cornfield.  The day seemed to drag with the hot sun beating down on them. Finally, Grandpa stopped and pulled out his pocket watch.  “Its almost three o’clock” he said. “We’ll quit work at three.”

As they walked back to camp, Grandpa reminded Cozette that they had other business to tend.  “Don’t you think we ought to take a look at our trot line?” Grandpa Enos asked. “I suspect we may have some fried catfish for supper.  Besides, we can do a swimming lesson. I suspect a cool swim would feel pretty good after a hard day of hoeing corn. Let’s stop by camp and get your swimming clothes.”

Cozette felt a little worried about the swimming lesson, but she knew she would enjoy cooling off in the river.  She couldn’t wait to wash off the day’s accumulation of dust and sweat. When they reached camp she quickly changed out of her cotton flour sack work dress into a pair of her brother Jimmy’s old jeans and a short-sleeved shirt. Grandpa Enos’ swimsuit consisted of the same blue work overalls he had worn all day, but he did take off his long-sleeved work shirt.  Grandpa’s face and hands were brown as an Indian from working in the sun every day.  The contrast was stark between the dark tan on his hands and face and the white skin normally covered by his shirt.

They walked down to the river and walked along the bank until they came to a place where there was a large sand bar not too far from shore.  The sand bar was curved on the ends and a deep pool had formed within the arch..  The water was normally fairly swift in that part of the White River.  The water rippled over the curved ends of the sand bar, but then slowed to a lazy current as it entered the deep pool.  The water didn’t pick up speed again until it reached the end of the pool.  This pool of slow deep water was about ten feet across and twenty feet long.

“This is the perfect place for your swimming lessons,” Grandpa Enos exclaimed! “It’s deep enough for you to swim, but there isn’t much current.”  After I take my boots off we’ll wade out and get started.

As they waded out into the river, Grandpa Enos explained what he had in mind. “We’ll start out teaching you to float.  It’s really not hard.  Once you learn how to float, it’ll be durn easy to learn you to swim.”

Grandpa Enos had Cozette lay back in the water while he supported her head with his hands.  “Take a big breath and hold it. Then you just spread out your arms and legs and arch your back a bit and you’ll be floating before you know it.” 

            As Cozette lay in the water she realized that she was floating.  Grandpa Enos had lowered his hands and let her float free.  She continued to float and gently drifted with the current down to the end of the pool.  As the current picked up where the pool ended, Cozette put her feet down and stood up.  “You’re right Grandpa!  That wasn’t so hard after all.”

            Cozette waded along the edge of the sand bar back up stream until she got back to the place where the slow water began. This time she took a deep breath and lay back in the water and floated all by herself.  She floated down to the end of the pool a half a dozen times.

            “You seem to have a good handle on floating now,” Grandpa Enos said.  “That’s pretty good for your first lesson.  We’ll have you swimming by this time tomorrow. I don’t know about you but I’ve worked up an appetite.  I think it’s time we checked out the trotline and see if we have any fish.”

            “Thanks, Grandpa” Cozette murmured as they waded back to the bank. “I’m glad you’re learning me to swim.”

            A short time later they had walked back up the bank to where they had left Van Haney’s boat. They pushed the boat back into the water and Grandpa held the bow steady while Cozette stepped into the boat.  Grandpa gave the boat a shove into the current as he stepped in and sat down at the oars.

            “I’ll handle the boat and you can check the lines, “ Grandpa said as he rowed towards the little island where the end of the trotline was tied.  As they reached the end of the line, Grandpa rowed just enough to keep the boat in place while Cozette started pulling up the trotline.  The first three hooks still had the bait, the fourth hook was empty, but the fifth hook had a nice two pound catfish firmly attached.

            .  “We’ll have catfish tonight!”Grandpa Enos hollered.

            Cozette worked the hook out of the catfish’s jaw and slid the catfish onto the stringer.  She continued checking hooks until she got to the end of the trot line.  They ended up with a total of three catfish on their stringer.  When they reached the shore, Grandpa held the boat steady while Cozette jumped onto the bank with their catfish.  He  pulled the boat up onto the bank before he turned his attention to cleaning the catfish.  Grandpa’s experienced hands made quick work of the catfish and they were gutted and cleaned in a matter of minutes.

            When they reached camp, Cozette changed out of her wet swimming clothes back into her work dress.  Meanwhile Grandpa Enos started the fire and set to work on making supper.  When Cozette emerged from the tent, Grandpa pointed over at the catfish.  “I think we have more than we need for tonight,” Grandpa said.  “Why don’t we eat the two smaller ones and you can take the big one over to Van Haney. Be sure to tell him that we really appreciate the use of his boat.  I’ll have these two skinned and cooking by the time you get back.”

            Cozette picked up the stringer and slid the two smaller catfish off onto a plate.  She then set off for the Haney house.  Van Haney was sitting on his porch when Cozette walked up with the large catfish. “I got something for you Mr. Haney”, Cozette cried out as she walked up and handed him the catfish.

            “Well bless my soul,” Van Haney replied! “It looks like you two did alright on your first day.”

            “We caught three fish,” Cozette said. “Grandpa is frying up the two smaller ones.  He told me to bring you the big one and to thank you for the loan of your boat.”

            “Thank you for the fish and you are most welcome to the use of the boat”, Haney said. “ I hope you do this well every day.”

            By the time Cozette walked back into camp, the fire had started to burn down to good cooking coals.  Grandpa Enos had mixed up some batter for corn bread and was just putting it into his oven to bake.  With the cornbread out of the way, Grandpa started to fillet the catfish, carefully peeling the skin away from each fillet.  He put some cornmeal onto a plate, added a little salt and pepper, and rolled each fillet in the cornmeal until it was fully covered.  Granpa then scooped up a large glob of lard onto his skillet and set it on his “stove” next to the oven.  It wasn’t long before the smell of cornbread and sizzling catfish wafted on the air.  

              Twenty minutes later, they sat down to a wonderful meal of fresh raw milk, hot cornbread, and fried catfish.  As Cozette savored the taste of the catfish, she thought about the day. It had been a long hot day with lots of hard work, but she got to cool off in the river and had learned how to float.  The catfish and cornbread seemed to top it all off. Hard work was all right as long as you had good company and a good meal at the end of the day. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Grandma Cozette

   My mother, Cozette Sinor Tunnell, had an interesting childhood, at least from my perspective. At several different times in her life she lived with her paternal grandparents on their small subsistence farm in northern Arkansas.  I guess thats a rather formal way to say that she lived with her hillbilly grandparents in the Ozarks. This gave her an interesting window into the past as the Ozarks tended to lag behind much of the country when it came to modern conveniences. With a few minor exceptions, like their wind up radio, I don't think her grandparents lived very differently than their grandparents had lived. I've wanted for some time to write some stories about her growing up in the Arkansas Ozarks. I'd like to eventually put them into a book to preserve those stories for her numerous grandchildren.  Until I get around to doing enough stories to warrant self-publishing a book, I think I'll do it in a serialized format on my blog. I guess serialized would imply some sort of order and these will be somewhat random. Anyhow my first installment is the following:

  Cozette Sinor (on left) with her brother and sisters 

The Two Mile Cornfield – Part I

Grandpa Enos had only cleared about 5 acres of his 80 acre farm. The rest of his property was still woods.  In order to raise corn for his horses and Grandma Lillie’s cows he needed to rent a field.  Usually fields were rented for a share of the crop produced like the hayfield Grandpa Enos sharecropped at the Don Caldwell place.  He harvested the hayfield and gave a third of the hay crop to Don Caldwell.  However, Grandpa found a real bargain when for just $10.00 he leased two miles of railroad right of way as a cornfield.
It was wide enough for Grandpa Enos to plant six rows of field corn that ran the entire two miles.  The section of right away ran along the fertile river bottom of the White River about three miles away from Grandpa Enos’ farm.  One end of the cornfield was next to a cornfield belonging to Uncle Don.

One Saturday afternoon, early in the summer, Uncle Don stopped by to talk with Grandpa Enos.  When Uncle Don walked into town he often stopped by and talked to Grandpa Enos or Grandma Lillie on his way home.  He was Grandma Lillie’s first cousin and he was married to Grandpa Enos’ sister.  However, this time Uncle Don hadn’t stopped by just to rest or to be neighborly.  He had a proposition for Grandpa Enos.

“Enos, would you be willing to weed my cornfield down by the river?  I’ll pay you  $1.50 a day.”

“Well Don, I’d be willing, but you need to remember that I have a helper.  Are you willing to hire Cozette too?”

“Cozette’s a good worker”, Uncle Don agreed.  I guess I don’t mind hiring you both.”

“So we’ll weed your cornfield and we both get $1.50 a day”

“That’ll be fine”, Uncle Don agreed.

As Uncle Don walked up the hill towards his place, Grandpa Enos called Cozette into the house.  “We have some things to get ready”, Grandpa Enos told Cozette.  “We’ve been hired to weed your Uncle Don’s corn field down by the river.  We’ll weed my corn by the railroad tracks after we finish Don’s field.  It’s too far to walk every day.  We’d be wasting a good part of every morning just walking to work. Instead, we’ll camp down by the river.  You need to pack a change of clothes and make up a bedroll.  You might want to bring something to swim in.  It’s pretty hot work weeding corn.  A dip in the river might feel pretty good after a hard day’s work.”

Cozette replied with some hesitation. “ I don’t know how to swim Grandpa.”

“That’s no problem’, Grandpa said.  “I can learn you how to swim.”  A girl your age ought to know how to swim.

Grandpa set right to work gathering the things they would need.  He brought in an old olive drab army tent and two fold-up army cots he kept out in the barn.  He then brought in a rectangular steel plate, one foot by two feet, about ¼ inch thick.  “This will make a fine camp stove”, Grandpa declared.  Grandpa then collected various pots and utensils, and a large square metal can with a lid.  “This will be our larder,”  Grandpa offered. “ It will help keep the critters out of our food.” Grandma Lillie provided Cozette with a pair of quilts that she and Grandpa could use for their bedrolls. In addition to the tents, cots, and bedrolls, Grandpa Enos also brought in two hoes, some rope, fishing line, and fish hooks.  “We’ll set out a trot line to catch catfish, “ he explained.  Catfish will be a nice change from just biscuits, cornbread, and side meat.  Once the gear was collected it was all loaded into tow sacks and set aside.

 On Monday Cozette and Grandpa spent most of the morning making trips between home and the river until they had hauled all of their gear to their camp.    Grandpa was a very early riser and liked to start work early.  He didn’t want to waste a good portion of every morning walking to work.  They hauled enough food to last them  the entire week.  This included flour, cornmeal, some bottled fruit, two dozen eggs, and a slab of home cured bacon. Grandpa Enos always referred to the bacon as “side meat” because it came from the side of the hog.  They stored their food in the metal can in camp. Grandpa chose a flat spot about ten or twelve feet from the railroad tracks for their campsite.  This put them on the on the same side of the tracks as Uncle Don’s cornfield and the white river and  on the opposite side of the tracks from Grandpa’ cornfield.  There was a high wooden trestle about 100 feet away from their camp where the tracks crossed the ravine where Cunningham Creek flowed into the White River.  The creek had been named after Jonathan Calvin Cunningham, Cozette’s second great grandpa. The railroad trestle marked the start of Grandpa’s cornfield.  He set up the tent so that the door faced the little ravine of the creek. After Cozette helped Grandpa set up the tent, she unfolded the cots and laid out their bedrolls on the cots.

While Cozette was arranging the beds, Grandpa set up the fire pit.  He found some large flat rocks, which he carefully placed around the fire pit. Finding flat rocks was an easy task as flat rocks were very plentiful in that part of Baxter County.  He then placed the sheet metal on the rocks. After a few minor adjustments for level, Grandpa’s camp stove was ready to use. They had worked up quite an appetite making three trips between home and the camp, a total of 15 miles, carrying all of their gear in tow sacks.  It felt good to sit down on a log while they enjoyed a lunch of biscuits and sidemeat left over from breakfast. 

After a cold lunch Grandpa and Cozette walked over to see Van Haney. He was Uncle Don’s brother and therefore also Grandma Lillie’s first cousin.  His house was only a hundred yards away from their campsite in the opposite direction from the ravine.  As they approached the house they saw Van Haney sitting in a chair on the front porch.  After a brief exchange of greetings, Grandpa got down to business.

“Would it be all right if we borrowed your boat some over the next week or so?” Grandpa asked.  “We’ll be camping over by the trestle while we hoe Don’s cornfield and then my corn along the railroad tracks. I’d like to set out a trot line and get some catfish.”

“Shoot, I don’t mind if you borrow my boat,” Van replied.  “I haven’t used it much lately.  If you do real well, I wouldn’t mind a few catfish myself.  You know where I keep the boat.  Just go on ahead and help yourself.” 

“Thank you, Van”, Grandpa replied. “I have one more favor to ask you.  Could I trouble you for a few jugs of milk?”

“No trouble at all”, Van replied.  “You know we have plenty.  I’ll get you a few jugs and you come back when you need more.”  Van turned and went into the house.  He emerged a minute later with two earthenware jugs of milk, which he handed to Cozette. 

“Thank you kindly, Van” Grandpa said.  “We appreciate your help.”

“Come see us if you need anything!” Van hollered as Grandpa and Cozette turned to walk back to their camp.

Once they had arranged for the boat they set out to collect some bait.  Grandpa took Cozette down to the creek next to their camp and showed her how to dig up the freshwater mussels in the sandy bottom near the mouth of the creek.  They took the mussels back to their camp and put them in a pot of water on the camp stove.  As the water heated and began to simmer, the mussels would begin to open.  Meanwhile, Grandpa Enos busied himself preparing the trotline.  He tied each fishhook to a piece of heavy cotton fishing line, about two feet long.  He attached a lead sinker to each line, about 5 inches up from the hook.  The lines were then tied to a half-inch diameter rope.  The rope was about thirty feet long and the hooks were spaced several feet apart along the length of the rope. By the time the trotline was completed the water was hot and the mussels had started to open their shells.

Grandpa Enos said “We need to look those mussels over pretty carefully when we take them from their shells. You remember that pretty pink pearl tie tack your Daddy has?  He found that pearl in a White River mussel just like those in the pot.”

Cozette did remember the tie tack.  The pearl was perfectly round and as big as a pea.  Grandpa and Cozette then set to work removing the mussels from their shells.  Cozette looked each mussel over very carefully before it was placed on the hook. She wanted to make sure it didn’t have a pearl hidden in its shell. Cozette had no such luck this time.  There were no pearls hiding in these mussels.  In a short time the trot line was coiled and ready, each hook covered by a juicy piece of mussel.

Cozette and Grandpa Enos walked back down to the river and got into the boat.  The White River is about a hundred yards across at this point.  It was far enough across that you could see a man on the other bank, but you couldn’t recognize who it was.   Grandpa Enos rowed them out to a little island that was just the right distance from shore and secured one end of the trotline to a tree limb.  As he rowed them back to the riverbank, Cozette carefully uncoiled the trot line which trailed out behind them.  Grandpa Enos then secured the other end of the trotline to another stout tree limb on the bank. 

            They returned to their camp and cooked their dinner on Grandpa’s metal camp stove.  Grandpa cooked more sidemeat and baked some corn bread in a little metal oven he had that sat on top of the sheet metal stove.  He used it to cook biscuits in the morning and corn bread in the evening.

            As soon as it began to get dark they both turned in for the night.  Grandpa Enos always went to bed early and got up early.  Grandma Lillie always said the Grandpa went to bed with the chickens and got up with the chickens. Cozette felt safe with her Grandpa sleeping in the tent.  She listened to a soothing serenade of crickets, frogs, and Grandpa Enos snoring as she drifted off to sleep.

            Cozette woke with a scream to the loudest noise she had ever heard.  The earth shook as a piercing whistle filled her ears.  After the initial shock, Cozette realized the noise was the whistle of a train approaching the trestle. Her heart felt like it would jump out of her chest as the train rumbled past.  Grandpa Enos told her, “Don’t fret Cozette.  That train comes through every night at one in the morning.  They blow their whistle to warn people to get off the trestle. You’ll get used to it after a bit.”

            Grandpa Enos was sure right about that.  They camped by the train tracks for the next two weeks.  After hoeing corn all day, Cozette was so tired that she slept right through the train’s nightly whistle.  There is nothing like hard work to help a person to sleep well.



Monday, December 7, 2009

Another Day in Paradise

     Saturday was a day off and the sun actually made an appearance.  I spent the morning doing some honey do tasks, took care of the goats, ducks, and chickens, and put some finishing touches on my new chicken tractor.  In the afternoon and evening I spun some fiber, watched part of the Washington-Cal game on the tube, babysat grand kids, butchered our rooster and put him in the crock pot, shucked some of my Indian corn and made a corn husk doll with Madelynn. All in all, just another day in paradise. I did another corn husk doll with Abby this morning because she fell asleep on the couch before we did hers.

     Madelynn's new knitted tam hat was originally one I made for her mother.  Becky put it through the wash on accident and now it fits Madelynn. Fortunately it was made from wool which doesn't felt readily or else it would probably fit one of Madelynn's dolls.

    I found instructions on how to make corn husk dolls at through a google search. I had done some last year with some of my other grand daughters and it seemed to be a big hit. I'm pretty well stocked with corn husks this year as I grew a bigger patch of Indian corn than I have in past years.  I grow Indian corn because I think the flint corn makes a better corn bread than regular field corn (dent corn).

   Corn bread is serious comfort food for me.  I use a recipe from my favorite cook book  "The Original Boston Cooking-School Cook Book" by Fannie Merritt Farmer.  My copy is a 100th anniversary facsimile of the first edition, published in 1896. I use the golden corn cake recipe on page 75 as follows:

    3/4 cup corn meal                   1 1/4 cups flour       1/4 cup sugar     4 teaspoons baking powder
    4 teaspoons baking powder     1/2 teaspoon salt     1 cup milk         1 egg
    1 tablespoon melted butter
     Mix and sift dry ingredients; add milk, egg well beaten, and butter;  bake in a shallow buttered pan in a hot oven for 20 minutes.

    I usually don't mess with the melted butter and often use olive oil or canola oil instead and I grease the pans with shortening rather than butter. I also add more sugar than the recipe calls for because I like my corn bread sweet and I always double the recipe. The book was first published when everyone was using wood burning cook stoves and didn't have the luxury of temperature gauges, hence terms like "hot oven"..