One contrast between back then and now has to do with seasonal treasures. Summer was not always fun. Working farm families did not “vacation” in summer. They worked. Cotton fields had to be kept clean of grass and weeds. Tobacco had to be harvested, cured and prepared for market. All of these demanded extensive manual labor.
Breaks in routine cycles of work were welcome. Rainy days were good for crops and laborers. Holidays were few and sometimes ignored. If the Fourth of July fell on a farmer’s regular day to “gather tobacco,” it was mostly forgotten unless something was done after noon when work had been completed. In a given community, each farmer would choose a day of the week to “gather” his tobacco. Since they worked together and the labor supply was limited, there was little leeway to change the schedule other than “skipping a week” when one’s tobacco ripened slowly.
Everybody tried to keep Saturdays free to rest a bit, go fishing or go to town for groceries, a picture show and socializing. Except for women who had to cook, etc., folks did not work on Sunday. The story is told of a family hard at work in the field when they noticed several carloads of people passing on the road. The father suddenly realized that it was Sunday, rushed everyone to a quick “wipe off” bath and then to go to church.
After the tobacco was sold, there was a “slack” period before cotton picking time. It was August. The weather was hot. Buildings were not air conditioned except for warm breezes blowing through windows. That’s when country churches scheduled revivals, sometimes called protracted meetings. Beyond their religious impact, these services provided opportunity to socialize and catch up on local news or gossip, blessed relief from the intense work of summer.
About the same time, new clothes and shoes had to be bought to prepare the children for school. After weeks of wearing cool clothes thin from wear and washing and no shoes at all, the new ones were thick and heavy, perhaps a bit too large to allow for growth in the months ahead. Those stiff, heavy shoes were sheer torture.
Autumn was the good season, all the way past Christmas. If fields and flocks had been fruitful and prices had been favorable, there was a little extra money after expenses had been met. Halloween was hardly noted by backwoods Protestant farmers, who knew nothing of the Roman Catholic event called “All Hallows Eve.” There was no “trick or treat.” However, there were fun events. Some schools held “harvest festivals,” which offered something of interest for everyone and raised a bit of money for special events.
Cane grinding (syrup making) was work for adults but enjoyable for children. The weather had to be cool — just after the first frost but before freezing — to allow the cane to reach peak sugar content. It was stripped of husk, topped and chopped off a few inches from the ground. It was crushed by heavy vertical metal rollers, the juice being channeled to a straining cloth over a collecting barrel. That’s where the fun began, enjoying cold juice flowing directly from the mill. The juice was taken to a 60-gallon cast-iron boiler set in a brick furnace and carefully boiled to remove water and impurities. The person who handled this process was as skilled as a world-class chef. Near the end of each cooking, heavy syrup deposited on the broad lip around the boiler became thick and candy-like. Scooped up on a length of cane peel, it was another treat to be consumed in limited quantity lest it induce severe stomach disorder.
It was a bountiful time of the year. Sweet potatoes had been dug and banked. They appeared on the table in many forms from fries to pies and most abundantly as just “sweet taters” baked in the skin in the oven of the wood-burning stove. There was fresh cane syrup, as noted above. Fall gardens yielded greens — mustards, turnips and maybe collards. Some families feasted on pork, a 100-pounder selected to be consumed immediately without going through the curing process. If two or three neighbors did this over time and exchanged meat among themselves, fresh pork would be available for weeks.
Thanksgiving was observed, though not dragged on for a week. Turkeys were not readily available from the small “mom and pop” grocery stores. A few farmers did raise them for direct sale or as prizes at turkey shoots where a man would place a bet on his ability to hit a flying target with a shotgun in competition with others. My father, a superior marksman, often provided turkeys for Thanksgiving and Christmas. These birds were not broad-breasted Butterballs and I preferred a plump roasted hen.
What made all of these things joyful was the people. I grew up in the midst of large extended families on both sides. Everyone was welcome and welcoming, beloved and loving. Those among them who yet live these seven decades later are still beloved and regular reminders of those bountiful, joyful autumns.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.