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Back then: Living in the old and new
On Aging
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The rural South of my birth and early childhood was a world of two centuries. It had 20th century automobiles, although most of its roads were unpaved. There were airplanes, but I only remember seeing one until World War II made them common with a bomber crew training field in Vidalia. While town dwellers enjoyed a more modern lifestyle, country folk lived much as they had in the 19th century.

Theirs was a mixed economy — cash crops and subsistence adaptation. They drew much of their necessities from field and forest, a pattern that had persisted from the pioneer past. Most of South Georgia was far removed from its chief marketplace, Savannah. While it was linked by railroads to Atlanta and Augusta fairly early in the 1800s, trains did not come to the backwoods until the closing decades of the 19th century. Roads capable of carrying heavy freight were few and hard to maintain.

Rivers bore the burden of commerce. They bore timber fashioned into rafts to markets, the most active being Darien. Georgia’s rivers were challenging for pole boats, but eventually steamboats came along to take goods and passengers as far as the fall line and convey farm products to market.

Back country folks were herdsmen. They consumed and sold cattle and hogs, driving herds many miles to coastal markets. Certain spots on the Ohoopee and on the Altamaha rivers were (still are) called “cow ford.” In fact, a shallow place on the St. Johns River in Florida was called “cow ford” until the name was changed to Jacksonville. It is not well known now, but many, including two of my great-grandfathers, had herds of sheep. Wool was taken by wagon to Savannah, crossing streams by fords and ferries.

My father grew white corn and had it ground into meal and grits, paying Mr. Jimmy with a toll of the grain. His hogs ranged in the woods, kept tame by being called to eat some corn daily, until he and his family butchered them on a cold winter day to produce fresh meat, sausage, lard and cured meat to last until next summer. 

Oh, yes, he also grew the cane and carefully made the syrup, which was on the table for almost every meal. He grew and harvested the sweet potatoes, storing them in an ingenious “bank” of straw and soil that preserved them for months. Baked “taters” were also on the table for most meals and served as filling between meals snacks. And my mother knew how to turn them into several other delicious dishes.

Our other “lifelines” were milk cows and chickens. Daddy did the milking, but it was Momma who served up cold milk at meals, kept butter on the table and made biscuits like none available at the grocery. Any excess became part of her butter and egg economy. There always were 2-4 high-producing milk cows, Jerseys or Guernseys.

Chickens were treasures. Momma tried to maintain a sizeable flock, a challenge when hawks, foxes, possums and the like seemed always to target them. She fed at least two hawks fatal servings of lead from the shotgun. She was protective of her chickens. Early on in the year — late winter or early spring — she would buy 25-50 biddies to raise in her brooder, a box-like shelter for the cool of the night with an attached screened area for daytime feeding.

Later in the year, when hens decided they had laid enough eggs and were ready to become mothers, she would select some to become “setting hens” over a nest of a dozen fresh eggs. When the biddies hatched, the mother hen would raise them in the yard with the rest of the flock.

We eyed the growing biddies carefully, waiting for them to get big enough to be fryers. Eggs were a dietary staple, used in so many ways from scrambling to egg custard. When a hen ceased to lay eggs, she became a candidate for baking or the dumplin’ pot. Daddy’s cousin, Elliot, had a grocery store in Lyons and was always eager to see Momma come in with a fat hen, a couple of fryers, a dozen or so brown eggs, a pound of butter — either of these or any combination thereof. Sometimes they engaged in barter — produce for groceries — and sometimes she got a little spending money out of the transaction. She knew how to put the plus in subsistence-plus.

Even when the economy flourished during and after WWII, many of us clung to subsistence practices. Indeed, home freezers enhanced what could be done with farm products. The day before my beloved Annette died, she blanched peas and butterbeans for the freezer with the help of granddaughter Julia. I don’t know why she acted as if we were in danger of going hungry since she had three freezers full of food, but the specter of want lurked in the mindset of some for whom it had been a threat or reality for generations.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.