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In praise of the humble gourd
Now and Then
roger branch

Back then, farming families relied on things that they produced from the land or gathered from surrounding forests and streams. One useful thing grown on vines along garden fences was the gourd.

Gourds are cousins to the familiar yellow squash, but they are not edible. Indeed, they have no fruit inside the hard exterior, only seeds. They are hollow. Green while growing, they become tan in color at maturity. When opened in preparation for any of many uses, the only things inside were seeds and dried membranes of internal stems that nourished the seeds. The gourd itself is hard and tough. It can be broken, but will stand up to heavy usage. If one does break, there is another to take its place. Well, that’s the way things were back then.

The most common use for gourds was as dippers, large and small. The long stems by which they are attached to their vines served as handles. Openings cut into the round bodies of gourds turned them into dippers. Smaller ones served to dip water from household buckets, water buckets at the well or cool springs in the forests. Larger ones — a gallon or more in size — were used on wash days and hog-killing days. At cane-grindings, they were hung by the mill and used to sample juice and to dip juice from the receiving barrel into tubs to be taken to the syrup boiler.

Gourds became part of the vocabulary of country folks as a term for insult or derision. Because they were empty, the term “gourd-head” was applied to a person who was foolish, hard-headed or “intellectually challenged.” It was not as harsh as “stupid” and was often used lightly — even playfully — thus not as likely to provoke anger.

Another popular use was as “bait gourds” by fishermen. Typically, these were about quart-size. The stem part was cut off near the body of the gourd, which was then emptied. Small holes allowed bait creatures to breathe, A cork or part of a corn cob closed the open neck and a loop of stout cord fitted the gourd for carrying around a fisherman’s neck.

It was ready for grasshoppers, July flies (aka katydids), catalpa worms, crickets or crawfish (sans pincers). Wearing bib overalls with pockets for hooks, lines and sinkers, fishermen had to concern themselves only with a good pocket knife and a pole. And it was even possible to cut a fishing pole if one did not have a “bought” cane pole.

Gourds are still around, as a ride through farming country will often reveal. For uncountable years, they have been used to make nests for purple martins, airborne insect eaters that can turn evenings on the porch into mosquito-free outings. Gourds of correct size with appropriate openings are hung high on cross bars or wires, offering safety from most predators. Some people paint their martin gourds white, but that is just for themselves. The birds do not care. Lowering the nests before the next nesting season to repair or replace broken gourds is challenging but necessary.

Purple martins are not stupid. They reject the fancy metal houses that are sold to people who do not know better. The birds like gourd houses because increasingly hot summer temperatures turn metal nests into ovens that bake eggs and hatchlings.

Unfortunately, these beautiful, acrobatic birds are declining in numbers. Why? One answer, of course, is that they are being destroyed by pesticides in the bodies of the insects that they eat and feed to their young. Theirs is the same fate as the night hawks, kestrels (sparrow hawks), bats, chuck-wills-widows, etc., that once enlivened evening skies. Habitat is shrinking as fewer people put up nesting gourds. Fire ants will climb up poles and along wires to get to eggs and hatchlings. Too many enemies, too few friends.

Gourds have other uses. I heard of a farmer who used a large one to carry his lunch. Unlike metal, it maintains ambient temperature, which is tolerable in the shade. There are decorative gourds. Small and textured on the outside, they can be painted or left natural for table arrangements or Thanksgiving decorations. They have been replaced as water dippers but the plain, unassuming gourd is still with us.

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

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