Living History Revisited

(This one is obviously out of chronological order…)

It’s Tuesday again and yesterday was my second day of volunteering at a local, living history museum.  I am still in awe of the skills that are suddenly available to me to learn.

I tried my hand at butter churning.  My morning was “free” as I wasn’t really needed until 1 pm when 1000 pumpkins needed to be carved for this Saturday’s Halloween program.  I spent the time with a hot mulled cider, traipsing the Woodland Walk, wrote an entry in the visitors’ diary that is kept in a box at the eyrie overlooking the Walk, greeted all the animals in the pastures and getting to know the many interpreters that grace the museum each day.  I found myself at one of the farms.  I had hoped to greet the herd of Red Devon cattle that live there but, as they were in a back pasture on the outskirts of this re-created village, I wandered into the farmhouse.

Two interpreters greeted me in the kitchen.  The younger of the two, Victoria, explained that they were making a tea cake.  It was a very simple recipe found in Mrs. Child’s “The Frugal Housewife”, a reference “bible” used by the staff of the museum.  The recipe calls for 1 cup of butter, 2 cups of sugar, 3 cups of flour and 4 eggs…1, 2, 3, 4…easy to remember.  I watched Victoria scoop some ashes out of the hearth and lay them on the stone “apron” in front of it.  Then she scooped some of the hot coals out and placed them atop the ashes.  Having participated in one of their evening programs where they teach cooking on a hearth, I knew she was making a burner and she confirmed it as she placed a trivet over the coals.  The butter was still as hard as a rock and needed to be melted for the recipe.

One of the things that drew my attention was the enormous amount of flies in the room.   I can’t rest if even one fly gets into my kitchen; there was no way to count these.  They were everywhere.  Dozens peppered the ceiling.  There were a half dozen stuck in the “goo” at the bottom of a pitcher.  They swarmed and landed on an apple and pork pie; the squash seeds that the other interpreter was layering on a flat baking sheet; a towel laying on the table.  Visitors came and went and all of them commented on the flies.  Victoria explained that this was normal in the 1830’s as window screens hadn’t been invented yet and folks in that time period simply didn’t consider them a pest like we do today.  Rats and mice were pests.  Flies were simply a fact of life.  She admitted that she was so accustomed to them that she didn’t even notice them anymore.  I’m not sure I will ever be in a place internally where I don’t notice dozens of flies swarming around but, then again, who knows?

After explaining about the flies and the tea cake, Victoria showed me an interesting contrivance located in the dairy room just off of the kitchen–a faucet with running water!  Now, in 2011 this would not be any show-stopping event.   But, in our modern perception of life in the 1830’s, running water just doesn’t figure in.  According to Victoria, running water was actually common in rural-1830’s.  If you’ve ever seen the landscape paintings of old New England, you have no doubt been struck by scenes of rolling green and/or rocky hills with a farmhouse built right at the base of that hill.  I’ve always wondered at the wisdom of building a home at the base of a hill.  While the hills might be a buffer against winter winds, it would also leave the family vulnerable to an Indian attack (although most of your New England tribes had by then been nearly extinguished…) and at greater risk to a flood.  Well, it is this latter reason that so many farmers built their homes at the base of a hill.  They would dig their well at the top and then let gravity take over in providing them at least one faucet of running water inside.  This was especially true of dairy farmers where the prompt cleansing of milk pails and various other utensils is imperative.  Granted, the flow of water coming out of the faucet was extremely low pressure (definitely NOT intended for today’s marathon showers…) and cold but it served its purpose.

Later, Victoria took me downstairs into the root cellar, which was another fascinating feature of farm living then and gave the modern-day homesteader some great ideas for home.  Crates filled with sand provided storage for potatoes, carrots and parsnips.  Shelves were lined with pumpkins and all manner of squashes.  Onion tops were braided and hung from the rafters and barrels of apples and kegs of cider lined another wall.  It was food security at its best.  And a design I hope to copy as my utility room downstairs is exactly that–an old root cellar updated for modern usage; it can easily be converted back.

When we went back upstairs, Victoria invited me to try my hand at churning.  I was a little put off–there were flies crawling on top of the dampened towel that covered the opening of the churn.  I have to admit it served two purposes of keeping these pests–my modern-day perception of them–out of the new butter and also keeping the butter cool.  Fortunately, they all flew away as soon as my hand came near and settled themselves elsewhere.  The churning was easy at first.  But, after about 10 minutes of endless churning, my arms began to get tired.  I noticed the “ache” was right in that tricep area…you know the one, that area in back of your arm just below the shoulder that always seems to grow “wings” as we get older and/or gain weight and/or lose muscle tone.  I can’t help wondering how well-toned the average dairy maid’s triceps were.  They certainly got a good workout!  My stint with the butter churn lasted approximately 15-20 minutes; Victoria shared that there was one summer day when they churned for over 5 hours and never got any butter due to temperatures, humidity and such.  All that work and the milk/butter had to be tossed to the pigs for dinner.

That’s another thing learned–nothing was wasted in the 1830’s.  You used it up, wore it out, repurposed it or went without.

Again, there is so much to learn.  I am certain there will be many more posts as I continue to walk back in time each week and adapt these precious lessons learned to modern-day homesteading…