By T/Sgt. James Lee Hutchinson
Uncle Clarkson Hoar and Aunt Alice lived on a forty acre farm near Fredericksburg, Indiana during the Depression. Early in their marriage they had ‘gone west’ and homesteaded in Oklahoma, but they gave up and returned to live in their home community. They raised their own food and had extra to sell or trade with the Huckster Wagon or General Store. Their only son, Emerson, died shortly after graduating from college and Clark’s brother, Uncle Charlie, was the only close relative in the area. His older brother, Claude (my granddad) had moved to Illinois in search of a better life. The lonely old couple was pleased to have my mother’s family come down for a visit and hearty farmhouse meal. Fredericksburg is a long way from Bedford when you are traveling in a 1930's car and since we sometimes didn’t have a car, it was even farther, but Dad managed to find transportation. Sometimes he borrowed a car, other trips he promised the owner a free chicken dinner to drive us down to the farm for the day. It was a lot more fun when he was able to rent a car so we could stay overnight.
Uncle Clark liked Dad’s help around the farm, was glad to visit with Mom and enjoyed having little children on the farm. Mom saw it as a sort of ‘home coming’ because she had spent her childhood in that neighborhood. It was exciting to pull up in the farm driveway and be welcomed by the loud metallic cackling Guinea hens roosting in the orchard trees. The old couple didn’t need a watch dog, they had a live aerial alarm system! Uncle Clark greeted us with the same message:
“Git out and come on in, you’re in luck an old hen died this morning!”
We realized that of course an old hen had died. That morning he had cut off her head on the chopping block, doused her in a pot of boiling water and plucked off her feathers to prepare her for Aunt Alice’s cast iron stew pot. Aunt Alice took special pride in serving up a complete Sunday chicken dinner any day of the week. She deftly performed magic on her little iron cook-stove in the cozy kitchen. Her meals were special treats for our family and bountiful feasts for a Depression family of five who sometimes went to bed hungry. She could prepare a chicken dinner fit for a king and we carried memories of every meal on our ride back to Bedford. Her kitchen was small but efficient and could be closed off from the rest of the house to keep the dining room cool or hot depending on the weather. Cooling relied on open windows and screen doors to keep the flies out. Two large maple trees kept the house shaded all afternoon. I remember Aunt Alice as a chubby little lady with a large apron who kept bustling about her small kitchen preparing all the ‘fixins’ to enhance her chicken dinner. She didn’t relax until we were seated around the dining room table with heads bowed to ‘return thanks’ for the sumptuous meal she had prepared. The table was loaded with chicken, dumplings, mashed potatoes, biscuits, gravy and all the trimmings. Of course there were extras like her sweet Gerkin pickles, cold slaw and apple butter.
I don’t think I ever saw Aunt Alice without an apron to protect her dress from splashes and stains. She used it many ways from wiping her brow to dusting, or a potholder for removing hot pans from the stove. Sometimes it became useful as a bag to carry kindling for her stove or vegetables from the garden. I remember that big dining-living room with a large table and six wood chairs, white plaster walls, hardwood floors and walnut wainscoting. Two rocking chairs faced the black drum heating stove in the corner of the room. Visitors could find seats on the window alcove bench or pull up a dining room chair. One window provided a view east to the chicken house another let them see north to the pump and barn area. A much used door led to the side porch with a stack of dry firewood and the pump which was only a few steps farther. A hallway led to two rooms in the front of the house, the front door and porch.
I was fascinated with the farm because Clark and Alice earned their living from the gardens, fields, animals and fowl they owned. Uncle Clark had no other job; he was a farmer and Aunt Alice was a farm wife. He let us help him with chores like gathering eggs from nests in the henhouse, but cautioned us to leave the white ceramic doorknobs he had placed in nests to fool hens and encourage them to lay more eggs. Aunt Alice said it worked and the old ‘biddies’ cackled proudly every time they laid an egg. The half-wild speckled Guinea hens hid their nests, often up in the trees where they roosted. A job hazard of gathering eggs was to beware of roosters who considered us thieves, trespassing in chicken territory and stealing eggs. A mad rooster would give us the evil eye, ruffle his feathers, flap his wings and strut around us like the king of the barnyard. We were leery of his threats to attack as we retreated to the house with a basket of eggs for Aunt Alice. She agreed that we were wise to keep an eye on roosters and said there was an unwritten barnyard rule:
“Never turn your back on a feisty rooster!”
The farm had an unusual water system. A well in the side yard, just off the side porch, provided drinking and cooking water. I liked to pump the handle of that old iron pump and bring the cool clear water from deep underground into the water bucket. Uncle Clark also kept a tin dipper hanging on the handle and a water bucket in case a neighbor passing by on the gravel lane stopped for a cool drink or needed water for his horse. Aunt Alice said the mailman often stopped to fill and cool down his car radiator. There was also a cistern outside the kitchen to catch and store rainwater from gutters on the eaves of the house. Aunt Alice could pump up that ‘soft water’ for washing or watering the garden in the back of the house. A wood rain barrel at the corner outside the kitchen caught rainwater off the other side of the roof. Most farmers liked to have a full rain barrel or two in case of a fire.
The big white house had something most country people in those days dreamed about. There was a spring in the cellar under the house! The cool water trickled from a wall and flowed across the limestone floor into several small pools before it drained under the opposite wall. Uncle Clark had a springhouse under his house to cool milk, butter or food. Of course, the cellar also doubled as a tornado shelter.
The large pigpen was east over the hill beyond the outhouse, henhouse and apple orchard. Uncle Clark said he placed it there because the wind came from the west and they didn’t need the smell. Also, he could let pigs into the orchard to feast on rotten apples on the ground. It was a strong pen constructed of split fence rails something like young Abe Lincoln built years earlier and a little farther south. The pen a field with room for dozens of pigs and a shaded pond large enough to provide drinking water and cooling mud baths for all. It was exciting to feed the pigs because they were always hungry and went wild at feeding time. Uncle Clark led us down the path with buckets of corn and slop made of garbage, milk or anything else left over from the kitchen. The pigpen exploded with running pigs, shrill squeals and grunts as dozens fought for places at the hog trough. It was every pig for himself as they scrambled for food and Uncle Clark laughed with us as we watched the feeding frenzy. He said he was glad the little pigs were making hogs of themselves! Of course he never mentioned the fact that he butchered two or three fat hogs for their winter supply of cured ham and sausage and shipped the rest to market every November. They were his main cash crop.
The small pasture behind the barn had enough grass for Big Red, the buggy horse, and the milk cows, Bossy and Daisy. Near the barn was another large pond with clear water and sunfish, frogs and snakes to try to catch on summer days. The barnyard was a great place to visit and check the back pasture to locate Big Red. Sometimes we whistled for him and he strolled up to be petted, but he came at a gallop if we lured him with an ear of corn or rattled a bucket of feed.
Overnight visits to the farm meant we got to go to the barn for feeding and milking after sunset. It was a chore I dearly enjoyed. Uncle Clark lit his coal oil lantern with a match, handed me the milk bucket and we trailed behind him as the flickering lantern guided us along the dark path through the pasture. Big Red and the cows were standing in their stalls waiting for their meals. Uncle Clark hung the lantern on a nail and its flickering glow cast weird and ghostly shadows of on the walls of the warm and cozy barn.
“The dust-covered cobwebs hanging between the rafters swayed in the night air.
If memories about that old barn were dollars, surely I would be a millionaire.”
From a Buddy Hendricks poem
The big animals paid close attention as Uncle Clark used a pitchfork to toss down several hanks of hay from the loft. Our job was to dump a scoop of shelled corn and wheat bran into their feed boxes and wait quietly while he took the milk bucket and stool down into the stall beside Bossy to begin milking. I fed a few ears of corn into the corn sheller and cranked out enough grain for the morning feeding. Big Red begged for more food and I slipped him a little extra and he left when it was gone. Daisy was content to munch hay or chew her cud until it was her turn at the milk bucket. Feeding the big animals in the barn was peaceful, quiet and completely opposite of the riot at the pigpen earlier in the day. Uncle Clark let me carry the lantern when the milking was done and we trailed after him as he took the heavy bucket of warm milk straight to the spring cellar to pour into a crock sitting in the flowing water. We climbed the steps, blew out the lantern and the last chore of the day was finished.
Overnight visits in the big farm house also meant leftovers for supper, but a big sausage gravy, egg and biscuits breakfast awaited us. We were visiting long time farmers who believed in the old proverb, ‘Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise!’ Uncle Clark said he never expected to be rich, but figured it was wise to follow that advice just in case it worked. They began blowing out the kerosene lamps a few hours after sundown and Mom took one to lead us up a steep flight of stairs to an unheated bedroom. We three kids piled into a big bed with a thick goose down mattress and the thick colorful comforter which kept us warm as toast. She reminded us of the enamel slop jar with the lid, in the corner of the room in case anyone had to go in the middle of the night. I never wanted to use it, but I wasn’t about to go down those stairs and make a run to the outhouse in the middle of the night.
One favorite play area was the buggy shed on the side of the barn. A real buggy was an unusual attraction for city kids. It was fun to climb up into the four wheeled black buggy and sit on the rich black leather seat. A small boxed-in area behind the seat was the only cargo space. We could remove the buggy whip from its holder and pretend Big Red was harnessed and hitched between the shafts. We took turns driving our imaginary red horse as we trotted down an imaginary road.
Clark and Alice never owned a car, they lived in the horse and buggy days. He said they never worried about the price of gas and a bus or train was always there for long trips. Old Red and the sleek buggy with the leather top was their only means of transportation for trips down the road and over the hill to do their ‘trading’ at the General Store in Fredericksburg. Their small country church was even closer, only a couple of miles down a country lane and Uncle Clark said,
“It’s even closer as the crow flies, just close enough to hear the church bell calling us to worship on Sunday morning and far enough away to ignore it in bad weather!”
Uncle Clark and Aunt Alice have long rested beside their son Emerson in the graveyard of that small church in Southern Indiana. Uncle Clark always said Mom was his favorite niece, of course she was his only niece.
I have always remembered their kindness. They never had much, but were always willing to provide a meal for our small hungry family visiting their farm.