President’s Letter, March 2014
I received several positive comments in regard to the previous chapter of Ortha Wight’s Letter and thought you
might enjoy another chapter. Each section or chapter is for a different month. The month of March is filled with many signs of spring living on a farm here in the swamp.
March [from Ortha Wight’s “This is a Long Letter”]
The world began to wake up when March came,
“The cock is crowing
the stream is flowing
the small birds twitter
the lake doth glitter
the green field sleeps in the sun; The oldest and the youngest
are at work with the strongest; the cattle are grazing
their heads never raising
There are forty feeding like one.”
Walking out doors on a clear March morning, we felt the living breathing world. The air was crisp and cold, but it smelled of the earth and the sky. The wind brought the dampness from the woods and the River, and before long the wild geese would fly over on their way to Canada. “I seen ‘em this morning goin’ North” was almost unbelievable when some wide-eyed kid brought the new to school. The geese were the best news we could hear this time of year.
Some desks would be empty now – where a good friend sat last week. March First had been Moving Day, and suddenly a house stood empty, and from our windows we watched the heart and soul of a home going by on wagons. The cookstove had a prominent place, as it was the first thing to be unloaded and set up in the new home.
Lying snug in my familiar surroundings at bedtime I wondered if the moving children had beds to sleep in. It seemed like and exciting thing to do – moving – a strange house and strange neighbors must make moving people wonder what would happen next.
Before the roads were paved, the March sun turned them to great strips of deep mud. Horses feet went in deep and came out with a plop; mud rolled up on the wheels and the going was slow. When we could no longer walk on the road, we walked on the ditch bank, where a misstep would submerge a foot over the top of an overshoe. Or a little misplaced confidence in the thickness of the ice could cause a disaster. Wet overshoes sat in a row at the schoolhouse, and runny noses were everywhere. But colds went with winter – everyone knew that. Nobody stayed home from school on account of a cold. Sore throats were passed around and earache went to school with the runny noses. We never heard of pneumonia nor sinus infection.
The only thing that stopped us were mumps or measles, and I managed a little invalidism each winter or early spring with a case of croup. It never bothered me as much as it did my mother. Toward evening it would come on out of a clear sky. Suddenly I was under a plaster of hot onions – or worse still, one made from Uncle Dave’s chewing tobacco. With that and a spoonful of sugar dosed with perfectly awful Lobelia syrup, I was made sick enough to die. The croup was not half as bad as the cure. I enjoyed being an invalid for a little while. I could spend the day in a first floor bed where I could watch what was going on. Once the minister came to call and made a rag doll that could be danced with a string over the hanging lamp hook in the ceiling. And once in the Spring, my father brought wild flowers from the woods. It was really quite nice to be an invalid, but when I heard the school bell ring, I was ready to go back.
Nature did its Spring cleaning in March. The wind swept through to trim the orchard, and rains washed the fields into the ditches and on to the River. Coming home from school on a sunny afternoon, we smelled smoke in the orchard. A huge bonfire, burning the fallen limbs gave off an aroma that I still love – pollution or no.
Cold rains came in March – poured for a day – then froze at night, warmed again another day. March had trouble making up its mind. It tried a little winter with some deep snow – suddenly the snow was running into the River and the road was hub deep in mud. My mother disliked the wind, and used to say she was like the old woman who had always observed that if she lived through the month of March, she lived the rest of the year.
Scotch Ridge School 1905 Rt. 105 & 199 intersection
Walking to school along the ditch bank, we began to notice the tufts of grass were turning green and the water ran free as in Summer. Little sticks would float like ships on the wide Maumee River. There were other rivers in the Geography, but the only one we knew was the Maumee twelve miles away. Our own River was a branch of the Portage. It began somewhere and wandered through the country till it reached the Lake. It bordered Grandpa Wight’s farm before it reached Scotch Ridge. His house was just beyond the bridge that spanned the Silverwood Road crossing. The yard sloped down to the River, and every child who came there raced down the slope to the River’s edge. We never swam in it because my father had almost drowned there, and forever after the River was considered dangerous. Trees grew at will along the banks and except at flood time, the water ran quietly – we knew all about “green pastures and still waters”.
Nearly every farm had a number of acres of woods left from the days when that whole area was wooded. Their locations were such that one farm’s woods joined another’s – sometimes two others, and together they served as a wind break. Men with wisdom and foresight planned those farms. Our woods was not really ours, but joined our farm on the East. It belonged to my grandmother as long as she lived and then became ours. However, it supplied the winter wood for our house and for Grandma’s room. My father was its guardian and kept its fallen branches and dead trees cut and piled in great piles of fire wood – leaving them in the woods. As we needed it, enough would be taken up to our woodpile in the back yard.
Men who wanted winter work were often hired to work in the woods. One winter my father noticed that wood kept disappearing. There was only one place it could have gone, but he waited for the next snow before he did anything about it. Sure enough, one morning there were sled tracks which were easily followed to a sad looking little house where a large family lived. The wood was in plain sight, and the man of the house was embarrassed almost as much as my father was. There had been a desperate need for wood, which could be understood, “But from now on,” said Dad, “don’t steal it. Come and tell me when you need it and you may cut all you need.”
Every home had its woodshed. Ours was in one room of Granny Kellogg’s house across the porch from our kitchen. In winter it was filled with wood, in Summer there was room for me to have a playhouse in one corner. The coalshed was not part of Granny’s house, but had been built on at a later date. Even it was cleaned a Summer or two and used as a playhouse – with strips of old carpet on the floor and curtains at the wide window. My playmates wee cousins: Rachel from the farm next to us, and Ruby and Bessie from across the road. Woodsheds seem to have gone the way of all flesh.
A wide awake March morning waiting outside the kitchen door for us soon filled us with an urgency to get wherever we were going at top speed. The school house was a half mile or more away, and the time for covering that distance varied. It could take a half hour if you were good at dawdling on a warm day, but March morning with a northwind at our backs, we could make it before the pancake smell had a chance to be blown from our heavy coats. My mother believed in bundling us up in more clothes than we needed, but there were certain times when we had everything buttoned up to the last button; a cold wind could do that to us!
Under my heavy coat were layers of other things. First of all, long underwear tucked into black wool stockings (home knitted). A white pantywaist with dripping two-eyed buttons held up a white pair of muslin pants and a flannel petticoat. Over that went a second petticoat of cotton, with its own supporting waist. Next came a second best winter dress – made of soft woolen material and trimmed generously with insets and flapping things of velvet. Last winter it was the Sunday Best. To supplement that, a plain wool dress with a minimum of adornment was not so happily worn. Over the dress was a calico apron of red or blue, and on special occasions the colored one was replaced by a white one.
Once I visited my cousin’s school in Bowling Green, dutifully wearing my white apron – only to be humiliated. Not a girl in school wore an apron!
With all those layers of clothes, I had no trouble keeping warm in unheated or partly heated schoolrooms, and outdoors there was the addition of wool crocheted bonnet, heavy woolen coat, home knit wool mittens and heavy overshoes with buckles. To my soul’s humiliation, in wet snowy weather I had to wear some horrible light blue knit wool leggings with fat ribbing that made my legs worse looking than usual, and the usual was fat enough! My introduction to envy was when I saw Iva and Grace in long black leggings buttoned from foot to knee with shiny black buttons!
Baths were out of the questions except on Saturday nights, but in the kitchen sink there was a gray enamel washbasin, and a mirror hung over it with a brush and comb. Behind the door hung an unbleached heavy linen towel, and a few feet away was the kitchen stove with a reservoir of hot rain water. A faucet at the sink brought in ice cold water from a deep artesian well. Every morning we were washed wherever any skin showed and dried on the scratchy towel. My hair was long and heavy and I stood impatiently while my mother combed out tangles and brushed long curls over her finger. She finished me off with a bow on the crown of my head. That hair business was an ordeal, both to my mother and me.
The school bell would ring and I went on wings out into the March wind and far away. Winter birds sitting on the telephone poles would suddenly leave in great flocks, rabbit tracks were along the ditches, chimney smoke flared from the Scotch Ridge houses, but there was only the sound of the wind. Even the wires seemed quiet in the daytime.
Our world in Winter was a hushed world Nothing happened that made a noise. We lived in a vacuum. The sky came down around us maybe four miles away on every side. Scotch Ridge was the center of the world. We lived with God. He was up there in the lower part of the sky, and He decided when we should have snow. He gave us such gorgeous sunsets it looked as if the world was on fire, and at night He lit the great black night with a million stars and the moon. He kept His eye upon us night and day and gave us everything we had.
On Sundays we dressed up in our best clothes, brushed our teeth with Dr. Lyon’s tooth powder, learned the Golden Text and the catechism and went down the road to Church.
We lived on the Ridge, so everything was DOWN except Grandma’s and the cemetery. They were UP. Aunt Mary’s was OVER, and Johnny Meikle’s was OVER.
We walked to Church, but most people came in buggies. One family had one with three seats and every seat was filled. Upon arrival at Church, the riding people hurried to one of the two old long stoves. Pairs of warm overshoes were lined up under the seats, and blankets were left nearby to keep them warm for the journey home. Ladies’ hats were tied on carefully, with ribbons and bows and feathers left intact; nun’s veiling was tied over hat and ears, then removed upon arrival. Men’s overcoats, over on the North side near the stove, we stacked one on another, and fur caps with earflaps were on the seats along with huge mittens. After moustaches and beards were free from ice crystals, the older men gathered in the Old Men’s Class in a cold corner some distance from the stove.
Young men assembled in another cold corner near the North entrances; women and children sat in the warmer places.
One of the Davidson girls played the organ, and we sang the Psalms as if we understood them. Some of the tunes were pretty with solo parts for the Sopranos, while the other parts waited to jump into the Harmony before the song was finished. Prayers came from the Old Men in the corner, and Miss Jennie Shanks reported the attendance and the collection. Sunday School came first – then we settled down for the Church Service.
We were Protestants, of course, but it was many years before I knew the meaning of the word. We were United Presbyterians. Two miles away the church was United Brethren. Up at Center Church was another United Brethren; in the towns were Methodists that we only heard of – but never saw.
The difference between us was the songs! We sang only Psalms – they sang Hymns. I often wondered why we never sang about Jesus as the United Brethren did. And they had Protracted Meetings every winter to save Souls. We didn’t.
Uncle Doc and Aunt Laura were U.B.s so we felt akin to that church, and on a cold winter night we went to the Protracted Meeting. It was beautiful. We sang a lot – “Sweeping thru the Gates to the New Jerusalem” – “almost Persuaded” broke your heart when you thought of those unsaved men in the back seats who were almost but not quite persuaded.
The saved would leave their seats during a soulful rendition of “Almost Persuaded” and would try to help with the persuasion. If any brave soul decided to go forward and kneel before the Evangelist, we watched to see what would happen next. Our Church was mostly for Sundays!
I never saw a Catholic church till I was fifteen years old, and I was stunned by its beauty. The beautiful statues, the lighted candles, the Altar, the Cross – thrilled me beyond any place I had ever seen. At one side was a Grotto with a statue of the Virgin Mary that was almost more than I could take. I have never forgotten that great feeling of holiness in that beautiful church. It would have been wonderful to be a Catholic! But when I was ten yours old, I was united with the Presbyterian Church. Everything was just as it had always been except that now I could “take Communion” at the long table set in the front of the Church. Its snowy tablecloth held the silver plates of BREAD and the silver pitcher of wine. Two silver cups were later passed. The Bread when I was young was made by my grandmother. It was a great slab made of delicious cookie dough cut into long strips. When it was passed, each person broke off a piece. Thus the broken bread. The “wine” was grape juice, also made by my grandmother. On Communion Day Grandpa Wight came to Church carrying a basket with the bread and wine. After Church a child could go quietly to Grandpa’s basket where the leftover bread was being folded away in the snowy linen napkins, and Grandpa never failed to give out a generous strip of bread. After all – maybe it was no longer consecrated! I adored that Communion bread – and my little white-whiskered grandfather!
When Evan was twelve years old he could handle a horse, or a team of horses, as well as many men could. I remember one winter night when my parents let him have his friends come for a party, and even allowed him to call for them at their homes, with bobsled and horses. They arrived at our house early and were soon playing games in the living room, where my mother’s clean coal oil lamps and a glowing fire in the fireplace added warmth and brightness. Out in the kitchen I watched my father pop huge kettles of popcorn while Mother polished a great pan of apples. Those were to be the refreshments. After a couple of hours of games and eating, the party was over. I begged to go with Evan to take the kids home and was allowed to go. Before we reached home again, it had begun to snow and I was intoxicated with delight. Out in the dark with snow falling was something I was not used to. The horses were headed home and eager to be in their warm dry stables, so we
skimmed over the snow with real speed. One of our horses, named Tom, doubled in brass. He could be a strong member of the Team, pulling an enormous load – or he could be
He and Evan were great friends, and in a spell of ingenuity, Evan once rigged up the stone boat as a sled and hitched old Tom to it. A stone boat was a small flat sled and had a use of its own, but it could also be a toy for us. Evan fastened the wagon seat to it, so we could ride in style, and covered with blankets we could have gone to the Arctic. We drove to the Corners to show off for the Corners kids – and one winter afternoon we drove down to Aunt Laura’s about two miles away. The sunset was early, and as we drove home a full moon lighted our way. Tom’s behavior was perfect until the sled suddenly hit his heels, then he took off for home and was almost more than Evan could handle. Such fun as we had! We usually had the road all to ourselves in late after noon. Everyone was at home doing chores or getting supper – it was no hour for galavanting. There was nothing to fear in our quiet world unless we deliberately tried to find something – like Old Ann Austin and snakes in the Summer.
In March the cattle were sold. Cattle were not cows, they were Range creatures brought from the West and sold in Chicago and other markets for feeding. Many of our farmers were “cattle men”. They went to Chicago in the Fall and came back with as many cattle as they could feed. All winter the barnyards were filled with these strange beasts, confined and fed quantities of grain and hay to fatten them. The fatter they became, the more money they would bring on next Spring’s market. When my father, returning from Chicago, described the great City to us, I doubted his word for the first time. He told of trains on elevated tracks passing people’s UPSTAIRS windows! Now how could that ever be? Chicago held no charms for me – great stock yards filled with Western cattle all over the place!
By March the barnyard at home would be filled with sleek fat cattle forever eating from their racks.
There were no radios to give the market report, and no daily papers, so every man used his own judgement as to when the cattle should go. One rich farmer often proved the Bible quotation “To him that hath, shall be given”. He seemed to feel it in his bones when the market would be high, and would sell right then. My Dad, coming home from the store where local news was dispensed, would say, “Well, Tom Shanks has done it again.” He was one of our richest men and had made a great deal by feeding cattle. He was a true cattleman. My grandfather had been one too, as well as some of my uncles. I heard about them, but was too close to my father to know whether he was considered one or not. All I know is that we never went hungry.
Once the cattle were gone, the barnyard litter was removed to the fields in great odiferous loads. There it was scattered and later plowed under. Those Texas steers had contributed the valuable fertilizer that nourished next year’s corn and grains, to be fed later to other Texas cattle.
Our minister once said, “The farmer grows the corn to feed the horse that plows the land to grow the corn to feed the horse, etc.” We lived in cycles.
My mother’s birthday was March 15th and after that came Spring! Farmers were itching to get into the fields to do the Spring plowing. The world was waking up all around us.
Little lambs arrived over night, bleating and trying out their stiff legs. Sometimes a twin or an orphaned one would be brought to the house, where we warmed and fed it with a bottle. I inherited the unfortunate lambs and took care of them with delight. I loved them and named them and was sad when they were returned to the flock. Taking care of the lambs was a lesson in responsibility and I loved it, but gathering eggs was not for me. In the first place, I had no use for hens. They picked you with those ugly bills, made holes in the back yard when they “dusted” their wings. Eggs were O.K. on a platter nicely fried, but I could do without them before that. Fortunately, Mother respected my dislike for all things relating to chickens, so relieved me by doing all that unsavory work herself. She worked with them as if she enjoyed it, but I can’t believe that she ever did. She sold the eggs at the store. It was spoken of as trading.
“Where do you trade?” one woman would ask another.
The grocer would count all the eggs brought to him, making a note of the number. If eggs were 20 cents a dozen, five dozen would be worth a dollar. It would be marked on brown wrapping paper. My mother would then select from the grocer’s stock as many items as the dollar would buy. That was tradin’ at the country store. A nickle’s worth of French creams was a gift from the Gods. They would be lined up on the window sill for their sheer beauty – and eaten one a day with great selection, the prettiest saved for the last day. We seldom had candy. Not because it was bad for us, but because it cost a nickel. That was a lot of money to be spending carelessly. We had plenty of sweets at home: pies of all kinds, cakes piled high with frosting, puddings and cookies by the dozen. Every meal we ever ate ended with a sweet dessert.
Hope you enjoyed this portion of Ortha’s letter and hope it encourages you to sit and write down the details of winter and spring here in the swamp today, a hundred years later.
Hope to see you at the March meeting (don’t see any snow storms scheduled….yet). Our meeting is at 6:30 in the Luckey Library. Over and out, Sally