This story is from Wendy Tressler Albright, submitted as part of our Wisdom From Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear.
My grandmother and grandfather practiced organic living long before it became a movement, and they didn't even realize it. That was just their way of life. They lived on a small farm in western Pennsylvania and made a good living off of 60 acres. Grandpa milked 11 cows, raised maybe 10 or 15 pigs, grew soybeans, wheat, oats and corn and had chickens for meat and eggs. He didn't use chemicals to kill weeds in the fields. There was a process called cultivating where they drove a tractor up and down the planted rows, plowing out the weeds. This was done periodically until the crops got too tall to cultivate anymore. It was a slow, monotonous job. Sometimes they even resorted to walking the fields with a hoe to get the stubborn weeds. No chemical fertilizers were used; only manure from the cows and pigs.
The chickens were in a large fenced in area and were fed ground up corn, oats and wheat with a supplement that Grandpa got from the feed mill down the road. I always loved going with him and sitting on top of the bags of grain that he brought to have ground for all the animals. There was always such a good smell when they mixed in the supplement. I remember smelling molasses. No growth hormones and no antibiotics. I believe they also got oyster shells to make the shells on the eggs harder. Table scraps (vegetable only) were thrown over the fence for the chickens to scavenge in and there were trees and grass and bugs for them to scratch up in the lot. There were two fairly good sized coops which had at least a dozen nest boxes apiece. I always loved going out in the morning and collecting eggs with Grandma. I was a bit scared of the hens still on nests though. They would squawk and fly off and I always thought they were going to attack me! But the warm eggs felt good in my hand and once in awhile you knew you had a "double yolker."
They had a large garden which provided all their vegetables, and there were fruit trees; pears, apples, peaches, cherries for pie and wild elderberries that were also baked into pies and made into sauce to put over ice cream. Everyone had a rhubarb patch in their yard. Strawberries grew in the garden. Grapes for jelly, juice and even pie grew on the fence by the garden. What didn't get canned went into the huge locker type freezers that Grandpa had gotten from a store that went out of business. The pantry was a large room containing the freezers, shelves of canned goods and a table that was always laden with baked goods. Grandma always had cakes, pies and cookies of all types on hand. Anyone who came was always offered a cup of coffee and some of her famous baked goods.
They also butchered their own meat. Beef, veal, pork and chickens were processed in the shed and there was never a shortage of meat to be had. Old fashioned "delicacies" like head cheese and souse were made as well as liver pudding and oxtail soup. I never did like any of those, but I do remember being fond of "sweet breads" which were made by deep frying a gland from the calves’ neck. Sliced, baked cow's heart was great for sandwiches and there was always ham and sausage in the freezer too. My mom stayed with them on the farm during the years my dad was away in the Navy during World War II. She told of canning over 1,000 jars of produce and meat every summer; hard work in hot weather with no air conditioning.
When I was very small I remember one summer when the "thrashers" came. Grandpa had a thrashing machine that he used to take all around the area and all the neighbors would go help on each farm to do the thrashing. I remember huge piles of wheat and Grandpa hooking a large belt from his tractor to a wheel on the thrasher to run the machine. They would fork wheat into the thing by hand and it would separate the straw from the grain. At noon they would stop and all go in for a meal that the women had been cooking all morning. I remember the dining room table being pulled out and extra boards put in to make it as big as the dining room would permit. I remember a meal like no other I have seen since. There was roast beef, fried chicken, ham, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, candied yams, coleslaw, peas, dressing, pickled beets, souse, pepper relish, cheese, radishes, green onions, homemade rolls, cake, pie, cookies, and ice cream. There were little glass salt cellars at each place to dip the green onions and radishes in. Ice water, coffee, tea and lemonade were the beverages. I am sure I'm forgetting something, but that's where the term "eating like thrashers" came from.
It was a hard way of life, but it was a good way of life. Neighbors helped each other out. Friends shared what they had. When I garden organically I feel I am getting back in touch with the world that my grandparents knew. There is a cycle of life and death and from one comes the other. There is a peace of mind in realizing this is the natural way of things.
Photos by Fotolia/ Sandra Cunningham
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