Abundance Through Farming During The Great Depression

Reader Contribution by The Mother Earth News Editors
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This story is from Donna L. Pellegrin, as told to her by Erma Lee Oliver Pellegrin and submitted as part of our Wisdom From Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear.

Nothing Went to Waste
Whenever my mother hears John Denver’s famous lyrics, “Country Roads take me home,” it brings up vivid pictures in her mind of the 40-acre farm in Viropa, West Virginia, where she and her family not only survived the Great Depression but flourished through it. My mother, Erma Lee Oliver Pellegrin, the youngest of ten children, was born on the farm in 1930. She is the last surviving member of the Oliver family. She looks back on the farm with a sense of nostalgic pride. “My father had a gift.” she recalls, “He could grow anything.” And indeed he did.

My grandfather, Jim Oliver, once known as Giovanni Battista Oliverio, was an Italian immigrant. He spent his youth doing farm work on the rocky hillsides of Calabria where a day’s wages might be a tub of ricotta cheese. When my grandfather’s work ethic and knowhow met the fertile soil of West Virginia, the land produced in abundance, “pressed down, shaken together and running over,” as in Luke 6:38.

On the farm, there were apple trees, pear trees, grape vines, a strawberry patch, a corn field and about an acre where my grandfather cultivated an exceptional variety of vegetables and herbs. Near the farmhouse was a special garden where he grew his prized tomato plants. Seeds from the best plants were saved every year for future harvests. Decorating the fringe were my grandmother’s flowers. Gladiolas, zinnias, marigolds, portulaca and masses of purple petunias provided beauty and romance both outdoors and inside the house.

My grandmother, who was my mother’s namesake, brought from Italy the skills that would make her an exceptional farmer’s wife. My mother reflects on her own mother, “She could have a feast on the table in two hours.” As the farm had no phone, a carload of relatives could show up unexpectedly and stay for days. “When a car pulled up, she would send one of the boys to wring a chicken’s neck and send one of us girls to gather from the garden and in no time at all the table was set with chicken, fried with peppers and potatoes; corn on the cob; pasta; greens and every kind of vegetable you could imagine.”

It was my grandmother who made the butter and the homemade cheeses on the farm. In a large tub on an old stove in her wash house she would stir the milk and vinegar mixture until the cheese curdled up and separated. A tin can with holes in the bottom was employed as a strainer. She made ricotta, mozzarella and provolone that hung from the ceiling to age. It was also my grandmother who was in charge of canning. Any fruits or vegetables that were not immediately eaten were canned and stored for winter or made into wine. In times of drought the previous year’s surplus was a godsend.
My mother often points out that the farm was a place where resources were blessings and nothing went to waste. The cows and chickens were mostly fed from the food that was grown on the farm, and in turn their manure was collected and used to fertilize crops. If any feed was purchased, the colorful cotton feed sacks were used for girl’s dresses. White cotton flour sacks were embroidered and either used for pillow cases and dish towels, or sewn together for use as sheets. All fabric remnants were used to make the beautiful quilts that covered the beds. Old bread, corn cobs, apple cores, and other kitchen scraps were fed to the hogs. Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs were recycled in the outhouse. There was no garbage pick-up on the farm and little need for it.

When a hog was butchered, all parts of the animal were put to use. My grandfather stored the hams, bacon and other cuts in the smokehouse while my grandmother ground the sausage and stuffed it into casings made with the hog’s own intestines. The feet were pickled in jars, the stomach was prepared as tripe and the fat was boiled to make soap. Even the pig bladder had a purpose. My mother laughs, remembering from her childhood, “I would hang around until someone would clean the bladder and blow it up for me. It made a great ball.”

The Oliver family also made use of all that grew wild on the farm. From early spring, dandelions, pokes, purslane, watercress and mustard greens were all picked and eaten in salads. Sassafras root was collected for tea. Walnuts, hickory nuts, blackberries and pawpaws were gathered in the fall, along with mushrooms in such abundance that my grandmother would can them. The wooded area was a place my grandfather took his boys to hunt for squirrel, quail and rabbit, and if anyone came across a turtle, there was turtle soup for dinner.

The Great Depression had no effect on the bounty from the farm, which was not only sufficient to feed the Oliver family, but many others as well. Cousins came to the farm regularly, sometimes for entire summers. The owner of the farm, a prosperous relative who lived in the nearby town, came each day for his family’s portion of fresh milk, eggs and produce. Also, the occasional stranger, desperate for a meal, would stop by and ask for food. Some of these men would be so grateful they would offer to do work on the farm as payment.

Eventually, when my grandparents grew older and many of their children moved away, they decided to move off the farm to a house on a plot of land closer to town. My grandparents, however, were not about to turn their backs on the lifestyle that had sustained them for so long. They brought the cow and the chickens with them and planted a large garden that produced enough each year to keep them well fed for the rest of their lives.

Note: Parts of this article are from the family history of the author, which will be published at a future date.

Photo Credit: Fotolia/ Ruggiero.S.: Provolone cheese for curing.

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