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Chapter 2:

  • Devices rendered necessary by the blockade — how the South met a great emergency

But now the giant emergency must be met, and it was not long ere all were in good training; and having put hands to the plow, there was no murmuring nor looking back. The first great pressing needs were food and clothing. Our government issued orders for all those engaged in agriculture to put only one tenth of their land in cotton, there being then no market for cotton. All agriculturists, large or small, were also required by our government to give for the support of our soldiers one tenth of all the provisions they could raise, --a requirement with which we were only too willing to comply.

In southern Alabama before the war the cultivation of cereals was quite rare. There Cotton was indeed king. I think this saying was true in all the Southern States. It applied to all the territory south of Virginia, Tennessee, and Missouri, at any rate. [17]

When the blockade had inclosed the South, our planters set about in earnest to grow wheat, rye, rice, oats, corn, peas, pumpkins, and ground peas. The chufa, a thing I had never heard of before, now came to the front, and was soon generally cultivated, along with the ground pea, as our position necessitated the production of cheap food for swine. The chufa was easily cultivated, and on fresh sandy or porous soil produced large crops. Every available spot was planted with the chufa, ground peas, and peas. Even in orchards the interstices between the fruit-trees were filled with these nutritious ground nuts. I remember an orchard near where I taught school, planted with chufas. The tubers were dropped about every two feet, in furrows three feet apart. They seemed like great bunches of grass, which spread until the interval between the plants was one mass of green foliage and roots from furrow to furrow. The owners of that orchard said the feed for their poultry had cost them nothing that season, as the whole brood of fowls lived among the chufas from the time they left the perch in the morning till they were called to be [18] housed for the night, and that never before had poultry been so well fitted for the table, never before had the flesh been so white or so well flavored.

Ground peas were rarely grown before the war, and were generally called “goobers.” I do not remember that I knew them by any other name; so one day in school hours, when one of the little scholars called to me that “Hetty's got my pindars,” I was somewhat mystified as to what a “pindar” was, and when I called the little girl to fetch the pindars to me, she laid two or three goobers in my hand. They were to be seen on all sides, branching out in all directions, in patches large and small. Many planters in giving their corn and cotton the “laying-by” plowing, as it was called, would plant in the middle furrows ground peas, chufas, and cuttings from the sweet potato vines, which required very slight additional labor in harvesting the crops; and by the time the crops had all been gathered in and frost appeared, the tubers were well matured, and were great helps in fattening pork, thereby enabling the planter to preserve more corn for the use of the government. [19]

Beside growing the ground pea for help in fattening pork, a good supply was housed for seed and the use of the family. I have pleasant recollections of the many winter evenings when we would have the great oven brought into the sitting-room, placed on the hearth, with glowing red coals underneath, filled with white sand, in which we parched the pindars nice and brown. Or perhaps the oven would be filled partly with our home-made syrup, with raw ground peas hulled and dropped into the boiling syrup. Properly cooked, what nice peanut candy that made! Oil from the peanuts was also expressed for lamps and other uses during war times. In fine, peanuts, ground peas, goobers, and pindars, all one species, though known by all these names, played an important part during the blockade.

Many planters who had never grown wheat before were surprised at the great yield of grain to the acreage sown. I well remember hearing a brother of Mrs. G-- , who lived in Troy, Alabama, tell of very highly fertilizing one acre of already rich soil, as a test of what he really could reap from an acre thus treated. The yield [20] went far beyond his most sanguine expectations, for that one acre yielded seventyfive bushels of wheat. Another wealthy planter, living in the village of Glennville, Alabama, had his overseer single out and lay off one acre of very rich hammock land, which was only lightly fertilized, from which he reaped fifty measured bushels. Of course this was only testing what good uplands, or hammocks rich in soil, would yield in wheat by highly or lightly fertilizing. Mr. G-- had sown quite heavily in wheat when all avenues for its entrance to the South had been closed. I remember one twelve acres of hammock land that Mr. G-- had sown in wheat, so rich of soil that no fertilizing was necessary. Morning, noon, and night that twelve-acre hammock in wheat was a topic of conversation at the table during our meal hours. In one of our afternoon rides, when school hours were over for the day, we made haste to view this paragon of a field, and as we halted our horses on the crest of a hill from which we could “view the landscape o'er,” what a grand panorama came into view! There, not the “fields arrayed in living green,” but wave [21] on wave of long amber wheat gently rolling in the wind. A large stream of water bounded two sides of the hammock, and heavy green foliage formed a background in vivid contrast to the golden heads whose every culm seemed on a level. We slid almost unconsciously from our saddles, hitched the horses, and were soon standing in the midst of the wheat, with eyes scarcely able to peer over that vast plain of golden-yellow. We took off our hats and gave them a sail on the already ripening grain,--for it was near harvest time, --and there they lay without perceptibly bending the stalks of wheat. We plucked some of the grain, rubbed it in our hands to free and winnow it, and found it sweet and palatable Backward flew our thoughts to that field of wheat near Lake Tiberias through which Christ and his disciples passed on the Sabbath day and plucked the “ears of corn” and did eat, for they hungered.

The yield of the hammock was estimated to be at least five hundred bushels; but a rainy spell set in just as the reaping began, and it rained in showers, light and heavy, more or less for twenty-seven days. As [22] the means then for harvesting wheat were of a primeval order, the reaping was slow and tedious, so that most of the grain was badly damaged, and some was entirely spoiled.

There was great bother when it came to threshing the wheat; many and varied were the means employed for freeing the chaff from the grain. Some planters threshed and fanned the wheat at their gin-houses. I remember a portable thresher came into our settlement, and traveled from plantation to plantation, threshing for a percentage of the grain. Others, whose sowing and reaping was on a small scale, resorted to ruder methods to free the grain,meth-ods which called to mind the rural life and manners of ancient times. Sometimes the wheat was threshed with the rudest sort of home-made flails.

A woman, whose husband and two sons were in the army, lived near our settlement in a cottage which stood some little distance from the roadside, in a cluster of oaks, whose foliage almost hid the house from passers-by. While yet some rods from the dwelling, one day, there came to our ears a succession of regular thwacks, [23] the meaning of which we could not define by the sound. As the woman was a neighbor, we turned aside to investigate, and opened wide our eyes when we beheld the woman seated in a chair, with a common sized barrel just in front of her, within good striking distance. There she sat, a sheaf of wheat held with both hands, and with this she was vigorously belaboring the barrel, at every stroke a shower of wheat-grains raining down upon quilts and coverlets which had been arranged to catch it. By this simple process she flailed as much as a bushel or two at one time. She then spread the sheets out on the ground, in the open air, and poured the wheat on them in a continuous stream. The wind acted as a great “fan,” the grain by its own weight falling in one place, while the chaff was carried off by the wind. When that threshing was ground at the flouring mill and used up, the same rude flailing was repeated.

Another contrivance for threshing wheat, even more unique, was that of a woman whose husband also was in our army. She was left with five small children, but managed to cultivate a small farm with those of [24] the five children who had grown enough to give a little help. She raised a small plat of wheat year by year as the war went on. She had in her smoke-house a large trough that was used for salting pork when killed in the winter; indeed, nearly all smokehouses then had large troughs, some as many as two or three, hewn and dug out from the stocks of trees, and sometimes six or eight feet long. They were very useful in holding salted pork, salt, soap, and dried bacon packed down in leached ashes. The woman cleaned her trough nicely, untied the sheaves of wheat, and placed them in the trough, not quite brimming, so as to lose none of the grains; then with heavy sticks and little wooden mauls she had roughly shaped, she and her little children would beat the grain free of the husks. It was then winnowed the same way as was the woman's who threshed over the barrel.

Hundreds during the war resorted to such devices for freeing their grain of chaff; yet flour was very scarce, although the South put forth her best energies to cultivate wheat. After delivering the government tithe, and sharing with our home ones, [25] the crop rarely lasted till another harvest. It was quite amusing to hear the neighbors as they met in social gatherings, or perhaps when separating from service at church, press their friends to come and see them, or come and have dinner, “For we have got a barrel of flour.” It was even more amusing to have friends sit at the dining-table, and, when a waiter of brown, warm biscuits was passed round, to see them feign ignorance of what they were.

Bolted meal, when obtainable, made a very good substitute for flour, though millers said it injured their bolting-cloth to sift the corn meal through it; yet nearly every household, in sending its grist to be ground, would order a portion of the meal to be bolted for use as flour. Such bolted meal, when sifted through a thin muslin cloth and mixed up with scalding water to make it more viscid and adhesive, was as easily moulded into pie crust with the aid of the rolling-pin as the pure flour. Nice muffins and waffles were made of bolted meal, and we also made a very nice cake of the same and our home-made brown sugar.

All the moist and marshy places in the [26] fields that had hitherto been thought fit for naught as to the growing of farm products, were utilized for rice and sugar-cane patches, and were found to yield plentifully. Some people, not having dank or moist spots suitable for rice on their farms, planted rice on the uplands, and were surprised to find they had an average yield with those who had planted the moist spots; and thus it has come about that even now in the South rice is planted on the uplands. Some few rude rice mills were hastily put up for stripping the coarse brown husks from the rice, but as they were distant from most of the planters in our settlement, wooden mortars had to be temporarily improvised. A tree of proper size would be cut down; from the stock a length suitable would be cut or sawed; a cavity would be hollowed with an adze in the centre of the block endwise. For the want of better polishing tools the cavity would be made smooth by burning with fire. The charred surface was then scraped off and made even, the hollow cleared free of all coal dust, and the pestle, made, perhaps, from a bough of the same tree, completed the primitive rice mill. Rough rice [27] pounded in such a mortar and winnowed by the wind was clean and white. The only objection to it was that it was more splintered than if it had gone through a better mill.

Mills had also to be erected for grinding sugar-cane and the sorghum-cane, as some sorghum was raised in southern Alabama. In our settlement only the “green” and “ribbon” cane were grown, which, like the cereals, were never cultivated before the war. What cane had been grown was in patches owned by slaves, and for the saccharine juice alone. Wooden cylinders had to be used, as those of iron were not easily obtained. With these cylinders all of the juice could not be expressed, but our farmers contented themselves with the thought that there was no great loss after all, as their swine could draw from the crushed cane all the juice that was left before it was hauled to fill ditches and gullies. In case one was so fortunate as to secure a sugar mill with iron cylinders, it used to go the rounds of its immediate vicinity, as the portable threshers did. First one and then another of the neighbors would use it till their crop of cane was [28] ground and made into syrup and sugar. The furnaces for sugar and syrup making were built of rocks, if bricks were not convenient. They held one or two kettles, according to the quantity of cane to be ground and of juice to be boiled. A couple or more of long wooden troughs hollowed from trees were necessary for containing the syrup when boiled to the proper degree of density, before turning into the barrels. That designed for sugar, after being turned into the troughs, was usually beaten with wooden paddles, and dipper after dipper was filled with the thick syrup and poured back into the sugar trough, till all was changed into sugar. Of course there were mishaps now and then, as evaporators could not be had, and the planters were not experts in syrup and sugar making. I remember. one gentleman, whose “green” and “ribbon” cane had been exceptionally fine for the season, who had engaged a man who was said to be something of an expert to supervise his sugar boiling. The owner of the cane was to make his own syrup unaided; yet his very first boiling of syrup, when run into [29] the trough and stirred back and forth with the wooden paddles to cool, began to crystallize into grains of sugar, and on turning into the barrel was soon solid, compact, light-brown sugar, without further stir, and was his finest sugar, though the one who supervised, when it came his turn to make the sugar, tried hard to excel that made by the merest accident; but none of his was so light of color or so free of dripping. Another had boiled his juice too much for either sugar or syrup, so that he had a whole barrel full of dark-brown solid candy, which had to be chipped out with a hatchet. The syrup that was made later, as the war went on, was all that could be desired,--thick, clear, and pure. The sugar was necessarily brown, as appliances for refining at that time could not be had. The planters would place smooth oak splits and switches in the barrels of sugar, and just the length of the barrel, to aid the dripping, and to better free the sugar from moisture. It was not uncommon to see planters, when they called upon each other, draw from their pockets small packages wrapped in our [30] own manufactured brown paper, which packages contained samples of their make of sugar. These they carried about with them and compared with the sugar made by others.

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