Historical Stories - Surviving an Appalachian Winter

Historical Stories - Surviving an Appalachian Winter

The Life & Times Of Families In Colonial Day Mountains

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It's pleasant to look through a window at white stuff blanketing the ground, toast one another around the ski lodge, or watch television in a centrally-heated house. How different times were for our predecessors in the Appalachian region, the hardy English and Scottish settlers who made their way to these hills in the late 1700's, and for the Cherokee Indians who used these lands as hunting grounds.

In the earliest days of pioneer settlement, preparations for winter actually began early in the autumn, according to John Peterson, Educational Director for Hickory Ridge Homestead in Boone. "In winter and late fall, you'd usually start hunting to stock up on your meat," Peterson says. "But hunting was something you could do all winter long. Since you didn't have any crops to tend, you could focus on your hunting. You had deer, turkey, elk, and buffalo here in the late 1700's."

Hunters would have competitions in the autumn to get in practice for winter hunting. One shooting competition involved driving an ax into a tree trunk and then placing two clay targets on either side of the ax blade. The object was to shoot a 50-caliber lead ball, which was slightly larger than a marble, so that the lead split on the blade of the ax and the two pieces of the "bullet" each hit one of the targets. Sometimes sharpshooters tested their skills by shooting playing cards or trying to snuff the flames from burning candles.

Since the ammunition of the period was too large for use in hunting small game, pioneers had to hone their hatchet-throwing skills. These autumn games also had their practical uses, because rabbits and squirrels were hunted with hatchets. The hunter hoped that either the blade, the butt, or the handle will strike the game and render it helpless until it could be finished off and brought home to the stew pot.

Families put aside one or two days in the fall to make candles. Usually 150 to 200 candles would last a family through the winter. In summer, with the longer days, families rose with the sun and rarely stayed up much past nightfall. But the shorter days of winter gave the pioneers a little leisure time in the evenings.

Candles were made from a mixture of about one-fourth beeswax and three-quarters tallow, which was made from beef fat. "Tallow is soft at room temperature, but it burns a nice long time," says Peterson. "Beeswax burns fast but is more firm. So if you mix the two, you get the best of both worlds."

Candles were made in two ways: one method involved used cast-iron molds to harden and shape the wax-tallow mix. The other method involved hand dipping, or placing a wick into the warmed, soft "wax" and then withdrawing the wick and letting the mixture cool around the wick. Then the candle was dipped again, between fifteen and twenty times, and the layering effect eventually yielded a thick candle.

Firewood was important all year round, due to being a primary source of cooking, heating bath and laundry water, and smoking meat. But firewood was especially important in the winter, when the mountain wind whistled through the chinks in the log cabins. A "cord" of wood is eight feet long by four feet wide by four feet high. A typical settler family might burn as many as 30 cords in a year.

Many Appalachian families made their own clothes, though chores and goods were often bartered in small communities. Looms took up a large amount of space, and typically cabins were very small to hold as much heat as possible. So looms were often set up outside under a shed during the summertime, so that the natural light could help the weavers see their work. Looms were broken down and stored during the winter.

But this didn't stop the other phases of cloth production. Most of the winter was spent on carding the natural fibers and spinning the thread. Eight hours of spinning equaled about one hour at the loom.

Produce was stored in several ways. Some produce, such as pumpkins or apples, could be dried either on the fireplace mantel or out in the sun. Corn was also left on the stalk to harden for later use. Grist meals were common in the Appalachian Mountains and swiftly-flowing water allowed for winter operation, but some of the more isolated families had to grind their corn into meal using wood mortar-and-pestle similar to what some Native American cultures used. Dried corn could also be boiled, parched, or roasted, leaving a food that had a nut-like texture.

Vegetables such as corn, squash, and okra could also be pickled in vinegar or stored in a springhouse. Another storage method was "clamping," which involved digging a trench or hole and covering the bottom with straw. Produce such as apples, cabbages, or potatoes were then placed in the open space and covered with straw, then a layer of dirt thick enough to prevent freezing. The flaw of this method was that often the ground froze so solidly that the pioneers couldn't get at their goods until early in the spring. Roots cellars, a later development, were a large improvement for keeping produce.

Meat was also salted and smoked for long-term storage. "The salt draws out all the moisture, and then they'd smoke it," says Peterson. "They thought smoking was a way to preserve, but it was mostly the salt that preserved. The smoke just basically put a glaze on the outside." Meat was placed in a brine solution for as long as a month, then the salt packing was repeated two or three times. Come eventual dinner time, the meat was boiled to remove the salty taste.

Some daily chores continued through all the seasons, including taking care of the livestock and cleaning the cabin. Cooking was also a nearly round-the-clock task, since fires had to be built and dishes washed without the convenience of tapwater.

As the days grew shorter, families had a little free time and could spend some of their evenings at leisure. Storytelling was a popular form of entertainment, including the famous Jack Tales that settlers brought from England. Many families made their own music, and the earliest instruments were fiddles, pennywhistles or tin whistles, and other handmade instruments.

In the 19th century, the dulcimer made its way to the mountains and has long been considered a traditional Appalachian instrument. The dulcimer was actually a descendant of the scheiltholt, a German instrument that had one fretted string and several others that were tuned to open notes for a droning effect. The bagpipe and banjo also slowly worked their way into the hands of Appalachian music-makers.

Winter was also spent on chinking the cabin. The gaps between logs were chinked with a mixture of mud and grass, and the mud shrank when it dried. Keeping out the cold was a full-time and often futile task. Cabins were sometimes designed with an upper sleeping loft where the warm air (and the smoke) collected from the fireplace. Not until woodstoves came to the region in the 1870's could people afford to sleep without the benefit of layers of thick quilts.

Winter nights were also spent on catching up on neglected handwork, such as mending furniture, caning chairs, or sharpening knives. Woodcarving was another popular way to spend a few hours before bedtime. Winter was also the only season for hobbies and toy-making, or making decorative items such as coverlets. Toys included cornhusk dolls and playing with clay or stone marbles.

Despite all the chores, winter was mostly a time to rest. Pioneer families often took advantage of the long nights to get a couple of extra hours of sleep, and since they usually could see their breath when they woke up, were understandably reluctant to roll out of bed. But even the long Appalachian winters eventually ended, and then it was time to get the farm tools in shape and prepare to break ground and plant again.

The sun always again rose warm in the sky, the snow melted, and the winter was tucked away. Even way back then, the seasons had a habit of changing.

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