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Recently, I recalled “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come,” the old, favorite hymn associated with harvest and especially Thanksgiving.
Written in 1844 by Henry Alford, the English poet and scholar, the hymn speaks of thanksgiving for the harvest of crops and also for the spiritual harvest for Christian believers.
One section of the hymn is particularly appropriate during the fall and winter months in our area of the world: “All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.”
The hymn about gathering and storing the harvest reminds us of the numerous methods that farm families in the past used to provide for their families and others during the winter.
Before refrigeration was available, families spent numerous hours canning vegetables and fruits for survival. Canning beans, peas, tomatoes, corn, succotash and even sauerkraut was hard work, yet people said all that food would “come in good” in the winter and into the spring before new gardens began to produce. Picking, cleaning, cutting, cooking, filling fruit jars and processing made intensive work.
What about all that pickling that went on while produce was plentiful? Many of you remember sweet pickles, bread-and-butter pickles and dill or sour pickles that went well with hot dogs. Watermelon rind, beet, peach and okra pickles wore the crown in the pickle kingdom. Does anyone remember chow-chow?
Pickling was often a slow process, taking over a week for some recipes; other recipes could be prepared in less than an hour.
After hog-killing, pickled pigs’ feet showed up in big jars in homes and stores.
Jams, jellies and preserves were a must to save fruit on the farm. Peaches, pears, apples, strawberries, blackberries, damsons, blueberries, figs and peppers ended up in fruit jars arranged just so in jelly cabinets and on pantry shelves. Apple butter was also a favorite, just as it is today. These delicacies satisfied a sweet tooth and gave hot biscuits and butter a little extra color and taste.
Jars of jam, jelly and preserves also made fine gifts for Christmas and other occasions and were often entered in the competition at the county fair.
Speaking of fruits, some people dried apples and peaches for making those incomparable apple and peach jacks. What a fine gift from the summer harvest! Onions and hot peppers also dried nicely for winter use.
Before refrigeration, families used their ingenuity to make root cellars for keeping root vegetables from rotting.
Root cellars were sometimes underground under a house or a barn and sometimes partly underground. Families used whatever resources they had to prepare a place that would keep root vegetables from going bad.
They knew how to keep root crops just above freezing and below room temperature. Root vegetables would continue to respire and resist bacteria if they were stored properly.
Crops such as potatoes, turnips, carrots, beets, winter squash and cabbage would last a good while in the root cellar and keep the family table supplied with nutritious, fresh food for the winter.
Some families knew how to keep potatoes in the dirt under a house that was not underpinned or in baskets with hay to keep potatoes from rotting.
Meat was preserved with salt and stored in the smokehouse or sometimes in root cellars. Most of us know about bacon, fatback, side meat, dried sausage, cured hams, cracklings and pork skins that would last for months. Lard was kept in tins but would go rancid if it were too old.
After refrigerators and freezers became available, putting up the harvest changed, yet some people today continue to can, make pickles, dry meat and use root cellars. Do-it-yourself fans, organic farmers, homesteaders and subsistence farmers might still choose to keep food by some of the old methods.
Other crops that were “safely gathered in” included hay, which was cut, put into bales and stored in the hayloft for feeding animal and for other uses.
The corn crib served as a place to store corn that was left on the cob to feed pigs, chickens and mules. Rodents usually got fat by frequenting the corn crib.
Harvesting and storing consumed much time, yet farm families had numerous other tasks to complete before “the winter storms” came. They had to gather fuel, make winter clothing and bedding and be sure that their families and animals had proper shelter to protect them from the harsh weather.
So this fall when we sing “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come,” let us think of what it means to get everything “safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin,” and let us be thankful for modern conveniences that make our lives easier than those of our ancestors.
The families from way back were so busy harvesting and storing that they would not have had time to watch “The Young and the Restless” or other daytime programs, even if they had access to TV back then.
Sanda Baucom Hight is retired from Wilson County Schools after serving as an English teacher and is currently a substitute teacher in Wilson County. Her column focuses on the charms of home, school and country life.