Grampy used to tell a story involving a hired man who was working for board and room and a little cash on the side. Board included three square meals – meat, potatoes, whatever vegetables were coming along in the garden. Apparently too many vegetables to suit him, because long about September he said he was moving on. “But why?” the boss asked. “‘Cause I been eating grass all summer, but I’m not sticking around to eat hay all winter.”
I think of that now because Groundhog Day is imminent and according to the old saying, “The provident farmer on Candlemas Day, has half of his wood and half of his hay.” Candlemas is the same day as Groundhog Day, so there you are. I assume that as well as hay and wood, one should have half of your canned goods, half your potatoes, carrots and what-not. Anyway, I asked Dad how one knew you still had half and he says it was mostly an educated guess, based on other years, eye-balling your woodshed and haymow, and hoping spring made a timely arrival. I guess we think spring seldom makes a timely arrival, but our very existence and livelihood don’t depend on it.
I am not sure we can adequately appreciate the worries and planning, as well as guess work, that went into assuring that the hay would last till the cows could be put to pasture, that you had enough potatoes to supply seed for the next crop and food enough to last until the next crop was mature. Firewood was needed not only for warmth in the winter, but for cooking meals all summer. All vegetables had to be in such supply as to make it till the new garden crops were ready. Pretty much everything was planned to the ultimate. No wonder Gram ran out to harvest dandelions the minute they looked ready. You didn’t or couldn’t rush down to the local market and buy fresh greens whenever the fancy struck. Of course you weren’t warned four days later to not eat the stuff because it had picked up this germ or that. Still …
We enjoyed maple so much, maybe partly because it was new and fresh. Grampy sold barrels of syrup, but when Gram was young most of the sap was boiled down even further to make sugar. If you have ever seen a big old silver spoon with the bowl worn off at an angle, that was probably a sugar-scraping spoon. The sugar was hard, and part of baking was scraping up enough sugar for your cake or pie. Sugar was a cash crop, too, and in an old newspaper I found rather astonishing figures for the amount of pounds Milton, Vt. had produced one year. From an 1865 edition of the Western Democrat out of Charlotte, N.C. we find that Milton produced 100,000 pounds of sugar, with some outfits making over 2,000-3,000 pounds each. That’s quite a lot of sugar; they tell us it takes 40 gallons of sap to produce a gallon of syrup. It would take more to boil it all down to sugar. And that was in a season when some of Milton’s citizens were still fighting the south, and others had been so badly maimed they didn’t do a lot of sugaring. And of course some had died. Everyone must have worked more frantically than usual for that crop. And the sugar had to be added to your calculations – how much for family to last till next spring, how much to sell to other states (including, presumably, North Carolina).
I don’t know. It is sometimes hard for me to keep track of bread, milk and gasoline. I have been known to run out of fuel oil. I’m not sure I would have survived in the 1800s. Good thing I had smart ancestors.