Autumn was different back in the ’50s and beyond. There was so much to get done. We still have things to get done – snow tires on the car, for instance – but getting ready for winter seldom has the importance and urgency it used to. Grammy didn’t even like fall, which people are mad for now – she said it was too close to and too evocative of winter. When one takes into account the considerable work that went into preparing for winter each fall, it makes sense. I think of the poem by Rachel Fields, “Something Told the Wild Geese.” Gram was like the geese – “… beneath warm feathers/Something cautioned, – “frost.”
There was so much work and worry in preparing. Concern about frost was harrying all to get the gardens in, the pumpkins gathered, the potatoes harvested. This was not at all a leisurely time of year, and sometimes it rained, which was one more problem. I recall the days set aside for these things – pumpkins heaped in the side yard, all the remaining above-ground produce brought in, root vegetables laid in the cellar. (Not a “root cellar;” just a cellar, with a big potato bin and containers for carrots and turnips. With no central heating, the cellar was never going to get very warm, so pretty much everything kept well.) Picking potatoes in the cold rain was no fun at all, but I’ve done it. Everybody helped if it rained.
Then the house, so old it had no insulation, had to be readied. Few seem to “bank” their houses any more, and many people don’t know what it even means. At the farm it meant a very thick layer of spruce boughs laid up against the foundation to prevent cold winds blowing in between the structure and the foundation. If you had no woods, a barrier of tar paper was erected and the space between house and barrier was filled with sawdust. Even manure was used as a filler – anything to encourage just a little more warmth. In addition, storm windows and doors were hoisted into place. Grampy made the storm doors out of boards, with just a little diamond-shaped window installed. The sun porch on the back was closed off, except for very bright days when all the windows acted like a green house. It was also opened and warmed during daytime Christmas, for that is where the tree was erected.
Warmed, yes. The only way we stayed warm was with two wood stoves, one in the kitchen and a parlor stove in the living room. That meant wood – a lot of wood. I can’t tell you how much it took, but it was tightly packed to the ceiling of the woodshed, which was high, and filled the far reaches of the shed, leaving only room for the workbench, chopping block, and an iffy walkway to the back kitchen door. It was all cut by Grampy early in the year, dried and stacked carefully, mostly by Uncle Mike. There had to be enough to get through the winter, spring, and cooking all year round. Wood for sugaring was cut and stacked separately. In addition to the wood, there was the chimney to be cleaned. I helped with that a couple of times when I was older. First you changed into your oldest, most decrepit clothes, because soot. We didn’t have any special brushes – just old brooms and so on. As far as I know, each family did it’s own – I don’t think there were any chimney sweeps around at the time.
There must be things I’ve forgotten. Gram had to make sure the winter clothes were ready, Grampy readied the stock. Some folks butchered a hog. For a long, long time we marveled at people coming to Vermont just to look at the colored leaves. Now you know why!