CHURCH SUPPERS IN THE COUNTRY

CHURCH SUPPERS ON THE FARM

I grew up on a upstate New York dairy farm in the late 1930s and 40s. We attended a small country church which had no space for anything other than worship. Therefore public suppers to make money were held in its members homes.

My mother was president of the women’s organization. We lived in a large rambling farmhouse so at least once or twice a year our home was the setting for a public chicken and biscuit dinner.

It was a two day affair. The church women came to the house the day before the event. They peeled potatoes and gathered all the necessary pots, dishes and flatware. My father moved a second table from upstairs to the dining room so about 15 people could be seated at a time. He also beheaded a couple of chickens and stripped them of their feathers before they were prepared for cooking. Meanwhile chickens were meeting a similar fate at other members’ homes.

Early on the big day the fresh-killed and prepared chickens were put on the back of the wood fired cook stove to simmer slowly. These chickens, unlike the young ones that are in our markets today, were usually old hens which had stopped laying eggs and so required long slow cooking. The church women gathered bringing with them biscuits, pies and cakes prepared at home. The potatoes were put over to boil, jars of homemade pickles opened, cabbage shredded for salad, homemade bread sliced and vegetables, which varied with the season, were prepared.

By early afternoon the women’s faces were red from the heat in the kitchen which seemed to be the same temperature as the oven. If it were summer time, kids like myself ran in and out of the house and were shoed from the kitchen where 7, 8 women laughed and worked together.

The supper was advertised from 4 to 7, but by 3:30 cars were pulling into the yard from nearby villages. The smell of frying chicken permeated the house and yard. Dad was recruited to mash the potatoes which were liberally laced with homemade butter and cream. Gravy bubbled in a pot waiting to be poured over hot biscuits. Then two or three women donned fresh aprons and serving began.

When the dining room was full, the next guests waited their turn on the front porch in the summer or in the large living room in cool weather. And so it went until all comers had their fill. Then the tired women and their farmer husbands who had finished milking their cows sat down to eat whatever was left. At 75 cents a plate and 55 dinners later the church would be richer by $40, enough to help pay the pastor and meet other expenses.

Mom needed the next several days to recover and set the house to rights.

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EFFIE, JOE AND CORN CUTTING

Pictures in my mothers album link visits from Effie and Joe of West New York, New Jersey and Dad’s fall chore of cutting corn for silage.

Each fall in mid September for many, many years, Effie and Joe would drive up to Sanford in their very old mid-twenties car, the make unknown to me.
It was also the time when the corn was full grown and well-eared, which meant it was time to harvest, chop and store it in the silo to feed the cows through the winter.

Field corn doesn’t taste like sweet corn grown for the table. I’d tasted it. Having the corn green for silage was considered best for the cows. It was like a winter salad for them to go with the grain and hay they were also fed. During during the summer they were outside all day and ate grass. In the fall when pastures were not very nutritious, Dad fed the cows fresh millet, a grain that is sometimes grown for the seed, but Dad grew it for the whole grass.

Joe was Effie’s nephew, but they were about the same age and lived together in West New York after Effie’s husband had died many years earlier. Effie was a friend of my mother’s, whom Mom met when she worked as a young woman at a resort near Deposit. In 1921, Effie invited Mom to visit her. Having read and heard about the Brooklyn Bridge, Mom fulfilled a desire to walk across it. I don’t remember when Effie’s visits began, but they continued until after I was finished college and was teaching in Painted Post. Our large farmhouse had an upstairs apartment where Effie and Joe lived while they were visiting. While they cooked many of their own meals, but Mom often invited them to dinner or supper.

The last time I remember seeing them was the fall of 1953 or 1954. I took the train from Corning to Deposit. Joe volunteered to meet me at the train station. It was a thoughtful gesture. It wasn’t until we started home, I began to worry. Joe did not seem to realize he was supposed to drive only on the right side of the road. I didn’t know whether to watch the road or close my eyes. Joe drove down the center of the road and often more to the left than the right. On multi-lane roads this might be tolerated, but our state highway was the chief road for milk tankers traveling 50 to 60 miles per hour. Joe drove at about 25. Those nine miles from the depot home was the longest ride I’d ever taken. I’d never been so scared of a traffic accident. I couldn’t help but wonder who guarded him as he drove the 200 miles to and from New Jersey. I vowed never to ride with him again.

I think Joe liked to visit in the fall. He seemed to enjoy being outside with my father and helping with the corn. The corn silage was grown for the entire stalk, not just the ear. The first corn harvester I remember only cut the corn and dropped it to the side. Dad had to pull a bundle of stalks together and put them on the wagon. Later Dad bought a harvester that cut and tied bundles of corn before dropping them. Dad still had to bend over to pick them up and heave them onto the wagon. I think Joe helped, but perhaps he only rode along to watch.

When the wagon was full, Dad drove back to the barn where the corn was thrown onto the corn blower’s belt run by a gasoline engine. It chopped and blew the corn up through a pipe into the silo. It was hard work, but I think Dad liked it. After a summer of putting in hay in hot weather, corn cutting time was generally much cooler, but still pleasant.

Dried cow manure is an excellent fertilizer. Each year of their stay Joe and Effie prepared cowflops to take home for their garden. Early in the visit, they selected a quantity of semi-dry cowflops and with a shovel set them off to the side of the pasture lot. Every day they went to the pasture and turned them over, so by the time they were ready to leave, they had a burlap sack full. Fortunately most of the ripest odor dissipated by then.

Effie visited by herself one summer. I don’t know why. Mom installed her in the back corner bedroom on the first floor of the house. A couple of days later, Dad’s Aunt Sue announced she, too, was coming to visit. What to do? It was difficult for Aunt Sue to climb the stairs, so Mom asked Effie to move to the upstairs guest room. She was not happy. My bedroom, where my visiting cousin, Norma and I slep was also upstairs.

One warm rainy day we all went to Binghamton to return Aunt Sue home. Dad, Mom, and I sat in the front seat. Aunt Sue and Effie sat in the back with my cousin Norma between them. It took an hour to go each way. Effie was a big woman and always too warm. She wanted the window open. Aunt Sue, who was quite elderly and stately with her hair and makeup just so, wanted the window closed. Norma sat between the warring sides. Mom tried to make peace to no avail. Dad said nothing, but I could see the grin on his face. He couldn’t help but see the funny side of the tempest in a teapot. It was not resolved until Aunt Sue was back at her apartment and Effie had the backseat to herself except for Norma, who apparently didn’t count.

Fall, corn cutting, Effie and Joe continue to be connected in my memory.

A DRESS REVUE

When I was in my early teens it was nearly impossible for me to buy a dress. Nothing fit. I was too short, but my bust proved I was growing into a young woman. Dresses, the right length for me, were made to fit an undeveloped seven or eight year-old. My mother made nearly all my clothes.

A 4-H club was formed in our community and Mom was the leader. She taught me to sew on her White treadle sewing machine. It took a lot of practice to keep pumping my feet up and down while steering the fabric in a straight line under the needle. I mastered that, Mom said I was ready to make an apron.

During World War II, farm supply companies began bagging certain feeds, such as corn in printed fabrics of a quality suitable for sewing. It was a bonus because the sacks didn’t require precious ration coupons. They made serviceable dish towels and cleaning cloths. A feed sack was good for me to try out my newly learned skill.

Next came a dirndl skirt—two widths of fabric gathered onto a waistband with a continuous placket or opening on the side. The placket was a challenge, but I had a very patient teacher who pulled out wrong or crooked stitches.

Finally, it was time to learn how to cut, and sew a dress using a pattern. I got better each time.

I was just fourteen when I went to my first Broome County Dress Revue. My cousin, Norma, and I both made navy blue taffeta dresses. Mine had a sweetheart neckline and puffed sleeves. Norma=s dress had a large round collar which she lined with red taffeta. Norma and I spent many hours at the dining room table pinning and basting parts together.

By this time the war was over and Mom acquired an electric sewing machine, which made stitching much easier. It didn’t mean that we were perfect.

One evening, I remember being very pleased with myself. I had stitched the sleeves into my dress very carefully so there would be no little pleats and puckers where they didn’t belong. Then I lay the dress down on the table. I wanted to cry. One sleeve was perfect, but the other would have required me to keep my arm raised. I’d put it in bottom side up. Dear Mom pulled out the errant stitches.

The judging at the county dress revue was always very thorough. While Norma and I stood in front of them wearing our dresses, two experts examined every part of our work. One checked whether the collar or zipper was correctly assembled while the other examined the hand-sewn hem to be sure the stitches were small and even. One pulled here, the other there. They also judged the fit of the dress and the accessories we’d chosen as part of our total outfit. In the late 1940s that meant hat, gloves, purse and shoes.

Lastly, all of the entrants were all required to participate in the revue. As we walked in front of the audience, the judges noted our composure, posture and stance.

Norma and I each received a blue ribbon.

BICYCLING TO DEPOSIT

The air was still and hot in the lazy summer afternoon in the late 1940s. Dad was out in the hayfield for one last load of hay.
My cousin, Norma, who spent much of the summer with us on the farm, and I knew he’d be working late. He’d have neither desire nor time to take us nine miles to the movie in Deposit. But it was the last night for the film with our favorite stars. We worked our way around the croquet court in the front yard wondering how to get to Deposit.
We’d already exhausted the possibility that Norma’s father would come get us. A plumber, he was out on a call fixing someone’s broken pipes.
Our only independent means of transportation were our bicycles–gear free. The wheels on our bikes went around at the same rate as we pedaled. After some pleading and arranging, Mom and Aunt Seb agreed we might ride over Loomis Hill into town. This dirt road cut the distance to seven miles–two miles uphill and then clear sailing down hill into town.
Mom insisted we wear long sleeves and long pants in case of an accident. We started off gleefully riding the first quarter mile to the bottom of Loomis Hill. We walked, pushing our bikes up the steep grades and occasionally riding up on the less steep slopes.
By the time we neared the crest of the hill and the only house on that part of the road, we were tired and sweating profusely. All we knew about the people who lived there was that they came from “the city.” As we came in sight of the house, we saw a lot of people around it. Apparently we were a novelty and an unusual sight. Several kids, and I think some of the adults or older teens, ran toward the bank at the edge of their lawn. This commotion alone startled us. It was then we saw the guns–probably BB guns. We weren’t sure. We were scared.
As we neared the edge of their yard, we got on our bikes and rode as fast as we could, which was not very fast, uphill. I think we were both praying hard as we rode by and finally out of range and out of sight of that house. We’d heard the guns popping and some shots fly by us but they never hit us or our bikes. I guess they weren’t good shots.
Finally, when we no longer see or be seen by those dreadful people, we stopped to let our hearts quiet their pounding, wipe the perspiration from our purple faces, and wait until we could breathe normally. It had taken us nearly two hours to reach the crest of the hill.
Rested, we saddled our bikes again and with the wind in our faces blowing our hair, we flew down the remaining miles into town in time to see our favorite stars.
We made that bicycle trip to Deposit many more times after that, but we never had to ride up the hill again. It took Dad only fifteen minutes to toss our bikes in the back of the truck and drop us off at the top for the ride down. Dad always seemed to have business in town the next day to bring us back to the farm.
Dad’s willingness to always give us time out of his very busy day is just one of the reasons he has always been my hero.