Summary: George Simmons, the youngest son of Solomon Simmons, inherited his father's farm and managed it until his death. This farm and its operation are described in detail.
In 1904 Sophronia Varnado Simmons died at age 70. In 1908 her husband Solomon O. Simmons followed her to the grave. The farm they had created was deeded by their heirs to the youngest son George Johnson Simmons. In this way the Solomon Simmons farm came to George Simmons intact and without liens or encumbrances. Some 33 years later George passed the farm, somewhat diminished in acreage, to his youngest son G. J. By good management and hard work George left the farm as he had received it. No serious debts could be claimed against it.
This farm, the old Solomon Simmons place, is important to this story for several reasons. Both my mother and my father spent some of their early years in and around this farm. The Turners sharecropped on this farm and G. N. boarded his two sons here before he married Irene. It was the home of two of my grandmothers. It was important to the community of Emerald as well. It was a particularly well run farm, was almost self-sufficient and very productive with good bottom land along a creek. It is an example of an owner-operated farm that successfully stayed out of debt during a very difficult time for the farmers of the South. This farm was important too because George and his wife, Sophronio Simmons, welcomed friends and relatives and shared their abundance with those less fortunate than themselves.
Both George and Sophronio spent all of their adult lives on this farm. George inherited the farm when he was 42 years old and already had eight children of his own. He had lived on the place since his birth in 1866. Sophronio was a grandchild of Henry Strickland and she had grown up less than three miles away. She and George married when she was 17 years old. George Simmons was good natured and easy to get along with. His father had worn a full beard but George contented himself with a well-developed mustache. He was thin and of average height. My mother remembers him as being quiet around women and children. It contrast his wife Sophronio was talkative and lively. She too was thin and, when she was young, had beautiful black hair. She kept it long in a bun on the back of her head in the old style. Sophronio loved children and didn't mind if they ran in and out of the house, slamming doors and dropping crumbs of food on the floor. Both she and her husband were forgiving of both children and adults. They enjoyed being hosts and were always ready to prepare a place at the table for another guest.
The farm itself consisted of about 200 acres in 1908. It was mostly bottom land and very fertile. Two public roads crossed the land. A road connecting the Allen Brothers store at Emerald and the Progress-Osyka road cut the farm into two pieces. The smaller, western-most block contained 55 acres. It lay on both sides of a small creek. The syrup mill, an orchard and several houses were located in or near this acreage. Before the death of Solomon, George Simmons and his family lived in one of the houses on the west side of this road. The family had an old hen that was mothering 100 chicks. According to Albert Simmons a rain storm came up rather suddenly and most of the chicks got soaked in the rain. The old hen gathered them under her to keep the water off but only a few could find safety under her wings. Sophronio put the chicks into the wood-burning stove to dry and most of them lived. After the family moved across the road to Solomon's old house, this building was rented out to sharecroppers and it later burned down.
Another road, called the lane, cut east-west through the center of the farm. It began at the road already described and ran straight east for a while until it curved back south so that it too intersected the Progress-Osyka road just past where Thad Simmons lived. This lane divided the remaining 150 acres into two pieces. On the north side of the lane is the Solomon Simmons cemetery where many of the Simmons ancestors are buried. In the 1920s a buggy shed, a building where cotton seed was stored and a small barn were also located on the north side of the lane. To the north of these buildings was the pasture where cows, goats, sheep, horses and mules were kept. In the pasture was a grove of pecan trees. On the south side of the lane was the farm house and a fenced farm yard. The farm yard contained a hay barn, a horse barn with about 15 stalls, a blacksmith shop, a hog pen and a separately fenced garden area. Behind the house along the branch or creek were the plowed fields. Immediately back of the house and within the yard was a smokehouse, a wash shed and an outhouse or toilet.
The oldest part of the house itself was built by Solomon Simmons in the 1850s. It had two rooms which were separated by a large double-flue chimney. Each of the rooms had a fireplace and a separate entrance door. This old part is of log cabin construction. Each of the two rooms measures 16 by 18 feet and are made of hewn or round pine logs. Solomon and George added more rooms until there were five enclosed rooms and a large roofed breezeway. This part of the house measured 50 by 28 feet. Across the entire front of the house was a porch measuring 10 feet deep, making the front part of the house 50 feet long and 38 feet deep. The house was surrounded by a bare dirt yard called the stomp. A split picket fence enclosed the yard.
The kitchen was separated from the house by an open porch about 20 feet long and about eight feet wide. This porch had steps on either side leading to the yard. A bored well was located on this porch about halfway between the kitchen and the house. All the water for the household came from this well. The kitchen, dining room and pantry occupied a separate building measuring about 24 by 30 feet. The dining room itself measured 8 by 30 feet and contained a single long table. The kitchen was the western half of the building. The women of the house and their female guests spent much of their time in this kitchen preparing food. The kitchen and the dining table were frequent witnesses to large gatherings of hungry folk who came to visit and to eat. The hospitality of these Mississippi farms was legendary and George and Sophronio entertained many visitors. Until 1946 the entire Simmons clan gathered here several times a year. One of these occasions was the 4th Sunday in July. This was not only George Simmon's birthday, it was also the week of the revival at the church. Christmas was observed at home but Easter was celebrated with a large Easter Egg hunt at the Simmons' farm.
On Easter Sunday after church the youngsters waited in the parlor while the teenagers hid a washtub full of hard-boiled eggs. The eggs were hidden in the pasture across the lane from the house. The object of the hunt was for each child to find as many of these eggs as possible. Some of the boys always cheated by peeking out the window and some of the girls always scolded and called them names for peeking. My father, who was one of those who peeked, remembered that often those who tried to memorize the location of specific eggs ended up with fewer eggs in their baskets than the more virtuous children who refused to peek. This was sort of an object lesson for him.
These gatherings included not only George and Sophronio's children and grandchildren but any of their neighbors who cared to come. Almost all of the white folk in the neighborhood were more or less kin so that there was little distinction between a family gathering and a community get-together. There were often guests at the Simmons' place for Sunday dinner. My father lived on this farm for a year or so when he was five or six years old and he spent a lot of time there afterward. He recalled that Sophronio, glancing up to see another wagon turn in to the lane, would call out, "Boys, get me another chicken." My father and the other boys would race off to run down another chicken from among the hundreds that ran loose on the farm. They would catch the first available chicken regardless of sex or age and take it to grandma Sophronio. She would wring its neck, pluck its feathers and have it in the pot within minutes. In the 1920s she had nine children at home so a couple more for dinner didn't make much difference.
All of the women, whether guests or not, helped with the preparation of the meals. Sophronio served excellent meals of cornbread, sweet and Irish potatoes, beans, peas and greens, all raised on the farm. Sweet corn, squash, muskmelons and watermelons were served in season, as were various fruits. If the fruits and vegetables were not in season then they were taken from canning jars, either as preserves or as pickles or candies. Custard pies and syrup cakes were prepared during the week and kept in a screen-fronted cabinet called a safe. Breakfasts consisted of corn grits, flour biscuits or cornbread fritters with syrup. Cured ham and sausage were standard fare while it lasted. After the year's supply of meat was gone collard greens or homemade cheese was often substituted for meat at the breakfast table.
The Simmons family drank iced tea for breakfast, dinner and supper whether summer or winter. Sophronio made her own ice in buckets and pans in the winter. In the 1920s a truck from Magnolia delivered ice in 100-pound blocks to the house. These blocks of ice were stored in a large box filled with sawdust. The box was in a narrow passageway that led from the back of the house to the fireplaces. Solomon had built the fireplaces with a wood shutter next to them. This way firewood could be taken to the fireplace without having the carry it through the bedrooms. When another bedroom and the breezeway connecting the kitchen to the house were added, this passage way was left open and deepened. The passageway was open to the outdoors but was roofed over. It was an excellent place to keep the ice. Chickens roosted in there as well. I recall standing in the living room of this house opening the wood shutter and seeing chickens roosting in what appeared to be the middle of the house.
One of the many labor intensive jobs that fell to the women in Sophronio's time was the canning of vegetables and fruits. The produce had to be picked early in the day and hulled, cleaned, peeled or shucked before it could be canned. This in itself was a long job and had to be done entirely by hand. Visitors were even more welcomed if they were willing to lend a hand. A visitor usually could be counted on to hull several quarts of peas or beans while they talked. After the produce was cleaned and cut into pieces, it was stuffed into glass canning jars. The jars were filled to the top with syrup, juice or water and placed in boiling water for five to ten minutes. After cooking, the lid was screwed on and the jar removed from the water and allowed to cool. As the jar cooled, a partial vacuum was formed in the jar. This pulled the glass or metal lid tighter, forming an air tight seal. Tomatoes, green beans, fruits and wild berries were canned in this way. Pickles, jam and jellies were also canned. In fact, almost anything could be canned except for corn. Canning was done all summer long as the produce became available. The work was tedious and hot and hard on the hands.
Another of the women's jobs was the handling of the milk cow. Each family had at least one milk cow. Milk, butter and cream were always on the table if the cow was not dry. It was necessary for the women to milk the cow, both morning and evening. There were no milking machines then, only strong and practiced hands. The one or two gallons of milk from each cow was strained through a cotton cloth and then placed in a ceramic milk jar and allowed to sit. After a while the cream would rise to the top. The cream was skimmed off and put into a churn. The churn was a ceramic jar with a tight fitting ceramic lid. A wooden rod with a couple of wooden cross-members was inserted through a hole in the lid of the churn. The rod was rotated between the palms of the hand. This gentle action caused the butter to form into lumps. When fully formed, the lumps were removed and put into a small wooden mold that held either a pound or a half pound of butter. The butter was compacted by hand and then ejected from this box with a small ram that was built into the mold. If the family did not have a churn, then the milk was put into a quart jar which was gently rolled back and forth until the butter formed lumps. If there was no butter mold, then the butter was squeezed into a ball and served that way.
There was no refrigeration so the milk and the butter would not keep for more than a couple of days. Also, if the cow was not milked every day, she would dry up and there would be no more milk until she dropped her next calf. For this reason the cow had to be milked daily even if the milk was fed to the hogs.
Bacon and corn were the staples of the Southern diet. Corn was easy to grow, keep and prepare. Bacon was somewhat more difficult. It had to be preserved using salt and then smoked. There was a smokehouse behind the house in a corner of the yard. It measured 12 or 14 feet wide and about 20 feet long. Every winter it had to be filled with meat. George Simmons raised and killed 15 hogs a year. During the winter, when the days were clear and the weather consistently cold, the hogs were butchered. It took a crew of 12 men and women all day to do the killing. The first hog was customarily killed before breakfast. Its liver was fried and served to the butchering crew for breakfast. This was a treat because the liver could not be stored and hence was available only a day or so following the hog killing.
Once the hogs were bled they were scalded in hot water and scraped to remove the hair. Pigs were never skinned. The entrails were removed, washed out, checked for worm holes and scraped paper thin for use in making link sausage. The waste parts of the carcass and some of the hide was fried out in the huge cast-iron wash pot to make cracklings and lard. Sophronio made up to 50 gallons of lard in a single day. Sausage was made on that same day and either stuffed into the hog-gut casings or made into patties. The links were placed in the smokehouse and the patties were fried and then canned in hot grease. The hams and the bacon were salted and placed on shelves in the smokehouse to cure. All of this and the butchering had to be done in a single day. That day was always cold, wet and muddy. The yard soon would be covered with stinking pig manure and blood. Every bit of the work was done by hand except that a meat grinder was used to make the sausage.
If the weather did not turn unseasonably warm, the meat would be left on the shelves in the smokehouse for a week or so to cure. After that the meat was ready to hang up and smoke. Hacks of beargrass, about a foot long, were gathered from the pastures and used to hang the meat. Finally a small smoldering fire was kept in the smokehouse until the hams and bacon were judged to be successfully cured. The parts that could not be kept were given to the crew who helped with the butchering. This usually included several black men who were hired for the occasion.
Pigs and chickens and the occasional cow were the most important meat animals but wild animals such as possums, coons, rabbits, fish and squirrels were eaten when they were available. For some reason there were no deer in Pike County in those days and there were only a few in Amite County next door. George Simmons liked to hunt. He hunted both by night and by day, using guns, traps, nets and a chopping ax. He often recounted how he was hunting one night and got lost in the woods. He usually used the stars to guide him but this night clouds hid the stars. As he walked aimlessly through the darkness, he came upon a house that he could not recognize. He climbed up onto a cedar gate post that was about six feet high. He sat there thinking to himself that he'd seen this place before. Suddenly he heard his horse neigh in the barn and he realized that he was sitting on his own gate post and that the farm he so vaguely recognized was his own home.
When a man hunted at night, he was either spot-lighting rabbits with the aid of a carbide head-lamp or he was hunting possums. The rabbits had to be shot between the eyes. The eyes were the only part of the rabbit that a man could see in the dark. Possums were usually caught alive. Dogs were used to chase the possum and to tree him. Men and boys would follow the barking of the dogs until they came to the general area where the possum had climbed a tree. A thorough search of the treetops with a lantern would often reveal the possum as high as he could climb, usually in a sapling tree. After a few blows of the chopping ax, the tree and the possum would both hit the ground. With the dogs gathered around, the possum would play dead. He could be picked up and dropped into a sack that one of the boys carried. The possums were taken home, put into a cage and fattened on corn before being slaughtered. Sophronio cooked wild meat especially coon by first boiling it and then baking it. Wild fowl, mostly quail, were cleaned and soaked in vinegar or soda water before being fried and steamed in a brown gravy.
Fried fish were a treat appreciated by everyone and both Sophronio and George loved to go fishing. They both liked to fish with a pole or a net. In the 1930s their son-in-law, Percy Strickland, regularly organized fishing trips to either his fish camp on the Tangipahoa River or to a pond or lake in the neighborhood. Several families owned nets or seines that they had purchased through Sears and Roebuck. Two of these tied together could encircle a good-sized pond. My father recalls that, while he and his brother were working in the garden one morning in the 1930s, Percy Strickland drove up in his Buick car. His illegal exhaust whistle was screaming. The car was packed with his family and George and Sophronio Simmons. Seines were tied to the top of the car. G. N. and his wife, Irene (who was George and Sophronio's daughter), and the boys dropped everything and jumped into their own car.
The caravan drove down to a farm near Franklinton, Louisiana, about 15 miles away. Percy had gotten permission to seine a dead lake on the opposite side of the Bogue Chitto River. The women and the children stayed around the farmhouse on one side of the stream while the men and older children waded the river and seined the ponds. Usually the women and the young children helped manage the seines too. Grandma Sophronio could not swim but she would hold onto a float if the water got too deep. Her dress would float on the water around her and her long white hair spread out around her head to look like the center of a huge water flower. Occasionally, a water moccasin got caught in the seine as it was being pulled in. When this happened everyone frantically beat the water as the terrified snake raced back and forth. Finally the snake would slip through the seine and disappear. This trip hundreds of fish were caught in the net. Once back across the river, the men separated the fish by size and type. Each family put their choices in a bag to take home. Many of the less desirable fish such as perch and suckers would be given to their Negro neighbors. Often these trips to seine ponds were followed by a fish-fry of fish, cornbread and tomatoes. Percy Strickland's fish camp was in Louisiana where beer was legal. He made certain there was beer for those who wanted it.
George Simmons was not a drinking man but he made barrels of wine from wild grapes. The wild grapes were harvested by cutting the pine tree upon which they grew. This wasteful practice is probably why these wild grapes have all but disappeared in Pike County. George Simmons also had an arbor of domestic grapes. This arbor was between the house and the garden. It measured about 40 by 100 feet. The arbor was made of wooden poles covered with fencing wire. The wire was about eight feet above the ground. The half of the arbor nearest the lane held blue grapes. The rear half had white grapes. Both varieties produced in abundance. The children collected the grapes by holding a cloth underneath while poking at the clusters with a stick.
These domestic grapes were not used for wine or jellies. They were either eaten fresh or given away. Chickens roosted in the grape arbor and their droppings had to be washed off each grape before eating it. Sophronia also kept a pen of rabbits under the arbor. The pen had no floor and the rabbits lived in tunnels that they made in the clay. In the pasture across the lane, there were large pecan trees and, behind the house, there was a huge fig tree. This fig tree was so tall that George had to build a special three-legged ladder to harvest the figs. Even then only the bravest boys would climb the ladder and harvest the figs.
The garden was fenced in and the chickens were kept out. Elsewhere the chickens had the run of the farm. They kept the figs and the grapes from rotting on the ground. In the spring, they would follow George Simmon's son, G. J., was he plowed the fields behind the house. They eat the worms and grubs that the plow turned up. Sophronio nailed wooden apple boxes to the buggy house, the hog pen and the blacksmith shop for the chickens to lay their eggs in. But there were so many chickens that they made nests everywhere. Sophronio also had a flock of guinea fowl. The guineas made their nests in the pasture, sometimes an eighth of a mile from the house. Guineas are half-wild by nature and they hide their nests. Even though they cackle after laying an egg like chickens, it was almost impossible to find their nests. Anyway, it is said that if a human so much as puts his hand into a guinea's nest then it will be abandoned. Guinea fowl make good watch dogs. They loudly call or "potrack" whenever anything out of the ordinary happens. They also have a habit of rushing as a group to meet an intruder and thus attracting attention to it.
Sophronio kept a flock of geese. In the spring, before they molted, she would have the boys catch the geese one by one. She would hold them between her knees and strip them of their down feathers. The down was put into cases to make feather mattresses and pillows for use in the winter. Sophronio kept her chickens, guinea fowl and geese tame and near the house by scattering corn to them every day.
All the animals on the farm were fed corn. George Simmons grew 40 acres of corn every year. The corncrib where the harvest was kept measured 50 by 30 feet. It had a wooden floor that was elevated about a foot above the ground on pine blocks. The corn crib was made of logs and it was the natural home of both rats and chicken snakes. My father recalls jumping into the corncrib as a child and finding himself face to face with a large chicken snake hanging from a joist by its tail. My father made haste to get out the way he had come but the children were not overly afraid of either the snakes or the rats. Sometimes they organized rat hunts in the corncrib. Each child would find a good stick of wood. Several of the boys systematically searched through the unshucked ears of corn by picking up armloads of it and tossing it to one side. As the rats jumped out the other children would try to kill them with their sticks. Any hapless chicken snake that had the misfortune to be discovered suffered the same fate.
Neither the Stricklands nor the Simmons had cats and their houses and barns were overrun with mice. The mice had to be either poisoned or trapped. If they were poisoned they might die in the walls of the house and rot there. This gave the house a sweet but unpleasant odor. Trapping often seemed like a hopeless proposition. One night Irene caught 62 mice with one trap and one piece of cheese before she quit for the night. The Mullins family usually had a cat when they lived near Osyka. Both the Stricklands and the Simmons had dogs. These were usually hunting dogs but some were more or less pets. These dogs were never treated for worms and occasionally one would run in circles and fall over on its side and quiver. It would lie on the ground and salivate for a while before getting up apparently unharmed. This behavior was caused by worms but no one did anything about it unless it was misdiagnosed as rabies. Cats too got worms and behaved in a similar fashion. For some reason, cats were considered to be more susceptible to rabies than dogs and they ran a considerable risk of being killed if they behaved oddly. G. N. often killed cats that he suspected were rabid.
While corn was the stable food grain, cotton was still the main cash crop on Mississippi farms. Even though its cash value to the farmer declined steadily decade by decade force of habit and the lack of a substitute crop left most Mississippi farmers with little choice but to plant it. George Simmons raised cotton just as his grandfathers had done but using improved techniques that made the work somewhat easier. By 1900 Mississippi farmers were using spring harrows to control the grass and weeds in their fields. These harrows consisted of rows of hooks made from spring steel. As the harrow was pulled down the rows, tufts of grass and weeds were pulled up by their roots. Even with this improvement, both the cotton and corn fields had to be hoed or chopped to remove the grass from between the plants in each row. Chopping was hand labor but it had to be done only once a year. Before the introduction of the harrow cotton was chopped three or four times during the growing season.
The cotton harvest itself had changed little since the abolition of slavery. Picking the cotton still required everyone's effort even that of children as young as 10. Everyone picking cotton was issued a long bag that strapped across one shoulder. My mother remembers that her mother made her and her younger sister, Edna, child-sized bags that they pulled down the rows. They were too small to handle the full-sized bags. As the cotton pickers walked down the rows picking the cotton, the bolls were stuffed into the bag trailing along behind them. Some adults walked down the center of the row picking with both hands from two rows at once. When the bag was full it was carried to the wagon and its contents were weighed. The field hands and the children of the family were paid a piece-rate for picking the cotton. Entire families of blacks came to harvest the cotton. Their songs and shouts sometimes gave the work a festive air. However my mother remembers that she and her sister spent many hours hoeing and picking cotton in a field by themselves. They looked anxiously for a cloud in the sky that promised rain. Picking and hoeing cotton was dismal work, especially for children. It was something that had to be done under a cloudless sky throughout the summer and into September and October. It was hard work and the pay was low, or worse, nothing at all.
The harvested cotton was loaded into wagons for the trip to a cotton gin. 1,300 or 1,400 pounds of cotton could be packed into a single wagon by stomping it down with the feet. George Simmons used a gin in Osyka. As the mule-drawn wagons arrived at the gin, they were formed into a line as the farmers waited their turn to unload. When it was George Simmons' turn he would ease his wagon up until it was under the vacuum tube. The vacuum tube was about two feet in diameter and about 20 feet long. It disappeared into the top of the three-story ginning mill. The tube was counter balanced and it was easy to move around. The farmer wrapped his arms around the tube and directed it to suck the cotton from the wagon. Many farmers lost their straw hats to this vacuum tube. The hats were sucked up into the dryer and then shredded by the delinting knives. The delinting knives separated the seed from the cotton fiber. The seed was conveyed to a hopper and the fiber was pressed into 500-pound bales. Buyers at the gin, who were usually the owners and operators, bought both the seed and the cotton fiber unless the farmer stipulated otherwise. The price of the cotton depended upon the knap or length of the fiber and, of course, on market conditions. Sometimes a farmer took his bales home if he felt that he could afford to wait for the price to rise during the winter. Most of the men sold their cotton to the gin operators. Indeed most of them could not afford to wait until winter. The lien merchant wanted his payment at the time of harvest.
George Simmons grew 40 acres of cotton. This made 14 or 15 bales. Each bale required a separate trip to the gin. There were several gins in or near Osyka but the trip still took all day. Much of the time was spent waiting at the cotton gin but these trips were always big events for the children. They knew that they would be treated to Vienna sausage and Saltine crackers for lunch, followed by a Moon Pie for dessert. Even though Osyka was only 13 miles away the Simmons family did not often go there. I suspect that a wagon loaded with cotton traveled about as fast as a man could walk. This meant that the trip to the gin would take three hours to go. The trip back home would be a lot faster both because the load was gone and also because the mule knew that he was headed for his home in the barn.
The earnings from the cotton was used to pay the bills at stores in Osyka and Magnolia. Unlike many farmers, George Simmons avoided operating on borrowed money. He paid cash because he knew the difference between the credit price and the cash price was often as much as 40%. Many farmers, even those who paid cash for most things, bought their cotton seed every year on credit. George Simmons didn't even do that. He sold some of his seed but kept enough for the next year's crop. Any leftover cotton seed was fed to his dairy animals. George Simmons had a separate building behind the buggy shed where he kept his cotton seed. The boys used to climb into this shed and throw the seed at each other. The seeds stuck together into hard lumps and it hurt to be hit by a fistful thrown hard. This sometimes led to fights but George would not separate the boys. He had a saying that "Chaps will be chaps" and he let most harmless mischief pass without interference.
A second source of cash for the Simmons farm was the sale of cucumbers, okra and black valentine beans to markets in Chicago, Illinois. These crops were grown on the bottom land behind the house. They were picked daily and then taken to the train station in Magnolia. George Simmons shipped 30 or 40 one-bushel hampers at a time. The Illinois Central train paused for two or three minutes at Magnolia while the hampers and other freight was loaded and unloaded. Payment came in the mail from the buyer in Chicago. There was no way of knowing the selling price in advance and sometimes the payment would barely cover the cost of the hampers and the extra labor hired to pick the vegetables.
A third source of cash was cane syrup. Most people grew a little sugar cane, from one to four acres, because honey and syrup were the only sweeteners available. George grew enough sugar cane to make from 500 to 1,000 gallons of syrup. At least two types of sugarcane was grown. One variety was called POJ. It was used for syrup. It was very hard. A softer variety called Louisiana Blue Ribbon was grown for chewing. The cane was planted in furrows. Sugarcane from last year's crop was cut into sections about two feet long. The sections were laid in the furrow and covered with dirt. Each section would make a stand about two feet in diameter. In the fall the cane was cut and the leaves stripped off. If an unexpected frost killed the tops of the cane, it was hurriedly cut and taken to the mill before it soured. If it frosted early all the farmers had to harvest their crop at the same time and the cane stalks would be piled higher than the roof of the mill shed.
There were several syrup mills in the vicinity where the cane could be taken to be processed. Each mill operator took his payment, or toll, in syrup. Hubert Simmons owned a mill nearby and there was a larger one in Emerald which was owned by the Allen brothers. The nearest mill was located on the road that ran between the Progress-Osyka road and the crossroads at Emerald. This mill was owned by Edward Simmons, who was a brother of George Simmons. It was on the west side just up from where the road intersected the lane. After the stalks were cut, stripped and delivered to the mill shed, they were fed into a cane mill to squeeze out the juice. The cane mill at Edward Simmon's mill was powered by a one-cylinder flywheel engine. Many mills still used horse power. The horses were hitched to a long pole and walked around the cane mill as the cane was fed into the maws of the grinder by one of the men.
From the grinder the juice flowed into a fluted pan about 16 feet long. This pan was identical to those used in making maple syrup. It was fired with pine knots to make a long reaching flame. As the juice boiled down it was taken off continually and put into one-gallon tin cans. The cans were round with a pop-on lid. The crushed cane, called bagasse, was thrown away but the skimmings from the evaporator pans was placed in large containers and then fed to the hogs. Sometimes in warm weather, the skimmings fermented and made the hogs drunk. Children loved to play around the mill, especially at night when the big smoke stack roared and the fire gave the movement at the mill an unreal character. The children got to drink their fill of cane juice and to tumble on the mountain of cain waiting to be processed. The adults too enjoyed this opportunity to get together. The sugaring off was another of those work-play events that were sprinkled liberally throughout the year.
George Simmons went out of his way to be self-sufficient. It was probably this trait that kept him from falling into the debt trap in which so many of his neighbors found themselves. His family grew most of what they ate with the exception of wheat flour and tea. Wheat flour was used for biscuits and these were a treat. The everyday bread was home-grown cornbread. The cornmeal was ground fresh weekly at the grist mill attached to the Allen Brothers store at Emerald. Sophronio put enough hulled corn to last the week into a bag and someone rode a horse with the bag of corn up to the store some three miles away. The operator of the mill took a cup full of corn as his toll or payment and ground the rest to meal. The Allen Brother's store sold both coffee and sugar but Sophronio tried not to purchase either. She made brown sugar in her kitchen from cane syrup. She boiled the syrup on the cook stove until it was thick. Then it was poured into 25-pound bags and hung out on the clothes line to drip dry. Sophronio kept back enough cane syrup from the sugarcane crop to have sweeteners all year round. She also grew a bean that she used as a coffee substitute. I don't know what it was. The bean was long rather than round like a coffee bean. It was dried and ground up and brewed like coffee. Sophronio grew a few bananas in a sheltered spot against the back of the house but these were more a novelty than anything else.
Peanut butter could also be purchased at the store. The store bought kind was creamer than that Sophronio made because the company added extra peanut oil. One of the few things that my mother remembers about the Depression was that her mother stopped buying peanut butter from the store and instead ground her own, as her own mother had done. My mother didn't like the home-made kind very much. It was too dry and hard. She preferred peanuts roasted or boiled in the shell and eaten as a snack. Every farmer grew several rows of peanuts in a corner of his field. In the later summer, the peanut bushes were turned with a plow, gathered up and piled under a shade tree where they dried out. After a while someone gathered the plants up and pulled the peanuts off the roots. Afterward the peanuts were carried onto the roof and allowed to dry for a week or so before being stored in sacks. Another favorite snack food was sweet potatoes. The small ones an inch or two in diameter were cooked and kept in the safe for whoever got hungry. These "old cold tatters" were actually quite tasty.
There were many ways to economize or to avoid spending the cash money that George Simmons probably did not have. Every 20 or 30 years the wooden shingles used on the roofs of the farm would wear out from the rain. In 1931 George Simmons purchased 40 acres of standing yellow pine timber. Some of the trees were virgin growth trees. The wood was close grained and practically free of knots. George felled the trees, cut them to length and split the bolts into shakes. He did this work under the old oak tree across the lane from the house. He had two froes that he had likely made himself in the blacksmith shop. The split shakes were stacked under heavy weights so that they would dry flat. After they were dry, they were used to roof all of his buildings.
Gradually, more and more things were being bought from the store. By the 1920s shoes were generally store bought. Solomon Simmons had made his family's shoes. His grandson Albert climbed into the attic of the Solomon Simmons place when he was a child and found several pair of shoes. They fit his feet and he used them until they wore out. He was told that Solomon had made them. Also by the 1920s most families had purchased a pedal-driven sewing machine. Sophronio may very well have purchased her machine from Henry Mel Mullins. The cloth used to make clothing was also store bought but the clothing itself and the patterns were still being made at home by the women. Rarely would a fancy dress or shirt be brought home from the store.
Quilts were made at home using the cloth pieces left over from making and repairing clothes. Usually four or five quilts were required for each bed so Sophronio must have had 20 or 25 of them. It could require as much as three months of a woman's spare time to do the quilting on one full-size quilt. This may have been the reason why, in the Simmon's family, that the quilts were sized so as to just barely overhang the top of the bed. As a result at least one occupant of a double bed always had a cold back. Quilting was sometimes done by several women working together. The owner of the quilt would have already sown the top together using whatever pattern and materials she wanted. The patterns were traditional and had names. Occasionally someone would make a unique quilt of her own design. For example, after Percy Strickland's death, his wife made a quilt top using the ribbons that had been attached to the funereal wreaths. After the quilt top was finished, the top and a solid bottom piece and the cotton stuffing were tacked to an adjustable frame. The quilt top was uppermost so it could be seen as the quilting was done. The quilting stitch was lined out with chalk and sown by hand. The quilting stitch was the truly time consuming step. As the quilting progressed, the quilt was rolled onto the frame. In this way the women could reach a new area to be worked. The quilt was left on the frame until it was finished. This made it possible to pick up the work even for just a few minutes. Sometimes the frame was hung from the ceiling on pulleys so it was quickly accessible.
Women did not have a great deal of spare time to devote to quilting, especially in the summer. Their work started early in the morning with a trip to the garden to pick the garden produce for the day. The cow had to be milked, the milk strained and, later, skimmed. Even later the butter had to be churned. Breakfast had to be prepared before dawn, babies cared for, dishes washed, animals fed, gardens hoed, produce prepared and canned. When necessary the women worked in the fields, especially during the harvest. And week after week the clothes had to be washed.
The process of washing clothing took all day, one day a week. Wash day was usually Monday, known as Blue Monday. Washing clothes required a lot of water. Every gallon had to be raised from the well and carried to the wash house in buckets. There were two water wells on the George Simmons place. One well was on the north side of the lane. This was an old dug well about 40 feet deep. It measured three by six feet at the top. In the 1920s this well was covered over and never used. A second newer well was located between the house and the kitchen. This well had a six-inch bore. A long cylindrical metal bucket with a flap on the bottom was dropped down the well. After it had filled with water it was wound up with a small windless mounted on the back porch. The water was dumped from the bucket into a pan or a pail and carried to the wash house or the kitchen. The wash house was about 20 feet from the kitchen and about 30 feet from the well. The clothes were washed in a wash pot. Sophronio's wash pot sat on the ground in front of the wash house. It was made of cast iron and looked like one-half of a sphere with three tiny legs. This was an exceptionally large pot and held about 45 gallons of water. On wash day this pot had to be filled with water from the well.
A wood fire was made on the ground under the wash pot and, while the water was heating, the dirty clothing and linens were gathered up. "Octagon" soap cakes were cut into pieces and thrown into the boiling water or rubbed into the clothes. The dirtier clothes were boiled in the pot for a while and then removed and put into a galvanized wash tub. They were removed piece-by-piece from the tub and either rubbed on a rub board or placed on the large wooden block called the battling block. The clothing on the battling block was beaten with a wooden paddle about two feet long. Both the rubbing and the battling helped the soap lift the dirt from the cloth. After rubbing or beating, the clothes went into the first rinse tub, and then into the second rinse tub. After the rinsing, the clothes were wrung out and hung on the clothes line to dry. If the weather was overcast everything was taken inside and hung by the stove.
Every aspect of the wash work was back breaking labor that had to be done summer and winter by the women of the household. The soap was a strong brown lye soap and it chapped the hands. By 1940 electricity had come to Pike County and those who could afford to do so quickly purchased the new wringer washers. After US President Franklin Delanor Roosevelt brought electricity to the rural South Blue Monday was almost, but not quite, banished from memory.
The next day, Tuesday, was usually ironing day. All of the summer clothes were cotton and they had to be ironed. Permanent press clothing did not exist. Ironing was done with flat irons that were heated at the fireplace in the winter and on the kitchen stove in the summer. Three or four of these irons, called sadirons, were heated and used in rotation. The irons had a handle on them but they were very hot and had to be held with oven mitts. In the summer this was desperately hot work. It was exhausting, the women were likely to burn themselves handling the irons and, like the washing, it had to be repeated weekly, summer and winter. The irons were called sadirons because Tuesday, ironing day, was a sad day.
In the 1920 most houses in Pike County had floors made of tongue and grove yellow pine. Occasionally the floors were scrubbed using a scrub brush and a dilute solution of Red Devil Lye. The lye bleached the outer layer of wood fibers and gave the floor a somewhat velvety finish. It also turned the wood gray. By the 1940s many farmers had covered the pine with a sheet-rubber produce called congolium but Sophronio did not.
All of this cooking, washing and ironing called for heat. George Simmons also had three fireplaces for heating the house. He used up to ten cords of firewood every year to heat the house, cook food and heat water. The preferred wood for both stove and fireplace was oak, but families without access to oak used pine. The heart wood of yellow pine stumps, called lightered, was highly prized as kindling to start the fire. The wood was called "fat" because it sounded like fat frying as it burned. It was the task of the men and boys to cut and haul the stove wood. Two-man cross-cut saws were used to fell and cut the trees to length. Axes and wedges were used to split the blocks into a convenient size for the fireplace or the fire box of the stove. The men would then pile the stove wood outside the back door. It was up to the women and small children to get the wood inside the house and into the fireplace or the firebox of the stove. The fireplace in the living room, which was actually George and Sophronio's bedroom, was large enough to hold a log three feet in length. In the winter George used to fill it with oak logs up to eight inches in diameter. The grate in the fireplace would turn red hot and sag under the weight of the oak.
There was a blacksmith shop in the barn yard between the corncrib and the hay barn. It was used to prepare horseshoes and to repair plows and implements. Because of the intense heat of the huge oak fires George made in his fireplace, the anirons or fireplace dogs had to be replaced every two years. George made new anirons from old buggy axles hot welded together. The hearth in the blacksmiths shop was a large wooden box filled with burnt red clay. The shop had an anvil and a crank-operated fan. The fan was mounted on the side of the hearth and connected to a pipe buried in the clay that led to the fire pit. When a hot fire was needed, the crank was turned to supply oxygen to the otherwise simmering fire. George preferred to used charcoal but if it was not available he used dry oak wood. With well dried oak and the fan, he could get the iron hot enough so it could be worked. George Simmons spent many hours repairing and making tools and implements in this blacksmith shop. Here, too, he patched and repaired his harness and saddles.
The days of George and Sophronio Simmons were full of their work and full of their family and friends. They got up early in the morning and went to bed early. Everyone came inside the house around dark. There was a player organ in the parlor but no one was especially good on it. The time before bed time was spent telling stories and, in the winter, relaxing in front of the fire. When it was time to go to bed everyone got a tub of water and washed their own feet. They were all in bed by 8 PM. On some nights neighbors might come and stay late but not usually. The neighbors were all farmers and, like the Simmons, worked from dawn till dusk during the growing season. Winter was a more leisurely time of year but then the cold nights made the uninsulated and leaky rooms less attractive than one's own warm bed.
Late in his life George developed what appeared to be tuberculosis. At any rate he coughed a lot. The east end of the front porch was screened in and, in mild weather, he slept out there. When he died in 1941 he was 71 years old. He was buried with his father in the cemetery on his farm. Sophronio lived until 1956. She was active and healthy until her death at the age of 82. She is buried next to her husband in the old Solomon Simmons cemetery.
Sophronio and George Simmons raised nine children on the farm, all of whom grew up to be adults. Among these children were two of my grandmothers, Carrie Strickland and Irene Mullins. When Sophronio died she had 39 grandchildren including the two stepsons of Irene. One of these stepsons later married one of the granddaughters and hence my parents are practically first cousins. This circumstance has made this book much easier to write than it otherwise would have been.
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