Monday, November 16, 2020

Keeping Fall Traditions Alive in the 21st Century

As a living historian,  I often find myself participating in activities of the past in a myriad of ways throughout the year,  but none as often as during the autumn and the harvest period.  It was,  perhaps,  the most active time of the four seasons.  And to a great extent,  it still is today,  for hitting the farmer's markets on country roads for fresh vegetables,  visiting cider mills for cider and doughnuts and apple picking,  having fall bonfire parties,  taking rural drives to look at the changing leaves...and many more traditions we still carry on here in the 21st century.
And I am no different.
This is what I see while sitting at my computer.
No,  it's not as  "country"  as where some of you live,  but the fall beauty still shines.
I've always been a traditional guy in every sense of the word.  The many things we do in my household is taken directly or is a sort of offshoot from the traditions of the past - long past and my own past.
Living history just enhanced it.
So,  for this week's post I'd like to talk a bit about the traditions I partake in today.

I don't remember a time when I didn't go apple picking.  As a youngster I went with my mom & dad,  and then my mom would bake apple pies,  for the cooler weather was settling in and the warmth from the oven and the mouth-watering scent of the baking pie would waft throughout the house.
And my wife and I have continued this tradition and go apple picking every September - September 1983 was our first time picking together.  Except for the drought we had a half decade ago,  we have not missed a year,  including this covid-19 year of 2020
Apple cider mills are big business in the fall here in Michigan,  and farmers depend on the surge of patrons to survive.  So,  along with my wife & I,  our kids  (now grown and a couple even married),  grandkids,  and sometimes various other family members & friends,  will join in and carry on the tradition and venture out to the apple orchard cider mill experience to enjoy one of the best ways we know how to celebrate autumn:  by picking apples,  drinking cider,  and eating freshly made doughnuts.
Yeah...we're  those  kind of people! 
And here in Michigan there are more cider mills than one can shake a stick at,  and each can be pretty unique unto itself,  from the ginormous commercial ventures that have singing hillbilly bears,  witches flying into poles,  and skeletons sitting on the toilet telling awful jokes,  to the basic no frills apples,  cider,  and doughnuts with little else,  which is the kind of mill I prefer - the no frills variety.
Our day usually ends with my wife baking a couple of homemade apple pies!
McIntosh apples -
from the late 18th century,  they are still popular today.
So...are they considered heirloom apples?

Ross's Stony Creek Orchard in Romeo,  Michigan is actually more rustic than this
picture let's on.  Actually,  it's one of the more rustic orchards around.

My granddaughter adds her collection of picked apples to the crate.

A real bushel of apples----

My oldest son,  his wife,  and their three kids.
It's a family affair,  you know.

Almost my whole family.
We enjoyed doughnuts & freshly squeezed cider - both made on the premises.
The best!

My wife and I and our three grandchildren.
No corn mazes.  No haunted houses.
No singing hillbilly bears sitting on the toilet.
Just a stack o' hay for climbing.  And the kids had a blast!
And,  of course,  fresh baked apple pie made by my wife!

We will usually take a different way back home after apple picking,  enjoying a more rural route.  There is just something about the country that soothes my soul.  Well,  as we drove home we passed an old schoolhouse that just beckoned me to pull over to investigate.
Simply indescribable...just imagine the history this building has seen...

Now weather-damaged due to the broken windows,  my thoughts still drifted back
in time to what it may have been like over a hundred years ago.
The lone schoolhouse south of 31 Mile on Mound Road in what used to be called Thoringtonville - a town that is no more;  only this schoolhouse and a cemetery - Brabb Cemetery - both remnants of the 19th century,  remain.  There is extreme little information on Thoringtonville,  unfortunately.
The land that contains the old schoolhouse and cemetery was owned by a person named Mary Thorington;  this chunk of property was part of a larger piece of land that was owned by C.  C.   Thorington,  so,  obviously this area was named after them or their family...but it doesn't seem that it was ever an  "official"  town.
In the stillness of the country,  you could still hear and feel the spirits of those who
once attended school here...I needed to investigate to find out its history.
Some refer to this school as the  “Crissmanville”  school.  There is scant info on a  ‘Crissmanville,’  other than it is indeed the name of the schoolhouse,  located at 66885 Mound Road in Thoringtonville.  The info found says the school was built sometime in the 1860’s.  An actual area called Crissmanville may have existed just two miles south of Thoringtonville.  At the junction of 29 Mile Rd.  and Mound Rd.  was land once owned by a man named A.J. Crisman in the late 1800’s,  which makes sense that the area was named after him.  There was even another old one-room schoolhouse just a few feet down from the Crisman property,  but it was torn down in order to build a housing community.
It's a sad remnant of days long gone by...
but the cool things one can find traveling the backroads of America is amazing.
(I found this information on two other blogs,  so I copied and pasted it nearly verbatim here.  Other than that,  there is sadly no other information about life here 150 years ago.)

~Now onto another tradition~

2020 marks the 4th year of my candle-dipping  gatherings of friends and family.  Before I began having these frolics,  we would hand-dip our candles at Greenfield Village - it was a part of their public interactive activities,  but unfortunately it was discontinued,  which I believe was a mistake on their part.  So,  in 2017,  I decided to do it on my own.  To be honest,  it's a bit more fun now because not only do I get a goodly supply of candles,  but I can do it with friends in the comfort of my own yard!
Yes,  each helper gets to keep a candle of their own dipping,  though I keep the rest  (hey---I paid for the wax!).  But it is a fun time;  my wife will make a lunch - usually homemade chicken soup - and many participants will bring treats such as doughnuts,  cookies,  cider,  and other desserts.
It really is a great time.
My yard:  all set and ready to go,  and I included two historic 
Revolutionary War-era flags waving in the wind...just because.

Let's begin,  then,  with a bit of social history and thoughts on this art of candle dipping:
Most 18th and 19th century homes were as self-sufficient as they could be and those who lived in them did their best to produce as many things needful to life as they could,  and this did include candles.  As part of their domestic work,  women usually were the ones who carried the entire candle making process from start to finish,  though many times the children,  and even the men  (as opportunity arose),  would help out as well.
Well,  this male has taken on the chandler job at my house.  As I am not a farmer,  nor do I work long hours away from home----and especially since I have electricity lol----I have taken on this chore.  Since I started doing it four years ago,  all candles we have in my house are homemade in my backyard.
That's really kind of a neat feeling.
The molds and the wicks tied to dipping sticks were ready.

Artificial light in the 18th and even in the early 19th century was truly a luxury.  People were used to working by daylight while indoors,  so lighting a candle when the sun was up was rare  (sorry Outlander fans! lol).  It was customary for folks to move from room to room to get the most out of the day's light.  Generally,  candles were lit only during the nighttime hours,  and sparingly so,  due to the lengthy candle-making process.  According to one of the chandlers I spoke to at Colonial Williamsburg,  a typical middle class home in the 1750's could go through nearly 500 to 700 candles a year.  And that may even be a conservative amount for those who were a bit more well-to-do.
My son took care of the fire.

Though candles could be dipped any time of the year,  the main season for dipping was usually in early-to-mid November.  It must be remembered that candlemaking was not the fun hobby then as it is in our modern times;  it was a backbreaking,  smelly,  greasy task.  The making of the winter's stock of candles was the special autumnal household duty,  and a hard one,  too,  for the large kettles were tiresome and heavy to handle,  and the work was well under way at a very early hour,  with the temperatures being just cold enough for a quicker hardening.
I use my reenacting cast iron cooking accessories,  allowing me to slide the pot from the center heat to the cooler sides to help maintain the correct temperature and prevent the pot filled with melted beeswax from getting too hot.
I collect the wax over the course of the year and store it until our big
candle-making day.
I use only pure beeswax.
As you can see,  this block was not been filtered - it's about as pure as you can get.
One year I'd like to try making tallow candles.

Wicks were made from linen,  cotton,  hemp,  or,  less often,  from milkweed.  If they lived near a general store,  or maybe if a peddler happened by,  thick string could be bought to use as wicks.
Though my frolic began in the early afternoon,  during the 18th century an early hour found the work well under way for our ancestors.  Where mine is done outside over a firepit,  in the 1700s a good fire was started in the kitchen fireplace under two vast kettles,  which were hung on trammels from the crane,  and half filled with boiling water and melted beeswax or tallow.
At the far end of the kitchen or in an adjoining and cooler room,  sometimes in the lean-to,  two long poles were laid from chair to chair or stool to stool.  Across these poles were laid candle rods,  which were about a foot and a half long,  and to each rod was attached about six to eight carefully straightened candle-wicks.  With the fat/tallow or wax in the pot melted,  the wicking from the rods would be dipped into the pot and then returned to its place across the two poles.  This process would occur repeatedly as each rod was dipped into the tub of tallow or wax,  and with each dip the candles became larger and larger until the desired length and width was had.
My reenactor friend,  Micki,  shows well how the wax builds on the wicks after certain numbers of dippings.

It's here that we can quote Susan Blunt,  who remembered her 18th century mother during the fall candle dipping season:
"Mother used to dip candles in the fall,  enough to last all winter.  When a beef was killed in the fall,   she would use all the tallow for candles.  On the evening before,  we would help her prepare the wicks.  The boys would cut a lot of rods and she would cut the wicks the length of a candle and then string them on the rods.
As I've done in previous years,  I invited friends - mostly reenactors - to spend the 
afternoon,  dipping candles,  eating food,  and enjoying each other's company.

Susan Blunt continues:  "In the morning she would commence her day's work.   She would dip each one in the hot tallow and straighten out the wicks so the candles would be straight when they were finished.  By raising the candles  (out of the kettle)  at just the right speed and working on a day with a moderate temperature,  the fine quality of the candles would be assured.  The candles would be cooled overnight and the bottom ends cut off neatly.  The finished  candles were packed away in a mouse-proof container for safe storage."

The best part of this day for me was having my six-year-old
grandson dip candles for the first time  (with plenty of help
from Miss Jenny!).

Look how proud my grandson is!
As he should be!

And the diary of Martha Ballard tells us:
November 5, 1787
"Clear & pleast. I Came from mr Fosters. we made 25 Dozn of Candles."
Twenty five dozen - that's 300 candles in one day!  And the group of us were lucky to have made close to 70 in an afternoon.

Next we have a wonderful example of candle-making from the Laura Ingalls Wilder book,  "Farmer Boy."  Wilder writes of Almanzo's mother making candles,  also from tallow.  One day I hope to make tallow candles - maybe next year - but the basic motions are the same as with using beeswax:
"The end of butchering time was candle making.  Mother scrubbed the big lard kettles and filled them with bits of beef fat.  Beef fat doesn't make lard;  it melts into tallow.  While it was melting,  Almanzo helped string the candle molds.  A candle mold was two rows of tin tubes,  fastened together and standing straight up on six feet.  There were twelve tubes in a mold.   They were open at the top,  but tapered to a point at the bottom,  and in each point there was a tiny hole.  Mother cut a length of candle-wicking for each tube.  She doubled the wicking across a small stick,  and twisted it into a cord.  She licked her thumb and finger and rolled the end of the cord into a sharp point.  When she had six cords on the stick,  she dropped them into six tubes,  and the sticks lay on top of the tubes.  The points of the cords came through the tiny holes in the points of the tubes,  and Almanzo pulled each one tight,  and held it tight by sticking a raw potato on the tube's sharp point.
Besides dipping,  I also used my tin molds.
They work fine,  but I do prefer the dipped candles.
Note the sticks holding the wicking in place as the wax dries.
When every tube had its wick,  held straight and tight down its middle,  Mother carefully poured the hot tallow.  She filled every tube to the top.  Then Almanzo set the molds outdoors to cool.  When the tallow was hard,  he brought the mold in.  He pulled off the potatoes.  Mother dipped the whole mold into the boiling water,  and lifted the sticks.  Six candles came up on each stick.  Then Almanzo cut them off the stick.  He trimmed the ends of wicking off the flat ends,  and he left just enough wicking to light,  on each pointed end.
All one day Almanzo helped mother make candles.  That night they had made enough candles to last til butchering time next year."
And that is exactly how I remove the beeswax candles from the tin mold tubes I have.
No modern sprays for me!
The chandlers - actually,  there were a few more but were not in the picture.
This was the best year for candles yet!

One definite lesson I learned about candle comparisons:  the 12" long tapered candles I used to buy at the store burn nearly three times as fast as the 6"  to 7"  homemade beeswax candles.  One beeswax candle almost half that size can burn for five hours or more,  while the longer modern store-bought one lasts maybe two or three hours at most.
We actually made more than the 64 candles you see here;  each dipper got to 
take one home,  so there would have been nearly a dozen more.

An interesting side note is how reenactors react during power outages;  our candles and oil lamps are generally more easily accessible than flashlights.  In fact,  many times I've used candle light to search for my flashlight or for the flashlight batteries.
Needless to say,  going to the bathroom becomes infinitely more interesting,  and can be a chore;  we are so used to high brightness that it's almost eerie without.
To head to the basement to get more paper towel?  Bring a candle with you.  Want to change into your night clothes?  Have that oil lamp setting near your dresser.  Need to get a drink of water from the kitchen?  Make sure to bring your light.
The funny thing is,  during these blackouts I still habitually reach for the light switch whenever I enter a darkened room.
You,  too?
I found it to be amazing how many candles one can go through during an outage;  we do try to conserve,  as did the folks in days of old,  by only using one or two candles in whatever room we are in,  with the second light usually for  "traveling"  around the house.

. . . 

In this age of high-tech,  it's great to see non-tech traditions maintaining popularity.  Especially when families are involved,  including the wee ones.  Gatherings such as this don't seem to occur nearly as often as they did only a few years ago.  But when we get together,  we have so much fun.
That's what matters.

Until next time,  see you in time.

To learn more about how our ancestors lived in darkness,  click HERE
To learn more about America's history with apples,  click HERE

~   ~   ~

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