Thursday, March 3, 2011

"March Brings Cheer for Another Year" - Farmer's Guide 1800

Here it is, the first few days of March. I don't know about where you live, but up here in Michigan we still have plenty of snow on the ground and cold enough temperatures to keep it there!
However, if you happen to find yourself suddenly living on a farm, say, one hundred and fifty years ago (or more), instead of sitting around on your butt (like me) wishing for the warm springtime air to arrive, you would find yourself diving into the springtime preparations for the upcoming year.
The following was taken directly from two books I own - "The Seasons of America Past" by Eric Sloane, and "A Pioneer Sampler - The Daily Life of a Pioneer family in 1840" by Barbara Greenwood. Both books give very similar and detailed information about the seasonal nature of living in times past.
I hope you enjoy it.

February's last days were like today's New Year Season. Accounts and diaries were closed and inventories were made. There was talk of spring and the new farm year. At one time, all farm calendars and diaries, almanacs and agricultural manuals began more appropriately with March.
"The new year is at our door," says a diary entry of the period, "spring is with us in March when we are yet sitting by the fireside..."
The American farmer, who drank cider daily at his table instead of water or milk, was never-less a sober man. But mead and 'hardened cider brandy' were always in order, no matter what the after effects, during the March preparations for the coming seasons of labor.
In appraising the future of a farm, fences were reckoned a prime necessity. Almanac after almanac starts the month of March with "Look to your fences." March was the ideal season for storing up firewood and splitting fence-rails. March winds dry out the winter-cut logs in the woods, making them easier to haul in. "The differences in saving between green and dry wood," says the 1821 farmer's Almanac, "will pay the expense of sledding, besides the extra trouble of kindling fires." Fences now are of little importance, but a century or two ago, when split-rail fencing around a farm was often worth more than the land itself, things were different. In 1850, the fencing for a three hundred acre farm cost about five thousand dollars at the current price level.
Although March was the month for hauling in and cutting up wood, the actual felling of trees for fence material was often done during the second running of sap, in August. By way of a wooden mallet, rails were always split by hammering on them with wedges, never by striking them with an ax. The use of wooden hammers is now almost a lost art, but the workshop of a century and a half ago had a great variety of them.
Timber cut at the proper season, or dried in the proper season, and split at the proper season, is so easily cleaved with a wooden hammer and wedge that the work offers profound satisfaction and is peculiarly fascinating. Abraham Lincoln knew this relaxing pleasure, saying that some of his "best thinking was done when working hardest at splitting rails."

The March chore of laying up new fuel wood also heralded the end of winter, the season of the hearth. Besides heating and cooking equipment, there were always a few pieces of wood present, being seasoned by the winter fire. Special wood for ax handles and other farm tools was laboriously dried at the fireplace, and even lightly charred for strength. Special pieces were often left near the fireplace for as long as a year, to render them properly seasoned.

No American season was more definite than sugaring time. The right time is usually between early March and early April when the sap is flowing properly. The nights are still cold enough to freeze sharply and the days warm enough to thaw freely. The thermometer must not rise above forty degrees by day, nor sink below 24 degrees at night. It is this magic see-sawing between winter and spring that decides the sugaring season.
To collect the sap, holes were bored in the maple tree, followed by the hammering in of a wooden tube called a spile. Under the spile a wooden bucket, made by the local cooper, was placed to catch the clear watery sap. Each day the buckets of sap were emptied into one large barrel, which was hauled back to the boiling area.

Painting by Eric Sloane

There, three iron kettles made by the local blacksmith hung over fires. In the first kettle, the watery tasteless sap was vigorously boiled over a roaring fire. The water would gradually evaporate, leaving behind a thicker, sweeter liquid. This was ladled into the second kettle where it was gently boiled to thicken more. Constant stirring kept it from burning. This thick, sweet syrup could then be poured into crocks to be used on porridge or cakes. Or, it could be ladled into the third kettle. Then, over a smaller fire, it would be carefully stirred until it turned into sugar. The sugar was packed into wooden boxes and tubs to be used in the coming year.
Sugaring was hard work, but the American farmer made such a cheerful season of it that the whole family looked forward to sugaring, making it more play than work.

Many of us who live in the 21st century know so little of the everyday life of our not-too-distant ancestors. I know of a few friends who still carry on these traditions, much in the same way as was done over a century ago.
It's to these 21st century artisans that carry on the traditions of long ago that this posting (and this entire blog) is dedicated to.


1 comment:

Richard Cottrell said...

The movie about Adams was really wonderful. Two local artist in my little town worked on it. One a pewter maker and the other was a windsor chair maker. Thanks for sharing. Drop by soon. Richard at My Old Historic House