Wednesday, December 7, 2016

James William Cox and Mary Elizabeth Mitchell - Part III


Wintertime was hard in Kentucky.  Sometimes great drifts of snow piled up that had to be cleared from the paths to the well and privy.  Shoveling and clearing walkways was another job for the boys.  Looking after the livestock meant going every day, sometimes twice a day, to chop and break up the ice on the spring where the cows watered.  Cows got so thirsty they followed the boys to the spring to get a drink.  Water was heated and put out in the chicken pen so the chickens, turkeys, geese and ducks could get a drink.  All of the farm animals had to be cared for in winter first thing, and, with the fall of nice new snows, if time was left over, it was also a time for bobsled rides and making snowmen.   Green River sometimes froze completely over, several layers, and when that happened, the young people had quite an enjoyable time skating on the ponds and rivers.

There were times in winter when the steamer boat couldn’t get down Green River because it was frozen over.  Needless to say, folks and merchants were always made happy when it made its regular trips again.  Sometimes in January and February, farmers were collecting hogs and cattle for shipment, so they were always glad to see the days start lengthening, the river start rising, the ice all out, and boats passing again so trade, commerce, and shipping could continue.

On cold winter evenings, when it was bad weather, it was a time for burning wood and coal.  While it was sleeting and snowing outside, the Cox family sat around the fireplace piled high with wood they had cut during fall.  While they ate apples, picked out hickory nuts and walnuts, and listened to the wind whistling and howling around the corners of the house, the children enjoyed all the old yesteryear stories their parents told. The family shared a closeness at these times and enjoyed talking to each other and discussing everyday happenings.  They felt blessed, even when they were reminded that while farm work was hard, it also had its rewards.

In some years, December, January and February in Kentucky brought in deep snow and ice, especially, when it rained and then froze.  When sleet and snow fell on top of this, folks might not see the ground all month, as it continued this process.  Ice might become five to seven inches thick and completely cover the ground for an entire month or more.  Weather like this caused hardships and some people suffered as a result of it.

However, the Cox family always had plenty of hog meat in the smokehouse, eggs from the henhouse, a crock or two of sauerkraut, barrels of flour and meal, and since they milked several cows, they had plenty of milk and butter.  So they got along pretty well in prolonged cold weather.  Like most everyone else, though, the biggest difficulty they experienced in cold, icy weather was looking after the cattle and livestock.   

Some families, though, were not so fortunate and may have suffered from hunger when it was impossible to travel anywhere, even if they had the money to buy food.  People who could not get around on the ice had a hard time even getting enough firewood to keep their families warm, and according to one newspaper article, many of them cut their shade trees out of their yard for firewood.

Toward the last of November many wagon loads of tobacco were going to Fordsville, and many more passed through en route to Owensboro. As the New Year neared, farmers in Ohio County were about through delivering tobacco.  Many communities pooled their tobacco at either Fordsville or Hartford.  Some of the larger tobacco growers took their crop to Owensboro in Daviess County.

Barns and Tobacco

To farmers, barns were as essential as houses. Tall hay stacks were stored at the side of the plank barn and also in the hayloft, which had doors that opened on both ends.  Wagons could drive through and hay could be pitched up through a set of overhead hay doors, from either end, into the hay loft. Rooms were built to hold tack, equipment, and grain bins for oats and corn.  Stalls that sheltered the animals were built with feed boxes where several cows were milked twice a day, morning and evening, without fail.  Most of the time, the boys did the milking unless they had to get out to the fields early.  When that happened, the girls pitched in and did the milking.  Milk was kept for family use to be used for cooking and making butter and the rest was either poured into the hog troughs or large buckets to sour.  The hogs, chickens and geese liked the curdled milk and whey.

The barn was a great place for farm kids to play, especially on a rainy day when the hay was dry and sweet and the rain could be heard peppering down on the roof.  Barns provided a good place to play hide and seek, and it was fun to climb up the ladder into the hayloft and hide and play in the straw stacks.  The barn was also a place where a lot of work was turned out in all seasons, like shelling corn, rubbing linseed oil on the shovel, axe, rake and hoe handles to make them last longer, oiling the leather harnesses, bridles, and saddles to soften and preserve them, or straightening out a keg of bent nails.


If a farmer raised tobacco to bring in a little cash to help make ends meet every year, then he also needed a tobacco barn.  In Ohio County, they raised burley tobacco.  To make a tobacco crop required an enormous amount of back-breaking work and it was pretty much a year around job.  Everyone in the family who was old enough was expected to help with tobacco work.  It constantly had to be manipulated, hoed, handled, and every leaf examined to oversee its development, from the time the seeds were first planted in the “burn beds” until it was delivered and weighed for sale at market, usually in the months of November or December.  

To begin the laborious process, the farmer burned the previous year’s old plant bed site.  Plant beds were usually about 9 feet wide and about 100 feet long or so, depending on the number of tobacco acres he planned to cultivate. The farmer piled wood on the old plant bed and set it on fire to kill and get rid of the weeds and grass seeds.  Burning was usually done near dusk and the farmer raked the fire and spread the ashes to make sure every inch was covered.  

Then he planted the seeds and kept the plant bed weeded until the little plants grew large enough to set out in the field.  Next he transplanted the tobacco sets to newly plowed, fertilized fields, and later as it grew, walked up and down the rows, picking off the big horned, speckled green tobacco worms.  Fields were plowed and grass and weeds chopped several times, then the tobacco was primed, stripped and cut.  Finally it was time to take the cut tobacco leaves, load them onto wagons, and take them to the barns to be fire-cured for ten days or so. 

“Firing” (fire-curing) tobacco took a lot of close attention and work.  Sawdust was used in low-smoldering trenches or pits.  The farmer had to manage and control the heat, humidity, and air circulation in his barn, extremely necessary to market good yields of high quality tobacco. 


Occasionally, a few tobacco barns burned down every year, in spite of all the care the farmers took to keep their fires at a low smolder.  One newspaper article in the Hartford Herald reported a barn that burned in September, 1905, for example:

            “The large tobacco barn of Mr. Jeff Smith was burned Tuesday night,
            with about 175,000 pounds of tobacco in it.  The loss was covered by

Another news item reported in the Centertown Record on January 6, 1915:   

            “A tobacco barn burned in Centertown.  It belonged to Sam Smith
 of Rochester, was worth $2,000, and was not insured.”

Burned barns of any kind were a major loss for farmers.  If it contained both tobacco and hay, it burned fast and hot.  Not only did they lose their tobacco (their livelihood), but they may have also lost the feed for their animals and their farm equipment, not to mention losing their wagon or perhaps a horse-drawn buggy, and perhaps a bushel or two of walnuts that had been picked up in the fall. 


After the curing process, the tobacco was ready to move and had to be packed up in a pile with all the tips turned one way, then penned with all the sticks to the outside for ventilation purposes, then graded, by sorting into three or four grades, depending on the color.  

Lastly, the farmer bundled the cured tobacco into bales, before it was sent off to market or warehouse auction, where he prayed for a good price when it was auctioned off to the highest bidder.

In Ohio County, old weathered tobacco barns, some as old as eighty to a hundred years, could be seen with practically every curve of a country road.

On a farm there was always something for everybody to do – every minute of every day - sunup to sunset.  All said and done, most farm work was a matter of survival.

Cutting Wood

When fall chores were done, it was time to go to the woods to cut wood for the fireplace.  All of it came from the farm place.  Jim, Leonard, and their father, cut any trees that had blown down during the year.  They took turns with axes and crosscut saw. While Jim stood on one side of the tree, his brother or father stood on the other side and they pulled the two-man saw back and forth and probably yelled “tim-ber” as the tree fell. 

Next, they sawed off pieces just right to fit the width of the fireplace.  Some of the thick timber blocks were split in half and then, using axe and hatchet, they split each of the two large halves into sticks for their old wood-burning black iron kitchen stove.  Sounds of the axe and saw filled the quiet forest all day long.  When enough wood was cut, they stacked it onto a sled or wagon, drawn by horse, and took the heavy load to the barn to be stacked in the woodshed to begin a drying process.  

Wood chips and kindling were also picked up.  A chunk or two of good dry wood and kindling would start a quick, hot fire in the kitchen stove on cold mornings.  The kitchen stove also provided heat to the kitchen where everybody ate in cold weather. 

It must have given Tom, Jim and Leonard a certain solace of spirit and satisfaction that they had once again provided the family with a winter’s worth of warmth for the cold days ahead.

Hog Killing

Pork was one of the main meats for the early pioneer families, in addition to wild game, like deer and turkey.  The first frost usually meant it was hog-killing and butchering time. It was done in cold weather so the meat wouldn’t spoil while it was being prepared.  Generally, hogs were penned and fattened up with corn a few weeks ahead of the event.  Once again, families pitched in to help each other, sometimes slaughtering as many as ten or twelve hogs in one day, to be cut up and divided among those helping.  Knives were sharpened on the grindstone the day before; they would be needed the next day to shave off the bristly hair, dress the carcass, and carve the meat. 

It was an all day job for both men and women.  A large amount of wood was needed to heat the water to scald the carcass.  Children old enough helped carry fire wood to keep the big black pots and barrels filled with scalding water. After the hogs were killed, scalded, scraped and hung up to cool out, they were ready for the final processing and carving into various cuts of meat.  The butchering process was repeated as required until all the hogs hanging from the ridge poles were ready to be carved.

Carving usually started in the afternoon. Hams, shoulders, and bacon slabs were cut, salted down, and put into the smokehouse to cure for several days. Sausage was prepared and cured by smoking in the smokehouse.  The cuts of meat were individually rubbed with salt and placed in barrels of salt.  About ten days later, the salt was brushed off, wire hooks were inserted, and each piece was hung from nails in the smokehouse rafters.  A small fire pit was dug in the center of the room, filled with hickory wood, where a fire was kept going night and day that required careful attention for about two weeks of curing and smoking.  During this time, pepper was spread on, as well as molasses or other concoctions desired by the family.  Without any refrigeration, January and February were good months for a bountiful supply of fresh ribs, shoulders, souse meat, and chitlings.  Cured meat would keep for a long time in hot weather without spoiling.

Sausage, headcheese, and cracklings were also made from other parts of the hog. Lard was rendered from the fatty parts of the hog by boiling it in kettles, straining out the crumbling renderings, and storing in wooden or metal tubs.  The renderings, called cracklings, were one of the best delicacies from the hog killings. Crackling biscuits and cornbread were unbeatable with a good meal of beans, baked potatoes, hominy, and sauerkraut.  Salt pork was put in brine barrels and after a few weeks of curing, it would keep indefinitely without refrigeration and could be used as needed for frying, cooking greens or baked beans.
Hog-killing time in cold weather was always an event where family members and neighbors with helping hands depended on each other.

NOTE: This article is Part III of several.  It was written by Janice Cox Brown, an expert genealogy researcher whose ancestry is from Ohio County. Janice now lives in Texas. We thank her for her work and her desire to share her family research.

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