Whitesburg KY

Bean farming on Blair Branch

When I was growing up in the head of Blair Branch there in Letcher County back in the 1950s and ‘60s, my mom always had at least a couple varieties of fast-growing green beans coming in by or before the middle of June.

I remember names like “The Little Howard Caudill Bean,” The Creed Craft Bean,” “The Little Jim Bean,” “The Nancy Crase Bean,” etc. All of these varieties were named for people who had given her the seeds but who had already forgotten their proper names by the time they were shared with Mom.

Even though some of the varieties may have been the result of accidental cross breeding, it is much more likely that the seed had been passed around so often that folks simply forgot what they were originally called.

In any event, the ones I remember best, including all four of the varieties named above, were “bunch beans” the term that mountaineers used for what we now call “ bush beans”, meaning varieties that grow in clusters less than two feet tall and need no support for the vines climb.

Points East

I remember selling seeds in spring and the company would insist that I try peddling out half a dozen or so packs of “Tenderette Bush Beans,” that nobody wanted to buy because they thought that meant you had to cut bushes for them to grow on. Mom tried a pack one year and declared them “nothing but a bunch bean that’s not fit to eat” but that’s another story for later this year.

By June we were so tired of eating the home-canned green beans several meals each week for more than seven months that the first few “messes” of any kind of fresh green bean were considered treats.

These early varieties were not considered good for canning, or at least not nearly as good as the main crop half runners, fall beans and white cornfield beans of which most families on Blair Branch preserved upwards of 200 or more quarts every summer.

As a consequence, Mom never planted more than a few short rows of early beans, “just enough to eat on,” as she would put it.” On the other hand, she made sure that there would, in fact, be more than plenty to eat on and she was more than happy to share the surplus with friends, relatives and neighbors.

We usually picked the beans in peck (1/4 bushel) or half-bushel buckets and we picked until the bucket was full or until there were no more beans left to pick. Usually that meant we had more beans than we needed to make a cooker full, but not even close to enough to make a canning even if she had been inclined to do so.

In the spirit of “waste not, want not”, whatever bean pods left over once the cooking kettle was full had their strings removed and were thoroughly washed without being snapped or broken into small pieces.

Using a large “darning needle”, that was much larger and longer than a typical sewing needle and capable of being threaded with twine much sturdier/ stronger than regular sewing thread, the extra bean pods were threaded onto three- to four-feet lengths of heavy twine that had been previously used to seal sacks of livestock feed.

I actually enjoyed poking the big needle, about three or four inches long, through the bean pods and stringing them up. We’d select the largest pod we could find and tie it to end of a length of twin to anchor the ones that would be threaded above it and keep them from sliding off the string. We sometimes had competitions to see who could make the longest string of beans without the string breaking from being over-weighted. If a string did break, that meant a bunch of beans had to be threaded back onto another string. The extra work took any fun out of the competition.

In those days, we had no air conditioning and the cooking was done on a coal-fired cook stove. The strings of beans were hung on a rack, made especially for that purpose, behind the stove until they were completely dry.

After 1960, the year we got an electric stove, they were hung on clotheslines and brought inside at night to avoid dewfall. Once they were as dry as winter-feed corn shucks, they were stored in various ways for the winter, hence the name, shucky beans.

And if given a choice right this minute between a big helping of fresh green beans or a mess of genuine “shucky beans” or “leather britches”, as they were sometimes called because of their toughness before cooking, I would opt for the shuckys.

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