Mid to late October was pretty much the end of harvest time on Blair Branch before the 1960s, and also the end of an era.
By the 1940s, hillside farms were already dwindling down to inherited acreage that was far too small for a single family to subsist by living mostly off the land. Many, if not most, families still depended on raising big gardens for most of their food throughout the 1950s. Most of us raised and butchered two or three hogs and maintained flocks of chickens to get ourselves through the winter and we had either canned or dried vegetables and fruit grown in our gardens.
My grandfather’s generation of Blair Branch residents consisted of fewer than 10 households who owned 100 or more acres but they all managed to have good livings, earning their keep by living mostly off the land they cultivated on the land pastured or kept in their barns and root cellars.
The 1940s saw almost all that land divided into plots of 10 or 15 acres as it was deeded out to adult children. Families in my maternal grandfather’s (Pap’s) generation usually had 8 to 12 or more children and it was a long-held tradition that each child would receive an equal portion of the “estates”. Most of those estates were cash poor so, as the children reached marriage age, they were usually given a few hillside acres of land, a draft horse or mule, a milk cow, a small flock of poultry and timber enough to saw lumber to build homes and out buildings. The days of big log houses and barns were already long gone.
For that matter, so were the days of what we now call subsistence farming. Forgive me if I wax nostalgic because I do realize that longtime readers of this column have heard it numerous times before. Still, it’s no different to me than singing an old song that never gets old, no matter how many times you’ve heard it, unless, of course, you don’t particularly care much for old songs.
My mom inherited Pap’s old home place along with about 10 acres of land around it. One sister and three of her brothers made serious attempts to earn livings off their portions of the farm but their efforts were futile and by 1959, all but one of those homes was unoccupied and even it, aside from gardening and the aforementioned hogs and poultry, never saw much duty as productive farming.
However, my parents, by “borrying” most of the tillable land my mom’s siblings had inherited and subsequently moved away from, still persisted in trying to earn some cash from Pap’s old farm. Dad worked “full time” as a coal miner then spent as much time farming as he did in the mines. Mom spent almost as much time as he did working the farm along with birthing and caring for four growing boys.
Those four boys, of whom I was the oldest, learned to cook, clean house and do laundry as well as any girl on Blair Branch. Many times I stayed at home to cook supper while Mom worked in the garden or cornfields because she preferred to be outside and not because I had any prospects of becoming a gourmet chef.
Thank Heaven I seldom had to fix breakfast because I never learned to make homemade biscuits anywhere close to the ones she made. She finally gave up on us and anytime one of the Adams boys fixed biscuits with a meal, they usually came out of a can. On the other hand, all four of us can still make cornbread as good as any I have ever tasted.
When the leaves started to fall in October and other kids spent late, after-school evenings pitching horseshoes or playing basketball tossed into old automobile tire rims we’d used for goals, we worked until dark hauling field corn, fodder, pumpkins, cushaws, sweet potatoes and other late produce to the house or barn unless one of us had the highly coveted pleasure of fixing supper.
We boys may have felt some jealousy for a peers, at the time, but all four of us would do it all again if had the opportunity.