Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Vera Taylor Oden's Memoir (SECTIONS III and IV)

Here is another installment of Vera Taylor Oden's memoir. Tonight's posting contains sections three and four of twenty-one sections that describe life in Sugar Creek, Louisiana prior to 1902. If you haven't read the post about the significance of her memoir, click here.



My sister, Berta, was born fourteen months after I was, and my brother, Lamar, was born about a month before I was three years old, so there were three tiny tots in the household, and I'm sure we kept Mamma and Grandma busy. The first servant that I can remember was named America (Meriky). Another was named Thene, who came to do the milking. She was a dwarf, about 4 12 feet. Another was "Aunt Fannie" who did the washing, she was always "polly in the back." Her husband, Uncle Ish (Ishmael) cut the wood. There were many others I remember so well. Papa was always kind to them and did so much for them which nobody knew about.

We were very proud of our house. It was the nicest in the neighborhood and both Papa and Mamma worked hard to improve it. They set out trees and flowers. Papa set out a peach orchard. Later he added a pear, plum and apple orchard. We always had lots of fruit and watermelons. I can't ever forget the mental picture I have of Papa, coming in from the patch with a watermelon on his shoulder. He loved to work in the vegetable garden and vegetables were always plentiful. In the summer Mamma canned fruits and vegetables, and made pickles, jelly and preserves.


In the winter there was hog-killing time, which always had to be done during very cold weather. These were busy times, with the preparation and curing of the meat. I am not sure how all of this was done, but some was packed with layers of salt, and hams and stuffed sausage were smoked hanging from rafters in the smoke house.

The fire was in the middle of the room on a dirt floor. These were the times when we had sausage, hogshead cheese or souse, crackling bread, pigs feet, brains and eggs, back bones and spare ribs. (It was a) rich diet, but I think we thrived on it.

The cured ham was nice to have when Mamma had to prepare a short order meal for the drummers (traveling salesmen) who stopped by our home at mealtime. There were no telephones, so Mamma didn't know whom to expect until Papa brought them to dinner. We had no market nearby and canned foods at our store were limited to salmon and sardines, so we had to use cured meats. Chickens and eggs were plentiful. With fresh and canned fruits and vegetables and sweet potatoes we lived well, or thought we did. We had plenty of milk and butter, but no ice to keep it, so we had to drink it fresh or as buttermilk. After it was strained it was put into a churn, (a large jar about 18 in. high) with a lid and dasher. After the milk soured and turned to clabber, it was churned until the butter separated from the milk and rose to the top. It was then taken up into a bowl, washed and worked with a wooden paddle, salted and put on a place, sometimes into a fancy wooden mold. Grandma usually did this, and made crossmarks on the butter with a paddle.

Another task which was Grandma's, every Saturday she would put the green coffee into a baking pan and roast the week's supply. Every morning a cup of this roasted coffee was put into the coffee mill on the wall and ground for the coffee pot. There was no bread for sale near, so every morning Mamma had to make biscuits for breakfast. Sometimes we had hot cakes or muffins. She made biscuits in a large wooden tray. We bought flour and meal in barrels.

Ribbon cane syrup was an important item of our diet. I have often watched it being made in old syrup mills. The stalks of cane were fed into a crusher pulled by a mule which went around in a circle. After the juice was extracted it was put into a metal vat and boiled to the right consistency, then put into tin buckets. We have several apple and pear trees in the yard, as well as mulberry and persimmon trees. Sometimes we had mulberry pie. There was a scuppernong arbor behind the hen house and grape vines on the garden fence. I can't remember having pecan trees, but we did gather hickory nuts in the woods and black walnuts and cracked them on a big rock. Raisins and hickory nuts often went into Christmas cakes. Some foods which I particularly remember were Grandma's salt-rising bread, peach cobbler, molasses pie and sweet potato pudding.


(Here is a photo of the old smoke house that we took earlier this spring. The smoke house is off in the distance, hidden behind weeds... but you can see it if you really try.)

I grew up on my grandma's muscadine jelly, and I spent much of my childhood trying to convince my younger siblings and cousins to "try" green persimmons. I remember my grandmother telling me that my great-great grandfather brought scumpernong (which we pronounced 'skump-uh-dime') vines with him when he moved her from North Carolina. Much of my family is also of Scotch-Irish descent, so I feel a strong connection to the Taylor family's heritage despite the fact that we're not blood kin (as we say in the deep south.) Perhaps this section of Mrs. Vera's memoir gave you a feeling of nostalgia in much the same way it did me. I can almost smell the scent of homemade biscuits. And it's not hard for me to imagine a little girl named Vera running around a syrup mill, her eyes wide with wonder as she watched the mule walk around in a circle.

I spent the morning at THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK, and I took a few minutes to inspect the old smoke house. Sometimes it's easy to forget that we're not the first people to ever walk the face of the earth. We can stare at something like an old smoke house and see only the rotting wood, the sagging roof, and the crumbling foundation. But if we look a little bit harder, we can see Vera standing there, waiting for her father to haul in watermelons from his garden. We can begin to truly understand the plight of the first european settlers that arrived in Sportsman's Paradise. And that, my friends, makes the restoration of THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK worth every bit of the effort.


  1. OK, now I'm just hungry & missing my dad's biscuits w/fig preserves. :) Or muscadine or blackberry or mayhaw jelly.
    The smokehouse, salting pork, canning, gardens, biscuits (don't forget cornbread!), roasting coffee beans, etc. sounds a lot like my mom & dad's childhoods in the 20s/30s respectively.

  2. The sense of taste is such a powerful way to bring back memories of childhood! I make muscadine, blackberry, and scumpernong jelly in honor of my Grandmother, and every single time I make it I feel like I'm a kid again. :)