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A Woman's Work

Mary Alice Hearn Heard

A friend’s granddaughter once complained to her, "The trouble with microwaves is that they’re so slow!" We smile at this, but let’s think of the other petty annoyances that trouble the lives of today’s women: emptying the dishwasher, thawing dinner, running a load of clothes (and remembering to put them in the dryer), ordering out for pizza, making a quick trip to the supermarket, picking up the dry cleaning, and taking the car for an oil change.

I wondered how my life differs from that of women of the last century, so I asked Marie Heard, my mother-in-law, who is 91 years old, what kind of life her mother led as Marie and her four sisters and three brothers grew up on the farm in north Mississippi. The life of a farm woman that is described below perhaps differs somewhat from that of her city sisters. Still, it’s enough to give us pause and cause us women to be grateful for the advantages we have.

Mary Elizabeth Holleman Wilson, who lived from 1871 to 1950, did not have plumbing and electricity, so she had to draw water daily from the well. She made sure that the children brought in enough firewood for heating and cooking for the entire day. Every morning when Mary Elizabeth got up she made biscuits and cooked sausage and eggs for her large brood. The biscuits were accompanied by homemade preserves that she made during the summer from peaches, pears, plums, and blackberries. The family had an orchard of peaches and pears, and an acre of wild plum trees.

Mother Wilson baked yeast bread every other day. The yeast was kept on a container on the back of the stove, and it was very important to keep enough yeast for future bakingneeds. She mixed the flour and other dry ingredients in a large, wooden bowl, to which she added the liquid yeast. She had to let the dough rise twice–a time-consuming process.

During the summer months Mary Elizabeth and Marshall Addison ("Ad"), her husband, raised a large vegetable garden. They raised cabbages by the acre, so that in the fall they had enough cabbage to make two 50-gallon barrels of sauerkraut. The children all had chores, of course. They had to milk the cows, churn the milk for butter, hoe the garden, and help in the kitchen. Making sure that all the children were occupied was a management feat in itself.

Mrs. Wilson made clothes for all her children–shirts for the boys and dresses for the girls. The girls never had ready-made dresses until they were adults. Of course, the girls learned to sew, and Marie remembers making a new dress herself when she was 15 to wear to camp meeting on the second Sunday in August. Every family member needed several quilts to stay warm in winter, and Mary Elizabeth made them in her spare time.

The big meal of the day was at noon. Mrs. Wilson served meat–bacon, roast, meat loaf, chicken (chicken pie, chicken and dumplings)–potatoes, turnips, greens, and other vegetables from the garden. Egg dishes, especially custard, were served often. She made her own butter and cottage cheese and put up lots of sausage from the family’s hogs. There was a cellar for storing potatoes and a corn crib full of corn, both raised on the farm.

Mary Elizabeth used shelled corn to make hominy every year. She poured water into a barrel of white oak ashes, from which water dripped through as lye. She took the lye and poured it over the corn, thus removing the husks. The end product was hominy. Corn was also taken to the mill to be ground for meal.

She also made lye for washing clothes, a frequent chore. She boiled sheets and towels in two large pans to keep them white. The remaining clothes she scrubbed on a washboard.

The family raised sorghum. When the traveling mill came through, the family had to cut and strip the leaves from the sorghum. The remaining cane was run through the mill. The juices that ran out would be cooked down to 40 or 50 gallons of sorghum molasses, which Mary Elizabeth used for cooking.

Occasionally Mrs. Wilson would have a need to go to town. She would ride in the family’s buggy, drawn by a team of horses. On these occasions she always wore a hat.

Probably Mrs. Wilson had many other daily chores that Mother Heard and I overlooked as we discussed life in the early 1900s. Still, you’ve had a glimpse at the unending tasks a farm wife had to perform. Now aren’t you glad you can empty the dishwasher?