Farming has changed tremendously in the past 130 years. Most people today cannot even relate to what life on the farm was like in the 1880s. We have been lucky enough to come across some stories written in 1969 by a Madeline Van Vliet about her life on her parents farm in the 1880s. She wrote a number of these small accounts, and we will add them and other stories about farm life yesteryear in the weeks ahead. Enjoy.
By Madeline Van Vliet (January 1969)
We had a potash kettle sitting under the eaves at the northwest corner of the kitchen that caught water from the eaves that fell in that fell in that spot. It was a big kettle, maybe a yard across and two-and-a-half feet high. It got its name from the fact that it was used for making soft soap. It had many uses.
Once Robby (Madeline's brother) used the kettle for a purpose that went down in history in our family.
Of course we often had a new batch of kittens. Papa and Mamma would usually let us children keep one or two of them, but the others always "disappeared" soon after they were born. We never actually saw it, but we knew they were probably drowned and the thought of that was horrible.
Once, though, when Robby was little, he thought that he would do it himself, so he picked up two and threw them into the potash kettle that was half full of water. When he saw them struggling for their lives, he burst into tears and ran into the house crying at the top of his lungs, "Mamma, Mamma, come quick. The kittens are drowning in the potash kettle!"
Madeline Van Vliet (January 1969)
One of my very earliest recollections was the making of soft soap. In our backyard there was a leach. The leach was a trough that looked like it was about to tip over. There were holes in the bottom for liquid to seep through. This was called leach also. It is an alkali called potash. This was put into the potash kettle with fried salt pork drippings and boiled.
Boiling these ingredients took place just over the fence in the orchard near the pet apple tree. The boiling proceeded until the soap was done. It was done when the mass was semi-liquid, slippery and softly lumpy. Actually, it was a slippery, gooey mess.
We then poured it into big crocks. It was used to wash dishes, clothes, and to scrub the kitchen and porch floors.
When the crocks had been emptied, we simply made another batch.
Just when Papa took the leach down, I can't remember. Making soap became too much of a bother and for several years before we left the farm (when I was 14), we used only store soap. We always used Ivory or Castile for bathing.
Madeline Van Vliet (January 1969)
When I was born, these were our horses: Bill, Big Kit, Little Kit, and Polly were their names.
Bill was a handsome coal black, a handsome work horse, large in his frame and well rounded by good food. Big Kit was just like him only black and dark brown, the color of a chestnut. It was her mane, tail and legs from the knees down that were black. Little Kit looked as if she had been bred for a driving horse. She was small and pretty. As I remember, when she began to grow old, her brown was flecked with gray. She was a dear, gentle with everyone, man or beast. Polly! Who can describe Polly? Not only was she beautiful, but she was spirited. She had her likes nd dislikes or at least coolness for other horses. But her first and enduring love was for Big Kit, who had the stall next to hers. In pasture they nuzzled more and always cropped grass together.
One morning when Papa went to the barn with his milk pail, Bill was not in his stall. Now, Bill had a peculiarity. He could not tolerate a halter. Harnesses he didn't mind at all, but halters were another thing. If one was put on him he broke it immediatel, no matter how heavy the straps.
So, my father put a big chain across the back of Bill's stall. It drooped a little in the middle. Bill never turned around in his stall, never backed into the chain. He ignored it and he felt free.
When Papa saw that Bill was gone, he looked at the north door. It had been left intact, but the latch was lifted by Bill's nose and then pushed open. He was nowhere around.
So, Papa harnessed Polly to the gig, and alerted some neighbors. They scoured the countryside and finally found him lying on his side, dead, by the side of Kichi-qua Creek, about three miles away.
Madeline Van Vliet (January 1969)
Aunt Minnie Tucker, Mamma's sister, about three years younger than she, used to spend her summers with us after her year of teaching at Brooklyn. One summer she brought with her Miss Nellie Mitchell, her landlady's oldest daughter, who had become her bosom friend. Of course Aunt Minnie called her "Nellie", but I called her "Miss Mitchell".
I was just dying to show them how I could ride horseback, but I didn't dare ride Polly bareback and she had tricks with saddles and girths that would end up with me falling and dragging in the dust. The only thing I could do was to ride Little Kit and she wasn't much of a steed for someone to make an impression with.
Well, I would do my best with her. So I saddled and bridled her and rode her down the lane to the road and up the road a quarter of a mile. I was in full view all the time of Aunt Minnie and Miss Mitchell, who were rocking and embroidering on the big front porch. When I turned Little Kit to come back, I dug my feet into the stirrups as hard as I could and gave her some good kicks in the ribs. She started to gallop as I hoped she would.
I saw a big stone ahead and I thought to myself, I wonder if she will stumble on that stone? And, yes she did and fell to her knees from a full gallop. Of course, I went head over heels over her head and Little Kit rolled over on my up to my waist. Somehow I pulled myself out, while Little Kit lay still like the lamb that she was.
When I got to my feet, I found I didn't have a scratch or a wrench. I pulled Little Kit up and led her to the lane, up the lane, past the porch to the well by the horse barn. I washed off the bridle which was bloody and Little Kit's mouth, which was also bloody from a cut by the bit.
I wasn't a bit too soon getting the saddle and bridle in order on their pegs and Little Kit in her stall, for I could see Papa in the wagon coming home from town on the upper road.
I don't think Papa ever suspected anything. And, I don't think anyone ever said a word to me about what I had done. Certainly there were no scoldings or making fun of me, though everyone but Papa must have known about it.
My family was a very polite one always. Maybe a little gibbing would have done me good, diminished my vanity a little, although I doubt if anything could have done that. I was too monstrous.