It took a lot of Hebrews 11.11 to launch a future on a rocky forty-acre hillside farm covered with sage grass, sassafras sprouts and big timber…. Surrounded with three rusty, zig-zagging barbed wires stapled to trees that “were almost on the line” and an occasional fence post.
It was the spring of 1918 that old Molly pulled the first wagon load of our earthly possessions through the gap and stopped in front of a dilapidated one-room cabin that represented the best intentions and failures of the previous owner.
The cabin, half hidden with second-growth brush and wild blackberry briars, was a “box” type about 14x16 feet, and been built a long time ago of 1x12 inch oak boards nailed upright and 2x4 stringers that ran around the rude frame structure. Hand-made clapboard shingles were nailed to two-way rafters that came nearer to providing shade than shelter. The cabin was lined with split, water-stained oatmeal paper tacked to the all with big-headed tacks Cobweb-bordered windows and a plank door let the light in and the heat out or the heat in depending on the time of the year. The rough 1x12 plank floor had cracks wide enough for two-way passage of dust… down with a broom and up when the wind blew under the cabin… showed signs of heavy boots, lye soap, and scrub water.
The cabin was adequate indeed for our possessions, Mom’s black, four-hole skinny legged, cast iron cook stove… that had already been a cook stove for a long time. A cupboard, with several coats f time-checked paint and varnish had metal perforated panels I the doors and sides… sometimes called a safe. Our “dinette set” was a rickety reconditioned style with unmatched legs… two squeaky chairs with nail heads showing and a tall goods box. The iron bedstead, a gold color… once upon a time, would have a brand new wheat straw mattress, sheets and pillow cases that bore the faded trademarks of Gold Bond and Town Crier flour, and some very pretty pieced quilts. Two light fixtures… a coal oil lamp and a coal oil lantern, an old trunk, a cast iron skillet, a black bread pan, a tea kettle, a water bucket with a tin dipper, a handful of utensils, and a three-place setting of unmatched china and silverware, a wardrobe that could best be described as a change of clothes for three.
Our second wagon load represented our capital investment in equipment… an old ten inch Oliver turning plow with new handles, a double shovel, a single stock, one section of a spring tooth harrow, a wooden smoothing drag, a revolving grinding stone, grubbing hoe, two garden hoes, a garden rake, a post hole punch, pitch fork, a scythe, two axes, a shovel, and a few hand tools, our hunting gear, a 12 gauge double-barrel shotgun and a 22 single shot rifle… and finally three coops of hens, and a forty pound pig. A jersey cow, that was going to have a calf “right away” was tied to the back of the wagon with a rope, brought up the rear.
Dad and Mom saw eye to eye on the great possibilities of that rock farm… they were self-reliant, independent, though and durable but poor. They know, however, that 10 dollars an acre was big money for land and a 350-dollar mortgage would be burdensome, but there wasn’t the slightest doubt about the outcome… they knew they could get rich growing strawberries… and they intended to grow lots of them.
Mom and Dad stretched both ends of daylight with a lantern… they cleared the land, grubbed plowed, and planted oats, corn, sorghum came and two acres of strawberries that year… it was attest of strength and ingenuity… when asked how they had done it, the answer was simple: you would have to do it to understand.
Mom picked, dried, canned and cured everything that could be chewed and swallowed… the 22 rifle, an unerring aim, young rabbits and squirrels furnished the meat for the summer… the hens converted green grass and bugs to more eggs than we could eat… had some to sell. Old Jers spent her time changing green leaves, sprouts and grass to milk and enough of it for her calf and us. The pig rooted its way to over two hundred pounds by fall.
During the summer the chickens roosted in a wild plum thicket and ran under the cabin floor when it rained… Old Jers ranged the place with a bell around her neck… the pig was kept in a movable pole pen that was moved every day or so. Old Molly ate her grain from the end of the wagon box and rested between jobs, in the shade of a red oak tree.
That fall Dad traded work and saw logs for enough oak lumber to build a shed for Molly and Jers, a chicken house for the hens… now they could live in luxury too… only the pig has a dismal future… about the time he thought he had it made, the end would come.
By the first snowfall, the corn was shocked, the oats were stacked, the potatoes were “holed up”. Molly, Jers and the hens were in shelter. Best of all though, two acres of fine strawberries had made it too. The wide rows were full of healthy plants, plants that would, barring frost or drought, bring reality to Mom and Dad’s dreams next spring.
As winter closed in the problem of comfort became acute. After the sun had shone and the wind had blown a few days, the clapboard shingles would shrink. Then when it rained again, they would leak like a sieve until the “swelled up”, but it was too late, everything would be wet. There was the problem of sifting snow. The cabin was as cold inside as outside when the fire went out at night… the snow would stay on the floor ‘til morning then the kind heater would melt the snow and everything would be damp again.
You have a cultural gap in your life if you miss trying to sleep in a ceiling less cabin with an all-night rain pattering on a clapboard roof then running through and dripping into a menagerie of pots and pans… every so often the leaks would shift, then miss the pot or pan, so you sent the night moving the pots and pans under the changing leaks… but it was a symphonic sound that would make a lifetime impression.
We had central heating in the summer, direct from the sun, central air conditioning in the winter too, direct from the North Pole.
We had running water also, a spring about 500 yards down a steep ravine… we never went to bed without a full water bucket and tea kettle just in case of fire. We had ice in the house, about every morning. We had frost in bed too, around the air holes where our breath escaped through the folds of the heavy quilts.
It took an unlimited source of motivation and raw courage to hit that cold floor every morning, barefooted, especially if you left tracks in a skift of snow.
As winter wore on, Dad spent his long days clearing more “new ground” for another strawberry patch, made fence posts, saw logs and fire wood out of the timber.
Mom patched, darned, knitted, read her Bible and tried to “make ends meet”. At night, we sat close to a red hot King heater and built air castles. Mom envisioned a painted house, three rooms maybe, kitchen, front room and a bedroom with pretty wallpaper and linoleum rugs, a well of water close to the house. Dad’s imagination ran in a different direction: he could see another horse to help Molly, two-horse tools, another cow, more chickens, a good barn, new orchards, a vineyard and bigger and better strawberry patches… he dreamed and banked on a big strawberry crop next year.
January, February and March of ’19 was tough and severe, tested the endurance of everything. The chicken combs froze and turned black, dropped off egg laying. Jer’s milk production waned a little too… Molly’s hair grew long and shaggy.
The gloom of war had spread over the earth. The St. Louis Globe Democrat, the only contact with the outside world, came twice a week. It old of the Kaiser and all the trouble “over there”.
It was the year of 1919 that the ground hog failed to see his “shadder”, so we could expect an early spring. Sur enough it was. A warm sun and gentle showers brought a new outlook. Dad whistled as he worked, Mom hummed and sang Amazing Grace over and over as she planted an early garden. The hens cackled with joy as they dusted themselves and scratched for worms. Molly and Jers enjoyed the tender grass and began to shed their winter coats.
April the 1st, Dad found the first strawberry blossom; a few days later the vines were in full bloom. We lived in constant fear of frost and drought. When it rained or the wind changed, we were sure it would freeze or frost before morning but as each day went by the prospect of frost diminished.; finally, only drought or hail could alter our future. The first few days of May were warm and humid. Dad found the first ripe strawberry My 5th. On May 9th, uncles and cousins converged on the strawberry patch for the first picking. The vines were loaded with big berries and a hot sun made them grow and turn red fast. In fifteen or eighteen days the crop had come and gone.
Strawberries were a festive crop… the first cash crop of the year in the Ozark Mountains, so many wonderful ways to benefit from them.
It would be hard to reveal or explain what went on in the minds and hearts of Mom and Dad when they hauled the first picking of their very own strawberries to town on that memorable day in the spring of 1919 but it was easy to see the smile of achievement. They had battled the elements and the weeds; they had matched raw courage against deprivation; they had mated hard work and ingenuity with hope and won. The victory was sweet and they were enjoying it.
Two acres of strawberries produced enough cash to pay for more barbed wire, the interest, few new clothes, another horse, taxes, $150 on the mortgage, a pretty $3.95 linoleum rug and enough screen wire for the doors and windows. A couple of years later, Dad built a new four-room house… two rooms upstairs, and two downstairs with a connecting ladder.
Dad never got rich growing strawberries but he was a good strawberry man and had an undying faith in them. He had a patch every year for as long as I could remember.
Our family hope that you will enjoy the strawberry preserves and this boyhood experience.