Friday, June 8, 2012
A Thin Connection to Life 100 Years Past
We just returned from a little family vacation down in Texas. One of the unplanned stops was at the Lyndon B. Johnson State and National Park site near Johnson City. I'm glad we stopped, because there was quite a bit of historical information there (and the countryside in which the ranch is located is lovely in sort of a desolate way). But my favorite part was the Sauer-Beckman Living History Farm.
The farm is a replica of a German settler's farm from about 100 years ago, the period between 1912-1918. The exhibit includes the barn and all the outbuildings for livestock (including a hog pen with a HUGE sow and a hen house complete with three setting hens), a garden, a windmill and water tank, and the house itself, which consisted of three parts - a working/canning kitchen, the regular kitchen, and the sleeping/living area. (My husband and I had different explanations for our daughter about why the house was in three parts - he said it was so the sleeping quarters were separated from the kitchen in case the wood stove caught fire; I said it was because the kitchen would generate so much heat. I think we are both right!)
One thing I really liked about the exhibit is that we were able to walk around and look at things as we wanted to - there was not a pre-set tour with a guide giving us a canned speech. We could lift the dishcloth over the sourdough starter and peek in on it, we could touch the pieces of harness hanging in the tack room in the barn, we could look inside the outhouse (a two-holer. I can't imagine why anyone would want a two-hole outhouse, ha ha). There was a woman dressed in period costume at the exhibit, but she seemed to be there more as a resource to answer any questions; other than greeting us pleasantly, she didn't say anything to us, just kept working with the beets she obviously had pulled from the garden earlier in the day.
As you can imagine, this was absolute heaven for a writer of historical fiction set on a frontier farm! I could have stayed for hours, no lie, looking at every tool in the barn and every dish in both kitchens. But I had to be considerate of the rest of the family, who are not quite as into this as I am.
As I walked around the grounds, I began to realize that while this was history, some of it was also simply living for me. Except for the fact that I'm using electricity rather than firewood as a heat source, I'm still doing a lot of food preservation, just like the matron of the farm would have been doing 100 years ago. With only a few exceptions, most of what I "put up" for winter comes from our own garden. We have only a couple of hens, not a whole lot, but we do get eggs from them most days. I also still have memories of "helping" (as much as a kid can do) on hog butchering day, with the big cast iron washtub rendering down lard. I also remember the bowls of fresh milk sitting out on the cabinets at my grandparents' house waiting for cream to rise to the top, I'm lucky to have those memories; in the coming years of my life, there are going to be fewer and fewer people who will have seen those kinds of things.
Of course, there are a lot of differences between the few things I do and the daily life of a farmer's wife 100 years ago. I am spoiled by the convenience and safety of pasteurized milk and by the softness of store-bought bread. But something as simple as having a meal filled with vegetables that my husband and I planted and harvested, cleaned and cooked, helps me feel there's still something of a connection with those hard-working people in the past, small as it may be.