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Country Musings

Sleigh Bells Ring

Susan WilliamsonSleigh bells ring — are you listening? One-horse, open sleighs are ubiquitous this time of year. Music, Christmas cards, Currier and Ives prints and dishes are filled with the image. I have fond memories of riding in a one-horse, open sleigh, but I would guess that most of the people that I know do not.

I grew up in Butler County, Pennsylvania, which gets more snow than Pittsburgh but less than Meadville and points north. When we moved to our farm, we had a real sleigh which my father had used to decorate our lawn at Christmas. In no time at all, we were hitching our Saddlebred horses to the sleigh. That vehicle suffered a collision or two and was replaced by another.

When we were snowed in, my father took the horse and sleigh to our local country store. One winter, he drove a mile to the paved road to take my sister to the school bus, developing a tremendous trot on the horse he used.

I can remember a Sunday afternoon when we drove to a friend’s house and took her for a ride, five of us nestled together under blankets with our friend sitting on the floor. The shafts were short and the horse was full of hay, making our passenger fear what might land on her head.

By the time I was in eighth grade, I could hitch the horse or pony myself and off we went. There is nothing like it. The horse is moving forward silently while the sleigh glides across the snow. I suspect sleigh bells were used to prevent the mowing down of pedestrians, just as hybrid and electric vehicle will soon be required to have their own noisemaker. Even when the roads weren’t snow-covered I could take off across the fields. I can remember driving my mare through the drifts for a long time, until my brother scolded me for getting her hot. I had been oblivious to her plight and felt guilty for weeks. One Sunday, I took my mother for a ride, hitching a husky pony named Lollie. Mother had been cooped up in the house all week with my ill sister, and she very much enjoyed the outing.

In my romantic fantasies, my prince always arrived by sleigh and took me for a ride cuddled beside him. My real prince has never done that, although I have ridden in a cart with him. Best I remember, I was too busy hanging on to have any romantic thoughts.

Although we have had horses all of my life, there were few times when we lived in Kentucky or our current home in North Carolina when there was enough snow for another sleigh ride; that didn’t stop me from wishing for a sleigh.

So, if you’ve never been sleigh-riding, know that it is just as much fun as you might imagine, and almost mystical.

One horse open sleigh
Photo by Fotolia/iofoto

A Farm Wife

Susan WilliamsonMy mother came late to her role as a farm wife. She was in her forties when we moved to the farm, and having grown up in hotels (her father was a hotel manager), she didn’t even learn to cook until she was thirty.

When she and my father first married, they hired a WWII veteran, George, to take care of the lawn. He did that, but my mother also found out that he could cook. He couldn’t read, so Mother bought Joy of Cooking and read the recipes out loud to George. Then, she watched how he did things.

Ten years later we moved to the farm, and by then my mother was a great cook. She also took to gardening early on, growing beans, lettuce, and tomatoes at first. She had a fenced garden spot at our new home on the farm, and she added sweet corn, squash, chives, tarragon, and eventually potatoes.

She froze the extra veggies for the winter, and we made applesauce from the orchard. We had beef cattle, sheep, and hogs, so we raised our own meat supply. A tenant farmer took care of the animals, and a horse trainer worked the horses. My father commuted to his office and work as a building contractor.

But things happen. In the 1950s in Pennsylvania, the legislature saw fit to charge mortgage points and make it retroactive. My father had several homes under construction, and the new law wiped him out. We sold our new house, moved to the 1860s tenant house on the property, and became full-time farmers. The steel mills were closing; times were tough. I was young and I never realized how hard it must have been for my mother to sell her dream house.

She jumped into farm-wife mode. My parents bought chickens for eggs and a cow for milk. The chickens had the run of the barn across the road, and they would all lay in one hidden nest until we discovered the egg cache. Then they would find a new spot.

We took turns milking the cow. The first was a gentle Jersey. The second was a Guernsey cross who found it great fun to swish her tail through the milk and into your eyes or step in the bucket. I learned a lot of colorful language when my brother ignored my suggestion to tie her tail. Mother purchased a home pasteurizer, and we discovered the wonders of home-raised milk. She made butter with a hand churn. My dad loved the buttermilk. Her next experiment was cheese. Sometimes it turned out like cottage cheese, and other times it was more like cream cheese. With some onion soup mix and Worcestershire Sauce, it became a yummy dip.

She cooked our home-grown wheat for hot cereal. We picked wild black raspberries and blackberries from the roadside and made jam. Mother made barley duc from a friend’s currants and strawberry jam from strawberries grown by a neighbor. We composted or fed our scraps to the hogs. Eating seasonally from the garden, from the neighbors, and from the freezer was a way of life. And it was all naturally grown.

A neighbor started growing “organic food.” We wondered what that meant, since we didn’t use any chemicals anyway. We decided it meant he wasn’t going to wash the vegetables, because that was the only way it could be more natural than what we were doing.

One day I came home from school and found Mother and a friend making candles from tallow. The tallow stunk, so she had added some cheap perfume. The house smelled like a perfume factory. She had melted crayons to color the candles, but the wax wouldn’t mix and the kitchen was covered with stinky, streaked, would-be candles.

She took to sewing in the winter. My sister wanted a Barbie doll. I’ll never forget the way our old blacksmith blushed when he walked in the kitchen and saw a naked Barbie on the ironing board. The makings of Barbie clothes were pinned and ready to sew. When I was going to spend a week with my friend in the city, Mother converted a tablecloth into a bathrobe and used the napkins for pockets. I wasn’t supposed to tell the source of my colorful robe, but my friend’s family was impressed.

Mother didn’t bake, except for occasional cookies or birthday cake from a mix. But she thought I should learn, so she had a friend come teach me to make a pie crust and homemade bread. I couldn’t wait to make my first apple pie. The apples were small and faulty, so I didn’t really cut up enough for my father’s favorite pie. He took one bite and asked if there was any filling.

I garden, pick blackberries, put up food, and sometimes I even sew, but I’ve never been half the farm wife my mother was. My husband spent too long on a dairy farm to ever want a milk cow, and we never did more than talk about getting chickens. Hard to imagine that the girl who grew up in hotel rooms would be my inspiration for living off the land.

Woman picking fruit
Photo by Fotolia/Cherries

The County Fair

Susan WilliamsonGrowing up on a farm in Pennsylvania, I looked forward to the Butler County Fair. While my teenage brother was most interested in the carnival and its many attractions, I loved seeing the exotic chickens, the crop exhibits, the cattle, sheep, and hogs. We watched Standard-bred and ostrich racing, the horse show, and the draft-horse rigs. My dad sold a pony to one of the pony pullers and another to a pony-ride concession.

We always went in time for dinner: chicken slow-cooked over glowing coals. The thought makes my mouth water. And speaking of chickens, my sister raised her dyed, purple, 25-cent Easter chick to adulthood and decided to enter “Peep” in the fair. We were not chicken experts. Our neighbor said a vinegar bath would remove the remnants of purple dye. It almost removed the chicken, but Peep survived to enter and win the White Leghorn Pullet category. We came home and celebrated with the blue ribbon in the center of the table. Only later did we learn that the “pullet” began to crow and would never lay eggs.

My first career was as a 4-H agent. County fairs were a large part of my responsibility. I even served as a cookie judge at the Kentucky State Fair. We still travel to Louisville for the World’s Championship Horse Show at the fair. But I always take in the quilts and the art and indulge in pork burgers from the Kentucky Pork Producer’s booth.

I met my husband, Wallace, at a horse show. Our dates took us to county fairs, often as exhibitors. Wallace managed the local horse show and spent weeks recruiting officials, publicizing the show, and planning the center ring décor. Our children grew up showing horses on the Kentucky County Fair Circuit. One year, the Ferris wheel was set up near the end of the horse ring. We had a large, rather lethargic, three-gaited horse that looked like a world champion for a night. Another fair chose to have helicopter rides, which took off over the area where horses were tied to trailers. After much excitement, the flight path was altered.

I remember loading our Great Dane into the horse trailer (he didn’t care for cars) for the pet show. As a little girl snatched her tiny kitten away, my son said, “It’s okay, he doesn’t eat cats anymore.”

We spent late hours finishing up 4-H sewing projects and baking cookies. When our daughter was in high school, we moved to North Carolina. The fair entries became counted cross-stitch and watercolors.

We now live in Winston-Salem and look forward to the Dixie Classic Fair. I enter herbs, and Wallace works the Extension Master Gardener booth.

This past weekend, we visited the Anne Arundel, MD County Fair with our daughter and her family. Granddaughters Stella and Malaya met a sheep named Stella, petted a rabbit, and saw chickens, goats, cows, and pigs. We watched racing pigs and ducks and a horse-driving demonstration. The girls rode armbands’ worth of rides.

Wallace asked me if the fair scene brought back memories. Indeed it did. I loved watching our three generations enjoy a county fair.


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