I recall my mother Hester Dalaba walking back and forth in our old-fashioned kitchen with her hands holding her stomach as she sang, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full into His wonderful face, the things of earth will look strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.” She was in pains now for the birth of her ninth child. None of her children had been born in a hospital. With her first, Violet, she had been living in a log house next to the house at Hillmount Farms that she and my father built. My sister Blossom was born in the home of Hester’s sister Lillian Morehouse, across Edwards Hill Road. All the other children—Pansy, me, Rose, Fern, Lynden and Oliver—were born here. Now the ninth, Carnata saw the light of day here too.
Mama was a strong believer in prayer and praise, and she could sing in times of severe pain. The kitchen was her favorite place and it became a chapel that day.
What else was in this kitchen? Those little children were given their baths on Mama’s lap in front of the old woodstove, a cooking range. Here the door of the stove was open, and baby supplies were laid out: cotton swabs, water with a little boric acid for washing the eyes, a dish of warm water and Castile soap. It must be gentle…Johnson and Johnson baby powder, a soft washcloth, and towel.
Many people today would probably rebel against the big iron sink in the kitchen. It was so necessary on the farm. It was rectangular and quite deep. At one end were strainers for the water to run out and down into a pipe that led from the sink to a large on-off pipe under the road to water the fields nearby. This probably accounted for the large hay in those fields and for the rich, fertile soil in the area of the garden and for the nice apple trees: Maiden Blush, Fall Pippin, and many unnamed varieties. We gave them our own names.
Inside the sink was a wooden pail. This was all the refrigerator that we had then. At the time we had no electricity and no inside plumbing. Even with only cold water in the sink we were happy. The spring was up the hill, and the water was piped through galvanized pipes by gravity feed. At the sink it was left running day and night.
We put our supply of fresh milk, cream for whipping, Jello for dessert, and whatever leftovers into as many quart-sized Mason jars as could fit in the pail. A large two-quart dipper hung on a nail behind the sink. Each morning Papa would take two quarts of cold water and stand by the sink and drink it all. It helped keep his system clean and saved on Ex-Lax. Water was our main drink. Papa might have one cup of coffee in the morning, then tea (usually tea dust) for his other meals. But he didn’t do much returning for tea breaks. On days when he didn’t feel well he would come sit in his chair between the glass door and the dining room door. He would ask Mama to fix him a dose of red pepper or camphor. Then we knew his heart was bothering him. After a few minutes he headed back to the farm work.
The glass door led to a porch on the front of the house. The glass in the top of the door let in light. The dining room door was often left open, but we shut it at night to keep out the cold. Then there was a door that went into the pantry and a door on the northeast side that went to the barn. All these doors were wood except that glass door. Two side-by-side. double-hung windows in our kitchen faced Crane Mountain. In front of the windows was a very large square table, not fancy, but well used. Mama preferred it to a new dress for herself. She liked oilcloth for covering the table. Some meals were served at this table, but mostly we ate our meals in the dining room. There were no dish cupboards in the kitchen and no closets. Oftentimes the table would be loaded. When we needed it, we cleaned it off. Usually we put two dishpans on this table for washing and rinsing the dishes. We took turns at these jobs.
We air-dried the dishes. They were put into a dish rack on a drain built by the sink. Mama made a drying rack for the glasses from a piece of wood on which she nailed several dowel-like, round pieces of wood. The dish rack already had its own cup rack. We put the frying pans and kettles on the stove to dry. The stove had six griddles and we could vary the heat of the fire. At the side was a reservoir for hot water. Later we had a stove with a hot water front. Papa installed a hot water system that heated the water through this feature of the stove. The hot water was piped to the area of the old iron sink, and the pipe hung down so we could have hot water. It was not fancy, but it was great.
For the baby’s bath, Mama did not want any draft on the baby. No door was to be opened no matter how hot the room. The whole kitchen took on baby scents, smelling so good, so sweet. After the baby’s bath Mama rubbed her baby with oil and dusted him or her with powder. A coating of oil on the baby’s hair kept it soft.
My father used the same open oven door in the kitchen when it was cold and the sheep had an early lamb. Papa would bring in the little lamb wrapped in a burlap bag and place him on the oven door to get warmed through before being transferred to the barn. On this oven door I stood at the age of five, when I was too short to reach the dishpan on the stove any other way. It was my turn to wash the dishes. Each of us children had to take our turn at dishwashing time. At this time we did not have hot water in the sink.
A warming oven fastened to the stove had many purposes. Every morning there was the milk separator to wash. Mornings, before school, this chore must be done. At times I needed help. I seemed to have a nervous impediment in speech, and it carried over into my washing of the separator. Only those who knew my problem could understand. It was like I stuttered at the washing. When I was about eighteen years old, an electric hot water heater was put in to help solve this problem.
We used the warming oven to keep the food warm for my father and whoever might be with him in the fields—in spring for plowing, dragging, and planting; in summertime for hoeing, and then for the haying, which took them to the back fields. It would be hard to tell just when they would come back to the house. Papa tried to be on time, but the gardening and chores had to be done. And the cows would even hide from Papa sometimes, if they didn’t want to come to the barn from the fields, which were far from the house.
Behind the iron sink Papa nailed a sheet of tin roofing to take care of the splatter. Also, behind it, or on top, we put the sharp knives between the wall and the tin. This made them accessible but kept them safely from the small children. People went for the need rather than the beauty. Over the sink Papa kept his personal things, things we must not touch. Here were his medicines and shaving supplies. He used a long razor. The razor strop hung at the left of the glass door. Papa used a board nailed on the wall to hang his barn clothes and his hat. This was a unique hat—gum wasn’t plentiful, so Papa would chew it and then store it on the brim of his hat.
At night the wood was brought in and placed in a pile at the left of the stove. Kindling was often placed inside the oven to dry for starting the fire in the morning. Over the stove was a drying rack Mama made from flour bags, which she hung up for drying our apples and other fruit. Those apples were good for apple pies, although most any fruit and vegetables could be used. And so we had the ceiling rack for drying dishes, the top of the stove for drying foods and dishes and the milk separator, and the warming oven for baking, drying wood, and giving off warmth at bath time. And underneath the stove the cats kept warm—they were not allowed all through the house.
Near the kitchen windows there was a wire rack with several spools threaded through it to make a rack on which to hang a towel for drying our hands. A small couch bed sat between the pantry door and the outside door nearest the barn. Perhaps this was found to be too crowded because I remember it wasn’t there long. The kitchen was painted and the floor was hardwood. Mama used to mop even while holding the baby. She always said he didn’t like to hear her babies cry.
Even though the babies had Castile soap, Papa made soap that we used for clothes and dishes. A dish of soap sat on the shelf where we dried dishes. The walls had a few things for decorations besides a calendar from Dr. James O’Keefe’s drugstore. The calendar often served as a diary or for keeping farm records. Papa didn’t like to have curtains on the kitchen windows—shutting out the light and our lovely view of Crane Mountain. Therefore the kitchen was plain like its inhabitants. We lived and loved and worked and played. We had a good life.
The pantry held shelves for cooking supplies and a barrel for flour, covered with a breadboard. Mama served her people well, making pies and cakes, jams and jellies, and baking rice and bread pudding, johnnycake, and roast. If she lacked ingredients, she substituted, and she made up many of her recipes. Mama made a lot of caraway cookies, also molasses and sugar cookies. She put them in cookie jars for all occasions, usually keeping the jars on top of the dish cupboard in the dining room.
A large round iron pancake griddle would be placed on the stove and heated while Papa did chores—he had no sons for many years. Sometimes Papa peeled potatoes, and we had potatoes and milk gravy with our pancakes. I enjoyed getting up to get breakfast. It took a while for the kitchen to heat. I often slipped into the dining room to get warm, rotating making pancakes and getting warm.
If we had meat to fry, Papa sliced it. He was an early riser. Maybe he had to get up early because he had a nice-sized family. Often we brought in the big churn that stood on legs and churned the cream. Mama worked it over to get out any bits of cream. She would save out a tithe of the cream as a ball of butter for the minister or whoever that might be at the time.
The young children would play in the kitchen. Mama always had room for them, and wanted them where she could watch them. In fact, everyone was welcome there. By necessity people came through the kitchen door. It was close to the barn, woodshed, and the porches as well as the driveway.
Today’s kitchens are more beautiful and well equipped but not as nostalgic, nor more serviceable. They have more modern inventions with a big price. We used whatever we could find and had time for living and time left to help in the barn, in the gardens, and with the haying. I would not want to go back to the inconvenience, but I do enjoy looking back. I can see where everything had its place. We had a good life. Two of the nine children are gone now, and some live out of state. Blossom lives in Tennessee, Fern in Kentucky, and Oliver in Michigan.
We think of a storm brewing as something undesirable, as turmoil. Maybe it means we must “batten down the hatches.” For an old-timer this is saying we are going to have a terrible storm. Get ready. Close everything, even the cellar door. Years ago on Hillmount Farms the cellar was all underground, but there was a hatchway. Inside doors opened into a serviceable storage center, but there was an outside way to get to the cellar, by way of the hatch. It was slanting and because there was a stoop or porch over it, we had to be careful or bump our heads. To get to the cellar we went into the kitchen, on into the pantry, and opened a door to cellar steps. On either side there was stonework, part of the foundation. For many years it was necessary to take a lighted kerosene lantern to find our way and to see to get what we were after.
In the fall the inner doors were closed off. Hay or straw was filled in, maybe a little horse manure for insulation, and then the opening was boarded shut. Bags of hay were stuffed in the side of the stairs to keep out any cold. Because the Adirondacks could be a cold area, it was necessary to bank the house all the way around with horse manure. It was good insulation. It may have burned our eyes and nostrils, but after awhile we got used to the smell. At least it made the house warmer in the winter, and helped protect the things in the cellar. At the foot of these stairs were another set of doors to the cellar.
Ranger Bowback, as my father called himself, enjoyed his potato crop, even after the potatoes were put in the cellar. They were put into homemade bins made of wood with space between the boards to let in some air. He would bring people into the cellar to see his potatoes. He was glad for a good crop. Some potatoes he sold, but many bushels were needed for his family. Potatoes of various sizes and colors: He knew the kinds of potatoes by name. Everything needs to have a name.
On the far left corner of the cellar he had made strong shelves to hold many jars of vegetables and fruit. They looked so pretty—yellow corn, red beets, red strawberries, pale green beans, green and yellow string beans, blueberries, blackberries, and green peas. There were jars of jams and jellies and even apple butter. Large crocks, usually the five-gallon ones, held salt brine cucumbers, maybe pickled pork, and barrels of salt pork. How could the cellar hold more? But it did. The cream waiting to be churned was also put in the cellar. And maybe some jars of butter that Mama had churned. The butter was ready for sale or for the family to eat. The cellar also held barrels of apples of many kinds.
In the fall we went with our father to pick up apples and put them in burlap bags. The hogs had some of the apples. We used the apples for applesauce, canned apples for pies, or maybe the apples would be put over the stove for dried apples. Many apples were simply saved for use and put in barrels or large wooden boxes. Instead of potato chips and dip, or other snacks, we had pans of apples and could eat all we wanted. In some years Papa would make vinegar from the apples. He would squeeze the apples into cider and make the vinegar.
Everyone needs places to put things. A ledge had been made into the east wall of the upper part of the cellar wall. Here special things were kept, up high enough to be away from the little ones.
The cellar had a dirt floor and remained cool. In winter it was sometimes too cool, so Papa set up a stove in the cellar, with its pipe coming through the floor into the dining room and joining into the pipe for the stove upstairs. Here was a nice place for us to take our baths, either in a washtub or as a sponge bath. We took our turn in the tub and hoped to have our bath before the water got cold. We had to keep the same water.
Sometimes Papa took pans of hot coals from the upstairs stove and carried them down to the cellar to save the potatoes from freezing. Years later the pipes from the bathroom went through the cellar. John Miller of Glens Falls helped on that project. The cellar was no longer a winter’s supply of fruit and vegetables and meats. Now the family no longer lives in the house. But the cellar remains.
Reverend Daisy Mavis Dalaba Allen wrote these essays as a part of her 1997 book Ranger Bowback: An Adirondack Farmer, about life on a farm in Baker’s Mills in Johnsburg, NY in the early 20th century. Selections from the book are published here with the permission of the Allen family. Special thanks to Kjerstia Allen, Ed Zahniser, Evelyn Schaefer Greene, and Jan Reelitz for making this available for publication. To order a copy of Ranger Bowback: An Adirondack Farmer, send $10 to Kjerstia Allen, PO Box 47, Bakers Mills, NY 12811.