History of Campbell County, Tennessee

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Early Life On The Frontier, Hominy Block: Pioneer Way Of Making Meal

By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. 

Hominy Block

An account of the earliest means to reduce corn to corn meal was that a section of an oak or gum tree trunk, four feet in length and two feet in diameter, was provided for a rude mortar. It was burned out at one end to a depth of 18 or 20 inches. Into this container a portion of grist was placed and beaten with a stick of wood that served as a pestle. When adequately pounded the meal was then sifted and deemed ready to be made into bread. This was called a hominy block. Hominy blocks did not last long, for mills came quite early and superseded them. Yet these mills were so far apart that in stormy weather, or want of transportation, the pioneer was compelled to resort to his hominy block, or go without bread.

Sometimes this block was placed inside the cabin where it served as a seat for the bashfull or young buckskinned backwoodsman while sparking his girl. Sometimes a convenient stump in front of the cabin door was prepared for, and made one of the best of hominy blocks. "Hog and hominy" was the natural relationship between pork and beaten corn.

The primitive grist mill was nothing more than a "corn cracker," but they were an improvement over the hominy block. Grinding the corn was their main function, moreover the pioneer must do his own bolting.

A wire sieve was one of the most functional articles of the household. It always hung on a hook, or a wooden peg, where it could be reached by the family. Through this, the meal was sifted and the finest used for bread.

"Indian pone" was baked in a large deep skillet that was placed upon hot coals raked from the fireplace to the hearth. Fresh coals were continually placed under it and upon the iron lid until the loaf, five or six inches thick, was thoroughly done. This was prepared different than the "johnney-cake", for it was better and could not always be had. For the taster's delight, a little wheat flour was needed, this a rare food source in those early days.

An access road had to be cut through the forest to the mill. Also, a wagon for hauling the grist proved advantageous. This four-wheeled vehicle was a delight for the children of a neighborhood.

It not only served the family, but it served as a mode of transportation for the whole neighborhood, as it was used for milling purposes. About once a month, this good neighbor, because of his ability to own a wagon, would gather up the grists and take them to mill, often spending several days in the operation, never thinking to charge for his time and trouble.

The Trammel and Hooks

The trammel and hooks were found among the well-to-do families. Previous to this, the lug-pole, across the inside of the chimney, about even with the chamber floor, answered for a trammel.

A chain was suspended from it, and hooks were attached, and from this hung the mush-pot or tea kettle. If a chain was not available, a wooden hook was in reach of the poorest and humblest numbers.

When a meal was not in preparation, and the hook was endangered by the fire, it was forced aside to one end of the lug-pole for safety.

Iron ware was scarce in those days. Instances are related where the one pot served at a meal to boil water for mint tea or crust coffee, to bake the bread, boil the potatoes, and fry the meat; by precise management this was accomplished. Frequently the kettle had no lid, and a flat stone, heated, and handled with the tongs, was used instead of one, when a loaf or pone or pumpkin pie was baked.

A shortcake could be baked by heating the kettle somewhat, putting in the cake, and tipping it up sideways before the glowing fire. Bannock, or board-cake was made by mixing the cornmeal up with warm water, a pinch of salt and a trifle of lard, into a thick dough, spreading it on a clean, sweet-smelling clapboard, thence patting it with the cleanest of hands, and standing it slanting before the fire. It was then propped into the right position by a flat-iron behind it. Baked quickly, this made a delicious cake.

Pioneer Whiskey

Copper-still whiskey was, next to water, the drink of the pioneers. Consumed by everyone, it was supposed to be indispensable to health, strength and endurance during the labors of the day, and a liquid sleep-aid during the night. It would also be absolutely indispensable to warmth and animation in cold, chilly winter weather. It was the sacrament of friendship and hospitality. It was universally used, yet the drunkenness of the pioneer was probably less in those days than today.

The whiskey was unequivocally pure, for it was not drugged, doctored and poisoned, although enough of it would bring drunkenness, it did not bring hallucinating tremors, nor leave the system oppressive, nor would the subject be left with a headache upon sobering-up.

As an article of commerce, it was the first thing in demand. Manufacturing stills sprang up everywhere along the streams. Pioneers instantly found a market at the stills for their corn; hence corn became the great crop and whiskey the object of commerce.

Money was a paying practice from the sale of whiskey from which the operator must have to pay his taxes. Whiskey prices ran from twelve to fifteen cents per gallon and could be paid for in corn. A barrel of whiskey in the cellar was just as common as a barrel of cider was later.

Whiskey that was not consumed at home was shipped on flatboats or pirogues (a canoe dug out of a log, or two canoes lashed together) from neighboring water-ways, down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans and sold for Spanish gold.

After disposing of their whiskey in New Orleans, the hardy pioneers would often set out on foot for home, a distance of several hundred miles.

A general comparison of the great springs of yesteryear and their thoroughly satisfying waters, and the early whiskey trials and habits, is that the latter often caused many family problems, as it still does today.

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