"Come sit in the swing under the shade tree and let me tell you of days gone by..."



Written by a woman that has lived all of this! Paula Howard Thompson, pj@apex.net, native of Weakley Co., Tennessee has graciously agreed to share her knowledge of the old time ways our ancestors lived by. Thanks so much, Paula!

Note: These stories remain property of Paula Thompson and may not be reproduced or used in any publication without her written approval and endorsement.



Get the famous "wash kettle" out again and we will make lye soap!  You will see the "wash kettle" many times doing many things.  I had my family's wash kettle until a cousin stole, and I do mean stole it, from me this past year!  If he can live with himself, I guess I can live without it, but sure don't want to! Now lye soap can be made two ways and I will tell you about both ways.  You can even make lye soap today!  The way pioneers made their lye soap was to save their cook stove wood, ash wood, and place it in a "ash hopper", hang it outside and when it rained this would drain it and what was left was lye.  Now before putting your ash ashes in the "ash hopper" you would strain them getting anything out that would harm the final soap.  You have to drain the ash with the rainwater so your soap will be pretty and white when it is finished, this is also called leaching wood ashes.   After the rainwater draining you need to strain the left over product one more time.  When you have enough lye to make a batch of soap (this would be about the same amount as a box of Merrywar lye that you would buy in the store today), get the fire going under the kettle.  You use old skins and fats to cook out about 5 pounds of grease, when it is all cooked out you strain the grease and throw away the skins and cooked out fat pieces.  Put your lye and grease in the "wash kettle" and cook over the fire stirring with the same paddle that we rendered lard with in the hog killing.  This soap when finished cooking will be snow white, now if you want it to smell pretty you add a few drops of your favorite good smelling perfume or herb such as rosemary, jasmine or which ever one is your favorite.

The more modern way to make lye soap is to buy a box of Merrywar Lye, the Merrywar was a brand name but the only brand I ever heard of.  You use five pounds grease (regular bacon grease as long as it isn't burnt works fine) and a box of store bought Merrywar Lye in the "wash kettle" over a just right temperature fire and the finished product is lye soap.  There again you can add a scent or leave it as is.  Lye soap was used back yonder when to wash clothes in the "wash kettle" and it sure made them pretty and clean.

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This stuff was awful!  One of my jobs was to do the ironing! I hated that job!  Told you that I was not spoiled, that I had to work.  To make starch you used flour, bluing, and water and made a mixture that was not too thick but sort of a little lumpy.  When you got through washing the clothes you would have a wash tub with clear water in it and you would put your clothes in it and dump in the starch, swish it around real good so when dried the clothes would be stiff as a board!  Hang's on the line to dry, when you went to take down the wash it would be a miracle that didn't break right into.  Well come ironing day, for me always Saturday morning, Mama started sprinkling the clothes down and rolling them up in a ball.  There I am, hating the job.  Now I loved Mama Jones dearly, she was my grandmother, my mother, my playmate and my best friend but I hated to iron them old house dresses.  Of course back then you starched and ironed every thing in site, sheets, pillow slips, tablecloths and you name it and I had to iron it.  Now going to town day was Saturday morning, I didn't like to go to town, just wanted to stay home and pilfer around but no I had to iron.  Well I would get some of the ironing done and then I would hid some of the things just so I wouldn't have so much to iron that day, kid like not realizing it would still be there next Saturday.  I finally figured out after I was grown why I had to do the ironing, Mama hated it to!  

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You used flour and water to make your wall paper paste in the old days, you couldn't make it too stiff so it would spread on even and smooth.  My Mama papered every thing in site!  Mama would mix up her paste, get that wild flowered paper out, set up 2 cain bottom chairs and lay a board across the backs of these chairs, that was her work table and away she would go.  To this day if you were to take down the paneling you would find Mama's wall paper.  The designs would blind a blind man, when I was about 12 I got my own room.  By this time I was grown up but really deep down didn't want to leave Mama Jones's room, I was still sleeping on that OLD iron bedstead that I got when my baby bed left home.  Of course, my room got papered (this room was on the back of the house and had not been used for a long time).  I didn't go to town to pick out the paper so guess what I got?  Big, bold flowers!  I slept with them flowers for years to come, no wonder I left home the day I graduated.  You know if I could have my Mama, Daddy and Mama Jones back I wouldn't give a hoot what that wall paper looked like.

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You ever see trunks of trees painted white in the old days?  The old timers would mix lime and water to make paint (you used enough lime and water to make a liquid that would stay on wood when it was painted, no recipe, just hit or miss).  White Wash was used for many purposes back then, such as, house paint, tree trunks, fences, barns and whatever anybody wanted to slap a little paint on.  You know everybody even in the country wanted "to keep up with the Joneses", we were (at least part) the Joneses.  My Uncle Allen Jones would make this statement and a long time friend of his would say, "You can't keep up with the Joneses... they just refinance and go again"!  Oh well we white washed every thing in site.

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Did you ever wonder where the straws for brooms came from?  It comes from broom corn.  Broom corn is really a grain sorghum that you raised in your garden every year about two rows 60 feet long each would produce enough straw to make about a dozen brooms.  Now this type corn did not have a tassel, it had a head with seeds in it (sort of like milo maze).  The seeds were produced on long straws in the vicinity of 10 to 16 inches, when the seeds turned red and the plants started drying up, you would cut the seed head out, take it home, put it under the big oak tree.  If you didn't already had a board to strip your seed out then you had to make one.  To make a board (something like a 1 x 10 or 1 x 12) about 3 1/2 feet long, one end was cut similar to an ironing board which means the corners had been cut off at an angle and in the center there is a strip that has no cutting on it, this is about 4 inches wide. Now you take a hand saw and cut down in the center of this 4 inches of board making a strip on top that was about 1/8 inch wide and 10 to 12 inches deep.  Again get a cain back chair and set under the shade tree by the pile of seed heads (I still have the old cain back chairs).  Now you put the board that you have made between your knees and you pick up 1 seed head back toward the butt of the seed head and then pull back towards yourself, this will thread the seeds off the straw.  Get all the seeds stripped from the seed heads.  Now we are ready to make brooms!

Gather up and bundle enough of the straws to make a broom, shape your straws in broom shape fashion and attach to a handle, tie a knot at the top, go down about 2 inches below the handle and flatten the straws to form your broom.  Now take a big needle and some real coarse thread and sew up your broom, you take long stitches through the broom straws with about 1/4 inch between stitches.  Go down about an inch and repeat the sewing, go down another inch and repeat the sewing again.  Now you lay your flatten broom on a table, take a very sharp knife and but straight across the bottom of the broom to have a straight edge.  The first broom of the season is made and you only have about 11 more to go.  At one time there was a blind gentleman that lived around Midway in Obion County, Tennessee that would make the brooms on halfers.  You had to have the seeds stripped out and take him the straw.  Times were hard and people had to make most of their own items that were needed for every day living.  Of course, I have been whacked with these brooms a many of time.  I guess you could say that I MIGHT have been a little mischievous!

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If I had a dollar for every "sara cloth" that I have worn to bed, I would be stinking rich!  Bet you are wondering what a "sara cloth" is?  Well I can tell you in detail (but it works and I even used them on my children and grandchildren).  The best thing to use was soft cotton fabric such as the old cotton stocking were made from.  The cloth would be thick and the size of your chest (I used wash rags for my kids and gkids), on the center of the rag went camphor, vicks salve, or anything that would penetrate the pours of your ski.  After getting all this concoction put together, you heated it just as hot as could be stood.  When the "sara cloth" got just the right temperature it was laid on your chest (it really did feel good) and pined to your gown, pajamas or what ever you had on to sleep in.  Straight to bed and under alot of quilts so no air could get to you!  The very first thing you did in the morning was to take the "sara cloth" off and take a bath or wash the goup off your chest or the theory was you will get sicker, got to close those pours.  I am sure this was called many things but "sarah cloth" is what my family always called it!  It works!

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Now this one was a bomber!  You ever go to bed with something hanging around you neck that smelled like a skunk?  An asafetida bag was WORST!  I got mostly the sara cloth but have had this thing.  Now asafetida is a plant resin that the old timers used to help you breathe, breakup a cold and for just general purposes to get you well.  I'll take a dose of castor oil or tonic any day over this stuff!  I really know know if anything else was put in the bag except the resin, I didn't want to know!  The way it was done was to take a piece of flannel or soft like material and put this resin in it, tie a string around it and tie a long string on the bag so it could hand around your neck!

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Do you remember Miss Jennie that I told you about?  Well Miss Jennie (This is Jennie Colley Johns of Weakley Co, Tn.) professed to being able to take warts off you.  When I was a kid I had warts all over my hands.  My Mama told me that when she was a kid that she did too and Miss Jennie took her warts off.  Well I hope on that trusty old bicycle and head down the road.  She was in the yard washing clothes, I ran up to her as excited as I could be (I have these things BAD). "Miss Jennie, Miss Jennie, Mama said you took her warts off, will you take mine off?"  Miss Jennie stopped washing and with her sweet smile and hug she said "You have to believe that I can take them off and don't look at your warts and worrying about them and one day they will be gone".  She rubbed over all my warts and acted strange and went back to the scrub board and wash kettle!  That was that, of course I looked every morning for a few days and my warts were still there.  A couple of months passed and child like I forgot about the "great wart removal" but one morning I got up and looked at my hands and started yelling for Mama, she came running thinking I was in to something else.  "Mama, Mama my warts are gone, Miss Jennie sore can take'm off". Don't ask me, I have no idea!

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Have you ever had your throat(inside) mopped with merthiolate?  You don't have a clue to what you have missed.  My Daddy believed in merthiolate, he used that red stuff to swap out my throat or anybody else's that complained of a sore throat.  Any skit place, whatever you got merthiolate.  This stuff really worked.  Let me tell you about a typical throat mopping, Daddy would get himself a stick and wind cotton onto it good and tight, then he would hollow for me (I was hid somewhere or 'nother), Mama would use the back of a teaspoon to hold my tongue down while Daddy got in there with both hands and feet and give me a good mopping.  Now think about this you got a small kid with two adults on top of you with a spoon and a stick with cotton and merthiolate on it mopping your throat.  You don't know what you missed!  Back in them old days, Daddy also gave shots to anybody in the neighborhood that needed one, but guess who got the most?  ME!  I was forever playing in a water hole or doing something stupid to get hurt, so out came the merthiolate and needle and syringes to doctor pj.  One of the worst times with the merthiolate was when I was about 3 years old, Daddy was taking me fishing.  He told me not to go out to the smokehouse and mess with the cane poles.  Guess what, I did!  Well I got to slinging the poles around (had the line and hooks on them) and landed me a big one, right through my nose (the part in the center of your nostrils).  Well you never heard such screaming and hollowing that I was doing (man I was a pro at that).  Well here comes Daddy, Mama, Mama Jones, and Doc Johns (he lived with us awhile and was the brother of Miss Allie and Mr. Jesse who was the husband of Miss Jennie).  They grabbed me and held me down so Daddy could look at my nose.  He got out his wire pliers out of his back hip pocket and come at me telling the other 3 to hold me still!  They had the worst job, Daddy snipped off the hook end of the hook and pulled it back through my nose.  Of course the first thing that happened after that, you guessed it, he told Mama to go get his merthiolate!  Yes, got it on the nose, burned like the devil but it didn't matter how loud I screamed and begged, I got it anyway!  We won't even talk about the doses of castor oil I got growing up or how many english walnuts have been rubbed on me and left stained for days.

Written by Paula (pj) Howard Thompson ; A Native of Weakley County, Tennessee ;c1998pjThompson; December 11, 1998

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