My grandfather and grandmother raised seven children through the depression, and they did it on a hardscrabble dirt farm. Grandpa was unusual in that he took his family on a two week vacation every year, a fishing vacation. This is what that vacation looked like…
Sam yelled “Whoa there” to the two mules. He had reached the end of the last furrow of the field; all of the corn stalks were turned under now. Pushing his straw hat back he pulled a blue bandanna from his overall pocket and wiped the sweat from his face. It was nearly sundown and tomorrow was a special day. Tomorrow was the first day of the annual fishing trip to the Pin-Oak Creek bottoms. Sam smiled; he looked forward to this all year, but not as much as the kids. They would be whooping and hollering and turning cartwheels in the yard about now. Sam pulled the plow up and set the pin, took his boots from the sideboard and put them back on his feet – he loved the feel of fresh turned earth under bare feet – and clucked at the mules while shaking the traces to get them moving towards home.
When Sam had finished brushing the mules down, providing fresh water and feed, and closing the barn, he walked over to the house with a big grin. Hallie met him with a big grin of her own. “They won’t sleep a wink all night they’re so excited,” she said indicating the five girls and two boys that ranged in age from fifteen down to four.
“Know just how they feel,” he replied. “Wagon’s loaded and ready to go I guess?” he asked Hallie. They’d been married for seventeen years, knew each other so well that speaking was just a formality, they could have this conversation with just a couple of looks at each other. “Oh yes. Packed and repacked. Everything’s there,” Hallie answered. “The kids had it done by mid-morning, took it all back out and did it again just to pass the time. They’d finished all their chores before you got the mules to the field,” she said with her big beautiful bright smile, the smile carrying over to her voice.
Hallie was a pleasant soul, laughed a lot, and cried hard when it was crying time. Sam loved her to the point of pure distraction. Sometimes when he was plowing or working on something else he’d find himself completely at a standstill and realize he had been thinking about her and forgotten where he was and what he was doing. He’d shake his head, laugh a little and then get back to work.
Sam often told the children that their mother was the finest human being he’d ever known, and for them not to forget it – and Hallie was always telling them the same thing about Sam. They almost never had to spank any of the children because the children hated disappointing their parents more than anything else in the world, except for Nathan, the younger of the two boys. Nathan got spanked more than the eight others combined, not because he was bad, but because he was full of an energetic mischief that he couldn’t keep contained. Nathan had a streak in him that caused everyone in the county to shake their heads and laugh at his antics. He was a favorite of everyone who knew him. He was also a lot like Sam had been at that age.
That night Nathan lay in bed, tossing and turning and getting up to look out the window at the moonlit yard with the wagon covered with canvas. It wasn’t quite a Conestoga, but it was big and it was similar. It was a covered wagon, and for the next two weeks it would be the family home. He thought he’d be awake all night, but pretty soon he was dreaming of catching catfish so fast they piled up over his head. Nathan was seven years old, and his world was pretty near perfect.
For Sam and Hallie, the world was far from perfect. Raising children in the depression on a dirt farm was a sorely trying life. It meant getting up hours before dawn, working as hard as a mule all day long in the blistering heat or the freezing cold, and then doing chores until well after dark. Falling into bed exhausted only to sleep a troubled sleep filled with worry about making enough hard cash to pay for the things they couldn’t make, raise, or grow themselves, and for paying the taxes. And they worried about sickness or accident striking the children or each other.
There wasn’t a family they knew that hadn’t lost one child and most families had lost more than one. Sam and Hallie had lost three. One died of fever and one of an infection. Both of them dying within months of being born and there had been one stillborn. Three small graves on the hill reminded them daily of these dire losses.
A typical day saw the entire family at hard labor, mostly on their own farm for what they could produce, and sometimes on other farms for a little cash money or for barter goods. Picking cotton for instance, that was something the whole family did together, getting paid by the hundred pound of cotton picked. The children that were too small to pick would be kept close by in the field, usually on a blanket under a nearby tree. The smaller children would have their own child sized cotton bags to fill, and the older children had an adult sized bag.
Neither Sam nor Hallie had any trouble falling asleep at night as they were always exhausted, but the sleep was often troubled. But on this night even they slept peacefully because there were two glorious weeks about to unfold for them. And for now all was as right as it could get in their world.
Nathan was up before the rooster had cracked an eye. He jumped up out of bed and let out a war whoop that would have made a regiment of confederates proud, and of course, woke the entire family with a shock that had their hair standing straight up. But quick as a wink they all realized what morning it was and he was forgiven. Within minutes they were all dressed and buzzing around the kitchen. Hallie and the two older girls were making a quick breakfast, baking biscuits and slicing ham. Breakfast would be eaten in the wagon as they traveled, buttered biscuits with ham slices inside.
Sam brought the two mules and hitched them to the wagon and Nathan’s job was to milk the cow and then tie it behind the wagon. The family might be going on vacation, and the neighbors were going to keep an eye on the place – but the cow had to be milked twice every day so it had to go with them. Had it not been for the milk cow trailing behind the wagon, the trip would have taken half as long to make, but Sam wouldn’t go any faster than the cow could comfortably walk and he would stop occasionally to boot. So it would take most of the day to get down to their spot on the creek. And what a spot it was.
Pin-Oak Creek was a year round creek. Their camping spot was beneath a large full canopy of giant Cottonwood trees. The shade was so dense that hardly a spot of sunlight hit the ground all day. As is normal with Cottonwoods, the canopy was high up in the air, allowing for any ground breezes to blow unhindered. It was as cool of a spot as could be found in all of Texas during this hottest time of the year.
The creek was only yards away and it was spring fed. This particular spot had a spring that came from miles below the ground and the water was uncommonly cold. This was a deep spot, so deep that it took everything the boys had to swim down to the bottom; and that after a deep dive from the high bank. There was a sharp thermal shock to the system when flying through the hot August air, air that was over one-hundred degrees by mid-morning, and then plunging into the cold, cold, spring water. It numbed the body and delighted the mind. Sam and the boys swam in the coldest part of the spring hole they could find. Hallie and the girls moved down stream to a point where the water was pleasantly cool, but not so shockingly cold as the boys preferred.
During the day the cold water of the creek moderated the temperature of their camping spot, cooling it off by as much as ten degrees from what it was just a hundred yards away. Between the cooler air, the shade, and the ability to take a dip in cold water at any time, the summer heat was banished (relatively speaking) for the next two weeks.
Nathan chafed at the slow moving of the wagon, he wanted to run and dive into that water so bad he could taste it. At points along the way his energy would get the better of him and he’d jump from the wagon and literally run around it in circles as it moved slowly forward. Their three yard dogs chasing after him and barking with delight. Sam would smile and Hallie would laugh to watch that boundless energy burning off. Nathan was a good worker, in short bursts, at activities that captured his imagination. Otherwise he was something of a twitchy worker. Sam knew that time would settle him down, time and maturity. Hallie knew that Nathan would be as good a man as Sam someday, and she couldn’t think of a better thing for him to be, not in the whole world. The day crept on with the kids alternately sitting and walking, but it passed, eventually. For Sam and Hallie it was a pleasant day, and not a long one. For Nathan it was years and years and years . . .
But they got there and Nathan and his brother whooped and ran and jumped right into the creek, completely clothed except for shoes. They’d not bothered to wear shoes for weeks now, what with school being out; barefoot being the norm for them during the warm parts of the year. They splashed and dunked each other as Sam set about taking the mules loose from the wagon and leading them to the creek to drink. Then he took the cow down for a drink. Then he yelled at the boys to come help him set up camp. They came immediately. When their dad said jump, they jumped and didn’t ask questions. There was a certain tone of voice he used that they could easily distinguish, a not unpleasant tone, but it did mean business was at hand.
Sam set the boys and two of the older girls to gathering firewood. He didn’t have to explain that they need to find hardwood, preferably oak, they knew about wood. Cottonwood would do in a pinch, but it burned too soft and the smoke was unpleasant compared to oak. Cedar was abundant and burned fairly hot and the smoke had a very pleasant odor, but it was not an odor you wanted in your food. Nathan’s brother, who was twelve, took the axe and the children gathered wood while Sam hobbled the horses and the milk cow in the adjacent meadow.
The animals would have plenty of forage and Sam could keep an easy eye on them from the camp. For the next two weeks either he or one of the boys would take the animals to the creek three times a day. In the summer they needed a lot of water. Being hobbled meant they could walk around freely, forage as they pleased, and find shade if they wanted. They could even manage getting to the creek if they wanted to bad enough. What they couldn’t do was move away quickly, so they could be easily caught up as and when necessary.
The dogs did as dogs do, they chased after and along with the children, ate the food tossed to them during family meals, sought out their own food from time to time, rolled in smelly things, swam now and then, and spent large chunks of the day sleeping in the shade.
Hallie and the girls were setting up to make dinner. Lunch had been more cold biscuits with ham, and milk to drink. Dinner would be a hot meal cooked over an open fire, something Hallie was blessedly good at doing, and the girls were nothing short of a wonder after her teaching and example. The meals for the next two weeks would be simple affairs, but they’d be nutritious and filling, and leaning heavily on fresh caught fish. Tonight’s meal would be red beans heated up from the night before that she’d brought along, pan fried corn bread, and of course, milk.
There’d be fresh milk from that morning. Nathan would milk the cow for the evening milking but that milk would be for tomorrow after the cream had separated. All of the children had taken turns milking the cow as they reached what was considered the appropriate age. Part of the reason for this was to teach the children constancy. A milk cow had to be milked twice a day, every day without fail, and there was no such a thing as an excused absence. This was an important lesson for children to learn, and no better way than through the big brown eyes of a cow desperately needing relief. The milk would be put into jars and then into the cold spring water. The milk would be much colder than they normally had the pleasure of drinking, so that was an added bonus to the camp out.
By the time the wood was gathered, fire built, beans heated, and cornbread cooked it was dark. From past experience Sam and Hallie had learned to bring chairs and pre-cut lumber that could be assembled into a table. A large piece of canvas was attached to the wagon in lean-to fashion and the table and chairs were assembled beneath it. Hallie didn’t care to have leaves falling into her plate. Having a decent place to sit and to eat, was a small thing to arrange, but one with great benefits. With a Kerosene lantern in the middle of the table the nine gentle souls held hand as Sam said grace.
Sam was a very religious man and could patiently listen to sermons for hours, but when he was hungry he could give a direct and heartfelt prayer that got right to the point and was over with quickly. For Sam, dinner with his family was always the high point of his day, and this night was no exception. Food was passed around and eaten, stories were told, and laughter rang out into the darkness surrounding their cozy camp. Even the crickets and frogs quieted to listen. Then dishes were put away to be washed in the morning by the sun’s light – putting the dishes off was another rarity and definite change of pattern. Beds and bedrolls were made ready.
Sam and the two boys slept on the ground under the wagon in their bedrolls while Hallie and the five girls slept in the wagon under the canvas cover. The canvas was rolled up on each side to allow the night breeze to blow through. Nathan thought the night would never end of course; he was ready to do some serious fishing and couldn’t wait. He’d asked his dad if he could take a lantern and fish in the dark. “Not this first night son, but maybe tomorrow night.” Sam had replied assured that by tomorrow night Nathan would be too tired to consider it again. And Sam was right.
The next day set the pattern for the following two weeks. By habit everyone was awake and moving well before dawn. Hallie was building up the fire while the girls were preparing biscuits and slicing ham. Sam and the boys were taking the mules and the milk cow to the creek for a morning drink. The biscuits cooked quickly in the Dutch oven, the ham heated even faster in the cast iron skillet and cold milk was retrieved from the spring. The cream was skimmed off to be made into butter later and the fresh cold whole milk was shared out. Breakfast was soon eaten and the day had begun.
For Hallie and the girls it began with cleaning of the dishes and setting up preparations for lunch. A fresh batch of red beans were put into a kettle, seasoned and started, they’d just be ready for lunch and particularly good by supper. Once that was done the girls went swimming and exploring. They would swim some more later in the day when it had heated up more. They would wear swim suits that Hallie and they had made, modest affairs made from flour bags. The boys, if they swam near the camp would wear their overalls but nothing else – if they swam away from the camp they’d swim without clothes at all. The boys would spend a lot of the next two weeks in the creek in their birthday suits. Sam would occasionally join them, but he spent quite a bit of his time sitting in a chair and reading his worn bible. Sitting and reading were a total luxury to him, and he was almost embarrassed by the decadence of it.
Sam would tend the mules and the cow, make sure the boys gathered firewood as needed, and fish. He would fish a lot. Sam enjoyed running trot-lines and catching catfish. He would do the trotline right there in the spring by the camp. Catching catfish was best done at night, but could be done all day too, just not as productively. The first day he unrolled his trotline and patiently re-sharpened all the hooks. Then he tied one end to the camp side of the spring, swam across unrolling it as he went, and tied the other side off. He had ten hooks. Next he went bait hunting. There were plenty of jumbo sized grasshoppers and they were easy to catch. Ten hooks, ten grass hoppers. Done!
Sam put the grasshoppers into a Prince Albert tobacco. Putting the tin in the top pocket of his overalls he swam along the trotline carefully baiting each hook, then swam back and sat in his chair reading and drying off. Hallie had churned the butter in the meantime and as a special treat for Sam had fixed him a glass of cornbread and milk. Sam loved cornbread broken up and dropped into a glass of milk; he ate it with a spoon, delicious.
While Sam waited for his next trip down the trot-line the boys had cut willow poles and rigged up their fishing lines. They moved up and down the creek dropping their lines in, lines that were also baited with grasshoppers; and they caught fish. These fish rarely ever saw a fishing line and were pretty easy to catch. All fish were kept. If they were too small to eat they were used for bait, usually on the trot-line. The fish were kept in a loose-weave-jute-tow-sack that was kept in the water; it kept the fish alive for as long as needed. At about 11 a.m., as indicated by the sun’s position, the boys packed up and went back to camp with their catch.
They cleaned the fish by cutting the heads off, scaling them, and gutting them. They had caught mostly bream and a couple of bass. Sam had checked his trot-line and had one catfish. He cleaned it by skinning it, gutting it, and cutting the head off. The cleaned fish were turned over to the girls for lunch, and there was enough for everyone to have a fish. The fish were rolled in cornmeal and then fried in lard in the cast iron skillet over the open fire.
Lunch consisted of cold milk, fried fish, red beans and corn bread. Hallie had scouted around and had found poke salad and cooked those up so they also had poke salad greens seasoned with a bit of bacon. It was a delicious meal. Then a really strange and luxurious thing happened. The rest of the year everyone went right back to work after lunch, but not for these two weeks. Naps were taken, and they were thoroughly enjoyed. For an hour and a half they all stretched out on blankets in the shade and let the light wind play in their hair as they slept and digested. Hallie said they did this in Mexico all the time, or so she had read. Except for Nathan of course, he wandered around exploring the small world of insects that only seven year old boys can find and be fascinated by.
Waking up rested and restless Sam told the boys to get the seine out. They jumped to and soon the three of them had taken the seine to a narrow part of the creek and spread it out and were catching minnows. They took the minnows back to camp and put them in a tow sack in the spring to keep for now. Sam and the boys swam out and checked the trot line, putting the larger minnows on the hooks. Sam went back to his chair and the boys went back to their poles, this time armed with minnows carried in a mason jar. And this time they caught more bass than bream, and couple of pretty big bass at that. All were kept and taken back to the camp an hour before supper time.
Sam and the boys checked the trot line again, this time he had two catfish and a turtle. They re-baited and retreated to camp. Hallie picked out the fish she wanted for dinner and the boys cleaned them and presented them to her. The other fish remained in the tow sack. Supper was a repeat of lunch, only more fish this time, and the beans had been cooking all day and were soft and really tasty. Everyone ate until they hurt a happy occurrence that didn’t happen often and was to be taken advantage of.
Among the nine people in the family there wasn’t an ounce of fat to be found. All were lean, nearing skinny and Sam even looked gaunt in the dim light of evening, with that facial gauntness seen in photographs of Abraham Lincoln. They were strong and muscled, lean muscled, hard muscled. They were in better physical shape than most athletes. Eating to excess wasn’t a thing they could afford, so when they could do it, they did.
After supper that night Sam hung the lantern on a limb at the edge of the creek and swam out and checked his trot-line by its dim light, four nice fish this time. He would run it one more time before he went to bed, and then again first thing in the morning. By noon on the second day they had plenty of fish in tow sacks in the creek and they could pick and choose which fish they kept after that.
Each evening before bed everyone went to the creek, boys downstream and girls upstream and bathed with homemade lye soap. This soap was so strong that it probably stunned the fish downstream for half a mile. Hallie firmly believed that cleanliness was next to Godliness and would stand for no dirt on her family before they went to bed. Being dirty during the day was okay, even necessary, but only during the day. No member of the family ever put on the same clothes two days in a row. Even while on this vacation clothes were boiled and washed often enough they all had clean clothes, and the clothes had been cleaned so many times that all of them were a faded gray color. No dirt remained on any patch of skin or hair either.
After the washing up, there was often an hour given over to storytelling. Everyone sat around the fire and Sam or Hallie would each tell a story. Usually they were humorous stories of everyday life, stories from their own histories and of people that they knew. Many were family stories going back several generations so that the children learned about their ancestors. Sometimes the older children would tell a story, and the younger children were encouraged to speak up about whatever might be on their minds. Questions were asked, seriously considered, and then answered.
On Sunday Sam read from the Bible and made a lesson out of something that had happened recently, maybe from one of the old newspapers. More often though the sermon’s subject would be taken from the hardships of everyday life. After Sunday morning services the day was given back over to fishing and camping out and relaxing.
And so the days went, fourteen of them going by at a slow lazy pace for Sam and Hallie, but whooshing by for Nathan. By the end of their vacation Sam and Hallie and the girls were ready to go back home, to the luxury of real beds and hot baths in a tub instead of cold ones in the creek. Sam and Hallie, and the girls, had gotten their fill of fish for a while; not that anyone complained, but fried chicken was sure sounding good.
Nathan though, well, he wanted to stay and to fish forever and his brother was pretty much right there in that thought too. The boys would spend much of their adult lives trying to re-create the freedom and downright purity of those camping times. They would never quite get the same feeling they had as children, no adult ever can really, but they would keep getting close enough to continue trying. And remembering.