I wrote The Feedsack Dress to portray life as the era of the unmechanized, pre-electricity family farm ended. Readers view late 1949 through the eyes of a 13-year-old farm girl called Gail. Like the nation, she is making a major transition, in her case from the small one-room school to the much larger junior high in town and from the homemade feedsack dress to ready-made clothing.
Saturday the Sullivan County (MO) Historical Society invited me to help celebrate a special exhibit of clothing made from patterned cotton sacks. I read a scene in which Gail and her mother perform a then familiar and unforgettable chore: chasing down, killing, and plucking chickens to fry.
Gail’s mother, like mine, used the chop and toss method. She held the chicken down on a stump, cut off the head with a hatchet, and threw the blood-spurting chicken a few feet away to jerk around until the heart stopped. Then Gail picked it up by the legs, dunked it in a bucket of hot water, and held the carcass at arm’s length to pull out the stinking feathers.
Several women shared some of their childhood memories, including the following.
*** One’s mother killed a chicken by putting a sharp-edged coffee can over the head and stepping on it.
*** A common killing technique was holding the chicken by the head and swinging it round and round until either the head came off or the neck was wrung.
*** One person always put the chicken’s neck between two nails driven into a board to hold the head in place for the hatchet.
*** Some people hung a beheaded chicken from the clothesline while the blood ran out.
*** Another mother refused to kill a chicken. The father always did it.
*** A nauseating odor greeted you when you cut open the chicken and disemboweled it.
*** The rural letter carrier delivered big boxes of baby chicks in the spring. By mid summer, families ate fried chicken several times a week.
*** Strong odors, including from the necessary place (outdoor toilet) and cow manure, were more common and less remarked upon then. One woman recalled milking a cow by hand each morning and sometimes going straight from the barn to catch the school bus.
*** The sacks in which you bought sugar or flour were a finer weave than those in which you bought chicken feed. Underwear made from coarse feedsacks was scratchy.
*** All of us farm girls learned to drive a tractor—often having to stand on the clutch or brake to make it work—years before we drove a car.
*** In the 1930s and 1940s, almost everyone used feedsacks to make clothing, tea towels, and quilts.
Most farmers had a small flock of hens up into the 1950s. They provided fresh eggs to eat and to sell, meat to fry in the summer and bake or stew in the winter, and chores for kids all year round. As a fringe benefit, the feed came in pretty sacks now treasured by collectors and quilters.