When The Feedsack Dress came out in 2007, I started a blog on Typepad that focused on life during the late 1940s and early 1950s. I stopped posting there in 2012, but you can still link to The Feedsack Kids. I’m posting some new blogs and my favorite old ones here.
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.
For many years I made my living as a nonfiction writer, striving to gather the essential facts and present material objectively.
Then, after traveling around the world, I came home and marveled at how life in rural Missouri had changed. My generation was the last to grow up in a nation made up of small, diversified, family farms, the ones growing most of their own food (vegetables, fruit, and meat) and a variety of crops to feed their animals and to sell for what they couldn’t produce.
I wanted to preserve the record of what life had been like in the mid 20th century, but what could I write that people would read? The topic exceeded the bounds of a feature article. I lacked both the expertise and the desire to write a socio-economic tome about the country’s transition. My childhood was too uneventful for a memoir in the mode of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books.
That left fiction. I had vivid memories of edging from childhood toward adulthood in the 1950s, and I wanted to reach readers going through that mix of elation and misery. I read social histories of the period that brought home how much the whole nation changed after World War II.
On our farm, the big change came with the arrival of electricity in the late 1940s. I decided to focus on that period, a time of transition for our farm and for the nation. Then my story should feature a transition for the main character. The big one came when a g country kid finished the eighth grade at a one-room rural school and entered a much larger junior high in town.
The idea for The Feedsack Dress began to form. I began to make a slow transition from nonfiction to fiction.
Our lives are part of the long continuum of human history, but how do you use your tiny fragment in a novel?
At 10:30 a.m., Saturday, December 7, I’ll answer that question during a workshop in the Columbia (MO) Public Library. I’ll talk about how I drew on memory, others’ memories, library research, and imagination in writing The Feedsack Dress, an MG/YA novel set in northeast Missouri in 1949. Using short readings, I’ll illustrate such points as incorporating real life into your plot and c haracterizations.
We draw on our experience no matter what we write. I’ll touch on how I’ve done that in writing my Show Me mystery series.
To register, call 573-443-3161.
Hurricane Sandy brought death and destruction to the East Coast last week. Millions who came through the storm unscathed still face an ongoing problem, the loss of electrical power. After a day or two, the lack of power went from an inconvenience to a hardship.
Thinking back to the loss of power on our farm, I remembered that we got along pretty well. We had fresh vegetables in the garden and canned ones in the storm cave, chickens to provide eggs and fresh meat, a kerosene stove for summer cooking, and a good supply of lanterns. After all, we didn’t even get electricity until the late 1940s.
When storms knocked out the power, our biggest problem was milking the cows by hand. Like the father in The Feedsack Dress, my father cared little that electricity enabled us to have bright electric lights rather than dim kerosene lamps, an electric radio rather than a battery-powered one, and an electric range rather than the hot wood-burning stove. To him, electricity meant the opportunity to milk with a machine and triple the size of our dairy herd, then about 10 cows.
He and my mother could milk those cows by hand in about an hour and a half, the same time it took to milk the expanded herd with the milking machine. And milking with the machine took far less energy and produced much less stress on the hands and wrists. Replacing the lanterns with electric lights also raised human (not bovine) productivity, especially on dark winter mornings and evenings.
I’m not sure what the cows felt about the changes, but they adjusted.
Less work and more money. It was great—until the power went off. Milking all those extra cows by hand took hours and cramped the muscles.
Nothing like losing your electricity to make you value it.