I wonder…

By Marion Tucker-Honeycutt | Mar 11, 2021
Courtesy of: Marion Tucker-Honeycutt The columnist's brother, Larry, makes spring repairs about 1942.

The howling winds of this past week with the "Widow-Maker Winds,” nature’s way of pruning the forest by bringing down the weak trees and limbs, put me in mind of my long-ago childhood on the Tucker Farm up north of Lincoln. (As I write this last weekend, I’m holding the weather prognosticators to their prediction for the mid-50s come when you‘re reading this.)

Along with the winds, we had the deep freeze temps with the wind-chill dipping below zero and the daytime temperature not getting high enough to melt the 3-4 inches of white-ice that our yards were locked in.

This time of year Grampa would be inspecting the farm buildings and such for repairs and clean-up after the long winter. The biggest thing to check for was any loose shingles, cracked or broken windows, anything that would let water in. Water is the most destructive enemy of buildings and winter winds and snows wreak havoc over the long winter. So come spring, it was time for inspecting, fixing and patching. This work would fall to Grampa Roy and my brother, Larry.

Back in the fall, they had spent weeks buttoning up the farm buildings against the onslaught of winter. The 4-foot logs that had been stacked in cord-sized piles in the woods the past winter were hauled down to the farm and sawed into stove-lengths and then chopped into firewood for the three stoves — the “Modern Clarion” cookstove, the sitting room stove and the first floor bedroom. The heat from the cookstove wafted up the staircase, and along with the other stoves' chimneys helped ward off the cold for a few hours. But come morning, you woke up, as Grampa Roy would say, with your toenails chattering.

It took an average of 24 cords of wood to heat those farmhouses back then. They weren’t well insulated and the big old wooden-framed storm windows weren't all that efficient. Jack Frost would paint his icy scenes on the inside of the windows.

Keeping warm involved a little more than making a phone call to the oilman. (We didn’t have a phone anyway. Power lines for electricity and phones hadn’t yet been put down Tucker Ridge).

Before the first snow flew, the house was banked. We kids would go off to the forest with Grampa Roy to gather pine boughs to pack around the house. Grampa would then cover these with ‘banking boards’. They consisted of boards nailed together in sections with braces. These were placed over the pine boughs, slanting down from the house to the ground and pegged to stay in place. This system went a long way toward keeping us toasty inside while the blizzards raged and howled around the buildings deep in the Maine forest.

One of the most important summer chores was inspecting and patching the roofs of the house, granary, barn and other outbuildings. Keep the rain out, keep the rot out.

The shingles were cedar shakes made by Grampa Roy from the trees on the farm. (Originally, the farm was 500 acres. There were pastures for the cows and horses, fields of barley and gardens and hayfields and some 400 acres left of forest.)

Down in the forest was a large stand of sugar maple, called “The Thousand Trees.” By now, Grampa Roy and my brother would have driven the sap spiles into the trees and gotten the pails ready for these first warm days/cold nights that would get the sap running.

Grampa Roy no longer did the sugaring off to produce maple syrup for sale. Instead, he sold the sap. Men would come down into the grove with a team of horses pulling large stainless steel tanks for filling. We had a big old black "witches cauldron" that we’d burn a fire under and boil down maple syrup for our own use. And we kids would take some syrup to drop from spoons into the snow to make sugar candy. I loved to drink the sweet "tap water." I’ll be looking for a place to get some of that in a week or so.

By winter, the cellar would be lined with shelves of colorful, glistening canning jars, and barrels of potatoes, carrots, apples, salted pork, beef, and venison covered the cool dirt floor. We were set with months' worth of food with no GMOs, artificial hormones, preservatives and the like. Along with the milk and butter from the cows in the barn, hens and eggs in the hen house, meat and fish from the forest and waters, we seldom needed to go grocery shopping. Indeed we rarely ever did any grocery "shopping." Grampa and Grammie traded goods for goods. For example, Grammie would trade her butter for flour, sugar, molasses, and other things they couldn’t produce on their own.

They had many ways to make the money they needed without ever having to work off the farm, to ever work for anyone but themselves.

People today thank their lucky stars that they don’t have to work that hard for their food and heating fuel and other necessities. They’re eternally grateful for today's "advantages."

I wonder. I mean, how many hours each week do we work at our jobs to make the money we spend for food. How many hours for gas and heating oil or propane? Grampa and Grammie never punched a time clock or had to leave the farm to go to work in a howling storm. Never spent most of their waking hours inside at desks, often under artificial lights and windowless offices.

I wonder. How much healthier were Grampa and Grammie than people today? They lived into their mid-80s and I don’t remember them being sick until a day or two before they passed.

I wonder. Have we complicated our lives too much? Do we work harder now, when you think about it, to support our lives?

With this past year, many people here in Maine are turning, at least in part, back to the days of being more responsible for producing some of their own food. We’ve realized it isn’t too smart to be dependent on our very food being trucked from valleys and fields across the country. We’ve learned that if the trucks stopped rolling, the store shelves are empty within days. In the case of toilet paper, within hours. (I haven’t figured that one out yet. Across the whole world, the most important thing was toilet paper?)

Have we learned anything yet?

I wonder.

Marion Tucker-Honeycutt, an award-winning columnist, a Maine native and graduate of Belfast schools, now lives in Morrill. Her columns appear in this paper every other week.

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