Down T'Home

When we made things

By Marion Tucker-Honeycutt | Jul 12, 2017
Marion Tucker-Honeycutt and her brother. Marion is wearing garments made by Grammie.

Used to be, we made many, if not most, of the things we needed in life.

The watchword, back in the Great Depression and through WWII was: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without."

And so it was, up on Tucker Ridge in northern Maine in the late '30s, early '40s. Grammie Tucker used another apropos phrase: "It isn't a bargain if you don't need it."

I try to keep these in mind, still, along with a question I ask myself when tempted to buy something I run across and could use: "Is this a need or a want?" Another trick, when I run across a real "bargain" is to not buy it then but to wait a few days. Nine times out of ten, I find I'm no longer interested in parting with the money to get it or have forgotten about it altogether.

Back in the farm days, Grampa and Grammie, as did everyone up there, made the lion's share of life's necessities. The farm itself had been hewn out of the forest, in the mid-1800s by my great-grandfather, Samuel, no doubt with help from his brother, father, uncle and cousins, who had farms nearby. The farmhouse was sided with clapboards, (a word derived from the original Dutch, "klappen," meaning 'to split.' It used to be split by hand but my great-grandfather had a saw mill on the farm, which made the job go much faster. He also made the wood for the floors — out of bird's eye maple!

The sides of the barn, hen house, workshop and garage were shingled, as were all the roofs. These they hand-split out of ceder stumps with a froe, also called a splitting ax.

I can still see my Grampa Roy splitting shingles and my brother up on the roof, repairing and replacing missing or damaged ones. These had a life span of 35 to 40 years. (Can't get that out of roofs today.)

Of course, 90 to 95 percent of the family's food was grown or raised on the farm and taken from the woods and waters. Things you couldn't produce yourself, like sugar, flour and molasses were traded for with eggs, butter, berries and such.

I never saw a loaf of store-bought bread until after I was taken off the farm. Flour came in 20- to 50-lb. cotton bags. The cotton was good quality, close woven to hold the flour in. Women used the material for hand towels and making pillow cases and cafe curtains. Come the Depression, they started using the cloth to make clothing.

The flour mills quickly saw a marketing opportunity and started printing the cotton with patterns, mostly floral. And very pretty. Grammie made my skirts, blouses and over-aprons — we wore aprons over our clothes to take the brunt of dirt. It served two purposes. Our clothes could be worn a second day and if company came over the hill, we could whip off the aprons and be ready to greet them. Grammie decorated my flour sack clothes with baby ric-rac.

Grammie made her own aprons, of course, and her "house-dresses." The housewives all wore house dresses; that saved wear and tear on good dresses.

During the war, women, including Grammie, knit wool socks for the soldiers and she knit a sweater for Daddy to go with his. After the war, the sweater had holes in the elbows so she unraveled it and knit me a sweater — in Army khaki! But she dressed it up with green stripes on the cuffs and hem. I loved it. All our sweaters, socks, mittens and winter hats were hand-knit. Most of the things they couldn’t make themselves, they could order through the big Sears & Roebuck catalogs that came twice a year. (You could even buy a house from the catalog.)

White flour sacks are still available. They are super absorbent and make for great hand towels. Indeed, in the summer, I use them for bath towels. For my kitchen nook, I made cafe curtains and stenciled a border.

I think a lot of the make-it-yourself habit came down from the first colonists. Not totally for saving money. There was no Walmart down the road or Amazon online. Take carpets, for example. Even if one could afford it, there were no factories, including, carpet factories, on this side of the pond.

What the innovative women did was take the worn canvas from ships sails and painted patterns on them and had floor carpets. They'd hem them and give them several layers of shellac. I made several back in 2004, selling some and giving some to family. I kept a couple. The one in front of the kitchen sink, used every day all these years — is now in need of a shellacking and then it will serve for years yet. The one in the hallway shows no wear yet.

Electricity didn't get put down Tucker Ridge until the late 1940s, after I had gone. It took several poles to go down from the road to the farmhouse. Grammie wrote me that she paid to have them put in and "the whole house electrified" — and paid for it all with her hand-crocheted bedspreads.

There's something special about making things yourself, apart from saving money. Indeed, needlework like knitting, crocheting and cross-stitch, have been used — even for businessmen — as a stress reducer. Works better'n antidepressants and when you're done, you have something you created. You can even make extra money with things you make.

Maine still has a lot of people making beautiful and necessary things and growing and producing healthy foods. We are particularly blessed here in Waldo County. Our farmer's markets — and last weekend, "Arts in the Park" — are a joy to browse through. Such talent!

But making things for our own homes and family is not nearly as prevalent as it was. Now, most people don't produce, they consume. And Sears is going out of business. Amazon is our new "big catalog."

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

 

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