Hopkins County Folk Lore
Blackberry Pickin' in the SummertimeBy Contributing Editor, Carolyn Buntin Eveland
In the old days, along about the last of June or first of July, a frenzy would hit the citizens of Hopkins County. You see that's when the wild Blackberries became ripe.
Back in those days when a family depended mainly on what they grew or killed, Blackberries were a staple for the winter meals as well as delightfully sweet treats while in season. The Blackberry vines were always under scrutiny for several weeks before the berries began to mature.
Everyone knew when the tiny berries turned red it wouldn't be long before they became black, plump and sweet. That's when the vines were checked every other day or so until it was determined that a good crop could now be obtained. The organizer of the "Blackberry pickin" now had to move with speed the moment these ebony delectables filled the vines. Birds were the enemy and they were as determined to claim those berries as the humans were. Insects fed on them in great abundance and flies hovered in and around the vines, eating their fill as well.
Children were included in the pickin' party too. Even little kids were called on to fill their quota for the family. This was one time the children didn't mind being called on to work for as many berries went into their mouths, as did the buckets they carried. If a pail couldn't be found to fit the size of the child, cloth sacks and strips of material were fashioned into a sling to be worn around the neck.
It would be early in the morning. The family had to get started before the sun "got hot." After a hearty breakfast the preparations began. The huge breakfast was part and parcel of a two-fold plan. No one needed to work on an empty stomach in the stifling heat. The second part of the plan intended to round out little tummies with generous helpings of eggs, bacon, milk gravy and biscuits. The purpose of the over stuffing was that full bellies held less room for the berries.
Children and adults alike bathed necks, ankles, wrists and waistbands with coal oil to ward off the chiggers and ticks that abounded in and around the Blackberry vines. If coal oil wasn't available, hog lard could be used. Ticks climbed to the very end of bushes and vines, perching on the outermost leafs and stems. Unsuspecting dogs out for a leisurely stroll and absent-minded humans need only brush against them and the ticks hopped aboard. Lunch was served!
Boys were lined up and each and every shirt was tucked into their pants while trouser legs were stuffed into the socks he had hurriedly pulled on a moment before. Shirt cuffs were buttoned at the wrists and many a little boy squirmed at the chaffing his neck received from the fastened collars. The Blackberry vines were covered with hundreds, no thousands of tiny thorns. Long sleeves had to be worn to protect the arms from numerous pricks and scratches. On this day however he dared not whine at the injustice of it all. In most cases hats or caps were donned. Father dressed himself in similar fashion as his sons.
Little girls pulled on hot stockings beneath their little flowered dresses. Sometimes they wore socks and in some cases, lenient mothers allowed their little daughters to wiggle into the pants of an older brother. Back in those days however, the britches were usually worn under the dresses. Bonnets were tied under chubby cheeks while wrist and neck cuffs were checked for snugness. Mom adorned herself likewise.
The family was to swelter in the coming heat of the day.
Father usually had a pail either looped into his belt or tied around his waist. In this way he became a two handed picker and wasn't hampered by stooping to the ground to fill the bucket. Adults now chose his/her pail and the younger children were fitted with the cloth slings. All was in readiness and the day was about to begin.
In the old days there wasn't a house on every corner and most rural Hopkins Countians lived on farms or small acreage with woods on three sides of the house at least. Most people only had to walk to the end of their own yards for the tasty treats. If no berries grew nearby, there were always places known where a good harvest could be had.
If the patch was a "little ways away", people walked or hitched up the wagon. Good places to find the sought after Blackberries were old sections of fence standing alone and forgotten at some old deserted house site. Graveyards were also good locations. Blackberries always grew there at the edge of the woods. No one ever wondered why. But graveyards were the perfect place for good picking. Standing in the clearing at the edges of the cemetery, one could reach the fruit without subjecting body and limb to the onslaught of briars and thorns.
Soon the berry patch came into view and the mad rush was on. Children ignored shouts from cautious parents to "Slow down! Mind the briars!" "Look for snakes and watch where you step for goodness sakes"!
Mother was usually the fastest picker. Experienced fingers that shelled beans, sewed buttons and hemmed clothing flew over the crop. She picked the fattest, blackest berries, skimming over the scrawny ones. Her quick eye discerned berries that had been half eaten by the birds and those that seemed to be crowded with insects.
Father was less fastidious. Big, callused hands worked slower even if he was a two fisted picker. In the contents of his pail could usually be found stems, half-rotted berries, and tiny ones no bigger than a Black-eyed Pea and tatters of leaves. His soul aim was to fill the "gall-derned" bucket. Quantity was his by word and quality wasn't given the time of day. Neither was "dainty" pickin' a man's work!
The youngsters were now in the midst of their glory. Four berries in the mouth, one in the container, two in the pocket for later snacks. Soon plump little fingers were dyed blue from the berry juice. So were the shirts and bibs of overalls while the little Calico dresses presented dark blue streaks smeared across the front of them. A child would pick a few berries, pop the succulent treats into their mouths, suck the fingers to get any remaining sweetness, then wipe those same hands on the front of their clothes. It was part of the ritual and the happy towheads received no tongue lashing from Momma this time. Besides Momma had taken care to dress the children in their "every day clothes" for the occasion.
Briars grabbed clothing and hung on for dear life, thorns pricked fingers and hands, and the flies became unnerving pests as the morning wore on. Moving from patch to patch, parents kept a steady rhythm of plucking and filling each bucket.
By near noon when the sun was at its zenith, everyone needed a break from the terrible heat. The smaller children were all "plucked" out and began deserting their posts at the Blackberry patch. They had retreated to the open field or cemetery close by. Tag was always played and Hide and seek among the old, worn tombstones standing crooked and gray, was a favorite game. With caps and bonnets discarded, hot stockings deserted on a headstone somewhere, collar buttons unfastened, youngsters ran free in the joy of the moment. Cherub faces peeked from around weathered tombstones and blue stained fingers gripped the grass beneath them while hoping their hiding place would not to be found by the seeker. Upon discovery, feet dug into grass and dirt and the race was on. Braids flew behind little girls now in perpetual flight and tousle headed boys tugged shirts loose from waistbands as all ran to the "home free" spot. Shouts of laughter and unabashed giggling spewed forth from snaggle-toothed grins and blue tinged lips.
Sometimes a picnic lunch had been packed making this already special day even more fun. A tablecloth or blanket would be spread upon the ground in a shady spot nearby. If this was an occasion that Mother decided to make even more special, and had come to the conclusion that it was worth the extra work, a full-fledged meal had been brought along. Fried chicken or slabs of ham accompanied with left over biscuits from breakfast soon adorned the humble blanket on the ground. Tomatoes, fresh from the garden, green onions and cucumbers soon added splashes of color to the meal. Squash harvested only the day before had been rolled in meal and fried in hog fat sat beside fried or mashed potatoes. Cool water that had been sat in the shade of some obliging tree was now brought forward to wash the meal down, but first the dousing of sweaty faces and grimy hands was undertaken. Growing teens were always ready to eat and did the meal justice even though they had eaten more than their share of berries as well. Smaller children, tummies bulging from the vast amounts of berries they had consumed ate very little. Mother had tried to keep an eye on the tots and limit the intake of so many berries; it just never seemed to work.
If the day had been planned around a much simpler venue, cold biscuits or cornbread, bacon or ham was brought out of hiding from the wagon. Jugs of water performed the necessary functions for wetting parched throats and the transformation from grimy to clean was accomplished before the eatin' commenced.
The family sprawled under the dappled shade of tall Oaks, Maples, Hickory and Birch trees. Mother usually sat near the meal fanning the flies from the food with a leafy twig. Father sat with loosened collar; his back against a tree, intermittently eating and swiping perspiration that dripped from his forehead.
After the meal, tiny children soon became cranky and tired. At least one little tyke would develop a tummy ache and mother would have the chance to say, "I told you 'bout eatin' so many of them things. Now this is what you get for not listenin' to your Momma"! Little ones wailed as they fought sleep and longed for the comfort of their own little beds. Older children began to quarrel and everyone was tired and hot. After breaking up a "squabble" or two both Mom and Dad knew it was time to get underway.
Once home, sleepy toddlers were carried off to their white sheeted beds by an open window. Older children were usually left to wander from the others for awhile and the parents began work on the blackberries yet again.
Buckets of well water were drawn and stood ready and waiting. Water was poured over the Blackberries and the cleaning of them was begun. Loose stems, leaves and floating insects were purged from the berries. Father's tiny berries, half eaten by insects were also culled while mother repeated her lecturings of such doin's as she did every year. Of course Father paid no mind, also as he did every year. A clean white cloth was draped over an empty bucket for straining, allowing the dirty water to be poured off the berries. Another washing and hand picking of debris followed suite with another bucket of water. Another straining came after that. This procedure was repeated until Mother was certain that no "trash" was left in the berries. Another clean cloth was spread upon the kitchen table where the abundance of berries was spread for drying.
Father's work was done but not mother's. From these hours of gathering, much work lay ahead for her and the older girls. Berries had to be canned for later use when a sweet dessert could lighten the dark days of the coldest winter. Some of the day's crop was set aside for fine eating for the next couple of days. However most of the batch would be thrown into the canning pot the very next day. There was no refrigeration back in those days, and no chance was left that the berries might whither and turn bitter.
For supper this night, the family would feast on the rewards of the day's work with a blackberry cobbler, sitting piping hot with melted butter and sprinkled sugar topping the lightly browned crust. The next morning breakfast was sure to include a delicious bowl of Blackberries. Fresh cow's milk brought from the spring or well house was poured over them and ample sugar added to the already sweet fruit made breakfast worth getting up for. For Sunday dinner the family knew that Mother's Blackberry pie would be gracing the table awaiting the families return from church.
Life was hard in those good old days. Those were the times when families worked together, prayed together and all sat down at the table at the same time. Daily life was simple then. Work had to be done and play came afterwards or in a few cases, work and play fit right together like, well, uhmm, like Blackberries and cream.
Copyright © 2000 by Carolyn Buntin Eveland
Nancy Trice, © 2000