Sad Irons Through a Green Lens
a look at rural life without electricity
Windward's research into renewable energy production falls into two areas: the conversion of woody biomass into replacements for gasoline and propane, and the conversion of sunlight into electricity using horizontal parabolic solar collectors, steam engines and axial flux alternators. None of the work we're doing is theoretical in that every stage of the processes described is already being done on an industrial scale. Our focus is on (1) scaling these systems down to where they can work on a more human scale to meet local needs, and (2) exploring ways that existing resources can be reused to create key components used in smaller, neighborhood-scale systems. An example of reuse involves disassembling obsolete C-band satellite dishes so that their structural ribs can be used to create horizontal parabolic solar collectors.
One way to state Windward's strategic goal is that we're working to miniaturize this technology so that rural intentional communities can use it to achieve a significant degree of energy and financial security. The purchase of fuel and energy has the effect of transferring capital from local communities to international energy corporations. If you believe that international corporations are bent on extracting all the fossil fuels they can without regard to how much water they pollute, how many people they relocate, how many coal mountains they decapitate--well, the dreary list goes on and on. If one feels, as I do, that such actions are atrocities committed against future generations, then it's important to manifest that belief by investing time, talent and money into taking back control of our water, food and energy supplies from the corporations.
Every time we buy their services, we vote--in the only way that matters to them--to keep them doing what they're doing. So long as people need to buy their products, the corporate world will continue to cover their destructive acts with a little green veneer. In traditional societies, people who behaved in destructive ways would be ostracized, a social prohibition which was tantamount to a death sentence. Have we come to the point where our survival and that of many of our fellow creatures depends on finding some way to ostracize the corporations who's sole concern lies in maximizing their quarterly profits?
So long as people believe that food comes from the grocery store and energy comes from their local power company, they'll act--however subconsciously--to protect those systems. Imagine how things could change when people realize that community forests can be managed in ways that can sustainably and renewably meet their energy and food needs?
Lots of people have come to believe that technology is no longer the servant of humanity; rather, that humanity has become entrapped by its technology--that we're past the point where technology can save us from the consequences of our actions. Among those who believe this to be true, there's considerable debate regarding just how far past we are; in order to create sustainable life-support systems do we need to back down to some previous level of technology? Would it be enough if we reverted to the consumption patterns that marked the steam age, or perhaps the Middle Ages when most everything people consumed came from within ten miles of where they lived.
Or do we need to return to the fundamental technologies of the stone age, limiting ourselves to skills such as twisting fibers into a rope, making fire with punk and bow, or knapping flint into a cutting edge?
Windward's history involves weaving together portions of all three along with a fourth thread that incorporates bits and pieces of modern tech such as the website you're reading, and the control computers we're incorporating into our research. Sometimes we've started with a contemporary technology and worked our way back to the basics. Other times such as with our foundry work, we started with the most primitive form of sand casting and worked our way forward to the point where we mastered state-of-the-art induction melting with a furnace which can take thirty pounds of brass ingots to pour temperature in six minutes--think of a seventy-kilowatt microwave, and you'll get the picture. Having mastered each step, we were not only able to use the technique which best suited the desired product, but we were also able to create novel hybrids which opened doors leading to innovative products.
That was in the decade before we make the move to Washington state, a time in which we worked to acquire the tools needed to create a post-Industrial village. During the next decade, as we got to know our land and focused on installing county required power, septic and water systems, Windward used that time to develop a notable presence in " The Current Middle Ages" , a form of historical study and reenactment where people model, as much as can be done today, various aspects of what it was like to live in the Middle Ages. If that sort of research is of interest, you might enjoy reading The Boke of Days which describes a week long medieval encampment hosted here in the Windward woods.
A recent correspondent took me to task for wasting time on figuring out how to generate electricity in sustainable ways; he asked why we didn't just work on ways to live without electricity? While we are working on ways to live which require significantly less electrical energy, there are many situations in which the utility of electricity is so high that there's no effective substitute. At the other end of the scale, many people use electricity for purposes--such as heating water--which could readily be served using existing solar and passive-construction technologies.
In thinking about his comment, I'm led to the assumption that it's unlikely that this person has ever tried living without electricity, ever undertaken the challenge of finding non-electrical ways to meet his basic needs. I'm also assuming that this is true for the majority of twenty-something's who've never known a time when you couldn't flip a switch and have lights or music, adjust the thermostat to insure your comfort or pop a DVD into the player.
Which brings up the question of how best to convey an idea of what it was like to live in deep country without electricity?
In early December, I underwent total hip replacement surgery for my right hip, an operation which would require me to keep weight off of the new joint for two months as the bones grew into and bonded with the spongy parts of the metal hip joint. One way I prepared for that stretch of down time involved laying in a stock of good books to read, one of which was Robert Caro's Pulitzer Prize winning (actually his second Pulitzer Prize for biography) study of the life of Lyndon Johnson. It's a daunting read that the first three volumes total more than 2,000 pages, but I can't remember reading a factual book that gripped with such immediacy. Anyone who lived through the years of the Johnson presidency and its aftermath can't help but wonder how such a man came to be and how he came to power.
In order to understand someone it helps to understand where they came from, the context within which they evolved--in Johnson's case, the hill country of western Texas. What came as a surprise to me was the genesis of the desperate conditions which formed the crucible in which Johnson's character was formed; i.e. the relatively rapid process of exploitation and environmental collapse that took the hill country from lush, shoulder-high grass to wind-blasted limestone. It's the same process that Jared Diamond describes in Collapse as over grazing destroyed the ecology of Greenland--with the difference that in the hill country of west Texas, the collapse occurred in three generations instead of three centuries.
The environmental collapse that devastated the west Texas hill country imposed a level of poverty so severe that the remaining human population was so spread out that it was difficult to justify the expense of electrification. It wasn't until Johnson was able to use his power as a Congressman that the power lines were extended.
People moved to the lush hill country, built homes and towns, and scrambled to fulfill their dreams of becoming independent ranchers and farmers. The topsoil that had built up over thousands of years was gone within a hundred, locking the grandchildren of those pioneers into a struggle for survival they couldn't win.
In Chapter 27 of The Path to Power, the first in the four volume study of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Caro describes in gripping detail what life was like a century ago for the women of the Texas Hill country. Caro's powerful description of the lives those women endured speaks directly to the question of what life would be like in deep country on marginal land without electricity.
I was immensely moved by Caro's description of people trapped by the failure of their ancestors to understand the ecological consequences of their actions. One definition of fate is that it is accumulation of the unintended consequences of our actions; today we live in a time where our actions will prescribe--and proscribe--the fate of those who come after us, so it's vitally important that people understand the stakes we're playing for in this game that is no game.
Knowing that there was no way that I could even come close to Caro's treatment of the subject, I emailed him and asked for permission to reprint portions from the Sad Irons chapter of The Path to Power. I'm delighted to report that Mr. Caro has given permission to Windward to reprint excerpts from the Sad Irons chapter of The Path to Power here in our Notes.
[Note: The verb "to iron" comes from the hot, boat-shaped pieces of solid iron used to smooth out wrinkles in cloth. These irons weighed between six and seven pounds which is why they were called "sad" because one 19th century definition of "sad" was heavy, as in being heavy hearted.]
But first, a bit of irony . . .
In the 1920's the Texas Hill Country, prior to electrification, was so poor that Johnson City high school had to cancel their basketball program because they couldn't afford to buy a basketball. The school, and the town surrounding it, had been built during the years when the farmers were liquidating the meager topsoil that supported the seemingly lush hill country. As over grazing took its inevitable toll, quality of life in the hill country slowed down to the point where its people came to resemble bugs caught in amber. Those who had land were able to continue to eak out a marginal life, while those with both land and debt gradually lost everything and had to move on.
This deprivation created a sort of stasis field freezing the Hill Country in time. Having exhausted the land's natural capital, development had to wait until capital could be brought in from the outside. In part, the Rural Electrification Agency was a federal program which used tax dollars, primarily paid by city folk, to increase rural productivity. By bringing electricity to the nation's farms, America became an agricultural powerhouse. The bounty that fills our grocery store shelves can be said to be a direct result of rural electrification. Unfortunately, the promotion of energy-based agriculture has also brought out the wasting of much of our nation's topsoil, and the envenoming of much of what remains.
Evidence of the remarkable impact of electrification on the Texas Hill Country can be seen in its recent recognition by the New York Times as "the No. 1 vacation spot in the nation." While Florida (another area whose habitability derives from the development of electrically powered air conditioning) remains America's most popular retirement destination, the Texas Hill country is now the second most popular destination for retiring baby boomers.
The massive amounts of capital that retirees are bringing to the Hill Country is shaping how that area develops. One of the non-intuitively obvious aspects of working with renewable energy is that it takes water to create energy, and energy to use water. In the Hill Country much of that water is going into growing grapes as the region emerges as the center of Texas wine production. So long as the water holds out, highland desert is an excellent place for agriculture--at least in the short run--in part because the sparsity of plant life over all makes it difficult for insects to establish themselves. As a result some of the finest cotton grown in America comes from Nevada's desert valleys.
Setting aside for the moment questions as to the wisdom of investing large amounts of capital into an agricultural practice founded on draining high desert aquifers, I'd note that many folks who've tried will tell that in order to make a small fortune in the wine business, you first have to start with a large fortune, and then work your way down.
A similar observation was made by a farmer who was asked what he'd do if he won the Lottery. He thought a minute before saying that he'd probably just keep farming until it was all gone.
Describing the Texas Hill country as "a trap baited with water," Caro writes:
The men toiling toward that country saw the hills as a low line on the horizon. There was another line in the same place, right along those first ridges, in fact, but the men couldn't see that line. It was invisible. It was a line that would be drawn only on maps, and it wasn't drawn on any map then, and wouldn't be for another fifty years. But the line was there--and it would determine their fate. . .There were plenty of clues--plenty of warnings--to tell the settlers the line was there, but none of the settlers understood them.
The line was an "isohyet" (from the Greek: isos, equal; hyetos, rain)--a line drawn on a map so that all points along it have equal rainfall. This particular isohyet showed the westernmost limits in the United States along which the annual rainfall averages thirty inches; and a rainfall of thirty inches, when combined with two other factors--rate of evaporation (very high in the Hill Country), and seasonal distribution of rainfall (very uneven in the Hill Country, since most of it comes in spring or autumn thundershowers)--is the bare minimum needed to grow crops successfully. Even this amount of rainfall, "especially with its irregular seasonal distribution," is, the United States Department of Agriculture would later state, "too low" for that purpose. East of that line, in other words, farmers could prosper, west of it they couldn't. And when, in the twentieth century, meteorologists began charting isohyets, they would draw the crucial thirty-inch isohyet along the 98th meridian--almost the border of the Hill Country. At the very moment in which settlers entered that country in pursuit of their dream, they unknowingly crossed a line which made the realization of that dream impossible. And since rainfall diminishes quite rapidly westward, with every step they took into the Hill Country, the dream became more impossible still. -- pg 12
I trust, dear reader, that you can see why Caro's work has garnered two Pulitzer Prizes--anyone who can turn meteorology, geology and history into such gripping reading amply deserves them.
At 26 inches of annual rainfall, Windward lies just to the dry side of the mirror image of the Hill Country's isohyet. As the moist ocean winds bump into the Cascades they dump the heavy rains that give the Pacific-Northwest it's reputation for being so soggy that the way the locals say they can tell that it's summer is because the rain gets warm.
The western end of Klickitat county, with its reliable sixty inches of annual rainfall is verdant rain forest, but as you head west, the rainfall rapidly drops to the point where the eastern end of our county is highland desert that averages six inches of rain annually, mostly in the form of snow. And like the Hill Country, even that meager amount of moisture is unpredictable.
A while back, we attended a farm auction in the heart of this highland desert. It had been a large, capital intensive operation that had grown hard winter wheat for three generations. The operation was going on the auction block because the farmer's four children were all girls who wanted to move to the city, not struggle to farm such challenging land. Standing there on a farm that stretched beyond a horizon that showed no other sign of life, I remember hearing the BeeGee's lyric, "Just my dog and I at the edge of the universe." The eastern end of Klickitat county may not be the end of the universe, but it certainly feels like you can see it from there.
We intentionally settled on the dry side of that key isohyet since it's here that the challenge of sustainable agriculture comes most keenly into focus, here where energy and water are two sides of the same coin.
Agricultural experts would later understand the line's significance. There is a "well-defined division" between the fertile east and the arid western portions of Texas, one expert would write in 1905: "An average line of change can be traced across the state . . . approximately where the annual rainfall diminishes to below 30 inches, or near the 98th meridian." That line, another expert would say in 1921, runs down the entire United States: "the United States may be divided into an eastern half and a western half, characterized, broadly speaking, one by a sufficient and the other by an insufficient amount of rainfall for the successful production of crops by ordinary farming methods." -- pg 13
Which is why this is a good location for research into building food security that's not based on having a large, consistent supply of fresh water because how can you know if you're using too much water if you have more water than you can use?
As the impact of 2008's fiscal meltdown becomes felt, people are going to have to relearn how to make due with less, something which Americans haven't had to do since World War II. In that case, the production of consumer goods was deferred in order to produce weapons and military supplies. Instead of spending their surplus income, people bought war bonds. When the war was over, those saved earnings funded the transition from a war economy building tanks and making bombs to a consumer economy building cars and having babies. Today, there is no pool of savings that can be tapped to fund the transition from the consumer economy to some significant level of sustainability--raising the capital necessary to transition out of a state of dependency on foreign energy and manufactured goods will require that people relearn how to live beneath their means--big time.
One reason I found Caro's description of life in the Texas Hill Country prior to electrification so interesting is that it describes people caught in between a collapsing environment and escalating expectations. Today's twenty-somethings may not realize it, but they're caught in the same bind. One result was that the best and brightest of the Hill Country children migrated to the city as quickly as they could, a process with sapped the Hill Country of its only real hope of reversing the slide into crushing poverty and bleak desperation that results when humans push nature too far.
Not that long ago, the Columbia was a river brimming over with salmon; today it is a series of lakes that generate electricity and kill salmon. What once was a living river is now little more than an energy generator and barge canal. There are those who argue that both river and people would be better served if the money being used in a largely futile effort to adapt salmon to the system of dam lakes would be better spent building wind generators to replace the electricity which would be lost by broaching the dams so that the river, as well as the populations that depend on it for life, could recover.
To provide some frame of reference, the Northwest Power Generation Map shows three dams on the lower Columbia: Bonneville generating 1,050 megawatts, The Dalles generating 1,807 megawatts, and John Day generating 2,160 megawatts for a total of just over 5,000 megawatts. That's a lot, but wind farms already in service alongside the Columbia make it clear that the amount of electricity generated by wind farms can, and probably will, surpass the amount of electricity generated by daming the Columbia if only for the reason that there's no room to build more dams, but lots of room to install more wind farms. More over, dams have a finite working life before they silt up, so it's not a matter of whether the dams will cease to perform their current function, but rather of whether the salmon and sturgeon will still be around to revitalize the river.
A good example of a wind farm that is already in service along the Columbia would be The Wild Horse Wind Farm consisting of 127 wind turbines located on 165 acres of open range land generating 228 megawatts of electricity. Other Columbia river wind farms include Leaning Juniper generating 100 megawatts, the Klondike generating 125 megawatts, and Stateline generating 300 megawatts.
I don't know if it's already too late to adopt such a strategy, but if it isn't then we can't be very far away from the point of no return, from a level of ecological damage from which there is no recovery, no hope for our grandchildren to enjoy the resources our grandparents had. Right now we, as a society, if we wanted to, could invest in wind power and in the foreseeable future have both salmon and electricity, as well as the many intangible benefits that flow from living in a viable ecosystem.
Right now is the best chance we'll ever have to heal the damage already done, and my words are wholly inadequate to express the emotional scope of the challenge that yesterday's decisions have set before us today. If you've not heard it, I would invite you to visit YouTube and enjoy one of the last songs John Denver wrote before his death in 1997, The Healing Time.
When learning to fly a plane, one key lesson is that you can't pull the plane over to the side of the sky to take time to think about what's happening--once you take off, there are only two possible outcomes: either land the plane safely, or die. Since airplanes only stay up in the air as long as their engines deliver the necessary power, if you run out of gas, or throw a piston, that airplane instantly turns into a glider. As soon as the engine quits, the pilot has no option other than to land the plane. At 10,000 feet most single engine planes are capable of gliding twenty miles in any direction, but every minute lost in selecting a suitable landing spot--and heading the plane in that direction--greatly limits the selection of potential safe-landing sites.
And so, the first step--when your one and only engine quits--is to figure out where to land the plane. Only after that's done--and the plane is heading in that direction--should the pilot undertake to investigate why the engine died. If it was just a matter of having forgot to switch fuel tanks, then the minutes lost in diverting towards a safe landing site were well spent. If it turns out that you're completely out of gas, then having gotten on course towards a safe landing site could well mean the difference between life and death. How you feel about landing the plane right then isn't relevant; you're going to put it down somewhere. The only thing left to determine is whether you'll survive the landing--an intensely personal question.
Right now we know that humanity is running out of fossil fuels; for all practical purposes, we've already run out, and we're gliding towards the point where the only resources we'll have to work with are what we create and what we can recover. For more than two decades, the energy produced world-wide has been going down each year on a per capita basis--the total amount of energy produced has risen each year, but the earth's population has been growing at an even faster rate. Had they understood what we know now, the farmers of the Texas Hill Country could have invested their grazing income into creating the electrical infrastruction needed in order for them to move into the 20th century.
But they didn't understand the situation they were in; they didn't see that they were exhausting the grass and topsoil on which their productivity depended. By the time they felt the teeth of that trap closing around them, it was too late--the money, and the opportunity to create a better future that it represented, was gone. The story of the Texas Hill Country is our story too, since past is prologue whether we like it or not.
Describing the Texas Hill Country in the 1930's,
Electricity had, of course, been an integral part of life in urban and much of small-town America for a generation and more, lighting its streets, powering the machinery of its factories, running its streetcars and trolleys, and cooling the stores with electric fans. Devices such as electric irons and toasters (which were in widespread use by 1900), refrigerators (which were widely sold beginning in 1912), and vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, hot plates, waffle irons, electric stoves and automatic washing machines for clothes that freed women from much of the drudgery of housework. In the evenings, thanks to electricity, there were movies, and by 1922, forests of radio antennae had sprouted on tenement roofs. By 1937 . . . electricity was so integral a part of life that it was hard to remember what life had been like without it. -- pg 502
[A]lthough the electric milking machine had been invented almost two decades before, the Hill Country farmer had to milk his cows by hand--arising at three-thirty or four o'clock in the morning to do so, because milking was a time-consuming chore (more than two hours for twenty cows) and it had to be finished by daylight: every hour of daylight was needed for work in the fields. Milking was done by the dim light of kerosene lanterns; although Sears, Roebuck was boasting in 1937 that a new, deluxe kerosene lamp provided as much illumination as a forty-watt electric bulb, the lamps in use in the Hill Country furnished--at most--twenty-five watts of light. Or it was done in the dark. And there was a constant danger of fire with kerosene lamps, and even a spark could burn down a hay-filled barn, and destroy a farmer's last chance of holding on to his place, so many farmers were afraid to use a lantern in the barn. "Winter mornings," recalled one, "it would be so dark . . . you'd think you were in a box with the lid shut." Because without electricity there could be no refrigerator, the milk was kept on ice. The ice was expensive and farmers had to lug it from town at enormous cost in time. Though they kept it underground--covered with sawdust--it still, as farmer Chester Franklin of Wimberley puts it, "melted away so quick." And often even the ice didn't help. Farmers would have to take the milk out of the pit and place it by the roadside to be picked up by the trucks from Austin dairies, but often--on those unpaved Hill Country roads on which flat tires were a constant occurrence--the trucks would be late, and the milk would sit outside in the Hill Country heat. Even if it was not actually spoiled, the dairy would refuse to accept it if its temperature was above 50 degrees Fahrenheit--and when the truck driver pulled his thermometer out of the milk, a farmer, seeing the red line above fifty, would know that his hours of work in the barn in the dark had been for nothing.
Because there was no electricity, moreover, a Hill Country farmer could not use an electric pump. He was forced not only to milk but to water his cows by hand, a chore that, in dry weather, meant hauling up endless buckets from a deep well. Because he could not use an electric auger, he had to feed his livestock by hand, pitchforking heavy loads of hay up into the loft of his barn and then stomping on it to soften it enough so the cows could eat it. He had to prepare the feed by hand: because he could not use an electric grinder, he would get the corn kernels for his mules and horses by sticking ears of corn--hundreds of ears of corn--one by one into a corn sheller and cranking it for hours. Because he could not use electric motors, he had to unload cotton seed by hand, and then shovel it into the barn by hand; to saw wood by hand, by swinging an axe or riding one end of a ripsaw. Because there was never enough daylight for all the jobs that had to be done, the farmer usually finished after sunset, ending the day as he had begun it, stumbling around the barn milking the cows in the dark, as farmers had done centuries before.-- pg 504
But the hardness of the farmer's life paled beside the hardness of his wife's.
Without electricity, even boiling water was work.
Anything which required the use of water was work. Windmills (which could, acting like a pump, bring water out of a well into a storage tank) were very rare in the Hill Country; their cost--almost $400 in 1937--was out of the reach of most families in that cash-poor region, and the few that had been built proved of little use in a region where winds were always uncertain and, during a drought, non-existent, for days, or weeks, on end. And without electricity to work a pump, there was only one way to obtain water: by hand.
The source of water could be either a stream or well. If the source was a stream, water had to be carried from it to the house, and since, in a country subject to constant flooding, houses were built well away from the streams, it had to be carried a long way. If the source was a well, it had to be lifted to the surface--a bucket at a time. It had to be lifted quite a long way: while the average depth of a well was about fifty feet in the valleys of the Hill Country, in the hills it was a hundred feet or more.
And so much water was needed! A federal study of nearly half a million farm families even then being conducted would show that, on the average, a person living on a farm used 40 gallons of water every day. Since the average farm family was five persons, the family used 200 gallons, or four-fifths of a ton, of water each day--73,000 gallons, or almost 300 tons, in a year. The study showed that, on the average, the well was located 253 feet from the house--and that to pump by hand and carry to the house 73,000 gallons of water a year would require someone to put in during that year 63 eight-hour days, and walk 1,750 miles.
A farmer would do as much of this pumping and hauling as possible himself, and try to have his sons do as much of the rest as possible... As soon as a Hill Country youth got big enough to carry the water buckets (which held about four gallons, or thirty-two pounds, of water apiece), he was assigned the job of filling his mother's wash pots before he left for school or the field. Curtis Cox still recalls today that from the age of nine or ten, he would, every morning throughout the rest of his boyhood, make about seven trips between his house and the well, which were about 300 feet apart, on each of these trips carrying two large buckets, or more than sixty pounds, of water. "I felt tired," he says. "It was a lot of water." But the water the children carried would be used up long before noon, and the children would be away--at school or in the fields--and most of the hauling was, therefore, done by women. "I would," recalls Curtis' mother, Mary Cox, "have to get it, too--more than once a day, more than twice; oh, I don't know how many times. I needed water to wash my floors, water to wash my clothes, water to cook . . . It was hard work. I was always packing [carrying] water." Carrying it--after she had wrestled off the heavy wooden lid which kept the rats and squirrels out of the well; after she had cranked the bucket up to the surface (and cranking--lifting thirty pounds fifty feet or more--was very hard work for most women even with a pulley; most would pull the rope hand over hand, as if they were climbing it, to get their body weight into the effort; they couldn't do it with their arms alone). Some Hill Country women make wry jokes about getting water. Says Mrs. Brian Smith of Blanco: "Yes, we had running water. I always said we had running water because I grabbed those two buckets up and ran the two hundred yards to the house with them." But the joking fades away as the memories sharpen. An interviewer from the city is struck by the fact that Hill Country women of the older generation are noticeably stooped, much more so than city women of the same age. Without his asking for an explanation, it is given to him. More than once, and more than twice, a stooped and bent Hill Country farm wife says, "You see how round-shouldered I am? Well, that's from hauling the water." And, she will often add, "I was round-shouldered like this well before my time, when I was still a young woman. My back got bent from hauling the water, and it got bent when I was still young." -- pg 505
Because there was no electricity, Hill Country stoves were wood stoves. The spread of cedar brakes had given the area a plentiful supply of wood, but cedar seared bone-dry by the Hill Country sun burned so fast that the stoves seemed to devour it. A farmer would try to keep a supply of wood in the house, or, if he had sons old enough, would assign the task to them. . . They would cut down the trees, and chop them into four-foot lengths that could be stacked in cords. When wood was needed in the house, they would cut it into shorter lengths and split the pieces so they could fit into the stoves. But as with the water, these chores often fell to the women.
The necessity of hauling the wood was not, however, the principal reason so many farm wives hated their wood stoves. In part, they hated these stoves because they were so hard to "start up." The damper that opened into the firebox created only a small draft even on a breezy day, and on a windless day, there was no draft--because there was no electricity, of course, there was no fan to move the air in the kitchen--and a fire would flicker out time after time. "With an electric stove, you just turn on a switch and you have heat," says Lucille O'Donnell, but with a wood stove, a woman might have to stuff kindling and wood into the firebox over and over again. And even after the fire was lit, the stove "didn't heat up in a minute, you know," Lucille O'Donnell says--it might in fact take an hour. In part, farm wives hated wood stoves because they were so dirty, because the smoke from the wood blackened walls and ceilings, and ashes were always escaping through the grating, and the ash box had to be emptied twice a day--a dirty job and dirtier if, while the ashes were being carried outside, a gust of wind scattered them around inside the house. They hated the stoves because they could not be left unattended. Without devices to regulate the heat and keep the temperature steady, when the stove was being used for baking or some other cooking in which an even temperature was important, a woman would have to keep a constant watch on the fire, thrusting logs--or corncobs, which ignited quickly--into the fire box every time the heat slackened.
Most of all, they hated them because they were so hot.
When the big iron stove was lit, logs blazing in the firebox, flames licking at the gratings that held the pots, the whole huge mass of metal so hot that it was almost glowing, the air in the kitchen shimmered with the heat pouring out of it. In the Winter the heat was welcome, and in Spring and Fall it was bearable, but in the Hill Country, Summer would often last five months. Some time in June the temperature might climb to near ninety degrees, and would stay there, day after day, week after week, through the end of September. Day after day, week after week, the sky would be mostly empty, without a cloud as a shield from the blazing sun that beat down on the Hill Country, and on the sheet-iron or corrugated tin roofs of the box-like kitchens in the little dog-run homes that dotted its hills and valleys. No matter how hot the day, the stove had to be lit much of the time, because it had to be lit not only for meals but for baking; Hill Country wives, unable to afford store-bought bread, baked their own, an all-day task. (As Mrs. O'Donnell points out, "We didn't have refrigerators, you know, and without refrigeration, you just about have to start every meal from scratch.") In the Hill Country, moreover, Summer was harvest time, when a farm wife would have to cook not just for her family but for a harvesting crew--twenty or thirty men, who, working from sun to sun, expected three meals a day. -- pg 507
Harvest time, and canning time.
In the Hill Country, canning was required for a family's very survival. Too poor to buy food, most Hill Country families lived through the Winter largely on the vegetables and fruit picked in the Summer and preserved in jars.
Since--because there was no electricity--there were no refrigerators in the Hill Country, vegetables and fruit had to be canned the very day they came ripe. And, from June through September, something was coming ripe almost every day, it seemed; on a single peach tree, the fruit on different branches would come ripe on different days. In a single orchard, the peaches might be reaching ripeness over a span as long as two weeks; "You'd be in the kitchen with the peaches for two weeks," Hill Country wives recall. And after the peaches, the strawberries would begin coming ripe, and then the gooseberries, and then the blueberries. The tomatoes would become ripe before the okra, the okra before the zucchini, the zucchini before the corn. So the canning would go on with only brief intervals--all Summer.
Canning required constant attendance on the stove. Since boiling water was essential, the fire in the stove had to be kept roaring hot, so logs had to be continually put into the firebox. At least twice during a day's canning, moreover--probably three or four times--a woman would have to empty the ash container, which meant wrestling the heavy, unwieldy device out from under the firebox. And when the housewife wasn't bending down to the flames, she was standing over them. In canning fruit, for example, first sugar was dropped into the huge iron canning pot, and watched carefully and stirred constantly, so that it would not become lumpy, until it was completely dissolved. Then the fruit--perhaps peaches, which would have been peeled earlier--was put into the pot, and boiled until it turned into a soft and mushy jam that would be packed into jars (which would have been boiling--to sterilize them--in another pot) and sealed with wax. Boiling the peaches would take more than an hour, and during that time they had to be stirred constantly so that they would not stick to the pot. And when one load of peaches was finished, another load would be put in, and another. Canning was an all-day job. So when a woman was canning, she would have to spend all day in a little room with a tin or sheet-iron roof on which the blazing sun was beating down without mercy, standing in front of the iron stove and the wood fire within it. And every time the heat in that stove died down even a little, she would have to make it hotter again.
" You'd have to can in the Summer when it was hot," says Kitty Clyde Ross Leonard ... "You'd have to cook for hours. Oh, that was a terrible thing. You wore as little as you could. I wore loose clothing so that it wouldn't stick to me. But the perspiration would just pour down my face. I remember the perspiration pouring down my mother's face, and when I grew up and had my own family, it poured down mine. That stove was hot. But you had to stir, especially when you were making jelly. So you had to stand over that stove." Says Bernice Snodgrass of Wimberley: "You got so hot that you couldn't stay in the house. You ran out and sat under the trees. I couldn't stand it to stay in the house. Terrible. Really terrible. But you couldn't stay out of the house long. You had to stir. You had to watch the fire. So you had to go back into the house."
And there was no respite. If a bunch of peaches came ripe a certain day, that was the day they had to be canned--no matter how the housewife might feel that day. Because in that fierce Hill Country heat, fruit and vegetables spoiled very quickly. And once the canning process was begun, it could not stop. "If you peeled six dozen peaches, and then, later that day, you felt sick," you couldn't stop, says Gay Harris. "Because you can't can something if it's rotten. The job has to be done the same day, no matter what." Sick or not, in the Hill Country, when it was time to can, a woman canned, standing hour after hour, trapped between a blazing sun and a blazing wood fire. "We had no choice, you see," Mrs. Harris says. --pg 508
Every week, every week all year long--every week without fail--there was washday.
The wash was done outside. A huge vat of boiling water would be suspended over a larger, roaring fire and near it three large "Number Three" zinc washtubs and a dishpan would be placed on a bench.
The clothes would be scrubbed in the first of the zinc tubs, scrubbed on a washboard by a woman bending over the tub. The soap, since she couldn't afford store-bought soap, was soap she had made from lye, soap that was not very effective, and the water was hard. Getting farm dirt out of clothes required hard scrubbing.
Then the farm wife would wring out each piece of clothing to remove from it as much as possible of the dirty water, and put it in the big vat of boiling water. Since the scrubbing would not have removed all of the dirt, she would try to get the rest out by "punching" the clothes in the vat--standing over the boiling water and using a wooden paddle or, more often, a broomstick, to stir the clothes and swish them through the water and press them against the bottom or sides, moving the broom handle up and down and around as hard as she could for ten or fifteen minutes in a human imitation of the agitator of an automatic--electric--washing machine.
The next step was to transfer the clothes from the boiling water to the second of the three zinc washtubs: the "rinse tub." The clothes were lifted out of the big vat on the end of the broomstick, and held up on the end of the stick for a few minutes while the dirty water dripped out.
When the clothes were in the rinse tub, the woman bent over the tub and rinsed them, by swishing each individual item through the water. Then she wrung out the clothes, to get as much of the dirty water out as possible, and placed the clothes in the third tub, which contained bluing, and swished them around in it--this time to get the bluing all through the garment and make it white--and then repeated the same movements in the dishpan, which was filled with starch.
At this point, one load of wash would be done. A week's wash took at least four loads: one of sheets, one of shirt and other white clothing, one of colored clothes and one of dish towels. But for the typical, large, Hill Country farm family, two loads of each of these categories would be required, so the procedure would have to be repeated eight times.
For each load, moreover, the water in each of the three washtubs would have to be changed. A washtub held about eight gallons. Since the water had to be warm, the woman would fill each tub half with boiling water from the big pot and half with cold water. She did the filling with a bucket which held three or four gallons--twenty-five or thirty pounds. For the first load or two of wash, the water would have been provided by her husband or her sons. But after this water had been used up, part of washday was walking--over and over--that long walk to the spring or well, hauling up the water, hand over laborious hand, and carrying those heavy buckets back.
Because so much water was required in washing, the introduction of a gas operated washing machine by the Maytag Company in 1935 did not help the farm wife much, even if she could afford to buy it, which most Hill Country wives could not: she still had to fill and refill the machine with water.
Walt: Windward's approach to technology is one that undertakes to span the gamut from the most basic to the modern as we look for the technology which is most appropriate in a given situation. It's a process which helps us become aware of how the technology people use today evolved. Just as a research museum might gather together specimens which show the evolution of some biological system, we've undertaken to gather equipment which demonstrates how humans have developed machinery to overcome the terrible demands which Caro describes so vividly.
side view of Maytag's gasoline-fueled washing machine motor
An example would be the Maytag motor which Caro mentions as having been too spendy for the Hill Country. It's a remarkable two cylinder engine that could be screwed to a wooden floor and connected to Maytag's hand-powered washing machine by a leather belt. One of the impediments to electrification was people's fear of being electrocuted; hence, a gasoline powered washing machine had strong appeal.
top view showing the motor's kick pedal starter (at top of pic) and the smooth pulley (at bottom of pic) that the leather belt went around
We don't have this particular machine because we expect to actually hook it up in order to do our laundry, but rather because it's a good example of how one level of technology (hand washing) was bridged in order to allow people in deep country to move up to the next (machine washing). Also, it incorporates a variety of features that could be adapted to other purposes.
Another part of washday was also a physical effort: the "punching" of the clothes in the big vat. "You had to do it as hard as you could--swish those clothes around and around and around. They never seemed to get clean. And those clothes were heavy in the water, and it was hot outside, and you'd be standing over that boiling water and that big fire--you felt like you were being roasted alive." Lifting the clothes out of the vat was an effort, too. A dripping mass of soggy clothes was heavy, and it felt heavier when it had to be lifted out of that vat and held up for minutes at a time so that the dirty water could drip out, and then swung over to the rinsing tub. Soon, if her children weren't around to hear her, a woman would be grunting with the effort. Even the wringing was, after a few hours, an effort. "I mean, wringing clothes might not seem hard," Mrs. Harris says. "But you have to wring every piece so many times--you wring it after you take it out of the scrub tub, and you wring it after you take it out of the rinse tub, and after you take it out of the bluing. Your arms got tired." And her hands--from scrubbing with lye soap and wringing--were raw and swollen. Of course, there was also the bending--hours of bending--over the rub boards. "By the time you got done washing, your back was broke." Ava Cox says. "I'll tell you--of the things of my life I will never forget, I will never forget how my back hurt on washdays." Hauling the water, scrubbing, punching, rinsing: a Hill Country farm wife did this for hours on end--while a city wife did it by pressing a button on her electric washing machine. -- pg 510
Washday was Monday, Tuesday was for ironing.
Says Mary Cox, in words echoed by all elderly Hill Country farm wives:" Washing was hard work, but ironing was the worst. Nothing could ever be as hard as ironing.
The Department of Agriculture finds that "Young women today are not aware of the origin of the word iron, as they press clothes with light-weight appliances of aluminum or hollow stainless steel." In the Hill Country, in the 1930's an iron was iron--a six- or seven-pound wedge of iron. The irons used in the Hill Country had to be heated on the wood stove, and they would retain their heat for only a few minutes--a man's shirt generally required two irons; a farm wife would own three or four of them, so that several could be heating while one was working. An iron with a wooden handle cost two dollars more than one without the handle, so Hill Country wives did their weekly loads of ironing--huge loads because, as Mary Cox puts it, "in those days you were expected to starch and iron almost everything"--with iron without handles. They would either transfer a separate wooden handle from one iron to another, or they would protect their hands with a thick potholder.
Walt: As a bit of context, two dollars was enough to buy forty loafs of bread or ten quarts of milk.
a fancy iron with detachable handle
Since burning wood generates soot, the irons became dirty as they sat on the stove. Or, if any moisture was left on an iron from the sprinkled clothes on which it had been used, even the thinnest smoke from the stove would create a muddy film on the bottom. The irons had to be cleaned frequently, therefore, by scrubbing them with a rag that had been dipped in salt, and if the soot was too thick, they had to be sanded and scraped. And no matter how carefully you checked the bottom of the irons, and sanded and scraped them, there would often remain some little spot of soot--as you would discover when you rubbed it over a clean white shirt or dress. Then you had to wash that item of clothing over again.
Nevertheless, the irons would burn a woman's hand. The wooden handle or the potholder would slip, and she would have searing metal against her flesh; by noon, she might have blister atop blister--on hands that had to handle the rag that had been dipped in salt. Ironing always took a full day--often it went on into Tuesday evening--and a full day of lifting and carrying six- or seven-pound loads was hard on even those hardy Hill Country women. "It would hurt so bad between the shoulders," Elsie Beck remembers. But again the worst aspect of ironing was the heat. On ironing day, a fire would have to be blazing in the wood stove all day, filling the kitchen, hour after hour, with heat and smoke. Ironing had to be done not only in the Winter but in the Summer--when the temperature outside the kitchen might be ninety or ninety-five or one hundred, and inside the kitchen would be considerably higher, and because there was no electricity, there was no fan to so much as stir the air. In a speech in Congress some years later, Representative John E. Rankin described the "drudgery" a typical farm wife endured, "burning up in a hot kitchen and bowing down over the washtub or boiling the clothes over a flaming fire in the summer heat." He himself remembered, he said, "seeing his mother lean over that hot iron hour after hour until it seemed she was tired enough to drop." Rankin was from Mississippi, but his description would have been familiar to the mothers of the Edwards Plateau. The women of the Hill Country never called the instruments they used every Tuesday "irons," they called them "sad irons." -- pg 511
Walt: So few people do ironing these days, dear reader, you might be thinking that ironing is no longer relevant to the question of what it would be like to live without electricity. Perhaps that's true, but perhaps not. Humans always look for some way to distinguish those who have status and disposable resources from those who do not. In the era of cheap, fossil-fueled energy, neat clothes have become passe in all but the most conservative contexts. Will that change? The one thing that's sure about fashion is that it will change.
The current trend away from ironing comes in key part because the increasingly fine thread from which modern clothing is either woven or knitted is more full-bodied and therefore ill-suited to ironing, and in part because more traditionally woven fabrics are "wrinkle free" because they're routinely impregnated with fossil-fuel based chemicals--mysterious, ubiquitous chemicals which are in almost constant contact with the skin.
Since skin is an absorptive organ, chemicals that come into contact with it enter our blood steam and pervade our body. Is this a good thing? Probably, not. When the era of cheap fossil-fuel-based energy ends, we'll probably see the return of ironing as people undertake to distinguish themselves from the pack. There isn't now, and wasn't then, any actual need for clothing to be ironed, but that won't stop people from re-embracing ironing as a way to project wealth and status.
In 8th grade, I wanted to wear a fresh shirt each day, but my mother, who did the family ironing, felt that I should wear a school shirt for two days before it was laundered again. We resolved that issue by my taking over the chore of ironing my school shirts, a skill which later netted me much appreciated pocket money in college as I did ironing for others on my dorm floor. Two memories stand out as emblematic of how central ironing was to my parents generation: mom ironed my father's boxer-shorts underwear, and it was common for men to take off their pants when working in some private location in order to preserve the crease in their pants.
Since wrinkled clothes serve the same utilitarian functions as ironed clothes do, what I find most telling is that ironing, held by many to be the most dreaded part of a farm wife's chores, was unnecessary. And yet, a huge amount of energy and heart went into doing it.
Washing, ironing--those were chores that were performed every week. Then, of course, there were special occasions--harvest time and threshing time, when a woman had to cook not just for her family but for a crew of twenty or thirty men; the shearing, when, because there was no electricity and her husband had to work the shears, she had to crank the shearing machine, pedaling as if she were pumping a bicycle up a steep hill, pedaling, with only brief pauses, hour after hour; "He was always yelling 'Faster, faster,' " Mrs. Walter Yett of Blanco recalls. "I could hardly get up the next morning, I was so tired after that." Washing, ironing, cooking, canning, shearing, helping with the plowing and the picking and the sowing, and every day, carrying the water and the wood, and because there was no electricity, having to do everything by hand by the same methods that had been employed by her mother and grandmother and great-great-great-grandmother before her--"They wear these farm women out pretty fast," wrote one observer. In the Hill Country, as many outside observers noted, the one almost universal characteristic of the women was that they were worn out before their time, that they were old beyond their years, old at forty, old at thirty-five, bent and stooped and tired.
A Hill Country farm wife had to do her chores even if she was ill--no matter how ill. Because Hill Country women were too poor to afford proper medical care, they often suffered perineal tears in childbirth. During the 1930's, the federal government sent physicians to examine a sampling of Hill Country women. The doctors found that, out of 275 women, 158 had perineal tears. Many of them, the team of gynecologists reported, were third-degree tears, "tears so bad that it is difficult to see how they stand on their feet." But they were standing on their feet, and doing all the chores that Hill Country wives had always done--hauling the water, hauling the wood, canning, washing, ironing, helping with the shearing, the plowing and the picking.
Because there was no electricity. -- pg 511
The lack of electricity meant that the days of the people of the Hill country were filled with drudgery; at night they were denied the entertainment--movies, radio--that would have made the drudgery more bearable. The radio could, moreover, have ended the area's isolation. The feeling of the Hill Country youngsters of the 1920's that "we were completely cut off out here," that "we were back in the woods, compared to the rest of the world," that "everything had already happened before we found out about it," was the feeling of the 1930's generation as well. Because there was no electricity, the only radios in the Hill Country were the occasional crystal sets with earphones and poor reception. Amos 'n' Andy, Lum 'n' Abner, Ma Perkins--theirs were voices familiar to most of America; it was a rare inhabitant of the Edwards Plateau who had heard them even once. "What we missed most was the fireside chats," says Mary Cox. "I mean, we loved Franklin D. Roosevelt in this country, and we kept reading about these wonderful fireside chats. But we never got to hear them."
Even reading was hard.
Evening was often the only time in which Hill Country farm couples could read ("There was no other time," says Lucille O'Donnell. "There was never a minute to read during the day, it seemed"), but the only light for reading came from kerosene lamps. In movies about the Old West, these lamps appear so homey that it is difficult for a city dweller to appreciate how much--and why--some farm dwellers disliked them so passionately.
Lighting the kerosene lamp was a frustrating job. "You had to adjust the wick just right," says Curtis Cox of Bryan. "If you turned it too high, it would flame up and start to smoke. The chimney--that's the glass part--would get all black, and your eyes would start to smart." Keeping it lit was even more frustrating. It burned straight across for only a moment, and then would either flare up or die down to an inadequate level. Even when the wick was trimmed just right, a kerosene lamp provided only limited illumination. The approximately twenty-five watts of light provided by most such lamps was adequate for children doing their homework--although surveys would later find that the educational level of rural children improved markedly upon the introduction of electricity--but their parents, whose eyes were not so strong, had more difficultly. Mary Cox says that she couldn't read with their lamp for more than a short period: "I always loved to read," she recalls. "But I couldn't enjoy it on the farm. It was hard on the eyes, a strain on the eyes. I had to force myself to read at night." Lucille O'Donnell came to Burnet from Virginia, where she had liked to read in bed; she couldn't do that on her farm, she says, because she couldn't afford the kerosene. When she did read at night, she couldn't read in bed. Her husband, Tom, "would be asleep," she recalls, "and I would put the lamp beside him on the bed, and sit on that little stool and read in the most awkward position." Pointing to deep vertical lines between her eyebrows, more than one Hill Country wife says: "So many of us have these lines from squinting to read."
The circle of light cast by a kerosene lamp was small, and there were seldom enough lamps in the house of an impoverished farm family. It a family had so many children that they completely surrounded the one good lamp while studying, the mother could not do her sewing until they were finished. And outside the small circles of light, the rooms of a farmhouse were dark. "The house looked scary," says Mary Cox. "If I was alone at night, it was awfully lonely." And, of course, there were no lamps in the outhouse. "I had a horrible choice of either sitting in the dark and not knowing what was crawling on me or bringing a lantern and attracting moths, mosquitoes, nighthawks and bats." -- pg 513
To provide a bit of how this all plays in Windward's context, we're recently come through what's being widely described as the Pacific-Northwest's worst winter storm in 40 years. The snow was two feet deep and rising, the temps were in the single digits and flirting with going below zero, and then the electricity went out.
This usually happens with the first serious winter snow as the heavy wet snow pulls limbs and the occasional tree down onto the 7,200 voltpower lines. The lights blink as the automatic circuit breakers retest the line a time or two before shutting down to await repair. One winter the grid was down for five days when a failure of one of the main power stations left 97% of the people in our county without electricity, but usually it's an isolated event on one of the rural power trunks.
Not knowing how long the power would be down, we used the daylight we had to rig for cold running. One way that we use electricity in winter is for electric mattress pads. These make very efficient use of a small amount of energy placing it right where it will have the best effect. Even in an unheated room, an electric mattress pad offers a toasty welcome when you crawl into bed. But with the power down, it was time to relocate.
Some of our housing relies on systems which require small amounts of electricity to function. For example, Redmond trailer still has its original propane furnace which uses electricity to ignite the propane and run the fans that blow heated air into the trailer's heating ducts. We use a wood stove to heat the trailer for when we get together on these long winter evenings to watch a movie, but we keep the propane system set to come on at 40°F to keep the pipes from freezing when we're away. With outside temps in the single digits, it's no problem to find someone happy to stick by the stove and keep the trailer warm.
We rely on electricity to pump water from our well to the 3,000 gallon storage tank that's set on our highest bit of land, and on gravity to move and pressurize the water from there down to the dining hall and cabins. With the grid down, no more water flows into the storage tank, but 3,000 gallons can tide us over for quite a while. Redmond's water heater is propane fired and has no electrical components, so even when the power's down, a hot shower is no problem--and it's remarkable how much a hot shower can do for morale.
This time the power came back on just as the sun was setting, timing which couldn't have been more convenient--but getting rigged for a cold weather power outage was a good drill, and well worth the effort. It never hurts to be reminded of just how much we rely on electricity here in Washington's version of the Hill Country.
No radio; no movies; limited reading--little diversion between the hard day just past and the hard day just ahead. "Living was just drudgery then," says Carroll Smith of Blanco. "Living--just living was a problem. No lights. No plumbing. Nothing. Just living on the edge of starvation. That was farm life for us. God, city people think there was something fine about it. If they only knew . . ."
So many conveniences taken for granted in American cities were unknown on the Edwards Plateau: not just vacuum cleaners and washing machines but, for example, bathrooms, since, as a practical matter, indoor plumbing is unfeasible without running water, which requires an electric pump. In the Summer, bathing could be done in the creek (when the water wasn't dry); in the Winter, it entailed lugging in water and heating it on the stove (which entailed lugging in wood) before pouring it into a Number Three washtub. Because bathing was so hard, "you bathed about once a week," Bernice Snodgrass says. Children went barefoot, so "we'd make them wash their feet [at the pump outside] you know. We [adults] would wash our face and hands and ears in washpans but we didn't take a bath but once a week." There were few toilets, and most Hill Country outhouses were the most primitive sort. Many had no pit dug under them. "It would just drop on the ground," Guthrie Taylor recalls. "No, it wouldn't be cleared away"; every so often the flimsy shelter would just be moved to another spot. Since toilet paper was too expensive, pages from a Sears, Roebuck catalogue or corncobs, were used. [Walt: hence the expression "rougher than a cob."] And some families did not have outhouses. When the Snodgrasses moved to Mount Gaynor from Austin, Bernice Snodgrass says, "We were the only people in the neighborhood that had one. You know what everyone else did? They went out behind the barn, or behind a tree, or something." Frederick Law Olmstead had found the same situation--houses at which there was "no other water-closet than the back of a bush or the broad prairies"--on his journey through the Hill Country in 1857. He had been shocked then, because the America he knew had advanced beyond such primitive conditions. Now it was 1937; four more generations had been living in the Hill Country--with no significant advance in the conditions of their life. Many of the people ... were still living in the same type of dwelling in which the area's people had been living in 1857: in rude "dog-run" shelters one board thick, through which the wind howled in the winter. They were still squatting behind a bush to defecate. Because of their poverty, they were still utterly bereft not only of tractors and feed grinders, but of modern medical assistance--and were farming by methods centuries out of date. -- pg 514
Although they understood that, as Loiuse Casparis says, "we were behind the rest of the world," natives of the Hill Country did not realize how far behind the rest of the world.
How could they be expected to realize? Without many books to read--or, in general, newspapers, either, except for those pathetic four-page local weeklies; without radio to listen to, with only an occasional movie to watch--how was news of advances in the rest of the world to reach them? Since many of them never saw that world for themselves--an astonishingly high proportion of Hill Country residents would never visit even Austin or San Antonio--the Hill Country's awareness of the outside world was dim. The life of Hill Country natives was, moreover, the same life that their mothers and fathers--and grandmothers and grandfathers--had lived; how were they to know, except in general, vague, terms, that there was another kind of life? When they heard about the wonders of electricity, they thought electricity was the electricity they saw in Johnson City, the dim, flickering lights hardly better than lamplight; the wonders they imagined were the electric iron and the radio, little more; "I remember when someone started telling me about washing machines," recalls Ava Cox. "A machine that washed? I couldn't picture that at all! Even the concept of the toilet was difficult for them to accept completely; when Errol Snodgrass, newly arrived in Mount Gaynor, began not only to build an outhouse but to dig a pit underneath it, a neighbor asked him: "What do you want that pit for?" And when he explained, Bernice Snodgrass recalls, the reaction of the neighborhood was, " 'They're so highfalutin that they have to have a toilet.' They thought an outhouse with a pit under it--they thought that was what people meant when they spoke about a toilet!" Natives of the Hill Country couldn't understand why families that had moved away from the Hill Country never returned. It is not, therefore, by lifelong residents of the Hill Country that the contrast between life there and in the outside world is most clearly enunciated, but by newcomers: from families which, due to economic necessity, move to the Hill Country in the 1930's.
The Depression had cost Brian and Mary Sue Smith their home and their once-profitable automobile repair shop in Portland, Texas, a town near Corpus Christi. In 1937, they moved with their three children to the Hill Country--to a fifty-three-acre farm near Blanco--because "that was the only place where land was cheap enough so we could buy a farm."
Portland had electricity--had had it for years. "You never thought about electricity," Mrs. Smith says. "I just accepted it. I mean, if I thought about it, I suppose I would have thought, 'Doesn't everyone have electricity?' "
The Smiths had brought their radio, a big black Atwater Kent with an amplifying horn on top, to their new home, but it could not be played. "You know, it was very lonely on that farm," Mrs. Smith says. "The quiet was nice sometimes. But sometimes it was so quiet it hurt you." They had brought their washing machine, but that did not work, either. Mrs. Smith loved to read, but "The light was hard on your eyes. My eyes just weren't good enough to read at night." In Portland, she had crocheted at night, but she found the light was too dim for her to do that at night. And, of course, there was no time to do it during the day; what time wasn't consumed by her household chores was taken up husking, shelling and grinding corn by hand for feed for the 150 hens whose eggs she was selling; by cranking the sheep-shearing machine. Soon after she arrived on the farm, her husband became very ill, and for more than a year she had to care for the livestock too, and to plow behind a pair of mules--although she had never plowed before. "Up before daylight. Build the fire in the wood range. Put on the biscuits. Go out and milk the cows. Breakfast. Work was all there was. It was a bare existence."
Getting the water, from a well some 200 yards from the house, was the chore that bothered her most. "The children had had running water in Portland, of course, and they acted like they still had it," she says. When she started meeting other Hill Country women, she noticed that many of them were round-shouldered, and they told her it was from carrying heavy buckets of water. She didn't want to be round-shouldered. But there seemed no solution. "Carry and carry. Back and forth. Sometimes I would get awfully discouraged. When I first moved there [to the Hill Country], I felt like a pioneer lady, like one of the women who had come here in covered wagons. I said, if they could do it, I could, too. But it was very hard. After you spent all morning lugging those big buckets back and forth, you felt more like an ox or a mule than a human being. Portland was just a little town. It was no great metropolis. But moving from Portland into the Hill Country was like moving from the twentieth century back into the Middle Ages." -- 515
Notes From Windward ‒ Vol. 70