Sharecroppers, or tenant farmers, helped farm the Shields-Ethridge property. Their homes were near main roads near the farm. By 1940 about 13 sharecropper families worked between 15 and 30 acres of the farm, in exchange for housing, equipment and supplies. Today, only two of the tenant houses are still standing. You will visit one, called the “Teacher’s House.”
In 1938 an African American teacher came to live in a house which had been used by a tenant farmer since 1912. Originally, the house was 15 by 20 feet, and had only one room. It was enlarged for the teacher, with an addition of a bedroom and kitchen. The house has been known as “the Teacher’s House” since 1938.
What questions will you have about what it was like to live in a tenant house? It may help to think about what you expect to find when you visit a friend’s house today. Changes over time are clear when you think about lighting a house. Here’s a photo of a coal oil lamp, which the teacher used to light her house. What was used before the coal oil lamp? What would be used today? Compare the living space in square feet in the Teacher’s House to your home. How many more square feet do you have?
Outside the tenants’ places were usually several small buildings. A chicken house, perhaps a small barn, and a “privy” were usual structures on the property. The “privy.” or outhouse, was the tenants’ toilet. A deep hole was dug and a wooden seat and small shelter was placed over it. When the hole was full, it was covered, and the shelter was moved to another spot.
The privy and chicken house are gone now, as is the vegetable garden and “swept yard” you would have seen in 1938. Yards were swept with brooms made of branches from shrubs. Why do you think the tenants swept the yards? A safe place to play was important then, as it is now. High grass invited snakes, and without lawnmowers the tenants couldn’t keep grass cut. So sweeping the yard was how a play space was made safe.
Sweeping was one of the children’s chores. They also worked in the garden, picking beans or squash for meals. They helped gather plants, berries, and herbs for food. They learned how to preserve food, because there were no refrigerators. They helped with spring cleaning, painting the fireplace with “white mud” from the banks of a nearby creek. They chopped firewood for warmth and for cooking. They also helped with the washing, which was a day-long event without running water.
You will see the well and a well house (which was rebuilt) in the yard, at the Teacher’s house. Water had to be “drawn,” which meant pulling it up from deep in the well with a bucket. A pulley made the job easier.
A large iron pot was filled with water. Clothes were scrubbed clean with a washboard and then boiled over an open fire. More water was needed to rinse the lye soap, which had been made from the ashes in the fireplace, out of the clothes. The clothes were hung outside to dry in the sun. Finally, an iron was heated to press the clothes. The iron that was used weighs 12 pounds. Imagine what hard work ironing was!
While you are at the Teacher’s house, look around for the tools used for cooking, cleaning, and making clothes. See if you can find a butter churn. It was used to turn milk into butter. If you’d like to learn more about making butter, baking bread, and cooking in the earliest days at the Shields-Ethridge farm, visit this website:
You will also find a story about making butter in Appendix A.
After visiting the Teacher’s house, would you agree with an Ethridge elder who said: “People here used what they had, worked for a living, and were proud of their work”?
In 1954, Row, Peterson and Company published The Workbook for The New Singing Wheels. Susan Ethridge Chaisson kept her workbook for 50 years. Here are two stories about making butter in pioneer days that appear on pages 61 and 62 in her workbook.
Getting Ready to Make Butter
Before Ma could make butter, she must be sure she had a good supply of cream. Each morning when Tom brought in the pails of milk, Ma emptied the milk into pans and put the pans in a cool place. After the milk had stood for a few hours, there would be a thick yellow layer of cream on top of the milk. Ma would skim off the thick cream and put it into a stone jar. Then after a while she would have enough cream to make butter.
The next important thing was to get the churn ready. First Ma put hot water into the churn and let it stay there for a short time. The hot water made the wood swell. The wooden pieces of the churn fitted together so tightly that the cream could not run out through the cracks. When the cracks were closed, Ma poured out the hot water and put in cold to cool the churn. Then she poured out the cold water and put in the cream that she had been saving in the stone jar.
After that Ma put the dasher down into the churn and put the wooden cover on tightly. The dasher looked like a long wooden handle with a flat piece of wood on the lower end. The handle of the dasher fitted through a hole in the cover of the churn.
As Ma began her churning, she pulled the handle of the dasher up and down through the hole in the cover of the churn. The dasher splashed the cream around inside the churn. Ma had the churn only half full to allow plenty of room for splashing. Before long, tiny golden lumps began to appear in the cream. These tiny lumps were butterfat or butter. The cream from which these lumps had separated was no longer cream. It was now called buttermilk. Ma kept on churning until all the cream in the churn was turned into butterfat or buttermilk, leaving the butter in the churn.
The next important thing to be done was to wash the butter. Ma poured some cold water into the churn and pulled the dasher up and down several times. She wanted to wash out any buttermilk that might still be left in the butter. When the butter was well washed, Ma poured out the water, again leaving the butter in the churn.
Now came the time to work the butter. Ma took the butter from the churn and put it into a wooden bowl. She pressed it against the sides of the bowl with the wooden paddle to make sure that the last of the buttermilk was pressed out. Otherwise, the butter might spoil. Then she added salt to the butter to keep the butter sweet, and she worked the salt into the butter with her paddle. Finally the butter was packed in a jar, covered with a wooden lid, and put away in a cool place where it would keep fresh.