By: Martha Gray Webb
In my front yard stands a large, black cast iron kettle. It is a
reminder of an era past. A time that some people call the “good
days”. But were times better then than now?
This particular kettle is at least 60 years old and has served many purposes.
The kettle belonged to my grandparents and was bought
by my parents before I was born. I am the third generation of my family to own it but I don’t use it for the same purposes
When I was growing up on a small farm in Arkansas, the kettle was a fixture
in the back yard. I remember my mother using the kettle
to heat water to wash clothes. The water had to be pulled by hand from a well then carried to the kettle. A fire had to be built under the
kettle and carefully replenished so it smoked as little as possible. As the hot water was removed from the kettle, it had to be replaced
by more water drawn from the well. The water used to rinse the clothes had to hand drawn also.
Perhaps you have heard the expression “hog killing weather”? After
the first cold weather each Fall, it was usually time to butcher the
hog. Hogs, unlike cattle, are not skinned, but the hair must be scraped from the skin. Water was heated in the kettle and in barrels.
The carcass was placed in the barrels of near-boiling water for several minutes, removed and covered with burlap sacking then the hair
was scraped off. After this was done, the butchering was completed. My father would remove the head and entrails and hang the
carcass to drain for several days. Afterward, it was cut into hams, shoulders, pork chops, etc. My father also ground sausage with a
hand-powered grinder. My mother would can sausage and ribs. These could be kept until warm weather. The other parts of the pork
had to be used before summer.
During World War II, soap was very scarce, so the black kettle was used
to make soap. The lady who ran the country store saved
pork skins and scraps of fat. My mother put these scraps in the kettle, built a small fire underneath it and rendered the fat from the
skins. Next the fat was strained and returned to the kettle, lye was added and the mixture cooked over a very low fire. The mixture had
to be stirred with a wooden paddle and when it started to thicken the fire would be removed or allowed to die. The soap was then
dipped from the kettle and put into pans to harden. Later, it was cut into pieces of a useable size. It was not possible to dip all the soap
from the kettle; there would be a half-moon shaped piece of soap in the bottom of the kettle the next morning. Soap made in this
manner was used for laundry soap and sometimes for personal bathing.
After the war was over, a new industry, known as locker plants, sprang
up all over the area. These were large freezers, the
forerunners of the present home freezers. The buildings were equipped with lockers, approximately 18 x 24 inches and 36 inches deep.
The entire locker room was kept at zero temperature. To meat-starved Americans, they were terrific. First, my father and brothers
butchered a calf to put in the freezer. My mother discovered she could put surplus butter in the freezer and store it until it was
needed. My older brother decided we would raise chickens to frying size, butcher them and put them in the locker. Had I known what
the outcome of that project would be, I probably would have committed murder. Fifty one-day-old chickens were bought and put
in a cage, sometimes called a battery. They were fed all they would eat and grew very quickly. About a week before time to butcher the
fryers, my mother fell and sprained her ankle and could not walk. So once more, I filled the black kettle with water and built a fire under
it. My father sharpened a hatchet for me and I chopped the chicken’s heads off, two at a time, scalded them in the hot water, picked the
feathers off and cut them up, ready for the freezer. I dressed about twelve a day for 2 days, then on Saturday, an Aunt came to help me
finish the 50 fryers. I have not picked a chicken since, nor do I intend to, but I still buy whole fryers at the market. After all, I’ve been
cutting up chickens since I was fifteen years old; why should I pay someone to do something I have so much experience at?
One more thing the kettle was used for was to make hominy. Mother
would select ears of mature corn, hand shell and wash it. The
kernels of corn were then placed in the black kettle, covered with lye water and cooled until tender. Then the mixture had to be
rinsed again and again until the husks and other residue was gone. All the water had to be carried from the well, and, of course, I had to
carry it. Is it any wonder that I hate hominy?
When people remember “The good old days”, I think they remember
a quiet time, a slower pace, family conversations, table games,
summer picnics and swimming in the creek. They don’t remember the hard work, the uncertainties, the isolation. Today we have
automatic washers and dryers, dish washers and other machines to do much of the hard work for us. But people still reminisce about
the past and call them the “Good Old Days”.
I keep the kettle as a memento of my childhood, and use it as a flower
pot. I am very happy that I don’t have to carry water to it except
to water the plants.