Sunday, November 12, 2017

Preserving the Harvest in the 1800s

A footnote from history by Stephanie Grace Whitson

I knocked on the neighbor's door and held up a sprig of something I'd just cut from a bush growing wild along our country road. When the elderly farm woman (who would become a dear friend) came to the door I asked, "If I make jelly from this, will I poison my family?"

She chuckled. "Well, honey ... what do you think that is?"

I looked at the smooth-skinned red fruit. "I think it's chokecherries, but I'm not sure. We picked gooseberries and blackberries on my Grandpa's farm in Illinois ... but I don't remember chokecherries."

My friend nodded. "Yes, that's chokecherries. But they aren't ripe." In July, my family drove the country roads near our acreage, the children and I hopping out the side door of the mini-van when Dad came to a stop, filling buckets with ripe chokecherries. We were following in the steps of thousands of pioneer women who not only planted vast gardens but also spent hours harvesting and preserving wild fruits and berries, roots and plants. 

Mattie Oblinger's letters
are a treasure to researchers
longing to know about the
everyday life of a pioneer woman.
What did pioneer women grow? How do we know? One way we know is by reading their letters. Martha (Mattie) Virginia Thomas Oblinger and her husband, Uriah, homesteaded in Fillmore County, Nebraska. In 1873, Mattie wrote her family, "I set a hundred and thirty cabbages last week." In another letter, she mentioned squashes, cucumbers, mellons [sic], beans, potatoes, and beet seed. "We have the nicest patch of early rose potatoes in the neighborhood. Uriah bought 10 bushel ... I have nice tomato plants coming on ... I want to set more." ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY cabbages?!! Ten BUSHELS of seed potatoes? And Mattie considered that a "nice patch"?!!! 

A pioneer family shows off their garden bounty.
Nebraska State Historical Society nbhips 10957
Of course all that garden produce had to be preserved. Thanks to one John Mason, who invented a jar with a screw-on lid in 1858, pioneer women could preserve their food in glass jars. That canning jar revolutionized food preservation. In an interview published in Nothing to Tell: Extraordinary Stories of Montana Ranch Women, Marie Walker Converse told Donna Gray, "I canned ninety quarts of peas the first summer ... "

Prior to the invention of the canning jar, food was dried to preserve it. ("You slice the pumpkin around in circles, take the seeds out, peel it, and hang it on a stock crosswise of the joists of the house. Let it hang there until it dries. Then store it in sacks. You have to cook it several hours, and season it with hog meat and grease"). Leather Breeches Beans were created by stringing beans with a needle and strong thread and hanging up in the warm air until dry. "Store in a bag until ready to use." "I never canned carrots; we could keep them down in our basement. Put them down there, put sand over them and they kept real well. And rutabagas, lovely potatoes and onions, and oh, so many string beans."

Cabbages and potatoes might also be buried in a dirt trench and then covered with straw and dirt. Cabbage might also be layered in a crock, alternating chopped cabbage with salt. "When the jar is filled, cover the cabbage with a clean white cloth or a saucer. Then place a flat flint rock or other weight on top to hold the cabbage under the brine that will naturally form." Once canning was possible, the next step would have been to portion out the sauerkraut and can it, but "old timers used to leave the cabbage" in the crocks. 

In 1873, Mattie Oblinger wrote, "I have 8 dozen cucumbers up." I don't know what kind of pickles she made, but I can imagine stoneware crocks lined up in her kitchen and the aromas of vinegar and onions in the air. I've made my share of watermelon pickles, dill pickles, zucchini pickles, cinnamon cucumbers, and relish. But in all my years of pickling, I doubt I've gone through the number of cucumbers Mattie's garden yielded in one growing season.

I remember my mother topping dozens of jars of jelly with a layer of melted paraffin (wax).  

My mother's Bread & Butter Pickle recipe is relatively easy and definitely time tested, although it assumes basic "pickle & canning knowledge." Born in 1913, my mother knew life without electricity and indoor plumbing and remembered old fashioned "ice boxes" and storing canned food and potatoes in the root cellar beneath the farm house. 

Nora's Bread & Butter Pickles 
1 quart sliced cucumbers 
slices of onion 
1 cup vinegar 
1 cup sugar 
1 teaspoon salt 
1 teaspoon white mustard seed 
1 teaspoon celery seed 
1 teaspoon turmeric 
Put all ingredients, except cucumbers, in enameled pan and let come to light boil. Add cucumbers, let come to boil. Boil 1 minute. Pack in sterilized jars. Seal while hot. Process 10 minutes at simmering temperature.

Do you preserve summer's bounty? What's your favorite home-canned food? Jelly or jam? 

In my novel Sixteen Brides (Bethany House Publishers) band together on a Nebraska homestead. Learning about early gardening enabled me to write the passage below. While I love writing about pioneer women, I'm very grateful I don't have to adopt their workload.

"They planted pumpkins, squash and melons, all of it without plowing. Ella slit the soil, and Caroline walked behind her, a bag of seed at her waist as she bent and tucked seeds into the slots. The planted corn that way, too. Five acres to start with, although Ella had plans for at least twenty ... By the end of that first week they'd set out over a hundred cabbages.They planted onions and carrots, parsnips, beets, and peas. Nancy Darby brought them tomato seedlings, and they planted those close to the house inside wire cages lest a jackrabbit nibble the tender plants off. They planted lettuce and radishes, turnips and cucumbers ..."

To celebrate their first growing season on their homestead, my ladies host a harvest celebration on their place. Read more here:


  1. I don't can any food. But my sister and brother-in-law have a huge garden and can lots of vegetables. Yummy!

  2. I do still can and freeze food. I canned 68 qrs. of tomato juice and froze 35 qts. of green beans and several packages of bell peppers and cabbage. I also canned 16 qts of Bread & Butter pickles and my recipe is very similar to your Mom's. I love to garden and I love to preserve the food if at all possible.
    Thanks for sharing this post!

    1. Connie, how do you freeze your green beans? I'd love to preserve fresh green beans for use later in the year.

    2. Connie ... what a terrific accomplishment! One of the things I loved about canning and freezing was that it was one thing about homemaking that lasted and didn’t have to be done again 2 days later. It gave me a sense of accomplishment.

  3. nice post. I used to do a lot of canning our own garden. And my mom and friends would do the same. we would share the bounty with each other. I am talking large amounts of food. now we are not as able to garden much anymore. But we do buy from local farms and can this way.
    quilting dash lady at Comcast dot net

    1. Like you, I did most of my canning with a friend... great friendships and memories were made.

  4. When we lived in Wisconsin as poor pastor ‘s family, the nice folks at church taught us to can. We picked their produce and choke cherries, blackberries, plums and crabapples, pears etc. we even canned our venison and made kraut and pickles. We are now retired and fiends gave us cukes and tomatoes, dill, lambs quarters and we just canned tomatoes we grew on the back porch and last year’s venison. The last two items because our 4 month old freezer just conked out! My MIL used to can as did her mother. My aunt canned a lot and used to send us home from vacation with canned items. My daughter said she’d bring us some peach butter on her next visit. It is frugal to preserve and it makes you appreciate where food comes from. And you are confident you can survive if you were unable to buy items.

    1. Good points about what we learn from the process... and peach butter...YUM!

  5. While I have never canned, I have lots of memories of my mother and grandmother canning and freezing. I remember seeing these bread and butter pickles on the table. Life was so much simpler and better back then. We (kids) were content to stay at home and out of trouble and help out. They are not vegetables, but my favorite is pecans and peanuts. My daddy would climb up in the pecan trees and shake them and the neighbors would come and sit and help pick off peanuts. I do still have those in my freezer. My favorite story is my family picked off peanuts until midnight one September day and I was born five hours later. They tell me that's why I love boiled peanuts so much!

    1. Love that story! Not long ago I explained shelling walnuts and pecans to a grandchild who was amazed that we didn’t just get shelled nuts in a bag at the grocery store.

  6. Thanks for the interesting post. I've never been around people who canned, and as a result, I've rarely mentioned doing that in my stories. I need to remember that canning was a way of life for many folks in the 1800s.

    1. The idea of depending on what could be preserved in the fruit cellar for the entire winter makes me so grateful I live in 2017 where I can make jelly or can tomatoes if I want to, but my life doesn’t depend on it....

  7. One of the favorite things that I still do is a relish called "Hot Bill". It's slightly spicy, tomato-based, and looks like what they call hamburger relish, but it's a whole lot better! I remember my mom and nana making some pickles with cherries in them, but I've not done those. Thanks for the post!

  8. My grandmother and mother would can veggies, pickles and such.

    1. Those home-made pickles are hard to beat ... but I don't miss them enough to want to can again. I'm content with the memories ;-).