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Rachel Lyons: Memories of Laundry Days

Seeing the old washing machine photo sure brought back lots of memories of washing clothes in her childhood in Southern Adair County, memories Rachel Lyons share in this great story of of many decades ago around Antioch
Written after reading Strange Things from South End of Adair Co., KY

By Rachel Lyons

One glimpse of that old washing machine and memories flooded her mind, flashing scenes, from years gone by. In a time before running water in the house, but after electricity, doing laundry was still an all day affair. On that Adair county farm, the adults were up between four and five am. A fire was started in the cookstove and, if it was wintertime, one was started in the living room stove, too. Then the older children are awakened to help with the chores. It is a day of lingering sights, sounds and smells.

By daybreak, there is a nice breeze blowing and the children are soon put to work helping to carry water up the hill from the spring. Pa would have already set up a huge cast iron pot suspended over an outdoor fire and it had to be filled with water. There had to be water carried to the house for drinking and cooking the noon meal, too.

Buckets are carried down to the spring and filled with cold water, using the gourd dipper that hangs on a root, there by the spring. The air here at the spring feels cool and refreshing on a hot day, so she lingers, until Mama hollers for her to come on. Then the filled buckets have to be carried back up the hill where Mama or Ma takes them and pours the water into the big pot. She shaves a piece of lye soap into the pot of water so the clothes will get clean.

The feel and smell of the soap draws up memories of the day Mama made that soap and the first time she was allowed to help. She thinks about soapmaking day as they carry more buckets of water to fill the galvanized tubs for the scrub board, rinsing tub, bluing tub and enough water to make starch.

The grownups are keeping watch over the fire and using a long stick to keep the clothes agitated, in the soapy, boiling water. The stick reminds her of a tobacco stick, maybe Mama had the menfolk make her a washing stick when they were making the tobacco sticks. The extra dirty clothes have to be scrubbed by hand, on the scrub board, with lye soap. Her knuckles feel like they are going to be rubbed raw, but Mama does most of the work and lets her work alongside. Mama is a good teacher by example and explaining and letting her "help". She is the oldest child and beginning to notice the younger ones like to imitate the adults and they want to be "big" like her so they imitate her, too. Mama and Daddy are smart to know little ones are learning by watching them, more than listening, because a child can't help but daydream a little. Do the neighbors and other adults in their life know they are watching them and learning?

Each child from the youngest helps according to abilities and need. One is given a wet rag to walk back and forth, cleaning the clotheslines before clothes can be hung on them. All the children are busy with chores that keep them safely away from the fire and to help keep minds and hands busy. So as they work, they watch and learn until their time comes to try a new skill alongside the grownups.

Once the clothes in that big old iron pot of boiling, soapy water is deemed clean enough, Mama lifts them out on the stick into the rinse water and from the rinse to the bluing or starch or clothes line according to what the pieces are. She has to rinse the clothes and wring them out by hand. Then carry the heavy, wet clothes to the clothes line and hang them to dry.

The fire is allowed to die out and the water is emptied from the big pot when it is cooled enough. All the laundry tubs are emptied and cleaned, as the clothes are finished washing and rinsing. Turn the tubs over or hang to dry on the side of an outbuilding. As the children play, they can hear the clothes flapping in the wind. As generations before they have learned to tell by the sound when the clothes are dry. After the clothes dry they have to be gathered, carried in and sprinkled down for ironing tomorrow. Oh how sweet they smell of sunshine and fresh air.

If there is time Mama and Ma might sit and rest a spell or they all might sit in the side yard, breaking green beans for canning, peeling peaches or apples for drying, shucking corn for supper or gathering ripe vegetables, from the garden, into their aprons or a basket. Then it is time get the pot of beans off (they have been cooking on the stove all day) to slice tomatoes, peel and fry the potatoes and make a pone of cornbread, for supper. It will soon be time for the night time chores.

One day, Ma got a washer that looked something like the one in the picture. There is no room in the house for it and Ma doesn't want a mess in the house, so it is set on the back porch. It was electric and she didn't have to stand out by the open fire stirring the clothes with a stick and worry about the children or one of the adults catching their clothes on fire. The water could be heated, for this smaller tub, on the cookstove, and poured into the washer tub. The machine had wringer/rollers so she didn't have to wring out those heavy pieces by hand any more and there was a hose on it to empty the tub, so they didn't have to heft that heavy iron kettle anymore! There were still galvanized tubs for rinsing and starching, but they all thought they had the life of luxury with that washer.

All these years later, I can still remember and smell those sweet sun-dried clothes.


-Rachel Lyons

This story was posted on 2011-07-19 17:39:54
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