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Fall Harvest at Daggett and Firestone Farms

September 11, 2009 Archive Insight

It seems an odd notion, but as the days grow shorter and autumn’s colors begin to creep into the trees and hedgerows of Greenfield Village, the geese take wing in to their formations, and the smell of wood smoke fills the air, the connection to the past seems even stronger. For those of us who work in the living history areas of the Village, there is also a strange pressing need associated with this change of the season to begin the preparations for the long winter ahead.

At the two main living history sites in the Village, Daggett Farm and Firestone Farm, the slower pace of the long summer days begins to quicken as the harvest season approaches.  For our visitors, it’s a fascinating view of preparations and work with similar goals, but with very different sets of tools and technology available to achieve these goals.  The colonial Daggett family and the Victorian Firestones both needed to harvest their crops, store away vegetables and fruits, and prepare and preserve a winter’s meat supply.  And, everybody made cider!

The Daggetts would have stored away a variety of root vegetables in stone-lined pits that would have prevented hard freezing for turnips, potatoes, beets and other similar vegetables. The earth is a great insulator, especially a small hillside.  These outside “root cellars,” dug deep enough and lined with stone, provided the protection needed. The stone lining not only insulates, but keeps the items stored away cleaner. The wooden cover/door with added straw insulation made access throughout the winter possible.  A heavy layer of snow would further help to keep the storage area from freezing.  This would normally be in addition to the cellar of the house, also used for food storage.

Cabbages would have been pulled roots and all and also stored in similar ways.  Pumpkins and other winter squash would have been kept in house cellars or possibly garrets (attics), to prevent freezing, allowing them to be used well into the winter months.  Several other root vegetables like parsnips and salsify would have just been kept in the frozen ground of the garden and dug out as needed.

By this time of year, beans and peas would have been dried and stored away in sacks in cool dry locations.  Dried peas and beans used in soups, stews, and baked bean dishes were simply left to fully mature on their vines or stalks in the field.  Once completely dry, they were pulled by the roots and loaded into a cart or wagon and hauled back to the barn.  In some cases, the partially dried plants were attached to long poles set-up in the field, once fully dried, the “bean” poles were hauled back to the barn to await further processing.  This allowed a nice compact way to store them.

Much like threshing grain, beans and peas were laid out on a flat surface, usually on a tarp, and hit with a wooden flail (two lengths of wood connected by a leather lace).  The wooden flail would break apart the pods and loosen up the dried beans or peas.  Once loose from pods, the beans and peas were carefully scooped up and then cleaned by a process called winnowing.  Using the breeze, the bean and peas were flipped up and down in a large shallow basket.  The dust and lighter debris would blow away leaving the beans or peas behind.  Once clean, they would be stored away in barrels or clean sacks.

Today, if you wanted to grow your own dry beans or peas, you would need to have space to plant several long rows, and leave them be until they have completely matured and turned brown, plants and all.  Peas will be ready before beans would be. Peas are usually ready for harvest as dry peas by July, beans by later September depending on when they were planted.  Once they are ready to clean, get a large burlap sack and fill it partially with the dried plants that have been pulled by the roots.  Hang it up like you would a piñata, and find a stick similar to one you would hit a piñata with. Hit the sack over and over to break loose the beans or peas from their pods.  Once loose, empty the sack and separate the beans from the vines and pods. Use a small fan to blow the dust and loose debris away from the beans.  They then can be stored in a cool dry place until it’s time to cook them.  They would need to be carefully washed before cooking.

Another version of dried beans is “leather britches”.  These are green beans, picked while they are still tender and then dried.  To do this you can thread them onto a string and allow them to air dry or simply use a home de-hydrator.   Dried green beans were re-constituted and added to soups or stews in the winter and early spring when nothing green was available.

With careful planning, all these sorts of vegetables would carry over the family’s needs until the new summer produce became available again.  It’s no wonder that the first early greens from the garden were so looked forward to after a winter of starchy root vegetables. As you visit the Daggett farm throughout the fall, you will see the staff harvesting and storing away a variety of garden produce.

The Firestone, one hundred years later, would have used many similar techniques to insure their vegetable needs for the winter.  Pits and root cellars still played an important role.  Sauerkraut from cabbage was an important fall job at the Firestone Farm. A well-made crock of kraut could last the family well into the spring.  Simply a combination of salt and shredded cabbage, sauerkraut was a winter staple for many German-American families. Great sauerkraut has only two ingredients, salt, and cabbage.  The ratio is 3 tablespoons of a non-iodized salt (kosher or sea salt) for every 5 pounds of cabbage.  Natural processes take it from there. Here is what you need to make your own.

Tools and ingredients: Sharp knife or Madeline, 1-gallon stoneware fermenting crock, wooden lid for the one gallon crock, scrubbed and boiled round rock to weigh down wooden lid, large plastic bowl, cutting board, something to mash the cabbage down into the crock (old-fashioned wooden potato masher would work well), 2 heads of cabbage (5 lbs), 3 tablespoons of non-iodized salt (sea or kosher).  Green cabbage will give you white kraut, but if you add red cabbage, or use all red cabbage you will get pink kraut.

The heavy outer leaves of the cabbage head should be removed, if your cabbage has already been market dressed, you are ready to go.  Cut or shred the cabbage very thin. Take turns layering salt and shredded cabbage in the crock.  Be sure to vigorously mash each layer of cabbage in the crock. Take care not to break through the bottom of your crock while deploying the masher.  Once the 5lbs of cabbage and all the salt is in the crock, put in the wooden cover and the rock to weigh down the soon-to-be kraut.  A method used at Firestone Farm is to employ the heavy outer leaves of the cabbage as the first cover of the shredded mashed cabbage and salt before the wooden cover and rock is put in place.  This will help to better seal the mixture and allow for a better start to the fermentation process.  Place the crock in a cool dry spot.  For the next two weeks or so, the mixture will ferment and develop its distinctive flavor.  Daily during this period, or as needed, you will need to lift off all the covers and skim off the awful looking moldy scum bloom that will take place on the surface, it will likely smell bad too.  This is all ok and part of the process.  It would be a good idea to clean off the cover and rock each time you do this.  After two weeks, the kraut is ready to eat, and can be stored in glass mason jars in the refrigerator.

You can also can the kraut in the glass jars using the directions given in a current issue of Ball’s Blue Book.  These books are readily available anywhere you can buy new canning jars.  Most centrally-heated homes today do not have a cool “fruit cellar” or cold room so common in 19th century homes to allow for simply leaving the kraut in its crock and using as needed.

Fruit, especially apples, was another important food item carefully preserved for the winter.  The Daggetts had very limited technology when it came to “canning” as we know it today.  Fruit jams or preserves were kept in small crocks or glass jars and sealed with bees wax, spirit soaked parchment, or animal bladders that when tightly drawn over the jar opening, would dry and seal off the jar (they were reusable).  Lots of fruit was dried by slicing and lying out in baskets or on wooden racks.  Fresh fruit was carefully packed in barrels whole to keep in a cool spot.  As stated earlier, unheated interior spaces are not common in our homes today.  An unheated attached garage that stays above freezing would work as an alternative.  If you wanted to try and keep apples for a period of time, the best candidates would be those you pick yourself at an orchard, or from your own trees.  Select fruit that is free from insect damage or bruising and carefully wrap each individual apple in newspaper. Do not choose fruit that is overly ripe.  Do not wash the fruit beforehand as you want to leave the natural coating the fruit has in place.  In place of apple barrels that were commonly used, a waxed cardboard box will work.  Apples bought by the box can be stored if the location is cool enough.  You will need to go through them and remove any that have issues that might cause spoilage.

By the 1850s, the “fruit” canning jar with sealable lids had been perfected and by the period of the 1880s, the Firestones would have made full use of this technology and would have put up a dazzling array of pickles, jellies, jams, sauces, etc.  If you interested in canning your own produce, purchase a current copy of Ball’s Blue Book.  These directions will tell you everything you need to safely can your own jams, jellies, and pickles.

The Firestone orchard is going to have a banner year.  Filled with a number of 19th-century and earlier apple varieties, visitors will be able to see a wide selection of red, green, brown, yellow, and speckled apples on the trees.  Names like Rambo, Baldwin, Belmont, Roxbury Russet, and Hubbardston Nonesuch can be found there.  They all have different characteristics, flavors, and ultimately were used in different ways, either for sale, or for the family’s own use.  Those not carefully packed away will be made into apple butter, apple sauce, pies, dowdies, dumplings, fritters, and cider. Both the Firestone and Daggett kitchens will overflow with apples this fall.

Both the Firestones and Daggetts made cider.  The sweet cider we all seek out in the fall was actually only available for a short time when the apples were plentiful.  Cider actually refers to the fermented slightly alcoholic drink stored in barrels for use throughout the winter.  Cider vinegar, and apple jack brandy was also made from the juice of the crushed apples.  The Firestone staff demonstrates the use of a small “home” cider press.  We do know that Samuel Daggett pressed cider with a larger animal powered machine, and sold cider to the surrounding community.

Other fruits that were commonly grown and used in a variety of ways were pears (fermented pear juice is known as “perry”), peaches, cherries, quince, and grapes.  Wine making from grapes was commonly done, especially among German communities.  Though not actually a fruit, hops are grown in the Daggett garden, and brewing of small beer was also a fall activity.

The harvest of the field crops at Firestone Farm has been underway since July as the wheat ripened.  The fall is when the field corn was harvested and by the end of September or early October, the corn at Firestone Farm will be standing in neat shocks.  Firestone Farm pre-dates the era of the silo, when corn stalks were chopped up and made into a slightly fermented feed known as silage.  So instead, corn stalks were chopped and fed as fodder.

Gathering the stalks into shocks had an important purpose. The inside stalks, sheltered from the elements, and retained their nutritional value for quite some time and the actual shock made a handy manageable portion for the farmer to haul from the field for his cattle.  The corn was either picked before shocking, or at the time the shock was pulled from the field.  Corn then had to be husked, and then thrown into the corn crib for further drying.  Firestone barn has an enormous corn crib running the entire side of the barn shed.  Once dry it could be shelled, then either fed as shelled corn, or ground into feed or meal.  The variety we grow at Firestone Farm is called “Reid’s Yellow Dent” and was primarily grown as a feed corn.  Hard “flint” corns were best for meal, and the softer “gourd seed” type of corn was also used for animal feed, or for making hominy and grits. Corn harvest related work will take place throughout the ladder part of September at Firestone Farm.

It’s a great time of year to visit and get some inspirations for fall harvests of your own.

Jim Johnson is Director of Greenfield Village.

recipes, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, food, farms and farming, Daggett Farmhouse, by Jim Johnson, agriculture

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