Winter on an 1880s Ohio farm

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By Rick Palsgrove
Groveport Editor

Photo by Vicki Sherman and courtesy of Metro Parks
People cannot help but smile when they see the new piglets at Metro Parks’ Slate Run Living Historical Farm, located at 1375 State Route 674 North, near Ashville. For information on the park, visit metroparks.net.

Work on an Ohio farm does not slow down during the cold of winter, which is as true now as it was in the 1880s.

For the staff at Metro Parks’ Slate Run Living Historical Farm – a working farm depicting farm life in the 1880s and located near Ashville at 1375 State Route 674 North – that includes work in the farmhouse and barnyard during the changes in seasons.

“While most of the food preservation was complete for the year, except butchering and maple work, the daily routine of cooking, cleaning, mending and laundry did not change that much for the women,” said Ann Culek, farm program manager at Slate Run Living Historical Farm. “Inspection of the root cellar and other storage spaces to make sure the food there stayed fresh could take up some time for a housekeeper trying to make food last until the next growing season.”

Culek said this included checking the jams and pickles for mold, scraping the mold off or using those items first, and making sure rotting apples or potatoes did not spoil what was touching them.

“There was also more time in the winter for extended projects like sewing family clothing and quilting,” said Culek. “Much of farm life is and was based on seasonality.”

In the 19th century, without modern central heating, keeping oneself warm in the winter was a big task on the farm.

“Weather impacts humans then and now,” said Culek, who noted many farm diaries mention the temperature and weather daily, as it dictated much of their lives. “Keeping warm was a constant battle. Hauling and splitting wood or arranging for coal to be delivered cost money and time. Most families relied on cast iron stoves, and some even had a furnace in the basement, but there was no constant supply of heat once the occupants of the household retired for the night and no forced air to circulate through the house. Many houses had grates cut through the floor to allow the heat to rise to the bedroom areas.”

Houses got cold enough that the water in the kitchen could freeze overnight.

“There are lots of written examples of advice for how to thaw the inside and parlor plants slowly in an attempt to save them when they froze,” said Culek. “Jack Frost, a common visitor to the single paned windows of the houses of the time, rarely makes a visit to our homes of today with their insulated glass. Most modern children have never drawn patterns in the frost on their windows for amusement. Layering was essential for warmth inside and outside the house.”

No matter the cold weather, activity in the barnyard continued throughout the winter. For many farmers hog butchering was a necessary activity for the cold months.

“Without a modern source of artificial refrigeration, an 1880s farm family relied on Mother Nature and the cold weather she provided to keep meat from spoiling,” said Culek. “Hogs provided hundreds of pounds of meat. Most often pork was brined in salt in a barrel or crock or rubbed with salt for a dry cure. Eventually the salt travels throughout the meat, such as with ham and bacon, thus once the meat is well salted, it no longer needs to be refrigerated to keep from spoiling.”

The salting process can take weeks to get into every part of the meat.

“The naturally cold weather preserves the meat while that happens,” said Culek. “Once salted, the meat was often smoked. Families and neighbors regularly helped each other out on butchering day as they might do a few hogs in a day, which was a lot of work. They helped each other out, but also got a chance to visit.”

Other jobs for the winter were fence building, mending equipment, husking shocked corn, and hauling wood. As late winter arrived, those with access to maple trees would collect the tree sap to boil into syrup or sugar for not only their family, but also to be sold as a cash crop.

“Maple syrup time was another chance to visit your neighbors at the ‘sugar camp,’ talking around the fire and tasting taffy-like maple syrup poured over snow,” said Culek.

When asked how the farm animals were cared for to keep them warm in the winter, Culek said most farm animals grow thicker winter coats.

“Besides offering shelter from the wind, and adequate food and keeping water sources open, there was little an 1880s farmer could or would do for the animals,” said Culek. “They generally did not need exceptional care and this part of Ohio is fairly moderate for winter temperatures.”

When asked if winter was a time of isolation for 1880s farmers, more so than the rest of the year due to the weather, Culek said it depended, but many families and neighbors still got together for taffy pulls, popcorn and nutting evenings, social or fraternal group meetings and lectures, or theatrical or musical performances at a local “opera” house, within reach of anyone near a town. Plus, freezing temperatures actually made some things easier and even fun.

“Often the frozen roads made hauling and traveling a bit easier in winter than in the constant mud that roads became in the spring,” said Culek. “Ice cutting and skating happened on local canals and creeks and coasting was a favored sport if any hill could be found. When there was enough snow, many residents seemed to enjoy getting a sleigh out and, although it could be a frigid mode of transportation, sledding parties and races were a winter pastime with the proper conditions.”

For information about Metro Parks’ Slate Run Living Historical Farm, visit metroparks.net.

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