Mountain Farms and the Homeplace

The “old homeplace” is a house, outbuildings, and farm. But this land, which for some families becomes almost sacred, is also a gathering place and is frequently the site of the family’s cemetery. As long as the old folks are around, the homeplace is a center for the family and a place for Sunday dinner, with long visits on the front porch. As is often the case, when mountaineers gather at the homeplace, their minds drift off to mamaw and papaw or to age-old homeplace traditions. They enter a unique environment: At one time the place was a food production facility, but now it may have become a repository for family history. For some Appalachians, the old homeplace is acres of land that are passed on from generation to generation, land that cannot be sold outside the family.

As important as the buildings were, so also were the homeplace’s geological features. The property’s streams, points, holdings, and ridges carried significance. In addition, many farms had logging roads, coal mine openings, and, later, gas wells. Fences—built of wood, stone, and barbed wire—also become important. During the frontier period, livestock roamed wild, but as the population increased, farmers found it necessary to define property lines with some kind of physical boundary. Within farms, fences divided sections so that grazing areas could be controlled. Property lines were important features, often running with a point, creed, or ridge and sometimes being marked by a large poplar, shagbark hickory, or other tree. Family members knew the location of property lines as well as they knew the rooms in their house.

Today, this environment is peaceful, bucolic, and moving, but 50 or 100 years ago, surviving here required hard work. Modern Americans may romanticize a barn raising or hog killing, but the reality of survival and the desire for prosperity required constant toil. Those who lived and worked mountain farms did not have paid holidays, vacations, and delivery trucks. They worked before breakfast, after dinner, and all the hours in between.

Long hours were required because at one time these places were largely self-contained. The homeplace was a collection of buildings and family, with each family member having a job to do. Indeed, families not only dried apples, but they also spun yarn, built rifles, and made candles. They canned, cooked, hunted, and prayed. A review of the Foxfire series suggests that the Southern mountaineer had well-honed skills that led to making beautiful fiddles, wooden berry buckets, and pottery of many styles. The Foxfire series also documents the making of relatively obscure objects that families used at the homplace including wooden lcoks and gourd banjos. On the old homeplace, at least in the first quarter of the twentieth century, farmers made their own tools, including dashers, hoes, rakes, and shovels. As one moves back in time, the homeplace can be understood as the basic unit of frontier living.

Not all Appalachian families, not even all rural families, had a homeplace, but those who did may have memories of the spring house, can house, chicken coop, corncrib, smokehouse, outhouse, root cellar, and mule barn. Some places also had potato houses, bee gums, loom houses, and multiple corncribs. The barn was always the biggest structure, with space on the ground floor for mules, horses, steers, wagons, and tack, and space above for straw, fodder, and hay. While the barn was on one hand a romantic place where kids could get lost or tell stories, it was also a place that had fires, sick horses, and swarms of bees.

In addition to barns, spring houses were built to collect cool water, and these structures included shallow basins for keeping foodstuffs cool. Farmers kept crocks of milk, cheese, and butter in the spring house. Somewhere below the water collection point, they built a spigot so that family members could wash their hands or fill jugs. In place of a spring house, some families use the branch (creek) while others built cisterns.

Another storage building, the can house, was used to store canned vegetables, meats, and fruit. This building protected open crocks of pickled corn and relish, sauerkraut, and fermented drinks such as hard cider, beer, and wine. Sometimes the can house was combined with a root cellar, but many times they were separate.
Mountain families not only built a variety of outbuildings, but because of their isolation, many also had a cemetery. While Appalachian churches also had cemeteries, some families buried their dead on a hill above the farm. In some cases, commercial cemeteries were not available, but others built cemeteries because they wanted their loved ones close, even in death.

In death, the homeplace was the center of life. When someone died, the word passed to neighbors who came to help with the funeral. Because few rural areas had funeral homes, the women prepared the body for burial, and the men dug the grave. Friends brought food, and, on the day of the burial, the homeplace was the place to gather—to pay respects, visit, and eat. But death was not a time to be away from loved ones, so in addition to watching over the body, family members would tell stories, play games, sing, and court.

Today, these family cemeteries draw the family back. Memorial Day weekend is a time to change the flowers, cut the grass, and then gather for a memorial service. Even if much of the mid-twentieth century production—the pigs, corn, and mules—is gone, when family members come, the farm still has apple trees, remnants of a well, and maybe a garden. The farm might even have an old cheese house, sorghum furnace, or blacksmith shop, but these are rare.

Unfortunately, the old homeplace as it existed is disappearing. For 100 years, most families have not needed a blacksmith shop, and for 50 years, or since the arrival of electricity, families have not had to cure hams. They have torn down and burned up their chicken coops, and their root cellars have fallen in and been dozed over. When the family founders die, if no one moves to the house, the homeplace changes quickly.

In recent years, the physical setting of mountain homes has changed dramatically. Modern mountaineers live in house that line both sides of paved streets. They enjoy city water, concrete driveways, and storm sewers. An occasional mountain valley is home to a few abandoned silos and chimneys without cabins. But unlike the American Southwest where the dry climate helps preserve old structures and create ghost towns, the rainy climate and high humidity of Appalachia cause quick deterioration. The destruction begins only a season or two after the old folks move away: Paths become covered with weeds and vandals take what they want. After a few years, buildings sprout vines, trees fall, and roofs rot. So while the active homeplace is an environment with a culture and history, the abandoned one becomes wild. Over time, even the memories are lost.

Recipes, however, seem to stay with families even after they move off the farm. For a recipe that calls for ingredients that would have been home grown, cook the bacon potato soup in Part Two. Some call it homeplace potato soup.

The Old Homeplace
Laura M. Lauderdal

I see the times that
marched across your face,
A time stamped so bold.
A time–not forgotten.
A time each person has told.

You seem so neglected,
grown up and old.
But in our hearts and our memory,
you face is bright and bold.

Our memories are different
of things you saw and we’ve told.
While you alone can tell it all
and watched while it unfolded.

Our hearts, do love you
and your land we cherished so dear
the kids who came before us
and the kids longs after us, hold you near.

So once again we came
and wished and told you tales
while you watched in the shadows
and dreamed your dreams as well.