The life described in this literary classic seemed somehow so familiar. I was halfway through the book when I realized why. When I first came to Door County, I conducted a number of oral histories. And the people I interviewed lived in the same time period as Old Jack. Then, life in rural Door County was remarkably similar to the life in rural Kentucky –except colder.
We have just survived a brutal January, but what was life like before there were LP gas deliveries and GORE-TEX®? Folks must have dreaded winter…hated it with a passion! Or not.
Farm work in winter was unremittingly hard, but most of the people I talked to remembered winter fondly. They remember the fun of riding in ice boats on Green Bay. They told of skiing, ice skating and playing “crack the whip” on Europe Lake. Dances, almost identical to those described in Memories of Old Jack, were held frequently along the whole length of the peninsula.
“I loved winter, ” Ida Bay told me in an interview shortly before her death. “When we had snow, we could go visiting.”
She explained that rural roads were not good, and often impassable in rainy seasons and during the growing season, there was just too much work, “But when we had snow, the whole family could pile into the sleigh and we’d go calling.”
Throughout the winter, folks would visit their cousins or their neighbors (more often than not, neighbors were cousins). In November, womenfolk would start baking and storing goodies in tins. When folks came calling, a good neighbors always invited them in for coffee and a bite to eat.
Eating was the reason one elderly gentleman loved winter. In winter, he could eat fresh meat. During summer, his family ate vegetables, and perhaps an occasional fish if someone had time to go fishing. But without refrigeration, fresh meat was unthinkable.
Once winter came, the family could butcher and there was fresh meat to eat and meat to can. (Many families preserved meat in glass jars, just like we store our garden produce. Clever cooks would leave a thick layer of fat at the top of the jar so when the time came to prepare a meal, they could make gravy.)
Winter was a time for Door County men to earn some extra money. Winter is the best time to cut and transport wood. And literally thousands of men earned extra cash by cutting ice from the bay between Sawyer and Sturgeon Bay.
In reading The Memory of Old Jack, one learns many details about an era, so different from our modern life, when people embraced winter and made do with what they could make.
At the Homestead Fair, learners of all ages can step back in time and visit with knowledgeable people who will be demonstrating the art of canning fruits and vegetables; cheese-making; family tree searching; cider-pressing; knitting; weaving; spinning; quilting; gardening: blacksmithing; as well as sustainable local farming and chicken-raising.
Before the family heads home or out to cross-country ski or snowshoe with equipment borrowed from Crossroads they can make an old fashioned button-twirling toy to take along or to give to someone special! This program is free and open to the public.
Old timers remember mushrooming in the woods and many folks still forage for wild mushrooms, but these days, backyard gardeners of Northeastern Wisconsin are growing mushrooms. Anyone who has ever thought about growing mushrooms at home might find the prospect daunting, particularly because information regarding mushroom gardening is not easy to find. If you would like to know how to go about it, attend the Door County Master Gardeners’ free public program at 7 pm on Tuesday, February 11.
Laura Kahles, staff environmentalist at Field and Forest Products in Peshtigo will present “Mushroom Farming and Forest Gardening. This lecture will introduce basic mushroom cultivation techniques as well as discuss substrate, strain and tool selection to get you started. Field and Forest Products produces certified organic mushroom spawn for mushroom cultivation enthusiasts and commercial growers, and has been in business for 31 years. Laura specializes in Oyster mushroom cultivation on substrates and will share valuable knowledge on growing other mushroom species.