Reading “A Doctor in Homespun” by Mary Phylinda Dole gives the reader a glimpse of a world that has disappeared almost completely — the world of 19th century New England where people made nearly everything for themselves and went to market primarily to sell things.
At the Williams Farm in Ashfield, Massachusetts, where Mary went to live after her mother died (Mrs. Williams was a cousin of Mary’s mother), they made their own clothing, soap, yeast, candles, cheese, butter, cider, maple sugar, corn meal and a sweet syrup called raspberry shrub.
“Nothing was ever wasted by the Williams family,” Mary writes. “They believed in the old saying, ‘Take care of the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.’
“They always had dollars to give to others who needed them. When my brother-in-law’s mill burned, Mr. Williams was the largest contributor to a fund to help him rebuild. I have been sent a great many times with a pound of butter, eggs, apples or something to the minister’s or where there was sickness.”
“The butter and eggs not needed for our own use were taken to the store and traded for various ‘notions’ such as pins, needles, thread, buttons, tape, spices, calico and cotton cloth. For the bigger things, such as barrels of flour and sugar, Mr. Williams traded wood, potatoes, apples and turnips.”
Here’s a tip from Mary Phylinda – grow your turnips in a field that has been fallow for a year and don’t pick them until they’ve been sweetened by a good hard frost.
And they ate very well indeed. I’m getting hungry just reading about it. They had apples, berries, cabbage, beets, turnips, potatoes, carrots, lamb, chicken, turkey, goose, squirrel, partridge, coon, and brook tout. When a cow was butchered, they had liver, sweetbreads, heart, tongue, kidney, tripe, roast beef, steak, pot roast and corned beef. From the pig they got ham, bacon, roasts, chops, salt pork, Philadelphia scrapple, head cheese, pickled pig’s feet and many pounds of sausage.
“It used to be said that everything about a pig could be used except the squeal,” she says.
Mary Phylinda was a true farm girl and liked outdoor chores like harnessing and driving the oxen and horses, raking hay, tending calves, shearing sheep, splitting wood, cracking butternuts, tapping maple trees, collecting sap and generally keeping real busy.
I can just picture her studying her Latin while tending the fire beneath the pans of boiling sap.
What also comes through in the opening chapter of this book is the love that Mr. and Mrs. Williams (we don’t learn their first names in the book) and the entire Williams family showed to Mary Phylinda, whose mother died when she was eight years old.
“Mr. Williams was a man of few words,” she writes, “but when he did speak, every one listened. He seldom raised his voice and never scolded.
“I would like to recommend his alarm clock. It doesn’t need winding and never fails. In haying time he would come into the house, take the tin dipper, get some water, add molasses, vinegar and ginger.
“After drinking this, he sat down in his old Windsor chair to rest, holding the empty tin dipper between his knees. When he got so sleepy that the dipper fell, with a clatter, to the floor, he got up and went back to work.”