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Blackberry Picking & Birch Sappin

Glenna (pictured with her husband, TJ)

Glenna's site is

Often in our family everyone had something to do and the only times we all got together was at the table for meals and in the late evenings before bedtime for a few minutes of reliving the events of the day or planning for the division of work for tomorrow. There were two events in the spring and summer months that everyone participated in as a family. One was blackberry picking and the other was birch sapping.

Around the last of June or in July was when the blackberries ripened. Mommy would get us all up and we would have cat head biscuits, brown sausage gravy, bacon or fried pork chops or sometimes fried chicken, fried apples, eggs and oatmeal. Usually, mom would fix some cooked and sweetened prunes. There was homemade jellies and jams or apple butter. Strong black coffee, sweet and butter milk and fresh churned butter finished off the meal. The smell of coffee perking and the sizzle of food frying and Daddy venting his frustration with Ted or Marshell or whichever one of the family that wasn't doing to suite him would wake us all up. No one could sleep when he got started!

After breakfast and when the cow had been milked, the mule, hogs, Blackberry Picking and chickens all fed, mom would get the red and yellow Partridge lard buckets, both the 8 and 4 pound size, that she had saved all winter. There would be aluminum water buckets and dish pans and anything else that would hold berries. While the dew was still on the grass and the sun was just starting to slowly creep down into the valley where we lived, the whole family would set out.

We had two places where we went to pick berries. One was across the creek from the house and down a little ways on the other side of the mountain. It had once been an open field for corn but was now laying fallow. The field was full of blackberry briars hanging full of ripe, sweet berries. We would pick berries most of the day. There would be more than we could manage to pick in one setting. We would have to go back again, sometimes two or three times before either we had picked them all or the birds had finished them off.

The briars were away over my head and Mommy or one of the boys had to stomp down a path so I could get to the berries, They also had a hoe with them for lifting the branches to look for rattlesnakes and copperheads. We lived in an awfully snakey place. Every year there was several copperheads killed and sometimes a rattlesnake. The snakes didn't eat the berries but the birds did. The snakes would wait under the briars to lay a way the birds.

After the picking was done, mom would wash the berries and she and the older girls would stoke up the fire under the canner and start washing and scalding the fruit jars, seals and rings. Each jar would be washed with soapy water and rinsed clean, then scalded with nearly boiling water from the cast iron teakettle that was always hot on the coal and wood cook stove. Mom said this was to kill any germs that might be on the jars and cause the food to spoil.

The berries wound be packed in the jars up to the bottom of the neck and shook down to release trapped air. Boiling water was poured in over the berries up to the top of the berries. The seal would be set on the top and the ring tightened by hand. These jars would be set in the water in the canner. Mom would pack old clothes between the jars because as they boiled, they wound jump around, click together and break without this padding. The fire under the canner would be stoked up until it boiled and kept at a boil until the berry jars had been at a full boil for the right amount of time. Next they were taken out of the water and set aside to cool. Another batch would be put in. After they were cool and all the seals had been checked they would be put in the canning room to carry us through the winter. I've seen mom put away well over 100 quarts of blackberries at one season.

As a special treat mom would always let us eat all the fresh berries we wanted. I liked mine with sugar and fresh cow cream poured over them. The sweet tart taste was wonderful. She would always bake a big pan of fresh blackberry pie for supper until the fresh berries were gone. She always made a few dozen pint jars of blackberry jam too. I don't remember how she did that, just that she did. The ones canned sure tasted good that winter in a cobbler or a big pot of blackberry dumplings!

The other place we went berry picking was up in the head of the holler above the new ground. Daddy said these were the best berries because they were so big. He called them churn berries. I know that children nowadays don't know what a new ground is. Well, when a new cornfield or tater patch was needed someone had to cut down all the trees and dig out all the rocks, stumps and tree roots so the ground could be plowed and planted. My brother Vance told me that when he was 12 years old him and daddy cleared a big new ground. This day and time children think that if they have to clean their room or was dishes or mow the lawn that they are being made to work to hard. They don't have a clue what hard work is. Raising a big family was hard and we all worked at whatever we were big enough to do or Mommy and Daddy couldn't have ever kept us fed.

The other spring event we all loved was to go birch sapping. On our place there were a few birch trees as big around as a water bucket. We would all go for a trip up through the mountain looking for birch trees, both large and small. Now this was just a fun trip because the birch sap couldn't be harvested and preserved. It had to be fresh scraped. Daddy would take a sharp knife and a hatchet in his belt. The time to sap was when the sap was up in the spring. If we found a large tree, he would hack out a square shape in the bark of the tree trunk and use the knife to prize off the cut out bark. These pieces were put in a bucket or pan for taking to the house. The tender branches of small trees were taken by us kids for smoking. When we got home and sometimes even in the woods we would take a piece of the pried off bark and scrape out the minty, sweet sap with a spoon and eat it. We all took a spoon with us for this purpose. As we traversed along there was laughter and joking. Daddy was always ready to laugh at the boys and joke them about one thing or the other. Mommy was quieter but she had more patience with us than Daddy did. Mom would show me wild flowers and tell me their named and help me hunt teaberry sprigs and berries to eat. She would help me find moss kittens too. That is them big puffy pieces of soft, thick moss that you find growing on rocks sometimes. I'd pretend they were my pet kittens. Even with all this fun, me and my sister Shirley still had one more pleasure yet from the birch sapping trip.

You ain't never lived until you have rolled a big ole hog leg cigarette out of birch bark scraped off and rolled in a piece of brown paper bag! Ah! The sweet smoke tasted so good, but, you had better not inhale. It would cause you to cough yourself to death and burned the lungs like fire! I was allowed to smoke birch bark when I was 5 or 6 years old. Me and Shirley would find us a young tree because the bark was sweeter. We would take several switches and get a knife and scrape the bark into thin curls on the kitchen table.Just scraping would release the sweet smell. When we had big enough pile of "tobacco" we would put it in an empty Prince Albert can and smoke it until it was gone. It had to be smoked the same day or the next because if it was allowed to dry out the sweet taste was gone. We tore off pieces of brown paper bags for our rolling papers. It had to be torn, if you cut it with the scissors the edges were too smooth and wouldn't stick together with spit! Sometimes we would chew the bark too and pretend we were chewing tobacco. Nothing made a little girl feel more grown up than sitting on a big flat rock and smoking birch! Before long the sun would start going down and the cow would come in to be milked. Mom would holler at me. It was my job to hold the cow's tail while she milked. The rest of the children had chores to do to as the shadows lengthened and twilight stole down to throw a soft, black blanket over our valley.