Friday, December 17, 2021

Before the memory fades: Of grain bags and skunk oil – yesterday’s ordinary days may be the source of fascination today

By Walter Lunt

Phrases like party line, rabbit ears or green stamps may bewilder young ears, but elaborating on the stories associated with them often produce eager listeners. The people, customs, and events of our past, unless told or written down, can disappear into the fog of history. The past, which should resonate today and influence tomorrow, is too often left unsaid. Stories told and diaries kept are key to preserving the past; a past which children and grandchildren should know about and appreciate – they are moments in time that transcend to the present.

A 1930s girls' sack feed dress as advertised by 
Windham’s premier advocate for recording life’s memories was the late Kay Soldier, historian of the Windham Historical Society. From articles in local newspapers, to books, to storytelling to anyone who would listen, Soldier used the spoken and written word to share daily life as she experienced it in Windham during the 30s and 40s.

Two of Soldier’s narratives were about recycling grain bags and bartering for skunk oil. Back in the day when nearly 90 percent of Windham families were involved in some type of farming, a common commodity was feed grain. In an article she titled “Save those grain bags,” Soldier recalled the sacks were 100 percent cotton, and off-white in color. Some, she pointed out, were floral prints or plaid, but the best ones were the calico bags - her mother would transform them into pillowcases and clothing. “…mother would wash the empty bags and after drying on the clothesline, she’d take them apart down the long seam. In a few days, she’d turn these cotton bags into aprons, quilts and most often, into dresses for her three oldest daughters. (They had) buttons in the back, lace at the cuff…and a long sash to tie in a bow in the back.” Soldier went on to observe, “It wasn’t until I took sewing in high school home economics class that it dawned on me what a talented woman Mom was.” Soldier’s conclusion from this historical anecdote: “Think of the packaging material we get today…and haul away. Bring back the traits of the old days: Waste not, want not.”

In another missive, Soldier went further back into the 20th century, recounting a time when she begged her mother to tell stories of her childhood: “She said her life wasn’t exciting and that she didn’t have a lot of kids to play with…so she accompanied her mother whenever she went anywhere.”

It seems every couple of weeks her mother would hitch up the horse and wagon, pick up her grandmother, (Soldier’s) great- grandmother, and travel from Webb Road to the home of a couple who lived near “dead man’s curve” on Land of Nod Road. The two families would barter household necessities. Soldier’s family “would trade butter and milk for skunk oil.” Young Soldier’s reaction of shock and disgust was tamed by her mother’s explanation: “…skunk oil was used as a kind of liniment for rheumatism, and it had no smell.”

More stories and lessons from Windham’s recent history or, as some call it, “the good ole days,” are told in Kay Soldier’s two publications, Memories of Windham and The Days Gone By. Both are sold at the Windham Historical Society’s research museum on Windham Center Road.

Some of the most interesting historical stories, whether or not they contain important lessons for us to live and learn by, are found in personal journals or letters written by those who preceded us. Historians encourage these stories be written down. People want to know more about their ancestors, beyond just the names listed in their genealogies.

So, tell your stories. Write them down. And don’t be afraid to draw conclusions, even if they lead in unexpected directions. Do it…before the memory fades. <

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