Monday, March 26, 2012

An Afternoon in the Parlor

There is a period during the winter and early spring months when there is so little going on for those of us who do living history. The big events here in the north country tend to begin in May and, depending on how extensive your involvement, usually end in the fall or, at the latest, around Christmas.
It doesn't help that we, as civilians, tend to be tied to the military end of the reenacting community. Unless the boys in blue (or gray, whichever the case may be) are going to an event, there are few chances for civilians to time travel as well.
That attitude seems to be changing, however, at least in my neck of the woods; over the past couple of years, we in the civilian portion of the 21st Michigan and in the Michigan Soldiers Aid Society (MSAS) have stepped up to the plate to create our own events - events where we make the attempt to give an immersion effect that sometimes can't be done at a full-blown Civil War reenactment.
Very recently, eight members of the MSAS came over to our home to participate in spending an authentic afternoon in an 1862 parlor. We have a large period-appropriate room in our house, and since opportunities to reenact in historical homes are months away it was only natural to take advantage of what was available. 
Now, I've done this sort of immersion thing before, though, in nearly every case, modern-isms, such as the visiting public, having conversations about up-coming reenactments or our (modern) occupations, or even hearing the sounds of cell phone ringtones, would creep in. It can, at times, be very difficult for groups to stay immersed in another era for more than a few minutes without having the 21st century rear its ugly head; usually the modern-isms mentioned "remind" us that we are only living historians and not really 'there.'
But not this time. We truly made the attempt to be "there."

To begin with, I had a sign placed on the front door of our house stating 
for that’s where our parlor is located. To walk through our modern home with its modern conveniences (we truly are 21st century people you know!) to get to the period parlor would have taken away the effect I was striving for; I wanted this to be as modern-free as I could possibly make it.
As each guest would knock upon the door, our domestic servant, Carrie, would answer it and allow them to enter and take their wraps, hats, and bonnets. Carrie would then remove herself into the kitchen where she was preparing our dinner. We had a servant's bell and would ring it whenever we needed assistance. For instance, I would ring the bell and Carrie would come to me:
"Mrs. Morgan would like a glass of lemonade."
"Yes sir."
A slight curtsey then off to do as she was told. She also served us our dinner, brought desserts out on a tray and took it to each guest, and cleaned up after us. And this continued throughout the afternoon. Although it was a bit awkward initially, we both fell into our roles quickly, as did the guests.
I must say, Carrie did a wonderful job!
As for the rest of us, we enjoyed period conversation centering around numerous topics; on this particular day the weather was very cool indeed - quite different from the summer-like temperatures from the previous week - and Mrs. Root spoke of her arduous journey by carriage to our home, and how the cold made her joints feel "as stiff as a corpse!"  Mrs. Krewer spoke a bit on women's rights, the War and our concern of how long it may last, and even a bit on the recent wave of immigrants entering our country. The other women didn't seem to have much of an interest in these men's matters, however, and soon turned their attention to Mrs. Schmidt, who began to read sonnets from a book on Shakespeare.
When Mrs. Schmidt was done, I pulled out the guitar and everyone joined in as we sang popular parlor songs such as Nelly Bly, Hard Times Come Again No More, Aura Lee, Some Folks Do, and Wayfaring Stranger. The ladies all sang beautifully to my guitar playing. 
Afterward, a few of the ladies enjoyed playing the ever-popular card game known as Wist. 
The two youngest of our group played with a toy that sold very well in England - a sort of cardboard puppet show that included multiple set changes and a script they were to follow.
This kept the young ladies busy for quite sometime!
My wife also showed interested parties the pleasures of spinning upon a spinning wheel. Oh, she knows that in the city this craft is considered old-fashioned, but she enjoys the relaxing effect it gives her after a particularly strenuous day.

Once dinner was served, eaten, and the table cleared (Carrie was very efficient in her serving and clearing - we are lucky to have found such a fine domestic!), Mrs. Smith had everyone help in preparation of the ladies quilting bee. The Ladies Aid Society are planning to make quilts for our boys in Blue and there was plenty of preparation needed before the project could begin. 
By the time the quilting preparation was completed, the hour had come for everyone to take their leave. It was a shame that the afternoon went by so fast, for it seemed that we were all really getting the feel of 1st person, which seemed to come more natural as the afternoon went on. 
We took a couple of group photographs for posterity and then *poof* we were back in the 21st century.
I am particularly proud of our domestic, Carrie, because, well, where most women want to wear the beautiful dresses, Carrie enjoys dressing as a girl in a very real profession of the time; it's not every girl that is willing to become a servant for a day. My wife and I are very lucky - blessed! - to have found such a willing participant, for Carrie actually portrays our domestic at a number of events throughout the reenacting season (here are three posts which features her from last year):  
Christmas at Historic Fort Wayne 
Charlton Park - Where the Past Comes Alive 
and It Rained in the 1860's, too!)
By the way, before they left, our guests gave Carrie a round of applause for the fine servant work she did. And she did work. My wife and I, in a previously agreed-upon 'payment,' took her out to eat at a nice restaurant afterward (no, not Big Boy's!) and we enjoyed recounting the day's activities.


It's good to have living historians who are willing to raise the bar and to participate in very easily put-together "events." The membership of the Michigan Soldiers Aid Society (as well as my other unit, the civilians of the 21st Michigan) do such a tremendous job in bringing the past to life as authentically as we can. It's not often we can do something solely for our own want rather than for the public. And to do so without the public around, to me, shows that we do take our fun quite seriously.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Past vs The Future

I'm going to speak about the past in today's posting, but with a modern and hopefully thoughtful twist.
I have concerns - big concerns - about our future. Yes, this man of the past is thinking about the future.
What I am about to write is a generalized overview of the subject at hand and not an extensive report. I have a point to make here and I feel if I become too wordy my intentions for thought will not work as I hope it to.
First, let me take you back to, oh say, the later part of the 19th century and into the early part of the 20th, at the time of some of the new inventions and the industries they either created or helped in their expansion:
When Thomas Edison and his men were able to get an incandescent light bulb to not only light but to stay lit for hours and days, that sparked a whole new revolution. It took a couple of decades for homes and businesses to fully accept this phenomena, but when it did, millions caught the electric light fever.
This photometer was used by Edison to measure and compare the amount of light produced by light bulbs
And that created a whole new industry. For now not only did you need electric light and parts manufacturers, but manufacturers of wire as well. And electricians for installations. And power plants.
In fact, an entire new industry rose out of this invention from 1879.
Let's jump up nearly thirty years, to 1908. Henry Ford, who, by that time had been making automobiles for over 10 years, put into motion a plan for building a car for the everyday person, one that your average household could afford - the Model T.
The Model T changed not only America but the world. Because of his use (and perfection) of the assembly line, Model T's could be made quickly and cheaply, thus keeping the price very affordable, meaning nearly every family could now have an automobile.
Ford 1909 Model T
But, think of the changes that occurred due to the popularity of this particular car: the auto industry as a whole took off like a rocket; more auto plants were opened, calling for thousands of workers to build the horseless carriages. Thus, more factories were needed to make car parts, and the shipping industry grew greatly to deliver these parts. And because people, for the first time, were truly mobile, vacations became a very popular pastime. Gas stations popped up. Car repair shops popped up. And then new and improved roads needed to be built. Also, better roads and, eventually, freeways...all across the nation. With that came road repairs. Since folks were traveling farther and farther from their home, there was now a need for more motels and hotels, souvenir shops, even more gas stations, and more road improvements. Road maps became another popular business. Travel agencies, though around for over a hundred years previous, became a major trade. The advertising industry in magazines and especially on billboards along the roadside grew in leaps and bounds as well.
And then there were the tire manufacturers whose business grew with the auto industry.
When you think about it, except for a few exceptions, the automobile itself help to drive most of the 20th century.
In the entertainment world the phonograph and the moving pictures also grew within the first couple of decades of the 20th century. And here again another flourishing industry came about: making records - either cylinder or flat disc - with recorded music. Besides the musicians and singers there were the manufacturers of the recordings, recording studios, and, as the century moved on, need for attractive cover art for the record sleeves and holders. There were also distributors, sales representatives...
And record players/phonographs were needed. Over time, stereos came about.

Where the recording industry began: the original ipod
We haven't even covered the makers of the musical instruments; that industry grew immensely as well, especially with the rise of big band, country, and rock & roll. Now everyone wanted a trumpet, a bass, a drum, and, later, guitars and microphones, amplifiers...
And the movies...well, what else can be said about the movies? Set designers and builders, cameramen, script writers, actors, editors, advertising, and all of the other people that it takes to put a movie together.
And with the rise of recorded music and the movies the fan magazine took off in popularity, which needed writers, printers, paper, and distributors.

What about books? Authors, of course, but book binders, paper manufacturers, ink, distributors (again), advertisers...bookstores.
Newspapers - - - - paper company, press manufacturers, workers to man the presses, distributors, paper boys...
Cameras! Here you go! Once Kodak's "Brownie" made photography available to the masses, well, not only was there a need for the making of thousands of these cameras, but now there was a need for a film & developing industry. And photo albums. And accessories such as different lenses, tripods, flashbulbs/lighting, and, of course, the home movie projector and all that goes with that.
The Post Office - now here is a business that really took off during the mid-19th century and continued doing well over a hundred years later. Again, you had businesses that made stationary and writing utensils. And the post office hired sorters to go through the mail and deliverers.
I could go on about all of the incredible industries from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but I now want to jump up to today and into the future.
My son has a Smart phone. On this tiny little palm-of-your-hand piece of plastic he can:
~take a picture
~make a short film clip
~send an e-mail
~read the latest news
~listen to music
~read a book...well, he does have a Kindl for that as well
~get directions through the GPS
~watch a movie or video
~oh! and make a phone call...
In fact, it does whatever a home computer does - - - -
What does this mean? Well, think about it:
~no more manufacturing of cameras
~we already know what's happening to the post office and newspapers
~no need to purchase a hand-held book
~no need to buy a CD
~no need to get a map or a separate GPS
~no reason to buy a DVD...
~Heck, not even a need to have a home computer!
Do you see where I'm going with this?
Inventions from times past tended to create industry and, thus, jobs. But in today's society, modern technology not only takes away jobs but even has robots manufacturing the products!
And I could go on: self-serve check out lines at the store and at the gas station, ATM's at the banks (or even on-line banking), robots building cars, music from your computer rather than people playing instruments, also on-line books, shopping through
Where will it end?
How can there be jobs available when there are no jobs due to "progress"?
Or am I missing something here?
If all one needs to do is to buy one palm-held smart phone and have pretty much everything they need, what does that leave for the future? Think of how many jobs in every aspect are gone. And they will be replaced with what?
What means will there be to make money?

Now, maybe I'm too stuck in tradition and am not aware of what wonders the future holds for the workers of the future.
If you know, can you please enlighten me? (And I refuse to believe everyone will work for 'smart phone' manufacturers!).


Sunday, March 11, 2012

We Take Our Fun Seriously

The above 'headline' is something my good friend, Mike, likes to say. He is, of course, referring to reenacting and of the importance of doing it as correctly as our knowledge will allow.
You see, there are many who only think of this hobby as an opportunity to wear "funny clothes" and do some camping.
And it shows, doesn't it?
I know you know it's much more than that.
But there many - too many - who think that way.
On Saturday the 10th of March we in the 21st Michigan Civilian Contingency had our annual spring period-dress civilian meeting. I really enjoy these meetings; it gives us an opportunity to get into our period clothing during a time when few here in the north country are even thinking about reenacting; our "time travel season" doesn't usually begin until May.
A group photograph of those that dressed in period clothing

We had a number of new people join our group over the winter months - nine new members in all - and six of 'em showed up at my house for the meeting.
Since I am the Civilian Coordinator for the unit I conducted the assembly, though I always welcome commentary and input from other members of the group.
The main topic of discussion was, as usual, presenting ourselves in an authentic manner. I know I sound like a broken record but I feel it's important to drill this into people's heads. And the outcome of this constant repetition over the last few years has been very impressive and productive indeed, for the membership is taking heed and the quality is showing.

Not everyone could dress period, but all were engulfed in the information being shared

I began my speech to the membership with some lines I saw in a presenters guide for Greenfield Village. With a few changes I made it work for the world of the living historian:

Authentic. This is the key word.
You should carefully consider every object before allowing it to become part of your site. It's this type of vigilance that maintains the appropriate period appearance for each and every one of us.
Every object should tell a part of the story. Nothing should be there by accident, and nothing is there that shouldn't support the overall story. If you do this correctly, the signs of the modern world become non-existent. No make up, lip gloss, or nail polish of any kind is to be worn. Jewelry, aside from an emergency bracelet or a wedding ring, must be period appropriate. This means no earrings for the males and no wristwatches of any kind.
Although most of us may not portray an actual named or historical character from the past while at a reenactment, our appearance, action, and manner of speaking attempt to evoke the past. We should be trained in thought and detail to give the visitor the impression that they have stepped into the past
Does this make me compulsive to expect others to feel this way? 
I suppose in a way...but I like to think of myself as being enthusiastic, or even passionate
It is this sort of vigilance that sets the 21st Michigan apart from many of the other units.
And as proof of our diligence in bringing the past to life I'd like to present a few postings from the 2011 reenacting season that involved the civilians (and sometimes the military) members of the 21st Michigan. For instance, we had a shot gun wedding (My Big Fat Shotgun Wedding), schoolchildren shoo'ed out of harms way from the school house because of an imminent battle (as well as showing everyday homelife during the 19th century - Charlton Park: Where the Past Comes Alive), another opportunity to show daily life in 1861 occurred here (My Favorite Place to Reenact), we did a whole recruitment scenario last Memorial Weekend (Civil War Remembrance), we had an opportunity to bring a small historic Michigan Village to life (Historic Village Lantern Tour), and a few of our members even celebrated Christmas authentically - not once but twice at two different places ("Ghosts of Christmas Past" and "Christmas at Historic Fort Wayne"). 
(By the way, the other reenacting group I belong to - the Michigan Soldiers Aid Society (MSAS) - is also a top-notch authentic living history group and were also involved in many of the above event links. The MSAS is planning An Afternoon in the Parlor in a couple weeks and I plan to write an article about that, so please keep an eye out).
This, my friends, is what I consider real living history. This is giving the visitor the impression that they have stepped into the past
This is what gives us as living historians that time-travel sensation we strive for.
And it's the period-dress civilian meetings that help the members get "there."
A few of the young ladies of the 21st Michigan
I mentioned earlier about the new members that joined the 21st Michigan. But just because they are new to our unit doesn't mean they are new to reenacting. Lynn has been in this hobby for nearly 40 years! Her daughter and grandson reenact with her as well and also joined our group.
Another new member (Larissa), who has been reenacting for (I think) 12 to 15 years, regaled us with her hardcore civilian adventure called "Into the Piney Woods." This event took place in Louisiana - three years ago to the date of her telling us the story, and she told how she and four others dressed in their period clothing and ventured into the 'piney woods' to get away from the Yankees, who had entered and terrorized their village. 
"Into the Piney Woods" - before the adventure (photo courtesy of Larissa Fleishman)

For three days and nights three girls and two guys survived in the rain and heat and even cold by their wits, sleeping under a make-shift lean-to made of pine bow tree branches that really didn't give them much protection, eating only the period food they could carry with them, and remaining in 1st person the entire time (nothing modern except medicine for health reasons were allowed so the photos you see are at the beginning and end of their adventure). They spent most of the three days soaked to the skin and could not readily return to their vehicle even if they wanted to, for they were over over six miles deep in the unfamiliar woods from civilization.

"Into the Piney Woods" - after three days of rain, heat, and cold (photo courtesy of Larissa Fleishman)
To portray southern refugees in this manner is about as hardcore as a civilian can get! And yes, there was some crying during the three days.
I admire this group of "civilian campaigners" for what they did. 
Listening to Larissa's tales of "Into the Piney Woods." Larissa is at the window.
Another new member, Sarah, also had a hardcore experience. She and a friend ventured out to an out-of-state reenactment for the first time without their parents. Unfortunately, heavy snow fell and the event was cancelled. The girls, ever vigilant, did their thing anyhow and set themselves up in the snow - even sleeping in the white stuff!
Now, I wouldn't go to either extent of Larissa or Sarah, but I greatly admire both women and their companions for doing what they did. (My hardcore authenticity remains inside period structures or settings rather than portraying a refugee). 
These two ladies are now part of the Civilians of the 21st Michigan. And they, along with our other new members, will fit in wonderfully with the rest of our group.
I am proud!
See? We DO like to have a little fun, too!
By the way, we ended the afternoon with a parlor game of the period called Questions & Answers (or sometimes it's known as Conversations). 
This game is very simple to play and consists of two decks of 100 cards each, one deck containing questions and the other answers. The gentlemen take turns reading questions from one deck and the ladies take turn responding with answers from the other deck. 
Oh! Did we all laugh! Since the women outnumbered the men we had those lovely ladies who were not in period clothing become "men" during the game to even the sides out.
A fine way to end a fine meeting.
Yes, we do take our fun seriously!
By the way, here is a link to a tiny snippet of us playing the game. Many thanks to our very own Kristen - the lady behind the camera - for taking the time to put it all together!


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Zap! You Are Now in 1862, and it's Spring! What Do You Do Now?

(This posting is a culmination of two other postings I wrote previously with additional info also added on March 9, 2014)

Taking a little breather from spring cleaning
Spring time has always been a time for preparing for the rest of the year; a time for a new beginning. A time for leaving the winter darkness & cold to a time for sunny warmth & renewal.
In our modern society, spring cleaning and outdoor preparedness still exists, but not quite in the same way. Today when the sun shines and the temperatures begin to climb into the 40's, 50, and even 60's what do so many think of doing? Yes - that modern spring ritual, shopping! Seriously! My own wife has said (and this is almost a verbatim quote): "It's beautiful outside! It makes me want to go shopping!"
And she's not alone. There are many others who think the same way (and I thank God I am not one of 'em!)
But it wasn't quite like this a few generations ago. In fact, why don't we take a peek into the past, at the way the coming of spring was "celebrated" by women and by men in the mid 19th century:

Ahhh…March…the month of springtime… the sun is out, temperatures are rising, the snow has either melted or is beginning to melt, the hyacinths and daffodils are poking through...
Here in March, the house is very dirty; spring has always been the time for a ritual turning out and thorough cleaning of the entire house, from cellar to attic. Spring cleaning entails more domestic disruption and manual labor than its autumnal counterpart. It was said that if you had ever witnessed the hurry, bustle, confusion, and noise of a house-raising or a ship launching you could have some idea of this house cleaning business. Therefore, “a husband, however beloved, becomes a perfect nuisance during this season of female rage.”
The ashes and soot from constant fires for cooking and warmth - combined with the soot from candles and oil lamps - is on nearly every surface, the mud of fall and winter covering the soles of shoes are now ground into the floors and rugs, firewood chips and slivers lie throughout, especially in corners...the kitchen and family parlor (or sitting room) have been the center of activity for months, and the remnants of spinning, sewing, whittling, and other wintertime activities are in desperate need to be cleared away. 
Pictures have been removed and, once the carpet is un-tacked and lifted, the walls will be scoured

Each room in turn is emptied and scrubbed and freshened with new whitewash and the furniture rubbed and polished. Susan Leslie recalled her mother awaking before dawn to begin her housecleaning. “The two parlors, dining room, entry and staircase are all carefully and thoroughly swept before six o’clock. She then calls up her domestics, if they are not already up.”
 Heavy drapery is to be taken down and be replaced with the summer curtains, fresh blinds replace the filthy ones that have taken on the winter's grime, and the windows need to be washed. Removing the ashes from the fireplace and sweeping and scouring the hearth desperately needs to be done. The rugs must be taken up and given a thorough cleaning by being brought outside, looped over a clothesline and beaten mercilessly, raising a cloud of dust as bad as the worst dust storm. Carpets were un-tacked while every square inch of the floor underneath was swept and mopped, then afterward fresh straw matting was laid down before the carpet was reattached “to make it soft, I guess” (from Catherine Havens upon her remembrances of her sister’s mid-nineteenth century best parlor). To do this, every piece of furniture in every room had to be moved either outdoors or to a different room. Although straw for matting was quite popular, a number of folks felt it wasn’t good for the carpeting due to causing uneven wear. 
Wall hangings were removed and the dust scrubbed from the frames. Walls, too, were wiped thoroughly in each room while it was emptied.
The furniture that had been removed needed to get the 'winter' removed as well. The upholstered pieces were beat much like the rugs, and the wooden articles were oiled and polished.
The feather beds were aired outside for at least two days so each side could be moistened by the dew and dried by the sun before being put away for the summer and replaced with straw mattresses.
The removal of winter stoves and the cleaning of chimneys commences, and the cleaning of pantries and bins are also necessary to help keep it as clear of bugs and rodents as possible..      
White garments and linens need a proper wash. The difficulties of drying clothing thoroughly in freezing weather has resulted in badly yellowed sheets, shirts, and undergarments. Linens that had been hung to dry before the fire have holes from flying sparks and need to be mended. Woolen clothing worn for weeks on unwashed bodies really smell. Flannel undergarments have begun to itch instead of providing comfort.
And how is your spring cleaning going?

My parlor, all nice and clean and a-waiting for warmer weather

For farmers, February's last days are like the 21st century's New Year Season. Accounts and diaries are closed and inventories are made. There is talk of spring and the new farm year. All farm calendars and diaries, almanacs and agricultural manuals begin appropriately with March.
"The new year is at our door," says a diary entry of the period, "spring is with us in March when we are yet sitting by the fireside..."
The American farmer, who drinks cider daily at his table instead of water or milk, is never-less a sober man. But mead and 'hardened cider brandy' are always in order, no matter what the after effects, during the March preparations for the coming seasons of labor.
Now, before we get into the actual outside chores for the coming of spring, let's look a little at our everyday lives of the mid-19th century men:
Boys still under the age of ten not only know how to expertly use firearms, but also learn how to handle an axe and keep it ready for use. The axe, aside from his rifle, is perhaps the most important tool that a man could have. And just as girls help their mothers with the housework, boys work next to their fathers in the fields.
In appraising the future of a farm, fences are reckoned a prime necessity. Almanac after almanac starts the month of March with "Look to your fences." March is the ideal season for storing up firewood and splitting fence-rails. March winds dry out the winter-cut logs in the woods, making them easier to haul in. 
"The differences in saving between green and dry wood," says the 1821 farmer's Almanac, "will pay the expense of sledding, besides the extra trouble of kindling fires." 
Split-rail fencing around a farm is often worth more than the land itself. In 1850, the fencing for a three hundred acre farm cost nearly ten thousand dollars (at the current 21st century price level).
Although March is the month for hauling in and cutting up wood, the actual felling of trees for fence material is often done during the second running of sap, in August. By way of a wooden mallet, rails are always split by hammering on them with wedges, never by striking them with an ax. (The use of wooden hammers is now almost a lost art, but the workshop of a century and a half ago had a great variety of them).
Timber cut at the proper season, or dried in the proper season, and split at the proper season, is so easily cleaved with a wooden hammer and wedge that the work offers profound satisfaction and is peculiarly fascinating. Abraham Lincoln knew this relaxing pleasure, saying that some of his "best thinking was done when working hardest at splitting rails."

I see items a farmer may need, just in case his tools from last year cannot be mended
The March chore of laying up new fuel wood also heralds the end of winter, the season of the hearth. Besides heating and cooking equipment, there are always a few pieces of wood present, being seasoned by the winter fire. Special wood for ax handles and other farm tools is laboriously dried at the fireplace, and even lightly charred for strength. Special pieces are often left near the fireplace for as long as a year, to render them properly seasoned.

No American season is more definite than sugaring time. The right time is usually between late February/early March through early April when the sap is flowing properly. The nights are still cold enough to freeze sharply and the days warm enough to thaw freely. The thermometer must not rise above forty degrees by day, nor sink below 24 degrees at night. It is this magic see-sawing between winter and spring that decides the sugaring season.
To collect the sap, holes are bored in the maple tree, followed by the hammering in of a wooden tube called a spile. Under the spile a wooden bucket, made by the local cooper, is placed to catch the clear watery sap. Each day the buckets of sap are emptied into one large barrel, which is hauled back to the boiling area.

Painting by Eric Sloane

There, three iron kettles made by the local blacksmith hang over fires. In the first kettle, the watery tasteless sap is vigorously boiled over a roaring fire. The water will gradually evaporate, leaving behind a thicker, sweeter liquid. This is then ladled into the second kettle where it is gently boiled to thicken more. Constant stirring keeps it from burning. This thick, sweet syrup can then be poured into crocks to be used on porridge or cakes. Or, it can be ladled into the third kettle. If this is done, the liquis will then, over a smaller fire, be carefully stirred until it turns into sugar. The sugar will be packed into wooden boxes and tubs to be used in the coming year.
Sugaring is hard work, but we try to make such a cheerful season of it that the whole family looks forward to sugaring, making it more play than work.
And, of course, one of the best parts of maple syrup making is testing the outcome!

Just in case you are interested in maple sugaring

(Iffin you don't mind, I'm going to step on a soap box for a moment here. I have in front of me a bottle of Log Cabin Original Syrup. Here are the ingredients: corn syrup, liquid sugar (natural sugar, water), salt, natural and artificial flavors (lactic acid), cellulose gum, preservatives (sorbic acid, sodium benzoate), sodium hexametaphosphate, caramel color, phosphoric acid.
This is what's in the bottle of Spring Tree Maple Syrup that is also in front of me: 100% maple syrup.
What would you rather put into your body?
Okay, I'm off my soap box now

By the time springtime arrived, people were nearing the end of their winter storage of the food from last fall's harvest and were looking forward to the season of growing. Sarah Bryant often noted in her diary when the hens began to lay, and wrote the dates of the first blossoming of plums, peaches, apples, and cherries in her orchard.
Her diary records the first sowing of grains and garden vegetables, including when she saw the first peas and cucumbers peaking through. 
And, as so many of her time (and even in our modern times), she often worried over the threat of the damage a late frost could do during blooming season.

A number of years ago my friend, Wendi Schroeder, wrote a wonderful piece on foods of the season that I included in a post. It's an excellent description of what you would put in your kitchen garden, and I would like to present here what she had to say about springtime (with a few additional notations from me): 
March and April signal the end of the winter season so you would most likely be using up things in the root cellar. However, some of the winter vegetables have begun to rot, and the apples are getting soft. Mushy potatoes will be made into starch, and the winter's accumulation of fat needs to be made into soap before it turns rancid.    
This is the time to plan and prepare your kitchen garden.

Plowing the kitchen garden
In the meat category, ham is popular since it is getting warmer and whatever is left in the smokehouse isn't likely to keep much longer. (I personally suspect that's how Ham for Easter got to be so popular). If you are willing to be a bit more adventuresome there is also lamb and veal (newborn animals that didn't make it were not wasted). 

Don't worry...this little lamb made it!

Fresh beef maybe but most likely there wouldn't be any left. Salted beef would be much more likely.

For vegetables, you would have the last of the potatoes, winter squash, carrots, onions, dried beans, and perhaps fresh asparagus if you grew it.

There would also be fresh lettuce especially if you had cold frames or hot frames to grow them in.

Pickled items of all sorts would be on the pantry shelves, cucumber pickles, watermelon rind pickles, sauerkraut, pickled peppers, pickled onions etc…

For fruit you would have jellys, jams, and the last of your cellar apples. Raisins would be around, but they would have been imported. I can't find evidence that grapes were grown in Michigan during the War, but if anyone has information to the contrary I'd be delighted to see it.

As a side note…this is what you plant in your kitchen garden in April or May in Michigan: onions, potatoes, peas, lettuce, leeks, cabbage, and asparagus. If you plan your breeding, your sow is farrowing and you have piglets to raise. If one doesn't make it you have sucking pig to eat for Sunday.

Ok, moving on to May.
You would start to see radishes, lettuce, asparagus, and new peas perhaps.
You plant tomatoes and peppers and beans and corn and squash and pumpkin and melon and cucumbers and whatever else your little heart desires to put into the ground. 
(Thank you Wendi!)
By late spring your kitchen garden should be flourishing nicely

One of the big back-breaking jobs for farmers in the spring was hauling the manure from where it was gathered and stored by wheel barrow across the bumpy, sometimes muddy, ground out to the field, where it would be dumped and spread. This was not anyone's favorite job, though it had to be done. This job could take the better part of two weeks or more to complete.
Following this was the plowing and harrowing of the main field. 
The plow, of course, breaks up and turns over the soil to make it smoother for planting. It is one of the oldest of farming tools.
Though I've never plowed before, I've watched it being done plenty of times and can see just what a job it is. I would love an opportunity to plow behind a horse - not only to see just how hard it actually is, but to be able to say I've done it.
Ahhh...maybe one day...

Plowing up ground that has lay dormant, hard and snow-packed for nearly a half year is just about as strenuous labor as anyone could ask for!

Henry Ford once commented that children knew more about wars than about harrows, even though harrows did more to build this country than wars. 
It was after plowing that the farmer would use the harrow to further spread and even out the dirt for planting. Back across the field the farmer would go, and when he finished in one direction, he would drag the field crosswise to smooth it further.

Harrowing, though not quite as physical, is still a labor-intensive chore that must be done before planting.

"When the oak leaves are the size of a field mouse's ear, then it's time to plant the corn," said one old-time farmer.
Another said that the whippoorwill offered another reminder for corn planting, calling soon after sunset when the days begin to warm (usually in May).
Planting the crop was a critical step with no room for error. Missing a section of a field could cause a huge problem: no seed in the ground, no crop.
For hundreds of years, farmers sowed grain by hand; shouldering a bag of seed, the farmer walked up and down the tilled field, fingering the seeds from side to side. As a 19th century farmer said, "On spring-plowed fields it was heavy traveling for the man who carried grain and sowed by hand. Of course, it was heavy work, even traveling over fall-plowed ground, with the grain hung over the shoulders, and the steady swing of the right arm throwing the grain as the right foot advanced, and dipping the hand into the bag for another cast of grain as the left foot advanced."
But the sowing process and outcome was frustrating at best. There is an old proverb that I recall hearing in my youth that best describes the planting of seeds:

One for the mouse, 
one for the crow, 
one to rot, 
and one to grow.

It was Jethro Tull, an English agriculturalist, who is credited with inventing the first practical seed drill back in 1701, allowing farmers to plant their crop much easier and more uniform.
Then in Wisconsin in 1860, brothers George and Daniel Van Brunt patented a design for a combination drill and cultivator that was pulled by a team of horses. This was an immediately success and gained in popularity throughout the early 1860's. By the end of the Civil War the Van Brunt Company was producing 1300 grain drills a year.

This farmer looks to be using a horse-drawn grain drill, which distributed seeds quickly and evenly and then covered them over. Grain drills were a  vast improvement over spreading the seeds by hand.
Soon this field will be filled with corn and wheat, and it won't be long before it will look like what you see in this next photo...
Welcome to the merry month of May!

Now, I must tell you that this is about a quick an overview of a farmer's life as I ever did see, but this is a blog post to give the reader an idea of what life was like in another time, not a book or an encyclopedia.
However, if I piqued your interest a little on these subjects and your are interested in reading a more thorough account of this life, I would like to suggest the following books (from which I combed the information found herein) for your research and reading pleasure, for they go into a much deeper depth:

"The Seasons of America Past" by Eric Sloane 
Farmer's & Housekeeper's Cyclopedia 1888
These books give wonderful and detailed information about the seasonal nature of living in times past.
Also, if you are interested in old farming tools, check out this post HERE

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Many of us who live in the 21st century know so little of the everyday life of our not-too-distant ancestors. I know of a few friends who still carry on some of these traditions, such as maple sugaring, much in the same way as was done over a century ago.
It's to these 21st century artisans that practice the customs of long ago that this posting (and this entire blog) is dedicated to.