by N. Ray Maxie
Did You Turn the Rooster 'round?
old saw from centuries past, "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a
person healthy, wealthy and wise", still contains a lot of validity
in today's modern civilization. Some applications for life, like gravity,
just never change and this happens to be one of them. Although it
is seldom heard these days, our children and grandchildren could certainly
benefit from applying its wisdom and well meaning principle.
My father's earliest beginnings were growing up on a large working
farm in northeast Texas with his parents and four siblings. Two male
siblings died as infants from an infection I believe they called typhus.
One was born about a year before my father and the other born a year
or so after him. Thus, dad being born right between the two that didn't
survive, in a way started life as a survivor. Infant mortality was
very high in some rural areas during those years. Professional medical
treatment was often a long distance away and home remedies were used
for treating just about any illness or injury that arose.
Often I have heard my dad say the entire family, including each child
from 8 to 10 years of age worked from "sun to sun." That meant they
often worked from sunup to sundown. At other times I have heard him
refer to it as "from can to can't." Meaning they worked from a fresh
start in the early morning (can), to an exhausted and weary finish
(can't), in the evening. Not necessarily by choice did they live such
a laborious lifestyle. Times back then were very hard. Diligent labor
is what it took to keep the farm running and the family in food, clothing,
shelter and transportation. Dad often told about sometimes being so
exhausted from daily farm labor, when approaching the house in late
evening, he would just fall over in the front yard, lying there sleeping
for an hour or two until he could make it on into the house.
home was an old rough board, four-room house with a corrugated tin
roof. Some houses during those early years had only dirt floors. This
one was built on wooden blocks about three feet off the ground. The
center open-air hallway (called a dogtrot, meaning dogs often trotted
through) had two rooms on each side. On one side were two bedrooms
and on the other was a kitchen and living room. It had a very large
back porch. Many hot summer days found the family eating on the porch
or in the dogtrot because it was extremely hot in the kitchen. In
those days of rural America there was no electricity, no gas, no telephone,
no indoor plumbing nor running water. There was a good water well
near the back porch where a long rope with a pulley and bucket were
used for hoisting water from the well. For family bathing and laundry,
the back porch was the place. Large galvanized washtubs were used
for both purposes. More pressing personal needs were taken care of
in the outdoor toilet (privy)
not far removed out across the backyard.
As a small child, I remember hearing the "old story" of the southern
country gentleman that wrote to Sears - Roebuck, asking them to send
him half dozen rolls of toilet paper. Their response was, "Please
send us the catalog number for that item." To which he promptly responded,
"If I had your catalog, I wouldn't need your toilet paper."
Saturday night was family scrub-a-dub-dub time on the back porch.
There, boys and girls strictly had separate times for bathing. I have
heard stories about the "pecking order" used during family bathing
sessions. During the all "girl session", mom would go first in the
tub of fresh clean water. Then the oldest girl went next after mom.
Then the second oldest girl next and so on, with every girl using
the same tub of water. Thus, with that system, the poor little baby
girl was last to bathe in the murky water.
Later, the all "boy session" was the same, with dad first in the fresh
tub of water. The oldest boy went next after dad. Then the second
oldest boy next and so on, with every boy using the same tub of water.
By then the tub of water was getting cloudy and murky and the poor
little baby boy being bathed last could hardly be found in that murky
water. Thus came the old saying, "Don't throw the baby out with the
bath water." Be it known, I for one am extremely glad the system had
been changed by the time I discovered America. By then, each and every
one had gotten his or her own tub of fresh clean water. Although,
be it sometimes a tub of very cold water.
old house back then had cracks between the boards of the wooden floor.
Dirt, trash and household litter was easily disposed of by just sweeping
it through the cracks. Often chickens hanging out beneath the house
would scratch through the litter and salvage what they could to eat.
But their favorite place was beneath the kitchen floor and around
the kitchen window. Food scraps and dirty dishwater were regularly
thrown out the kitchen window. During warm weather all windows were
left open unless there was hard rain or thunderstorms. I don't think
window screens had been invented, or at least nobody had them. Those
yard chickens were very useful. They were actually a great benefit
in keeping the homestead clear of food scraps, insects, rodents, snakes,
A main stay in the kitchen was the flour box. Some households used
a flour barrel. It was perhaps three to four feet tall and stood near
the food preparation area. It would hold a 25-pound sack of flour
brought from the flour mill for baking purposes. The flour box or
barrel had a lid on top. Throughout the years the lid may have often
gotten lost or thrown away. It might have even gotten used as a slicing
board to cut up meat; etc., over near the dishpan. So, that would
leave the flour box open and without a lid.
Every evening after supper and about dusk, when chickens normally
go to roost, everyone had vacated the kitchen. It was then the "prize"
old yard rooster always liked to fly up to the open kitchen window,
sit on the windowsill and then hop over to the rim of the flour box.
There he would roost on the flour box for the entire night.
"Early to bed", meant going to bed with the chickens. It also had
the effect of producing larger families, which was a big plus for
farm labor. They needed more "hands" to work. "Early to rise", meant
getting up with the chickens. Thus folks were fully rested, ready
to pursue a healthy, prosperous day. Hopefully they would eventually
accumulate a storehouse of wealth resulting from all their hard work
Bedtime soon came and upon retiring for the night, maw would ask,
"Paw, did you turn the rooster 'round?" She knew from experience that
if the old rooster wasn't turned around for the night with his tail
outside the flour box, next morning's bread fixings would literally
be a mess.
Early Americans were extremely resilient and adaptive. They had to
be. They had learned how to cope with every inconvenience. This was
just one of those minor little grievances some country folk had to
contend with. I am mighty glad to be living in the twenty-first century.
N. Ray Maxie
"Ramblin' Ray" >
June 15, 2006 Column