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Fathers | Mothers

Syrup Pails and Biscuits

by Jerry Wayne Davis
Syrup pails and biscuits are as foreign to today's children as blacksmiths, rotary telephones, and typewriters but they played an important part in the lives of our parents. People cannot remember or imagine the time before plastic bags, containers, sandwich bags, metal lunch boxes or the availability of paper bags but this was the environment of our parents. They had to use the resources of the day. One of those was the one quart-13 ounce syrup pail that ribbon cane syrup came in. There was the Steen's Pure Ribbon cane Syrup from Abbeyville, Louisiana, Johnnie Fair Blue Ribbon (Ribbon cane Flavored Syrup) and Blackburn-Made Syrup from Jefferson, Texas. On the can label were the words "Nothing Added, Nothing Extracted" along with recipes for popcorn balls, Steen's Pecan Pie, Candied Yams, Steen's Gingerbread, Steen's Sandwich Spread and peanut candy. My grandparents, John and Allie Madden and Ed and Irene Davis used Johnnie Fair Blue Ribbon and Blackburn's syrup.

Before the days of plastic syrup bottles, syrup and lard came in metal pails. These pails had handles and a tight fitting lid much like today's paint cans. When empty they were used as lunch buckets, milk buckets, for storage and other uses on the farm. School children used these pails to carry their lunches. Lunches were made up of what was available from the farm. Biscuits were a daily morning item and lunches often were biscuits and salt pork, or biscuits and syrup.

Those were hard times on the farm and harder times during the Great Depression. Buster Hedrick related a story of a kid in the mid 1930s at Red Level School in rural Rusk County, Texas. During the depression one student was tired of cold biscuits for lunch and thought he would switch his lunch bucket with that of another child. All of the kids brought their lunches to school in a small bucket covered by a dish cloth. The boy that did the switching watched closely as the other kid whose lunch pail had been purloined uncovered his lunch. When that kid's eyes lit up at the unexpected sight of several biscuits, the thief uncovered the bucket he had taken and found hickory nuts and a hammer (personal comm. Larry D. Hedrick).

It is difficult for today's generation to imagine the hardships our parents endured. My grandpa Ed Davis had a press and mule for pressing sugarcane into syrup and grinding corn into corn meal. His pay for this service called a "Miller Toll" was one can in four for syrup and one pound in four pounds of corn meal. My dad Sam Davis said that in the depression they ate sweet potatoes until all were gone and then they had syrup and cornbread three meals a day for weeks.

Blackburn syrup was a familiar item in my grandparents, John and Allie Madden's kitchen. For breakfast we often had hot biscuits with hand churned butter and syrup with fresh cream on top. Grandma also used sugar and water to make sugar syrup in the skillet and sometimes added a drop of vanilla. She also used syrup for peanut candy. I saw grandpa Madden often taking a spoon of syrup for something sweet, one of the few sweet items in the house. At the grandparents house there was rarely cookies, cakes, or pies unless we picked blackberries or plums for cobbler. As a substitute we would have a sugar biscuit made by cutting a biscuit in half and sprinkling sugar in the middle and closing it like a sandwich.

The depression was followed by more hard times during World War II. Our fathers were at war on different fronts leaving their wives at home to raise children and struggle to survive. Almost everything that was not grown on the farm was in short supply. Coffee, sugar, automobile tires and other items were severely rationed and not readily available. Even after the war when things became more available my parents kept an extra can of coffee and a bag of sugar in the cabinet, remembering those times without.

Our parents were called the greatest generations and fought and return peace and saved the world from oppression. As children of this generation we grew up with discipline, determination, and character and with an appreciation for order, simplicity, and closure in getting things done. We appreciated the little things which was not much by today's standards. At Christmas there was an orange, apple, walnuts, and a few fire crackers in dad's wool army sock. Wash cloths and towels came in detergent boxes and drinking glasses of various sizes came in boxes of oatmeal. Our mothers made shirts and dresses from flour sacks and boys went barefoot in Spring and Summer. Marbles and other toys came in cereal and Crackerjack boxes. YoYos, ball and jacks, hopscotch, red rover, hide and seek, and kick the can, kept us busy long before the days of television. Our phones were tied to an operator that asked "number please" and many phone lines were party lines. We knew our call by ring one or ring two. My parents number was 915 ring two. Operators at the telephone switchboard would give the correct time if asked and they often recognized the person on the other end.

This is not a nostalgic trip but memories of family and family history to be carried to the next generation so those of the past are not forgotten. Things to be remembered about what our parents and grandparents endured and what it took for today's generation to become a reality. This was a time and life that many today cannot relate. We could ask the question are we making things too easy to prepare our children for the struggles and hard times ahead? Their success and survival may depend on such skills.

Courtesy of:
Jerry Davis
Hot Springs, AR

Submitted by:
Bruce Martin
Leawood, KS

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People | Food | Texas Towns | Texas History
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