An author friend of mine described the month of November as “The Time Between”; summer has unarguably come to an end, but full winter has not quite arrived. In northern New England it is a time of cold nights, but often clear crisp sunny days. On a typical hillside dairy farm such as the one I grew up on in the late 1940s, the “time between” was crowded with a long list of things that had to be completed before the woods and fields became filled with deep snow. It was a time of hay-filled barns fortified with overflowing grain bins, barrels of molasses and sacks of feed-beets (mangles.)
The time in which our family moved onto “The Home Place” was a time when electrification and indoor toilets had only recently arrived in rural, backroad Vermont, and many farms – like ours – had not yet transitioned from horse-power to tractor-power. Cutting, splitting and hauling firewood was more than just a necessity, but a matter of survival. In our case we required 20 cords for the largely un-insulated farm home, and another 20 cords needed to produce the maple syrup which was a key component of our income come February and March. Hundreds of man-hours (and boy-hours) were spent in the 126 acres of forest land carrying out this enterprise, and before the coming of chain saws, the tools included two-man buck saws, splitting wedges, Peavey cant dogs and double-bladed axes. While young age was no excuse from any of this hand work, I was usually the family member assigned to snake the fallen logs from the woods where they had been seasoning for months, always careful to walk on the uphill side of one of our Percheron work horses, (especially a skittish 2000 pound gelding named Dan whose fear of water often caused him to take a log-scattering leap over the smallest trickle crossing our path!)
November also brought “pork chop day” to the Home Place, a time of special excitement for a teen age boy who had daily fed and eagerly watched the weight go on our pair of Chester White hogs. On a suitably cold late November day the split halves, looking very much like white shiny hollowed out canoes, would be slid from the processor’s pick-up and carried into the cold room off the kitchen, on whose paper-clad family dinner table the magic wrought by meat saws and razor-sharp knives would take place. For a day or two my hours would see the cutting of loins, ribs and roasts, and the separation of hams, hocks and sow belly, with “salt” pork and “head cheese sausage” to round things out. The hams and bacon would go into a sugar/salt dry cure before heading to our home-made smoker stoked with apple wood and corn cobs, later to hang in a dark corner of our cellar room right next to several wheels of our own Cheddars. Before the day when home freezers were common, our pork cuts were wrapped and stored on shelves in a small addition to our woodshed where nature did the freezing.
Our cold, moist, dirt-floored root cellar was home to crates of newly-dug “Green Mountain” potatoes, onions, turnips and rutabagas, and heads of late cabbage hung by their intact roots from overhead beams. Removed by several feet from all those vegetables would be bushel baskets of apples from our hill-top orchards: Northern Spies, Wolf Rivers, Winesaps, Baldwins and Rhode Island Greenings. (By that time of course, the Yellow Transparents, Winter Bananas and other early varieties would be but a wondrous memory.)
Winter squash, from huge Hubbards to Buttercups and Butternuts would be sleeping in upstairs bedrooms where it was warm and dry, while some of the best winter eating of all would not even have come indoors; left in the deep loamy garden soil would be carrots, beets and parsnip roots, covered with a foot of hay and straw which could be pulled back throughout winter, as snow cover made insulation complete in the coldest weather.
It was a time of hard work and I would never have guessed that in just a few years, I would find peace and sleep in a tent surrounded by the sound of constant gunfire and uncertainty thanks to the deep satisfaction of those wonder-filled memories of the sense of security anchored in life on the November Home Place.