Monday, September 6, 2010

Labor Day, Pioneer Gardens, & Pickles

In honor of Labor Day, I thought I'd talk about gardening ... which is hard work even in our day of powered rototillers.

When it came time for the women of Sixteen Brides to settle on their homestead, one of the first things they had to do was plant a garden.

The woman pictured here helped me know what to have my women grow in their sod house era garden. Meet Martha Virginia Thomas Oblinger (Mattie) who, along with her husband, Uriah Wesley, homesteaded in Fillmore County, Nebraska.

In 1873, Mattie wrote her family, "I set a hundred and thirty cabbages last week." In another letter, she mentioned squashes, cucumbers, mellons [sic], beans, potatoes, and beet seed. "We have the nicest patch of early rose potatoes in the neighborhood. Uriah bought 10 bushel ... I have nice tomato plants coming on ... I want to set more."

ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY cabbages?!! Ten BUSHELS of seed potatoes? And Mattie considered that a "nice patch"?!!!

After recovering from the sympathy fatigue brought on just by reading some of Mattie's letters, I was able to write this narrative for Sixteen Brides:

They planted pumpkins, squash, and melons, all of it without plowing. Ella slit the soil, and Caroline walked behind her, a bag of seed at her waist as she bent and tucked seeds into the slots. They planted corn that way, too. Five acres to start with, although Ella had plans for at least twenty ... Ella might have worked a farm before, but she'd never marched out on a piece of virgin prairie and claimed it. It was at times overwhelming. There was just so much to do ... By the end of the first week they'd set out over a hundred cabbages. They planted onions and carrots, parsnips, beets, and peas. Nancy Darby brought them tomoato seedlings, and they planted those close to the house inside wire cages lest a jackrabbit nibble the tender plants off. They planted lettuce and radishes, turnips and cucumbers.

While Mattie Oblinger was planting her garden (her children were very young, so she was likely on her own), Uriah was breaking sod (which would have been Ella's primary task in Sixteen Brides. "Uriah is breaking sod today he will soon have 40 acres turned over then it will be ready to go into right next Spring it looks like it was fun to turn the sod over here there are no roots or stumps to be jerking the plow out." To homesteaders from the wooded East, it was wonderful not to have to clear land before planting.

The work took its toll. It shows in this photo of Mattie and her daughter Maggie (her third child, born in 1877). Mattie and Uriah had been homesteading together in Nebraska for about five years when this photo was taken.

The woman who lived in the Custer County, Nebraska, sod house pictured below must have loved gardening. She was obviously determined to keep the "varmints" out of her space! Note the trellis and the sod wall. Of course I can't let this one pass without also drawing your attention to the lace-edged curtains hanging in the window (revealed in the higher resolution version of this photograph at I think Caroline from Sixteen Brides would have probably insisted on lace edging, too. And Sally would have been happy to attach it with her treadle sewing machine.

In 1873, Mattie Oblinger wrote, "I have 8 dozen cucumbers up."
I don't know what kind of pickles she made, but I can imagine stoneware crocks lined up in her kitchen and the aromas of vinegar and onions in the air.

I've made my share of watermelon pickles, dill pickles, zucchini pickles, cinnamon cucumbers, and relish. But in all my years of pickling, I doubt I've gone through the number of cucumbers Mattie's garden yielded in one growing season.

On Labor Day, 2010, here's to Mattie's Garden. I thought I'd share my Mother's recipe for Bread & Butter Pickles with you. It's relatively easy and definitely time tested, although it assumes basic "pickle & canning knowledge." Mother was born in 1913. She could have known Mattie's daughters. I don't make pickles any more. It's just too labor intensive, what with the gas stove and the dishwasher, the food processor and. . . . never mind.

Nora's Bread & Butter Pickles

1 quart sliced cucumbers
slices of onion
1 cup vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon white mustard seed
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon turmeric

Put all ingredients, except cucumbers, in enameled pan and let come to light boil. Add cucumbers, let come to boil. Boil 1 minute. Pack in sterilized jars. Seal while hot. Process 10 minutes at simmering temperature.

Happy Labor Day ......... from Stephanie G.


  1. Hi Stephanie:

    I looked carefully at the enlarged picture of the family and farm house above and it is bleakness personified. Nothing for as far as the eye can see! Is there even a tree?

    I wonder what happened a few minutes after the photo was taken? Why was the photo taken in the first place? Did the photographer have us in mind when he took the picture over a century ago? What did the people think? Did they get a copy of the photo? Was there really anything special about this farm or was it chosen because it was so typical?

    And as bleak as life was, wouldn’t that farm look like heaven itself to those poor souls in the photos of the NYC slums?

    I think it would be very interesting to view a series of pictures from the same time period comparing big city life with great plains farm life -- the best and worse of both. I’d take the farm and the open spaces.


  2. I love it that you are as intrigued by that photo as I was. Stay tuned for more on the story behind the photo..........and a way that you can view hundreds of similar photos in wonderful detail.