Thursday, May 23, 2013

Lunch With Grandma

This is a story of my Grandmother Anna’s chicken soup and how it came into being. This is a simple story, one that is a special memory of my childhood, a glimpse of life in a simpler time.  I suppose this tale is much like many others during the baby boom years; life in rural and small town America after WWII as TV dinners and fast foods were gaining popularity across the country. (Not in my grandparents’ household! Grandma cooked from scratch.) I grew up in the small farming town of Palouse during the 1950’s. My home town is  in the fertile wheat lands of Eastern Washington State. Our family lived on the outskirts of town, and as a child my playmates were my younger brother and sister and my three cousins who lived next door. Our maternal grandparents lived across the way from our house on the hill opposite, about the distance of two or three city blocks and we could see Grandma’s little rust red house from our yard.  The school’s football field was in the little valley between.

During the summer this little group of kids loved to walk across this field and up the dirt road on the other side to visit Grandma. I can still picture tall grasses rippling in the breeze, the purple clover dotted with humming bees, and the broad expanse of blue sky above.  The air was sweet with the fragrance of ripening wheat. Sometimes we’d run through rhythmic wushwush of the water sprinklers. Time stretched ahead of us as only it can through the eyes of young children and we dallied along the way, distracted by whatever crossed our path, whether it was grasshoppers, ant hills, or a stray cat.

We often arrived at Grandma’s at lunch time. I think this was the plan all along. Grandma, wearing as always her bib apron, wire framed glasses and black shoes (which we now call Granny shoes) welcomed each of us with a hug.  The aroma of fresh-baked bread filled the kitchen and we sat at the gingham covered kitchen table eagerly waiting for that first bite of warm bread slathered butter. We would have been happy with bread but the main attraction was mouth-watering chicken noodle soup.

I used to watch Grandma make the noodles. She mixed flour, eggs and water in a bowl and worked the dough with her hands before rolling it into a long tube shape. Then she sliced the dough into thin strips and scattered them on the flour covered counter to dry out while the chicken broth was cooking. When the noodles were ready she dropped them into the bubbling broth which took only a few minutes of simmering before it was ready to serve.

The story of Grandma’s soup goes back further. Grandpa Thomas and Grandma Anna raised chickens. Baby chicks were delivered by mail at the local grange in special cardboard boxes that had breathing holes along the sides. The chicks were put into their own separate domain within the hen house, an area that had fresh wood shavings on the floor, heat lamps and special feeders.  A few weeks later the chicks morphed out of their adorable “chickhood” into gangly adolescence, ready to graduate to another area of the chicken house. As they matured further it became obvious which were the hens and which were the roosters.

Meanwhile back at the henhouse it was time to select the older hens that had quit laying eggs and any tough old roosters and kill them for the soup pot. My grandfather built big campfire in the back yard and put a large pot of water on to boil. He grabbed a pre destined chicken by its legs, held it upside down, and swung it around in a couple of big circles to make it dizzy. This accomplished, he placed the bird on the chopping block and with one whack of the hatchet chopped off the head. The headless chicken ran around aimlessly, blood spurting out everywhere before falling to the ground. Thus I was witness to the origins of the term “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”  Country life was all about raising and preserving food; killing was part of it so I accepted it as a matter of fact.

Grandma plucked the feathers and I like to think I was a good helper. She held the bird by its feet and dipped it into the hot water which loosened the feathers and made them easy to yank out going “against the grain” which means the opposite direction from how the feathers grow. The feathers stuck to our hands and clothing and had a distinctive, peculiar odor.

The next step was to remove the entrails. Grandma held the bird backside down, and with her knife made a slit near the bottom, reached in and pulled out the innards. She separated out the heart, the liver and the gizzard and took these organs along with the carcass into the kitchen to prepare for the freezer or the soup pot.  All the unused parts; the intestines, the head, the feet, and feathers were set aside for Grandpa to dispose of later. I’m not sure, but I think he buried them.

The old wives’ tale that chicken soup is healing has been around for a long time.  I think there is something to it, but I can’t pass along Grandmother Anna’s recipe because it wasn’t written down. Her exact formula will stay a secret. One ingredient I am sure of and that is love. Lunch with Grandma was not just about the food. It was about a way of life.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Joseph's Last Stand

Joseph’s Last Stand
Palouse Oldtimer
(With special thanks to Harvey Chalmer II,  author of “The Last Stand of the Nez Perce”, and James F. Estes, author of “Tales of the Palouse Hills”.   
By the spring of 1877 an estimated 2,500 people had settled in and around the little communities of Colfax and Palouse City.  Although there were no hostile Indians in the immediate vicinity there was fear of an Indian uprising.  Two messengers from the Lewiston area brought news that the Nez Perce Indians were going on a rampage killing all the white people they could find.
      On a warm June Sunday morning a camp meeting was being held on the bank of the river flowing through Palouse City.  It was a combination revival meeting and a social event and was well attended.  About halfway through the singing of a hymn, a rider came riding into the camp shouting, “The Indians are coming, the Indians are coming!”  Instant panic!  Women and children began screaming.  Men ran to their wagons for their weapons.  Farmers raced pell-mell to their homes to protect the land and animals they owned.
      After the initial shock of the frightening news wore off, a meeting of Palouse City citizens was held to make plans for defending their city and homes from the imminent attack.  One pioneer shouted, “There is but one way to withstand attack by the red skins, build a blockhouse.”  “And what if the Indians arrive before it can be built?” a farmer asked.  “We will dig rifle pits in commanding places, and man them 24 hours a day until the blockhouse is completed, ” answered the pioneer who had fought in the Civil War.
After the meeting the men of Palouse City and the surrounding area began making preparation for the defense of their city. By nightfall the city was ringed with shoulder high rifle pits. However, there was one major problem, a shortage of weapons.  Two days later a small detachment of soldiers from Fort Walla Walla arrived with 45-70 caliber Springfield rifles, (I have been told there were 100) and ample ammunition to arm the defenders.  
     It was decided it would be much quicker to build a stockade around the existing Ragsdale Building than the building of a blockhouse. Several crews were sent to wooded areas to cut and trim 480 wagonloads of poles for the construction of a stockade.  It was 125 feet in circumference and became the home for over 200 citizens for several days.  The women and children were housed in the second floor of the building. The men who were not manning the rifle pits camped in tents outside the building but inside the walls. Armed guards patrolled the parapet. It can be said that Palouse City was ready for the attack of Chief Joseph that never came.   
     Although the Nez Perce under the leadership of Chief Joseph never went on a rampage, they had every reason to. In 1873 President Grant signed an act making the Wallowa country a sanctuary and hunting ground for this peaceful tribe.  Under pressure from many high government officials the president rescinded the act in 1875.  General Oliver O. Howard ordered the Indians to move to the Clearwater Reservation within thirty days.  Several lesser chiefs and many warriors wanted to do battle with the whites.  Their leader however thought there would be less bloodshed if they escaped to Canada and join Sitting Bull’s Sioux who had fled to Canada the year before after the Custer massacre on the Little Big Horn. With the help of Chief Looking Glass and Chief White Bird the trip was started.  Knowing that horses would play an important part in their escape a large herd was rounded up for the trip.
The Snake River, still high and swift from the spring runoff had to be crossed.  These natives knew the river like the back of their hands.  There was a section of river where the current of an eddy would pull them to the middle of the river.  Several miles down river another eddy worked in reverse, guiding them to the opposite bank.  Boats made from dried and cured buffalo hides were used to cross the river.   Every family had several hides using them for robes and sleeping mats. The hides, hair side up, were spread flat on the ground. Across the hide were laid green willow branches about the thickness of a thumb.  The hide and the poles were bent up and lashed to other ones forming a long circular rim making a crude but safe craft.  No paddles were needed. Two ropes were tied to each boat and horses, guided by braves, pulled them across the river.  Two men swam beside the boats to steady it. All their possessions were ferried across the river in this manner.  Children and elders rode atop the loads.  The older children, wives and warriors crossed the river on the backs of the swimming horses.  Once across the water the boats were dismantled, the robes dried and used for sleeping mats later on.   
            By the time the army realized the Nez Perce had successfully crossed the river, the fugitives were in the beautiful valley known as White Bird Canyon. They were well rested and eager for action. General Howard sent 90 confident troopers, officers, and 11 volunteers under the command of Colonel Perry to capture the Indians.  The result of this battle was one of the most humiliating and crushing defeats any American army ever suffered.  They left 35 of their comrades dead on the ground. Several of the many wounded died later.  A few of the braves had minor wounds but none were killed.
The second battle was near the Clearwater River. General Howard with over 400 troops attacked the Indians. The U. S. military was once again soundly beaten and were forced to retreat.  Chief Joseph and his followers then fled across the Lolo Pass and entered the Bitterroot Valley leaving Howard’s troops far behind.  So far things were going great for the Native Americans, but things were about to change.
General Gibbons stationed at Fort Missoula was ordered to march and intercept the fleeing Indians. The Indian camp was unaware of this new danger until the attack began. Warriors, women and children were victims of the soldier’s accurate fire.  Chief Joseph was in a group that was guarding the horses when he heard the sounds of the battle.   With a savage yell this small group counter-attacked with fearlessness that left no room for defeat. The soldiers fell in a large number and began retreating. The arrival of General Howard with reinforcements, supplies, and ammunition gave hope for the American troops, but not for long.   Chief White Bird and several braves were returning from a scouting trip.  The two soldiers guarding the pack string of mules that carried food, supplies and ammunition were killed and the pack animals stampeded.  With a shortage of supplies and ammunition the soldiers retreated again.  The Indians, adding much needed supplies and transportation for their desperate escape to Canada, caught the stampeded animals. 
To confuse the soldiers, Chief Joseph led his tribe into and through the great Yellowstone Country.  Finally the war-weary tribe reached the Bear Paw Mountains less than a two days march to safety and freedom. Knowing his people could go no farther without food and rest, their leader called a halt.  He estimated that the enemy was two days behind.  What he did not know was General Howard using the “singing wires” telegraph, had wired General Nelson Miles, commander of a fort on the Yellowstone River, to cut off the renegade Indians from the east. The attack was a complete surprise to the Indians, and deadly on both sides. Fifty-three soldiers fell on the initial attack.  General Miles retreated and waited for the arrival of General Howard’s troops.  Instead of a frontal attack the two Generals brought in their artillery.  There was no defense for this kind of warfare.  Men, women, children and horses were being slaughtered. On the fifth day of the bombardment Chief Joseph called his chiefs together and said it was time to surrender.  Gathering the survivors of his tribe together he said to them, ‘Hear me my chiefs and my people, I am tired and my heart is sick and tired. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”  Thus ended the last major Indian war in the West.
After the treaty was signed, General Miles promised them they would return to the Valley of Butterfly (Lapwai) in the spring.  Like most Indian treaties it was broken and they were sent to a reservation in Oklahoma where nearly half of them died from disease. Ten years later the few remaining members of Joseph’s people were transferred to the Colville reservation in Nespelem, Washington.  Chief Joseph died here September 21, 1904. Many of his people believed he died of a broken heart.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

May Day

by Frances West

            When did May Day become a call for help, a signal that someone is in distress?  Evidently the time is gone by when May Day was one of the happiest days of the year.  When I was a child May Day meant that summer had arrived for sure and the end of the school term was just ahead. Three months with no books, teachers, or homework. What could be better than that?
            About a week before the first day of May we young ones would start planning our May baskets.  These were to be surprises for our friends and neighbors to let them know they were special.  We would begin to save up any bright paper which we folded into cone shapes and attached a handle at the top. We put much effort into making this project, with lots of folding, cutting and gluing. The very best treasure we could find was a wallpaper catalogue, but these were rare.  One or two stores in town sold wallpaper and so they would have the sample books to show the customers.  Their beautiful squares of heavy paper made wonderful baskets which usually contained pop corn as filler and maybe a piece of homemade dandy and some flowers.  Daffodils and bachelor buttons were in bloom at this time so all of our baskets looked pretty much the same. The point of the May Day baskets was to take them secretly to the friend or neighbor’s house, hang the basket on the door knob, knock on the door and then run.  The receiver of the baskets was supposed to catch you and to give you a kiss.  We would usually deliver them about dusk.  I don’t remember anyone ever getting caught or kissed but that was the game.
            Then the big decision of who would get which basket.  Then, of course, if you were on the receiving end you would giggle and pretend to wonder who would give you a basket (all the while really knowing who it was).  Sometimes you might get more than one. How exciting was that?
            Such a simple and fun time with no expense, no worries, just a time to let friends know you care about them and they cared for you.  I don’t know the meaning of May Day these days but if my doorbell should ring on May 1st evening I will be looking for a basket and prepared to give chase!