SOMETIMES, WHEN FEELING overwhelmed by the stress of the modern holiday season, I think of a story that was told to me by an old pioneer about Christmas on an Olympic Mountain homestead during the early years of the last century.
The old pioneer said:
“Our farm was an old homestead claim.
“Pa had to go pretty far up the river and into the mountains to find land and when he finally did it was covered with trees that were considered worthless.
“There was no way to grow anything until he cut the trees down so he could plant something between the stumps.
“Once he had a crop, there was no way to sell it to anybody because the neighbors were growing the same things that they were trying to sell to him, and the city was just too far away to pack the crops to town.
“So Pa dug a root cellar into the side of the mountain to keep the potatoes, cabbages, onions and carrots from freezing during the winter.
“I think winters were harder back then.
“One year it started snowing at about Thanksgiving and did not let up until sometime after the new year.
“We called it the winter of the blue snow because it piled up so deep.
“That was the winter the bobcats ate all our chickens so we had no eggs.
“Spring was wet and cold.
“The bees didn’t wake up in time to pollinate our fruit trees, so we had no apples.
“That summer, a bad hailstorm knocked down the oats and ruined them, so we ran out of feed for the cow and we had no milk.
“The cabbages were eaten by a new kind of worm that no one had ever seen before.
“The potatoes got some kind of black mold that made a lot of them rot in the ground before you could dig them up.
“What onions we grew were small and pitiful.
“The only thing that grew very well that summer was rutabagas.
“They are a kind of hybrid between a turnip and a cabbage that we kids didn’t like very much.
“Ma tried to mix the rutabagas with potatoes and onions, which wasn’t too bad, but then we ran out of potatoes and onions.
“Not even the animals seemed to like rutabagas.
“We fed them to the chickens before the bobcats ate them and the eggs tasted like fish.
“We fed rutabagas to the cow and the milk tasted sour while it lasted.
“It was a good thing Pa shot a deer so we had some fresh meat for a while.
“The rest of it was salted and dried into jerky by hanging it in the rafters of the cabin.
“As it got closer to Christmas, we kids were all excited.
“Pa was taking the hides of the chicken-eating bobcats to sell in town.
“You never knew what he’d come home with.
“One Christmas it was peppermint candy.
“One year we each got an orange.
“By Christmas Eve we could only imagine what wonders this year would bring.
“Ma shaved the jerky into a pan of hot water to make a gravy that would go with the rutabagas.
“She scraped together enough flour to make a Christmas cake and sent us out into the woods gathering dried bark for the cookstove.
“It was lucky I took the shotgun along because I got a grouse for Christmas dinner.
“Pa came home just at dark with some wonderful news.
“He’d shot a wolf on the way to town and collected the bounty.
“We all got new shoes.
“It was a Christmas I’ll never forget.”
Pat Neal is a fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.
He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patnealwild [email protected]