Essentials of Life: Wheat, Flax, and Ginseng

By Stephen D. Bowling

J. Green Trimble

When Breathitt County was young, the population carried on many of the old customs from Europe with the first settlers. The lack of steam power and electricity made even the simplest task very difficult.

J. Green Trimble recorded many of these traditional methods of survival in his World War I era “Recollections of Breathitt.”  I have published this week several paragraphs concerning these now antiquated systems of production. They offer only a minor glimpse of the difficulties that the average Breathitt Countian faced in the 1840s. 

“At the time Breathitt County was created, the people relied principally on the transportation of coal and saw logs down the river, as a means of making money. They built their own boats, which were from fifty to sixty feet long, and there were no sawmills in the country they had to saw the planks by hand with rip saws and hew the gunnels and stanchions with a broad axe. A considerable income was derived from the sale of deer-skins, fur, honey, beeswax, and ginseng, with all of which the county was bountifully supplied. I shipped large quantities of all these commodities away from there in 1838.

Ginseng was an article of commerce and at that time worth only 2 cents a pound. It is now worth about $6.00 a pound and has sold as high as $10.00 a pound within the last decade. After I became a merchant in 1847, I purchased it in the green state, paying 12 1/2 cents a pound, and clarified it making the younger roots perfectly transparent, and then sold it for 65 cents a pound…

In the mountain part of Eastern Kentucky in my youthful days, there was but little wheat cultivated by the farmers, on account of not having facilities for threshing it nor mills convenient for producing flour. When the wheat was ripe, it was cut by hand with a scythe and cradle, and was bound up in sheaves and then thrashed out by hand with a flail, made of a piece of round timber about 2 1/2 inches in diameter and 30 inches long, fastened with a leather thong to a handle about 5 feet long.

An identified woman demonstrated spinning techniques at the 1937 Quicksand Harvest Festival.

This being a slow process, the farmers with much larger crops would prepare a piece of ground in the shape of a ring, about 30 feet in diameter, upon which the sheaves were placed and the grain was then trampled out with horses. I spent many days on horseback tramping out the wheat. In order to separate the chaff from the grain, one man would fill up a large basket and pour it out slowly, while two others with a two linen sheets made for that purpose would fan away the chaff as it fell, and the grain would fall to the ground. Wheat fans were introduced into the country about 1850. They were operated by hand and were a great improvement over the old way of cleaning wheat.

Several unidentified children pose near some sheets that are laid out to dry hemp seed. The same drying process was described by Green Trimble but using linen sheets rather than cotton. Source- Leonard Noble Collection

All of the farmers of the country cultivated every year a patch of one or two acres of flax, and many of them small patches of cotton. Most of them owned flocks of sheep, the wool from which was manufactured into blankets, coverlets, flannel, jeans, and linsey and used to make clothing for the family, including socks and stockings. The machinery necessary to manufacture the flax, cotton, and wool consisted of a flax break, hackle with iron or steel teeth, a little spinning wheel with flyers propelled by a woman’s foot for flax and cotton, and a big wheel for spinning rolls, also wool and cotton handloom and warping bars. Every prominent farmer was supplied with these necessary implements of industry which enabled the ladies of pioneer days in Kentucky to manufacture clothing for their families.”

Phoebe Banks, seated here at the reported age of 107, used many of these implements to spin the wool and flax her family produced on their Frozen Creek farm. Learn more about Phoebe Banks here.

Much has changed since this account was written. New highways and new technology have brought the mass production and distribution of clothing. The delicate hands of many Kentucky women have been spared by the invention of the electronic loom and modern technology.

© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
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