By Norris Chambers                                                                               

                 The old timers who lived in the country and small towns in the early thirties could have been called wood-burners. They burned wood to cook their meals and to heat their homes in the winter. They burned wood when they cleared a new patch for farming and when they found a cow or horse whose life had expired and it was necessary to dispose of the body. It was easier to cover the remains with wood and start a fire than it was to dig a hole for a grave. Many of the boilers of the old steam engines that were still in use in cotton gins and grain mills were heated with wood.

            The burning of all this wood produced a residue known as ashes. In most cases the ashes had to be disposed of. Most households just picked a convenient location in the corner of the yard or near the chicken yard and started a pile. Chickens liked to scratch and flutter around in the ash pile. Most folks believed that the ashes that accumulated on the birds kept them free of parasites. Parasites seemed to be anxious to attack chickens whenever the opportunity appeared.

            Another kitchen or fireplace use was a mixture of coal oil and ashes in a pint can that was used as a fire starter. The mixture was mixed until it formed a thick paste. The container was provided with a table spoon that was used to place a rounded measure under some small kindling. The starter was lighted and burned long enough to get a nice fire doing its job.

            Some farmers believed in the bug chasing characteristics of ashes strong enough to mix ashes and vinegar and paint the roosts in their chicken houses. I never knew what part the vinegar played in making the operation successful. When ashes and vinegar are mixed the resulting solution does a lot of foaming. Maybe chiggers don’t like vinegar.

            Some gardeners believed that a ring of ashes around a plant not only added some nutrients to the soil but helped to keep some garden pests away from the developing plants. There seemed to always be hungry insects anxious to feast on developing vegetables before they were ready for harvest. One old farmer always had plenty of good turnip greens. When another farmer asked him how he kept the bugs from eating them up he said, “I always plant enough for the bugs to eat all they can hold and leave the rest for me!” I guess this plan worked well since he always had good turnip greens. He probably had a crop of fat bugs, too.

            A few city families saved their ashes in five or ten gallon cans and used the fine powder for de-icing sidewalks and door steps in icy winter weather. It probably worked on automobile windshields as well. Since we didn’t have any sidewalks, or other places that needed de-icing, we never tried it. We kept our Model T in a shed and made an effort to leave it there during ice storms!

            Ashes make a great scouring powder. They were often used for cleaning pots and pans and in cleaning the inside of a wash pot after making soap or rendering lard.

            The old timers that we knew as kids told of making their own lye from ashes. Lye was a necessary ingredient used in making soap. Any sort of fat, usually that taken during the slaughter of a hog or other animal was boiled in a wash pot with lye. After a period of cooking a soap mixture resulted. The soap could be taken early and used as a liquid cleaner or left in the boiling pot longer and it would form a hard soap when cooled. The boiled mixture was often left in the wash pot and allowed to harden there. After all of the heat had disappeared and the soap was of a nice consistency it was cut into bars of a convenient size.

            A device called an “ash hopper” was used to extract lye from ashes. The hopper was a wooden trough about three feet long and a foot wide at the top. It was built in a V shape with a thin slit left at the bottom. It was mounted on wooden legs at the proper height to allow a smaller liquid-tight trough to be placed under it. Ashes fresh from the fireplace or stove were placed in the hopper and water was poured over them and allowed to filter through the contents. The water that emerged from the slit in the bottom and trickled into the trough below contained enough lye to make soap.

            Clifton and I were never involved in making lye since it was available in the stores at a very reasonable price. Lye was packaged in sealed cans that held about a pint.

            Was there any fun involved in working with ashes? There’s fun in almost everything if you search long enough. The ashes fun came when the job was finished and we could do something else!