Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Mail Must Go Through

The white horse Maud pulled the sleigh up hill and down, around the dangerous curves on the country roads above the Mohawk River. In the sleigh, Minnie's father and little brother Frederic pulled the rugs and down-filled coverlets more tightly around their knees as the wind's icy fingers poked at their ears and necks. The coals in the foot warmer had turned from glowing red to ashes, and no longer warmed their tingling toes. The little boy held on tightly as the cutter rounded the steep curves near Davy Corners.

It was thus that Minnie's father Fred Fineour delivered the mail to the farms and villages around Fort Plain a hundred years ago. As in our day, the Mohawk Valley winters were long and snowy, but unlike today, the roads were rarely plowed in the winter, and the only way to travel around the countryside was by horse-drawn sleigh, also known as a cutter.

In a reminiscence recorded in 1976, Minnie's brother describes how he accompanied their father on the mail runs in the early 20th century. Here is an excerpt from this memoir:

"About 1900 the first rural free delivery of mail was instituted in the Fort Plain area. My father applied for the job of carrier on this route and became the first rural mailman, RFD #1, out of Fort Plain. The system was rapidly expanded, until there were four or five rural routes fanning out from the local post office into the surrounding farm country. My father's route was up around what was then known as the Dutchtown Road, and is now Route 5S. In those days like most roads, it was a dirt road, and the horse and wagon kicked up a fine cloud of dust as they proceeded along.

"The route ran up Route 5S to a little ways beyond Frey's Bush Road on which my father turned off to the south and proceeded along Dillinger Road and back to the Dutchtown Road, down a very steep hill toward Davy Corners. This road is now closed and any traces of it are hardly visible at this time. But it was very steep, and it really scared me to ride down it with him in his carriage in the summertime. Then the route came to the River Road and thence back to Fort Plain. I would say that this was a distance of approximately ten to twelve miles. In the wintertime the route was scarcely plowed if at all, and Father used a cutter to make these rounds. And it was no idle motto in those days; the mail did go through in spite of any kind of weather."

Great-grandfather Fred kept his horse, buggy, and cutter in a barn down the street from the family home. The horse Maud was as white as the snow through which she pulled the cutter. Here's Great-grandfather Fred with his faithful horse:

While Fred and Frederic went on the mail run, perhaps Minnie and her mother were busy preparing steaming mugs of hot coffee or chocolate for the chilled mail carrier and his son. And maybe even a snack of tip-top cake or raisin cake from Minnie's cookbook:


As with many of the recipes in Minnie's notebook, both of these simply list the ingredients without giving an indication of the process involved. I suppose that an experienced baker would know enough to sift together the dry ingredients, cream the butter, and so on. Here is my interpretation of the process for making the first recipe on the page, with a slight update to the ingredients as well:

Tip-Top Cake:

- 1/4 cup butter or margarine
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 egg
- 1/2 tsp. vanilla
- 1 cup milk
- 2 cups flour
- 2 tsp. baking powder

Preheat oven to 350 F. (325 F if glass or dark non-stick pan)
Grease and flour an 8" cake pan. (Double the recipe for a two-layer 8" cake.)
Pre-sift flour. In a medium bowl, sift together flour and baking powder. Set aside.
In a larger bowl, cream together the butter or margarine and sugar. 
Beat in egg; stir in vanilla. 
Add milk and flour gradually while stirring. Beat with wire whisk until smooth.
Bake for 25 - 30 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean.
Let cake cool before removing from pan.

This is how mine looked when it came out of the oven:

What is "tip-top" or first rate about this cake? Well, first of all, it can be made easily from simple ingredients that most people already have on hand. 

Secondly, it is simple enough for even a novice baker like myself to attempt without making a mess of it. 

And thirdly, when I took it out of the oven, the aroma wafting up the stairs actually lured my son away from his computer. He came down to ask me what I was making that smelled so good. As soon as it cooled enough, we cut into the cake.

I cut a piece for you too:

Oops! Looks like somebody already took a bite!

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