Saturday, December 24, 2011

Grandma Minnie in Her Own Words

Grandma Minnie was born on Christmas Eve in 1890. As we have seen in an earlier post, she spent her childhood along the Erie Canal in Fort Plain, New York. Minnie always enjoyed telling her grandchildren about her life along the canal.:

Grandma Minnie reminiscing 1979

At some time during Minnie's "golden years," a family friend recorded an interview with Minnie, asking her about life in Fort Plain in the 1890's. Minnie's daughter Glenadore also participated in the conversation. An excerpt from the undated interview follows:

Interviewer: Can you tell me Minnie, about the days along the old canal? Did your father sell things besides the everyday type of food and like that at the store?

Minnie: Oh yes.

Minnie as a toddler on the porch of the store

Interviewer: Tell me, what did he sell? Did he sell supplies for the animals and like that too?

Minnie: You mean, for the horses? He had the hay and the straw and the oats for the animals. There was a building on the other side, and that’s where he kept the hay and the straw and the oats and the wood. And he had a rack for a cord of wood. It was slab wood.

Interviewer: Did the farmers and the townspeople sometimes come and trade there too?

Minnie: Oh yes, a lot of the townspeople come down and bought things and my father would deliver them. And I would ride in the wagon with him. [Laughs] Then I would go to the Larkin Company, and I would get a list of stuff that I wanted.

Interviewer: That was pretty popular in those days, the Larkin Company. Now tell me about the packet boats, did they eat on the packet boats too, and what about when they had to do their washing and like that? Did they do that on the boats?

Minnie: Oh yes, they did the wash; they had lots of water.

Interviewer: The canal water? Is that what they used to wash with?

Minnie: I guess so, where else would they get it?

Interviewer: Did the boats run at night or just in the daytime?

Minnie: Oh yes, I guess they did [run all night].

Interviewer: How many hours did they leave the team pulling the boat?

Minnie: Eight hours, eight hour shifts.

Interviewer: And the men changed then too?

Minnie: Oh yes, the drivers, and the lock tenders had eight hour [shifts] too.

Interviewer: Now can you tell me, did they have horses or mules on that canal, to pull the boats?

Minnie: Oh, it was mostly mules. And they’d change every eight hours; they had to walk [for eight hours].

Interviewer: Did they carry some of those mules down inside the boats, to have an extra team, or did they have stations along the canal [where they would change the teams]?

Minnie: No, they were always on the boats. And when they changed, they had to change while the boat was in being locked. They had a ramp, and the mules would go on the ramp, and then they’d go down in the cabin. And some of’em were balky [laughs], and they had a time to get’em there!

Interviewer: Tell me how the purchases were made at the store.

Minnie: Well, they had to get the groceries and supplies and take’em into the boats, when the lock tenders were lockin’ the boats in the locks, that was all the time they had to do all that. My father had to load up groceries and get’em and run across the lock gates and take’em [i.e., the supplies] down in the cabins, oh yes. And it was a lot of hard work for my father, because you had to hurry, because the boats don’t stay very long in the locks to get out. 

Minnie's family in front of the store

Interviewer: How many hours a day was the store open?

Minnie: It went right around the clock! The hired men had to sleep on the counter some nights, ‘cause the boats went all day around. And then they’d just take turns; one night my father would, and the next night, the hired man. They had to lay on the counter in the grocery store.

Interviewer: I was wondering when they had time to sleep, but they took turns then.

Minnie: That’s all the time they had, ‘cause the boats went day and night.

Interviewer: On the boats, the packet boats, can you tell me, did they cook and serve the meals on the packet boats?

Minnie: Oh yes, right down in the cabins, they must have had stoves, they probably had kerosene stoves, don’t you think so? Of course, my father had wood too; I don’t think they had much coal in them days.

Glen: Did any of the boats winter over here? Did they tie up for the winter?

Minnie: Why yes, in the canal. All the boats were there. They tied up at Lockville for the winter, and they could go to the grocery store and get all their supplies.

Glen: Well, did they live on the boats in the winter?

Minnie: Sure. They must have had their stoves to keep warm, oil stoves, or wood.

Interviewer: What about the ashes?

Minnie: They dumped them in the canal, ashes from the wood stoves.

Interviewer: Well now, didn’t those canals have quite an odor to them in the summer? It couldn’t have been very sanitary like that. What did they do with their garbage?

Minnie: [They dumped it] along the banks of the canal. Or it went down in the bottom of the canal. [Laughs]

Along the canal in Fort Plain

Interviewer: Tell us a little bit about Fort Plain in those years. Was there any manufacturing at all?

Minnie: Oh yes, they was lots of things, different things. Manufacturing and stores  --  they had the knittin’ mill,  silk mill -- Duffy’s silk mill, and they had a lot of harness stores down here and they made harnesses. They had a lot of different stores, they sold dishes, one store had nice china dishes, and variety shops, “5 and 10’s”.

Glen: How about the carriage makers? Were the carriage shops in business?

Minnie: Yes, they had a lot of different ones, they had hose companies too, where they made hoses.

Glen: How about the fire companies, and racing at the race track?

Minnie: Oh yeah, that was a race track around behind there. The fire companies used to have races and Will, my husband, belonged to one of’em. And if you belonged for so many years, you was exempt from jury duty. I know when we were courtin’, boy, when that fire alarm whistled, Will goes a’scootin’, he always run to the fire, ‘cause he was a fireman. It was a great life.

Glen: How about your tea parties with your friends, down on the canal?

Minnie: Oh, I had lots of tea parties with the youngsters my age, because my father had a big case, with all kinds of candy and gum and stuff, and then we had soda pop, and they’d bring some cookies and something they’d made, and upstairs [from the store], we’d have a party. And I used to soak crackers, of all crazy things, I’d soak them little oyster crackers in water till they swelled all up, and ate’em! We used to like it. [Laughs]

Minnie as a young girl

Interviewer: How many months in the year was the canal open, Minnie, do you remember?

Minnie: Oh, it opened about April, and then it closed the end of the year. I think maybe it didn’t close until the first of December. It closed for the winter.

Interviewer: Was any water added in the summertime, when the canal got a little low? Did they add water from some of the rivers?

Minnie: I don’t know how they did that.

Interviewer: Well, they must have done it some way.

Minnie: Maybe from the aqueduct.

Interviewer: Minnie, do you have any other things that you’d like to tell people at this time?

Minnie: Oh yes, I wanted to tell you about the lock tenders. Between the two locks was quite a strip of land. And that’s where they had their little shanty, I would call it, where the lock tender stayed. They had a fire in there, and they would sleep in there, that’s where they slept. And every hour they’d change. And then they’d come over to the grocery store, and they’d shake dice, and my mother would make egg nog. And it was made of hard cider and eggs. And boy, was that good  --  that’s what the lock tenders said! [laughs]

Interviewer: Minnie, toward the end of the canal days, they used steam, didn’t they, on some of the boats? Did they have steam engines in them?

Minnie: Oh, there was steam boats, in the later times. And of course, they have a whistle. When they’re coming up there by the bridges, they’d blow the whistle, and my father was so familiar [with the whistles] that he would know when he heard the whistle just what boat it was, just from hearin’ the whistle.

Interviewer: Now, they had some pleasure boats too, did they?

Minnie: Oh yes, they had pleasure boats here, they’d have excursions. They would go from here up to Mindenville, to the lock. And then they would get off there, and along the road and up the hill a ways was a woods. And there was a sulfur springs up in there, and they’d go up in there, and they’d have their picnics up in there. Yeah, they had quite a thing like that.

                                           *   *   *

As Minnie herself said, "It was a great life." Later, as a young married woman, Minnie got the following cookie recipe from a neighbor up the street:

Minnie's Cookie Recipe

As you will notice, and is typical of many of Minnie's recipes, it tells us the ingredients without giving much guidance as to steps in preparation. I especially like the old-fashioned turn of phrase, "Mix stiff with flour." After experimenting with the recipe a couple of times,  I have modernized it as follows:

Minnie’s Molasses Cookies (From Mrs. Vrooman)

2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. ginger
½ tsp. ground cloves
½ cup margarine (1 stick)
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup molasses
1 egg
½ tsp. vanilla extract
Approximately 1 cup granulated sugar for coating the cookie balls before baking

Pre-sift flour.
Sift together first 6 ingredients in a medium bowl. Set aside.
In a large bowl, cream together margarine and brown sugar.
Beat in molasses, egg, and vanilla extract.
Stir in flour mixture to form a stiff dough.

Molasses cookie dough

Cover and chill in refrigerator until firm (4 hours or overnight).
Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. 
Scoop out dough with a soup spoon, and roll into 1 inch balls.
Roll balls in granulated sugar and place on cookie sheet, about 2 inches apart.
Press down gently on cookie dough with the bottom of a glass, to flatten slightly.
Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until tops are slightly crinkled.
Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack. 

In honor of the holidays, and Minnie's Christmas Eve birthday, my daughter and I made the cookies, using red and green colored sugar to coat the cookie dough balls. The result is below. Mix, bake, and enjoy!

Molasses Cookies for Christmas

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