The kitchen is the heart of the home. This is as true today as it was 100 years ago. Back then, the kitchen was a separate little building that usually was built before the main house. It was connected by a small porch or walkway that we called the dogtrot. I guess we called it that because that is where the old hound dog trotted between the house and the kitchen, waiting for us to throw him a cold biscuit.
The kitchen and main house were separated because the woodstove was such a fire hazard. If the kitchen caught fire, the big house might be saved. We kept a ladder by our old kitchen, and I watched my mama climb that ladder many times with a bucket of water so she could throw it on the shingles that were on fire.
I want to share some memories of a kitchen that was dear to a little boy raised in Gum Branch. Richard Russell Groover, born in 1937, recalls many precious memories that occurred in the kitchen of his grandparents, Redding and Mary Groover.
He wrote about these memories in his book, “Tales of Grandpa and Gum Branch,” published in 1997. Russell gave me permission to use his story in this column.
“Our kitchen wasn’t like the ones you see in the movies or on TV. It started out as a log home for the family while the big house was being built. Both buildings were made of logs, and the kitchen was a lot warmer in the winter when it might be almost impossible to heat the big house. It was the place where most children were born and where the family bonded together in their early years of struggling to make a go of life. The kitchen held their security, and they didn’t have the heart to tear it down when the new house up front was finished. So, the older building was usually turned into a kitchen with a dining room and pantry.
“The walls in our kitchen were plastered with newspapers that had been dipped in a solution of flour and water to hold them in place over the cracks between the logs, providing insulation. I can remember Grandpa Redding walking around holding up a kerosene lamp with one hand, reading the news on the wall for the umpteenth time while he waited for supper to be served. I remember getting a swat on the rear end from a switch that had been properly selected from a peach tree in the backyard when I poked a hole in the newspaper with my finger just to prove to myself I could find the cracks between the logs behind the newspaper wall.
“The heavy cast-iron cook stove that was fed wood for fuel never rested. Hot coals were always banked somewhere in its depths, waiting to be brought to flame by fresh pine stove wood fed into a little door in front. Hot water waited in a tank on its side to be added to wash pans or tubs. At full throttle when too much wood had been added, the stove would rumble and creak, belching fire out of every crack and vent it could find. The damper on the stovepipe swung back and forth trying to get enough air into the fire. Mama would sprinkle water on the red-hot surface, trying to cool it down, and holler to me, ‘Dick Russell, run outside and make sure they don’t land on the roof.’ I knew the importance of my job!
“Mama (Louise Groover) taught school, worked in the welfare office in Hinesville in the evenings and issued war rationing stamps in between. Every weekday morning, the school bus picked her up, and Aunt Hattie would get off to take care of me and my grandparents in her absence. I don’t know how old Aunt Hattie might have been or even her last name, but I remember she was black, soft and warm with the smell of fresh soap and good food always about her person. After the evening meal was prepared and before the school bus came to take her home, she would hold me in her lap and tell me stories of long ago. Her stories kept my interest, the creak of the rocking chair singing a lullaby. The hum of the school bus would break the spell, and Grandpa would take her place as we watched her depart.
“Mama would return late in the evening with the last workers from Camp Stewart, sometimes in a car, often in the back of a pickup and once in a log truck. Right away, she would busy herself fixing the table with the food Aunt Hattie had cooked, usually my favorite: black-eyed peas with rice and stewed tomatoes, followed by homemade sausage and the best biscuits that the Lord would allow to be made in Georgia. That is, except for my Aunt Janette’s! (Man, am I getting hungry!) ...
“Supper, a special affair around the long table, was lighted by what folks called an ‘Aladdin’s lamp.’ Although shaped like our old kerosene lamps, the metal bottom held a mantle instead of a wick and gave out a bright light. ... Conversation around the supper table was always a big part of our lives and included everyone.
“Several years later, I returned with my dad to the old, abandoned log kitchen to tear it down. It had to be dismantled one log at the time. Each log had been hand-drilled and put together with wooden pegs. I thought of the care my Grandpa had used as he built the structure, and my task became very solemn. The newspapers on the walls were stripped off one layer at the time. They revealed our local history from the Liberty County Herald and Savannah Morning News. Reports from the war in Europe awoke feelings of sadness. When someone from Gum Branch was killed or missing in action, the whole community gathered at the family’s home, bringing good food and special things to comfort them. We mourned their loss way into the night.
“As more layers were stripped away, I found a memorial page, dated April 30, 1925, from the Liberty County Herald, dedicated to those who served in the Confederate Army. Some of the names were Hampton C. Parker, William Hughes, Jas. M. Smiley, Capt. J. Madison Smith, Robert W. Long Jr., John E. Way, William D, Baggs, Martin Sullivan and Berry Hendry. Very carefully, I took a pocketknife and removed the delicate piece of family history — the names James D. Zorn and Lt. Charles A. Groover — from the kitchen wall. I could feel Grandpa’s presence and the warmth of his smile as I folded the newly found treasure away and went about looking for more archives on our old newspapered kitchen wall.”
Thanks to all our veterans who have served our country to preserve our freedom.