Tennessee Mountain Stories

Soap Makin’ per Callie Melton

The following is from an article written by Callie Melton for the Standing Stone Dispatch in the early 1980’s.  I present it verbatim.

Soap making was a full day’s work and it just didn’t start on any day you up and thought about making it.  You had to look ahead and figure out the next time the moon would full… then you set the day, for if you made the soap on the waning of the moon it would all dry up to nothing.  All winter the meat scraps had been carefully saved in a big oak box in the smokehouse.  It is true that we used all of the pig but the squeal… soap making proved that. 

The night before you were going to make soap, bucket after bucket of water had to be carried from the rain barrel and poured in the ash hopper to leach out the lye.  Then, the next morning right after breakfast, the big was kettle was set up and filled with water also from the rain barrel… you had to have soft water to make good soap and leech out lye.

A fire was put under the kettle, and while the water was getting hot, the women were busy getting the meat scraps ready.  When the water was boiling, the lye was put in.  You kept adding the lye until you could swish a feather from a chicken’s wing through the water two or three times, and then when you pulled it through your fingers it would slip… slipping meant that all the feather part would slip off from the shaft.  Now that the lye water was strong enough, you began putting the meat scraps in.

You put in a handful at a time, stirring all the time with the soap stick…the soap stick was a stout stick made from a limb of a sassafras bush.  The sap from the Sassafras made your soap smell good.   When you stirred, you always stirred clock-wise, for if you didn’t stir your soap right it wouldn’t set… and a woman was judged not only by the way her young’uns acted, but also by the kind of soap she made.  You added the meat scraps a handful at a time until the lye would not eat up anymore.  Then you stirred your soap carefully and cooked it slowly until it began to get thick.  Now the fire had to be raked out from under the kettle, and the soap let cool.  When the soap was cod, you covered the kettle with wide boards to keep out the dew or rain until morning.  The next morning you cut the soap out in blocks, and put it on wide planks in the smokehouse to cure.  Good soap was hard and creamy smooth when it was cured, with not bits or pieces of uneaten meat, and it lathered up good when you washed with it… Soap you took a bath with was made from butter or lard and was whiter and finer and you always stirred it with a fresh sassafras stick. 


What’s on your Breakfast table?

I’m not good at breakfast.  I’m happy eating leftovers or a sandwich or something and I realize how weird that sounds to yu’ns.  I’m a fan of cereal – all those nutrients and the protein from the milk all in one neat little bowl.

So when I saw an old advertisement for breakfast cereal it got me to thinking about how different that morning meal looked a few years back.

I don’t know about you but I always think of the “traditional” country breakfast containing meat, eggs, gravy and biscuits.  And that’s certainly been an enduring standard among hard-working farmers who needed a breakfast that would strengthen them through a tough day. 

However, we’ve mentioned many times that on the Cumberland Plateau – if not throughout Appalachia – wheat flour was a luxury for many, many years.  That kind of rules out biscuits for everyday eating, doesn’t it?  Of course the meat that was not available for lower income families in larger metropolitan areas was more common on the farmer’s table since he could raise or hunt for it.  And eggs are easy enough to produce. 

 Both of my grandfathers remembered eating cornbread for breakfast and maybe the reason that generation was so attached to bread at every meal was because they hadn’t always been able to have it.

Certainly, one of the early challenges for cereal manufacturers was the growing prosperity in early 20th century America.  For centuries people in the old country were sustained on porridges or gruel which would resemble today’s oatmeal.  This is still common fare in undeveloped countries.  So when those early Americans could afford meat for every meal there was no way they were going back to the food they’d gotten by on before. 

Cereal sales didn’t really take off until the 1950’s when baby boomers were targeted with marketing campaigns and cereals were sugared for better flavor.  Today, statisticsbrain.com reports that 92% of American households buy boxed cereal at least once per year and 2.7 billion boxes are sold annually. 

New Potatoes

Most homes on the mountain have a little vegetable garden – okay, most of the gardens are pretty big.  And potatoes are one of our main staples.  You may recall I mentioned here that I was raised to understand you needed bread with every meal, well you gotta’ have ‘taters too. 

This time of year (or a little earlier if you were ambitious in February) the gardens begin to yield little new potatoes.  We boil them in their skins with a little oil (bacon drippings or lard if you’ve got it), slather them in butter, add salt and pepper and it’s one of the best meals of the summer.  Well at least it seems like it at the time because if you raised your potato crop by this time of year they’re pretty shrivelled and soft.  And after all, we only get “new” potatoes for a little while before the skins start to get thick and you’re wanting to peel them.

Maybe I’m so thrilled to get these potatoes because of the childhood memories they trigger.  My whole life I remember going to the garden with Grandpa Livesay and digging out a mess of taters.  The dirt around the plants was loose and piled high on the stems so my fat little-girl fingers could just about scoop them right out of the ground.  He’d carefully drive a pitchfork in and we’d all exclaim over the number of little white spuds that popped out – after all this is the prediction of the winter’s potato crop and we thought we’d starve if we didn’t raise a bountiful enough crop. 

My grandpa was not a Christian until the very end of his life yet he always knew The Good Lord was providing this produce by the sweat of our brow – well mostly his brow.

 Joy and Ricky Orias

Joy and Ricky Orias

With our day’s harvest in a bucket we’d go to the barn where there were barrels of rainwater caught for cleaning things like this.  Since we no longer needed to catch the water for drinking, you could plunge your hands straight into the cool barrels, cleaning both the food and the child.

We have missionaries from The Phillipines staying with us, and partaking of tonight’s early summer treat.  I asked if they grow this kind of potatoes – sweet potatoes are a staple for them.  She said, yes but we don’t eat the skins.  I bet she has a similar childhood memory for she grew up on a farm as well and little girls on farms have gotta’ have similar memories, don’t you think?

The Stories Online


Have you ever Googled your own name made the shocking revelation that most of us have some web-presence these days?  Publishers tell us authors we must have such a presence and we are always working to build our audience – after all if you’ve got a story to tell you want to tell a whole bunch of people don’t you?

While chatting with a friend recently some subject came up and I said, “Hey I wrote a blog about that”.  So I whip out my handy-dandy smart phone and search “Tennessee Mountain Stories” plus the subject of the moment.  What popped up was an “Interview with Beth Durham”. 

Huh?  What interview?

Well, I’m always talking about Tennessee Mountain Stories to pretty much anyone that will listen – and quite a few folks that tune me out.  And here was someone who not only listened but took notes!

You see homework can now be found on the World Wide Web and I had in fact answered some questions for my communications-major-niece.

It’s kind of fun to read through someone else’s summary of your work and I thought you good readers might enjoy this piece as well.  You can click here to see Anna Grace’s article.

Decoration Day 2017

I got a chance to visit the Whittaker Cemetery this week on Decoration Day and was reminded of a story Clyde Whittaker had told me about the origins of that cemetery.


The land for the cemetery was donated by one of Clyde’s ancestors, John Whittaker.  He lived near one of the corners of the land and when his mother passed away, they buried her in the back yard.  So, when the town of Monterey grew to the point that a public cemetery was needed, he donated this property. 

Relatives of John Whittaker Stone.jpeg

Mrs. Whittaker’s original stone has been lost but a modern stone marks that plot as the earliest grave.  Nearby are two graves marked by a single stone but with no names, only noted as relatives of John Whittaker.  And, there are no dates on Mrs. Whittaker’s stone.  nHowever, on Ancestry I found John Whittaker III who lived 1783 – 1869. 

Whittaker Cemetery Tent Grave A.jpg

This old cemetery has some of the tent graves we’ve talked about here before.  I was surprised to see a 1938 date on one tent grave as I would’ve thought that tradition had died by then.  And a son of John Whittaker III was buried in 1900 under a tent grave.

You know I’m always asking for the whys and hows of settlements and such so it’s exciting to hear an legend like this one about the origins of Whittaker Cemetery.