Tennessee Mountain Stories

A Good Cup of Coffee

Today’s thoughts may seem a little silly – unless like me you catch up on your blogs first thing in the morning while enjoying a good cup of coffee.   I do like a steaming cup first thing in the morning whether it’s a fancy latte if I’m out somewhere that one can be had or from a pot boiled over a campfire. 

Historically, we think of tea as the beverage of our European ancestors.  But you’ll remember that little tea party held in Boston Harbor in 1773 that changed American tastes forever.  As a protest to paying British taxes without parliamentary representation, American’s began drinking coffee. 

My latest book, Plans for Emma is partly set around a logging camp in The Flat Woods which was a tract of timber in the Banner Roslin area nearly five thousand acres.  Today that tract would challenge loggers with heavy machinery simply for its size.  At the turn of the twentieth century, it would have been old growth timber of big hardwood trees.   Now, the plateau has a rich resource in timber and logging camps like the one my book’s character, Millard, works in provided a cash job for many young mountain men. I say a “cash job” as opposed to many local jobs that would pay in board on a farm or maybe a portion of a crop.  

It was hard work felling trees with a crosscut saw, skidding them with a mule and loading onto horse drawn wagons.  Millard’s operation is supplying railroad cross ties – another common product from our forests and something we really need to talk more about here.  Those ties had to be hewn from the big trunks with an axe and I can’t imagine creating a single square straight enough to hold a rail in place but they were paid a penny per tie and my Grandpa Stepp remembered he could make a dollar a day if he’d “reach and get it”.  That’s 100 ties! Okay, but I digress – I suppose we need to talk more about logging here too, don’t we?

Back to our cuppa’ Joe.  By the way, that term was coined in World War II and referred to the G.I. Joes who enjoyed their coffee be it from the mess hall or their rations.

Coffee is one thing the subsistence farmers of the Cumberland Plateau could not grow for themselves.  Enter the occasional need for a cash job, right?  Coffee trees require a moist, hot climate like Africa or South America.  I read an article in the Chattanooga Free Times just last week about a lady who worked in Hawaii during WWII and while folks around here were making do with rationed amounts of coffee and sugar, those on that tropical island had all they needed because Hawaii grew their own sugar cane and coffee trees.

In 1903, the year the book opens, coffee cost twenty-two cents per pound, according to the “Wages and Prices of Commodities” booklet printed by the Government Printing Office in 1911.  But twenty-two cents was pretty hard to come by when there were only a few “cash jobs” around and if you were working the farm you’re time was pretty well taken up with it.  The idea of both holding down a full time job and also doing a little farming on the side was pretty foreign in those days.  And then there’s the question of availability of coffee.  When you didn’t run by a store every day or two, you might easily run out of those precious coffee beans.  It was one of the first things southerners missed when the union blockaded provisions entering the Confederate States of America.

On the mountain we’re accustomed to making do or doing without.  Most of us would rather make do with some kind of coffee substitute and chicory has been the first choice since settlers first came to America.  One type of this plant is native to Europe, although it has long been naturalized in America and grows wild now decorating our roadsides.  There is a closely related plant that was native to America and is probably the Chicory that Native Americans were using medicinally.  The root of Chicory can be roasted, ground, and brewed into a strong hot drink.  It’s caffeine free so folks usually prefer to mix it with real coffee allowing you to stretch that pound of coffee out a long way.  If you’ve ever harvested chicory yourself, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. 

What prompted this rambling article was a simple display at a Cracker Barrell store I recently visited.  A  collection of huge coffeepots got me to thinking about feeding large groups of people in days before microwave ovens, automatic drip coffeemakers and so many other fancy conveniences we take for granted today.   It’s not hard for me to imagine a few dozen lumberjacks filing into a dining hall each morning expecting a hot cup of coffee.  It’s a little harder to think of actually brewing the pot while also preparing enough biscuits, eggs and bacon to fill those stomachs until I tried to do it again a noon.