From frontier to farm in New Albany

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

NEW ALBANY – In the experience of many kids and some adults – even those far removed from city life – biscuits have always come from a freezer, clothes from a rack, warmth from a thermostat and healing from a pharmacy.
The Union County Heritage Museum’s Pioneer Days celebration, however, aims to show visitors how earlier generations fed, clothed, warmed and healed – not to mention educated and entertained – themselves and made a living from the land that became Northeast Mississippi.
After hosting student groups the last two days, it’s open to the general public today from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Re-enactors at Pioneer Days reprise dozens of elements of everyday life from the area’s first white settlements through the early 20th century. The exhibits include blacksmithing, woodworking, gardening, laundry, cooking, native medicine, traditional music, a one-room schoolhouse and more.
“It tells a story that kids don’t hear anywhere else,” said Janet Burress, one of several guides. “You don’t appreciate what you have if you don’t know what came before it.”
In the blacksmith shop, Randy Darling showed the laborious pre-industrial process of forging nails while Boyd Yarbrough made gate hooks and related tools. Shaping a red-hot bar of steel against the anvil, Yarbrough told a semicircle of children, “This is how most things were made a hundred years ago – by hand.”
Sherra Owen demonstrated how native plants were used as medicine and more. Though many people think they’re allergic to goldenrod, she said, the usual culprit is ragweed – an allergen that, ironically, can be lessened with a tea made from the early blooms of goldenrod. Students were universally fascinated by Owen’s assertion that pawpaw leaves “are nature’s best toilet paper.”
Visitors on Thursday enjoyed boiled and parched peanuts and slaked their thirst with sassafras tea. They tried their hands at primitive laundry methods, churning butter, cutting wood with a crosscut saw and spitting watermelon seeds “for distance and accuracy,” Burress said.
Dr. Carla Stanford demonstrated how early settlers roasted and ground their own coffee, how potatoes were mashed in the pre-flake days and how generations of Southerners started their days sifting flour and rolling out biscuit dough.
“Children today need to know that people who didn’t have all their conveniences got things done, that hard work and dedication are good things,” she said.
Benny Lee Smith helped visitors use a crosscut saw, pointing out that most past generations were dependent on firewood for heating and cooking.
“It shows kids how to really work,” he said. “Doing hard work builds your body up.”
Kyle Stafford, a third-grader from South Pontotoc Attendance Center, heartily agreed. After taking a turn at cutting wood, he decided he could embrace the pioneer lifestyle.
“I would like having my own farm and garden,” he said.
Martaveous Reel, another South Pontotoc third-grader, said his favorite Pioneer Days activity was riding a wooden wagon (built by Zack Stewart). Reel said he’s glad not to have grown up 100 years ago.
“They had to work too hard,” he said.
Volunteer Tim Burress, who used child-scale timbers to demonstrate log-cabin building, agreed.
“Most of us,” he admitted, “are too lazy to live that way.”
errol.castens@journalinc.com