Appalachian Traveller

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How To. . .A Pioneer Guide

In the hills, you were on your own. No all night convenience stores. No remodeling companies. No butchers. If you ever wondered what it'd be like to "do-it-yourself" all of the time, here's a start.

. . .Build A Log Cabin
. . .Dress Meats
. . .Make Moonshine
. . .Make Soap
. . .Plant by the Signs
. . .Recipes

. . .Build A Log Cabin

Unlike the round log building that Abraham Lincoln slept in, the pioneer Appalachian log cabin was constructed of hand split boards measuring 6" to 8" thick and 16’ to 24’ long, locked and fastened together by half-dovetailed hewn notches connected at the corners. The spaces between the boards were chinked in with clay. The home itself was usually a square or rectangular single room, one and one-half stories high, with a front, and maybe, a back door or a window at the opposite end of the fireplace. Later, cabins were expanded by adding a kitchen ell or building another cabin alongside the original. A "dog trot" cabin is two cabins with chimneys on opposite ends and connected by a breezeway; a "saddleback" is two cabins with a chimney in the middle.

Tall and small diameter trees were chosen for the cabin walls, the favorite being the yellow poplar, or tuliptree. Felled by axe, or scorched around the base the previous year and left to die, the trees were hauled to the building site by horse or mule. Logs for a round log building were laid up whole with saddle or "V" notches, but most of the Appalachian homes were constructed from logs that had been hewn by axe along two sides, thus removing the softer sapwood and reducing the weight. Cut to size they were laid up, and by chiseling half-dovetailed notches at the ends, they would lock securely together. Barns, corn cribs, and mills were made in similiar fashion with horizontally laid hand split boards, one or two stories high.

A foundation may have been built out of solid rock or a few flat stones serving as pillars to support the sill.  Hinges and hasps for doors were made from wood, as were the pegs that held the frames to the walls. The floor of the house was made with split logs, called puncheons, that lay upon sleepers notched to the sill. The first rooves were constructed by notching logs to stepped gables, but later rooves were constructed of whole or split log rafters and light lathing, then covered with split shingles. Soft woods like poplar, pine, and chestnut were used for the walls, joists and floors of the buildings, while harder woods like oak, hickory, maple and locust were used for fence posts, tools, and simple furniture. The pioneer buildings were constructed using wedges, mallets, and  mauls made from hardwood limbs of hickory and oak and axes and nails made of iron.

The chimneys and fireplaces were made of flat creek rock or field stone laid upon each other and chinked with red or yellow clay.   Occasionally an iron bar ran across the fireplace to hang pots and kettles, but generally stews, soups, and breads and cakes were prepared in Dutch ovens set directly on hot coals in the fireplace. Potatoes, corn, and nuts were roasted by burying them in ashes and then placing hot coals upon them. Meat was roasted using forked sticks propped over a bed of hot coals.

. . .Dress Meats

Soak the fish in hot water to loosen skin. Using a large nail, hammer its head to a log, tree, or 4x4. Slice the skin around its head and pull off using pliers. Cut off the head and gut the fish. Depending upon the size of the catfish either filet or cook whole.

Using a sharp knife cut from the anus just to the pectoral fins beneath the gills. Then cut a slit in the lower jaw through both sides and out towards the mouth. Using your thumb inserted into the slit, pull the gills, pectoral fins and entrails from the fish. Further clean the guts from the fish using the back of your thumb scraped along its backbone. Lightly coat the fish, head and all, in flour and corn meal and fry. When served you should pull the head backwards removing head, backbone, most of the small bones, and tail. You may use this technique for panfish as well. Just remember to scale ‘em first!

Wring the chicken’s neck, defeather, and singe the hairs off by holding over a flame of burning paper or candle. Enlarge the anus with your knife and, using your hand, remove the guts. Cut into quarters for frying or leave whole for broiling.

Hang and cut the hog’s jugular to drain blood. Scald hairs off in boiling water and scrape with knife. Gut the hog and cut off its head. Slice the sides for bacon, and chisel the ribs off the back bone using a hatchet and hammer. Cut the remainder into hams, shoulders, loins, and backbones (for chops). The head or "souse" is prepared after cutting off and saving the ears, jowls, snout, and tongue. First, cut out the eyes, then halve and quarter the head with an axe, removing the brain. Put the meat into a pot to soak overnight. After soaking, rinse and put the quartered pieces into a pot of salty water and cook slowly until the meat begins to fall off the bones. Season with sage and black pepper and fry on a skillet until runny. Place a plate on top and squeeze out the rest of the grease. Pour off the grease and put the meat on a plate and refrigerate. Slice and serve hot or cold. The jowls should be fried. For tongue, the hairs are removed with boiling water then scraped. Boil until tender, slice and serve hot. The snout is cleaned and roasted. The brains are "skinned" in boiling water, then seasoned with salt and pepper. Mash ‘em up and scramble with eggs. The ears are boiled in salt water and eaten alone or used in the souse. Chitlins are the intestines of the hog dipped into batter and fried. The feet can be roasted, boiled or pickled. Sausage is made from the lean meat of hams and shoulders. The meat is ground with salt, pepper, sage, and brown sugar and fried until browned. Pack the mixture into the intestines or a cloth sack and refrigerate or smoke.

. . .Make Moonshine

Making Moonshine

The art of making ‘shine was by no means an easy chore. It was hard work and only became profitable after prohibition and, to a larger extent, during the nineteen sixties after state liquor taxes drove the price of whiskey to new all time highs and redesigned stills made higher yields. The ol’ timey still was crafted from copper sheets used sparingly due to the cost. The furnace was constructed from natural stone and chinked with red clay. The construction of the still was exacting -- there could be no leaks between the top and bottom halves of the still, the flue should draw well and the cap should be airtight. The copper was molded using a wooden mallet and beaten against a tree stump. The pieces were fastened together with brads and soldered with tin.

Pure corn whiskey was made without sugar (later used to increase the yield). First, a bushel to a bushel-and-a-half of corn was soaked in warm water and allowed to sprout. During the summer the tub of corn and water could be left in the sun, during the winter the tub would need to be heated by fire. In either case, the corn needed to be stirred daily and would malt in about 5 days. Then another six or seven bushels of corn would be milled and cooked, first by boiling a half bushel of ground corn malt in the still, running it off into a barrel and adding a gallon of raw meal, filling six or seven barrels one-by-one. Water was added to the barrels until the mash was thinned. The barrels were capped and left for the night to ferment.

The next day the beer would be working. If some barrels didn’t take they would be mixed back and forth with others that did so that the entire yield of beer would be ready to run simultaneously. After five days, when the foamy cap on the beer had been eaten off by the alcohol, the beer was ready to be distilled. The beer was poured into the still, a fire was built in the rock furnace from ash, hickory, or oak and the mixture stirred. When the beer reached a rolling boil, the cap and cap arm were sealed on top of the still using a thick paste made from rye. The steam from the boiling beer was channeled through the cap arm to a copper "worm" inside of a barrel fed with spring water. The steam condensed and dripped into another barrel. Then the still was thoroughly cleaned and the "singlings" were boiled and distilled to make the final product. The yield would be about twelve gallons of proof whiskey.

There are a lot of "family" recipes for "shine". You'll find another on the "Recipes" page.

. . .Make Soap

Making Soap

"You put two pints and a'half a'water and one can lye - Red Devil Lye - in your pot. You got to stir it 'til this dissolves good; then you got t'add th' grease to it. Then after you add th' grease, you got t'stir it for twenty minutes."

"Lye's dissolved now. Grease, this is th' grease. You just have grease and th' lye. This is breakfast bacon grease. You can have anything.  I had a man th' other day offered to give me mutton tallow. You know - to make it out of. I think I'll take him up. I've always used hog grease myself - five or six pounds for this here."

"This is beginnin' t'get thick now. Looks a lot like chicken gravy don't it? I wish this's a'little darker because homemade soap's always dark. Well, this is homemade soap, but it's not like we used t'make it because we used t' drip th' lye." Lye Soap for Sale

"Can you wash your clothes in it?"

"Yeah, you can. Just take that, y'know, like we used to - we took our clothes and put our soap on 'em and rub'em and boil'em. People don't do that now. And I ain't afraid t'wash my hands in it!  That there lard kills th' lye."

"Why do you stir it so much?"

"It requires it. It wouldn't make if you didn't dissolve it good. You got t'get it thick like jelly, y'know. Y'can't leave jelly til it gets right."

At this point, she leaves the pot.  She'll stir it again in about half an hour, and then pour the thickened mixture into a shallow pan to harden overnight.  When hardened she'll cut it into smaller blocks for use.


A transcription of a recorded interview with Pearl Martin on soap making. Reprinted with permission from The Foxfire Book.

Foxfire is a national, nonprofit, education organization headquartered in Mountain City, Georgia.  For more information on the Foxfire organization and the Foxfire Series -- books on Appalachian traditions, folklore, and material culture -- please  visit their web site.

. . .Plant by the Signs

Through tradition many mountain folk accept the signs as the proper way to plant and harvest their crops. Based upon the ancient astronomers' recognition of the Zodiac, the twelve signs come around every 28 days and are divided into elements: fire, earth, air, and water; and body parts: head, neck, breast, bowels, loins, knees, feet, legs, thighs, kidneys, heart, and arms. Using a calendar or almanac that delineates the days of the month by signs, a farmer would pick the series of days with the most favorable signs for planting or harvesting his crops. In addition, many believe that the best time to plant crops with yields above ground is while the moon is waxing, and plant those crops with yields below ground (root crops i.e. potatoes, radishes, peanuts, etc.) while the moon is waning. There are many other rules for planting, harvesting, plowing, transplanting, even cutting timber, romancing, hunting, cooking, or cutting your hair.

Following are the signs of the Zodiac and a few tips:

Good for cultivating the ground, planting beets and onions, and hunting. Bad for planting and transplanting other crops.
Good for all root crops and above ground crops, hunting and fishing.
Good for planting all crops, also for preserving jellies and pickles.
Best for planting above ground and root crops. Good for cooking and fishing.
Good for sports, romancing, job hunting, and hunting. Bad for planting or transplanting.
Good for trading. Bad for planting.
Good for planting above ground crops and flowering plants.
Best for flowers and above ground crops. Good for all other crops, fishing and hunting.
Good for hunting jobs, trading, baking and preserving. Bad for transplanting.
Best for root crops. Good for flowers and above ground crops.
Good for above ground crops, social events.
Good for planting and transplanting above ground crops, trees and shrubbery. Good for fishing and weaning babies and animals.

In addition to the astrological signs, highland folklore has it that there are proper lunar phases to plant and harvest the crops. A few of these are listed below. The moon is waxing (increasing) if its "horns" are pointing to the left (east), and waning (decreasing) if pointed to the right (west). If you're north of the equator and it's too cloudy to see the moon tonight, check out our "virtual moon".

Plant fruits, seed flowers, and vegetables that bear above the ground when the moon is waxing. That is, from the day after the moon is new to the day before the moon is full.

Plant flowering bulbs and vegetables that bear below the ground when the moon is waning. That is, from the day after the moon is full to the day before it is new again.

1st and 2nd Quarter (moon is waxing). Plant above ground yields. Do not plant on the day the moon is new, full or changing quarters. Graft trees just before the sap flows.

3rd and 4th Quarter (moon is waning). Plant crops that grow underground in the third quarter. A waning moon is good for harvesting most crops, canning and preserving vegetables and jams. Kill weeds and trees, turn the soil. Slaughter livestock in the 4th quarter before the new moon.

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