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Wash Day

Not so many years ago families in Scott County, Tennessee did not have the luxuries we take for granted today. Wash day was an all day event for my Grandma Ethel Willoughby. She and Grandpa "Bruce" Willoughby lived in the Black Creek community. Raising their family in the 1920's and 30' consisted of much harder work than parents face today. Their home did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. Very few homes had these luxuries unless you lived in the towns of Scott County. Clothes, bed coverings, towels and anything else had to be washed whether it was Summer or Winter. I have heard my mother tell how hard it was back then. I have also heard stories from older people when I was a young teenager in the early 1960's. This generation was use to hard work. The ways of doing chores like washing clothes was a normal routine for them. We have a normal routine today of loading the washer and just turning a knob to start the machine. Of course the difference is back then it was much harder work and a longer time than it is today.
Wash day on Black Creek started at daybreak. The thirty gallon cast iron kettle setting in the yard had to be filled with water at least half way. My grandparents had a well but they were more lucky than some families because they lived by a creek. A little geography for you is Black Creek is a tributary of Clear Fork River. The Clear Fork River and New River join's together to form the Big South Fork River in Scott County, Tennessee. Getting back to the chore of wash day water had to be carried from the creek to fill the wash kettle up. Everyone at home that could helped with this chore. They would carry two gallon water buckets back and forth from the creek until the iron kettle was full enough. Someone would start putting firewood under the kettle and then start the fire. Two large, galvanized wash tubs would be brought from the back porch where they had been stored there by hanging them on large nails. While the fire was heating the wash water more trips to the creek had to be made to fill both tubs. These tubs were for rinsing and would set on a sturdy bench close to the wash kettle. Grandma Willoughby was just about to start her washing.
All the clothes would be brought out into the yard to separate. All the whites would be put in a pile. This would be the first load to go into the wash kettle because you wanted the cleanest water for the whites. Colored clothes that were slightly soiled was in one pile and then there was a pile for the most dirty clothes which consisted mainly of work clothes and the boy's pants. There would be several loads to wash from each pile. For example in the pile of whites there would not only be clothes but bed sheets, pillow cases, table cloths, etc. Usually after filling the two rinse tubs and separating the clothes the water in the iron kettle would be boiling. Before store bought detergents were commonly used most farm families in rural Scott County made their own lye soap in the Fall of the year. Holding a cake of lye soap in one hand you would shave off some shavings with a knife into the boiling water. You would stir the water with a large stick, sometimes called the punching stick, until the soap was dissolved. You would put in your first load of whites into the boiling water and punch them down under the water with the stick and stir them back and forth and in a circular motion. You would do this stirring motion until you felt the clothes were clean. You would then lift them out with the stick and placed the clothes into the first tub of rinse water. Before you put your next load of clothes into the wash kettle you may need to shave off a little more of the lye soap. Once you have added the clothes to the boiling water you would go back to the rinse tub. There you would pull the clothes partly out of the water and push them back in doing this several times to rinse the soap out. You would then moved them to the second tub of water for the final rinse. One important note about the first tub of rinse water. If any of the clothes had stains or heavy soiled area's that did not come out while they were in the wash kettle you would bring out the "wash board" also called the scrub board. I remember these wash boards very well when I was a child because they were still in use. You would place the wash board into the first tub of rinse water with it leaning up against the side of the tub. The clothes that did not come clean in the iron kettle you would rub the cake of lye soap over the stains and then you would scrub that area up and down on the ridges of the scrub board until the stain was gone. This would be very hard on the fingers especially when you had to use the wash board on all the work clothes and many of the other clothes. You would continue this routine until all the piles of clothes were washed. You never changed the water except sometimes the second tub of rinse water would be poured out and more would be carried from the creek.
As each load of clothes came through the second tub of rinse water you would ring out the water by hand. All families had clothes lines. The clothes lines were either rope or wire tied to one tree and stretch and tied to another tree. Small trees were cut down and the limbs and bark removed. Using a knife a notch was made at one end of the pole. The other end was sharpened into a point. These were referred to as clothes line poles. You would hang the wet clothes on the clothes line. When the clothes on the lines started to touch the ground you would place the clothes line into the notch at the end of the pole and lift upward and then stick the sharp point of the pole into the ground. This was a sure way of keeping your clean, wet clothes off the ground. There was never enough room on the clothes lines and people would place their wet clothes to dry anywhere they could. They would hang them on fence post, sturdy bushes in the yard, porch railings and anywhere else they could find. Wash day in the winter was the worst. Most of the time it was still done outside just like I have written about. When the temperature's fell to dangerous levels the two rinse tubs were brought into the kitchen. Water was heated on the wood cook stove but not to boiling. One tub was filled with the hot water and the other one with cold water. The cake of lye soap and the old scrub board was brought out and the scrubbing would begin. Some clothes were still hung outside to dry while some would hang on make shift clothes lines in the kitchen.
Whether it would be summertime or winter the clothes had to be ironed after they were washed and dried. The old ironing board was set up close to the wood stove in the kitchen. Most families including my Grandma Willoughby had two or three stove irons. These irons were made of solid cast iron and they would weigh from about two pounds to five pounds. Each iron had an iron handle. You would place your irons on top of the wood stove to heat up. When the iron was hot enough you would iron as much as you could until the iron started cooling down. You would place it back on the wood stove and pick up the next stove iron and iron some more. This was repeated until all the clothes were ironed. Back then everything was ironed including all bed sheets and pillow cases. I understand why my Grandma Willoughby and others from her generation and their parents would set aside a full day to do the washing. It was very common on wash day for the family to only have pinto beans and a pone of corn bread for supper.
Money for some people back then was very hard to come by. I have heard many stories about my Grandma Willouhgby taking in laundry from a few families that lived in the town of Robbins. She would do this to help make ends meet for her family. I have heard my mother and others say that Grandma would walk to Robbins before daylight from Black Creek. The round trip would be a few miles. She would do laundry for one family at a time. They say she would carry a huge load of clothes tied up in a sheet and thrown over her shoulder from Robbins to her home on Black Creek. She would wash and iron the clothes and fold them neatly. They would be placed neatly into a sheet and tied. She would carry them back to the family in Robbins at the end of the day. Mom said as she and her siblings became older they would help their mother with this job.
Times were very hard for families back then in rural Scott County, Tennessee. Like many others I am very proud of my ancestors that came many, many years ago to settle on land that we call Scott County today. Their ability, drive and desire to work hard in order to survive in a very difficult time and harsh environment to support their families. We thank you!

Dan Gibson, author
Copyright 2003


This is one of several types of wash boards and sometimes called a scrub board.

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