If your toes are crooked, pointing inward or out, you probably spent too many nights at Grandma's house in cold weather sleeping under five layers of heavy quilts - enough weight to nearly crush young feet! When fall came around each year, Grandma 'aired out' the feather mattresses used to keep out the cold air. Then she replaced the mattress on the bedframe, and added flannel sheets and at least five layers of heavy, homemade quilts.
With the bed ready for winter, Grandma focused on the drafty house. She used table knives to stuff rags around the windows and window frames on the north wall, and covered wall cracks with newspapers tacked to the wood - to no avail. Even after hours of effort, curtains waved whenever the north wind blew. Worst of all, in spite of Grandma's ingenious preparations, snow often found its way inside during blizzards and had to be swept up the next morning.
No matter how cold the temperature, my brother and I slept warm and well because we wore long-handles, socks, knit caps and took advantage of the heated brick placed at our feet. To top it off, we buried our heads in blankets and left only a tiny hole to breathe through. As we snuggled into the bed for warmth, we sunk deeper into the feather mattress. While it was certainly warm, the soft mattress and the layers of quilts made it nearly impossible to turn over. More than that, the heavy quilts painfully pinned our toes at odd angles if we slept on our backs. Only by lifting the covers with our knees and elbows could room be made to turn over in the bed. If by chance we caught a cold or a cough, we were accused of 'sleeping too close to the crack.'
At night, we undressed around the wood stove in the living room and then sprinted to the bed, crawled inside and burrowed into the covers -all in 10 seconds flat. In the morning, it took only about 3 seconds to leap from the warm bed and reach the roaring fire Grandpa had built in the potbellied stove we loved so well.
Grandma emptied the water bucket - which always sat on the cabinet -into the coffee pot and teakettle each night. The next morning, the wood stove quickly melted the ice in both, which Grandma used for cooking and making coffee. Grandma and Grandpa made a great cold-fighting team.
During the winter months, the back of the wood cook stove held a row of shiny red bricks. At bedtime, we wrapped old rags or towels around the hot bricks and placed one at the foot of each person in the bed. The heated bricks stayed warm for at least 2 hours, and by then we were fast asleep.
Insulation as we know it today hadn't been invented, and what prefabricated insulation existed was too expensive for most farm families to buy. I remember stacking feed bundles on the north side of the house to block the wind. After snow fell, we even shoveled the white stuff against the outside walls to stifle the wind's howl. The combination of cold weather cures wasn't perfect, but like all rural folks, we did everything we could to keep out the cold. Back inside, with kerosene lamps and glowing-red wood stoves, we were warm and cozy as bugs in a rug.
Naturally, cold weather affected the entire farm, not just the household, and it required extra attention. We wrapped gunnysacks around the water pipe at the windmill, and the chicken water was heated to prevent freezing. We chopped ice holes in the stock water tanks each morning and evening so the cattle and horses could drink freely. As we huddled inside whenever possible, livestock took shelter in barns, sheds or behind windbreaks, and were fed daily from feed stacks hauled earlier in the fall.
Everyone dressed warm before going outside, but mostly we all 'holed up' during blizzards and waited for the storms to subside. The waiting game for spring could be monotonous, but the long months of cold weather forced our family to pull together, telling stories and sharing good company as we fought the freeze. That closeness was difficult to come by the rest of the year, and something worth cherishing. Today, I've still got warm memories of those cold days.
- Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org