A few weekends ago, while scanning the 'boob tube' for a mental relaxant, I turned to a rerun of the Lawrence Whelk Show. They were playing a nostalgic song about 'hollering down rain barrels and sliding down cellar doors,' which took me back to those long-ago days of my youth, growing up on the banks of old Muddy Creek.
We had a rain barrel and yes, we hollered into it, reveling in the reverberations of our voices. We slid down the cellar door, and yes, we occasionally got splinters in our pants.
Because few of the homes along Muddy Creek had wells with good drinking water, residents had to stock a supply of rainwater to meet their families' needs.
Rainwater, caught and stored in barrels, was the only source of 'soft water' that Mama and her sisters had. Quite often in our neighborhood, its overflow was directed into deep and voluminous cisterns.
The rain barrel stood at the corner of the back porch with two 10-foot boards nailed into a 'V' trough to direct the runoff rainwater from the porch roof into its dark cavity. In those days, most roofs were covered with overlapping, moss-covered 'shake' shingles, split from wood grown nearby.
The water caught from the different roofs had distinctive flavors, and making coffee greatly brought those flavors out. I remember well how Dolly Pepple complained when she had a new cedar roof put on her house and found the wood gave a very unpleasant flavor to the runoff.
Most any barrel would work, but our neighbor Charley Wagner claimed he found discarded whiskey barrels from the Vincennes brewery the most durable. On the other hand, Cleve Bowen claimed Charley seemed to 'go through a heap of barrels in a summer.'
These handmade oak barrels were used for aging the fine whiskey the Vincennes firm produced, and it was thought the wood soaked up enough whiskey to give the barrel a special flavor.
I never knew where Dad got the 55-gallon oak barrels he used for apple cider vinegar and then recycled as rain barrels, but I do remember Uncle Walter making trips to Vincennes at apple-picking time, returning with fresh cider barrels, which he washed out well before using.
Often in the hot August drought, the empty barrels would dry out so much the staves would shrink and the hoops would slip down, causing the barrels to collapse. The staves then would be recycled again, this time for hog lot fence repairs or sled runners and makeshift skis, which were used for wintertime sliding down cellar doors.
The cellar door was another 'modern' addition to home construction along Muddy Creek. Floor space in the house always was at a premium, so it was logical and certainly cheaper to have a simple set of steps to the outside cellar, protected by a sloping, lip-like door.
Knowing the ways of children, it is a sure bet that after the first-ever cellar door was installed, some child found it made a great sliding board. Unnumbered denim overall seats and flour sack panties have been exposed to splinters and slivers over the years as their wearers slid down the nation's cellar doors.
We had a cellar door on Muddy Creek, and yes, I slid down it. But because the steps were so long, the slope was not steep enough to garner much speed, unless the door was snowy or icy.
Ice formed when the eaves clogged and overflowed; then, the Christmas-bought Flexible Flyer sled could be given a workout. Getting it to the top of the door was the difficult part, but once there, the steel runners slid over the ice with enough impetus to coast 50 feet out into the backyard, provided the snow was well packed.
Some folks yearn for the old days, but believe me: the 'new' Flexible Flyer was a distinct improvement over our home made barrel-stave coaster sleds.
- The late Perry Piper was a newspaper columnist in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.