A Paring Bee on Jackson Run
Old Time Tales of Warren County


A Paring Bee On Jackson Run

When the apple orchards set out by thrifty Warren County pioneers began to bear considerable fruit along about 1840 the paring bee became a more and more popular social gathering at the farm homes. For all of seventy years the custom of neighborly gatherings for the paring, cutting up and stringing of apples, continued to be popular. Even within the past twenty-five years numerous paring bees have been held at farm houses, and even now, when these gatherings are supposed to have disappeared, parties are still held here and there where apple peeling and cutting is done by all the guests before the dancing or games of the evening are begun.

In the years between 1850 and -70 the popularity of the paring bee reached its height. Apple cutting and drying was a regular part of the fall work then, there was no home without its long strings of dried apples hanging in garret or loft, for the making of sauce, puddings and pies during the long days of winter.

When the corn had been husked and the fodder hauled into the barn, when the buckwheat was flailed and the green and yellow pumpkins brought in from the fields, when the potatoes were dug and stored in safe bins in the frost-proof cellar, when turnips and cabbage had been taken to the cellar or stored in straw-lined mounds in the field, when apples had been picked and all the fruits of the farm safely gathered and stored and a yellow October moon shone down on the cornstubble, the festive paring bees began and continued well into the winter. Many a country youth met the girl who later was his bride at a paring bee. For young and old came from miles around and girls visiting with friends or relatives would always "stay over" to attend a big paring bee, where fifty to a hundred people would be gathered for a good time.

In November of the year 1865, Bob Shaw held a paring bee, at his home a mile or two from Chandlers Valley, that is still fresh in the memories of a few men and women living in Warren County. Bob was known as a generous entertainer, everyone knew there would be a royal good supper served at the Shaw place when the apples were pared and cut and strung. An invitation in the rural districts of Warren County in 1865 was a general invitation, everybody was invited. There were no cards, maybe it was announced in the singing school, or a notice put up at the store. But usually the word was just passed around and that meant a general invitation. Folks heard a sugar party or a corn husking or a dance was to be held at some neighboring home, and knew they'd be expected. Clothes were not so very important. Of course the girl with a new Paisley shawl might attract considerable attention, or the young man just back from Pittsburgh or Buffalo, with a new suit of store clothes, might catch the eyes of the girls. But many a beauty came in calico and more than one handsome lad saw nothing out of place in appearing at the party in his butternut jeans, suspenders and a blue shirt.

The earliest oil lamp was just beginning to be a dubious novelty in farm houses of this region, that November evening when all the countryside 'round about Chandler's Valley, gathered for a paring bee at the hospitable farm home of Bob Shaw. Many a cow was milked early that day, many a horse had his evening corn and a good bed of straw an hour before the usual time. The inexorable farm chores were finished with dispatch, the wood stove in the kitchen was filled with fuel, the draft shut so it would burn slowly and the whole family set out afoot for the paring bee. From miles around they came, nearly all of them walking. Grandma Baker from near Sugar Grove was brought down in the farm wagon behind a team of oxen. A great, soft moon hung over the hills, rabbits were hopping in the shorn fields, and in the deep shadow of hemlocks hoot owls called. There was one new oil lamp in the Shaw home, a proud possession recently purchased in Warren. It stood lighted in the center of the table in the middle room, an emblem of brighter evenings for the farmers of Warren County. Cautious mothers kept their children at a safe distance from the lamp. Old Mrs. Bartlett declared oil lamps might be brighter, but she'd stick to her candles, because, so far as she knew, a candle never blew up and killed anyone. The kitchen was illuminated with candles, a half dozen of them, long, slender, molded tallow candles, the last advance in lighting before the oil lamp.

Every road and path seemed full of people coming to the paring bee. From a distance, carried on the soft night air, came sounds of voices, laughter. On a woods path leading down the hillside, showed the faint spark of a lantern, a candle-lantern, carried by some coming guest who had to travel a dense woodland trail where the friendly moonlight could not penetrate.

On the bare board floor of the farm house, the apples were piled in two pyramids, bushels and bushels of red-streaked spies, ruddy baldwins, juicy bellflowers, greenings and yellow-coated russets. Four large tubs stood empty on the floor, ready to hold the cut apples. As the guests arrived they took seats on low benches made by laying a stout plank from one stool to another. They sat in squared circles, each group with a tub in its center. The guests had brought their own knives, no farm house could reasonably be supposed to boast a hundred or more paring knives, and all fell to work with a will, rapidly paring the apples, coring, then snipping them into eighths, or smaller. Men and women, young men and girls worked side by side, catching up the smooth, round apples, slipping them 'round and 'round, fetching off the skin in a long, curving strip, deftly turning out the core, cutting them quickly into pieces and pitching the handful into the tub. When someone brought off the entire peel of an apple without breaking the strip, he flung the peel three times 'round his shoulder and onto the floor. The letter-shape it fell in, told the initial of his true love. "Elmer Woodin threw an L, Elmer loves Lucy,-Elmer's goin' to marry Lucy Young," and they'd keep it up till somebody else brought off a peeling whole and cast an initial on the floor.

It was the boys' job to keep the parers supplied with apples from the heaps on the floor, no use a parer losing time by getting up for more apples. The boys shoved the fruit toward the workers with splint brooms, or pushed them with their feet, what matter, the apples were all going to be peeled.

There was a lot of love making among the young folks, social gatherings did not occur every night and must be made the most of. In kitchen corners where the dim candle light left soft shadows arms were slipped around waists. Couples who were "keeping company" sat and pared apples together, raced with other couples to see which could first empty a tall pail.

Rapidly the wooden tubs were filling with apple slices, "They'll be heaped up, pressed down and runnin' over agin' ten o'clock," laughed Bob Shaw, moving around among his guests with a huge pail of cider and a dipper, "never see a parin' bee where folks made sech good time."

As the evening wore on with the crowded farm house full of high talk and laughter, the broad topped wood stove in the kitchen began to fill the place with fragrant odors. After the paring there was to be a candy pull, five gallons of yellow New Orleans molasses was bubbling in a big iron pot, that sent its steamy sweetness everywhere. Women in aprons hovered over the candy pot, tested the cooking molasses as it gradually boiled down. As the tubs of sliced apples filled to their brim "stringing" began at once. Men and women commenced stringing the slices on white cotton strings three to five feet long. A darning needle pierced the apple slice which was slipped along to the other end of the string, where the first piece was fastened with a half-hitch. When the string was filled the needle was slipped off, the two ends brought together and tied. More than one young chap tossed his necklace of apples over his sweetheart's head.

The strings of apples were then hung over long poles and the poles, when filled, hung from the kitchen rafters above or near the stove. There they would hang for weeks, till thoroughly dried, when the apples would be taken down, slipped off the strings and put in sacks.

Then the cotton strings would be thriftily rolled into a ball for an apple paring another year.

The Mason jar and the can were still years away from the Warren County farmwife in 1865. Apples, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, wild black cherries were dried over the kitchen stove or above the fireplace. When the good wife wanted a dish of "sauce" in winter months, she went to a cloth sack in the garret and dipped out a pint of dried blackberries. Those who know well the flavor of this dried fruit, say it was much su-' perior to that of canned fruit.

At eleven o'clock the last nimble darning needle had been poked through its apple slice at Bob Shaw's paring bee, the last string tied in a loop and hung on its pole. The whole kitchen ceiling was now a forest of drying apples, already turned brown. Tubs full of parings had been swept up and carried out to the hog pens. And now the big kettle of boiling molasses candy was lifted from the stove and the fun of taffy pulling began.

Mrs. Bob Shaw was noted as a candy maker, it was said she never made a failure. Under her supervision several thick strands of yellow taffy soon were being pulled on wooden pegs fastened to the plank walls of the kitchen, the sweet smell of hot candy pervaded all the premises. It was a very great night for all concerned. New Orleans molasses was both a novelty and luxury in the year 1865. There were excited small boys present at the Shaw farm who never in their lives had seen candy made from real New Orleans molasses. Maple sugar they had a plenty, but what is maple sugar, or anything else, if you have it every day.

After what seemed an age of time to the expectant small boys, and a very short time to their elders, who had been busy "visitin'," the pale yellow candy, pulled and cooled and broken in pieces was passed 'round on large platters. Till well past midnight the guests, loath to leave the company of one another, lingered at the Shaw farm. The lives of rural residents in 1865 were brightened with none too many social events, all were hungry for human contacts, the news of the neighborhood.

At a late hour when the paring bee finally broke up, the small boys had enjoyed a fine supply of molasses candy, men and women were well supplied with sociability, and a little later on Bob Shaw would certainly be well supplied with dried apples.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 281-287: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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