Pulling Wool Over Mama’s Eyes . . . a story by one o’the nine

The “one o’the nine” story feature of February 14 showed the common perception of seeing in hindsight how much better the old times/people were in the moral sense. It even suggested parents get less and less capable, generation after generation, of parenting the children they produce . This story illustrates how pulling the wool over–in this case Mama’s eyes–is an ages-old ability peculiar to most offspring regardless of the generation. The events in this story took place in the late 1930’s/early 1940’s, and were related in their “Looking Back” column in a local newspaper in Florida on October 18, 1986.


During the great depression years  of the 1930’s and early 1940’s, rural life in northern Florida was far from the conveniences of automation we enjoy today. I doubt that anyone in our family knew the meaning of automation at that time. Although there were no electric lights, microwave ovens, running water, or inside bathrooms, we improved from time to time to compensate for the lack of such conveniences and automation.

One of the many chores that had to be performed on the farm was milking the cows. We were self-sufficient in producing our own sweet “non-homogenized, non-pasturized milk, clabber, cream and butter.” I imagine that half the United States population today believes that milk magically appears in the grocery stores’ coolers all contained in wax cartons or plastic jugs. However, any country boy or girl that grew up through the depression on a farm in north Florida knows the art of extracting milk from a female bovine by hand is far from magic. It takes two strong wrists, a good squeeze, a lot of pull, and a stomach that isn’t sqeemish, to perform the milking chore.

This chore of cow milking was the responsibility of one of my older brothers and me. Milking was performed early in the morning before breakfast and departure for school during the school term, OR before breakfast and beginning a long day of peanut hoeing or cotton chopping during summer vacations. During the winter, after arising from a warm feather bed at 4:30 a.m., shivering and shaking until the reluctant fire in the fireplace could thaw the early morning chill, we had to shell four quarts of peanuts (to be used for seed in the spring), then my brother and I dutifully dispatched ourselves to the cow pen to do the milking.

Since we had no electric milkers, milk was extracted from the cow’s teats (udder) by hand. Mama, being a clean, sanitary-minded person, insisted we carry a bucket of warm water to the milking pen so it could be used for wasing the dirt and calf slobber from the cow’s teats before milking. After all, who wants calf slobber in their milk?

Well, you can imagine it didn’t take two improvising young country boys long to figure out how to cut down on milking time, and expedite the filling of the milk buckets. Instead of using all of the water for wasing the cow’s teats, we used as little as possible, then milked directly into the remaining water in the bucket. It didn’t take long to determine how much water could be left in the bucket for the end product to still look like milk. Wasn’t this a great idea? We thought it was. But Mama began to complain that she wasn’t getting any cream and the milk would only sour and wouldn’t clabber.

After the milk was extracted from the cow it was carried to the house where Mama would filter it through a small mesh strainer to separate the flies and/or other matter from the milk. The milk, after being strained, would be set on shelves in a screened “safe” for it to turn to clabber and the cream to rise to the top, which took about 12 or more hours.

When the cream rose to the top, Mama skimmed it off and put it into a holding jar until enough could be accumulated to churn butter. Mama noticed that very little cream was being accumulated, and the butter supply was running low, so she began to wonder aloud as to what the cause was. First she allowed that the cows must need salt. I knew there wasn’t enough salt in the world to increase the cream supply the way we were milking. Sure enough the salt didn’t improve the cream supply.

Soon Mama began questioning by brother and I as to whether we were stripping the teats to get the cream. It was her belief, and perhaps rightly so, that the first milk had little cream and the last, or strippings, is where the cream was. My brother and I, being a little less than truthful, avowed that we were properly stripping for cream. Mama was a trusting soul and believed us. She mused that perhaps those cows were not the best milk cows; perhaps Jersey cows would produce more cream. Our family was perhaps one of the first to have access to low-fat milk unknowingly.

Just how long this continued I don’t remember, but I do know that Mama never suspected her trusted boys would pull such a stunt. It was after we were all grown and out on our own, when we were reminising one day about things we had done as children, that Mama overheard our confessions and was amazed that we were smart enough to pull off something like this without her knowledge. Mama, being next to an angel, had a big laugh about the cows needing salt, and I believe she was kinda proud that her sons were ingenious enough to improvise and get out of work.

Postscript: Since I believe this story says everything that needs to be said, and in the interest of keeping this already long post a little shorter, I will only add that “clabber,”  for those of you who didn’t grow up in the South, is simply a sour, thick, curdled milk that I can only compare to yogurt. We used it in many ways, but my favorite way to eat it was pouring some into a dish and stirring a good swirl of cane syrup into it for sweetening. Come to think of it, it really does seem like a country style yogurt. 

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