Our family tree has a Quaker branch. My Gr-gr-great grandmother, Margaret Currie Walker, was born and raised in Chester Valley, Pennsylvania in a family of lapsed Quakers who still held to plain speech and dress even though, in a previous generation, an ancestor had been dismissed from Meeting for marrying out of the faith "contrary to the usage of Friends."
Margaret Walker married a railroad builder from old New England stock, but in later years her children and grandchildren returned to the Valley to visit their country cousins and enjoy the famous hospitality of their farms.
Late in life, her grand-daughter (my Great grandmother) Margaret Stearns (Olmsted) Ogden set down her memories of her Quaker relatives and of trips to the country when a young girl in the 1880s. To a city dweller from Elizabeth, New Jersey, the places she explored in Chester Valley "made an unforgettable impression on a little girl, long ago." Here is her evocative description of the farm, and especially the spring house, of her Uncle Mat Walker:
"The house was built by Enoch Walker about 1727. It was added to through the years and was a comfortable rambling house of many rooms for the large families of the Walker family. The place was called "Rehoboth Spring" for the many springs on the farm...There were apple trees close by the house, and elms and evergreens sheltered the comfortable piazza across the front. I wonder if the babbling brook still winds its way in the fields back of the house. I remember the smell of the fragrant mint that grew along its banks. It was the first time I had ever seen mint, and in a wet spot along the brookside I saw my first snake's head lily. It was an enchanting place - and Oh the spring house close by. It was built of stone (doubtless from the quarry nearby which provided the stone for Rehoboth and the other houses.) Inside it was cool and dark. Set in the shallow stream fed by the spring that ran by the sides of the spring house were large shining pans of milk on which the thick golden cream was rising. There were also bowls of cottage cheese and a pan of corn meal mush to be cut and fried as needed."
The farms themselves were magical places for a little girl to explore, and her country relatives appear to have enjoyed sharing them with the little nieces and nephews from the city:
"Uncle Charlie used to carry us around on his back to the brook to find frogs and tadpoles, or to gather eggs, or to watch old Isy, the colored man of all work whose real name was Isaiah, milk the cows. I used to like the hot milk from the cows with the good cottage cheese, and every day Uncle Charlie brought in a squab 'for little Madge.' I enjoyed those squabs until I learned they were some of the pretty pigeons that cooed in the loft in the barn - then I refused to eat one - but in later years I ate with relish some of Aunt Bec's delicious 'pigeon pie.'"
Memories of food in my Great-grandmother's narrative are inseparable from memories of family.
My father used to like telling a story of an early visit to Willow Grove [another family farm in the Valley - Ed.]. Uncle Tom took him aside and asked; 'William, dost thee ever imbibe?' They had a drink and it was not cider - both Tom and Matt Walker were famous for the cider and their apples."
By far the greatest table was laid by Aunt Bec Massey in which the best Pennsylvania farm fare set the tables to groaning.
"It was always a family gathering and Aunt Rebecca's meals were famous. A huge table literally covered with food. Individual tastes were considered and there were many 'favorite dishes.' Always chicken and ham or pork - platters of homemade sausage with fried apples, rich croquettes, fried mush, applesauce, baked Pennsylvania Dutch cheese, various pickles and jellies, great piles of home-made bread, hot biscuits - both of these so good with the pats of freshly churned butter each pat marked with a sheaf of wheat. Then there would be cold-slaw, boiled onions and other vegetables. The dessert was always pies - apple and cherry and blackberry or some first fruit put up in its abundance. With the pie we had cheese and steaming coffee.
Never was there such a meal. Aunt Rebbecca was a wonderful cook. I have her recipe for scrapple, often made by my grandmother, too, but no one could make it taste like Aunt Bec. The guests gathered by noon or before, often driving many miles -there were no automobiles then - and dinner was served about one. Then came a rest for the elders. I have seen them snoozing in their chairs or on the stiff sofas while the younger ones wandered out doors. Next there was a spirited game of 5 handed euchre or work bags were opened with patchwork or knitting and much family gossip was enjoyed. Before leaving pitchers of cider with cinnamon buns were brought in, or tea and thin slices of spiced cake, a sort of glorified gingerbread. Those were days to remember. No one wanted supper after a visit to Aunt Rebbecca."
Such feasting, marvelously described, puts the conventional Thanksgiving dinner to shame. And what a record she leaves of a time when, at least when visiting the family in the Valley, the land really did seem to flow with milk and honey!