Versatile rye favored by early settlers

A phrase to best describe the cultivars found in the early pioneer clearings here in the New Hanover region would be “a little of everything.” Many of the plants and crops are virtually unknown today. For example almost every enclosed kitchen garden held medicinal herbs and a hop vine for bread yeast. Most every plantation had a large orchard where, in the 19th century, apple varieties with great names like northern spy, Baldwin, summer rambo, Chenango strawberry and others were cultivated. And the fields held crops rare today such as flax, spelt, and rye. Of these early field crops, rye was unique in that it provided multiple important products including rye flour, rye straw, and whiskey.

Every Germanic house had a bake oven, sometimes called a beehive oven for the rounded domed interior, that was weekly filled with round loaves of rye bread. The immigrants were used to rye bread rather than wheat loaves; it was the daily bread of the homeland. According to the Goschenhoppen Intelligencer 1980, “The wheaten loaf was reserved for special occasions, rye bread being the foodstuff of everyday fare.” Often mentioned in these columns, wheat was the money crop and was usually sold; but some was eaten on the homestead in the form of flour for pies and baking. Additionally, for bread baking, rye flour needs a percentage of wheat flour or the dough would not rise.

In cool weather the sponge, the first mixing of the various ingredients with yeast, was done the evening before bake day. But in warm weather rye tended to ferment quickly, so the first mixing and rising was done early on bake day. The farm wife would have on hand as many as 15 or 20 round, rye straw baskets into which she would put a linen cloth and then a quantity of the active dough. As the dough went through the second rising it filled out the basket and hence she had round loaves.

After a good fire had heated the interior bricks of the bake oven she scraped the remaining embers and ashes out and tested the temperature. She wanted 425 degrees which she judged by seeing if a bit of paper would brown but not burn; or if chicken feathers would curl up; or she just stuck her arm in to see if it felt right. The raised bread dough would be transferred from the basket to a peel for insertion into the oven, and along with whatever pies and custards for the week carefully placed in the bake oven and the door closed. “They were left to bake to a crusty loaf, hearty and flavorful, the likes of which is seldom encountered today.” The typical bake oven could accommodate 15 or 20 loaves.

In addition to bread flour, the rye plant produced a chest-high round stalk that had multiple uses. Rye straw was a unique grain straw in that it grew tall and the fiber was almost pure cellulose which made it resistant to decay and it had qualities that mice disliked.

Very early on, the straw was used in Goschenhoppen and beyond for roof thatching. In the early 18th century, indications are that thatched roofs were more the rule than the exception in buildings that did not have fireplaces. The advantages of thatch were that they had the rye straw on hand anyway, so they could avoid the labor of splitting red oak slabs for shingles and smoothing them with a draw knife. Too, thatch bundles were simply tied on to the laths between the rafters, so unlike shingles they didn’t require expensive, blacksmith made nails. Roof thatching was discontinued; but during the 18th and 19th centuries rye straw was universally made into various baskets.

Stroh karreb—straw baskets—were the common, light duty containers of the typical farmstead. In addition to the ubiquitous bread basket, straw baskets could be given a cloth liner and become sewing baskets, or they held rag balls, spinning or weaving supplies---anything dry and light that needed a container. They usually had no handles and were too delicate for garden or field work. The sturdier, split oak or willow field baskets filled in there. Tall lidded rye straw baskets were also used as dry storage for foods such as schnitz or dried beans. Something about the rye straw—splintery fibers or disagreeable taste—discouraged rats and mice.

A rye straw basket is made of one long coil of rye straw bound with very thin strips of tough, white oak. In the spring a white oak tree was cut to about a six foot length and split into thin pieces that could be delaminated at the growth rings producing flexible strips that could, if needed, be further smoothed and thinned with a draw knife on a schnitzel bank or wood shaving bench. These strips were quite thin and about a quarter inch wide. The straw was soaked and worked wet as was the wood. The basket coil was started in the center bottom as the bundle of rye straw was wrapped round and bound with the oak strips. The coil being worked on was laced with the strips to the coil below which is what gave the basket form and strength. At the top rim the coil was almost completely wrapped with strips for strength. A well made rye straw bread basket would last a lifetime.

Round, dome shaped bee skeps were also made of rye straw. It was thought that the rye discouraged mice from gnawing into the hive which they tended to do. Additionally the rye straw was said to be warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. A lattice of cross sticks was constructed inside for the bees to build comb upon.

Finally, it must be admitted that there was a remarkable quantity of rye whiskey drunk in the German regions (as well as all other regions for that matter). There was no moral or religious sentiment against it and the whole family, men women and children, partook. About eleven quarts of the fiery liquid could be made from a bushel of rye, and a considerable portion of the rye production went toward whiskey. It was thought that it would be impossible to get the harvest in unless the harvest men were liberally supplied with whiskey from early morning on. Whether scything hay or cradling grain, the common practice was to cut a circuit around the field and then get a reward of a draught of whiskey. Reports say in jest that in some cases by noon half the workforce was incapacitated and lying on the ground and the other half was engaged in dragging them into the shade! Farm production of whiskey dwindled and ceased by 1850 because of taxing and legal prohibitions.

Another reason for rye’s popularity in the early 19th century was that wheat was plagued by a parasite called Hessian fly which laid eggs in the stem and the larva destroyed the stalk. Before 1840 though a Mediterranean variety of wheat that was Hessian fly resistant was introduced and wheat production again climbed as rye declined. Still, in 1848 in Berks county there were 19,410 acres of rye grown as compared to 17,400 of wheat, 17,200 of corn and 15,700 of oats. Much of the rye was marketed as whiskey.

There were all sorts of other uses for rye straw. It was a universal tie for corn and flax shocks, was used as a sieve when pressing cider, and when cut into short lengths filled mattresses and pillows. Nut trees were marked with a straw band tied around them indicating that the fruit of that tree was claimed by the property owner; nuts of unmarked trees were free for the taking. It was put down as under-padding for carpets. It could be traded at the local inn for bedding in exchange for the inn’s manure. It was the stuffing of horse collars. It was mixed with clay and was used as insulating or paling between the cellar and first floor of houses. It made good strawberry mulch, and so on. Finally, as pictured in the book Farming Always Farming, it also made a very long drinking straw which could be conveniently inserted in the bung hole of a cider or whiskey barrel.

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