Cast iron cookware seems everywhere at the moment, although only skillets and frying pans and not the large pots, bake – ovens1 (aka Dutch Ovens) and utensils once common in households. Cast iron cookware retains heat wonderfully, and provided it is properly seasoned is non stick2! Although the newly manufactured variety come pre-seasoned, many people choose vintage cast-iron cookware. Yes, cast iron cookware is durable too.
My Dad and his brother’s learned early to cook, or at least sustain themselves with minimal parental intervention. After my Grandmother Florence died, Grandfather did not remarry despite having 6 young sons to raise. Grandfather Tully was a woodsmen, a teamster with a knack for getting the best from horses. His gentle and quiet style earned him high respect from both man and beast but delivered little in the way of monetary benefit. Most Logging industry Walking Bosses, the successful ones at least, understood good horses and teamsters, were as important as a good cook to a logging operation. That knowledge did not however translate in to high wages for either teamsters or cooks, especially in central New Brunswick of the 1930s.
When Betsey and her husband Jeremiah Lyon moved to what would become Carrolls Crossing, Northumberland County, New Brunswick she brought her kitchen furniture with her. The move which ended more than 30 years of displacement for her family3, solidified their dependance on the region’s natural resources, particularly timber.
Betsey’s first Miramichi home was humble, made of freshly felled trees and boasting at most a window, door and fireplace. It took a variety of implements, fire irons, utensils, pots and Dutch ovens (aka bake ovens) and lots of know how for Betsey to produce food for her family. Some of the cast iron Betsey depended upon, she might have inherited, since it was common for kitchen ‘movables’ to be included in wills during the colonial period.
By 1809, Betsey’s family had already begun to dabble in the timber industry, harvesting and selling timber, as well as buying and selling timber land, but they did not ignore the other resources the land provided. Food was both foraged and grown, Betsey’s table included fish, game, wild fruits and greens from the natural environment along with buckwheat, oats, barley and potatoes from the land they cleared and farmed.
Trade in timber was not the family’s only industry either. When a natural sand stone quarry was discovered on their son Daniel’s adjoining property, they became stone cutters as well as timber harvesters and bosses. For Betsey cash income helped build a permanent wood frame home in a familiar Colonial style, equipped with two fireplaces4. It also meant Betsey was able to purchase familiar food stuffs including spices5 to add variety to their largely monotonous diet.
Despite the remoteness of Betsey’s home in Carrolls, ‘industry’ inserted traders and merchants in to the mix, and gave her access to products from all over the world, all be it limited access. Sugar and molasses from the West Indies, rum and corn meal from the United States, indigo from Spain, spices like mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, from the Spice Islands, ginger from South East Asia, were all available provided she had cash (or could arrange credit). Of course access was limited, once or twice a year at most, with cash in hand Jeremiah and their sons would make a trip to the trading centers at the mouth of the river, or to the capital Fredericton to collect supplies for the family.
For much of the year the absence of roads thru the dense forest meant several days journey, by canoe and portage. In spring however things changed, the melting snow and resulting rise in water levels made the Miramichi river system navigable. The Timber which they had cut and yarded was ‘driven’ down river to the port and awaiting ships. The log drive provided opportunity to pick up a bit of spice which could be tucked in to a pocket for the trip home, but only as money or credit allowed.
Betsey used her stash of spices, dried fruits, wheat flour and other value ingredients to maximum effect, carefully assuring a reserve for the Christmas celebration. In colonial New Brunswick, there was neither the tradition nor capacity for lavish celebrations even at Christmas. The one exception was food, foods too ‘dear’ for daily consumption, were used to make the Christmas season.
What Betsey prepared depended upon what she had available, but it had also to be manageable over a fire. Feast food like pies and cakes required Betsey to use her Dutch Oven (aka bakeoven). The lidded cast iron pot with legs was large enough to accommodate a second pot or pan. Betsey would strategically place the bake oven in to the fire, using the additional insulation it provided the smaller vessel which contained a pie, tart or a cake, to create an oven effect. Betsey’s supplies might well extend to treats like blueberry pie(reconstituted) and mincemeat tarts, but only after the Christmas pudding6 was complete. For plum pudding Betsey’s dutch oven was used as a steam bath, filled with water to surround and moisten the fruit pudding as it cooked.
Eventually, the cast iron pots no longer needed legs or hanging handles, fire irons and cranes were removed from the kitchen as cast iron cook stoves appeared in their place. The old style cast iron pots were often modified for use on top of the cookstove. Even the larger pots and bake ovens did not go far, despite their drop in value.
Over time change effected industry too, the timber trade became lumber trade, ships made and sailed out of foreign ports, were replaced with those built in New Brunswick. Eventually, the railway arrived meaning more jobs and local mills producing every thing from shingles to windows. Despite these changes, the industry still demanded a large work force to fell, deliver and process the logs in to lumber.
By the 1930’s and 40’s when Dad and his brothers were entering the work force, options were few, camp life or mill life. Since Grandfather Tully could not supply them with horses, becoming a teamster was out of the question, that left cooking. Only the oldest Marple avoided a career in the cookhouse, although Dad spent only a short but memorable period as a cookie, before moving on to harvesting and eventually mill work before and for a period after the war.
Lumber camps were hard places, requiring hours of physically demanding work. As Dad loved to point out, working in the cookhouse ‘looked’ like easier work, but it was just a ‘different kind of hard’ work. What his brothers Gerald, Bernard (Bun) and Leonard (Len) avoided in the way of the physical demands of felling, and yarding trees was replaced with long hours spent toiling over a hot fire, driven by deadlines, balancing likes and demands of both bosses and harvesters. The harvest crew worked from just after sunrise to near dark, with meal breaks mid morning, and again at noon, before heading back to camp for supper. Four meals each day were prepared and delivered on time and as necessary on location. The Cook who had to brew the coffee and prepare breakfast before the men rolled out of their bunks for the day, was woken by his cookie who had already built and lit the fire, every man in camp did their part.
As a Cookie, Dad tended fires, peeled potatoes, washed, cleaned and prepared basic foods. Nothing was more ‘basic’ in the diet of lumbermen than baked beans. All day everyday beans were in various stages of preparation. Cheap, high in protein, and carbohydrate, beans played an essential part in fueling the industry for more than 100 years. In camp or on the drive, beans were placed before the crew of more than 20 hungry men at every meal. With pancakes and biscuits for breakfast, with stew at lunch and with meat and potatoes at supper, beans appeared in their huge cast iron Dutch oven. Of course there were also pans of cakes and cookies, biscuits, and bread, because the cookhouse of a the 1940’s had a stove with an oven. So why the continued use of the heavy cast iron?
Camp cooks did not spend time preparing for Christmas. There was no need, weather permitting the men and horses, harvesters, cooks and walking bosses return home for the holiday season. After Christmas, the harvest would continue until the snow began to melt and the focus became getting the yarded timber to market. The drive presented challenges to everyone, the water was cold, snow, ice and mud combined to make an already perilous job even riskier still. It was no easy feat to produce and deliver sustenance to the crew while afforded the conveniences of a cookhouse, the cookscow was whole new challenge and those old cast iron dutch ovens played their part.
If the logging camp cookhouse was a rough and tumble place, a cook scow was even more so. A cooks scow consisted of a rudimentary cookstove precariously perched on a raft of timber, and covered by a make shift roof and walls comprised in part by canvas. The scow would be pulled along by horses, delivering the cook to the next camp site in time to prepare and deliver the next meal. The cast iron dutch oven filled with beans would stay warm for hours, and could be hung over an open fire when necessary. Although heavy and cumbersome they were durable enough to take the abuse the cookhouse and cookscow entailed.
I make no claim about Betsey’s cast iron being used in her family’s logging operations. There is no doubt that logging and wood camps played an important role in supporting her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Even today many of Betsey’s descendants make their living from harvesting timber. So who was Betsey? The answer is we really don’t know much about her origins. We know her husband Jeremiah was born in Colonial New York, and that he served with the New York Volunteers a Loyalist unit during the Revolutionary war. Hollingworth Tully Lyons descended from two of Betsey’s sons, Joseph on his mother’s side and David on his paternal line. Patterns of marriage and intermarriage with other early Miramichi families assures a bit of Betsey lives on in a large number of us with roots in Northumberland county, the Upper Miramichi River Valley particularly.
My Mother’s cookbook’s Plum Pudding
1 pint of dried bread crumbs
1 c. all purpose flour
1 c. brown sugar
1 pound seeded raisins
2 c. mixed fruit
2 c. cherries
1 pound dates
1/2 pound of raw suet
1 c. molasses
1 tsp soda
2 Tbsp hot water
2 well beaten eggs at room temp
Juice of 1 lemon
1. Roll and sift 1 pint of dried bread crumbs, place in a large bowl;
2. Add flour, sugar, fruit, cherries, dates, suet, molasses;
3. Dissolve soda in hot water and add to fruit mix;
4. Add the eggs and lemon juice;
5. Line a heat proof bowl or mold with 3 layers of cheese cloth fill with pudding;
6. Place the bowl in a large Dutch oven;
7. Place Dutch oven in a 280 degree oven, fill the pan with boiling water about 1/2 way up the side of the bowl, cover with aluminum foil and the lid to seal the steam inside, Steam 3 hours, add more water as needed.
References and Sources:
1. Bake – oven also known as a Dutch oven, was a large lidded cast iron pot, with legs which permitted it to be set directly in a fire. The Dutch ovens we know today are very different, they don’t have legs, are much smaller. Cast Iron Dutch ovens today are almost always lined with ceramic.
2. Seasoning cast iron is required if the cast iron is not lined with ceramic and has not been seasoned. Seasoning involves building up a film of oil on the interior of the pot / pan which is cured with high heat. After use cleaning involves washing the pot/pan, and retreating it with oil and time in a hot oven.
3. Exactly when Jeremiah and Betsey married is as yet unknown. Jeremiah and his wife Elizabeth sold the land he had been granted on the Keswick River in 1787. Since most of the older children were born in the Nashwaak River Valley, York county, NB, it is probable they lived on property owned by Jeremiah’s brother Daniel Lyon in Penniac, NB until relocating to Northumberland county. The brief two years, Jeremiah owned the grant in Keswick represents the only period of land ownership until 1809, the pattern of displacement appears to have haunted the refugee family.
4. The foundations of the first wood framed house on the land grant in Carroll’s Crossing, were integrated into a barn after the house was replaced about 1900. The foundations were removed later and revealed two chimney’s at either end of the house, remeniscent of colonial style homes of the period.
5. Spices and spice routes: https://en.unesco.org/silkroad/content/what-are-spice-routes
6. Christmas Pudding – By 1800 even those with Puritan heritage had begun to celebrate Christmas once again, Plum Pudding and/or its cousin the Christmas Cake (dark fruit cake) was found in most English speaking homes in North America as well as Britain.