Living on the West End: Wash day at the ditch

By Bill Shepard

Bill Shepard

There are two kinds of ditches; one is made by man and the other by the Creator of all things. Two ditches of the latter kind ran the full length of the village where I lived all my childhood years.
The ditches were formed when and where underground springs of water broke through the surface and began to cut a path in a southward direction. The small stream of water takes the path of least resistance; thus, the zigzag path is formed. Starting at the far end of what was once a large part of the Mill Village, the little streams flowed the full length of the village before finally reaching their rendezvous with Swift Creek.
At a spot near the end of the village, the two ditches met and became one ditch. It is at that point that my story has its beginning.
The water furnished at the millhouses had so much iron that it could not be used for washing white materials. Even some dishes would turn yellow, after being washed for a time in the water. Bedsheets and pillowcases would turn yellow and the color would be permanent. For that reason, a lot of women would do their family’s clothes washing at the ditch.
The family would have their own crudely built wash bench. It would accommodate three large No. 2 tin washtubs. Nearby the bench was a spot where the large black cast-iron wash pot was located. The tubs and the pot were filled with water from the ditch before the washing began. That is where I came in.
Mama’s washday was on each Monday morning. After Dad had left for his long day at the mill, and my brothers were off to school, Mama would gather all the clothes that needed washing. She would strip the beds of their sheets and pillowcases and tie them in a bundle.
She would tie the boys’ overalls and shirts, along with Dad’s, in another bundle. Lastly, she would get a box of Octagon Washing Powders and a large chunk of lye soap and place it inside one of the bundles. When she had it all together, I would place it on my wagon and be ready for our trip to the ditch.
Most likely, there would be another family or two there already. Each of the families had their own water bench. Sometimes, a new family moved to the village and would ask permission to use another’s bench.
At the point where the two ditches joined to become one, the men had dug a deep hole in the center of the stream that was large enough to set a tin tub. When the small stream had filled the tub, one could dip the water and fill their bucket to be carried to the wash bench and emptied in the tubs there.
Of course, Mama would help in bringing the water from the ditch. When I had filled the three tubs and wash pot, it was time to start a fire around the pot.
In the springtime and summer, I enjoyed playing in the ditch. I would search for the crawfish, tadpoles and chase after the small minnows that would try to hide from me. In the early spring, the blue violets would spring up, all along the edges of the ditch. I would pick Mama a bouquet and take it to her.
Mama did all her washing by hand. Sometimes, Mama’s hands would bleed after a long time of scrubbing the clothes on the tin washboard. In the winter, when the water would be very cold and Mama’s hands would bleed, I would feel sorry for her.
It would take all morning to get the clothes washed. After the first washing, Mama would rinse some of the clothes a second time. When all was finished, Mama would tie the clothes in a bundle, and I would empty the black washpot and put the fire out. We would be ready to start for home.
Before leaving for the wash place, at the ditch, Mama would have left a pot full of lima beans simmering on the stove.
Back at the house, Mama would hang her clothes on the long wire that Dad had stretched at the edge of our yard. The clothes would be dry by the end of the day. Tomorrow would find Mama at her ironing board, ironing the wrinkles from most of the clothing. There were no electric irons and washing machines to be had in those long-ago times.
Dad, later on, built a system of getting the iron out of the water at the house. That made wash day easier for Mama and me, but I missed the fun I had wading in the ditch, chasing minnows and bugs and picking Mama’s bouquet of violets in the springtime!
Note: The two ditches still flow, but the place where they come together is all grown over with trees and brush. I still own the black washpot. Mama gave it to me many years ago. I glance at it now and then and allow the memories to flow!

Author: Stephan Drew

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