Washday Memories

By Bill Shepard

On that part of the old mill village in Darlington (over the creek), there are two narrow streams of water that we called ditches. The spring-fed streams begin at the north end of the area and follow along the edge of the village, making their final rendezvous with Swift Creek at the south end of the village. The ditches were flowing when the Shepard family arrived there in 1922. Recently, I was there and they are still murmuring along.

Bill Shepard

Bill Shepard

It was along these ditches (various locations on the village), the women of the village would gather to do their family’s weekly laundering. Each family, if desired, could have their own wash-bench. The bench, which was made of wooden boards, would accommodate three large tin tubs. Nearby would be a large black iron wash-pot. The wash-pot was used to boil the heavy and deeply soiled work clothes. A family would choose its own day for wash-day and make it a regular time each week. Mondays were the Shepard’s wash-day. Every Monday morning, Mama would tie all of the family’s dirty clothes in a large bed sheet, place a box of washing powder and alarge piece of lye soap inside and we were off to our spot along the ditch. The clothes would be transported on my homemade wagon, build with wheels and axles from the salvage pile behind the big mill. This was the day I looked forward to each week. Of course, I wasn’t chosen every week, as there were two other Shepard boys, each wanting their day to be chosen! Being chosen meant a day we would skip school at St. John’s. Mama would write a note to the teacher the next day saying, “Please excuse Bill for being absent, as he was needed at home. The next day I would present that note to my teacher, and that would satisfy her.

Being needed at home was indeed a truth! The big black wash-pot and the three large tubs had to be filled with water from the ditch. That would take several trips from the wash-bench to the ditch, bringing buckets filled with water. Once the wash-pot was filled, a fire would be kindled around it and the soiled clothes would begin boiling. Homemade lye soap would be used in the wash-pot. It would be my job to keep the fire burning; fuel gathered from the surrounding pasture was dead limbs from the trees near by. The clothes would need stirring often while they were boiling. Clothes less soiled would be placed in a tub of hot water, and Mama would scrub them by hand until they were clean. I have seen my mama’s hands bleed from the hard scrubbing and strong lye water. Sad memories!

There would be other children present, helping their mothers; and when we were not needed to bring water or attend to the fire, we would be free to play in the nearby area, often wading in the stream. I like to search for crayfish and chase after tadpoles that were abundant in the streams.

The process would usually last until near noon. Before leaving for home, we would be careful to put the fire out, rinse the tubs, and turn them over on the wash-bench. Not all families owned a wash bench. Occasionally, newcomers to the village would ask permission to use out wash-bench and permission was always given.
laundry day

Yes, there was water at our house! Each house had one spigot provided on the back porch; there was no inside water. The water that was provided had so much iron mineral in it that it could not be used to wash white bed sheets, etc. White cloth would be yellow after a few washings. The iron would also cause glassware to turn yellow. Water from the ditch did not do that. In later times, my dad built a filtering system by our back porch to filter the iron from the water. It worked!

Dad liked wash-days, the same as I, but for different reasons. Before leaving for the wash-place, Mama would place a large pot, filled with lima beans, on the stove and started them to simmering. Seasoned with a large piece of fatback meat, they would cook all the while we were at the ditch. Dad came home from the mill each day at noon for a quick meal. The beans would be cooked tender. Dad called them “wash-day lima beans.” For as long as he lived, he referred to Mama’s wash-day lima beans as his favorite meal. When’s Dad’s lunch break was over, he would return to the mill to finish his twelve-hour day- no eight-hour work day in that long ago time!

After leaving, Mama would hang the wet clothes on a long line to dry in the sun. The next day would be set aside for ironing the clothes – no wash and wear in those early times. Fortunately, there were not many Sunday clothes that required ironing.

Dad went to work at 6:00 a.m. and returned at 6:00 p.m. The old sayi8ng, “A man’s work is from sun to sun, and a woman’s work is never done!” was true at our house. Long after her household had retired for the day, Mama could be seen or heard preparing for the next day. There were clothes to be ironed with flat irons, heated on the stove or by the fireplace if in winter. One full day was set aside for scrubbing the rough pine floors, with a scrub-broom, made with corn-shucks and with harsh lye water to get them clean and smelling fresh. There was a day for patching children’s clothing, and times for sewing little dresses, shirts, and an occasional dress for Mama.

The old Singer sewing machine stood in the narrow hallway. At night, long after the family had gone to bed, sounds from the old Singer swinging machine could be heard. Mama’s day extended into the night, sewing clothes that would soon find their way into the wagon on the way to wash-day at the ditch.

Mr. Shepard is a native of Darlington, S.C., and a current resident of Piedmont, S.C. Signed copies of Mr. Shepard’s books “Mill Town Boy” and “Bruised” are available for purchase at the News and Press office. He has been sharing his tales of growing up in Darlington for decades, and we are delighted to share them each week.

Author: Jana Pye

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