Every reader of The Kentucky Explorer, no doubt, has a special memory. Why not write it down and share it here in this column? Help preserve the story of our vanishing past for today and tomorrow. We need memories and photographs from every part of Kentucky and beyond.
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Groundhog Day, 1932
I grew up on Line Fork Creek (Letcher County), at the mouth of Indian Picture Branch. Indian Picture Branch was about two miles long, and no one lived above our home. This was a great forest, and the timber was virgin. Some of the walnut and tulip poplar trees had been removed from 1908 to 1912. This was a great playground for a boy growing up.
My dad, Irvin Halcomb, was an expert fur trapper. He started trapping about the middle of November and continued until early February of the next year. When Dad could not run the traplines, my older brother, Lawrence, and I checked the traps. We trapped for fox, mink, raccoon, opossum, and skunk (polecat). In early February we caught groundhog. By the last week in January we only trapped for skunk. The skunk fur stayed good up into early February. Other animals would start shedding their fur by late January and began growing hair. The fine silky fur was what kept them warm in the wintertime.
By 1932 our country was well into the Great Depression. Good fur was selling at a high price. Much of the fur was going to Europe. My dad sold a black mink pelt for $22, a red fox pelt for $15, and a raccoon pelt for $10. This was at a time when there were no jobs to be had. The coal miners were working two or three days a week, and no timber was being cut. It was called "hard times." Twenty-five percent of the American workforce was out of work. In today's market (2001) $15 is not much money. In 1932 my dad bought six pairs of shoes for $15, and the socks were thrown in.
On February 2, 1932, for some reason, Dad could not run his trapline. He gave the job to my brother, Lawrence, and I tagged along. Lawrence was Dad's number one helper, and he knew where all the traps were. He also knew how to reset the traps when we caught an animal. Sometimes we would skin the catch in the woods. If we caught a mink, it was Dad's job to skin it. My job was to hold a leg, while Lawrence or Dad did the skinning. Along the way I have had my carpenter's helpers say to me, "I will hold while you skin." They had been fur trappers somewhere along the line.
Groundhogs would go into hibernation about the first of December and come out February 2nd. I have caught them on the first, second, or third day of February. They would get fat on chestnuts, acorns, and beechnuts before hibernation.
On this special Groundhog Day in 1932 we caught two big, fat groundhogs. Lawrence shot them in the head, and now we had meat to eat. Groundhogs were sometimes called whistle pigs. Sure enough, they can whistle when you crowd them in the ground. Lawrence gave me the job to carry the two whistle pigs. As long as I was going downhill all was well.
After about a mile on our way home, I was trying to get Lawrence to carry one of the groundhogs. He said to me, "Stop your whining and come on. Can't you see that I have to carry the gun." Yes, that gun weighed at least four pounds, and the two groundhogs weighed at least 15 pounds each; and their hind legs were slick, and I kept dropping them. We made it home, and our mother was proud of our catch. Mom said, "You boys get them skinned out, and I will get them in the cooking pot."
My mother was an expert at fixing groundhog and raccoon. The meat was so good that it would melt in your mouth. She would cook this meat good and tender, then put it in a pan to bake. She would put sweet potatoes all around the meat and pepper it just right. She would bake it to a golden brown, and when the meat came out of the oven you had a meal fit for kings and lords.
I would tan the groundhog hide to make shoelaces. I used a two-gallon bucket for my tanning pot. I would put in one and one-half gallons of water, stir in two quarts of wood ashes, drop in the hide, and let it soak for ten days. The ashes made the hair come out. Next, I took the hide to the branch and washed it well, removing all the hair. I scraped away all the fat and tacked the hide to the side of the barn to dry for a few days. After it was dry, I hand-rubbed and worked it into soft leather. Nothing was wasted.
I was telling some folks about my groundhog tanning, and one lady asked me why I tanned this hide when I could buy a pair of shoestrings for 35¢. I answered by telling her that in 1932 you could buy a pair of laces for 5¢, but sometimes I didn't have 5¢.
I was proud to wear groundhog hide shoestrings, because my best school buddy wore groundhog shoestrings. I was talking to one of my old mountain friends about groundhog shoestrings, and he told me he had to stop using them, because his dog was always licking his shoes.
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