The great Kentucky poet, novelist and educator Jesse Stewart wrote in his autobiographical book “Beyond Dark Hills” that wild game often sustained Appalachian families when harvests had been skimpy due to late frosts, wet spring planting seasons, drought or insect infestation.
The wild animals of creeks, woodlands and rocky slopes supplemented what could be gleaned from stunted fields and orchards to stave off late winter hunger.
Lack of nutrition weakened hard-working hill people, making them susceptible to diseases—especially the children. Pneumonia was a common cause of death, along with typhoid fever. Undernourished young and the elderly could be stricken and die in a matter of days.
According to Stewart, when a man in the hills was too sick to eat squirrel, it was likely he would die. Squirrels, rabbits, possums, racoons and groundhogs were staples on the tables of hard-scrabble farmers. Most whitetail deer and wild turkeys had been hunted out by the early 20th Century, but small game remained plentiful and was often favored over other meats.
The need for additional protein to help feed typically large Appalachian hill-farming families, especially during winter, meant few types of wild game were culled. Racoons and beavers were considered particular delicacies.
My father told the story of his brothers gathering around a hastily-ignited fire to roast a large hawk.
“Don’t know what kind, probably a red-tail hawk, but we were hungry and ate it,” he said. They also killed and cooked cockaded woodpeckers, herons and owls. From the slow, muddy creeks in the valley, they grappled fish—mainly carp, buffalo or catfish—and turtles. Sometimes while hand-fishing, they caught large water snakes, skinned the reptiles and fried the sliced sections in hot lard.
“Hunger will make you try almost anything,” said one of my uncles when I asked if they ever consumed the meat from river mussels.
The Oden clan became locally famous for digging a four-foot deep, quarter-mile canal connecting an isolated cypress swamp to a free-flowing creek. The swamp’s water levels varied with the season and rainfall amounts, sometimes almost drying up. The fish were stunted and scrawny.
Excavation was done with shovels and mattocks, the soil removed in metal buckets and a mule-drawn sledge. Once completed, the canal allowed the creek to recharge the swamp with water and new populations of fish, including tasty crappie and bass (which in the 1930s were called “green trout”).
Of course, coveys of quail were plentiful in those days when crop cultivation was done with mules and manual labor. Small fields cleared from woodlands and hillsides became “new ground” that grew plentiful first crops of corn, oats, sorghum cane and tobacco. The cover-loving bobwhites thrived around field edges and in the rows where non-mechanized harvest methods left plentiful grain on the ground.
My father and brothers always bred and trained short-haired pointers for quail hunting. Not too many hounds or coon dogs, however. They used rat terriers or mountain curs as tree dogs and sight hunters.
An amazing feat of hunting prowess involved catching game by hand, particularly sitting rabbits, or shooting small animals with homemade slingshots.
Shotgun shells and .22-caliber rifle cartridges cost such that many Depression-era families couldn’t afford. Instead, boys and girls fashioned “flips.” These were constructed from forked limbs with sawn-off Y-arms wrapped with strips of old elastic inner tubes. With practice, flips became deadly weapons, propelling smooth round rocks at impressive velocities.
I once “accidentally” killed one of my mother’s domestic white turkeys in the tomato plants with a long-range shot from a flip. It shouldn’t have happened, but the big bird unfortunately raised its head at the wrong moment. I hit it in the eye.
“Turkeys don’t belong in the tomato patch,” my father observed, judging the turkey to be guilty of raiding. But I got whipped anyway.
We dined on turkey in August, however. Dad regaled everyone around the laden kitchen table with tales about slingshot hunting while growing up and “whipping” bats with river cane poles. The object was to knock a bat or two from the twilight sky.
“Some of us boys kept ‘em as pets for a day or two. Others kids were sneaky. We knew they stuffed the bats in pokes and ran home. Their mothers would skin and fry up the bats, and they’d eat. They’d dig and eat moles too,” he recalled.
“We were always hungry, but never enough to make a meal of bats or moles.”