The tale of a pail of Yankee biscuits

Grandson William writes from Virginia, asking how to bake biscuits in a pail, and I have responded gladly. Both our grandsons have defected to the enemy, and often write to have Yankeeisms explained in detail so their upcoming Rebel offspring may enjoy a certain culture otherwise lacking in a Dixie childhood.

Enjoying hot cream-tartar biscuits baked by an open fire at a woodland picnic is strictly Maine, and William advises me that he well recalls such during maple sugaring when he would come to the farm to visit.

Reflector ovens may be known otherwhere, but the Maine woods depended on them to feed the river drivers each spring when the winter's forest harvest was taken to the mill on the surging runoff of snowmelt. Timber was harvested on winter snow, when horses could sled the logs and pulpwood to the "brow," which would be on river or lake ice.

The camp closed as spring advanced, and river drivers herded the logs downstream on the tumbling freshet, a dangerous job only for daring men who knew how. The journey could be long, as on the Penobscot River, and the river drivers were wet most of the way. A wagon comparable to a cow-country chuck wagon followed the drive, and cooks and cookees fed the drivers four meals a day.

There were drive camps along the way at intervals, but they were not equipped to serve as bunkhouses and cook shacks. River driving was like camping out. The first breakfast came at daylight, hot biscuits and baked beans. Second breakfast came in mid-morning, biscuits and beans again, brought in pails by the cookees. Dinner was at noon, with supper at dusk. An advance crew prepared "beanholes" at each stopping place, and kept dry wood plentiful for the cooks. There were no cookstoves on a drive.

Cast-iron beanpots were used to bake beans, and a beanhole was a dug affair lined with rocks. The rocks were heated by a wood fire, and the beanpot was lowered among them and covered with dirt, the cover being tight. Residual heat did the work, usually taking a day. Stovetop cooking was done on a grill over a campfire, and baking was in reflector ovens.

These were made of sheet metal, with one open end facing the fire. A slanted top caught the heat, reflecting it downward to bake pies, cakes, and bread. It was a brave sight to see a blazing drive fire maybe five feet in diameter with a circle of ovens doing business like planets around a sun.

So, my story, as I sent it to grandson William, was how his great-grandfather won the Civil War by baking cream-tartar biscuits for his Company I, 16th Maine Volunteers, using a l6-quart watering pail as a reflector oven.

Somewhere along the march, his company came upon an Army supply wagon that had lost a wheel, and a great quantity of food had been ruined by exposure to the weather. There were cotton bags of flour caked by rain, but the caked part could be cracked and the inside was all right.

Great-grampy told his comrades that he'd bake biscuits if they'd bring some flour to the next bivouac. The march continued, and each soldier had a bag of flour. Come evensong, the regiment made camp. The only thing they lacked was a reflector oven.

In Maine, the 16-quart pail for watering horses was called an SPCA bucket. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals chained them to trees by roadside springs and to bridge timbers with little signs that said: "Be kind to animals; water your horse! SPCA."

So that evening, somewhere in Virginia, my grandfather (Bill's great-grandfather) mixed his biscuits. Lacking an oven, he sent over to the wagoners to borrow a pail, and the biscuits turned out fine. Then some years passed, I came along, and Grampy took me to his woodlot one winter day. At lunchtime he showed me how to bake biscuits in an SPCA pail, the way he had during the war.

Grampy's woodlot was a special fairyland place, because nobody knew where it was, not even Grampy! The area had been a crown grant to Gov. James Bowdoin of Massachusetts, who had caused it to be surveyed as 40-acre lots, which he sold to settlers for pennies an acre. Even small sums were hard to come by then, so the lots were sold on installment payments, so much a year. Instead of a deed, the buyer was given a "bond for a deed," a promise to give a title when the last payment was paid.

But the years passed. Witness trees were uprooted and stakes disappeared. Marked stones were buried in the woodland duff. The original surveyor's boundaries were forgotten. So Grampy's deed merely said that he owned lot No. 26 of the Bowdoin Grant, bounded on the north by Jones, east by one Merrill, south by one Neville, and west by one Gillieflint.

In order to find out exactly where his woodlot might be, Grampy would need to find these four gentlemen, and they wouldn't know either. So Grampy would say, "I think my corner is about here, and the line runs about so." Then he would wave into the trees. It was always fun to go where nobody knew where and have a day with Grampy.

On the first visit, he made biscuits in the SPCA pail. He had brought a comb of honey, and now I remember that I didn't mention that to William. I must write again.

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