Taffy Pull: Winter Celebration on the Family Farm

The taffy pull was a neighborhood event on the family farm with music and dancing, held during the more leisurely winter months

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When I was a child, farm people had less work in the winter months than during the growing season. We had a little more time for parties! The Saturday evening before Valentine's Day grew to become a neighborhood taffy pull. Everybody planned on it for weeks ahead. In our family it was an important event. We did all the little things that could be done in advance. For example: every one of us had his new pair of hand-knit, long, black woolen stockings finished and ready for the party. This was an activity that the whole family participated in after the evening dishes were done. Santa brought Virginia knitting needles when she was 2 years old!

The day of the party found all of us up and busy. The weather was very cold and the sky was clear. That evening we milked the 13 cows early. Agnes, my eldest sister, had the food ready to put on the table when we brought the cream in. We sat right down and ate. Agnes washed the dishes; I put them away. Mother got Virginia ready. Father went out to the barn, lifted the harnesses off their pegs and put them on the horses. He got down the strings of bells, placed them over the horses' shoulders, and secured them safely with a girth just behind their forelegs. He hitched the team to the sled. The last thing he did was to fill the sled box full of nice, fresh yellow straw and cover it with a big, dry blanket.

While Father was getting the horses and the sled ready we put on our clean long underwear, the black knitted socks, our petti-coats and our very best dresses. I had button shoes; Agnes had slippers! I wished I had slippers, too. Mother called, "Girls, don't forget your muffs, scarves and stocking caps." She walked over to the organ, picked up Father's violin and placed it on the table beside the picnic basket. She said, "We must not forget the violin."

The faint tinkle of bells grew louder and louder. Mother called, "Father is ready!" We hastily put on our coats. Mother handed each of us a huge, hot block of wood that she had been heating in the oven. She wrapped them and the only hot soapstone we owned in old blankets. She cautioned us saying, "These are extremely hot! Don't burn yourselves! Agnes, will you carry the soapstone for Virginia? Lucille, can you help Virginia get into the sleigh? I have our passing dishes in the picnic basket. I want to check the fireplace. I will bring the basket and the violin."

Father laughed when he looked at us. He said, "You girls look like miniature ladies carrying newborn babies wrapped in receiving blankets!" We sat down on the blanket. It was fun to feel the soft, fluffy straw settle down beneath us. We placed the warm sticks and soapstone under our feet and wrapped the long scarves over our heads and necks. We poked our hands into our woolly muffs. Father threw another big blanket over all of us. He asked, "Everybody cozy and snug?" Holding the reins in one hand he slapped them gently across the horses' rumps and sang out, "Giddy up, Fred! Giddy up, Bill!" We were off.

The stars blinked at us. We looked for the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. We imagined the Big Bear and the Little Bear. Before we knew it we could see the twinkle of the farmhouse lights where we were headed. The kerosene lights in all the windows got brighter and brighter. Father drove right up to the back door. He called out, "Whoa! Whoa!"

Mrs. White hustled us in saying, "Step lively, girls! We don't need Jack Frost or any of his children inside. Go right on in and shut the door." Activity was going on everywhere. Big girls were directing big young men to move furniture to their rooms. Other men were down on the floor rolling back the carpet. The whole room was soon empty except for the organ and a couple of chairs. Father came in with his violin. Rosie sat down at the organ and gave him an "A" tone. He tuned his violin and began with "Turkey in the Straw!" Uncle Jim stood on a low stool and began calling. The floor filled with eager dancers. Father played one tune after another: "Girl I Left Behind Me," "Old Zip Coon," "Four Hands Around," "Virginia Reel," "Arkansas Traveler" and more. When one girl wanted to dance, another stepped up to the organ and played the chords.

Occasionally somebody called out for a waltz or a two-step. My father handed the violin to me and said, "I want Agnes to dance with me." I played "The Last Rose of Summer."(I was only 7 and it was the only song slow enough for me to play.) Then he danced the schottische with me. He absolutely loved dancing the schottische! He was tall and danced beautifully! Nobody else came out so we had the whole floor. I was so happy and so proud!

Just then the ladies in the kitchen rang the cow bell. Somebody called out, "The taffy is ready!" One lady had chunks of soft taffy just right for pulling. She came into the living room and distributed it among the former dancers and spectators. I wandered into the kitchen. Mother had a pan of clean snow into which other cooks dropped strings of stringy, glistening golden syrup. Mother knew when it was ready to be removed from the wood-burning range. Soon all the cooks had finished boiling it and it was cool enough to divide. To this day, I can see the long strings of candy we pulled back and forth again and again. I can also see some of those cables and cords stretching thinner and thinner until several broke in the center and slid gracefully, still glistening, upon the bare floor! Nobody thought that a major calamity. They just gathered it up, formed a ball and started pulling again! The whole room was full of the sweet, vanilla aroma. Suddenly a mystery happened. The stringy stuff changed color and began to harden. We hastily pulled it into one last, long slender string and let it cool. It was ready to eat!

Between two and three we picked our coats out of a pile two feet high and put them on. Mother bundled Virginia, who had fallen asleep with the other infants, and carried her outdoors and into our sleigh. I was thinking I was glad I was old enough to have stayed awake. With our taffy in a little bag, Father covered us quickly. As we rode out of the White's yard their lights went out. I remember asking, "Mother, what did you all put in that taffy?"

I heard her say, "Two cups of sugar, a two-pound can of Karo Syrup, one cup of vinegar, a pinch of sail"

Suddenly, Father was shaking my shoulder. He shook me long enough and hard enough so that I staggered into our house, still clutching my bag of inch-long lengths of white taffy. I found my bed; I fell down on it. The next morning I was still holding my candy.

Lucille Stanek Jenkins
Jackson, Michigan

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.