by Florence Cope Bush
It seemed easy enough. Write a story about battlin' sticks, Cherel Henderson, the editor of the Smoky Mountain Historical Society Newsletter said. I sent out letters to people who supply me with historic information and expected to get back the same answers from all of them. Do you think you have trouble deciding which brand of washing machine to buy but you've made up your mind that one kind is better than the others? Our great grandmothers were just as sure which tree made the best battlin' stick and paddle. Chestnut, sycamore, white poplar, hickory, and pine were all given the "Great Grandmother Seal of Approval" as being the best. My historians were evenly divided on the one to use.
All the lucky people who have been born since the washboard was invented don't know what one does with a battlin' stick. Some of you don't know what a washboard looks like. I have one quaintly decorated and hanging in my wash area to remind me of how lucky I am to have a once back-breaking chore done without much effort on my part.
My mother, who just turned 87, tells me she never used a battlin' stick but her Ma did, and her choice of wood was white poplar. Let's go back about 80 years to a normal washday in the Smokies. Washing was woman's work but making the necessary tools was man's work. Taking the wood favored by him, he carefully shaped the handles and the flat paddle. The battlin' stick was about two feet long and four inches across the paddle part. The handle was square so it wouldn't turn in your hand when beating the clothes. The stirring paddle was about four feet long and the handle on it was round so it would move in your hands as you stirred the boiling laundry.
If you lived near a branch or stream you needed only one tub for boiling the laundry. It was rinsed in running water after you had beaten the dirt out of every piece of clothing. If you didn't have a running stream, you had a rinse tub. Between the tubs was a battlin' bench made from an oak log roughly split in half. Everyone agreed on oak for the bench. The surface was left rough so the dirt from the clothes would fall into the grooves and be washed away. Some said their great grandmothers didn't bother with the bench but preferred the Indian method of spreading the washed item on a large rock near the bank of the stream and systematically beating and dipping it in the running water.
Using the more advanced method, articles of clothing were lifted from the boiling lye water with the long handled stick onto the bench. The smaller paddle with the square handle was used to pound each item until it was clean. Turning, pounding, and re-soaping the very dirty parts -- with another dip into the lye water -- were necessary before the item could be put into the rinse tub or the stream.
Mrs. Rozelle Short of Knoxville said her great grandmother, Mrs. Sarah Ann Nicely, born about 1871 on Long Mountain in Grainger County, had fourteen children -- twelve girls and two boys, and every weekday was washday for her. Mrs. Nicely gave hickory a vote of confidence. For the first time, I heard about a clear, glass washboard. The twelve girls kept their lacy dainties clean by using the board and smaller amounts of lye soap.
Mrs. Short remembers her mother and grandmother washing quilts on the washboard because they were too delicate and valuable to boil and gouge with a stirring stick. (More will follow on Mrs. Nicely. She was a very interesting lady and deserves a story all her own).
My mother said her Ma had some kind of bluing that came in big lumps. She would put a "good-sized lump" equal to about one cup into the rinse water. The sheets and undies would be as white as snow.
In Mother's early years they had no clothespins and laundry was thrown over a rope clothes line which usually did double duty as the plow line, or were draped over shrubs and trees. Later her Pa made some slip-on pins which her Ma carried in her rolled-up apron on washday. Mother was a grown woman before the spring clothespins were brought into the mountains. The pins were invented by the Shaker religious sect in the early 1800s and were a long time finding their way into the remote areas of East Tennessee.
One use for the short paddle has not been discussed. Not only did it beat the dirt out of the laundry; but when properly applied to the lower back part of the anatomy of a misbehaving youngster, it beat old Nick out of the offender. Just as most items around the mountain home have several uses, so did the laundry paddle.
(Cora Ogle, age 86, remembers well the use of what she calls a "battle" stick. Cora's father, Isham Ogle, made her a small child-size battle stick and she often helped her mother, Mollie Reagan Ogle, do the family wash. Mollie was more fortunate than most women; the family's cabin was near a mill race on Mill Creek (now LeConte Creek) near Gatlinburg, and she could get her wash water from the mill race, rather than having to carry it from the creek. On a trip to Knoxville to trade produce, Isham saw a washboard and bought one for Mollie, making her the first woman in the community to own one. On subsequent trips, Isham was asked to buy washboards for various relatives. Soon the local store began to stock them. -- Cherel Henderson, Editor)
Photo Caption: Washday in Wears Valley about 1910. Carrie Headrick Burns (wife of Joe) scrubs on the washboard, while Mary Cotter Headrick (wife of Munsey) wields the battlin' stick.