Chereshnitsa was an agrarian village, relying entirely on small scale farming of rye, potatoes, corn, (very little of which was sold outside of the village), and shepherding. For the purchase of other staples, villagers usually sold wood for the ovens of Kostour.
Prior to World War II, the villagers used oxen to plow and cultivate the farms. In some cases, two or three families would combine their efforts to do this. Typically two families would each furnish an ox and the third would furnish the manpower and the plow. This was because they could not afford to own a set of oxen, or because the men of the houses were out of the country trying to earn a living. Economically this was an advantage as well as support for the families whose men were out of the country earning their livelihood.
Most of the farming was away from the village (some over an hour’s walk) on small parcels of not more than an acre. As an example, several of our parcels were in Cheyma, about an hour’s walk south of Chereshnitsa. Normally, in places that far away from the village, for support and comradeship, we would go in groups along with other villagers to plow the fields. We would stay there camping out until we were finished plowing. This sometimes lasted as long as a week.
One such year (because of my age, of fourteen or fifteen), I was running behind in planting the rye for the season. Everyone else was finished plowing and planting in Cheyma. One day late in the fall I, with the support of my brother, John, took our oxen (Bibehto and Mourdjo), loaded our tall, mean and skinny old mule with the plow, food, and seed (to last us three or four days) and proceeded for Cheyma. John was about five or six years of age. Halfway through the plowing and planting, we ran out of food and seed. That afternoon about four p. m., I left John with the oxen in Cheyma, and took the old mule back to the village for the food and seed. About dusk after loading the mule with the required seed and food, I headed back to Cheyma. When I reached Dolnoto Selo, about halfway to Cheyma, I saw the oxen (Bibehto and Mourdjo) head- ing for home. A few yards back was John, walking slowly. I immediately stopped Bibehto and Mourdjo and waited for John to catch up. When John finally caught up with the stopped oxen, I asked him why he was going home. His reply was, “ ” (Meh fati mehrako)! Literally translated, it meant, “Fear caught up with me.” We returned to Cheyma and finished the plowing and planting.
The villagers worked from sun up to sun down, seven days a week, spring, summer and fall. There was no farm work done in the winter. In the winter they tended the animals and cut wood to be sold for the ovens of Kostour. Mostly the men played cards in the coffee house while the women tended to their household chores.
Those families that owned sheep or goats did a little more work. Those animals needed to be taken to the pasture or fed at home. Most families had koushari (shepherd’s huts made of straw) in warmer places such as Ponesh, Grebointsa, Dolnoto Selo, etc. where they moved their sheep and/or goats in the winter.
The Art of Bread Making
Everybody worked in the village. The women of the house did the cooking and the baking. The primary food on a daily basis was bread and cheese. Our village planted only rye. Due to the short growing season wheat would not ripen in time to be harvested. Thus we only ate rye bread. Wheat bread was a delicacy. There was no bakery where one could go and buy bread. Buying bread from the ovens in Kostour was too expensive and too far away. Each family baked bread once a week in outside ovens. After heating up the oven with wood, the women of the house would clean the oven, insert the loaves of dough in it and seal the front of the oven. The oven door was usually sealed with cow droppings since this was an effective sealant. However the odor left something to be desired.
Needless to say, week-old bread would soon dry. In order to be able to eat this bread, it was usually toasted over an open fire or soaked in hot water.
There was no running water or electricity in the house, and only a wood burning stove in one room kept us warm in the winter. We used kerosene lamps and bourina (cedar sticks, resin fuel) to light our way in the darkness. We all slept in one room on mattresses and pillows stuffed with straw. After the fire had died out, we used several heavy blankets to keep us warm at night. Water was fetched from the village spring gravity fed through a series of pipes distributed to various parts of the village.
One such fountain was located near the Shamoff’s house, one near the Ristovski’s house, one in the dolna mala (the southern neighborhood), and one in the center of the village. Many times during extreme cold, the water would freeze, and we would either have to melt snow or try to break the ice to get the water. There were no sewer lines, sewer plant, or septic tanks. Outhouses or alleys between the houses, were the normal means of bathroom facilities. In extremely cold weather we used the barns. Keep in mind that whenever we used the bathroom, wherever it was located, a roll of toilet paper was not available (We had never heard of such a thing), so we had to be creative with readily available items (leaves, wood sticks, stone) to handle our needs.
The fields had to be plowed two or three times before planting. Rye was planted in the fall and harvested in June or July, while corn and potatoes were planted in the spring and harvested in the fall.
Rye was a good crop because, once it was planted, it did not require any more work until harvesting. Potatoes and corn, on the other hand, had to be cultivated and weeded two or three times before harvesting and often had to be watered to get a better crop.
Plowing with a matched pair of oxen, that is, where both oxen were of nearly equal strength, height, and temperament, would have been a luxury. I always dreamed of having such oxen, but it wasn’t to be. Our oxen were as unmatched as night and day. One of our ox , called “Beebeh”, was an ideal one. He had unsurpassed strength, ideal height and a good temperament. Just say his name, “Beebeh”, and his ears would perk up and he would blow hot air out of his nostrils, curl up his tail and he was ready to pull the plow, all by himself if he had to. The other ox, on the other hand, called “Mourdjio”, was quite the opposite. Mourdjio was one-third the size of Beebehto, one-fourth the strength, and had no ambition at all. When I called his name, he would turn his head, look back at me, and make a face so as to say “Are you talking to me?” I usually carried a four or five foot stick, about an inch thick, called “ostan”, to prod the oxen to move or change direction. I would merely raise the ostan and Beebehto would perk up.
It was demeaning for him to be touched or prodded with the ostan and he resented this. For Mourdjio it was very different. When I would raise the ostan, he would just move his tail a little, as if to say “I see it. What are you going to do with it?” Beebehto, as soon as I would say “Mourdjio,” would shake his neck left and right, thus moving the yoke six to ten inches in either direction, as if saying “Wake up stupid! He is talking to us.” The ostan usually either had a point at one end, or had about a quarter inch nail sticking out the end. If Mourdjio did not move, my next step was to prod him by poking him with the sharp end of the ostan. This usually would make him move, but not very fast. He took his time.
Normally when we plowed, one ox walked inside the furrow that was made by the plow, and the other ox walked on the unplowed ground. Each ox alternated in walking inside the furrow as we changed direction. When it was Mourdjio’s turn to walk in the furrow, you could hardly see him. Because of Beebehto’s build and height, Mourdjio looked like a midget.
In plowing we normally started very early in the morning (at dawn), so that we would have a day’s plowing by noon. Then we usually stopped plowing because of the heat and because the oxen needed to be pastured. Mourdjio would do fairly well, in spite of his build and strength, in the morning, but by mid morning he would start slowing down. In the morning the yoke would be perpendicular to the plow, that is, both oxen were pulling even. By mid morning the yoke would be diagonal to the plow. Beebehto, being much stronger, would pull ahead of Mourdjio. By so doing, most of the pull now fell to Mourdjio and caused Mourdjio to get tired faster. The later it got, the slower Mourdjio went. It was at about this time that Mourdjio would every now and then just lie down in the furrow or on the unplowed ground. If the furrow was deep, you would think that I was plowing with one ox. Getting him up was not a small chore. The ostan with the point or the nail did no good. Mourdjio paid no attention to it. Sometimes blood would come out of his rear thigh, but Mourdjio still paid no attention to it. I would go and grab him by the tail and attempt to lift him up, but Mourdjio still paid no attention to me. I did not have the strength to pick him up anyway. Sometimes I would resort to lighting a match under his tail and could smell the burning, but Mourdjio still paid no attention to all this. Frustrated, sometimes I would yell at Beebehto, as if it were his fault. Being resentful of the yell, Beebehto would drag Mourdjio and the plow. Still Mourdjio paid no attention. In the end there was nothing to do but let them go and try again the next day. These types of frustrations delayed us a day or two, so we were always behind in plowing and planting.
The Staple of Rye
Harvesting the rye was done by women and men using hand sickles. The cut part of the rye plant, which is the upper half of the stem (the polouk) was laid down on top of the uncut part of the stem that was still in the ground so that the ear (klas) part of the rye would not touch the ground. After the polouk was left to dry two or three days, depending on the weather, it was bundled in 30 to 50 pound bundles (v’ndatsi) and tied with wet unthrashed straw (vazjitsi). When they were bundled, the polouks were crisscrossed so that the ears (klas) were protected by the stems inside the bundles. They were then loaded on the backs of horses, mules or donkeys. Wagons were not used for the rye because there were no roads. They were used, however, to haul hay because the meadows (livadia) were on level ground and the roads were wide enough.
Before separating the rye from the ears (klas), several preparatory things had to be done. Usually the front yards were used for this process. First the yards were prepared by de-weeding, sweeping and sealing them with diluted cow droppings (This is analogous to the way we currently seal blacktop driveways.) The bundles of rye were then brought to the home and were spread about knee deep on the nicely swept and sealed yard. In the center of each yard was a stezjer (post) set in the ground about three feet deep. The post was used to tie anywhere from one to four horses (or mules) on a long rope. The horses or mules were then forced to run around the post until the rope was completely wound around the post. This was repeated the opposite way until the rope was unwound. This process was repeated over and over until the straw was thrashed (crushed) into small pieces and the rye fell to the bottom. Every now and then we would stop, turn the straw over, and repeat the thrashing. The process took two to four hours. After thrashing we would remove the straw from the top part (using wooden pitch forks, “villa”) and either pile it on one side of the yard or take it directly into the storage barn. We would then rake, sweep, and pile the rye on the other side of the yard.
To separate the chaff from the rye, we would pick up the seeds and finely crushed straw with wooden shovels and toss them in the air so that the wind would separate the lighter chaff from the heavier seeds. The rye seeds would fall back on the remaining pile. This process was repeated many times until all the chaff was gone. The seeds were then bagged in burlap bags and manually taken to the storage bins (umbar), usually located in the utility rooms of the houses. The straw was primarily used as a cushion spread in the barn under the cows and oxen which in time would be collected in piles and used as gnoy (manure) in the fields. It was also used to stuff our mattresses and pillows.
Now the rye had to be taken to the flour mill to be crushed into flour. This was done a load at a time, as needed, for two reasons: one, there was not enough room to store it; and two, if it stayed too long in the flour bin, it might become wormy.
In our village we only had one flour mill, operated by my father Elia Popoff (Pappas) and his cousin Petre Popoff (Pappas). It only operated nine months of the year. It was closed in the summer because there was not enough water to run the grinding stones.
The village next to ours, Blatsa (Oxia), had plenty of water, and it had three or four flour mills. When the Chereshnitsa flour mill was not in operation, we would take the rye to Blatsa to be ground into flour.
The fee for crushing the rye into flour was usually a percentage of the produced flour. All transportation of the rye and flour was on the backs of horses or mules, the same way we transported wood to the ovens in Kostour.
The Staple of Corn
Harvesting the corn and potatoes was just as laborious a task as that of harvesting the rye. Separating the corn ears from the husks, however, was done more like a ritual. Young ladies would gather
in the houses, one house at a time, and manually separate the husks from the corn ears. While this was being done, they would sing, cook and laugh a lot, knowing that all the time, lurking on the outside, were the young men of the village trying to catch the eye of the girls through the windows. This was big excitement, consid- ering that boys and girls were kept separated from each other in day to day village life.
Once the ears were separated from the husks, the corn now had to be separated from the cobs (after drying for several days). This was done by placing the ears of corn on a hard flat surface. The ladies and/or the men would then beat the ears with heavy sticks, the size of handles from shovels, until all of the corn was sepa- rated from the cobs. The corn had to go through a process similar to that of rye to be crushed into corn flour for human consumption. If it was to be used for animals, it would not need to be crushed or, if it was crushed, it would be very coarse. The cobs were then used for fire, especially by villages that did not have a forest in which to cut wood.
Hay was also a very important product in the village. It was worth its weight in gold. In the winter, animals were primarily fed hay, especially sheep and goats. Our family had no sheep or goats but we had plenty of hay. Our mule, cow, and oxen could not eat all of it. We traded hay for milk, cheese, or butter with those in the village that had sheep and goats. The sheep herders were always short of hay, especially on harsh winters. The grass in the livadia (meadows) was left to grow about knee deep before it was manu- ally cut with a kosa (scythe). It was then left to dry in rows. Couple of days later the hay was brought home in oxen drawn carts, or bundled at the livadia and loaded on the backs of horses, mules, donkeys, or even oxen drawn carts. Many times due to weather conditions and in order to protect the hay from rotting, we had to pile the hay into kapitsi (hay stacks) until the weather cleared and we had time to bring it home.