Pioneer Potluck: Monday morning washing and Tuesday ironing

  • Tuesday, October 17, 2017 12:20pm
  • LifeFood

On a farm in Northern Colorado, 1937-1955

As far back as I can remember, I recall my Mother lugging a big basket of wet clothes out to the clothesline. She hung them with care so that the underwear was hung on the second line and then the sheets on the first line. That way none of our neighbors that might happen to pass by, could see our underwear! Overalls, Levis and Dads shirts hung on the last line. His shirts were hung by the shirt tail. Kids clothes filled up the rest of the lines.

The Maytag ringer washing machine with a rinse tub attached, was located down 13 cement stairs to the basement. It was placed next to the two big cement square, laundry tubs where the faucets were. The water heater was next to it. The drain in the floor was off to one side, where Mom drained her washing machine water when she was done.

She lugged all the dirty clothes down to the basement in her basket, five kids’ dirty clothes from a week and Dad’s farming clothes. The white shirt he wore on Sunday to church and our Sunday School clothes and socks and under wear were washed first. They were rinsed and the white shirt and our dresses were put in a tub of starch water, dunked (a word we used often in the McClure household), run through the ringer and put in a basket.

Mom then loaded the washing machine with sheets and pillow cases. While they were washing she took the “white clothes” as she called our church clothes, up the 13 stairs to the porch, out and down the outside four steps to the clothesline located across the driveway. Back down the 13 steps to the next load of clothes that had been washing for about 12 to 15 minutes, put through the ringer one at a time, into the rinse water and then through the ringer to the basket that was once again lugged up the 13 steps. I have not idea how many trips she made up and down those stairs in one day.

My first recollections of helping Mom hang clothes was handing her wet clothes from the basket under the clothesline, I probably was all of 3. Then when I got older — about 10 — she would “allow” me to hang clothes on the line as long as I did it right. At that time we just had the old-fashioned clothespins, not the spring type. We thought the spring type clothes pins were just the neatest invention! So much for small things to admire.

All this was fun — kinda, in the spring and warm Colorado summers. The late fall and all winter was not so thrilling! Cold frozen fingers were normal. Taking down frozen clothes that were freeze-dried as my Mom referred to them, were stiff as a board. We were warned not to fold them, because it would break them! The kitchen table was the receiver of the clean smelling clothes to be folded in neat stacks and put away.

After all the clothes were brought in, folded and put away, it was time to make all the beds with clean sheets. That was not my favorite project. Twin beds were pushed together in the bedroom where John, Ginger and I slept. I got to sleep in the crack, or the middle of the two beds. Mom and Dad had a big heavy double bed with a massive wooden headboard and a shorter foot board. It was by far the worst bed that I have every tried to help make. No wonder Mom needed me to help her!

The dresses, shirt, Levis, pillow cases had been starched in a separate tub and run through the ringer to be hung up to dry, then taken down and laid out on the kitchen table to be “sprinkled” with warm water, rolled up tight and placed in a basket for the next morning ironing. Mom would dip her hand in warm water, shake her hand over the starched garment and “sprinkle” the water until she was satisfied it would be just damp when she went to iron. One day she came home with a bottle of Coca Cola, we each get a sip, as we were never allowed “pop” or much store bought candy and absolutely NO gum. That would rot your teeth. She also purchased a small top to go on the bottle that had tiny holes in it. She would fill the bottle with warm water, fit the top with holes in it and sprinkle the clothes. We thought that was a great invention too! I got to “learn” how to do the sprinkling with the pop bottle. I was so proud! All the starched and sprinkled clothes were put in a basket, a towel we placed over the top and tucked in.

Tuesday morning rolled around and after a breakfast of biscuits, gravy, eggs, sausage, bacon or ham or all three on Sunday, dishes washed and put away, the old wooden ironing board was taken out of Mom’s closet. It was unfolded in the middle of the kitchen, the wooden legs secured so it would not collapse, then it was put in the corner of the kitchen where we could plug in the big iron.

They did NOT make lightweight irons in those days. When it heated you started with pillow cases that were ironed, folded and ironed, folded and ironed again. Next came Dad’s white shirt. Mom always did that until I was in High School because it was his ONLY good white shirt and she did not want it scorched. Especially the collar, as it would look like it was dirty and she would have to wash it all over again.

I ironed brother’s shirts, my dresses and blouses and the cute dresses of sister Ginger. I was 10 when brother Jim was born and I was 8 when little sister Elaine was born. At times the cloth diapers were ironed. And I loved to iron the tiny shirts and dresses of theirs.

When I was in High School, Mom acquired a Mangle Iron, a big 3-foot contraption with a big cloth roller and a big curved metal iron that heated up. You sat on a chair, pushed the knee pedal and the big metal iron slowly came down and clamped the cloth roller. You released it after a few seconds the metal iron came up and you relocated a different part of the shirt on the roller and clamped the metal iron down again. It was wonderful for the circular skirts that Ginger and I wore in High School, and some every day clothes, but Mom still used the old fashion wooden ironing board for the “nice clothes.” The Mangle stayed in the corner of the kitchen for about 4 years and one day it was gone. We speculated it was called a mangle because if you go your hands or fingers caught in it — they would be “mangled.”

I still love to iron. When Gail was born in 1957, Jack and I lived in Fort Collins, in a small neighborhood where the houses were built for the G.I.s that were in college on the G.I. Bill. I supplemented our income by baby sitting neighborhood babies and taking in ironing. I charged $5 a day for the babies, and $8 for a big basket of ironing. I would put the babies and Gail down for a nap, get out my modern ironing board, no wooden legs on this one, and iron other people’s clothes and watch Betty Davis movies on our new back and white TV. I enjoyed what I did. One thing I refused to do was patching clothes or putting on buttons. NOPE, not me!

When Dad and Mom moved off the farm and settled not to far from the John Deere Dealership that Dad bought, on Highway 14 outside of Fort Collins, Mom did not have an automatic washing machine. She once again lugged her and Dad’s washing to the Laundromat in Fort Collins. Us kids and Dad, who was the provider of the money to buy it, decided to she needed a washing machine in the house. The “broom closet” was already plumbed for a washer and dryer. (My memory is vague about if we installed a dryer at this time also.) Dad bought the machine and had it hauled out, someone diverted Mom’s attention and took her off to town where she did her favorite thing, shopping. The machine was uncrated on the back porch, carried into the kitchen, and the brooms taken out of the closet. It was a struggle for a time, getting it hooked up. Finally Mom had a washing machine!

We all waited in the kitchen for her to come home and start putting her groceries away — she opened up the broom closet door, to put the paper sacks away, and there was her washing machine. Instead of being startled or pleased or surprised, she said “Now WHERE am I going to put the broom?”

We were so speechless we could not say anything, oh … except me, I started to giggle. She regained her composure, with a half thank you, adding “but I did not need that.” Later in the year she thanked us all for how nice it was to have a washing machine in the house in the winter. I still do not think she had a dryer. I think she hung her clothes on the line.

Our modern washers and dryers sure put to shame the struggles our moms went through to have their family clean and clothes spic and span when they went to church or marched off to school.

This story was suggested by two friends that read these articles and my daughter Susan. I appreciate your suggestions. Thank you!

The Pioneer Potluck series is written by 50-year resident of Alaska, Ann Berg of Nikiski. Ann shares her collections of recipes from family and friends. She has gathered recipes for more that 50 years. Some are her own creation. Her love of recipes and food came from her mother, a self-taught wonderful cook. She hopes you enjoy the recipes and that the stories will bring a smile to your day. Grannie Annie can be reached at

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