Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Nella Fontaine Binckley: "Odds and Ends from an Artist's Life," Chapter II, Part 4

Avenel, Bedford, Virginia (Wiki Commons)
[Nella Fontaine Binckley, "Odds and Ends from an Artist's Life," Chapter II, part 4. From a transcription annotated by Patricia D'Arcy Binckley of typewritten original, February 25, 2005. Original "written some time after 1941 by Nellie F. Binckley, 1860-1950 or 51." Notes in brackets are mine, unless followed by the initials "P.D.B." Occasionally, additional paragraph breaks inserted for easier reading. 

Many thanks to William Myers, Mary Davy, Sally Young and Sue Davis for their ongoing research collaboration; specifically to William for providing a scan of the original document (and of the photograph of Harvey Mitchell/Harvey Michel), and in turn many thanks to Peter Binckley and Patricia D'Arcy "Trish" Binckley (1951-2007), at the source.]

Each room had a big fireplace. And every morning the maid would bring a big pitcher of hot water to each bedroom, and the lady would take a sponge bath in the china washbasin and the foot tub -- in the winter before the blazing wood fire. Once a week a washtub was brought in and filled with warm water, and the lady got in. It was primitive. But it was adequate. One could keep clean.

Cousin Fanny Burwell's place, called Avenel, was within the town and so had a lovely bathroom. But Bellevue was nearly a mile beyond all plumbing and had to keep on as it had always been. 

Nobody ever dreamed of window screens then. So there were flies. But in the mornings the servants would drive out the flies from the large and lofty rooms and draw the wooden shutters together, just touching -- it was called bowing them -- and the rooms were kept dark and cool 

The big cool dining room was kept darkened except when in use. During meals a colored boy stood beside the table holding a long handled brush made of peacock feathers, a whole tail, which he swayed over the table, keeping away the flies. I suppose the rythmic motion was soporific and I've seen him go to sleep on his feet. But the brush never stopped swaying.

And the good things on that table! At breakfast and supper always several kinds of hot bread. Southerners love hot bread. At breakfast always beaten biscuits.  If one happened to wake at five o'clock in the morning, one could hear the cook beating the biscuits; it takes some hours to get them light. The air is beaten into them, I understand. They have a fineness of texture no other biscuits have. There were also griddle cakes, soda biscuits, and hoecake, the latter of either flour or corn meal.

At dinner, served about 3 p.m., always corn pone. I don't remember that they ever had any other kind of bread at dinner. A corn pone is the hottest thing on the face of the earth. Grandmother could always break them when nobody else could, though. Sort of asbestos fingers. Corn pone has no shortening, no leavening, no eggs. Just plain corn meal, salt and water. Made into a stiff batter, molded into a sort of oblong cake, and baked in the oven. The mark of the fingers is always [plainly] to be seen on each pone. At supper, various kinds of hot bread, egg bread, Sally Lunn, etc. Egg bread is of soft corn meal batter, plenty of eggs, served in its own baking dish, and spooned out with a big spoon. Sally Lunn, made of flour, also comes to the table in its own baking dish. They had loaf breads, too of course, "salt rising," etc. But I never took much interest in them.

All the other good things to eat, meat, vegetables, desserts, and so on, were much the same, I imagine, as anywhere in the United States. There is one distinctively Southern dish, however, served at dinner, which I think belongs to Virginia. That is corn pudding. Not a dessert, mind you. In the South it is considered wicked to put sugar with corn meal -- something unspeakably awful. To be sure, Yankees do it. But everyone to his taste, as the old woman said when she kissed the cow. Corn pudding is a vegetable dish. The cook takes a fresh ear of corn and, with a sharp knife, cuts down the middle of each row of kernels and then scrapes the inside out. A bowl of this -- the heart of the corn -- is then seasoned with butter, eggs, milk, salt and pepper of course, and baked till browned lightly on top. A dish for the gods!

Grandfather's brother, Uncle Robert Mitchell, had an estate named Wheatley [aka Wheatly] about six miles from town. Uncle Robert had changed the spelling of his name and a put a "t" and a double "l" for the sake of convenience, as people so often mispronounced Michel. But Grandfather and Grandmother never did. Why turn a French name into an English one? They always kept it Michel and pronounced it so. We used to visit at Wheatley, too, of course. In the early days, each estate had its own private burying ground. Wheatley had, and Grandfather is buried there. After his death, hos old body servant, Uncle Harrison, lived the rest of his life at Wheatley.

Much as I loved visiting out dear kinfolk, we were always glad to get home to Washington [and] Dad. I was said to be very much like him, though I had Mother's blonde coloring. His hair was dark and his eyes gray. His friends used to say that I looked like John Milton Binckley running around in little dresses. 

[Ellen/Nellie/Nella Fontaine Binckley (September 1, 1860-April 27, 1951). Family names and dates were whimsically tweaked by their owners during their lifetime, adding mystery and sometimes causing confusion. For Binckley's "Artist's Life," I'm opting for the full artist's signature name, Nella Fontaine Binckley. 

Grandfather = Harvey Mitchell/Michel (1799-1866).
Grandmother = Jane Johnston Mitchell/Michel (1811-1892).
Mother = Mary Louisa/Louise Mitchell/Michel Binckley (1838-1930).
Father = John Milton Binckley (circa 1831-1878).

Cousin Fanny Burwell (Avenel)  = Frances "Fanny" Callaway Steptoe (1810-1898), daughter of James Callaway Steptoe (1781-1827) and Catherine "Kitty" Mitchell (1780-1858), husband of William McCreary Burwell (1809-1888). 

Robert Mitchell (Wheatly) = Robert Crump Mitchell (1807-1872).

Uncle Harrison = former slave, freed by Harvey Mitchell/Michel before the American Civil War. In the 1870 Federal Census, there is a Harrison Mitchell (aka Coles) residing in Liberty, born circa 1790, listed as "black."]

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