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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Interview: Living History with Pamela of Shadetree Primitives

Most of us want to have the latest and greatest gadgets in the kitchen, what with our hurried lifestyles and trying to pack as much into every moment. Some people are in such a hurry to get to the next project or chore that being in the kitchen is a burden merely to be endured. They might even wish their microwave would hurry up! Conversely, other people are at the other end of the spectrum, preferring a slower pace in life. Pamela and her husband, Frank, are two such people who celebrate simplicity in their lives by what they call "Living History."
As soon as you see their kitchen, you know something is definitely different. You won’t see a microwave or even an electric stove. Instead, you’ll see a wood cook stove prominently displayed amongst all sorts of antique goodies! You’ll feel you’ve stepped back in time and, in some ways, you have. Back to a time when every moment was lived and nothing was taken for granted.

Pamela started her "Living History" journey back in the early 1970s when she got married to Frank, who came with quite the antique collection. Since she grew up with parents who also collected antiques, she had a respect and appreciation for them. A bridal shower gift – an oil burner "Wedding Lamp" – was Pamela and Frank’s first antique item as a couple, and that started their collaborative collection.

Pretty much content in just collecting antiques, the push for going beyond mere collectors to "Living History”" occurred in 2005 when Frank had a major health scare – six bypasses! Realizing that life is too precious to take anything for granted, Pamela and Frank decided to immerse themselves in their passion for the days of yesteryear by taking a keen interest in reenacting. Living near enough to a Civil War mansion in Macon, Georgia, they found kindred spirits who shared their love and appreciation for that era, eventually leading to "Living History" on a genuine Southern plantation.

Luckily, throughout their years of collecting primitive and colonial items, they also collected clothing, oftentimes dressing up in their period pieces and going to schools and churches to educate people on how our ancestors lived.

It was during this period Pamela cooked on a woodstove for the very first time, and she was hooked. It took her over two years, but she finally found a woodstove just like the one she used at the plantation. This stove was pretty much the first "official" purchase for the cookhouse. Other things before and after came piecemeal, acquiring dinnerware, eating utensils, drinking vessels, etc. In true "olden" days fashion, it’s all mismatched, which adds even more realism and quaintness to the cookhouse.
Often Pamela and Frank prepare period foods and serve them to their friends for dinner parties. They research recipes (called "receipts" back then) and prepare the food as authentically as possible. One of their favorite recipes is Sweet Potato Pie. Notice the spelling errors, which are in the original "receipt."

Sweet Potato Pie.

Two pounds of potatoes will make two pies. Boil the potatoes soft; peel and mash fine through a cullender while hot; one tablespoonful of butter to be mashed in with the potato. Take five eggs and beat the yelks and whites separate and add one gill of milk; sweeten to taste; squeeze the juice of one orange, and grate one-half of the peel into the liquid. One half teaspoonful of salt in the potatoes. Have only one crust and that at the bottom of the plate. Bake quickly.

From: Abby Fisher. What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking. Women's Co-operative Printing Office:San Francisco, 1881.

(Note: Pamela uses enough milk to make a slightly moist center before baking - about 1/2 cup. Additionally, she also uses their favorite, Butternut Squash, as a substitute. Any kind of squash would be suited to this "receipt," though).

Pamela and Frank enjoy "Living History" so they don’t sweat the small stuff in worrying about if the best glasses and china are out. They use all their mismatched finery, making their guests truly feel like they’ve stepped back in time – a simpler time when camaraderie and good conversation was much more important than having the linen napkins match the pattern in the china.

As a fine example, on one such occasion, a dinner guest commented that she had a snuff jar instead of a drinking glass. To which Frank replied: "No, honey, that is your glass!" She was a bit taken aback, but soon realized this was how things were done in the olden days. She also realized that company was far more important than protocol, appreciative of being included in such a wonderful glimpse into history and what our ancestors’ daily lives were like.

Of course, there are challenges to living in what some would consider a "primitive" way. Pamela can’t flip a switch on the oven and have things ready in short order. It takes time to chop the wood, store it, and then build the fire. It takes not only effort, but also planning and foresight. It can be particularly challenging to go out to the cookhouse on a cold day and build and tend to the fire. Once that fire is going, it’s often 30 degrees hotter near the stove than it is in the rest of the room. That might be pleasant during winter time, but in the warmer months, it can be very uncomfortable. Our ancestors, however, had no choice, so they made the best of it.

There are benefits to woodstove cooking; in the words of Pamela: "slightly smoky food that tastes wonderful and homemade, warmth of the fire, faces of folks who watch me perform my magic, [and] watching children compete for the opportunity to work in the kitchen." The woodstove may bring physical warmth but, as you can see, it also brings an emotional warmth that lasts a lot longer than a belly full of good food!

The woodstove isn’t the only low tech item in the cookhouse, by the way. There are plenty of other gadgets popular during the Civil War era that Pamela has. She discovered along the way that if she needs a certain gadget, they had it 150 years ago, or at least some reasonable facsimile or way to get the job done. She has vintage can openers, graters, wood spoons and bowls, spice box, old flour sacks for towels, iron cookware, etc. Of all the items she has, her nutmeg grater is her favorite. She calls it the "perfect kitchen gadget."
Did you know that nutmeg was actually used quite a bit during that time period to season many of the dishes – much more so than it is today?

Pamela spends a lot of time in the cookhouse during the spring and fall seasons. As you can imagine since it gets pretty hot near the stove, she cuts down on time spent out there during the summer. Winter is just as challenging due to the cold, so Pamela does have the luxury of a modern kitchen in her home. Despite all the modern conveniences, though, her heart belongs to the cookhouse.

While most people would consider this lifestyle hobby a challenge, Pamela never felt overwhelmed by committing to using the cookhouse as much as possible. She realizes her "Living History" isn’t for everyone, but it suits her personality and Frank's very well. Their "Living History" also extends to more than just the kitchen, despite living in a modern home. They raised their children in a 160 year old farmhouse, all sleeping on feather mattresses with rope "springs." They even did their home studies by candlelight. For entertainment, there wasn’t the usual TV; rather, they played in the yard or the fields. Pamela and Frank are proud of their children, each having a strength of character birthed, in part, from the simple way in which they were raised. They learned to appreciate what’s real in life, instead of the transitory pleasures of electrical gadgets and mind numbing media.

After my interview with her, Pamela shared with me she had suffered a double brain aneurysm in 1997 that has left her with severe short-term memory loss. She finds herself working through fifteen minutes of time, and if she survives that, she can go on to the next fifteen minutes. She lovingly credits her husband, Frank, as her memory. The cookhouse helps her with her memory challenges as it tends to free her mind and brings her a joy that most people may not understand.

This brought to mind a line from "Star Trek: Insurrection." Daniel Hugh Kelly’s character said something to the effect of when you allow a machine to do the work of a human, you take something away from the human. I haven’t seen that movie in several years, but that line has always stayed with me. I think it’s because there’s some truth to it. Pamela has found some truth to it, too, in the way her cookhouse is a much simpler setting without any high tech machinery. When I’m hand washing and air drying my clothes, I feel a certain sense of well being and simplicity. It’s a certain feeling of connection to my clothing. When you use machines, you’re more removed from your food, clothes, and what have you. In a sense, it takes away just a little bit what it’s like to be human and to be doing – to have joy and connection in the utter simplicity of doing.

For more information about Pamela’s life, please see: Shade Tree Primitives, Shadetree Primitives Picture Trail, and Civil Folks.


  1. Wow, bless their hearts. I say if they can live like that, more power to them. What a wonderful post. I really enjoyed reading it. I love those iron skillets hanging on the wall.

  2. Oh my! I would be lost with out my kitchen aid mixer. Guess I wouldn't do so well "back in the day".


  3. I've lived both ways and my husband wants to go back to the woodstove life but have me chop all the wood! Helps to have kids around but now that they have grown and gone ... well it" ain;t happen baby" . Fun to have as a separate building though . Loved this post , Thanks

  4. I would love to have the opportunity to step back in time whenever I wanted like that! I've taken some cooking classes at a nearby living history museum where we learned how to cook on a woodstove and it was so much fun. A lot of work, but fun too.