and Rye Straw
The Germanic immigrants to this area brought with them the custom of rye straw roof thatching. Rye is a cereal grain similar to wheat, but with a habit of growth yielding stalks almost twice as high as wheat. It is claimed that rye straw is somewhat unique in that the fiber is a form of cellulose that is resistant to decay and country lore holds that mice dislike chewing through it.
If we could return to this area in the mid 18th century, we would find most farm buildings that didn’t have chimneys were thatched and not shingled. One advantage of thatch was that farmers had the rye straw on hand anyway; so they could avoid the labor of splitting red oak slabs for shingles and smoothing them with a draw knife. Also, thatch straw is simply bundled and tied on to roof laths; so, unlike shingles, thatch didn’t require expensive, blacksmith made nails. Toward the latter part of that century roof thatching was discontinued; but the rye fields still yielded multiple products, the most important being rye flour, straw, and whiskey.
Most every Germanic house had a bake oven sometimes called a beehive oven for the rounded domed interior which was filled weekly with large, round loaves of rye bread. The immigrants were used to rye bread rather than wheat bread as it was the daily bread of the homeland. According to the Goschenhoppen Intelligencer of 1980 the wheaten loaf was reserved for special occasions, rye bread being the foodstuff of everyday fare. Wheat was the money crop and was usually sold; however, some was eaten on the homestead in the form of flour for pies and baking. Also, rye flour lacks gluten and so will not rise without some percentage of wheat flour.
One researcher wryly noted that perhaps the Germans may not have preferred rye bread at all, but planted rye for the straw and had to find some use for the rye grain and so used it as their bread.
A rye straw bread basket is made of one long coil of rye straw bound with very thin strips of tough, white oak that was smoothed and thinned with a draw knife until it was quite thin and about a quarter inch wide. The straw was soaked and worked wet as was the wood. The basket coil was started in the center bottom as the bundle of rye straw was wrapped round and bound with the oak splints. The coil being worked on was laced with the splints to the coil below which is what gave the basket form and strength. At the top rim the coil was almost completely wrapped with splints for strength. A well made rye straw bread basket would last a lifetime.
Other Stroh karreb—straw baskets— were commonly light duty containers of the farm house. In addition to the ubiquitous bread basket, straw baskets could be given a cloth liner and become sewing baskets, or they held rag balls, spinning or weaving supplies—anything dry and light that needed a container. They usually had no handles and were too delicate for garden or field work. The sturdier, split oak or willow field baskets filled in there. Tall lidded rye straw baskets were also used as dry storage for foods such as schnitz or dried beans. Something about the rye straw—splintery fibers or bitter taste—discouraged rats and mice, it was said.
Round, dome shaped bee hives called “skeps” were also made of rye straw. Rye straw skeps were said to be warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. A lattice of cross sticks was constructed inside for the bees to build comb upon.
Finally, it must be admitted that there was a staggering quantity of rye whiskey drunk in the German regions (as well as all other regions for that matter). There was no moral or religious sentiment against it, and reports note that the whole family, men, women, and children partook. About eleven quarts of the fiery liquid could be made from a bushel of rye, and a considerable portion of the rye production went toward whiskey.
It was thought that it would be impossible to get the harvest in unless the harvestmen were liberally supplied with whiskey from early morning on. Whether scything hay or cradling grain, the common practice was to cut a circuit around the field and then get a reward of a draught of whiskey. Jesting reports noted that in some cases by noon half the workforce was incapacitated and lying on the ground and the other half was engaged in dragging them into the shade!
One reason for rye’s popularity in the early 19th century may have been that wheat was plagued by a parasite called Hessian fly which laid eggs in the stem and the larva destroyed the stalk. Before 1840, though, a Mediterranean variety of wheat that was Hessian fly resistant was introduced and wheat production again climbed as rye declined. Still, in 1848 in Berks County there were 19,410 acres of rye grown as compared to 17,400 of wheat, 17,200 of corn and 15,700 of oats. Much of the rye was marketed as whiskey.
There were all sorts of other uses for rye straw. It was a universal tie for corn and flax shocks; was used as a sieve when pressing cider; and cut into short lengths filled mattresses. Nut trees were marked with a straw band tied around them indicating that the fruit of that tree was claimed by the property owner; nuts of unmarked trees were free for the taking.
Also rye straw could be put down as under-padding for carpets. It could be traded at the local inn for bedding in exchange for the inn’s manure. It was the stuffing of horse collars. It was mixed with clay and was used as insulating or paling between the cellar and first floor of houses. It made good strawberry mulch, and so on. Finally, it also made a very long drinking straw which could be conveniently inserted in the bung hole of a cider or whiskey barrel.