Our fall field trip took us to the farm of Louie and Francis Koleszar near lovely Garretsville. This time we took the term field trip literally. It was only an hour’s drive, but it was at the right at the edge of a hundred years ago. The Koleszar’s home is a working farm of ample acreage where they’ve raised many things over the years, including 14 children. When she has time, Francis is a spinner, and Louie has grown her a small patch of flax to work with. Flax must be broken and cleaned before it can be spun. We were invited to come see how that happens.
We missed the slow part (growing), and the smelly part (retting) of the process, arriving for the last messy steps required before it can be spun into linen. Linen bears no resemblance to its beginnings. It’s really amazing when you see the sticks it starts as: uniform in length and diameter; 3 1/2 feet long and brittle and brown as dirt. The spinable fibers grow along the outside of the stalk, and must be removed intact. Louie demonstrated, and in short time had a flaxen blond pony tail ready for the distaff. The process is simple and laborious. He showed each step again, and invited our member’s to come up and try. Jean and Elly each beat their stack of sticks into a stroke-able mane. In honor of my ancestry, and in the interest of accurate reporting, I grabbed a hefty handful and started with the brake.
A brake does exactly what it says it’s gonna do; it breaks things. It’s made of multiple 8 foot long, heavy wooden planks, cut thick and slightly tapered, arranged length wise and parallel. Alternately attached at each end, it creates a huge scissor effect, and forms a wide wooden mouth that is obviously capable of chewing up more than flax. Keeping fingers safely back and eyes on the task, I lifted the top and knew I had reconnected with the original definition of the term “back-breaking”. I managed to properly crunch my handful, but the process is not for the weak or frail. Having said that, Jean is in her mid 70’s and Elly is past 90, and was dependent on a walker that day, so I didn’t dare start complaining about anything. Whipping the flax on the brake produced clouds of sharp edged chaff. The next step was called scrutching, and basically entailed beating the flax with a flat stick while holding it against a flat board, vertically mounted upright. This step seemed the most futile and unproductive, but maybe that was my experience level. Another quick whip, and it was on to the hackles.
I had been warned the hackles were sharp. They looked dangerous enough to be a weapon. Most of the flax tools looked capable of producing painful and debilitating injury or even death, but the hackles could maim you in so many creative ways. I have a hackle at home, as a conversation piece, but it’s teeth are widely spaced and worn dull. It turns out real flax processing requires working through a sized progression of multiple, razor sharp hackles. Slap the handful into the rows of teeth and draw back to brush it like a pony tail. Every draw brought large quantities of short, uneven tow out to be removed, and more chaff, eventually leaving only a long, smooth, golden hank clutched in my fist. I might have held it up in victory, had I not spotted the crimson bead rising fast on the point of my knuckle. Flax was in my bloodline, and if I didn’t act fast, my bloodline was about to be in the flax. I really had tried to be careful, but there was proof that I hadn’t been careful enough. I couldn’t help but think that it must have been a regular thing to bleed while working flax. There’s danger everywhere. A steady downwind to work against would have been essential to any real production. The clouds of particulate matter flying around could easily produce breathing problems. Sealed goggles should be standard equipment. Susan Conover put a flax seed in her hand and showed how it is flat on both sides. She said the workers used to put the seeds into their eyes at the end of the day. The seeds would move around the eye without scratching, and collect every irritating thing before being easily removed. No; I was not willing to go that far to reenact that part of my family history. I love linen, but I really love the fact that in this day and age, I don’t have to do all the exhausting, smelly, dangerous work to get it.
A light rain had started to fall, and we moved into the house to be treated to large trays of home baked apple strudel. We had reservations for lunch, but we wouldn’t have dreamed of being rude after Francis had toiled so at the oven. The baked goods were delicious, and we stayed for a short visit. We wandered around to see her collection of spinning wheels. We marveled at the big stone topped wood stove that heated their home. Oil lanterns testified to the unreliability of the electrical grid. I got the impression that the world could fall away from their little hamlet, and they’d get by just fine.
It was time to go for lunch, so we said our good-byes and climbed back into the cars. We had loaded Elly, Betty, Sarah, and me into Jean’s Toyota for the trip out, and even though the seating was tight, we knew we were saving gas and staying together. We had all enjoyed playing with the navigation system (dubbed “Mabel”). We were anxiously anticipating how she was going to handle the country roads that comprised the next leg of our trip and playing “shift and click” with the seat belts; and then we realized the car hadn’t started. Jean was patiently and repeatedly trying to turn the key, and nothing was moving. We all tried every option we knew. We read through the owners manual. We begged. We prayed. Nothing. The steady rain had lessened visibility, and if we had thought to get out and wave our arms wildly, it might not have happened; but the others, seeing us all closed in the car, lined up at the end of the drive, and drove off.
Louie, realizing there was one left behind, came out to investigate and assist. His male touch drew no response from the ignition, so he went behind the barn and brought out the big green tractor. Working under the theory that moving the car would jar something loose or remind it what was expected of it, he hooked chains in the appropriate places and dragged it around while Jean continued to coax the key with increasingly colorful conversation. It became obvious that we had exhausted all our available automotive options. We went in to get out of the rain. Jean called to summon AAA to the rescue, only to be told that her husband would have to be with the car to have them respond. Jean, it seems is not a member; so sorry, not coming. A local tow driver was called and arrangements were made for a long expensive trip back. The name of the restaurant we were expected in had just changed, and no one could remember the new name to call and tell the rest of our group that we were stranded.
We were considering more strudel when Louie offered to run the rest of us into town. We could meet up, have a good lunch and get rides home from there. We were concerned that they would eat and leave, forgetting the 5 they left behind, so we quickly accepted the offer, and climbed into the Koleszar station wagon.
We still had three in the back, and now, no matter how much molesting we did to each other’s flanks, we couldn’t get the seat belts to catch. I told myself that traffic was minimal on these remote country roads, and that we probably didn’t have far to go. We joked that we could hold each others straps in case of emergency. As we rolled up and over and around the outback of Ohio, we were reminded that country distances measure differently. Down the street could easily translate into 15 or 20 miles, and a town or two away. Louie told us how the traffic is so much more challenging now that the Amish were moving into the area. We were busy watching for buggies when we came up a steep hill. The car ahead of us had slowed in response to the 18 wheeler that seemed too heavy to clear the crest. Then the big rig stopped, and we all stopped. We pondered whether it was the drivers choice or only option, and as we debated the sanity and logic of that parking location, Louie dropped us into a lower gear and put his foot to the floor. I was seated behind the driver. As soon as our tires crossed the double yellow line, my head dropped in fervent prayer. “Nothing coming. Please. Don’t want to die”. I believe we were all praying, maybe even Louie. Until we cleared the impass, our options were straight ahead, head on, off the hill, or under the truck.
The danger had long passed before I looked up to see the old houses, built close together and crowding the street to announced we were coming into the town. It didn’t matter what the destination was currently named; it used to be the mill. All the locals knew it, and the huge water wheel was a dead give-away to the tourists. We were dropped off at the door, and we went in to meet the rest of our party; grateful to have arrived and survived. We shared a tasty lunch and the tale of our extra adventure.
Flax and toe
Before the industrial revolution, flax was the fiber of choice for everything from coarse thick ship sails to the finest laces. Examples dating from the third millennium BC have been found in Neolithic Swiss Lake dwellings. The Egyptians painted examples of spinners working flax on their tombs as early as 1900 BC.