Goin’ plum huntin’

Joyce Whitits

One day just a few weeks ago, as I raced down a stretch of highway, I saw a couple of women and a small child picking wild plums off roadside bushes. A glimpse of those plum gatherers with their boxes full of fruit stirred memories of summers long ago when my family used to load up the wagon and go “plum huntin”. Those good times were right in there with Christmas when it came to a good time and even now I remember the pleasure of those long, slow trips. Dad’s favorite mules, Maude and Kit pulled our iron wheeled wagon as we wound our way through the rough back country of Hardeman County known as “the breaks”.

The excitement began the day before when Dad would say, “Well, I guess we ought to go plum huntin’ tomorrow.” With those magic words, mental pictures opened for me as I anticipated the fun we would have and the picnic we’d enjoy. It seemed I’d hardly get to sleep before Mother called me to get up.

She never had to call me but once on this special day and everyone else seemed as eager to get going as I was. Dad would have the team harnessed and hitched to the wagon with the lines tied up, before we had finished washing the dishes and packing our lunch. By daylight we’d be off on the trail through the breaks. I liked to sit on the back of the wagon and watch dust puff up as light and soft as my parents’ voices drifting back to me from their places on the wagon seat. Sometimes I’d jump off the back of the wagon and then race to get back on. Other times I’d crawl up toward the front and lie back on the quilts Mother had fixed for my brother and me.

When Dad turned Maude and Kit off the main trail and started across the mesquite pasture, I’d listen to my brother’s stories about hunting trips in the breaks and camping experiences he’d had with his friends.

There was no road through the breaks and that was one reason for making the trip in the wagon. The other reason was that we needed the room in the bed for the washtubs and boxes Mother and Dad put there for us to fill. Traveling by wagon was slow, but added to the excitement of this special day and we seemed to see so much more of the country as the mules found their way through the sagebrush and shinery.

Sometimes we’d see a prairie dog town and then everybody would laugh at the little animals that sat up and wiggled their tails so excitedly before vanishing into the ground. After awhile we’d come to a little clear creek and we’d all get out to stretch while the team watered. We’d get drinks from the gallon fruit jars my folks had brought from home. These jars were wrapped in toe sacks and soaked in the water trough before we left home. For much of the day the water stayed cool.

Soon after the little rest stop, we’d make a little turn around some brown rocks streaked with red and then there would be the plum bushes. I never stopped being surprised at how many there were and how pretty that red and yellow fruit was. I liked wild plums even better than orchard fruit and with a leap over the side of the still moving wagon, I would grab a gallon syrup bucket and dash for the nearest bush. For the first fifteen minutes I ate as many plums as I put in my bucket, then slowly I’d fill my bucket and make a trip to empty it in the washtub.

We picked steadily until the sun stood directly overhead. Then Dad would glance up and say he guessed it was about dinnertime. Then out would come the picnic basket and all the good things Mother had packed for us. We’d spread a quilt under the sparse shade of a mesquite and enjoy resting while we ate fried chicken, cold biscuit and sour pickles.

For the next few days, the house would be filled with the sweet smell of plum preserves, plum jelly, plum pudding, and plum butter. Mother would spend most of the daylight hours and part of the night stooped over a hot stove stirring a boiling kettle. Somehow the things she made with those wild plums and put up in glass jars always tasted especially good. Maybe that was because we all had a hand in it.