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Keep cultural heritage from fading away

Generations must work together to preserve knowledge, skills and traditions

Some of the greatest gifts we can pass from generation to generation aren’t necessarily tangible inheritances but rather skills, traditions and cultural heritage. I was reminded of this recently when I visited the Mailes farm in southwest Missouri, situated about a stone’s throw from the Oklahoma border. Four generations of family, along with about 100 friends and neighbors, gathered on a beautiful October day to make sorghum “molasses” the old-fashioned way. (See the story on page 20).

EditorAllisonWhile this homespun tradition has been going on for more than 30 years on the Mailes farm, it has largely disappeared elsewhere in today’s society. Beyond the Baby Boomer generation, I doubt there are many folks who have seen the sorghum-cooking process in person, except maybe demonstrations at Silver Dollar City or some type of folklife festival.

That got me thinking about other traditions, skills and crafts that will be lost over time if those who possess the knowledge do not keep it alive. It can be something as simple as how to make Mom’s sweet tea or Aunt Marian’s sugar twists or complex as learning advanced woodworking techniques or the intricate art of braiding bullwhips.

Before I could finish this column, news came that my 92-year-old grandmother, Deloris Dykes, had passed away. I miss her already. Granny Dykes loved her God, her family and her flowers. She was smart and stubborn, opinionated and passionate with a mind like a steel trap, even until the end.

And she was incredibly talented as a storyteller, horticulturalist and seamstress. Growing up, she made nearly all of my Easter dresses among many other outfits for my sister, brother and cousins. She could sew beautiful quilts, stitch exquisite embroidery, skillfully hem pants and re-create a garment without needing a pattern. She knew all kinds of folk remedies and believed in following the “signs” for the best times to undertake certain tasks. She raised chickens and grew a prolific vegetable garden. What we didn’t eat fresh, she would preserve by canning and freezing.

Granny—and many other women and men of her generation—fit perfectly into this discussion of saving skills and traditions that are in danger of dying. For example, I should have let her teach me to sew, although my lack of dexterity might have made that impossible. Now that she’s gone, however, it’s too late to even try. Don’t make the same mistake. Younger folks must take time to learn from their elders. Older generations must take time to disseminate their knowledge. If not, time will run out.

Yes, in the internet age, information and resources are more accessible than ever. What used to be considered “tricks of the trade” are now streamed step-by-step. Specialized tools and materials can be ordered for next-day delivery. An online search can quickly pull up tutorials on how to do just about anything.

It’s not the same. Google and YouTube cannot replace the hands-on instruction and encouragement of a loyal mentor. I could watch how-to-sew videos all day long but it would never replace in-person lessons from someone who has spent a lifetime learning and honing those skills.

Today’s culture of instant gratification is partly to blame. It takes years to achieve mastery in a craft. Both teacher and student have to be patient and willing to put in the time and effort. Careers and handicrafts such as blacksmithing, taxidermy, stained-glass making and carpentry often require apprenticeships before the artisan is ready to work on his or her own.

We need new tradespeople and artisans. We need storytellers and historians. We need folks who can pass on useful homesteading skills and uphold community and cultural traditions.

Most of all, we need people like Maurice Mailes who recognize the importance of preserving rural heritage, no matter how much work it takes. Every year, his farm’s annual sorghum day perpetuates the old-time tradition and introduces new generations to this and other heirloom skills such as pressing apples for cider, cranking antique corn shellers and hand-twisting sisal strands into sturdy ropes.

What skills, traditions, knowledge, stories, trades or crafts should be passed down in your family or community? Let’s find ways to secure a future for these important parts of our collective culture before they fade away.

 CLICK HERE to read more from this November Today's Farmer Magazine.

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