My sister started it. Attached to the back of our house on River Road was a “room” known as the summer kitchen. The term meant little to me: my dad had the coal man dump a winter’s load of fuel there.
But when my sister found online photographs of a house on up River Road from us with a similar interior floorplan, the Scott siblings all weighed in with comments and questions about our own house – including the summer kitchen.
Both houses were built in the 1880’s, long before the convenience of rural electrification came to Champaign County. Before air conditioning, regular kitchens could be oppressively hot during the summer months. Thus, families used summer kitchens – attached or unattached – for cooking. Sometimes the cookstove from the kitchen might even be moved there for the hot weather season.
Before the yearly coal delivery, we could see remnants of our former summer kitchen with places for large windows on three sides and lots of counter space. A passageway from the large room led to the back door of our regular kitchen, a convenient arrangement for those long-ago summer meals.
Our house also featured transom windows over interior doors. From what I read, transoms are crossbars used to adjust windows for air circulation and sunlight. I vaguely remember once seeing my dad use a long pole to change the angle of the window over the doorway between the kitchen and the living room.
I also remember two floor-to-ceiling cupboards. In the living room, the bottom section functioned as our toy cupboard with the top part reaching clear to the ceiling. I have no idea how my mother ever reached the very top shelf. I had to stand on a chair to snoop through piles and stacks of interesting stuff – including the hidden paperback copy of Peyton Place I read on the sly.
There was a similar cupboard in the kitchen for dishes and glassware; and in the opposite corner was the pantry, a cool, dark space with just one small window. Mother unloaded brown paper bags of groceries right into this room with its rows of shelves. The pantry was a bit of a catchall – among other things, my father kept his rifles and ammunition there.
Those cupboards and the pantry were the only built-in storage in our River Road kitchen. My dad eventually mounted cupboards above the stove, and my uncle built a cabinet placed between the sink and the stove. And Mother kept pots and pans in the bottom drawer of the stove – we kids loved to drag everything out right when she was trying to fix supper.
Mother also had a Sellers cabinet in another corner of the kitchen. From Google, I learned it was also called a Hoosier cabinet because it was manufactured by a company named Sellers in Newcastle, Indiana. I was most fascinated by its built-in flour sifter, which I am not sure Mother actually used.
The cabinet, described in one online article as a “freestanding kitchen workhorse,” where ladies could do all their food preparation, contained drawers for utensils and space for baking ingredients as well as cubbies for baking pans and mixing bowls. There was also a tabletop surface to pull forward for additional workspace.
As viewers of House Hunters on HGTV know, old houses offer fewer and smaller closets than modern buyers demand. Such was the situation on River Road: each upstairs bedroom had a seriously-small space the size of the coat closet in my current front hall. There was only a linen closet in my parents’ bedroom.
It was a large wardrobe or armoire that held most of my parents’ “good clothes”: suits, coats, dresses, and hats for Mother and my father’s one dark suit. In another first-floor room stood a smaller wardrobe filled with a motley collection of clothing.
We kids had lots of folded clothes – underwear, shirts, socks, and the like – in a chest of drawers just outside the bathroom. Its four drawers were perfect for us: the top drawer was mine because I was the tallest. I never heard a chest of drawers referred to as a dresser or bureau until college.
The most intriguing piece of furniture was Mother’s vanity, complete with a flat surface, large drawers on either side, mirror, and matching stool. I saw ladies on TV sitting in front of their vanities, gazing into the mirror to apply make-up and spritzing on perfume from small, glittery bottles – not exactly the lifestyle of a busy farm wife usually wearing an apron to cover her overalls while herding around a passel of noisy kids.
Our house on River Road is no more, and the house up the road has fallen into sad disrepair. But how I would love to travel back in time to see the summer kitchen in full use and the 1880 house residents adjusting transoms for better air circulation. I would like to watch my father retrieve the meat grinder from the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet to make “ham” salad from bologna for a family reunion. It would be lovely to see my mother actually find a minute to primp a bit at her vanity. And I wish I could stand on tiptoes again to reach into “my” drawer for white anklets to wear to Sunday School – everything just as it was where we once lived…