Sweet potatoes are planted in the summer around the 4th of July. They can be planted as vines or slips and the potatoes grow under ground.
Farmers harvest them (known as digging) in early fall and lay them in the sun or in an open place to dry out and “cure” for a while. They will last for a month or so in baskets or crates.
The sugars in the potato change during this process. A freshly-ug potato is not very sweet but as it matures in the air, it becomes much sweeter when cooked.
Sweet potatoes are a very nutritious tuber that can be baked, fried, boiled or mashed. We make casseroles or soufflés, sweet potato chips, candied sweet potatoes, baked sweet potatoes, etc. They are a winter staple full of fiber and vitamins that keep people well-fed in the cold winter.
Potatoes need to be kept in the correct environment as to moisture away from freezing temperatures to allow them to last all winter. Thus the farmer devised a way to allow correct moisture and temperature by banking the sweet potatoes underground. Potatoes that are stored are not washed until they are prepared to eat.
A long, shallow trench is dug around six to nine inches deep. Some people then place the ventilators, as shown in the accompanying photo, standing upright in the trench. A layer of pine straw is placed over the bottom of the trench. Potatoes are then piled in a mound around the ventilators which were eight to ten feet apart in the trench. (Some people did not use the ventilator and just put the potatoes on the straw in heaps).
The potatoes are completely covered in another thick layer of pine straw and then covered with six inches or more of dirt. Some people put boards between the straw and dirt but that is not necessary. The dirt helps keep the desired temperature and the ventilation box allows the potatoes to breathe when it gets warm from the sun or damp from rain.
The finished potato bank mound looked like a horse had been buried. The bank size varied with the number of mounds inside depending on whether you stored six bushes or 20 bushels of potatoes. Potatoes in the bank would keep without sprouting or shriveling through the winter in this cool, dark place.
Whenever needed, potatoes were dug out of the mound by hand and the straw and dirt replaced as potatoes were removed week by week or day to day. Some of the stored potatoes were kept for planting the next year as seed potatoes. Sugar cane is banked in a similar fashion for seed cane for the next year’s crop.
Mrs. Libby Heidt says she has “memories” but that they that are not so fond when referring to the chore of being sent to the potato bank by her mother. She said she never knew what else she might find when putting her hands into that mound underground to collect the sweet potatoes.
Nowadays growers use cold-storage facilities to keep sweet potatoes in the proper environment so that they are available year-round. With foreign produce imported to supplement sweet potatoes grown in the U.S., we have a generous supply. Today, we have it easy in contrast to the farmer and his family in times gone by.
Next week when you prepare your sweet potato dishes to accompany the turkey for Thanksgiving, remember how your grandmother labored to get those dishes to her table a century ago.
This was written by Susan Exley of Historic Effingham Society. If you have photos, comments or information to share, contact Susan Exley at 754-6681 or email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.