It is one of those postcard perfect Sunday afternoons in September—no clouds in the sky, only in my head—and I think I will flop on the bed in despair if I can’t come up with a meaningful destination for a short day trip. Friends are unavailable to me today, so it’s all up to me. I Google the desktop for “fall festivals Westmoreland County,” that geographical limitation in keeping with the fact that it is already approaching 2 p.m. Having examined a few hits for about 15 minutes, I find only one option for September 14, 2014—the Flax Scutching Festival in Stahlstown, PA.
When I notice that this festival features food and entertainment as well as demonstrations on flax scutching, I think ‘why not.’ I could be there in 30-40 minutes, and the site lists 6 p.m. as closing time. It feels good to have a destination in mind rather than just to cruise the Sunday roadways hoping to discover a reason for doing so.
My little American hybrid loves cruising at 45 mph on state route 711, sucking in the 65 degree air, heading south from Ligonier for the eight miles to the village of Stahlstown. However, the uptight woman in a larger vehicle behind me seems unaware that this may be the most beautiful afternoon of the year in one of the prettiest living landscapes of Pennsylvania. She seems obsessed with looming larger than life in my rearview mirror to make certain that I know how annoyed she feels. If I could see a safe place to pull over to enable her to race to her fire, I would do so. There is not, so I’ll just let her stew as I continue to abide the speed limit and take in the soothing green vistas of Rolling Rock country.
We are now at the crest of a little hill where I can see evidence of festival revelers to my right. I slow my vehicle to see where to turn in, but opt for a left turn into a playground parking area just to get “Frenetic Freda” off my back. Now, with a chance to breathe, I can see the festival entrance ahead. I then make my way out of the playground area and cross the road into the festival grounds. The admission should be four dollars, according to the website, but the friendly parking attendant charges only two dollars for the late afternoon arrivals. Now about 3:20 p.m., he volunteers information that the next flax scutching demonstration will begin at 4:00 and that they’ll still be serving food for a while. Even though I’m not terribly hungry at this point, I certainly don’t want to squander my opportunity to sample country cooking, so I set out to follow my nasal passages to the most inviting aromas.
Dressed in my variegated blue denim long-sleeve shirt and medium blue Levi’s, as butch as I can get, I feel comfortable walking across the grassy field, cooling breeze and warm sun playfully drawing me forward. I see a family preparing to board a hay wagon in the distance to my left, and a little village of charcoal-brown shelters and pavilions looms to my right. The smell of freshly baked bread or rolls wafts over me from above, and I see trays of rolls above me. I discover that I am around the back side of the shelter with homemade pies, sweet rolls, and thick slabs of country pizza.
I have a plaque hanging in my kitchen which states, “Life is short. Eat your dessert first.” I rarely pay attention to that, but today—unsupervised as I am—I heed those words and step forward to the pie line. Not wanting to annoy anyone else today with him-hawing about pie selections, I make a snap decision for a piece of double-crusted apple now and a coconut cream to go. My pie server, cute in her print bonnet, validates my choices with a smile that seems to say, “Buddy, you couldn’t have picked two better ones.”
From the pie end, I slip along the counter and decide that morning coffee the next couple days would be so much better with a couple of those puffy cinnamon rolls in front of me. I pass on the pizza for now as I want to explore other food offerings. I pay the cashier and find a shaded spot at one of the many plastic-clothed picnic tables available. Behind me is another food station with a variety of homemade soups and coffee. I can’t dig in to that apple pie without coffee, so I trust my desserts to their resting place on the table and order a pint of bean and ham soup with the coffee.
The soup is very hot and seems like too much to consume right now. With a tight lid it will travel home well. The apple pie is not disappointing—just the right blending of sugar and cinnamon with a homemade crust I haven’t tasted since the apple or peach pie I inhaled in my grandmother’s kitchen 56 years ago.
By this time I am aware of a female voice swirling seductively through the crisp air farther down to my right behind yet another food pavilion. With the pie appetizer already consumed, my tummy might be able to handle a sandwich. As I approach the entrance to the sandwich and platter station, I catch a glimpse of the country crooner’s milky white face as she sings blue grass in the style of Allison Krause. When she transitions into “I Fall to Pieces,” if someone were to inform me that Patsy Cline had just resurrected from her gravesite, I might believe it. I’m beginning to realize that this obscure, unadvertised little festival must be one of the best-kept secrets in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
I opt for the roast beef sandwich on homemade bun, tagged the “Scutcher,” as I figure it must be their signature sandwich. Also a gentleman before me orders it, and it looks appetizing. I see that they also have horseradish sauce at the condiment station and I add two squeezes to the inside of the top bun. Returning to my picnic table, I continue to enjoy the second coming of Patsy Cline. Later, upon inquiring, I learned that the singer’s name is Cathi Rhoades—she with the voice of country cream.
Halfway through my beef and bun delight, it must be 4:00, as exhibitors are setting up in the flax scutching demonstration pavilion about 25 feet in front of me. As the speaker begins the presentation, with a supporting cast of costumed artisans, I again secure my bagged desserts on the table and carry the last bit of sandwich forward to get a better view of how our pioneer ancestors managed to manufacture linen thread from the green plant with the pretty blue flowers that decorated their fields.
From the green-stalked plants that the speaker holds out in his hand, it is difficult to imagine how fiber can be extracted and transformed into linen thread, but that is exactly what happens. The speaker shows how the harvested flax stalks must first be rippled to remove bolls from the plant stalks. Then the biochemical process of retting must begin. The purpose of retting is to loosen the waxy substance so that the best thread-making fibers can be removed from the inner core of the stalks. There is an optimal day by which the retting should cease; otherwise, the stocks will be rotted and unusable for making linen thread.
The three steps of the dressing process follow the retting: breaking; scutching; and heckling. Breaking loosens the wood from the fiber. Straw is removed from the fiber by scraping with a wooden scutching knife that looks like an old-fashioned teacher’s paddle. Then the fibers are pulled through nail-spiked combs called heckles which split and loosen the usable fibers.
At this point two bonneted pioneer women sit at spinning wheels and use their own saliva to weld together loose ends of fiber as they spin magic. Next we see a process for transferring the thread from the spinning wheels to spools, then painstakingly from spools through the teeth of a loom from which the linen cloth is fashioned.
At the conclusion of the demonstration, having touched the blond ponytail strands of flax, as well as a finished piece of linen cloth, I feel the need to meander a while to close out this pleasant afternoon of discovery. Lo and behold, don’t I see yet another favorite culinary temptation close at hand—genuine buckwheat pancakes and country sausage. Thank God it is available in two sizes. The small includes two large, but flat buckwheat cakes with one generous link of country sausage. I don’t feel quite so piggish when a couple from Ligonier, who sit down next to me, have both opted for the three-cakes and two-sausages platter. No wonder they have ordered big, as they proceed to tell me that they were denied service early that morning because they had arrived during the open-air church service that was in session on festival grounds. There is something to be said for delayed gratification, but I’m marching to a different drummer today.
My mother always said that I could be a glutton when it comes to food, but how often do I have a chance to stumble upon a pioneer village, recreating the artisan traditions of cloth making and cooking on a crisp late summer day in the Laurel Highlands. Today I ate my dessert first and the blessings kept on coming.
© Dave Knoepfle