Heritage Preserving/Canning Profiles of Mountain People

Grapes and Fox Grapes-Juice and Jelly

by Ethelene Dyer Jones

picking grapes

Both grape juice and grape jelly were two of the items we “put up” on our farm when I was growing up in the mountains. My Grandpa “Bud” Collins had a grape arbor. He had the Concord Grape vines staked to a “fare-you’well,” so that when one walked under the arbor and it was time for grape harvest, the luscious clusters of ripe grapes hung like purple gold from the vines with broad leaves that ran along the whole length and breadth of the scaffold.

As a child, I was allowed my own small bucket and a step stool on which to stand (having been warned in advance, “Be careful; don’t wiggle or you’ll fall off the stool!”). From the vantage point of the stool, I could just barely reach the clusters of grapes. My Aunts Ethel and Avery gave me instructions on how to reach to the end  of the cluster and gently pull off the whole bunch of grapes. I would soon have a bucket full and be so happy about my grape-picking accomplishment!


And then came something I really enjoyed:  Washing the cluster of grapes in clear pans of water. We didn’t have running water at that time on the farm, so we drew water from the deep well and had two pans in which we washed the grapes-two washings to insure they were really clean.

The next step was pulling the grapes from the cluster and making sure no stems were put into the pot where we would boil the grapes to make juice for canning or for making jelly. I wasn’t allowed to cook the grapes at an early age, but then my mother died when I was fourteen, I found myself of necessity in the role of “head cook and bottle washer” on our own family farm, about a mile away from my Aunts Ethel and Avery-who were always good about giving me advice on any cooking, canning or jelly-making challenges.

We made the grape juice as described in “Blind Pig and the Acorn.” I can remember our putting the juice we were planning to use during the winter in green fruit jars, washed clean and sterilized, and sitting in a pan of hot water, with a towel in the bottom of the pan to keep the cans from rattling so against each other and breaking. When the hot juice was poured into the cans, the next step was attaching the sealer. When I was a child, we had a rubber ring and a mason jar top for the sealer lids. It was not until later that we got the current-type two-piece “lid and jar” for sealing cans. I can remember how beautiful-and enticing-the jars of grape juice looked sitting on the freshly-cleaned-out cellar shelves underneath the house. All summer long, as one thing and another “came in” (ripened) and was harvested from the garden or the field, we filled cans and more cans to provide us food for winter use. The grape juice was sort of like the proverbial “icing on the cake” -to have something refreshing to drink during the winter months ahead.

We made a “run” or two of jelly-a “run” being the amount we could make with a five-pound bag of sugar, and the juice measured cup for cup with equal cups of the strained grape juice that we did not can. We made the grape jelly before “Sure-Jell” was available to us in the country. It took a lot more boiling time to cook the sugar and juice, and it had to be tested by dropping a drip of it into a cup of cold water to test to see if it had “jelled.” I thought it was an amazing invention when Sure-Jell became available, during my teen years when I was in charge of the “Dyer Family” kitchen at our farm. I could make jelly in “jig” time compared to the long boil and frequent testing prior to Sure-Jell days. As an added thought, if we ran out of jelly, we could use the canned juice to make jelly, too.

Then the Fox Grape harvest came. It was a lot harder to gather these wild grapes, for someone adept at climbing trees along the banks of Town Creek where Fox Grapes grew had the privilege of being the gatherer. Usually it was my brother, always adept at “skinning” (climbing up) a tree. He would go with a bucket laced onto his person with a belt. He would soon get a whole bucketful of the tart grapes and descend to get another bucket to fill. Then we’d go home and begin the process-the same as with grapes from Grandpa Collin’s grape arbor-to process the juice and jelly from these wild, tart, not-so-purplish Fox Grapes.

It was a lot of work to gather and process these foodstuffs for winter use. But somehow, we had a way of making it all seem like fun. And the rewards were two-fold; First, the pride in seeing the finished canned products sitting neatly along cellar shelves. All of it, whether grape juice and jelly or other products from garden, field and woods, gave a sense of accomplishment, evidence of a job well done. When ladies of our community “visited around” from farmhouse to farmhouse, they all liked to show their visitors their canned winter store. And the second blessing came when we actually ate the products, sitting in a warm kitchen on a snowy winter day, with the bounty of our harvest and of our frugal work spread out in splendor on the Lazy-Susan table in that kitchen on the farm. Was it any wonder that “to say grace” was so customary then? We were thankful for our work, for the provision of our food needs, and for God’s bounty in giving us productive land on which crops grew and the hard-work ethic and determination to, like the industrious ant, lay up for the the days when these products would keep us healthy.

(I grew up in the Choestoe District, Union County, GA near Blairsville. We had farmland along the Nottely River and the creeks of Choestoe.)

by Ethelene Dyer Jones


I hope you enjoyed this piece by Ethelene as much as I did. I met Ethelene about 6 months ago-and from the beginning I was mesmerized by her writing and by the knowledge that history is close to her heart-just like it is mine. Ethelene is a historian, a retired educator, a poet, a genealogist, and an outstanding writer.


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  • Reply
    Dave Laird Sr.
    October 3, 2015 at 7:39 pm

    It is now 2015 and I am seeing these posts for the first time. These writings are so close to my memories of helping Mom in the kitchen are amazing. I was the youngest son of 7 kids. When it came time to delegate the work load on the farm, my Dad would tell me that I needed to help Mom today with the canning. What great childhood memories we can share to those who have not had the opportunity to live them.

  • Reply
    September 12, 2010 at 9:26 am

    Roger-The grapes you’re describing sound like Fox Grapes-but its hard for me to tell without seeing them. Fox Grapes are more ‘sour’ than a domesticated grape. If they are purple I would think they are already ripe. The grapes in my picture-are fox grapes they grow wild along the creek here.
    Since your grapes are growing along a fence line-they might be a domesticated grape that someone planted years ago and they’ve simply held on through the years.
    Another smaller type of grape that grows wild here are Possum Grapes. They taste similar to Fox Grapes-both are quite tart. But Possum Grapes typically grow in the woods instead of along creek banks. Does your county have a County Extension office? If so-I bet they could help you verify what type of grape you’ve found.
    Blind Pig The Acorn
    Music, Giveaways, Mountain Folk
    All at http://www.blindpigandtheacorn.com

  • Reply
    Roger Hartley
    September 11, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    hi…this is great. I just found along a fence a series of small purple grapes almost identical to the ones in your picture. They are purple, look ripe, but are pretty sour.
    First, what kind of grapes are those? Concord?
    Second, when do they ripen? Am I early and is that why they are sour?
    Last,they seem wild and I want em!!!!

  • Reply
    Kim Campbell
    September 12, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    My nanny used to make grape juice fromt he small vine we had in our yard. her name was Mrs. Shell and she lived down the street.

  • Reply
    August 29, 2009 at 9:28 am

    Reminds me of helping my grandma can. My job was washing the jars with hot water and rinsing them out. They would be all lined up upside down on towels on the porch in the sun. We would pick early dewberries and wild plums and make jelly. I remember when My other grandma introduced me to Sure-jell and I couldn’t wait to tell my grandma Glady’s about it…I was so amazed. I think I was about 10 or 11.

  • Reply
    Pat Workman
    August 27, 2009 at 7:44 pm

    I so enjoyed the story from Miss Ethelene Dyer Jones. Some of my aunt’s friends came across the gap in ox carts from Choestoe. Love that area and it’s history.
    We used to pick fox grapes, to make jelly, along the branches (creeks) in Macon Co. Nothing better on a hot biscuit than home churned butter and fox grape jam. And Sure-Jell, how did we ever get manage before that came along. I have found the flavor to be better using it. Seems like I always overcooked jams and jellies before that.

  • Reply
    fishing guy
    August 27, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    Tipper: What a neat story and a reminder of past days.

  • Reply
    My Carolina Kitchen
    August 27, 2009 at 9:47 am

    What a fun childhood you had. I love the stool. It sounded like you might have had an experience with being “careful not to fall.” It must have been great fun to pick the berries. My mother put up blackberry jelly following a recipe very similar to yours in a previous post. Enjoy what’ left of summer. Fall is approaching in the mountains.

  • Reply
    August 26, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    I really enjoyed this story.

  • Reply
    August 26, 2009 at 9:53 am

    This was so enjoyable! Brings back memories of days in the kitchen with mom and grandma, making jellies. No grape in our neck of the woods though.

  • Reply
    Chris Quinones
    August 25, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    I loved reading about making Grape juice and grape jelly, it is hard work! Nice to know that this is almost the same method I use for mine as I am self taught. Surejell definitely makes it a lot quicker. I usually make the juice and let it sit in the fridge for the acid crystals to form and be left behind, then make it into jelly.

  • Reply
    August 25, 2009 at 4:57 pm

    You’re making me think about what hard work is. This was a great story about your childhood. Lovely images, too, Tipper.

  • Reply
    Rhoda @ Southern Hospitality
    August 25, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    Tipper, thanks for stopping by, so glad you did. So you live down the road from Clay’s, what a small blog world. My parents have been up there for over 25 years & love the area too. My mama cooks all the veggies still, cans, & also does jams & jellies. Wish I had learned more from her, she still does it all for us.
    Nice to meet you!

  • Reply
    Helen G.
    August 25, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    Mz. Ethelene sure took me right there in the kitchen with here watching her make up the juice and the jellies. Momma had a kind of cone shaped sieve and a wooden stick for it that she would squash up the grapes for the juice to make the jelly… unless she wanted jam and then she would add extra pushing to get more of the meat of the grapes through to make jam. I think one of the prettiest colors in the world is the clear purple of the homemade grape jelly. Seeing that I get hungry for some fresh biscuits to put it on. Thanks to you Tipper for putting Ethelen’s story on for us to share and take a walk back in time.

  • Reply
    August 25, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    I certainly enjoy Ethelene’s story. It brought back memories of my childhood. We didn’t have grapes, but did make jelly out of wild raspberries, thimbleberries and blackberries. Our can (a honey can) was strapped onto our waists with binder twine and off we went to search the pine root fences for the delicious berries.
    We too used the jars with the rubber sealer and the zinc ring. Mom still has a lot of quarts of these old jars.
    I always enjoy my visits here. Your posts always take me back in time and I feel like I’m back there.
    Have a great week, my friend.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    August 25, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Tipper, what beautiful descriptions Ethelene uses! I can see the grapes and the filled jars of jelly and juice. She must be a fine writer.
    I can feel the beauty and sincerity of saying of grace over the fine home grown and preserved food, not the same as grace over a big mac, is it?
    I love the feeling of accomplishment when I see the filled jars sitting on my counter in the kitchen!
    Back to school today, bet you miss Chitter and chatter.

  • Reply
    August 25, 2009 at 10:02 am

    As usual I enjoyed the visit and the memories that your writings left in my head.
    Thank You!

  • Reply
    August 25, 2009 at 8:52 am

    Loved the story, Tipper. Thanks for sharing it.
    It took me back in time to yesterdays kitchens and cellars. I could see the steaming pots and jar lined shelves of the cellar.
    Amazing how words and imagination work together.

  • Reply
    August 25, 2009 at 7:55 am

    Tipper, I really enjoyed the story telling of Miss Ethelene Dyer Jones.

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