Appalachia Appalachian Dialect Appalachian Food Gardening

Shelly Beans

Shelly beans in appalachia

shelly bean noun Any large bunch bean that is removed from the shell and is good as a dried bean stored for winter consumption.
1936 Farr Folk Speech 92 = dried beans. “We eat shelly beans of a winter.” 1958 Wood Words from Tenn 15 = type of legume that tends to shell itself during cooking. 1971-73 Pederson et al. LAGS (Blount Co TN, Sevier Co TN).  1986 Pederson et al. LAGS 17 of 24 (70.8%) of LAGS speakers using term were from E Tenn. 1991 Haynes Haywood Home 48 In September and October, we harvested pumpkins, squash, shelly beans, potatoes apples, molassy cane and corn….Shelly beans were planted in corn fields or along fences so they would have something for the vines to run up on. We’d pick the beans and spread them on a wagon sheet (thick canvas) to dry in the sun….After the beans on the wagon sheet dried, they were sacked in toesacks (burlap) and hung from a tree limb or rafter in a shed. Then we’d beat the day-lights out of them with a stick. Come the first good windy day some body would get up on a shed roof to wind-clean the shellies. A wagon sheet would be placed below and the beans poured from the toe sack by the person on the roof. As the beans fell to the wagon sheet below, the wind would blow away all the chaff and debris. Clean beans could then be stored.

Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English


Our first canning of beans this summer had lots of shellies in them. The dry weather we had at the beginning of the summer seemed to dry the bean pods out faster than usual. When I was growing up, Pap and Granny never harvested dried beans, but Granny called the beans that had to be removed from their pods for putting up shellies. I think a lot of folks in this area do.

How did you like the technique they used to blow away the chaff from the dried beans? Pretty smart if you ask me.



You Might Also Like


  • Reply
    Van Hawkins
    November 12, 2019 at 6:29 pm

    Ed Ammons, Those places are named after a Cherokee Indian whose Cherokee name meant two string. “Two string” signified an archer who was always careful to carry an extra string for his bow in case the first string broke.

    Somewhere along the way, the name came to be misspelled/misunderstood by settlers and ended up as Tow String.

    (Or at least, that’s my story until proven wrong.)

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    August 26, 2019 at 5:25 pm

    When we had the big garden and I canned all summer we grew shellies. The were a strippe like red and white bean. I would cook a big pot of green beans and add shellies to the pot…We let out shelly beans husk turn a yellow leathery look before we picked them…We never let them dry out like a dry pinto etc. I rarely canned shellies but put quarts and pints in the freezer to add to our green beans in the winter..we love them…
    Thanks Tipper,
    PS…I wonder how many take a few pods of Okra. Cut off the top but not to the slime…and lay on top of a pot of cooking green and shelly beans…We love it that way..along with the chunks of onion in the beans…A big skillet of cornbread and maybe some fried taters and suppers done!

  • Reply
    September 14, 2016 at 3:52 pm

    Marilyn-good to hear from you! Here is a website that tells more about growing and harvesting beans hopefully it will help answer your question!

  • Reply
    Marilyn Williamson
    September 13, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    We have lots of green beans still on the bush that are too big to can or freeze. Can I just leave them and then take out the beans or do I need to pick them now and dry them? I want to make shelly beans out of them.

  • Reply
    August 4, 2016 at 11:52 am

    Granny Sue – I have never grown the beans-but now you’ve made me want too : ) I have a friend who does grow them every year-she just loves them. Hope you are well!!

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    August 2, 2016 at 9:52 pm

    Love shelly beans in with the green beans! Yum! Yum!

  • Reply
    George Pettie
    August 2, 2016 at 3:35 pm

    For Tamela and Jack–the spelling is indeed tow sack, or towsack. Tow is flax or hemp fiber that is spun and woven into a coarse fabric.

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    August 2, 2016 at 2:56 pm

    The Shelly Beans we had as I was growing up were the Cornfield and Half Runners that had gotten to tough to break so we would shell them out and mix them in with the Green Beans. My children don’t like Shelly Beans so I always grow Blue Lakes since they don’t have as many big beans and don’t tend to get to tough to break. I just break the the Blue Lakes and add a little Bacon Drippings and a couple of Beef Bullion Cubes and there are seldom any left overs and when there are they just get better with each warming.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    August 2, 2016 at 2:52 pm

    When you pick your cornfield beans you will invariably have some get by and too mature to use as green beans or shellys. These are the ones you pick after it frosts and shell out for seeds for next year. After you save all you need for seed the rest are soup beans. We never planted beans just to shell but after Mommy had her 100 quarts of green beans and everybody was done tired of beans for a while, we would let the rest go to shell out. In good years we would have quite a few.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    August 2, 2016 at 2:39 pm

    Toesacks and Towsacks aside, what is a Tow String? Off of 441 north of Cherokee, NC there is a road, a creek, a church, a cemetery and a couple of businesses with that name. The church is a little over a mile as the crow flies from where your girls sang at the old church. Just wondering if you or your readers know what Tow String was named for.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    August 2, 2016 at 2:11 pm

    To me shelly beans are just the same as you describe. Broken up green beans with a few beans, whose pods were too tough to break, shelled and mixed in.
    Coming up we did let some beans go until they dried out. We shelled them by pinching one end to make them split then dragging our thumbs down through the pod and gathering the seeds into our palms. They were cooked like dry beans you buy at a store. We just called them beans.
    I think the tale of climbing on the shed roof might have been slightly enhanced. What kind of fool is going to be clamoring around on a roof when the wind is blowing hard enough to winnow beans? Me and Harold did try it with a box fan one time but that didn’t work either. Some of the heavier chaff still ended up in the beans and some of the smaller beans got blown away with the chaff. We also tried tossing them in a bed sheet on a windy day. Same result as the fan method. We lost more than we saved. We spent more time hunting down escapees than it would have taken to do it by hand. So we went back to hand shelling.
    One advantage to hand shelling. You can look them as you shell them. They are ready for the pot.
    Do you look your dry beans from the store? Some people don’t and end up eating bean sized rocks and dirt clods and whatever else. Some people pour them out on the counter and drag them back one at a time into a bowl. I call that bean counting. Me, I pour some beans into my hand and spread them out on my palm. After I get any bad ones I cap my other hand over them and flip everything over. It’s pretty quick that way.

  • Reply
    August 2, 2016 at 12:54 pm

    I like to get my White Runners when the bean is small, about half grown, never have let the shelles make much. But I know folks that like a lot of shelled beans show when they can ’em. I got to admit, they’re awful pretty in the jars.
    I don’t know how youn’ze do it to travel and sing so much. Makes me tired just thinking about it. But folks do appreciate it. I can’t wait till Friday night when you all play and sing at the Blairsville Courthouse, and on Your Special Day…Ken

  • Reply
    August 2, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    Don’t think I’ve every heard the term “shelly beans’ although I’d guess pinto beans, navy beans, black beans , kidney beans, some and limas fit the description.
    I do like the innovative thinking for getting rid of the chaff.
    I spent lots of time on our shed roof as a child: a tree shaded the NW corner of the shed and in the summer I’d climb that tree and stay in the shaded area with a book or my daydreams or just make up stories about the clouds passing by (if we were lucky enough to have any clouds). Sometimes my sister & the kids from up the road would join me and I’d make up stories to tell them until they were ready to get down and run around again. In the winter I loved to sit on the peak of the roof. That tin roof would keep me warm unless there was a norther blowin’ in.
    The thing that caught my eye was the spelling of “toesack”. Although I’ve seen it spelled that way before, I always thought (and seen a few times) it should be spelled “towsack” since it’s used to “tow” stuff around. Wonder what your readers’ take on the spelling is.

    • Reply
      Ray Presley
      August 12, 2021 at 1:48 pm

      The method you describe, throwing up the beans and allowing the dry shells to blow away, leaving the meat of the bean to fall to the ground, is an old, biblical way of harvesting and separating the “Meat” from the chaff. In fact, it’s still used in some areas of the Middle East – like Turkey and Iraq, perhaps others. From our travels in those areas, we still have a set of hand-carved “pitch forks” that were carved and used as extensions for the fingers, thereby forming a large fork, a crude and labor-intensive albeit a very effective method of getting the job done.

  • Reply
    August 2, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    I remember the dry beans done similar to that. but the shellies were the ones that were tough &yellow when we were stringing & breaking green beans.

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    August 2, 2016 at 9:53 am

    When I was growing up we put the dried butterbeans or peas in an old pillow case and beat it with a stick. We took out the hulls from the top and then poured them back and forth in two pans until the wind had blown away most of the rest of the hulls and any trash. I hadn’t though of this in years. Thanks for a good memory!

  • Reply
    August 2, 2016 at 9:43 am

    My parents always talked about shelly beans. They planted them in the corn rows, and harvested them after they dried on the vine. They particularly loved what they called cranberry beans–they were red with white splotches.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    August 2, 2016 at 9:30 am

    Tipper–In my extended family as a boy shelly beans had a slightly different connotation that the citations you give, although they fit right in with your photograph. Shelly beans were just green beans that had been missed in earlier pickings and had gotten too big for the hull to be edible. They were shelled out and mixed with the green beans. I personally liked lots of shelly beans mixed in.
    The beans grown in fields were called October beans or just corn field beans. One hint on dealing with them when it comes to shelling. They are far easier to get out of the hulls if they have been out in the sun (ideally on a tin roof or concrete) for several hours. This dries the hulls and makes them brittle. Then the step to make them “holy beans” described in your post (you beat the hell out of them) works even better.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Granny Sue
    August 2, 2016 at 9:10 am

    I have never tried to grow shelly beans. The space they take seems so much for the result! But maybe I should give them a try one year. My favorite beans are the purple ones–the ones that turn green when cooked. The plants are so pretty, with dark green leaves tinted with red, the purple blossoms and then the deep purple beans. Bugs don’t like them too much either which is another plus. Taste-wise, they’re like Blue Lake beans. Have you ever grown them, tipper?

  • Reply
    August 2, 2016 at 8:48 am

    Noticed the spelling “toe sack”. I’m familiar with it as “tow sack”. They were also called crocker sacks or guana-sacks (apparently referring to guano fertilizer sacks).

  • Reply
    anita griffith
    August 2, 2016 at 8:20 am

    I never seen that done.Mamaw and mom always took needle and thread and strung the beans on the thread and hung them up to dry.After they were completely dry they cooked them,hull and bean.We called them leather britches.

  • Reply
    Steve in Tn
    August 2, 2016 at 8:18 am

    They are great but we stopped growing them and invest out energy into corn, peas and green beans. Things that are much better from the garden than the store. Dry pintos and great northerners from the store are passable. You have to pick your causes or there is no time for music.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    August 2, 2016 at 8:12 am

    We have always spoken of shellies as green bean pods that had gotten somehat dry, the beans had filled out and the pods had – or were beginning to – change color. We never grew any beans that were intended to be eaten as dry, podless beans.
    The beating with a stick and separating by wind is very nearly biblical as it speaks to those methods. Illustrates once again the working smart of simple techniques using an understanding of nature. Nice to see an example of common sense these days when sometimes it seems it has all but dissappeared.

  • Reply
    Nancy Schmidt
    August 2, 2016 at 7:59 am

    Did anyone else call them shucky beans, as well as Shelly beans? My folks used the terms interchangeably as I remember. ( Blount and Knox Counties Tenn) Daddy used to be able to find them at normal groceries in the 40s and 50s, but no more I think. So pretty when you first shuck them out. NancyinKansas.

  • Reply
    Janet McClelland
    August 2, 2016 at 7:49 am

    My mother always called green beans which were too full and the green pod too tough to snap, Shelly beans. She would shell out those and add to the green snap beans and cook together. The Shelly beans were not totally dry and still tender enough to cook along with the green ones

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    August 2, 2016 at 6:16 am

    Resourceful, that’s what you call their process. I love it! So most folks now a days don’t have the garden, the beans, or the shed. Not sure they even have a pot to cook them in now that most folks don’t cook.

  • Reply
    August 2, 2016 at 4:19 am

    Very smart!

  • Leave a Reply