Abingdon: Meet the Locals [George Kiser]

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We sat in George’s truck overlooking the valley and mountains beyond. The mist clung to the trees, low and ominous, making it impossible not to feel fully present in the moment. He talked about how as a child he had created mental pictures of radio personalities in his mind, and when he finally saw photographs of them, it all changed. I think we do the same thing with people we don’t know very well. We think we know them because we see them weekly, daily even. But there’s a real adventure waiting underneath the pleasantries and facade. Getting to know George Kiser, of Kiser Farms, on this grey fall day, I found a charmingly silly and passionate soul. He and his wife, Deborah, own a farm in Lebanon, Virginia. Deborah, a teacher at Lebanon High School, was teaching during my visit, but you can find her handiwork in the delicious goods sold each week. Pumpkins, apple chips, jams and jellies, starter and bedding plants…you’ll find them all at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market & Lebanon Farmer’s Market.

As you’ll find soon enough, I was distracted periodically (a good deal) by cats and dogs running about. Atticus, Daisy and Legend (aka Brown Dog), led the farm tour and made sure not to leave anything out. One of the few vendors selling molasses these days, George pointed out the cane stalks standing tall and proud, and the building where molasses and maple syrup are cooked down. The process is long and tedious, so the next time you delight in such foods, remember the work it took to get there. It’ll taste all that much sweeter.

George’s biggest sellers are pumpkins. All kinds of pumpkins. Orange, green, blue, pink. For pies, for carving, for decoration. For fall lovers, his farm is truly a wonderland. No wonder it inspires his musical side, writing folk songs about local events and southern living. My favorite part about interviewing is getting to know what makes people tick, and it’s clear how much George loves music. While the dogs gave us a tour of the farm, George would break into a sampling of his songs. I’ve included one and a half songs in lyrics and a minute excerpt of our jam session on the porch. And by jam session, I mean his musical talents and my clicking of the camera in the background.

Enjoy the photos and music, and make sure to say hello next time you’re at the market!


George: At one time in Kentucky, there was twenty-five thousand growers of cane molasses. Now there’s roughly around twenty-five hundred. Which tells ya right there that the numbers have plummeted downward.

Sarah: Do you think that has to do with artificial sweeteners and other sweeteners being popular?

G: It’s got to do with the fact that it’s hard, hard work. I would have thought it would pick back up with tobacco down the tube. I guess it’s about the same amount of hard labor.

S: Kittens! Right in there!

G: How many do you need?

S: I wish I could take them home! It definitely looks like there’s one, and a second one over there.

G: Inside those weeds?

S: Right below the danger sign.

G: I put the danger sign up there because people will stop by and steal your pumpkins.

S: Wow. Don’t just have to worry about animals, but people too. How long have you lived here?

G: I was born and raised here.

S: Really? So, your parents were farmers?

G: My mother was an RN. Nursed until she retired, and she retired and lived here on the farm and helped where she could. This is where we cook the molasses down. We also use the same facility for maple syrup. This is a furnace. That’s a hundred-twenty-seven-gallon steel tank. It takes fifty gallons of water out of the tree, drip, drip, drip, to make one gallon of syrup. It’s a lot of work. Takes a lot of time. Now, this is a plastic nipple. You drill a hole in the tree and this slides in the hole, you hook your bucket on here, and it drips into it.

S: And how many trees do you normally hook those up to?

G: We’ve done as many as three hundred and fifty some.

S: My cousin up in Canada makes maple syrup and we were just up there visiting, got to try some.

G: I’ll tell you what, some of those growers up there do two or three thousand trees.

S: Oh look, there are those cats! We woke you up from a nap.

G: Hey Miss Kitty. She’s my matriarch. She disappeared for about six months one time, and evidently when she returned she was nice and plump and fat. She’d found a table somewhere to eat at.

S: They’re resourceful in that way. Oh, you’re so sweet.

G: She’s a very good mouse hunter. Now, when the syrup water gets down to a certain degree (from cooking down), whether it’s molasses or maple syrup, we take it up off of the furnace here and we roll it out this way to bottle it or whatever. Maple syrup, you’ve got to take it and run it off into tubs and let it settle. It has what we call “sugar sand” in it. It’s gritty. The big producers have hydraulic pressure pumps that they pump this stuff through screens and the screens catch the sugar sand. We don’t have ten thousand dollars to spend on a pump, so we rely on old mother gravity of taking it out, settling out. And once it settles out for about two weeks, we can take it and dip the maple syrup off the top. This is molasses that we’ll be doing here shortly. For every hundred gallons of molasses, we can take off about sixteen to eighteen gallons of syrup.

S: Oh, the apple chips!

G: I’ve got five dehydrators here.

S: So, at the theatre when someone has apple chips it’s always exciting. That’s probably my favorite thing that you guys do. Are most of the apples, at this time of year, from your farm?

G: We have some here and I don’t spray them with anything. But we get our apples from a local orchard, Williams Orchard, down in Rural Retreat. They do a real great job. We do a lot of apples and we did some trading on pumpkins that he didn’t have. So, we swapped pumpkins for some apples and that works out for us.

S: Exactly. I find that with a lot of people, that it’s so wonderful if you can use what you grow as the currency.

G: One of these days, that might be the only currency out there.

S: Yeah, that’s’ true.

G: So, anyway, this is our little processing house. It’s kind of jammed up but it serves our purpose. I’ve got five dehydrators, which blows a lot of people away that I’ve got five of these things. We have three Excalibur (top-notch brand) dryers. They’re very superb. We’ve got two Cabela’s dryers. I don’t like those as well as the Excaliburs.

S: How long do you have to dehydrate the apples?

G: Depends. If it’s rainy and wet like it is today and moisture’s in the air, eighteen hours, maybe a little bit longer. Dry, like it has been the past three weeks,…if I can get up early that morning they’d be ready that evening to package them up. Crispy and dry. It kind of depends on the humidity in the air.

S: I was curious about music. I saw that on your business card you’re a musician.

G: “Soup Beans and Cornbread”.

S: “Soup Beans and Cornbread”, yeah!

G: Not so long ago, once upon a time,

When I was a young boy, about the age of nine.

The same dinner, all we ever ate,

Same old thing was on my plate.

Cornbread and soup beans,

Mashed taters and collard greens.

Stands to reason, you’d think it seems

We can have cake sometime.

Now Mama said we would be glad

Thankful for whatever we had.

A lot of the kids would like what they see,

Wish they had what I had to eat!

Why it was cornbread and soup beans,

Mashed taters and collard greens.

Stands to reason, you’d think it seems,

We can have cake sometime.

Now I’m not picky, don’t ask for a lot.

A poor man eats what a poor man’s got.

Pray to God there’s somethin’ in the pot,

But let’s have cake sometime!

Cornbread and soup beans,

Mashed taters and collard greens.

Stands to reason, you’d think it seems,

That we could have cake sometime.

Now I’m not blaming, I want you to know,

Hard times come and hard times go.

Leaves me here feeling low,

With holes in my pockets and nothing to show.

But cornbread and soup beans,

Mashed taters and collard greens.

Stands to reason, you’d think it seems,

That we can have cake sometime!

Now all good songs come to an end,

I hope you’ve enjoyed this, my friend.

Remember that if you clean your plate,

You might get a piece of cake!

Cornbread and soup beans,

Mashed taters and collard greens,

Stands to reason, you’d think it seems

That you can have cake sometime!

That we can have cake sometime.

S: I love that! Did you write that?

G: I wrote it! What are you talking about?

S: I don’t know, it could’ve been a song you’ve been singing since you were younger! Do you usually play at festivals?

G: I’ve been trying to line up some stuff. I need to do some work right now, work on some more songs. But, uh, when you get white-headed, your brains go with ya.

S: Do you have a notebook you write them down, or all from memory?

G: A little bit of both. I belong to a songwriters’ association, and that’s very rewarding to me. Do your thing and we critique. It’s really good. I found that the hardest thing…I can write crazy songs pretty quickly…ballads take a lot of work. I have to go do research at the library and newspapers and stuff for the time and date, for the particular event I’m writing about. Bobby Williams of Williams Orchard, he told me about the train explosion of 1953.

S: Wow. Where was it?

G: It took place between Rural Retreat and Wytheville. And it was a freighter, steam, and there was only four crewmen onboard. Three of them did not make it.

Now listen dear children, what I have to say.

About three men who lost their lives on a cold, December day.

They were part of a four men crew assigned to train in ’52.

In the wee hours of the morning, they pulled up to Bristol yard.

Headed East for Roanoke, with thirty two freight cars.

Pulling cars in darkness, they started up the line.

….

[you only get a teaser of the song!]

G: Here there’s orange pumpkins, which are excellent for kids painting or carving or whatever. The one that draws probably as much attention as anything out there. And these are what you call “blue dolls”. They are just absolute, super pumpkins.

S: I love it because it’s like the beautiful, ugly one.

G: Here in the corner…I don’t know if you have a grandmother who makes pies or not…this is what we call a “cushaw” (green and white striped squash). The only thing that could beat a cushaw in making pies is this “pink porcelain doll”. The pink porcelain doll is the official pumpkin of Breast Cancer Awareness. This is one of them. And they are so easy to work with. What we tell people, when they ask, “how do I fix this?”: take it, clean it good. Once it’s dry, take some olive oil and put it on it. Set it on a baking dish, the whole thing, and roast it. About two hours or so. And then when you bring it out, cool it down, you can take a butter knife and cut it. This one right here is probably going to be able to make six to eight pies out of it. The meat is very thick. I want you to pick this up.

S: Oh, wow! Yeah, that’s heavy. Here come the doggies…

G: He’s a Chesapeake Bay Retriever. He’s getting’ some age on him, he’s a good old boy. Come here bud! What, you all just now woke up? And this is my baby doll. He’s such a needy thing. Here’s a little female. She says, you pet me and I’ll follow you to the ends of the earth.

S: You all are loyal.

G: They know where the food comes from. Yes, you old pitiful thing, you. Oh lord. Get out of there, Daisy! You don’t need to be in there. Go on, now.

S: So, did you raise pumpkins when you were a kid in this same place?

G: The first pumpkins I raised were over on North Fork Holston River. I raised about three acres over on North Fork Holston, and back then there wasn’t everybody and their brother raising pumpkins and you could take a pick-up load and stop at most convenience stores and say, would you like to buy some pumpkins and they’d say, how much? I’d say, two dollars apiece and I’d give ‘em five extra, which tickled them to get some free ones. I give you five extra in case one of them happens to die on ya, you have a replacement free of charge. I don’t like people calling me and saying, my pumpkin died! But, I got along good at raising them off and on for those twenty some years. A few years ago, when they had the hurricane come through and flooded all the rivers up in Maryland and on up north. Pumpkins float. All these big, old pumpkins were floating right on off to sea. And I can just see them. We had a collision this morning with a freighter with a large pumpkin…Alright, let’s go for a ride. I tell people, I said my wife’s told me that I was such a good husband that she bought me this truck. And then I say, she handed me the keys and said, hit the road jack!

S: Ha!

G: Megan Hamilton, she and I have a little folk group that we did several performances.

S: Did you play at the Busker Fest?

G: Oh, yeah, I always play at the Busker Fest. You know where Camela’s Tea House is?

S: Absolutely.

G: I play right on the front porch every year. And Melissa’s mother, I told Melissa, can I play there again this year? She said, why you know you can! My mother loves you! She is a sweet lady.

S: Have you been playing guitar and singing your whole life?

G: I started when I was thirteen, learning to play guitar, and I was very determined. And along the way I taught people how to play a little bit. Chet Atkins said the six-string guitar is the hardest instrument to play badly, and the easiest instrument to play well. Or something like that. The easiest instrument to play poorly and the hardest instrument to play bad. That’s the way it went. Anyway, this is our free stall barn where we used to milk the cows. This is the back barn where we used to hang tobacco. When we were raising tobacco.

S: Do you have a most rewarding element of the farm? In terms of things you sell?

G: Probably pumpkins and molasses. Now this is cane. This shows you a little bit of a view of it. And that’s the head. The heads on top of the plant. Now you gotta wait until the seed head on top…the seeds are a little bit smaller than a bee bee. And you have to wait until the seed gets mature enough that you can put it between your thumbs and mash it and it’s a dough. It’s not juicy. If you can mash it and there’s juice still coming out of it, milk state, then you have to wait.

S: What time of year is it normally ready?

G: Oh, it’ll be ready the next three weeks, I bet. Now right here I’ve got a little bit of cane growing there because if I put pumpkins there, the groundhogs eat them up. Not that I mind if it’s groundhogs, I wouldn’t mind if they eat just one or two, but the little rascals take a bite out of this one and bite out of this one. Finish it, eat it all! Bust your gut! But don’t waste ‘em.

S: Exactly.

G: Oh, I started that song about being on a cruise…

[sang again as lyrics came back to memory]

G: I would like to do more and more gigs. It’s nice to have a little bit of return for your hard work. We also have a greenhouse and we produce spring bedding plants, like for tomatoes and stuff like that. We sell the plants. We have a lot of people who come up here and go, oh I wish I lived up here! And the thing about it is, we feel kind of isolated in a way, but we’ve got dogs and if anybody comes up here that doesn’t belong here, they will tell ya real quick and people are more afraid of a dog than they are a gun.

S: Yes, they are. It feels like someone with a gun at least you can try and talk to them. But a dog, you know, they’re just going to protect.

G: I have these people who used to call up with security systems. I said, ma’am I don’t need your security system, I’ve got all the security I need. She said, what do you mean? What kind of system do you have? I said, I’ve got two big old black dogs and if you don’t think they won’t bite you, you come on and they’ll eat your ass up.

S: Four-legged security systems.

G: They hang that phone up. Want to get a picture of the house? The log house is this section here. It was already here. We had to jack it up in the air and we had four pillars underneath it because it didn’t have a basement or anything and we wanted a basement. It has beams underneath it that were, oh, that big around. Years and years ago, the man that owned the place, he would keep sheep here. And the sheep were tall enough that they rubbed against the beams underneath and the sheep produces “lanoline” and it was slick as onions.

S: Oh, my gosh.

G: So, we jacked the whole log house up and log houses are heavy. We raised the log house about a foot or better, and I took a skid loader and I went underneath it and dug the basement.

S: Wow. It’s gorgeous! You’ve got a lovely, lovely place here.

G: It’s nothing fancy.

S: It just suits the land, too.

G: It’s livable. I’d rather be out here in a shack than stuck in a little town with condominiums and such.

S: I absolutely agree with that.

3 thoughts on “Abingdon: Meet the Locals [George Kiser]

  1. Sarah, I really liked the blog on Mr. Kiser. He is an interesting person and a man of the land. Your voice on the farming community is much needed with our country being so divided. Thanks for your hard work.

  2. Oh my this is such a terrific piece on my dear friend George “Tommy” Kiser. I had the pleasure of working the pumpkins and cane with him this year. His music is so terrific and he blesses us with it at Church often. His wife is a gem as well, and her jams and jellies are terrific. Love the black and whites especially. The dogs are great helpers when we are drying the apples.

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