Rose Water Still 200 Years Old
Emporia Man Recalls Helping Kin Make Perfume From Garden Blooms For Grandmother's Scent Bottles
By Ross Well
A fragrance that has lingered more than half a century!
Pie-size cakes of rose petals with an indescribable sweetness are among the earliest and most cherished memories of J. C. Fields, 70-year-old owner of perhaps the most unusual still that never vexed the conscience of a prohibition sleuth.
"I can't put into words how those petal cakes smelled, but I can smell them, even after all these years, just as plainly as though that copper receptacle was full right now," he says, patting the old, discolored base of the aromatic still which has been an heirloom in the Field family for more than 200 years. "It was the most beautiful odor I've ever known," he adds.
Mr. Field recalls that as a child he helped his grandmother operate the still in which she made her own rose water, lavender scent and other perfumes in days before the era of 10-cent vials of eau de Cologne. Today the still is hailed by connoisseurs of things ancient as possibly the only one left in Virginia or perhaps the whole South--and one expert, Professor Leeds of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences, avers they were never heard of farther north than the Old Dominion because of the need for great quantities of roses--which might make the Field's possession the only one left in this country.
Half Bushel of Petals Made About Half Pint
The still, with cap in place, stands more than three feet high. There is a large copper ring supported by three crudely fashioned legs, and into this fits a copper receptacle about as large around as Milady's largest saucepan. This was the fire box, and a small opening in one side permitted the operator to tend her blaze. A heavy rim inside this pan held the container in which the petals were placed. This, too, is of copper.
Then over all goes the "cap," or cone-shaped top which is entirely hollow, with wide rim near the base and out of which the hooked spout opens. This cap is made of pewter and is all that a husky man wants to lift, just another evidence of the hardiness of those pioneer women who achieved these delicate refinements of life at the cost of so great labor.
"The rim inside the top was to catch the evaporation as it dripped down from the top of the cone and to feed it into the spout," explains Mr. Field. "My grandmother would gather anywhere from a peck to a half bushel of petals in the morning. Perhaps we would start the process about 9 o'clock and the finished product would be completed by about 1 in the afternoon.
"I remember how she would carefully pack the fresh petals in the container, then start her fire of oak bark. This would burn slowly and was always used for the fuel, although I suppose in the earlier times the still was really made to burn charcoal.
Gradually the heat would drive the sap in the petals out and it would steam up into the pewter cone where it was condensed and would drip down the sides. When it was caught on the rim inside it would begin to flow out the spout and my grandmother would catch it in a small jar. the whole container of petals would net perhaps a half a pint of rose water.
"Her favorite type of rose for this purpose was the 'Damask' rose, and she had great gardens of them outside the old homestead over there in Purdy, Va.
"After the last drops of water had been extracted and the still had cooled off, came the time I liked best. The dried-out petals would come from the container in a cake about as big as a pie, about an inch thick, and would smell the sweetest of anything I've ever known.
Still is Product of English Coppersmiths
Roses were not the only flowers used, according to Mr. Field, as lavender water and many other sweet-scented blooms were "brewed" in the old still.
"Perfumery, too, was not the only use to which these aromatic products were put. I've eaten many a cake flavored with the drops from this spout," he recalls, "for such things were considered great adjuncts to the art of cooking."
Mr. Field believes that this old household appliance may well date back as early as 1713 when a Lord Buchanan became owner of the "Kirk Basket" estate near Edinborough, Scotland. A son of Lord Buchanan married and brought his wife and family to America before the Revolution in about the year 1740. With them they brought this still, and today the craftsmanship of those early coppersmiths is plainly visible on the bottom of the copper containers. Instead of being one piece of molded metal, the bottoms are separate dove-tailing, much the same as is found in old hand-fashioned furniture.
A daughter of this union, Margaret, married a Thomas Peter about 10 years after the family's arrival in America and she became the first American owner of the still.
"Margaret's daughter, Elizabeth Buchanan Peter, married John Cocke, son of the famous Continental navy officer, Captain James Cocke, in the period during the American Revolution," recites Mr. Field, well versed in his family history. "John and Elizabeth had a daughter they named Margaret Buchanan Cocke, and she in turn married Edward Wyatt and was my grandmother, and it is directly through her that I came into possession of this old still."
Hidden in Attic of Old Homestead
The ancient contrivance has lain in the attic of the old Wyatt and Field home at Purdy for many years. The old homestead was formerly known as "Walnut Grove," the Colonial home of the Fields through their maternal ancester. Some years ago it was given as a gift for benevolent purposes to the Episcopal Church by the late George Wythe Field, a brother of the Emporia man, and the estate with its 70 acres is now used as home for girls.
The dust of decades continued to settle upon the old apparatus in the attic until a short time ago, boyhood memories revived, J. C. Field sent out to reclaim the prized possession of his grandmother. He had it brought to his Emporia home where it occupies a place of honor today.
"I am told it really is a museum piece," he comments, "and that many a museum or collector would gladly add it to the exhibits, but Professor Leeds' suggestion that it may be the only one left makes me feel that I should like to know that the old still will never go out of the State of Virginia, where it was first brought, and where it has stayed through the centuries. It is interesting for the chapter in our national history for which it stands; of course it has intense sentimental value to me; its authenticated age adds an intrinsic value besides, so all together I believe it should find a permanent place in some historic archives, but I will ever insist that that place be somewhere within the Old Dominion."