As I wandered through villages in Laconia last summer, I tried to imagine the everyday lives of my ancestors. I knew their hours were labor intensive from dawn to dusk, with hardly a break except for holidays and feast days — but even these special occasions demanded additional work from the women. Thanks to the writings of Theodore Katsoulakos and Panagiotis Stoumbos in their book, Koumousta of Lacedaimonos, I now understand much more. My special gratitude to Giannis Michalakakos for translating the text and patiently explaining cultural and lifestyle patterns of the past.
Without a shred of doubt, the head of the household was the father whom everyone obeyed without question. If he was not there, perhaps due to sickness or death, the mother presided. During the evenings, they discussed the next day’s work, and at dawn, each child knew exactly what his or her tasks would be. There was work for everyone, big or small, boy or girl. “Small help, great savior,” the children were reminded.
Although I do not know the occupation of my great-great grandfather, Nikolaos Christakos of Xirokambi, his fellow villagers were shepherds, farmers, woodworkers, silk producers. During 400 years of Ottoman and/or Venetian occupation, wool, cheese, silk and leather products were produced by the villagers and sold abroad. However, financial circumstances prior to 1900 were difficult. People herded their animals over towering mountains and difficult terrain to be sold in the city of Kalamata; but if demand was low, the animals accompanied their shepherds on the return trek home.
Because Koumousta is situated in a higher elevation, the climate and soil are not suitable for growing olive or citrus trees. However, hardwood and nut trees are plentiful. People planted various seeds to grow corn, beans, wheat, malt, tomatoes. Potato cultivation was introduced by Ioannis Kapodistrias, the first governor of Greece, during the transitional period after the Revolution. The first crops In Koumousta were cultivated around 1850. With plentiful water and rich soil, the potato plants thrived and production reached as high as 15 tons. Villagers became proficient growers and were known as “πατατάδες” (potato men). Pear trees were planted “from Koumousta to Penteli.” Mulberries were plentiful and aided in silk making, an important occupation of the people. Oral tradition relates that this business began with a man named Chatzi, who used the humid climate within a small cave to grow silkworms. There were only two or three beekeepers, and “old Giannos Orfanakos had around 150 honeycombs. During good years, he could produce 1,000 okades .” His supply was augmented when shepherds and wood collectors would find nests of wild bees and collect the honey.
Half of the citizens were farmers with flocks of sheep and goats. These animals numbered over 7,000. Lias Mandrapilias related that two pens of his family were filled with 1,000 goats. Those who did not keep goats had sheep and oxen. Until 1940, there were 150 oxen in Koumousta.
Koumousta is surrounded by forests; therefore, wood was plentiful and woodworking was an important occupation. Oral tradition states that people created small crafts and their goods were sold in Mani and in Mystras. “Old George Mandrapilias” won first prize for one of his pots that was on display at an exhibition. Woodworkers made boxes to store cheese, butter, and seeds; they made a variety of tools, baskets, barrels for water and wine, washtubs, and kettles to hold goats’ milk. Among the most important tools were looms, used by women to weave wool into fabric. People would say, “we have oxen and so let the tools break” (meaning, their animals were more important because they could easily make new tools). Even small boys learned the art of using an ax. From a young age when they grazed their animals in the mountains, the boys passed woodcutters who told them stories such as: “Once there were two brothers who were shepherds, and they managed to make a pine tree fall down. But when they tried to chop the tree, the ax would not cut. One of them said that the ax wanted wine and food. The boys slaughtered a goat, brought the wine and again tried using the ax, but nothing happened. The ax needed not only to be strong, but also to have someone who knew how to cut.”
Although the poverty level was high, the people of Koumousta compensated by being economical. Old ladies did not leave one kernel of grain on the threshing floor. Animal dung was collected and used as fertilizer. Sheep’s wool was made into clothing. Old men patched their shoes with nails to avoid the expenses of the tsagaris (shoemaker). Interest levels on loans were very high — 30%, and it was said that people worked for the usurers. Those who owned land in the mountains had to work especially hard to repay their loan, as their land was not as fertile or yielding as that in the plains. And when money was low, families with single young women faced a difficult situation: how would they provide a dowry? To cope with these difficulties, some people emigrated to America and sent money back to assist their families.
When a parcel of land was to be sold, the villagers purchased it to keep it from being owned by “foreigners” (people from other villages). Another loan meant further hardship, but to the villagers, this was necessary to avoid problems. Once, a man from Goranus bought land in Koumousta. He did not properly restrain his animals, and they trampled his neighbor’s fields, damaging corn and potato crops. The villagers were so angry that they killed the “foreigner’s” oxen and goats; but unfortunately, they paid heavily for their retaliation with fines and prison time.
Despite their poverty, people of Koumousta took pride in being self-sufficient. They could provide for their families and even guests with their own goods. Although many households were poor, the main reason was death or sickness, not laziness. The industry, resilience, and creativity of my ancestors from Koumousta and Xirokambi continue to inspire me. I am so very proud of them.
 a unit of weight used in Turkey, equal to about 2.75 pounds or 1.24 kilograms; a unit of liquid measure used in Turkey, equal to about 1.3 pints or 0.75 litres.