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Jammin’ at South Church: Though in their 80s and 90s, these volunteers are whipping up a heck of a holiday fair

  • From left, David Simpkins of Amherst, Jean Huntington and Kay Scott, both of Belchertown, and Eunice Hannigan of Amherst work in the kitchen of the South Congregational Church in Amherst on Wednesday, October 16, making jalapeno jam for the church's Sleighbell Fair on November 23.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    From left, David Simpkins of Amherst, Jean Huntington and Kay Scott, both of Belchertown, and Eunice Hannigan of Amherst work in the kitchen of the South Congregational Church in Amherst on Wednesday, October 16, making jalapeno jam for the church's Sleighbell Fair on November 23.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Eunice Hannigan, left, works on a batch of jalapeno jam in the kitchen of the South Congregational Church in Amherst on Wednesday, October 16, in preparation for the church's Sleighbell Fair on November 23 which Gaye Pistel, right, helps to coordinate.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Eunice Hannigan, left, works on a batch of jalapeno jam in the kitchen of the South Congregational Church in Amherst on Wednesday, October 16, in preparation for the church's Sleighbell Fair on November 23 which Gaye Pistel, right, helps to coordinate.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • The South Congregational Church "Jammers", from left, Jean Huntington and Kay Scott, both of Belchertown, and Eunice Hannigan of Amherst make jalapeno jam in the church kitchen on Wednesday, October 16, in preparation for the church's Sleighbell Fair on November 23.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    The South Congregational Church "Jammers", from left, Jean Huntington and Kay Scott, both of Belchertown, and Eunice Hannigan of Amherst make jalapeno jam in the church kitchen on Wednesday, October 16, in preparation for the church's Sleighbell Fair on November 23.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Eunice Hannigan celebrates her 96th birthday on Wednesday, October 16, making jalapeno jam for the South Congregational Church Sleighbell Fair on November 23.<br/>KEVN GUTTING

    Eunice Hannigan celebrates her 96th birthday on Wednesday, October 16, making jalapeno jam for the South Congregational Church Sleighbell Fair on November 23.
    KEVN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Several kinds of jam are stored in the South Congregational Church in Amherst in advance of the church's Sleighbell Fair on November 23.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Several kinds of jam are stored in the South Congregational Church in Amherst in advance of the church's Sleighbell Fair on November 23.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Volunteers at South Congregational Church in Amherst were busy on Wednesday making crafts for the church's Sleighbell Fair on Nov. 23.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Volunteers at South Congregational Church in Amherst were busy on Wednesday making crafts for the church's Sleighbell Fair on Nov. 23.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Volunteers, from left, Phyllis Kentfield, Ann Greene and Carolyn Mathews were busy at South Congregational Church in Amherst on Wednesday making crafts and preparing for the church's Sleighbell Fair on November 23.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Volunteers, from left, Phyllis Kentfield, Ann Greene and Carolyn Mathews were busy at South Congregational Church in Amherst on Wednesday making crafts and preparing for the church's Sleighbell Fair on November 23.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • From left, David Simpkins of Amherst, Jean Huntington and Kay Scott, both of Belchertown, and Eunice Hannigan of Amherst work in the kitchen of the South Congregational Church in Amherst on Wednesday, October 16, making jalapeno jam for the church's Sleighbell Fair on November 23.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Eunice Hannigan, left, works on a batch of jalapeno jam in the kitchen of the South Congregational Church in Amherst on Wednesday, October 16, in preparation for the church's Sleighbell Fair on November 23 which Gaye Pistel, right, helps to coordinate.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • The South Congregational Church "Jammers", from left, Jean Huntington and Kay Scott, both of Belchertown, and Eunice Hannigan of Amherst make jalapeno jam in the church kitchen on Wednesday, October 16, in preparation for the church's Sleighbell Fair on November 23.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Eunice Hannigan celebrates her 96th birthday on Wednesday, October 16, making jalapeno jam for the South Congregational Church Sleighbell Fair on November 23.<br/>KEVN GUTTING
  • Several kinds of jam are stored in the South Congregational Church in Amherst in advance of the church's Sleighbell Fair on November 23.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Volunteers at South Congregational Church in Amherst were busy on Wednesday making crafts for the church's Sleighbell Fair on Nov. 23.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Volunteers, from left, Phyllis Kentfield, Ann Greene and Carolyn Mathews were busy at South Congregational Church in Amherst on Wednesday making crafts and preparing for the church's Sleighbell Fair on November 23.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

‘Lucy” and “Ethel” were manning the balky food processor, sparring with Gaye about why it wasn’t working, Dave stood at the counter nearby chopping red peppers, tossing out a quip now and then about the dysfunction and Eunice was struggling to stir a vat of jam. “I don’t have the strength for this job,” she called to Gaye, who rushed over to help.

“I’m sort of the sheep herder,” quipped Gaye Pistel. At 57, Pistel was by far one of the youngest people in the room. Eunice Hannigan, the oldest, was celebrating her 96th birthday as part of a crew making jam and crafts at the South Congregational Church of Amherst for its annual Sleighbell Fair set for Nov. 23.

Actually the group, which swelled as the morning progressed, was split in two. The “jammers” were in the kitchen making batches of red pepper jam, some spicy, some mild. The “crafty ladies” were in the community room making Dammit Dolls, little teasel critters and baskets filled with tiny stuffed kittens and dolls.

Laughter, teasing and good-natured wails of frustration filled the air.

“We can’t even get started with this machine. It’s useless,” said Kay Scott, losing patience with the food processor. “I wish I brought mine.” At 85, she’s the one Pistel refers to as “Lucy,” as in Lucy Ricardo from the 1950s sitcom “I Love Lucy.” Jean Huntington, 78, is “Ethel” as in Ethel Mertz, Lucy’s sidekick in mischief. The pair usually works together. Scott, who has been making jam most of her life taught Huntington how to do it. In fact, the group uses Scott’s family recipes for its green tomato relish, pickled beets and dill pickles.

Pistel scurried over to give a hand.

“If this doesn’t come off, just hit it, you won’t break it,” she said as she fiddled with one of the parts.

Then she was back on the other side of the counter guiding Hannigan to squeeze the liquid out of a bowl of pureed peppers with a spoon.

“I’m supposed to be measuring sugar,” Hannigan complained with a smile.

“Well, you’re doing this — and that,” said Pistel. “You’re a woman of many talents.

“You never know what you’re going to get from her,” said Hannigan, shrugging.

Pistel gestured toward a stool. “Sit down, Eunice. You shouldn’t be standing.” She fell and has trouble with her leg swelling, Pistel whispered to me.

Others in the room have vision problems, some have hearing loss. One key worker, Billie Howes, couldn’t make it this day because of severe diabetes.

“We all lean on one another,” said Pistel. “If one person can’t do something, someone else steps in.”

Cutting and stitching

In the adjacent crafts room, Phyllis Kentfield, 92, Shirley Cowles, 84, and Margie Howell, 69, were putting together stuffed dolls and teasel figures. Cowles has been making crafts for the church’s holiday fair since about 1949 — she thinks — when she helped organize it as part of the church’s now defunct Ladies Benevolent Society. It was all in one small room — the minister’s study — in the early days, she said. Then it was all crafts and quilts, with stone soup — a type of vegetable soup — and sandwiches for lunch.

Now the fair is a large affair with a Christmas room, Santa’s workshop, children’s room, white elephants, teddy bears, bake sale, lunch, entertainment, prizes, a raffle and lots of other features. Getting ready begins in the spring when the jammers start their work and the crafters join in September.

Cowles’ expertise these days is cutting the teasels, the cone-shaped burrs that serve as the faces of little beanbag-type figures.

“I spent five hours cutting those things yesterday,” she said, seated on her walker, a pile of the prickly vegetation on the table before her. “She crawls around in a field and gets them,” she said nodding toward Howell who was working nearby. Howell confirmed that she collects them during daily walks when she’s at her second house in Seneca Lake, N.Y. “It’s an invasive plant,” she said. “They’re all over the place.”

This group has all sorts of ways of getting supplies.

Dave Simpkins, the only male in the crowd, procures peppers and onions for the jam through bartering with a farmer friend in Hadley. And he trades sacks of potatoes he buys at a bargain price for bushels of apples for the apple butter the women make. At 1 p.m. that day, he was headed over to help his farmer friend pick squash. “It’s kind of a trade-off,” he said. “One hand washes the other.” Today he also brought sacks of onions he purchased for himself to donate to the proceedings. And he grows and contributes blueberries, blackberries and raspberries.

“If more people would help each other, things would be a lot better in this country,” he said.

Newcomer fits in

Simpkins, 70, is a newcomer. He married into the jammers five years ago. He’s from Connecticut and used to make signs until bad lungs forced him to give up that job. His wife, Nancy, was a member of South Church, and so when he moved here, he decided to get involved in the jam-making.

“I needed something to do, so I came here to watch preschool,” he said, grinning. He loves teasing the women. “I’m here to cause grief and aggravation so they don’t fight with one another.”

Nancy Simpkins works as a receptionist in a medical office and spends many evenings making jam for the fair. She is “amazing,” Pistel interjected. “She will come here at 7 o’clock and make 70 jars. Plus she puts up with him so she gets 20 gold stars.”

The jam-making starts when the strawberries ripen in late spring and then follows whatever fruit is in season. The jams, along with finished jars of relishes, beets and pickles, are stacked in a store room down the hall from the kitchen.

$5 a jar

There are about 25 regulars in both the jammer and crafty ladies groups, though deaths among the older members whittle away at the ranks.

“Every year one of their friends dies,” Pistel said. “It’s very hard for them.”

The fair brings in about $17,000, about $5,000 from the jammers’ work, Simpkins estimates, although there are those who insist the number is higher.

“At $5 a jar, that’s a lot of jam,” Pistel said.

A lot more people pitch in the week before the fair. “The church is full every night until 9 with people setting up,” said Pistel.

The jammers and crafters say they won’t be finished until the last minute.

“We have a few mishaps, but we do produce an amazing product,” Pistel said as I prepared to leave.

“It’s full of love from South Church,” added Hannigan.

“Boy, if that doesn’t sound like an infomercial,” said Pistel with a laugh.

The South Congregational Church Sleighbell Fair is Nov. 23 from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the church at 1066 South East St.

Debra Scherban can be reached at dscherban@gazettenet.com.

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