What was it like to grow up on a dairy farm, most of a century ago?

Now & Then
Or: Life as we knew it

Waldo Windmill writes: “Growing up on a dairy farm in the 1930s and ’40s was an interesting, if not exciting, lifestyle. A few memories predominate as I look back on that experience.

“We milked cows by hand while coming up with ways to avoid being swatted by their tails in the process. We crafted our own milk stools — trying to make them serviceable, yet unique in some way. Very infrequently we were allowed by our parents to skim off some cream, which we then whipped with great anticipation into a special treat. However, we regretted that cows had to be milked in the evening, which meant always having to leave afternoon social gatherings before our friends who lived in town.

“Farming also resulted in our spending long days in the fields, planting, tending, and harvesting crops. This duty earned us midmorning and midafternoon lunches prepared by our mother and delivered to us on site by younger siblings. Therefore, contrary to the labels breakfast, lunch, and dinner attached to the eating experiences of many/most who didn’t engage in farming, we ate breakfast, lunch, dinner, lunch, and supper.

“Three farm tasks to be avoided if at all possible were (1) cleaning barn gutters during the days and months that cows were unable to go outside to graze; (2) stacking bundles of grain into ‘shocks’ waiting for the threshing machine and crew to come by to complete the harvesting process; (3) being assigned to ‘hay mow’ duties on hot muggy days.

“Farm life, however, was not all work and no play. Some sort of ball game usually was played after chores and supper were completed on long summer days. How much time was left to play before darkness set in was determined by the length of the chapter from the Bible that my father read after supper and before we were allowed to leave the table. Rainy days provided more time to play, but the game was moved into the barn, where we used a rubber ball, designed a ‘playing field’ with carefully placed bases, and exercised a great deal of caution about where we ran. I also created a game in which I bounced a rubber ball off the cylindrical farm silo at various angles and kept track of my success or lack thereof at catching the rebound.

“Summers also meant fishing for bullheads in farm ponds or mudholes, and trapping gophers. As I recall, we were paid by the county agent a bounty of five cents for each gopher we trapped. Gophers were highly unpopular at the time because they existed in large numbers, they helped themselves to farm crops, and their extensive burrowing led to the damage of farm equipment.

“Allowances, at least in our family, were nonexistent. So we were always on the lookout for a way to pick up a nickel or a dime or a (gasp) quarter. As a preschooler I had a ‘cute’ lisp and could carry a tune. Whenever visitors were present, my parents would talk me into singing a little ditty, the lyrics of which went like this: ‘Twas a kitty, wise and witty. He surprised them in the city. With his boots on, silken suits on. What a gay puss in boots.’ (Try singing that with a lisp.) Every once in a while, I’d get a small coin for my efforts, especially if my audience was made up of ‘rich’ relatives from Chicago.

“I’d also spend a few days each summer picking beans at a neighbor’s farm for the grand sum of 1/2 cent per pound. I recall joining other neighborhood bean-pickers one summer threatening to ‘strike’ if we didn’t receive a 100 percent increase in pay. Our demand fell on deaf ears. During the war years in the early 1940s, my siblings and I scrounged for scrap metal, which we then sold for a paltry sum to traveling scrap collectors, who in turn sold it to manufacturers of war equipment.

“Winters on the farm brought skiing, sliding and playing our own version of outdoor hockey. We’d find a frozen puddle on a nearby field, carve an appropriate tree branch to use as a hockey stick, accumulate frozen clumps of horse dung to serve as pucks, attach our clamp-on skates and hit the ice. Our games would usually end either by a failure of our skates to remain fastened to the soles of our shoes or a complete deterioration of our pucks.

“I’m left to wonder: Would my life on the farm have been as interesting had we had milking machines, hay balers, combines, manufactured sports equipment, smart phones, and television?”

Working days

Grandma Pat, formerly of rural Roberts, Wisconsin: “I think that everyone should keep notes from their ‘on the job’ experiences. Any time you are interacting with your fellow human beings, or with nature, you will have stories.

“As a teenager in the 1940s, I did babysitting, worked at the Emporium downtown, at Klein’s grocery store, and at an insurance company, among other things.

“While at a summer job at the insurance company, I was to file hand-written papers into towering gray files. One day when things were kind of slow, I was given envelopes from the ‘dead end’ mail. No one else could read them, but somehow I was able to decipher most of the Finnish, Italian, and Eastern European names from ‘up on the Range.’ It was great fun, like solving puzzles all day. They even gave me my own desk for this work!

“A few years later, I spent a couple of summers as a camp counselor at Green Lake. I had maybe six or so young ones in a cabin with no electricity and no bathrooms. One summer there were terrible storms. During one of these, ‘floating islands’ (large chunks of land with cat-tails growing on them) were breaking off from the opposite shore and blowing towards our dock. They had the power to smash anything in their way. A few of us who were pretty good swimmers were asked to go out with long poles, tread water, and turn the islands just before they hit the dock.

“During another storm, I had just gotten my girls settled in for the night when I heard the wind, then the sound of trees falling everywhere. I considered trying to take the kids through the woods to the main lodge, but decided that would be even more dangerous than just riding it out. I had all the little ones pile on my bed, and with my flashlight, I began reading Andersen’s fairy tales. It seemed that I read for hours, until things subsided, and someone came to check on us. There was so much damage that the camp had to close for some time.

“Many years later, in Des Moines, I took a part-time job for the Census, mapping out a semi-rural area. I always kept dog treats in my pocket, so as to be able to go through gates and appease upset dogs. I got along fine with the dogs, but this tactic backfired on me. Before I knew it, I had about five loose dogs who had decided that I was their best friend, and they followed me.

“Now it’s one thing to walk up to people’s houses, wearing a government badge and carrying a clipboard, but walking up to their houses wearing a government badge, carrying a clipboard, and being accompanied by five dogs is quite another. That ended the dog treats.

“Fun memories!”

The Permanent Family Record

The Astronomer of Nininger: “I can remember the old days, when I was hardly more than just a tot. You could send a post card for a penny. Understand clearly that a penny really was a penny back then. You could go to the store across the street of that old Chicago neighborhood that I grew up in and purchase several pieces of candy for a penny. I think back to the old woman who ran the store. She was large, wore a sweater (even in the summer), and she would tear off a piece of paper with those sugar-flavored drops of candy dotted across it. But I could also write a postcard for that penny, and mail it off.

“I think back to the first penny post card I wrote. It was to the host of a radio show on the outdoors. We didn’t have television then, so our family gathered around the radio on Sunday evening, catching every word that was broadcast on the air waves. There was ‘The Shadow’ and others, but this particular show answered questions of the listening audience. I don’t think they accepted call-ins like talk-show hosts do today. Anyway, this show was about hunting and fishing and the outdoors. My father was an avid outdoorsman. He talked a lot about how someday he would own a .410 double shotgun. Those words fell on my young ears. I honestly don’t recall exactly how my question was phrased, but it was never read on the program. I do recall having to write small enough to fit my question onto that small card.

“My dad never could afford to purchase a .410 double until many, many years later, after he retired, when he and Mother had moved to northern Wisconsin. He found an old one in a corner of the hardware store in a small town near to where they were now living. It actually looked like it had seen little use. It wasn’t scratched and beat up like some. The bluing was still very deep. He bought it ‘on time,’ paying $10 a month until it was paid off. He took it home and showed it to me on our next visit.

“By then the Good Wife and I had been married for nearly 20 years, with our own family. Our children were growing up and were teenagers. My dad, who we called the ‘governor,’ brought that .410 shotgun out from where he stored it in the back of a bedroom closet. He never fired it. Instead, he gave it to his grandson, Chuck, demonstrating an act of love people seldom witness today.

“Today, Chuck still has that old .410 double. He doesn’t shoot it very much, but he cleans it frequently and holds it often. Every time he holds it, his thoughts are with his granddad. Maybe we need to be more like them.”

Our times
Pandemic Division

The Happy Medium writes: “Subject: Surviving the COVID-19 Shutdown.

“Thank goodness the world is opening up from the pandemic after a too-long shutdown.

“The 2020 year presented an unimaginable halt to family, state, country and world events. Our outlook on life, as we knew it, changed considerably. Many lives were lost, and all of us were shut off from those elements that make us human — namely, togetherness through face-to-face conversations, luncheons, church services, family gatherings. Those activities came to a screeching halt in March 2020, because of the covid-19 virus. The world shutdown had begun.

“Each of us had to find a way to deal with this situation. I increased communicating by telephone, letters and cards. I’m sure others did the same.
But what would be another way for me to cope with this time away from friends and family? Television wasn’t the best distraction, that’s for sure. I did do some sewing and writing. But reading took a high priority.

“While the pandemic held too many uncertainties for me, I certainly didn’t need to start reading a book without knowing how it ended. I decided the safest thing to do was to reread books I had enjoyed before, because I knew how each ended. And, no, I didn’t read ‘Moby-Dick’ or ‘War and Peace’ five times each. I have collected a small library of books I liked reading the first time. When the pandemic began, I decided it was time to read some of them again. A few of those titles are listed here:

“‘A Lantern in Her Hand,’ by Bess Streeter Aldrich (1928).

“‘The Ladies of Missalonghi,’ by Colleen McCullough (1987).

“‘The Education of Hyman Kaplan,’ by Leonard Q. Ross (1937).

“‘Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,’ by Winifred Watson (1938).

“‘The Making of the African Queen, or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind,’ by Katharine Hepburn (1987).

“Rereading these oldies, which had passed the test of time, helped me relax while coping with the dire daily reports of the pandemic. I hope others were able to find ways to successfully deal with the awful pandemic and move on when the world opened up. Best wishes for better days ahead.”

Everyone’s a copy editor

First, The Retired Pedagogue of Arden Hills: “Page 5B of last Wednesday’s Pioneer Press:


“‘Goldman absent

“‘Nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who missed last season as an opt-out due to COVID-19, hasn’t been at voluntary organized team activities, and missed the first day of minicamp Tuesday. He can be fined forthis absence, and Nagy said it is not excused.

“‘”We’re out here practicing and as everybody knows, it’s mandatory minicamp and he’s not here,” Nagy said. “But we did have a discussion with him yesterday. Obviously I’m going to keep that between us, but we do expect him to be at training camp.”’

‘Interesting and informative, but it raises two questions:

“1) Who is Nagy?

“2) Goldman is a member of what team?

“Page 6B of Wednesday’s Pioneer Press (back to back, you might say): Betsy Helfand’s article discussing Commissioner Rob Manfred’s decision to penalize pitchers for ‘doctoring’ baseballs has this headline: ‘MLB moves to crack down on use of foreign substances.’

“The fourth paragraph of the article reads: ‘”(I) kind of attribute it to, like, if you get a company car and you’re taking it to lunch and dinner and stuff and the company wants to reel it back in,” Twins reliever Taylor Rogers said. “I think that’s kind of what that is.”’

“Could it be any clearer?”

And now Mary M: “Subject: Ooops.

“Monday, June 21st.”

BULLETIN BOARD MUSES: Some habits are harder to break than one of Byron Buxton’s bones.

Could be verse!

A pair from Tim Torkildson: (1) “Laughing, clapping, cheering / the circus came to town / showing skill and pity /with acrobat and clown. / No more those days of wonder / no blending of a crowd / as we sit home a-brooding / the TV on too loud.”






Our theater of seasons

Mounds View Swede writes again: “Here are some more blossom photos I was able to ‘capture’ before they were gone:

“A couple more iris photos, each unique in its coloring.

“I found it interesting that each petal was split in this blossom.

“A chive blossom from my garden.

“This one is in my yard: one of my giant hosta plants in bloom.

“I don’t know what this is or remember where I found it, but it’s somewhere nearby. The petals seem to have a texture that catches the light.

“Walking near the shore of Lake Owasso, I spotted my first Monarch butterfly of the season. I had been hoping to spot one soon and was glad to finally see one.

“There were a lot of milkweed plants nearby, and they were blooming. Mine haven’t gotten this far along yet. But these were so close to the water that the drought hasn’t slowed them down.

“Lily-pad blossoms were getting ready to open.

“Back in Mounds View, the catalpa trees were all in bloom.

“I spotted this set of blooms in a street-corner garden, so I stopped for a photo.

“Their clematis had a lot more blossoms than mine.

“I’ve been watering my gardens regularly to try to keep them alive, and most seem to be in good shape.”

Know thyself!

The Gram With a Thousand Rules: “Subject: Time goes by.

“I heard from kids, grandchildren, dozens of niblings (his and mine) and friends from all over the world on my birthday last week.

“By the time you’ve experienced 89 of them, you notice that the humorous —making-fun-of-your-age type — have diminished along with the contemporaries who enjoyed razzing you. So the birthday cards, emails and Facebook posts I received were really sweet and loving and appreciated, and they took care not to note the fact or (heaven forbid) say: ‘Hey, Old Lady, you’re getting really ancient!’

“The one exception came from my husband’s eldest nephew, who is not exactly a wee young lad himself. He congratulated me on my ‘long walk with time.’ I like that! From now on, don’t call me an old lady; I am a Time Traveler.”

Our pets, ourselves

The Doryman of Prescott, Wisconsin: “Subject: We had a snake . . . his name was Slick . . .

“Who would keep a snake as a pet? Maybe just a regular guy searching for common interest with a 9-year-old stepson, struggling a little at the time, with issues relating to the double-daddy situation. While getting big brother settled in at Mankato State, we all stopped by a shopping center that had a pet shop, and therein begins this long tale. I made two promises that day to my new family and kept them both.

“(1) You can get one if your mother agrees.

“(2) I will make an escape-proof cage.

“The cage was a rookie reptile owner’s mistake . . . but a wonder to behold. If smart phones would have been invented 40 years ago, I would include a photo and you would agree. It was a Garden of Eden landscape, I believed, that any python would feel right at home in. A branch, a pond, a little cave, an out-of-reach ceiling trap door, a padlock, a warming light and a waterproof jungle floor. It even had a small room hidden in the back for mice-in-waiting, if you catch my drift. Not the healthiest or most practical habitat for a reptile, but definitely the cherished focal point of any 9-year-old boy’s room.

“The great day arrived, and I hurried off to Apache Plaza and collected ‘Slick’ in a plastic Cool Whip tub from a nice young man I had reserved the snake from two weeks earlier, who then, and only then, informed me that he (or of course she) would need to be force-fed baby mice (50 cents a dozen, frozen for your convenience) until I trained him (or of course her) to eat on his (or of course her) own. Well, at this point I was in too deep, and I had promises to keep, and thus I smiled and uttered not a peep. He demonstrated the feeding technique, which was similar to loading a wriggling, black-powder musket with baby mice instead of lead ball and using a blunted pencil instead of a ramrod. Beyond the capabilities of a young child, but thankfully only three shots every three weeks. Oh, and don’t forget to bathe him in a bowl of tepid water with a drop or two of Vitamin B in it as well. Hmmm. So much for the pond. Every present has a price.

“Slick was a big attraction for kids at our house for quite a few months. I caught a glimpse of what adult-neighbor sentiment was when on Halloween of that year I greeted trick-or-treaters holding him. One of the mother chaperones (known to be a nudist) remarked to me with a scowl: ‘You are sooo weird!’

“It was a unique experience, although one I wouldn’t want to do again, and unfortunately for him the feeding schedule was wrong in both quantity and frequency for a growing boy. We didn’t have a clue, as snakes are normally notoriously skinny and don’t bark when they’re hungry. About five months into the endeavor, Slick seemed to move even less than his normal vegetative state, and, when lifted gently from his cage, instead of hugging my wrist in a warm embrace, he retained his final resting shape.

“This ancient memory was stirred as I came across the Post-it Note with the rhyming start of an illustrated children’s book I began to write back then. It never advanced beyond Page 4 and still begs a happy ending.”

Band Name of the Day:
The Dung Pucks

Website of the Day (not for the first time): Nature365.tv (with new contributors this year from Europe and Japan)

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