I just read on the Internet about the horrific snow storms still ravaging the Midwestern States. My father’s family and their parents were hardy Midwesterners who, like many other couples, pulled together every penny they had and either rented or purchased land as was the custom in the very early 1900’s. In those days if you wanted to live in a rural area you could pretty much live off the land if you could use your savings to purchase a few livestock and some farming equipment.
A good size family included a big brood of kids and aging grandparents which provided lot of hands to help out and was an attribute to a farm owner and not a hindrance. Large families were so common that even in my father’s generation, for example, he was the youngest of fifteen children.
People who relocated to the country brought with them certain bare essentials, the most important of which was a mailbox and a wood burning stove.
Other items such as watering cans, bushel baskets for gathering and transporting farm-grown produce and metal buckets were equally indispensable for feeding the animals and for bathing children in the kitchen but could be purchased from a catalogue or from town.
The nearest store which was usually an enormous distance away was difficult and on occasion impossible to reach. Weather conditions sometimes made it impossible to travel and would detour families from going into town which was an arduous journey even on the most pleasant of days. Activities off the farm had to be scheduled carefully with the most vital consideration being adherence to the seasonal climate restrictions.
Everyone enjoyed the time off because life in the country was not easy. The whole family had to pitch in and work. Each family member had a series of daily and weekly chores such as milking the cows twice a day and feeding the chickens as well as; barreling hay.
There was little time for anything else since these and other tasks filled the hours from sun up until sunset.
My great-grandmother helped my grandmother in the garden and in the kitchen. They were particularly busy planting in the early spring and harvesting and canning until the very end of the fall.
The crops had to be tended to religiously to keep insects and birds away. The soil needed to be plowed and tilled and the seeds and sprouting eyes of potatoes and onions had to be planted into the soft, soiled furrows that were recovered with fertilized dirt at the end of the planting process.
Many of the garden grown foods (fruits and vegetables) could be picked and eaten right away, but hardier crops like potatoes were gathered up in the fall and placed in wooden barrels where they would be safely stored in the farm’s cellar. Potatoes were a mainstay food because they could be used as the basis for a variety of dishes such as soups, stews and casseroles all winter long. Butchering of certain livestock was also performed in the late fall and the meats sealed in glass jars to meet the requirements of the family during the cold harsh winters.
Doing the washing was a big deal too because instead of loading soiled clothes into a washing machine and flipping on a switch, each piece of laundry had to be cleaned by rubbing it up and down with soap vigorously on a scrubbing board to remove stubborn stains.
It took hours to do so setting a special day aside each week to do this chore was mandatory. There were no dryers back then so all the wet clothing and linens had to be hung on a clothes line where they could be seen fluttering back and forth in the sunlight and drying naturally in the wind.
Recreation consisted of simple family outings to parks where the community would gather listening to patriotic speeches, playing ball and just visiting with other people who had chosen to live in remote regions of the Midwest.
Picnics in the summer were a popular pastime. A big wicker basket would be packed with sumptuous delights and all the family’s duties would have to be completed ahead of time in the darkness of the early morning. The promise of the tasty treats prepared and packed in advance things like fried chicken, freshly picked corn (each ear of corn had to be cut off the stalk) and vegetable relishes, along with homemade breads, fresh fruit pies and hand squeezed lemonade made the event especially festive. Sometimes these activities would have to be cancelled when there was a good chance that a severe storm was on the rise; raging storms were quite common, accompanied by resounding thunder and lightning as were the threats of tornados and the damage they could cause, a big cause for concern for the farmers.
During the holidays the family’s chickens were shipped off to the big city by railroad. Everyone usually went to the train station it was a real happening to see distant relatives and friend of the various in the area arriving to spend time this special time with their loved ones.
There was generally lots of snow making this time special for the children who were bundled up in heavy coats, and wooly gloves and fuzzy ear warmers to keep them from getting chilled and sick in the icy climate; after all, there were snowmen to build and races to be won on their sleds. The handmade quilts came in mighty handy when wrapped around bricks heated in the oven to pre-warm the beds.
There was much to do at the local church too. Members of the family sang in choirs or acted and performed in skits in Christmas plays. Trees were cut down and decorated with strands of popcorn, unlit candles and a wide array of other hand-woven decorations.
It is hard for me to imagine the life my father’s parents and his aunts and uncles had. I have only set my feet on farm soil a couple of times in my life. I was born and raised in the middle of a bustling city at a time when everything could be had for the asking and nothing had to be produced by such hard efforts. I marvel at the work ethic of the Midwesterners during the early 1900’s and even today with all the new inventions and machinery they have at their deposal. Farming was and still is a complete mystery to me. There are however aspects of growing up in a rural region of the country I know I would have loved. There was a simplicity to life that made life less chaotic I am sure, that is until one of those horrific storms or tornados came along and disturb the otherwise serene countryside.
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