Introduction from Editor: In THE WAY IT WAS: Part 2 | The Great Depression, Eshrink shared his perspective and experiences during the Great Depression and the 1930s and early 1940s in middle America.
The best weeks of every summer for my brother and me was the time we spent on the farm. Our Grandparents were welcoming, but I wonder how they really felt about such a rambunctious invasion. It was well known that one of Grandma’s favorite pastimes was feeding people, especially kids, but she expected some praise in return for her efforts. She would sometimes manage to put us to work hoeing corn or working in the garden, but those efforts were short lived as we would soon escape to go swimming or fishing in the creek which ran through the pasture. She would also occasionally recruit us to accompany her on expeditions looking for patches of wild blackberries or raspberries from which she promised to make pies with the portions left over after making a batch of jam. She was fearless and reminded me of Brer Rabbit in the Aesop fable as she waded into those briar patches apparently oblivious to the pain they caused.
In those days the family farm was as the name implies primarily for the purpose of feeding the family. The idea came to fruition several thousand years ago when people decided that it would make more sense to plant and harvest stuff than to go chasing all over the place hoping to find something edible to kill or pick. Of course, if a person had some stuff left over after the family was fed, he might trade it for a new loin cloth or something. That concept had changed little at this little piece of land adjoining the village of Irville, Ohio, population of probably less than 100 souls. During the all too brief time that I have occupied the planet, I have witnessed the demise of the family farm. As technology and transportation have improved, it has become much more efficient to specialize, which has led the average farmer to sell all he grows and purchase what food his family needs. As the principles of mass production invaded the food industry, families found a can of beans bought at the local grocery would cost less than the materials that would be required to put them in mason jars, not to mention the hours of labor involved in their growing and preparation. Nevertheless, one could see in Grandma’s eyes a deep sense of satisfaction when she looked at the numerous colored jars of fruits, vegetables, jams, and beef which lined the shelves in her cellar.
There was one instance in which I remember experiencing that feeling. It happened as I was eating one of Grandma’s “light cakes” that was still warm from her oven, covered with a slab of butter from her churn, and topped with a glorious glob of apple butter and washed down with a cold glass of buttermilk. In spite of years of diligent searching, I have never been able to duplicate that taste. There is little doubt that memory is enhanced by the recollection of my participation in the production of this culinary delight, for I was charged with gathering apples from the old tree that protected the back porch and like a giant umbrella, held sway over the well and its pump.
Fascination with the mechanical apple peeler led me to ask if I could do it, but therein lay the wisdom of that adage to be careful what you wish for, as I soon learned that it takes a lot of apples to fill a five-gallon copper bucket. A fire had been started in the back yard under the vintage bucket filled with peeled, cored, and diced apples along with a package of cinnamon drops and brown sugar. I was assigned the job of continually stirring the glob for the next several hours with a long-handled wooden hoe which Grandad had made for the purpose. I watched as that yellow glob became a rich golden-brown delicacy, some of which would find its way on to Grandma’s “light cakes.” Sorry Mr. Smucker….you do a good job, but your apple butter does not generate the same feeling as my “home-made” version. I have no idea why, but suspect it has something to do with belonging (i.e., me becoming a participant in the creation rather than simply a consumer). I had teamed up with nature to produce something good, and that was very satisfying.
With the development of farms limiting their production to only one product such as grain, vegetables, fruit, dairy, pork, or beef, etc,, farming became a business rather than a lifestyle. Unfortunately, for many reasons, the average farmer has found himself ill-prepared to compete with corporate interests which have bought large swaths of land, which when unencumbered by fences or other impediments, make it possible for one person with the help of technological advances in farm machinery to manage many times more land than could the family farmer. Such facilities have been aptly called “factory farms” for they have become models of efficiency by adopting industrial methods. They offer many advantages, but as I have noted in previous blogs, they also have in some cases accelerated environmental problems, and raised the ire of animal rights advocates along with guys like me.
My Grandparent’s farm was certainly nothing to look at. It was only 23 acres in size, with a house that had not felt the caress of a paint brush in at least 40 or 50 years. It was situated in a large valley that encompassed several square miles, which was said to have originated as a large lake formed by the latest glacier. It had apparently been inhabited by Indians for we kids found it profitable to follow the plow when earth was being turned in order to find arrowheads. The valley was also the site of a large burial mound which had been long ago desecrated. To find an arrowhead or spear point was a major happening and would elicit wondrous images as to how it got there.
The farm house had the obligatory front porch with a swing and wicker chairs. The porch looked out on the main road which ran through the village and provided a front row seat for the family as they watched me nearly meet my maker at the tender age of 4 years old. In my excitement to show off a treat from the village general store, I had broken away from Grandad’s hand to run across the road directly into the front fender of a passing automobile. I awakened on a couch in the parlor to find Dr. Wells looking down at me, and realized I was in big trouble for this was the only time I had been allowed in this room since my Great Grandmother’s funeral, and the couch on which I was laying was reserved for special occasions. The good doctor assured everyone that I would be fine and turned his attention to Grandad who had collapsed in the middle of the road after assuming the worst. This was the second time I had escaped from the clutches of the grim reaper, and it left me saddled with the accident-prone moniker. The other incident involved the well-worn story of my rescue by Dad when I had fallen into the river as we were fishing alongside the Pleasant Valley covered bridge.
Weather permitting, the front porch was heavily occupied on Sunday afternoons. We kids had learned to pay homage to Grandma’s culinary expertise by patting our midsections and letting out a loud burp or two. The Sabbath was rigidly observed except for those businesses or professions that were deemed necessary for the public good. For example, it was considered very poor taste to be seen mowing one’s lawn on Sunday, and some more zealous Christians even thought it was a sin to cook on Sundays and would prepare Sunday meals on Saturday. Nevertheless, the average farmer could hardly consider the Sabbath as a day of rest. Even with suspension of many activities, there remained much which could not be put off. Grandad’s day began shortly after daybreak with milking of his four cows. There were also the hogs to feed and water, along with the chickens which in both cases required considerable effort since it required filling buckets of water from the pump that stood under a large apple tree situated near the back porch some distance from the hog lot or hen house. Those chores were repeated in the late afternoon. The balance of his morning was consumed by shaving with a straight razor (I remember watching in awe as he deftly disposed of those white whiskers without cutting his throat). Meanwhile, Grandma had deftly separated a rooster from his head and her crown achievement of the week, the preparation of Sunday dinner, began. I never knew them to attend church, but at the age of 96 Grandma still nightly prayed on her knees at the side of her bed. While the kitchen was being cleaned up, there were often horrible screeching sounds emanating from the stable as Grandad sharpened his tools in preparation for the week’s work. After all that, the day of rest began, but it would be short lived for in a couple of hours it would be time for evening chores.
The valley ground was fertile and made more so with liberal applications of cow manure which was collected in a large pile to the rear of the stables. There were 4 cows who would be found standing at the gate awaiting to be escorted to the stanchions at milking time. My favorite was named Bossy. She would allow me to ride her to the stable, while a Jersey named Whitey was mean, and only Grandad could handle her. A small stream that coursed through the pasture was called the run. It emptied into the creek which found its way into the river where I had nearly drowned and therefore was off limits to us kids. It was the run however where we spent much of our time swimming and fishing. At some time in the remote past, a road had been cut through a corner of the farm which left a small corner of ground as the designated hog lot. It backed up to the local cemetery where my Grandparents, Great Grandparents, and other relatives are buried. The location was not very convenient as it was a bit of a hike for carrying water and feed to the hogs twice a day, but it did have the advantage of wafting the odor away from the house toward the cemetery. In addition to the chicken house, smoke house, and corn crib, there was the brooder house in the barnyard where the new chicks could be sheltered until they were old enough to survive outside temperatures.
The length of the farm workday was determined by the time of the year, since it depended on the number of daylight hours although, with the invention of the kerosene lantern it had been extended even beyond that. As is always the case, those items of momentous change in our lives eventually become routine and taken for granted. Such was certainly the case when Dad introduced electricity to the farm. Milking time needed to be rearranged for at 7 o’clock Grandad could be found with his right ear pressed against the speaker of his new radio with its volume set high enough to chase everyone else from the room while he listened to H.V. Kaltenborn’s news cast.
Imagine Spinney’s delight when he first walked into the barn and simply flipped a switch in order to be bathed in light. There was no longer a need to walk to the general store in the village to purchase kerosene, fill the lantern, adjust and light the wick, then find a place to safely hang it where it was not at risk to burn the barn down for there are not many materials more flammable than straw or hay. He was not one to jump onto the latest invention, preferring to sharpen his tools with a file, oil stone, and an old treadle operated grindstone. He was not averse to power tools and other modern conveniences, and indeed was intrigued by technology, but simply preferred doing things the old way. He was quick to adopt the new ways when there were clear advantages. For example, when Bell the plow horse, had died, Grandad did a cost analysis and determined that he could hire a neighbor to plow his gardens and fields with a tractor much cheaper than he could keep a horse. I was heart-broken when he subsequently sold the spring wagon for, I had loved pretending to be riding shotgun when he harnessed Bell to the wagon, and we headed to the feed store with me sitting up there beside him.
Grandma on the other hand embraced this new technology with a vengeance. She immediately started saving her egg money for one of those new-fangled electric refrigerators, which was soon followed by a wringer washer. Subsequent birthdays and Christmases would bring forth a spate of small appliances over which she would marvel. Natural gas had also recently been piped into the house and a brand-new shiny gas cooking stove had replaced her trusty old soot belcher, although the old Florence stove still stood in the midst of the family room where it devoured large chunks of coal in a feeble effort to warm the whole house.
My Father was a proud person, and it must have been devastating to have lost everything he had worked so hard to accomplish so soon after starting his own family. His assertiveness at times bordered on arrogance, and he was not shy about offering his opinions. Although it was not readily apparent, he was a caring person. On one occasion, to my mother’s chagrin, he brought a hitchhiker he had picked up, home for dinner, later explaining that the guy was hungry, and he felt sorry for him. He had quit school in the 8th grade in order to support his family due to his father’s alcoholism. This in spite of having been promised by a local resident of the village to pay for college if he would stay in school. The only reference I ever heard him make to the poverty of his childhood was when he admitted that the reason he always wanted to be sure of having eggs in the refrigerator was because his mother once sent him with a penny to buy one egg from a neighbor. He was so mortified that he vowed to always have eggs when he grew up, yet here he was once again with no eggs in the ice box. In spite of his place as the younger of the two boys in a family of six, he was the one assigned to search local bars in search for his father during his dad’s alcoholic binges. My paternal grandfather was a colorful figure in his own right and had shown himself capable of successes in between binges. Although I have few memories of him, the stories I have heard suggest that he was in spite of his flaws a brilliant person, and I hope to write more about him later. I only remember my paternal Grandma as long suffering, helpless, and dependent on my father. In spite of the complex dynamics of his family of origin, Dad showed no signs of bitterness. He was outgoing, gregarious, and definitely a presence in any group situation. I recall him saying on one occasion that he had always wanted to be a salesman, and his persona fit that role perfectly. Later in his life that wish would be fulfilled in spite of his lack of education, and as expected he found success there.
Mother had grown up in a secure environment in a neighboring small village surrounded by extended family and cared for by hard working parents. I have hanging on my garage wall her framed diploma from high school which measures nearly 2 feet square. Apparently in her time a high school education was a really big deal. Her father was big on education for following graduation she enrolled in a business school which I assume was somewhat similar to present day community colleges. The curriculum involved bookkeeping, and secretarial skills for although women had recently won the right to vote, career-wise they were largely limited to those professions which involved assisting men such as a personal secretary or some degree of nurturing as nurses, teachers (mostly lower grades), domestic help, waitresses, child care workers, seamstresses, prostitutes, or nuns. There were a few exceptions: for example, the explosive growth in telephone usage before the invention of dial-phones provided an opportunity for a female to make a living wage saying “number please”. It was widely recognized that the weaker sex lacked the strength both physically and emotionally to deal with the rigors of management, or the judgement to make rational decisions. Mother as was the norm in those days feigned acquiescence to whatever decisions Dad would make, yet I know they discussed family decisions before passing them on to us kids. The one time I saw her openly assert herself was when in later years she told him he was drinking too much. He never took another drink after that.