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


Then & Now

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?”

Our theater of seasons

“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.

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.”

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!”

Our pets, our birds, ourselves

THE HASTINGS CRAZY QUILTER observes: “One woman’s trash is another’s treasure!

“For over 25 years, the dogs in our home had been Labradors. Labradors are wonderful family dogs, with short hair; when they shed, it’s not that big a deal.

“Our latest dog, however, is a Catahoula — with long white hair that turns up everywhere. She sheds so much, I swear I get enough hair each brushing to make a new puppy. I try to brush her outside, where the clumps of hair float away on the breeze. After a vigorous brushing, our front yard looks like something furry died out there.

“The other day, I saw a chipping sparrow gathering up that dog hair. Chipping sparrows are small (5- to 6-inch) birds that typically feed on the ground and take cover/nest in shrubs. They have one to three broods a year. This female was gathering up so much dog hair in her beak, you could hardly see her head. She flew off to line her nest and came back two more times. Glad to see all that dog hair is of some use! Somewhere in our yard is the cushiest nest in the neighborhood.

“One time, a chipping sparrow nested in the yew bush outside our dining-room window. From inside we could look right down into the nest, see the eggs hatch and the small birds grow.

“Unfortunately chipping sparrows are often brood-parasitized by brown-headed cowbirds. Cowbirds will lay their eggs in another bird’s nest, so that bird will have to feed and raise their young. Many birds cannot recognize that one of the eggs in their nest doesn’t look like the others. Because the cowbird egg hatches quickly and the baby cowbird is larger, they frequently get more food and attention from the parent birds, resulting in lower populations of the parasitized birds.

“I’m sure hoping all that white dog hair doesn’t give away the location of the chipping sparrow’s nest.”

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.”

Then & Now

Little Pitchers Division

KATHY ROBERTSON writes: “Subject: What We Put Our Children Through.

“In the late 1980s, my 3-year-old and 7-year-old were ‘forced’ to listen to the Oldies station at home and in the car.

“One day, after a foray to Dayton’s in Minneapolis, we stopped to listen to the pianist playing the grand piano on the first floor. After we listened for a while, he asked if we had any requests. My 3-year-old marched up to him and asked if he knew ‘Johnny B. Goode.’ He seemed a bit surprised, but did a somewhat poor version for us.

“He then said he had never had such a request from a tiny person! Usually they asked for ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ or ‘The Wheels on the Bus.’

“She still likes the oldies, at age 35.”

BULLETIN BOARD MUSES: She was well trained.

And what’s not to like?

Band Name of the Day: The Dung Pucks

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