Monday, February 14, 2011

My Gramma, Gramps, and Life on the Farm

My grandparents were farm people. My mom and her brother and sister were raised on a farm. They had no electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing.

Grandma taught school in a one room schoolhouse. She lived with the parents of her students, each family for a set amount of time. She lived with the family of my Gramps as she taught his younger siblings in school. Of course he didn’t look like gramps then. He was young with black hair and teeth! We always teased Grandma about living with Gramps before they were married, but she actually lived with his family. She did admit they sat on the cellar steps a few times after they were engaged, but it didn’t do much good as Gramps’ sisters sat there with them.

Living on the farm was hard. There was practically no money coming into the little community in which they lived. That meant that everything that they had was basically produced on the farm with the exception of their clothing, which was purchased when absolutely necessary. I know for a fact that Gramps used to cut new soles for his shoes, and attach them to the shoes with bailing wire. Still, they were a family with a reasonable level of satisfaction and experienced joy in living within a loving family.

They lived in a log house that Gramps built. He cut the logs for the house. He took lumber to the mill and had it cut on the halves for the lumber for the floor. They split wood shingles for the roof. They explained to me many times how you do it – but I totally don’t remember. If we ever have to do that I sure hope my husband is around to do. He actually listened to Gramps tell us how to do it. The nails were mostly used nails that Gramps salvaged somewhere.

My mom has said many times that they while they were poor in many ways, they fared much better than many other families who were in the same situation. They did it by hard work and planning ahead. Many other families worked hard, but did not seem able to plan ahead. Here are some of the things they did.

Grandma said that she counted the days and meals from harvest to harvest. She planned how many times a week she would cook what, and tried to manage having food on hand for that. For instance, if she wanted to cook soup 3 times a week, she would try to put up at least 150 quarts of mixed vegetables that would be needed to cook the soup. Other vegetables were canned in pints or quarts, depending on what was available. Corn was a favorite and easily grown. There was no real recipe. She said they just had to basically cook up a vegetable soup with whatever had done well in the garden that year. If they had meat to go in the soup, or to serve separately from the soup, then that was great. If they didn’t have meat, they still had soup for the meal.

Fruit was something else that was canned. Apples and peaches were the most common as that is what they grew most easily on the farm. Peaches had to be canned. Some apples were slow to rot and more easily stored. Blackberries were needed for stomach ailments. I think Grandma said they tried for at least a total of 150 quarts of fruit.

Drying food: They didn’t’ have a good way to dry food. It was put out on sheets of tin, and someone was supposed to watch it constantly to keep the flies off, the animals away, and move it undercover immediately in case of rain.

Potatoes: Potatoes were stored in the barn in layers of hay. They tried to keep the potatoes from touching each other so that if one potato rotted, it would not touch and spoil other potatoes. Apples were stored the same way.

Beans: beans were left on the vine until they were dry – or as close as possible.

Meat: the old timers like my grandparents did not can meat. They were sure it would not really keep well. I know some people today do can meat, most notably fish, but I am sure that they old farm families like my grandparents did not.

Meat was preserved by smoking. Hogs were butchered when the weather was cold. Then Gramps soaked it in some sort of brine, and hung it in the smoke house. He smoked the meat steadily to begin with. Then, he only kept a smoke going on the days the weather was little warm. The smoke was to keep the meat from spoiling. Mom said that the later in the year, the more smoke flavor in the meat. As warm weather approached, the family tried to eat up all the meat left in the smoke house.

Chickens were the main source of fresh meat. Hens were saved for laying eggs, and roosters were eaten when available.

Butchering a beef was difficult because it provided such a large amount of meat and there was no refrigeration. Families usually formed a co-op for beef. People in the co-op would provide a beef at an interval. The meat was divided up among the families, with each family getting the beef they had given to the family who butchering the beef the last time they had butchered a beef. For instance, if you gave your neighbor a loin and ribs when you butchered your beef, they would give you the same thing when they butchered their beef.

Lard – or fat: today we are totally hung up on healthy fat, and low fat, and different types of oil for cooking. The primitive farm families were just intent on keeping a supply of lard for cooking. Honestly, they did not fry everything in hog fat. Hog fat was the cooking oil they used mostly, but it was not that easy to come by. First, they had to kill the hogs. Then they had to render the fat. Gross! That means they cooked the fat until it melted! Then they had to can the fat to use throughout the year. So, having fat to even grease a skillet required that they put up enough quarts of fat to last a year. The fat was sort of on an as needed basis. If they used it to fry a skillet of potatoes today, then they might not have any next month. Or, if the potatoes were having a bad year and rotting early, they would probably use more fat to begin with early in the year. Also, some fat was gained when they fried the bacon from the smokehouse. Grandma said that if you were running out of fat before it was time to butcher hogs again that you had to grease a dishtowel. Then you used the dishtowel to grease your skillet for cooking the cornbread.

Corn: Gramps grew a lot of corn. It was used to feed the animals in the winter, and ground into corn meal at the mill. They ate cornbread at almost every meal. Soup and cornbread made up many good meals. They normally cooked their big meal at lunch. Supper was left over cornbread and milk – as long as they cow was giving milk.

Cows: they had cows and never had goats. I don’t really know why. Butter comes from cows and cheese comes from goats. I suppose the bottom line was they really did not have the time, energy, or resources to manage both. Predators were another consideration. Mostly cows are far less likely to be taken down by a predator than a goat, and easier to keep in a fence.

Chickens: the source of eggs, and fresh meat.

Dogs and cats: pets are expensive. A big dog is like another mouth to feed. There was no place to go buy a sack of pet food. Cornbread was the main food for the family dog. For a farm family, an expensive and generous food for a dog was to be given a fresh egg and spoonful of bacon fat. That was to keep the animal healthy and his coat looking good. Cats mostly lived in the barn or under the house. They were supposed to catch rats and mice, and were given some milk when it was available.

Illness: there wasn’t a doctor anywhere nearby. There was no money for a doctor if there had been one nearby. God just blessed them repeatedly that no one died from an illness. Their best option was to stay healthy. One year when my mom was small, she developed an allergy to corn. This was a disaster because cornbread made up the majority of their diet. Eventually they sold enough of their chickens, and bought a 50 pound sack of flour. Grandma made mom a biscuit at mealtime, and the rest of them ate cornbread. Today, we do have information regarding the uses of many plants, trees, and herbs. I believe that could be very helpful in very hard times

Did I mention they had little to no money? Once year they had had a bad year for farming. They were concerned for how they would even eat during the winter. Gramps took my grandmother and their children home to her parents. He went wild hog hunting, which was dreadfully dangerous. Wild hogs will eat people if given the chance. Anyway, he managed to survive, capture a good number of hogs, sell them, and return to my grandmother wearing new clothes he had bought in town. Then he took the family out for a new outfit as well.

Children and people died young in that era. One of their friends lost a child. As time went by the friends lamented that they could not even remember what their dear child had looked like. Gramps managed to come up with money to have a photograph made of their three children. I have a copy of the photograph somewhere. Three children, dressed nicely, and looking sort of worried about having their photograph taken. To this day if mom sees the photograph, she tells us that what looks like a tear in her stockings is a flaw in the photograph, as she was wearing brand new stockings. That was a very big deal to a little farm girl.

Education: farm families for the very most part were intent on getting their children a proper education that would enable them to function in society and even prosper. Grandma said that in the one room school house she taught everything through algebra and beginning geometry. Every child learned, and learned well according to Grandma. Her method was to divide the children into about 4 age groups, and give the same lesson to all children, with much less required of the younger children. By the time they reached the upper grades they had heard the lessons so many times they could have almost given the lessons themselves. Grandma said it worked quite well because learning was required of the children by both the parents and the teacher. The poor kids had no place to hide!

Gramps was one of those kids who had to drop out of school himself to help the family. (true story) When he was thirteen, he was out logging by himself. He was trying to help the family survive. A tree fell on him and trapped him. He managed somehow to hook the mules to the logs to pull the log off his legs which were both broken. Then he had the mules drag him all the way home. He spent the next year in bed and had a limp the rest of his life – although not really noticeable most of the time until he was older. He could read and write quite well, he just did not finish his formal education. That is something to remember in itself. Education is possible even without the formal schooling. Gramps had an interest in botany, and used to drive mom nuts explaining to her the names of different plants and trees. She later developed the same interest herself. Grandma always said that if she had gone on to college she would have studied botany as well.

By the way, Grandma did attend ‘teaching school’ which lasted six weeks. She said she already knew how to teach school, as she had attended school herself. She knew everything was going to be taught in school, and the methods which teachers used. What she got from teaching school was additional counseling from local preachers to determine if she was called to teach, and some Bible learning they thought to be essential foundations of proper teaching methods.

I am sorry to say that my grandparents did not take their children to church regularly. However, mom is very thankful for one very important thing. They were taught that Bible was absolutely true without error, and the final authority on every subject. This made it much easier for her to be saved when she and dad heard the plan of salvation at a little Baptist church. If my grandparents could come back and do one thing differently. They would make church a priority.

The story of my grandparents’ life on the farm is not unique. That is the way farm families lived. Prior to having jars for canning, life was even more difficult for the farm families. By the way, Grandma said that of course you saved your canning jars. You also saved the lids to reuse only if you had to. New lids were a top priority, but not always possible. Can you imagine that?

Farm families worked very hard in the spring and fall. The crops were ‘laid by’ in the summer, and that gave a breathing spell for recreation like fishing. Wood cutting was a year round chore, as wood was used to cook all the time, and necessary for heat throughout the winter. A lot of ‘spare time’ was spent dragging up wood for kindling. The fall was also time for berry picking. I cannot imagine picking enough blackberries to can 50 quarts of berries, but they did it. Gramps and Grandma called it a picnic when they went out after berries. I think mom knew it was really a work release program. They were released from the daily grind of picking crops and canning and storing food to go out after berries instead. It was all related to putting up enough food to make it another year.

No one knows what the future holds for any of us. We may continue in a level of prosperity that has been peculiar to this country and this generation throughout all history. God has blessed and protected America beyond what we can really comprehend. If the economy should collapse to the point that we find ourselves back on a primitive farm, then I doubt we will have it as good as my grandparents had it. The government is far too intrusive now. It is possible that those who try to grow food and prepare for a full year until the next harvest will have their food stores confiscated for the common good and redistributed among the population who sit around with their hands out.

I read years ago that in Russia food was confiscated from certain areas to create a famine. Those who didn’t go along with the Communist theology were systematically starved to death. ‘Enemies of the State’ and ‘anti-revolutionaries’ were purged through whatever means available. Starving people was just an easy way to get rid of them.

Can you imagine a state of economic collapse today? My grandparents did not face lawlessness in the general population. The vast majority of people had a very firm grasp of right and wrong, and a fear of God. If they didn’t fear God, they did fear the long arm of the law. In addition to growing food, future farm families could very conceivably have to not only protect their food from government confiscation, but from lawless gangs and thugs totally lacking any moral core values.

However, our God is able to protect us and even keep us alive in famine. We should be as prepared as possible given the circumstances in which we now live. It is a good thing to at least know a little bit about how an old fashioned farm worked. I hope you enjoyed hearing about Grandma and Gramps. I hope you found some useful information in how they lived. The main thought I get every time I consider their lifestyle is, ‘Oh my! That sounds REALLY hard! I hope I never have to live like that….

Oh, one more thing, wash day….. there was not a local laundry mat to say the least. All the stories I have heard about wash day are all awful! Mostly there were just stories about how hard it was to wash and then dry the clothes in all sorts of weather. One particularly hard story is this. Ladies had gotten together to do the laundry. Water was being heated at several fires. My grandmother and her little friend were playing near the fire. Grandma’s little friend was an only child who was wearing a new outfit made of stiff cotton. Her dress hem caught fire, and the child burned to death. My great grandfather actually caught the child, but was unable to tear the heavy cloth to get the clothes off, or hold her down to smother the fire. It was a terrible tragedy. The end result of that was that my great grandfather and great grandmother put their three little girls in overalls. Little girls were far more likely to burn to death in that era because of open fire and their long dresses. And, that is the story of how the women in my family gave up dresses for pants.

Barbara Henderson