Mum’s Story – Chapter 4

We had two horses; a brown one named Jim and a black one named Barney.  They were gentle work horses.  After a days work in the field, sometimes we were allowed to sit on their backs as we returned to the barn.  They were not riding horses.  They were trained to respond to Gee and Haw and other oral commands such as whoa and a clicking sound to make them go.  They could not be trusted never to kick however, and we were trained not to walk behind them after they were in the stalls or when they were not in harness.

Jim (the horse) was twenty-seven years old.  One night Papa came back to the house after the evening chores and announced that Jim had died.  Barney was younger by a couple years.  It was now his job to drag his old working buddy out of the barn and to the back of the field behind the house.  The weather was cold and the body was left there as food for the wild life.  It was a very sad time for us but Barney seemed to mourn the most.  And well he might, because we had suffered an economic loss but he had lost his long-time partner.  He was too old to be paired with another strange horse to make a team.  He had to be sold to someone who could use a single horse or he had to be brought* to the rendering works.  We found a buyer for him but only after he had been subjected to what was probably the ultimate humiliation. 

*(In my family “brought” was used interchangeably with “taken” and I didn’t learn the proper use of those words until I was in my thirties. For the most part, my mother’s grammar was surprisingly good, while my dad’s remained painful to my ear until he died)

That Spring when the weather became warm again, the fields had to be plowed.  One horse could not pull the plow.  But we had a cow that was strong enough to break out of the fence often.  So often that Papa was frustrated to the point of tying her in the stall and beating her for punishment.  He decided to use her energy to pull the plow with Barney.  Getting her into harness was difficult.  Getting her to understand commands was impossible.  It was a ridiculous sight and the neighbors stared in disbelief.  Poor Barney was confused and totally humiliated.  After that, he probably thought even being sold to the rendering works to be made into dog food wasn’t so bad.  But he was sold as a single work horse and we soon bought a new team.  Jim and Barney were geldings.  Our new team was a pair of mares.  They were both black and smaller than the geldings.  They were younger and more spirited.  Their names were Kate and Topsy. 

Choosing a draft horse means matching the horse to the job | Hello Homestead


Living in a two bedroom house, it was necessary for Marge, Jim and me to sleep in the same room.  However, the house had space in the attic that could be converted into another room by building on a dormer and finishing off the interior.  This was done shortly before the fourth baby came. 

Marge and I were moved to this upstairs bedroom.  At first the only access to it was up an improvised ladder.  The ladder was made by nailing short pieces of wood to two wall studs in an unfinished little back room that also served as another back entry and led to the stairway to the cellar.  Later a stairway was constructed to come down into a closet that opened into my parents bedroom.  It was a very steep stairs but easier to climb than the ladder.

One morning when Marge and I came downstairs and into the master bedroom, my mother was still in bed and Johanna Gruppen from across the road was at her bedside.  I sensed something was different.  I was three and one-half years old.  Johanna said to me, “come, see what Mama has in bed with her”.  It was a baby boy.  I was shocked.  I had had no idea that a baby was on the way. 

My parents had given each of us nicknames and never used our given names.  Marge was “girl”, Jim was “boy”, and I was “baby”.  I had a  sudden sinking feeling that I had been replaced.  As the baby of the family I had been showered with affection and attention.  Now I had lost my place to this ugly little stranger.  I refused to even look at him.  I went to the far side of the bed which was almost against the wall and squeezed down into the small space.  For some time I refused to come out and join in the festivities of the occasion.

He was my brother Louis, named after our paternal grandfather, whose name was Lykle.  I ignored him as much as possible.  I resented him a lot, for many years.  And it was because of him that I had to have a new nickname.  They began to call me “Tootie”. 

Since we had no electricity on this farm, we harnessed the wind, the horses and each other for power.  The wind pumped our water with the windmill.  The horses tilled the fields and pulled the wagons.  And members of the family provided the power for the washing machine, among other things. 

The washing machine was a wooden contraption with a handle on top that had to be pushed back and forth in order to agitate the clothes in the semi-circular tub beneath.  The machine was in an out-building which was also used for washing celery and preparing it for market.  There was a stove for heating the wash water.  The wash water was heated in an oval shaped copper tub which we called the “boiler” because Mama used to boil the clothes in it if they were unusually dirty.  The stove also provided heat for us in the fall and winter when we worked in there.  Later we had a Maytag washing machine that was powered by a gasoline engine.

Celery could be harvested long after cold weather came.  In fact, after snow fell Papa used a wagon with runners instead of wheels to bring in a load of celery from the field with the horses. In the wash house we trimmed off the roots and outer leaves. Then the celery was washed twice and packed into boxes which we assembled from wood pieces pre-cut to size.  We children were taught to help with everything as soon as we were big enough to handle the jobs.  I remember working with very sharp, large knives at an early age.  I still have a scar on my left forefinger where one slipped while I was cutting a watermelon.   

A favorite task was nailing together the celery shipping boxes.  After packing them rounding full, we nailed three slats on the top and stacked them.  A truck came to pick them up and deliver them to the market in Chicago. 

The celery was one source of income, another was the milk that we sold to a creamery.  The cows were milked by hand and the milk stored in metal milk cans until the truck came to pick it up.  While milking, Papa would feed the cats some of the fresh, warm milk.  If any of us children were there we could have some too, either in a direct stream from the cow, or poured in the cap of the milk can.

Saving out milk for our own use, we did not keep a sufficient amount to churn butter.  We did make some butter, but we mostly used margarine because it was cheaper.  In those days margarine was sold in one pound bricks, in it’s natural white color.  In the package was a small envelope with a colored powder which we sprinkled on the margarine and worked it in to make it yellow.  Later, the envelope was replaced with a capsule that contained a liquid coloring.  This capsule was inside a sealed plastic sack that contained the margarine.  You pinched the capsule until it burst, then kneaded the contents until the coloring was evenly distributed throughout. 

The plastic sack came after world war II.  So for twenty years or more, we mixed the coloring into the margarine.  Then the permission to color margarine by the manufacturer was placed on the ballot to allow the people to decide.  That was when I voted for the first time.  It passed and we no longer had to artificially color our margarine.

My mother was very frugal.  She colored two pounds of margarine at a time in a large bowl.  Then she added one pound of real butter and mixed it thoroughly.  This was supposed to create the illusion that we were eating butter. 

We had no means of cooling the milk so sometimes the milk began to turn sour.  Then Mama put it in the churn to make butter and buttermilk.  The churn was a one gallon square glass container with a mechanism in the screw top which had a handle to turn.  The handle turned a gear that turned wooden paddles in the milk.  It was my job to sit there and slowly turn and wait, turn and wait until little floating blobs of butter formed.  After the butter formed, Mama took over and fished out the pieces, saving the buttermilk for buttermilk pap (pronounced “pup”).

Many of the good things in life were diluted in order to stretch them as the family grew larger.  For instance, we canned our own grape juice.  When it was served, the glass was filled half way with grape juice and then filled with water.  Sugar was added to make it palatable.

We canned many things.  By the time winter arrived our cellar was stocked  with hundreds of filled mason jars.  We butchered our own cows, pigs and chickens.  We canned beef and stored pork in crocks; we smoked beef and hams.  Papa built his smokers in the ground and prided himself on getting the meat just salty enough and not too dry.  We raised apples and canned applesauce.  We canned crab apples, peaches, pears and plums.  We made sauerkraut by storing it in crocks on top of the kitchen cupboards near the ceiling to keep it warm.  We raised navy beans and sorted them by lamp light on the kitchen table.  Pickled peaches and cucumbers were special treats.  On the other hand, homemade bread was ordinary and tiresome.  “Boughten” bread, the white soft spongy kind, was a rare delight. 

Living three miles from the nearest grocery store and on roads that were sometimes impassable, we were accustomed to very little contact with the outside world.  But if we couldn’t get to the store, the store did get to us.  There were two grocery stores in Borculo, at the crossroads that we called, “The Corner”.  There was also an auto repair garage and the Christian Reformed Church.  The grocers had trucks that were stocked like miniature stores.  These trucks had regular routes through the countryside, stopping at each farm to supply us with staples.  They were the “peddle wagons”.  When they came to our farm the driver got out of the cab and got into the back of the truck seating himself behind a tiny collapsible counter while Mama stood on a broad step that ran the width of the back of the truck.  She read off her list and he placed the items one by one from his shelves onto the counter.  When she was finished, he added it all up and packed it into bags.  At the end of the transaction he threw in a handful or two of loose candy.  We called it “peddle wagon candy”.  To this day, when I see that certain kind of candy, I think of it as “peddle wagon candy”.

Our clothes were purchased from mail order catalogs.  We ordered from Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, National Bellas Hess and Spiegel Companies.  We spent time making the selections, then filling out the order blank and waiting for the packages to arrive.  When the order came it was like Christmas, opening the packages and fitting on the items.  We rarely had new clothes.  More often we wore things that were given to us or handed down from one child to the next. 

Nothing went to waste.  When our socks were beyond darning they were saved for making rugs.  My happy memories include the long winter  evenings with a fire in the stove.  With Mama in charge, we cut the old socks into narrow strips starting at the top and cutting round and round.  We avoided the heel which was full of holes and continued to the toe.  Then Mama sewed the ends of the strips together and we cut the threads and wound the strips into balls.  With a crochet hook she made round, oval, rectangular or square rugs, using the different colored socks to make pretty patterns. 

Mama sewed most of our clothes either from things that were given to us and didn’t fit, or from material that she ordered from the catalogs.  We had to buy shoes but Papa did shoe repair on his own cast iron shoe lasts.  Shoestrings were worn until the knots were too numerous to tuck under and hide.  In the summer we usually went barefoot.

We raised three grains; rye, wheat and oats.  We harvested it with a machine called a binder.  This machine cut the grain stalks and bound it in bundles, dumping them on the ground as it moved along.  We gathered up the bundles, standing them against each other, on end, to let them dry.  Then the team of horses was hitched to the wagon and we loaded the bundles to be brought to the barn.  In front of the barn, on either side of the large doors, we made circular stacks of the bundles.  These stacks were wider at the bottom and came to a rounded point at the top. 

When all the neighbors were ready for threshing, we called the man who owned the threshing machine.  His name was Hank-o-pa.  He went from farm to farm with the machine and all the neighbors helped each other with the threshing.  For the kids it was a celebration.  We played in the bins while the men poured the newly threshed grain over us.  We liked the noise of the steam powered threshing machine, and the slapping of the wide belts that transmitted the power.  It was usually hot and the men were sweating. 

We gave them homemade root beer to drink.  The ladies of the neighborhood all helped, crowding into the kitchens to cook a huge meal for the hard-working men.  When the threshing was finished the straw mows were stuffed full and the granaries were piled high with grain.  And the threshing machine and Hank-o-pa moved on to the next neighbor.  It was a time of laughter and camaraderie, hard work and good food. 

Bringing in the hay was easier.  The mowing machine was pulled by a team of horses, and a dump rake, used for raking it into wind rows, was pulled by one horse.  Then the hay was loaded on the wagon, manually with a pitch fork, and brought into the barn.  There it was unloaded from the wagon with a harpoon.  This was a large steel fork attached to a large rope that went through a pulley and was pulled by a horse.

After the haying was finished, the thick rope that was used to carry the harpoon which loaded the hay into the mows, was put to better use.  Papa climbed to the highest cross beams in the barn and fastened both ends.  This made the biggest swing we had ever seen.  Each year, while Papa scaled the heights in the barn, Mama sat in the house and worried.  When the job was finished and the swing installed, even Papa took his turn on it.  We could jump off a mow at one end of the barn and swing the whole distance of the barn floor.  We climbed the rope to get a new vista of the barn interior. 

I also had a more prurient reason to enjoy climbing one of the swing ropes.  It was while doing so that I had my first orgasm.

4 thoughts on “Mum’s Story – Chapter 4

  1. I read this article passionately.
    Your mother tells about the hard life on the farm in the 1930s or before.
    As I said before, it brings back direct memories or memories that my parents told me in the past.
    As I read I sometimes forgot that it was your mother who wrote and I thought it was you. Poor Judy! Were you the baby of the family too? 🙂
    Love ❤


  2. So very interesting! My mother had stories about the coloring packet for the margarine too. She said that she once “helped” mix the yellow into the oleo and ended up with yellow hands – said it looked like she was wearing pastel yellow gloves! I love the story of the canned foods – my mother told the tale of when my Great-grandmother canned peaches but they fermented. She served them to the Methodist Church ladies! They all loved them and when she served them at home discovered that they had turned to alcohol so she tossed them all out. My Great-grandfather cried….


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