I've been meaning to post about a very special document that came into my hands some time ago. It's a personal history of childhood(s) spent on a dairy farm right where I grew up. It's not even entirely clear to me who wrote the work, but it appears to be the transcribed memories of at least one brother and sister, recalling their lives during the 1920s to the 1930s. Some stories are told twice, from slightly different perspectives. My sense is that some sort of record was made of each person speaking, and someone later typed out the account, page by page, on a typewriter. There are many amateur line drawings to accompany the text. And when I say these siblings lived on a dairy farm where I was raised, I mean exactly where I grew up. My parents bought the farmhouse that belonged to the long-since closed dairy farm in 1973. They still live there, though the acreage of the original farm was reduced to less than two acres by the time they bought it.
When the parents of these sibling authors bought this farm there was no electricity or running water. The pump that they used to draw water stood in the front yard, as it still does today at my parents' home. I remember the Concord grape arbor, planted to shade the pump, still bearing fruit shortly after we moved in. The farm's summer kitchen, which doubled as a smoke house, was enclosed and attached to the main house during my childhood. We still call that section of the house the "summer kitchen." My memory of early childhood is good enough to remember many things which echo the stories told in this document. The pear tree they mention was gone, but the wisteria they remember growing up around it was still there when my family moved in.
If you've read stories from the Great Depression, you've read similar recollections. What makes this so special to me is that I know where these people cut their ice in the winters. I ice skated there, with borrowed skates, as a child. I know how long a slog it would have been from the farm to the dammed creek that made a pond to turn the millstone in the old grain mill, and incidentally provided ice to those willing to brave the weather to cut it. I can only imagine the drive over snow-covered roads on a wagon pulled by horses - a real test of fortitude and of strength. I know the creek that the children were allowed to refresh themselves in as a special treat after summer chores were done. I played and waded there through all the summers of my childhood, though I never knew the kind of toil the authors did. I know how the well water tastes that these people grew up drinking. I've seen the accounts their father kept for bacon and sausages sold to neighbors, penciled on the painted wooden walls in the dirt floor cellar. I know where they took their horses to be shod, and where they took their apples to be pressed into cider. I've seen the attic floorboards stained black by years of hams dripping moisture and fat as they cured. I know the screened porch on the second floor, used for sleeping on the hottest summer nights. It was closed in by the time my parents bought the house, and used as a playroom for my brother and me. I wasn't there in the 1920s, but still I know this story, these lives in a more immediate way than any other account of that period I've come across. I'm not kin to the people who wrote these stories, but there's a proximity like no other.
What I don't know in my bones is the kind of hard work it took to raise a family and run a successful dairy farm on a property without electricity or running water. If you want to know what's in these stories, it's hard work and thrift on a scale few of us have ever known. And yet, true to form, these recollections are not told with resentment or complaint for the work done nor the austerity they were raised with. There's evidence of an enormous body of practical knowledge. The parents of the authors knew how to make soap, butcher chickens, hogs and cattle, how to cure meat, make sausages, raise all kinds of crops, make sauerkraut, mend burlap feed sacks, keep horse tackle clean and supple, can all kinds of foods, resole shoes, press cider, sharpen all manner of tools, and run a raw milk dairy in a hygienic manner without indoor plumbing. They did all these things and more besides. Make no mistake, this is very credible documentation of what would be considered extraordinary effort today. Though they clearly were not even moderately well off by the standards of their day, they had enough extra food to share with relatives who were in even more straitened circumstances. The family was Pennsylvania Dutch, a culture with a reputation for extreme frugality almost to the point of notoriety; nothing in this account would belie that reputation.
Here's an excerpt that gives the flavor of the whole:
Apple butter making was a yearly get together with my uncle, aunt and cousins. We youngsters just loved this affair because there weren't that many social things to attend. Anyway this was always done in fall after the apples were ripe. Neighbors usually offered Dad apples from their orchards. So Dad would hitch the horses to the wagon and we'd go for a ride into our orchard and theirs, taking us along to pick apples and pick up fallen ones. Then he'd take them home and we'd give them a good washing.
Then Dad would take them down to Powder Valley, to Robert Schultz's cider press and have cider made for use in the apple butter. A lot was kept for drinking, which really was tasty and refreshing after those long chores of picking up and washing all those apples. Dad's next job was to go out into the woods and find a sassafras tree. He would dig around the base of it and get some of its roots. If he went after school hours I would tag along. We would then bring the roots home. Then it was usually Mother who would wash and scrub them, then scrape off the outer shell of the roots, put them into small cloth bags, tie them up so they were ready to put into the boiling apple butter. What a delightful aroma, and then a taste of the finished product!
Dad would have to get out the old copper kettle to replace the cast iron kettle in the little old house. The men would gather wood from the woodshed. Then Dad would build a fire underneath the old shiny copper kettle to get the cooking started. At the same time we youngsters were peeling apples with the peeler which was clamped to the kitchen table, then placing them into a dishpan or other clean vessel. Then my mother and her sister Alverda would sit coring and cutting the apples so they were ready for cooking. The men would put 2 or 3 gallons of cider into the kettle, the small bag of sassafras root, then the apples the women had prepared. We usually had between 4 or 5 bushels of apples. As they boiled down, more apples were added, and more, and more. About 10 pounds of sugar was added to the cooking apples. Later on in the process that small bag of sassafras was removed for the last hour of cooking.
While cooking apple butter on the farm it had to be stirred continually as not to burn. Dad had a special paddle to stir the mixture. It was shaped to fit right into the kettle. It had four sections for scraping at the bottom of the kettle. He had a ten foot handle to connect to the paddle upright in the center of this paddle so no one had to sit that close to the hot kettle that was cooking, bubbling and steaming to get that apple butter thickened. There was a leather sling from the ceiling joist of the little house to hold this long handle which worked just fine to stir that apple butter.
This was an all day job. Then after it was finished and cooled we had a good tasting party with fresh bread, cottage cheese and extra fresh apple butter. Gallon crocks had to be gathered, cleaned and ready to be filled with the apple butter. Also, clean washed sugar or flour sacks were cut into squares to fit and tie over the crocks to make sure that no kind of insects or flies could get to that scrumptious spread. The crocks were left setting to cool completely. Later on, most of it was placed in the attic, so we had apple butter all year long.
We youngsters all remember real well all the fun we had taking turns peeling those apples. Some of the peelings came off all in one piece. They would look like real long curls. They were also tempting for eating, which we at times would do. But that was cheating the hogs because they also were anxiously awaiting them. Apple butter custard was my brother Earl's favorite dessert that Mother used to make.
Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? Reading these stories brings home to me that people really, really lived this way. Not in some fairy tale, or in a time so ancient that it is shrouded in mystery. And not in a far country with a tradition different from my own. As I read the stories, I could see them happening in a real place, not a fictional setting that I could vividly imagine. It all happened in and around a place I know intimately, just a few short decades before I lived there.
I believe that in a few short decades many of the skills and tasks written about in this document are going to be necessary again. We in the modern world wring our hands when confronted with the facts about declining supplies of energy. We wrack our brains and wonder how, how in the world will we survive. How is it possible to live other than the way we do? We recite lists of things we need. Things we simply can't do without. This is folly. The document in my possession is special to me because of my own connection with the physical setting of the story. But there are any number of such accounts in every public and academic library. These were all ordinary lives. It is our lives and the petroleum era we live in, which are extraordinary. There is no mystery to how people live in a world without abundant and affordable energy. Down through the ages they did it mostly through unstinting industriousness, thrift, and skilled work. We simply don't want to imagine that those people will be us one day. But they will be us, or our children, or grandchildren, one day.