Family Farm: My Wood Cookstove

An Illinois woman recalls her wood cookstove and other cherished conveniences on her family farm

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My husband started working on family farms when he was 10 years old. By the time he graduated from eighth grade he began working full time for $10 a month, room and board. It was hard work and not many breaks were given. One place he worked he had to walk several miles to town on Saturday night to see his mother. The food was not always plentiful and Sunday night supper was mostly bread and milk. This was not much of a diet for a still-growing boy. After about a year another farmer offered a job that paid $30 a month, room and board, better victuals and a horse to ride to town. This was heaven for a young man.

Better and better jobs came along as the young man grew to manhood. Finally he moved north to bigger and better farms and met his future wife. After we married we moved to a farm where we lived primitively by today's standards. Much of this was difficult for me but I survived. The biggest fly in my ointment was the old wood cookstove in the kitchen. I had never cooked on such a monster and didn't even know how to start a fire. Lucky for me, my husband did. The reservoir, filled with hot water, was wonderful to me as we didn't have a hot-water heater. Pumping the pitcher pump in the kitchen to get cistern water was a great convenience. This water was only for dishwashing, cleaning and bathing. The well was out by the barn and had a hand pump.

Once I mastered the wood cookstove, I loved it. There is nothing to compare with a pot of soup cooked slowly all day or oatmeal set to cook on the back of the banked down stove overnight. Chicken and dumplings melt in your mouth when slow simmered on a cast iron giant. This same stove heated the copper wash boiler for doing the laundry and our bath water too. Clothes washing was an all-day undertaking at that time. My husband filled the wash boiler f9r me before he went to milk the cows. The water was good and hot by the time he came in for breakfast. He filled my washtub and rinse tub. Then I began the job of rubbing the clothes on the board. The linens and underwear were easy but those denim pants were very hard. I usually had to soak them the night before. Rubbing on the washboard is not exactly a beauty treatment for the knuckles. But I did it until one day my widowed father chanced to arrive as I was doing my wash and saw me hunched over the board. Since he possessed an almost-new May tag wringer washer, which he seldom used, he soon saw to it that my days of washboard slavery were over. Washday became a comparative breeze for me. We still had to heat and carry water but my knuckles healed up and my back un-crooked. While the May tag did the work, I could do other things.

The farm is a place where the work is never done. You just put in 15 or 16 hours and collapse. It is not like that so much now, but back then it was. I had a big garden to tend, barn work to do, and in time, four children to raise. Those were busy years. We didn't have central heating, only the old wood-heating stove. The cookstove provided heat for the kitchen. You just wore a lot of clothes.

Wintertime on the farm meant the chores were twice as hard and food became the focus of the day. My mainstays were soups, stews, chili, meat loaf, Swiss steak and chicken and dumplings.

Desserts were bread pudding, cobblers, cakes and doughnuts. I also made a lot of coffee cake, which was Dad's favorite. I let my girls experiment to their hearts' content; whatever didn't turn out went over the back fence where some critter found a treat. We weren't wasteful but accidents when learning to cook do happen. Seeing that my girls could put out a good meal was more important to me. My biggest delight was the first time I had a birthday cake that I didn't have to bake myself.

Least you think we never had any fun, I am here to say we did. We had a pony named Beauty for the children. They loved her. We had dogs, cats, rabbits, birds and even a goat as pets. Our greatest enjoyment was going camping at Berry Land, a nearby campground. There we could fish, swim, picnic and just enjoy life. For a dollar a car we had it all. We also took a vacation each August when we visited Grandma for a week. We went to the show, swam and visited with all the relatives before returning home to work and wait for next summer.

Because we worked together, we enjoyed playing together with an intensity unknown today. Our family became a very close group and still is today. Now all the children are grown and 10 grandchildren have rounded out our family. Dad is retired and enjoying life, and we make the rounds visiting with the children and their families. Summer brings visits from the grandchildren, who help us with the garden and go fishing and camping with us, and time goes on and on.

In retrospect I sometimes long for those bygone days. Despite the hard work, long hours and going without, I do have fond memories of those days of the farm.

Winnie Schuetz
Tilden, Illinois


Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.