Rural Wit and Wisdom: Community

Rural communities are built on working together. Understand how rural community identity is formed through hard labor and good neighbors who help each other with all tasks from butchering to barn raising.
By Jerry Apps
May 2012
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“Rural Wit and Wisdom” by Jerry Apps is a compilation of sayings and advice from farmers in the heartland. This collection of Old-Timer wisdom tells the story of heartland people who work their farms, give back to their communities and appreciate the little things in the same way they have for generations.
Courtesy Fulcrum Publishing
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Neighbors in rural communities help one another. It’s part of the territory, and working together provides the important opportunity for storytelling and laughter. Rural Wit and Wisdom (Fulcrum Publishing, 2012) by Jerry Apps is a collection of Old-Timer advice and stories on the value of community and working together during threshing season, quilting bees, harvesting and many more events and seasons. The following excerpt on community advice is taken from Chapter 2, “Community.”   

It is commonly believed that rural people are loners and prefer living and working by themselves, away from the noise and confusion of urban areas. There is some truth to the statement; many people do live in rural areas because they prefer the country to the city. But they are far from loners; this part of the statement is pure myth. Rural people from the earliest settlement days to the present are models of community, of working together, of sharing and caring for each other. During pioneer days on the farm, families could not have survived without the help of their neighbors. Neighbors worked together, played together, worshipped together, and, yes, grieved together when someone died, a barn burned, or some other calamity visited someone in the community. Farm women came together to make quilts, a practical as well as social activity. Farmers helped each other with the harvest, with sawing wood for the ever-hungry woodstoves that heated farm homes, with pig butchering, and with barn raisings. Whenever a task on the farm required more than a couple people, neighbors gathered to help. Often called bees, these gatherings of neighbors made the work lighter as well as allowed neighbors to know each other better and appreciate each other’s differences and similarities.

Rural communities had identities, too. The one-room country school, from the 1840s to the 1960s (a few still operate as schools today, but most are either destroyed or are private homes and museums), often provided the focal point for rural communities and gave the community its name and its identity: Willow Grove, Pine View, Smith, Shady Valley, and many more.

Neighbors

• If you think you have a bucket of problems, try picking up your neighbor’s bucket.

• Love thy neighbor, but make sure your fences are in good order.

• Neighbors are always there, even when you don’t need them.

• Neighbors stand alone as they stand together.

• No matter how rich we may be, we still need neighbors.

• No matter what their religion, the color of their skin, the songs they sing, or the clothing they wear, those living in your community are your neighbors and must be respected and cared for.

• Nothing is more important than the helping hand of a neighbor.

• Try to do more for your neighbors than they do for you.

• When a neighbor loses, everyone in the neighborhood loses.

• When your neighbor needs help, drop whatever you are doing and help them.

Threshing and community

When I was a kid, threshing grain was still an important community event, a time when neighbors got together to help each other with the harvest and at the same time enjoy working together. The threshing machine moved from farm to farm in the neighborhood, staying long enough at each place to thresh that neighbor’s oats, rye, or wheat. In a neighborhood, the grain mostly ripened at the same time, so when the crop was ready for harvest, farmers hitched their teams of horses to grain binders, cut the grain, and then stood the bundles in shocks to dry for a few days to a week or more—hoping that the weather would remain dry as the grain shocks dried.

Threshing was a social activity. As neighbors worked together, they talked about everything from their crops to the weather and the price of milk and market value of their hogs. When it was mealtime, the work stopped and everyone ate together at the host’s house. It was a time of storytelling and laughter. Threshing brought rural people together and gave their community a oneness and an identity.

Much wisdom came from the threshing season, now only a distant memory, as grain combines have replaced threshing machines.

• If it is your job to pitch bundles into the everhungry threshing machine and you are becoming tired, toss a few bundles in crosswise. The machine will growl and groan and plug, causing the man in charge to shut down the machine to clean it. You have gained a rest. But be careful; the man in charge knows what you have done, and you are likely to get away with it only once.

• Threshing is that time of year when you can check out all the neighborhood cooks. Some are great, and you try to adjust the threshing progress to make sure that you can eat as many meals at their place as possible. A few are not so great. At these farms, you thresh and leave as quickly as possible, trying to avoid all meals, but usually suffering through at least one.

• When it’s time to thresh, it’s time to thresh. Nothing is more important. When a neighbor says the threshing machine is coming to the neighborhood, prepare to spend up to a couple weeks helping your neighbors as they will help you when the threshing machine comes to your farm.

• When the day’s threshing is done, it is a time to enjoy a bottle of cold beer, usually the favorite brand of the farmer where you are threshing. Everyone had his favorite beer: Berliner, Chief Oshkosh, Point Special, Miller High Life, Blatz, Schlitz, Pabst, Old Style, Leinenkugel, and several others. Great arguments developed over which was the best beer. The arguments, in good fun, went on from farm to farm, but no matter what the label, the beer was always enjoyed at the end of a hot, dusty day.

Local politicians

Politicians are important people in rural communities. Even though they have long been the brunt of jokes, they are nonetheless prized for helping country people live within the rules and regulations that abound in the countryside as they do everywhere else. Politicians also represent them on matters that go beyond their local communities.

• A successful politician is one who learns how to get along with those with a different perspective and an alternative worldview.

• As the wind blows, so the politician bends.

• Don’t expect a politician to do after he is elected what he said he would do while running for office.

• For politicians, and everyone else for that matter, getting along generally means compromise— each side giving a little.

• If you have a beef, a complaint about something the government is doing, voice it. Contact your elected representative. After all, it is your government.

• Many politicians talk and talk, with the hope that they may think of something to say.

• Many a politician’s backbone is as stiff as an ice cube in boiling water. In the beginning it is there, but it soon disappears in a puff of steam.

• One-room country school boards were politicians at their best. They knew what they were supposed to do, and they knew who they represented— their neighbors. These local politicians also knew that the decisions they made affected the future of the country, for what is more important than the education of the children?

• People generally deserve who they vote for.

• Politicians depend on the short memories of voters.

• Politics are often too important to be left to the politicians.

• Some of the most important politicians are never elected but still make important contributions to the future direction of their communities.

• Unfortunately, some politicians propose to build bridges where there are no rivers.

• When we blame politicians for their voting record, we should blame ourselves, especially if we failed to vote when they were elected.

Read more: For more time-honored values from the heartland check out Rural Wit and Wisdom: Farmer's WorkRural Wit and Wisdom: Farming and Rural Wit and Wisdom: Little Things.


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Rural Wit and Wisdom, published by Fulcrum Publishing, 2012. 

For many years, best-selling author Jerry Apps has written and collected observations and advice about country living, such as “Love thy neighbor but make sure your fences are in good order” and “It’s not going to get done if you don’t start doing it.” Jerry and his wife live in Madison, Wisconsin.


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