Illinois resident shares his fond memories of rural America during the Great Depression, describing his childhood on the family farm
"How dear to my heart are the scenes of my childhood. When fond recollections present them to view." I remember awakening on cold winter mornings on our family farm and hearing my dad shoveling coal into the furnace. As I descended the stairs, the aroma of bacon would rise to meet me. Every morning my mother would prepare a breakfast of bacon, eggs, fried potatoes, homemade bread, oatmeal and coffee.
Life on the farm at that time would probably be boring for today's generation. We had no electricity nor indoor plumbing, which meant no electric lights and no household appliances for the kitchen or for cleaning the house, but we managed very well. I remember and still marvel at the amount of work my mother managed to do in a day. With nine of us in the family, she would bake 10 loaves of bread every other day. She raised 100 or more chickens every year, getting up at least once during the night to make sure the chicks didn't huddle together and smother each other. She managed to make several quilts during her lifetime and prepared three big meals each day. When I was quite small I would watch her scrubbing clothes on a washboard and rinsing them out in a tub of water, twisting them to get the water out and then taking them outdoors to hang on the clothesline. She ironed clothes with heavy old irons with interchangeable handles like those found in antique shops or museums today. She canned vegetables and fruit and lined the shelves in the basement with enough food to last a year. Although we were poor and we had to wear hand-me-down clothes, we had plenty to eat.
The most exciting day on the farm was butchering day; when neighbors came to help butcher five or six hogs. I would rise early in the morning and help my dad fill a large black kettle with water. I would put logs and corncobs under the kettle, and my dad would pour kerosene on the cobs and throw a match on them. Within an hour the water would be very hot. After the hogs were killed they were put in the scalding water and the hairs could be easily scraped from them. I wanted to skip school on butchering day but my mother would never allow it. When the school day was over I would run all the way home and eat cracklings till I was full. Although most of the butchering was over by the time I came home the hams still had to be wrapped. We would pour salt over the hams, wrap them in newspapers, then wrap a gunnysack around them and hang them in a shed, where in the summertime the temperature would be above 100 degrees.
We studied our lessons by the light of a kerosene lamp and did many chores by lantern light. Baths were taken by carrying buckets of water from an outside well to the basement and pouring the water into a galvanized washtub. Needless to say bath days were few and far between in the winter, as it was very cold in our basement.
We had an old radio that ran off of a car battery and was our source of entertainment as well as a connection with the outside world. My brother and I never missed "Gangbusters," which was our favorite program. After much use the battery began to fade out, and each day we had to move closer and closer to the radio. Finally it gave out completely and that was the end, as we could not afford a new battery. The other connection with the outside world was the large wooden telephone that hung on the dining room wall. Each household had its own ring. Ours was a long and a short, but every time it rang we could hear one receiver after another being lifted to listen in on the conversation. Of course if it rang for a neighbor we too would listen in. It was a common practice.
An old tree stood at the side of the road a quarter of a mile from home. Many times my brother and I would walk to the tree, lay down in the grass, and permit our imagination to take us as far as we dared to let it. To this day when I visit the old house, where my sister still lives, I look at the old tree, which is still standing, and let childhood memories return.
On January 7, 1940, rural electrification was introduced to our community. I marveled as I went from room to room turning on lights. The next morning I departed to serve in the United States Navy. Two years later as I stood on the deck of the battleship Tennessee on December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attacked and destroyed most of the United States Pacific fleet. Within minutes after the attack began I fell wounded from shrapnel. On that morning America lost its innocence. Boys instantly became men and the world changed forever, but we who were lucky enough to be reared in a rural community – even during the Great Depression – will always treasure and remember those wonderful years of our childhood on the farm.
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.