The life of our family farm in the 1930s was a demanding one, revolving around the seasons. Most of our food was grown on the land. Staples, such as flour, sugar, salt, soap, etcetera, were bought in Rochester. We often traded eggs for these items.
Chickens supplied not only eggs but much of our meat. Sunday dinners and other special meals usually featured chicken in some form. The chicken might be fried, roasted, or boiled with homemade noodles. Sometimes a hog or calf was butchered in the late fall. It was possible to preserve meat in a variety of ways-it could be canned, smoked or salted. We were especially fond of canned veal. During hunting season Dad shot rabbits, ducks and an occasional pheasant to supplement our meat supply. Sometimes he even killed a large turtle, which is considered a delicacy, it tastes like chicken. However, I never liked to eat it, as I could not banish the unpleasant image of the turtle from my mind.
We kept a herd of dairy cattle when we lived at Polk’s Hill. During the spring and summer Dad put them in a far pasture that he referred to as “the west 40.” My sister and I had the job of going to the field in the late afternoon to drive the cows home for milking. To reach this pasture we walked down a winding lane, past two ponds, through the woods, and out into a sunlit field. Many things caught our interest along the way. In the spring we looked for mushrooms or picked wild flowers. We usually left home a little earlier than necessary, so we would have time to swing on a sturdy wild grapevine that hung from a large tree at the edge of the path. Bowser, a tan-and-white mixed-breed dog, ran ahead of us, inspecting all of the rustling noises in the leaves covering the lane. I wish I could say that she was a great help in rounding up the cows, but she was not a working dog. We knew each of the cows and called them by name-Red, Tiny, Bess, Lady, etc. The cows were all gentle creatures and moved obediently along the path toward the barn.
My parents did all of the milking by hand. The milk was poured into 10-gallon cans, which were picked up daily and taken to the Armour Creamery in Rochester. At times we sold cream instead of milk. The milk was put into a machine called a separator, which was operated by turning a handle. The cream was taken to the creamery and the skimmed milk was fed to the hogs. We used raw milk for cooking, drinking and churning butter from sour cream.
We had a large garden and an even larger truck patch. Goose-berry, strawberry, blackberry, rhubarb and asparagus plants grew along the boundaries of the garden. An orchard supplied a variety of apples and plums. An old cherry tree stood in the corner of the yard and produced abundantly each summer. An equally old pear tree also continued to produce small, hard pears that littered the yard each fall. A grape arbor was planted beyond the orchard and truck patch. Mom canned quarts of grape juice, which she used to make jelly and grape pies. Dad bought a grape press and tried, unsuccessfully, to make wine. Wild black raspberries grew in one of the woods on the farm. We loved fresh, sugared raspberries with cream poured over them. Another of our favorite desserts was warm raspberry dumplings.
The entire family was kept busy from early spring, when the seeds were planted, until fall, when the harvest was brought in. Even the children helped in planting seeds, pulling weeds, picking vegetables and cleaning them. The entire summer was spent in preparation for the coming winter, with endless picking, cleaning and canning of fruits and vegetables. When farm wives met they took great pride in telling each other how many jars of each fruit and vegetable they had put up.
In the fall or winter Dad worked in the woods, clearing out dead trees to be used as firewood. Sometimes he found a hollow “bee tree” and carried the honeycombs home in a washtub. The honey was boiled on the stove to sterilize it, then strained and poured into glass jars. It provided a welcome change from molasses. Maple trees supplied another kind of syrup. In the early spring Dad drilled a hole in the trunk of the tree and hung a bucket on a nail to catch the sap as it ran out. This sap, which tasted like sweet water, was strained and boiled down to syrup. Due to evaporation during boiling, it took a large amount of sap to make a small amount of syrup.
The woods also gave us black walnuts in the fall and morel mushrooms in the spring. Certain areas in the catalpa groves provided ideal growing conditions for these sponge mushrooms. Dad knew all of the places in which to search. He had an eagle eye that could spot a mushroom when no one else could see it. He often went mushroom hunting the first thing in the morning before the rest of the family had awakened. While he milked the cows, Mom cleaned and fried mushrooms. If the yield was not plentiful that morning, scrambled eggs were added in order to stretch the mushrooms. Regardless of the method of preparation, we thought that was the best breakfast in the world.
One of the dangers of mushroom hunting was the possibility of meeting a snake in the woods. For this reason we were reluctant to go into the woods alone. Blue racer snakes were often seen in the woods where the mushrooms grew. When Dad was with us we felt safe, as we knew he would protect us by killing any snakes that appeared. He warned us that we should never make sudden movements around snakes, but should back away quietly. We had an opportunity to test this advice one day when we children were alone in the woods looking for mushrooms. Hearing a strange rattling sound, I looked toward the noise and saw a coiled snake a few feet away. The gray and black diamond pattern of the snake blended into the surrounding leaf-covered ground. Had it not been for the warning the snake gave us, we might have walked right into its path. The head was extended toward us with the tongue darting out. Remembering Dad’s advice we cautiously and quietly backed away. This took a certain amount of will power, as our natural inclination was to run as fast as we could. That is exactly what we did-when we were a safe distance away from the snake!
Although I loved living on the hill, at times I envied town children who had playmates in their neighborhoods and sidewalks to skate on. In contrast, my husband, who grew up in a city, envied country people. When he visited relatives in Wisconsin, he was only aware of the rich and plentiful food that was heaped on their plates. He knew nothing of the hours of labor involved in producing that food. Despite the fact that we all had to do our share of the work and had no money for luxuries, the land fed us at a time when many people were hungry. We were among the fortunate.
Barbara L. Hintz
Overland Park, Kansas
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.