Remembering the Family Farm During the Great Depression
My parents had a family farm on 80 acres in Cushing, Wisconsin. I was born in 1922; a doctor and a midwife delivered me at the farmhouse. I lived through the Great Depression, when money was scarce to make the mortgage payments. The man who received the mortgage payments said, “If you can’t pay on the principal, just be sure you keep up the interest payments.” Sometimes Dad would have to ship a calf south to St. Paul to get a little money.
The farm became my playground. When the wild blackberries, strawberries, raspberries and gooseberries ripened in the woods I fastened a small pail on my belt and picked them. Wild plums, chokecherries and pin cherries grew along the fence line. Mom made jelly from those. In order to pick them, I drove an old gentle mare hitched to the buggy. She ate grass while I stood in the buggy to reach the fruit.
Early in my life I rode horseback on one of the work horses while Dad plowed or cultivated. I hung onto the harness. Dad let me ride his saddle horse at age 5, and from then until I left home at 19 I rode horseback nearly every day except in the winter. Mom got a trifle exasperated with me because she needed help in the house. Pails of water had to be brought from the well, and wood from the woodshed. If she’d ask me to wash the supper dishes, I’d say, “Yeah, but I just want to go for a little ride first.”
We didn’t have electricity until about 1928. Before that, with no refrigeration, perishables had to be taken to the cellar between meals. With no electric washing machine, Mom scrubbed clothes on a washboard and boiled them in a boiler on the wood-burning cookstove. The ironing was done with sad-irons that were heated on the stove-very heavy, usually too hot-which scorched the clothes-or were not hot enough. Kerosene lamps provided light at night, and a lantern was carried from the house to the barn.
My grandparents, Sheldon and Mary Armstrong, had home-steaded the land in 1875. Their six sons and one daughter grew up there. My dad, Ray Armstrong, continued to farm with his dad when he got home from France after World War I. Grandma died in 1921, so when Dad and Mother married they bought the farm, while Grandpa continued to live there. What a lucky arrangement for me, as I tagged along with Grandpa; I learned all about farming from him. He became frail and was hospitalized with kidney stones-he died before I was ready for such a calamity.
Dad continually cleared more land. He cut down trees for wood and hauled rocks to a ravine. With the team and sled in the winter he hauled cord wood to St. Croix Falls, 12 miles away. He was so proud of his team; they’d pull anything. Once he hitched the team to the school bus and pulled it out of the mud when it was stuck on the road.
Numerous family reunions took place at our house, especially on July Fourth. Eager cousins took turns cranking the two-gallon ice cream freezer. Uncle Ernest had an icehouse so he brought the chunk of ice. He cut ice each winter and kept the chunks between layers of sawdust in the icehouse. They had an icebox in their kitchen-a “modern appliance”-before electricity, so they needed ice. Sometimes the men pitched horseshoes while they waited for dinner.
Mom handled these large gatherings very capably. She always had a large garden; the cellar shelves were loaded with canned fruits, vegetables, pickles and relishes. Every time Uncle Frank came she opened a jar of watermelon pickles-his favorite. A few young roosters became the meat for dinner, they’d been tiny chicks in the brooder house only a few months before. Mom usually served creamed new potatoes with peas from the garden on the Fourth. The potatoes were small, yet everyone raved over that dish.
Dad never had a tractor, but since his death in 1964 my brother, Ken Armstrong, has farmed the Armstrong homestead. He doesn’t have horses., I’ve often thought what a different kind of life his daughters have had growing up on that same farm. They never knew the house when it didn’t have a bathroom, running water or a furnace. I wonder now why I didn’t freeze going to the outhouse on below zero days.
Circle Pines, Minnesota
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.
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