Seasonal Farming Tasks in the Great Depression

December 28, 2014

Letty Owings, who turns 90 today, explains a few of the farming tasks that were seasonal, during the Great Depression.

Wheat shocking

In the spring of each year, the community farmers watched the sky and talked with each other about when to prepare the fields for planting. For corn, the fields had to be plowed and harrowed, and then the rows were set. The implements used to plow, break up and smooth the soil and form rows were horse-drawn. After the fields were prepared for planting, corn planters were also hitched to horses. A container on the corn planter was set to click open every three feet or so, and release three kernels of corn to the soil. So far, we are talking about mechanization.

The mechanization ended after the planting of the kernels. The next task involved human hands that belonged to kids, for the most part. Once the corn plants were about two inches tall, the kids in the community crawled up and down the corn rows, inspecting each three-plant corn hill, taking visual inventory. We crawled down each row with a knife and a bucket of kernels, to see if three plants were in each cluster. Less than three plants in a hill meant that there was a cutworm in the soil, dining. We dug and chopped the worm, and replaced the eaten kernel with the new kernel. This task was called “replanting the corn,” and if you were a kid, you got that assignment. Replanting the corn was labor intensive and ritually performed every year. In church, farmers would ask each other, “Did you replant your corn yet?”

Another task where fingers did the work was ridding each individual potato plant in any given field of the potato bugs. Potato bugs are fat with orange stripes, and they can completely decimate a field of potatoes. We crawled up and down the rows with a tin can of coal oil that served as our insecticide at the time. We looked at each leaf, picked off the bugs and the masses of eggs, and dropped them into the can of coal oil. These were days before pesticides. In addition to coal oil for the bugs, we rubbed coal oil and bacon grease on our skin to keep the chiggers away. Again, our fingers did the work and like replanting the corn, potato bug removal was extremely labor intensive.

Of all farming activities we performed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, two were notable because they involved the whole community: threshing of the wheat, and butchering the animals. Summer threshing of the wheat was the most exciting time of the year because it was a social time rolled into sustenance activity.

Farmers looked at the sky to determine when the wheat was ready to cut. If the dryness was right for thrashing on a Sunday, the farmers waited until Monday, figuring that God had good reason to wait the extra day. When the dryness was right, a horse-drawn binder (also called a reaper) cut and automatically tied the wheat into bundles weighing 50 pounds or so. The farmer would then pick up the bundles and put them in a shock. A shock of wheat consisted of four upright bundles together with one bundle on top. The shocks of wheat were left for some number of days to dry.

Only one person in the whole community owned a steam engine pulled thresher, and his name was Harry. Each farm set a day for the threshing of the wheat. The threshing of the wheat was special, dramatic, and planned in advance, almost as if the whole community was planning a state fair. The women all wore their best starched aprons and set their finest tables outside for the men to eat the finest meal of the year.

Each woman had a specialty, be it baked bread, custard, pie, butter, beans or canned goods, and all was brought forth on this day. The meat consumed was kept from the year before, unless they killed a chicken for threshing day. This was also the only day of the year for ice. A man would travel to the ice plant, get a hunk of ice, and put it in a gunny sack in a washtub. Then, each man at the table would chip off a piece of ice for his drink. On thrashing day, I woke at 4 AM, to listen for the steam engine. Children were on their best behavior, and they spoke only when spoken to. There was much bragging and comparing about whose wife could cook what the best.

The other community affair that involved mostly men and was not joyous was the butchering. The animal to be butchered was chosen in advance, and it had to be done in the late fall, so that the cold would preserve the meat. The man in the community who was the best shot would do the killing, so that the shot would not miss and the animal would not suffer. That man was usually my father. The community custom was that the man who helped with the slaughter got the best cut of meat from the animal, and that cut was usually the heart.

The women made the sausage, and in those days the intestines were used because there was no casing. The women cleaned, washed and boiled, then stuffed, the intestine casing. Butchering was not a social function as was threshing the wheat. Aside from making sausage was a practice called “frying down the meat.” This involved layering grease, then ground fried meat, then grease, ending with a top layer of grease. The mixture was compacted and kept cold in a shed. The supply of fried down meat lasted all year. My mother canned beef but this was not really a usual practice. Sealing wax was a real mess; jar rubber was, in the end, a great invention.

There was never any idle time in those days. We grew cotton and sheared sheep for our materials and in our spare time, such as it was, we either picked apart the cotton or the wool with our hands. Wool smells awful, and I once complained to my dad because I was dirty and tired of the work. He stopped what he was doing and said, “You did nothing to earn this. Everything is a gift from God.”

Off-topic: If you haven’t heard these guys, make time:

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Texas A&M University-Commerce Digital Collections on flickr.

 


Recalling December 7, 1941

December 7, 2014
PEARL HARBOR ATTACK by Paul Walsh, on Flickr

The attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941 (US Navy file photo)

by Crane-Station

Letty Owings, age 89, recalls events of the day, on December 7, 1941, as the “day that changed everything.”

Recalling December 7, 1941

Everything changed on a Sunday. I had come home briefly from college where I was enrolled in a nature class. I wanted to collect some puffballs from the woods for my class. My father knew where to find these things so we went to the woods where they were, collected some samples, and returned home. I sat in a room with the sample collection, and my father went to the other room to listen to the wind charger radio.

He returned a few moments later and he said to me, word-for-word, “Honey, we’re in a war.”

After my father listened to the wind charger radio and learned that we were in a war, he drove me back to college at Missouri Central University. Since the announcement did not affect our classes, I took the puffballs that I had collected from the woods for my nature class.

On Monday, December 8, 1941, the university called all of the students into Hendricks Hall. The school chose the large hall as a meeting place because it was the only building on campus large enough to accommodate 1000 students for an assembly. A man named H Roe Bartle delivered the speech. He was a large and imposing man and his physical presence at the podium added to his powerful delivery. H Roe Bartle read from President Roosevelt’s declaration of war on both fronts. He ended the speech by quoting from the English patriotic song written and distributed in 1939 called There’ll Always be an England, by saying the words, “There’ll always be an England and England will be free, if England means to you what England means to me.”

The atmosphere in Hendricks Hall at that moment was eerie. It was like electricity and so emotional that while some students cried, others just stared. Many jumped up to enlist then and there. Senior boys just shy of graduating were anxious to abandon their schooling and had to be convinced to stay in school and graduate. Since there were no speech writers to temper tone in those days, what Roosevelt said, Roosevelt said. Both Roosevelt’s announcement and H Roe Bartle’s subsequent speech conveyed the same gravity and raw heartfelt shock that we all shared. We had no concept of war, no frame of reference. We had entered the assembly as one person and came out another, with the final understanding that yes, our lives have changed forever.  America became mesmerized.

Following the announcement almost immediately, members of regular university faculty were conscripted according to the following formula: the Army, Navy and Marines came in and took whoever they wanted and told them what to teach and where to teach it.

Even before the concepts of totally non-negotiable unconditional surrender and the declaration of war on both fronts sank in academically, the government instituted a rationing system in early 1942. Everything had to go to the military, and we were issued ration cards. Rubber was one of  the first things to be limited: no more tires, rubber boots or yard goods were sold for civilian use. Gasoline, leather and sugar were rationed, and it was against the law to trade these things. Farmers could get a little more gasoline for their tractors, but they had to provide documented proof of how much they needed and what it was for.  If they ever caught you putting gasoline in a car when it was allotted for the tractor, you’d be up shit creek, and there was the occasional speculation, “Well, I believe he unscrewed the carburetor on that tractor and put that gas in his car, how else has he able to drive to Wellington twice?”

People adjusted to rationing in stride as something they were required and obliged to do. Abuse and treachery of the rationing system were not generally done because people had a feeling they might be hurting an officer if they cheated the system.

Within a short period of time, hardly any adult man was out of uniform. The men were in uniform whether they were walking on the street, attending church, shopping at the store or going about their daily business. Bellbottoms, khakis, lapel bars and hats were worn everywhere. In a way, the military uniform was a great leveler because men going about their daily lives were now part of something that they had not been part of before. There was some occasional fakery that went on when it came to dating, when, for example, a man would represent himself as rich and accomplished to a prospective date, only to have his wife eventually show up.

The uniform was important to the point where being a “civvy” required an excellent excuse or else drew extreme criticism. In fact, there quickly developed a prejudice against men who were not in uniform. A boy I dated had graduated and was teaching math. He went to Scott Air Force Base to teach troops, but the troops ridiculed him because he was dressed in civilian clothing. Because of this, he enlisted and returned to the same job for less pay, where he was not the subject of criticism.

All three boys of one cousin, from Odessa, Missouri, went to war. One day the father got a telegram, and was told to drive to town. Two telegrams awaited him in Odessa: one son had been killed in the Pacific and another one was killed in Europe. The third son was pulled out of the war, because the rule was that if two were killed, the third one could not continue to serve.

One of the ironies about the moment in December of 1941 that became frozen in time- the beginning of a war that took so many- was that some of the kids who previously had no possibility of going to college had a chance to go after the war, with the GI Bill. You can see this if you go back and look at the college enrollment before and after the war.

H Roe Bartle went on to serve as mayor of Kansas City, Missouri for two terms. He was also an executive and an organizer for the Boy Scouts of America. Also, the Kansas City Chiefs football team is named after Bartle’s nickname, “The Chief.”

Creative Commons image courtesy Paul Walsh on Flickr

cross-posted at Firedoglake.


Halloween During the Great Depression

October 25, 2014

by Crane-Station

Letty and Ray Owings, ages 89 and 91 recall Halloween and also describe some of the superstitions and customs of years past.

Halloween During the Great Depression

Halloween was a legitimate holiday and a big day for us in the country. Kids planned and planned, months in advance, and you would have been considered out of it, if you didn’t participate. Farm kids had to do something to lighten the load, and Halloween was an opportunity to be someone else. Everybody got dressed up, usually in an old shirt from a trunk of old clothes, and everyone got a mask. Witches were popular, and masks cost a nickel, unless you were rich, and could spend a dime.

We got our masks at Wolfcammer’s, the general store and meeting place in town. Freda, who ran the store, knew everything. Without radio, if you wanted to know anything, you went to the store- that’s what you went there for- that, and a few other things. Men most often shopped at the general store, and someone might say, “Oh, he’s been to town,” or “Oh, you’ve been to town. What’d you find out?” It was Freda who first informed me that my grandmother had died. Freda sold masks for a nickel, as well as salt pork, molasses, pickles in a barrel, dried and smoked meats, and other necessities like flour and sugar.

Lord help us, there was a lot of crap happened, and it’s a wonder nobody was killed, looking back. Pranks were more popular than any trick-or-treating, and there was all manner of soaping windows, or jumping onto porches, knocking on doors or ringing doorbells and running away. In an effort to see whoever could think of the most fantastic stuff, a bunch of us grade schoolers once sneaked into a farmer’s barn and climbed into a his hayloft, accompanied by the grade school teacher, who hadn’t gotten over the Halloween fits even as an adult. When the farmer came out with his shotgun, the kids took off and left the teacher in the hayloft, where he got caught up there somehow. They said later that he jumped out and walked somewhere, into the night.

Parents and teachers were very cooperative. Grade school kids dressed up to go to school, and the teachers were generous about letting us get away with doing next to nothing on Halloween. We also loaded hay into a wagon, hooked up the horses, and everybody got on the wagon and rode. Hay rides were popular, but not necessarily connected to Halloween.

We also had some superstitions that likely nobody took seriously, but we did know of them then:

-If you laughed very much in your home, sadness would replace it.

-Thirteen was an unlucky number.

-If a black cat ran across the road, or black cats in general around Halloween carried a connotation of ‘bad luck,’ but no one took it seriously.

-Wishbones could bring good luck (your wish would come true) if you got the longer part of the wishbone, when you pulled it apart.

-Stepping on a crack was bad luck.

We had other customs that we did take seriously. Some are related to death and others are not:

-You could not leave a dead body until it was buried. The sitting practice was done in shifts, and the query was, “Who’s settin’ tonight?”

-The windows were opened as someone was dying, even in the middle of winter.

-If you committed suicide, you could not be buried facing East, because that is the direction of the rising sun. One man who did commit suicide was buried backwards, to face the setting sun, because suicide was considered to be a form of murder.

-Pregnant women did not attend funerals.

-The eyes of a dead person were closed, never left open.

-When a person died, there were six rings on the party line, to inform everyone. Then, the church bell rang one time for each year of the person’s life. The tolling of the bells was repeated when the coffin was carried, at the funeral. This practice (also called a death knell) is mentioned in metaphysical poet John Donne’s meditation:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

-Although we did not do the candle tradition during the Great Depression, during WWII, a candle was placed in the window for a soldier who was missing. If the soldier did not return, the candle flame was not allowed to go out- ie, the “eternal flame.”

-When you butchered a pig, you gave the best part, usually the heart, to someone else as a gift. Not to do so was considered selfish.

During Halloween in particular, the elders told stories, the more exaggerated the better. They were not so much scary stories as they were tall tales of their own Halloween adventures, embellished to make it sound like they had way more fun than we were having.

 

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The Fall Pie Supper Custom

October 4, 2014

by Crane-Station
cross posted at Firedoglake

Letty Owings, age 89, recalls the annual fall pie supper auction in a small Missouri farming community during the Great Depression.

The Fall Pie Supper Custom

Each autumn we had a pie supper at Cabbage Neck, the one-room school that served as our community center. The idea was that a woman, or usually a girl baked a pie, and the pies were auctioned off to men. When you live in a world where you are isolated, social functions are a big deal. Women did their darndest to outshine the other women for the pie supper, so the event was a contest as well as a fundraiser. The big deal was who was going to buy the pie.

The auction was held on the school ‘stage,’ which was a space where the teacher’s desk was pushed aside. The auctioneer, who was sometimes my father, would hold up the pie and chant, “Now what am I to give for this pie, ten cents who’ll give me ten cents, ten, and raise it to fifteen, ah fifteen and twenty, twenty cents over here and thirty thirty do I hear forty…” A girl would want a good price for her pie, and she may say, “My, they paid seventy-five cents for my pie!” Many of the pies were milk-based custards because mince was expensive. Pumpkin, squash and apple pies were popular, and on occasion when someone could afford raisins, there was raisin pie. If there was mince, the pie had a crust over the top, and often had green tomatoes, apples, and spices.

The rule was that the man who bought the pie shared the pie with the girl who baked it. The quality of the pie didn’t have much to do with the price of eggs, it was the gathering and the fun that mattered. People would discuss the drought and talk about their kids, and interject with who bought what pie for how much by saying things like, “Yeah, you know, he bought her pie.” The inevitable big ‘disappointment’ that would bring a good deal of ribbing and laughter would come when a fella would shell out a few coins for a pie, expecting that a girl had baked it, only to learn that he would be sharing the pie with grandma.

Nobody ever kept any of the money for the pies. The funds went into the school. One year the funds went to purchase a dictionary. Another year, the funds were used to purchase coal.

It is hard to explain the hype of the pie supper to people today, in a world where so much is going on. People gossiped about it for months. Women were jealous of each other. If your pie didn’t bring very much, it was like insulting the Holy Grail. The pie supper was one of the rites of passage of fall. My mother made pumpkin pies, but she never wrote down the recipe, so how did she make them?

Well, for one thing, grow the pumpkins. They can’t be too big. They can’t be too stringy. They have to be watered just right. Next, the milk has to come out of the cow. Set it on the stove for a while and let it clabber a little, to give it some taste. Set a crock on the back of the heating stove, and the cream will rise. Skim that off. You don’t want your pie too slick, or too rich. The only things purchased for the pie is the flour, and the spices. If you get too much cream, the pie will be too damn rich, but if you get too little, the pie will be too watery. Maybe two cups of cream will do, with two cups of pumpkin.

Depending on how the argument works out on any given day, the pie might require three or four eggs, and they might be separated or not, but you have to grab the eggs out from underneath the chickens. When eggs are this fresh- grabbed from under a hen- they are hard to separate- so you may have to wait a day or two, to separate the white from the yolk.

No one pulled a recipe book or a recipe card from the shelf to follow, to bake her pie, for the annual pie supper event each year. Pie making was an art and a creative endeavor that passed from one generation to the next by word of mouth. Read the rest of this entry »


Public Schools in New Orleans 1958-1959

August 25, 2014

Old Kenner High School via Wikimedia Commons

Letty Owings, age 89 and the author of this post, recalls moving to New Orleans and teaching in a public elementary school in 1958.

New Orleans 1958-1959

Cultural experiences abound in this land of ours, but none can surpass living in New Orleans for just one year. The mockingbirds singing in the magnolias were left behind in Atlanta, along with red dirt and Stone Mountain. Ray went ahead of the six of us to begin his year of duty in the New Orleans Public Health Service Hospital. He got established and rented a house before the kids and I loaded the car and followed to what we found to be a strange locale.

As we drew up the drive to the hospital, moisture dripped from the huge vine-covered trees. A big crab inched his way across the street. Ray was sweating bullets because his “room” had no air conditioning to tame the heat and humidity. I remember his coming to the car and saying, “I don’t think you should have come here.”

Our rented house proved to be nicer than we expected. It did have its moments, however. An alligator came to the carport to lounge around, and the neighbors whose house practically touched ours fought half the night. That could be entertaining in the days before TV if they had only known when to shut it off. Our house, built on a concrete slab, sweated the floors sopping wet at night. Walking around could be precarious. Clothes that touched the floor or shoes left in the closet turned green with mold.

The quarreling neighbors told me to stay out of the yard during the day for fear of heat stroke. I blew off that advice since a veteran of the Midwest dust bowl could not possibly have a heat stroke. I did not have the stroke, but I did get mighty sick when I gardened in midday—only once. That once was all it took to pay attention to the natives. I never made my peace with the heat and humidity, but we did build immunity to mosquitoes.

School in Jefferson Parish where we lived came as an impressive challenge. One day right before enrollment time, the neighbor lady—not the battling one—asked me where the kids were going to school. Considering that a question with an obvious answer, I told her they would go wherever the local school was located. She was quick to inform me that nobody that was anybody sent kids to public school, and, in fact, it was unthinkable. Without either money for private school, which meant Catholic in New Orleans, or a desire to try to change plans in a strange location, we forged ahead with public education. Our oldest was ready for high school. When enrollment day came, we found the high school, if it could be dignified by that name.

The school building, completely buried in a summer’s growth of tall weeds, appeared as though it had been a long time condemned and given over to hopelessness and rot. The principal, a hefty Italian sweating profusely and flailing his arms around, trying to impose order on the chaos, hardly seemed to notice our inquiry about enrolling a student. In fact, students appeared to be the least of his worries. The attendees chiefly consisted of those who had been disciplinary cases thrown out of Catholic school or sons and daughters of the dock and levy crews. The kids that slept on the levy were called “levy kids.”

Two of our kids served their time at John Clancy elementary school. We never learned about the John Clancy behind the name. Perhaps he was a crooked politician. That would make sense in an area where the biggest bridges were named after Huey Long, the infamous former Governor who was shot dead on the capitol steps. His brother Earl Long served as Governor in 1958, although his mind had long since left him. Sanity was not a requirement to be Governor of Louisiana.

John Clancy, newer and even more crowded than Kenner High, had a principal who had not even the benefit of a secretary or a counselor. He was the staff. Always hurried, harried, nervous and angry, his was an impossible situation. In fact, all of education in the state of Louisiana was impossible. With one of the highest tax bases in the country paired with the lowest teachers’ salaries, the diversion of funds to pockets of politicians assured a hopeless public education system.

Cooks held the most important jobs in the school system as far as the students were concerned. Many of the kids depended on the free school lunches for their daily bread. The principal stood like a prison guard at the lunchroom door, right by the tray return. His rule of “you take it, you eat it” went unchallenged. The cooks put their pride and their energies into making great meals for the hungry hordes. Biscuits hot from the oven and plenty of red beans and rice made for hearty, nourishing meals. If they deviated from the menu, the kids looked askance at the food. School fare was the same as what the kids ate at home, if they came from a home stable enough to have meals. The lucky ones might add to their fare some crawdads caught in the ubiquitous drainage ditches.

Classes at Clancy averaged around 50 students of varying ages. Since social promotion as a concept had not yet caught hold in Louisiana, students could fail as often as teachers cared to fail them. Some big guys roared up to grade school on their motorcycles. Some others were rounded up and dragged in by the local cops since truancy was petty crime. “Special education” classes for those who could not or would not learn were not an option in schools where most students would have qualified for special education. Teachers tried to survive, one day at a time.

So desperate was the need for teachers that I finally agreed to take a sixth grade part of the year. We could use the money, meager as it was. The $278/month was an improvement due to the recent reorganization of teachers’ unions. A Catholic Brother from one of the orders taught a sixth grade with 55 students. Not all the chairs fit in the room. Teachers and a few students, in that room and a number of others, were relegated to filling the hall next to the room. One day the Brother decided he was out of there while he was still functional. As unstrung as he was, he probably went out and crawled in a hole. I took the class for a number of weeks that ran into months. It was rather horrible, although I found the “kids” of all ages responded to kindness and consideration—attributes they seldom encountered. I liked them and they cared for me. They would beg me to read to them since many of them had never had the privilege of owning a book of their own or actually learning to read. Books suffered the same shortage as all other supplies.

Ray’s work at the State Street Marine Hospital had him catching babies and treating families of the shrimp boat captains. Since their health care was free, they brought gifts to the doctors on occasion. And what would a shrimp boat captain bring but shrimp—huge shrimp, a generous and unusual gift. We never went down to see the fleet blessed when the boats set out, but I believe that continues to be a custom.

Then, the floods came.

…to be continued, with a recollection the flood, and of Mardi Gras…


Freak Shows and Patent Medicines During the Great Depression

August 14, 2014

by Crane-Station

Letty and Ray Owings, ages 89 and 91, share their memories of freak shows, patent medicine salesmen, and minstrel shows, during the mid-1930s, in rural Missouri.

Also, if you have not seen The Butterfly Circus, which I have posted before, I suggest you find 20 minutes to see this inspirational film.

Freak Shows and Patent Medicines During the Great Depression

Letty shares:

Imagine a world without newspapers, electricity or central heat. Imagine a world without television. If you can think of a world where all communication was by word of mouth, that was our world, during the Great Depression in the small farming community in Missouri.

In the mid-1930s, people with genetic deformities or other physical issues such as being very heavy, were considered to be ‘freaks of nature.’ People without arms, or maybe with a leg off from the knee down would be featured at the State Fair in Sedalia, Missouri. Also, the shows would travel and come through a series of towns, to show the freaks, and sell patent medicines, all in the same venue. These events would often take place in a town park.

Since no one had any money, nearly all doctoring was done with patent medicines. The salesmen would pose the question, “What would you like to have cured?” They had bottled cures for everything from bad sex to diarrhea. The McNess man, who was the same man for years, would come around, in his horse-drawn buggy, and sell his medicines, but he also sold vanilla, and red sugar for cookies. The medicines were always red-colored liquid in bottles, never pills.

We had two things in our closet, from the patent medicine man. While many consider all things from that time to be snake oil, one of the things we had in our closet is still available today. At that time, we called it “horse salve.” Today we call it “Bag Balm.” We used the salve for everything, including its original intended use, which was to soften cow teats.

We also had “blackberry balsam” for diarrhea and stomach upset. The horse salve and the blackberry balsam were inside the house, in the closet.

If you were outside, and you were cutting the grass in the chicken yard, and you got cut, or in the alternative, if you cut your finger (nearly off) in the sawbuck, you headed to the tractor and unscrewed the cap on the carburetor, and allowed gasoline to flow over the cut. Gasoline was used to prevent infection, and it did prevent infection. These items, the two on the inside, and the gasoline on the outside, made up the whole of our medicine cabinet.

That wasn’t totally true, because my dad would also collect certain plants and weeds that he knew to have medicinal use. Certain plants, for example, would help with menstrual cramps. Also, lots of people ate dandelions, and they were not too bad if you threw in some lambs quarter, and maybe a few potatoes, to cut the strong taste of the dandelions.

As my dad would collect and point out medicinal and edible plants and weeds to me, we did come across what he named at that time, “wild hemp,” and he told me, “It makes people kind of crazy.” We left the wild hemp alone, but there was one woman in the small community who everyone knew was, in fact, kind of crazy, and she was a large woman, big-boned. She lived alone, and everyone called her “Big Annie.”

Big Annie, like everyone else in the community, had examined the plants and weeds in the fields to determine what was fit to eat and what was fit for medicine, and when she came across the wild hemp, she made an agricultural decision to use it, to shade her chickens. She didn’t know what it was, and as far as she was concerned, it was simply an excellent plant for shade use, for her hens. So, the wild hemp plants grew tall and provided excellent shade, and the chickens were happy, and Big Annie was happy and everything was going reasonably well, until one day, when the sheriff drove by.

Upon noticing a very large and obvious outdoor marijuana grow operation in plain view of the road he was driving on, the sheriff reportedly stopped and chopped down the plants. Big Annie was furious. She ran up and down the road, hollering at the sheriff, yelling at the neighbors, “They’re cutting down my chicken shade!”

On rare occasion and only when someone was very sick, did we call for Doc Martin to come around and make a house call. He would always leave with his chicken, for payment.

Ray adds on blackface minstrel shows:

Patent medicines were often sold in the same venue as minstrel shows in our town. Sometimes, a minstrel show would come to town on its own, and set up a big tent on an empty lot. Using shoe polish, white people would pose theatrically as black people. Although these shows stopped sometime in the 1930s in our area, the idea was to make make jokes through a questioning character called “Mr. Interlocutor.” At that time, blackface minstrelsy was so accepted that the obvious bigotry we see today was completely missed then.


Days on the Farm in 1934

May 27, 2014

by Crane-Station

Dust
photo by Robb North on creative commons, flickr

This is a true story from the Great Depression, as told by Letty Owings, age 89. It is a true account of days on a small Western Missouri farm during the drought of the 1930s.

Days on the Farm in 1934

Mom had malaria fever and we had to have her outside. Old Doc Martin, the county doctor, had visited and given my mother quinine. He told us that we had to keep her cool, and that we had to have a block of ice. On the rare occasions that Doc Martin visited, he left with a chicken because we had no money to pay him. Sometimes, he politely declined to take a chicken.

After the doctor left with his chicken, we decided to move outside because we did not have ten cents to buy a block of ice for Mom. The farm houses during the Great Depression had small windows because there was no insulation and no such thing as double-paned windows. Some rooms in the farm houses had no windows at all; there was no breeze in the house. We had no electricity and no fan.

We moved a mattress outside to underneath a tree for Mom. Pop and I moved our comfort and pillows outside as well, and we stayed next to her. We did not have mattresses. There was only the three of us now because my siblings were older and they were gone. That left Mom, Pop and I to tend to the farm. Mom was born in 1889 and was now 45 years old. I was nine. My responsibility now was to care for Mom and for the small animals on the farm. Pop told me not to worry about the big animals, so, during the day, Pop tended to the fields and to the cows and horses, and I tended to Mom and to the chickens, ducks and geese.

On her mattress, Mom would rave and cry and thrash. She was out of her mind and she didn’t know me. She had a roaring fever and there was nowhere to get cool. It did not rain that year until the first snow fell in the fall. Since we did not have ice, I would lower rags in a bucket on a rope into the well to cool them, and then I would wash Mom’s face and hands with the cool rags. We shared the well with the snakes that had gravitated there out of thirst. The well was our refrigerator.

During that summer, also know as a historic Dust Bowl year, we had 53 days that exceeded 100 degrees. Today, every acre is planted, but back then there were not as many roots in the soil to stabilize it; the wind roiled up large clouds of dust. Every living thing on the farm was thirsty, and while my dad was in the fields I dipped well water for the chickens, ducks and geese, and also for Mom. We lived like this, just surviving, hour after hour, day after day. My mom was so sick there were days she didn’t remember.

One day, I thought my mom had died. She was unresponsive to me, and I was so scared. I ran, terrified, to my dad, who was plowing with the mule on the back forty (literally). Pop tied the reins- the mule was a good mule- he wouldn’t go anywhere- Pop tied the reins onto the mule and we both ran back to Mom on her mattress. I was too young to see my mother suffer and die like this under my care. I was so scared because I was responsible for her and if she died I had only myself to blame. Seeing my mother like that haunts and saddens me to this day.

Mom was not dead. She was very hot. We shook her and rolled her and washed her face with cool rags from the well. Eventually she recovered and learned to walk again, but the malaria symptoms recurred in the following years.

During those hot and dry days on the farm, it wasn’t just me and Mom. All of the animals were thirsty and hot- the cows, calves, horses,chickens, ducks and geese- I dipped the well water for them all. My dad was a saint. He never got angry and he never asked for help with the big animals. He told me not to worry, he’d take care of the cows and horses. Pretty much all we had to eat was cornbread, and Pop often made the cornbread out of cornmeal, soured milk and flour in the mornings. At some point, he was able to save enough to get some coal oil burners.

Mom lay on her mattress in her ragged dress and she cried. Pop washed her face and held her hands. His real name was Olando John, and there was never a better man the good Lord ever made.

note: The Dust Bowl years were three consecutive years of drought during the Great Depression. On the description “53 days over 100,” go here to view historic records compared to present day.

Malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes and caused by a protist.


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