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.


Lye Soap and Apple Butter

May 26, 2014

Alice Heun: Barn and Cows, 1934
Photo: Alice Heun: Barn and Cows, 1934. by americanartmuseum, Smithsonian American Art Museum, creative commons, flickr

By Crane-Station

This is a true account of life on a small Missouri farm during the Great Depression, as told by Letty Owings, age 89. It is a description of two precise arts. Other examples of precise arts include quilting, weaving, and canning.

Lye Soap and Apple Butter

Two labor-intensive jobs that the adults did every Fall was to prepare the lye soap and the apple butter. Each family prepared its own supply of these two staples, and the supply had to last the whole year. Equipment was essential for these jobs. For the apple butter, the large iron kettle had to be copper lined so that the apple butter did not stick or burn. For the soap, a large iron kettle was used.

The apple butter kettle was passed down through the generations. If a family did not have an apple butter kettle, they shared with another family. Newly married couples inherited a kettle and when a farmer died and the farm was to be dissolved, there was always much discussion about who was going to get the apple butter kettle.

The apple butter was cooked over a fire with a long-burning wood, and so that the person stirring could withstand the heat, she used a stirrer that was very long- five feet or so. Kids never did the stirring or the stoking of the fire, for fear of scalding or burns. My mother did the stirring, and there was a very specific rhythm to it: right side-left side- middle. The rhythm prevented any sticking and ensured consistency and taste. One part was never stirred more than the other. Each woman had her own recipe of spices and sugar in specific ratios that had also been handed down through generations like the kettle.

DO - Apple Day Apple Butter
Photo by vastateparksstaff on flickr

Farming women set aside three days for the apple butter. The first day was for peeling, the second day was for cooking and the third was for canning. There was always talk about whose apple butter was better and every woman believed her apple butter was the best. Apple butter was a staple and making apple butter in the fall was a matter of pride for each family. The women always wore sun bonnets to stir the apple butter because a tan was considered ugly. Women covered their arms to prevent any burns from splattering. The men built the fire and set the kettle in place, but the women peeled the apples and did the stirring. On the third day, my mother put the apple butter into jars with snap-on lids, boiled the jars and covered the lids with sealing wax. On apple butter days I would run home real fast to watch.

Like apple butter, the lye soap making was both art and ritual, and it was done individually, not communally. Soap was made in a large iron kettle over an outside fire, and a long stirrer was used. Women took great pride in their soap and there was always the exchange among neighbors, “What is your soap like?” My mother saved animal fat from the butchering and this was the basis for the soap. She added lye and stirred to a precise consistency. This was important because she needed to be able to pour, cool and then slice the soap into bars.

The soap had a neutral, clean smell, and the goal was to make the soap as white as possible. The browner the soap, the less respect others had for the soap and for the soap maker. There was great pride in the soap quality and in how nice the cut was, and how pretty the bars. The lye soap lasted all year, and we used it to hand wash everything. I had my own little washboard, that I got for Christmas.

A great deal of expertise went into soap cooking. My mother was an artist and a designer who was an excelled at sewing and quilt making, and these talents carried over into her soap and apple butter making as well as canning. Today apple butter does not taste the same, probably because the apples have changed and because it is difficult to duplicate the unique and wonderful taste of apple butter that is made over an open fire. We ate our apple butter on cornbread. I assumed that cornbread came over from the old country in Germany where my ancestors came from, but I learned much later that cornbread was an American addition.

Note:

Saponification is a process that produces soap, usually from fats and lye. In technical terms, saponification involves base (usually caustic soda NaOH) hydrolysis of triglycerides, which are esters of fatty acids, to form the sodium salt of a carboxylate. In addition to soap, such traditional saponification processes produces glycerol. “Saponifiable substances” are those that can be converted into soap.[1]

Source.

Also, in case your have missed this lovely short film about a circus during the Great Depression, it is very well worth 20 minutes. Please have a look:


The Blue Taffeta Dress

May 25, 2014

by Crane-Station

Alice Heun: The Corn Crib, 1934
Alice Heun: The Corn Crib, 1934 photo by Smithsonian American Art Museum/flickr

note: I don’t have any money, but listening to this guy makes me want to find some. Check this out, great way to raise money BTW:

This is a story from the Great Depression as told by Letty Owings, age 89. It is a true account of three organized community activities in a small rural farming community in Missouri during the 1930s.

The Blue Taffeta Dress

While we worked hard on the farm during the drought years in the mid-1930s, we also set aside three days each year for entertainment. These days were community organized and structured fun that everyone looked forward to and talked about all year.

Each autumn we had a pie supper at the rural 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. 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 a dollar for my pie!” Many of the pies were milk-based custards because mince was too expensive. Pumpkin, squash and apple pies were popular, and on occasion when someone could afford raisins, there was raisin pie.

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. The people would gossip about the drought and gossip about their kids, and interject with who bought what pie for how much by saying things like, “Yeah, you know, he bought her pie.” Nobody ever kept any of the money for the pies. The funds went into the school.

On the last day of school, every woman in the community brought something to eat to the annual basket dinner at school. Women took a great deal of pride in what they brought, whether it was pickles, beans, apple butter or other dishes, so the basket dinner was both contest and entertainment. The women put the food out on the ground for all to enjoy, and we ate on the ground. Some of the coal miner kids were too poor to bring food, but the country people were very generous, so the kids all got to eat.

There was no separation of church and state back in those days, so the next big event, the Christmas program, was held either at the school or at the church, and everyone started planning for it in October. We had an old piano with missing keys and back then no one looked askance that we sang religious songs and Christmas carols. The kids gave speeches and participated in plays that were read from a Depression-era book with scripts. The dialogue was humorous or it delivered some sort of a lesson, but it was all copied, sometimes from Charles Dickens and often from other sources. The names of some of the plays were: Mr. Dash Goes Shopping, Tramp at the Picnic, Change of Heart, and Too Much Spending, but there were others.

I often had a part in the Christmas play, but I never had any decent clothes until 1932 when my Grandpa went blind. My dad took him to California on a train because it was better for my grandfather to be with kinfolks in California who had a little more money. My dad returned with two avocados. We had never seen an avocado and did not quite know what to do with them, so my mother cut them into pieces and put them in the flour bin. We would get a piece, shake the flour off and cut it into bites. My cousin in California with money gave my dad a blue taffeta dress for me, and this put me in a world of my own. It had a lace collar and lace cuffs and nobody that I knew ever had a blue taffeta dress with a lace collar and lace cuffs. My cousin did stage dancing, so she had plenty of access to nice clothes.

I decided to wear the dress for my part in the Christmas play.

The play said that I had to have chewing gum, so I got a stick of chewing gum, but I did not know what to do with chewing gum, so I rolled it on my fingers. The gum got stuck on the blue taffeta dress. I was frantic and nearly forgot my lines, the dress was not washable and I did not want my mother to know, but I had to tell her. My mother figured out that if we put ice on the dress it would freeze the gum so that I could pull it off. So, I am in the back yard with the blue dress in the snow because we did not have any ice to put on the dress.

I wore that blue taffeta dress until I could no longer squeeze myself into it, and years later, I visited my cousin in a nursing home, and told her how much that blue dress meant to me.


How a Missouri Farming Community Handled Death Prior to WWII

May 24, 2014

Photo: amy_b / Flickr

by Crane-Station

note: This is a true account of how a small Missouri farming community handled death before WWII, as told by Letty Owings, age 89.

The customs and traditions pertaining to death in our community were in place prior to the Civil War and remained unchanged until after WWII. Prior to the Civil War, the land that would become our farm was multi-crop plantation territory where corn, wheat and clover grew. After the Civil War, the plantation area was divided into farms. Our farm was 160 square acres. We had no street address; we were part of a community that included a population of about 300 in the country and 600 in the nearby town.

A woman I knew named Minni had lived through the period prior to the Civil War, and I would often visit her and listen to her stories. On the way to her house, I passed a slave graveyard of about twenty graves that remained on the property. Many of the graves were simple stone markers indicating a child’s burial. In those days death was common among infants and young children in general, and it was not regarded with the same concern that it is today. It wasn’t that people were mean about it, they were just more honest. In other words, deaths of infants and children were almost expected. Causes of death among slave children in particular were never noted or studied during that time, although looking back one can speculate that tuberculosis, pneumonia, and other diseases and childbirth complications common to that era for all children may have been the cause. We must bear in mind that penicillin was not available until after WWII.

Read the rest of this entry »


Medicine in a Rural Farming Community in 1920s Missouri

May 23, 2014

Separator
Separator by mallala museum on flickr, used under Creative Commons license.

by Crane-Station

This essay is a true story about medicine, childbirth and injuries in a rural farming community in Missouri in the 1920s as told by Letty Owings, age 89. I must note up front some information on how we compose these essays. Letty’s general health is in decline such that she can no longer write much, although she is a retired English teacher and one of the better writers I have ever known. She tells me her stories on the phone and I actually fact check with additional research to add context and history of events like the flu pandemic of 1918 that killed 25 million people in the first 25 weeks. She remembers much talk of this flu from her early childhood. To my amazement, her recall is not only 100 percent accurate, but it is also substantial in terms of piecing together the history. For example, she recalls cases of encephalitis. As recently as 2007, the flu pandemic was implicated in the outbreak of encephalitis lethargica in the 1920s, which makes her recall all the more interesting.

Her story coincides closely with the beginning of the keeping of vital statistics in Missouri. Record keeping began in 1911 and she was born in 1924 in what she describes over and over as an extremely rural area where there were no records kept. There was no geriatric specialty at that time, because there were no old people: life expectancy in 1911 at the beginning of record keeping was just 54 years of age. I will explain more in the essay, but before I do so I will express an opinion: there are excellent reasons for Federal agencies that keep vital statistics and epidemiological data, and efforts to do away with various Federal regulatory agencies is reckless on a good day. I strongly disagree with any political efforts to do away with health-related regulation.

Medicine in a Rural Farming Community in 1920s Missouri

Our farm house had been a log cabin and the plastered and crooked wooden walls made my perfectionist mother nuts. An artist at heart, my mother was papering these walls. She saved money for the paper and cooked her own glue. She had laid boards onto the base of the cream separator for a make-shift step ladder. The boards slipped and my mother fell onto the metal prong on the base of the cream separator, and the prong tore deeply into the flesh of her hip. My father found her.

Medicine in the 1920s was extremely crude, and death was always so close. In our fatalistic view, life and death were a lot closer than they are now. Infection from an injury like the one my mother suffered could kill as easily as not. The cure for everything at the time was gasoline. On the heels of war and a pandemic flu so severe that we still study it today, we were in a position at that time of being extremely poor combined with a lack of medicine. People never thought of death as a strangeness and the vital statistics from that time, even without figuring in the skew from lack of record keeping in rural areas, are truly shocking:

The overall improvement in the health of
Missouri women of childbearing age (15-44)
during the 20th century is exemplified by two
dramatic trends: (1) the maternal mortality rate
(MMR) declined by about 98 percent, from 770 per
100,000 live births in 1911 to 10 per 100,000 live
births in 2000; (2) female life expectancy increased
by more than 24 years (44 percent), from 54.5 years
in 1911 to 78.7 years in 2000.

We called old Doc Martin to come out and treat my mother. By this time, the doctor had switched from horse and buggy to car. When we didn’t have Doc Martin, the patent man occasionally came around, and sometimes my dad seemed to know the right kinds of weeds to cook for homemade remedies. We used Bag Balm, a horse salve (pink salve) product that is still available today, and we used Blackberry Balsam for diarrhea. Doc Martin sewed my mother’s wound and left with his chicken that we gave him for payment. Predictably, my mother developed a fever and became dangerously sick. She was in agony and she cried and it was upsetting for me as a small child to see my mother this way. She stayed in bed, as was the custom at the time, and there was great concern for her from the community. She survived her injury, but this was not always the case with accidents.

Much of what doctoring was like in the 1920s was simply hoping for the best but expecting death at any time, and this is difficult for us to understand today, where we take much for granted. Almost every family we knew had had some experience with the previous flu pandemic, for example, but we also had experiences with things like malaria, empyema, pneumonia, and a host of other deadly infectious illnesses. Early hospitals did not produce curative results because of nosocomial infections: “In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated roughly 1.7 million hospital-associated infections, from all types of microorganisms, including bacteria, combined, cause or contribute to 99,000 deaths each year.[2]”

Babies were born at home until the close of WWII in our area. There was no pregnancy test, no prenatal care, and although baby bottles were first patented in 1845 and are today regulated by the FDA (for the materials in both the teat and the bottle), in those days we did not have baby bottles available to supplement feeding. So, if a baby needed milk, one had to find someone who was nursing. The infant mortality rate was extremely high and this did not change until after the war. Both economic improvement and prenatal care including early recognition and treatment of complications contributed to the dramatic improvement in these mortality rates.


The Shivaree and Farming Community Wedding Customs Prior to WWII

May 20, 2014

FDR Profile
photo: dctourism/flickr

by Crane-Station

This is a true account of wedding customs in a rural Missouri farming community prior to WWII, as told by Letty Owings, age 89. The account is limited to the small geographical area. Customs may have been different, twenty miles down the road.

The Shivaree and Farming Community Wedding Customs Prior to WWII

Most country weddings in our community took place in the home. The bride and groom dressed nicely, but there were no bridal shops or wedding dress makers. A preacher would come to the home to perform the wedding. Even if people were not churchgoers, the preacher would “marry and bury.” At the wedding ceremony, someone, usually a couple, would stand up as witnesses for the couple being married.

The usual refreshments and a small reception followed the wedding ceremony. A few days after the couple got settled, the community held a shivaree. The shivaree was a post-wedding noisy party for the community where the newlyweds were pressed into service as hosts. In short, the shivaree was a mock serenade and a roast of the newlyweds. People brought all sorts of noisemakers and pots and pans to bang on, and they sang songs and enjoyed refreshments, compliments of the newlyweds. Adding to the atmosphere of friendly ribbing and polite mockery, nobody bothered to dress up. Supposedly, the shivaree was spontaneous and clandestine. However, it was an organized spontaneous that wasn’t really a secret. Since the newlyweds were expected to provide the refreshments for their own roast, they had to know where to be and what time to be there. Community members organized the shivaree by word-of-mouth instructions. Everyone in the community had plenty of advance notice for this ‘spontaneous’ post-wedding party, and looked forward to the fun. Newlyweds looked forward to the noisy event as well, and they would have been insulted at not being forced to host the shivaree.

The marriage rate in the community was nearly 100 percent in those days. Not getting married was almost unheard of, and for the most part, people married their neighbors. Courtships lasted 1 1/2 to 2 years, and people rarely waited past age 22 to marry. Women were younger than men in almost all cases, so you might typically see a 19-year-old woman marry a 21-year-old man, give or take. During the courtship, the woman never, ever called or contacted the man to ask the man out on a date. Men initiated all the courtship contact.

There came a time when a lot of social customs were clouded by the war overseas. Word trickled in that there was a war raging in Europe. One must bear in mind that we had no television or organized press in our community at the time. We only got our first wind charger radio in 1938. Rumors spread, conversations ensued and people exchanged opinions. Some people took the position that the war raging in Europe was none of our concern. It was Europe’s war and Europe’s problem, not ours. After all, WWI had been a bunch of foolishness that we had no business getting involved in, and there was no need to repeat the foolishness. People voiced this opinion even as Churchill was down on his knees begging Roosevelt for help. Others countered this view with, “Yes, but there’s a crazy man Hitler and listen, this man is a maniac, the rumors are true, he’s killing Jews and he is a madman.” During this time there was a pall hanging over America and it extended to social functions in our small farming community.

No one ever came out and said, “There is a pall hanging over our social functions.” However, it was apparent. For one thing, people had a sense of unease about enjoying themselves at social functions while there was so much suffering going on in Europe, and the conversations often turned to that subject, even at the likes of a shivaree. Also, people began to be self-conscious about speaking German out and about. My father’s side of the family included ancestral illegal immigrants from Germany who did not care for German militarism of the time, so they bribed a ship captain and came to this country to escape it. They brought the language with them and the language sifted down through the generations, even to me as a young child. In one case, a boy’s folks did not want him going out with me, because of the German. We spoke Low German in the home when I was a child. It was lost on some folks that descendants of German people from generations past were a peaceful lot. The remnants of the language became associated with the current doings of a madman in Europe.

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.”

End note:

After retiring from teaching English at Lakeridge High School in Lake Oswego, Oregon, Letty co-founded a residential treatment home for women and children in Portland, with Nancy Anderson. Letty speaks in this video-


A Walk in the Woods

April 20, 2014

by Crane-Station

Letty Owings, age 89, describes Easter in a farming community during the early 1930s:

At 4AM on Easter Sunday, my dad went outside, fed the animals and milked the cows. Then he made cornbread and opened a jar of apple butter for the cornbread. This was the only work allowed on Easter, because it was considered a sin to work on Easter.

After we ate, we dressed for church. Mom wore her only dress. Women were required to cover their heads in church, so Mom wore her only hat that she called a “pot hat” which was uglier than sin and looked like an upside-down stove pot. Her hat had eye hooks in the back. My dad wore his only suit, and he wore a men’s hat, but since he did not have to wear the hat in church, he hung it on the hat hook in the back of the church. The preacher wore black.

Men sat on the right of the church and women sat on the left, although that changed, sometime later in the 1930s. The church had a pump organ. One person pumped it, while another person was at the keys. The organist maintained his appointment as such until ‘the sheep croaked,’ we used to say as a joke.

Easter was a communion day. The drink was wine and never grape juice, and the bread was broken from a loaf rather than of a wafer variety, but one had to be confirmed to receive communion, so our church did have Sunday School. Baptism was neither by sprinkling nor immersion but by the preacher dipping his entire hand three times to perform the blessing.

After church, there was no communal get-together or meal. Rather, I went for walks with my father in the woods, the pastures, the fields. The flowers and trees were beginning to bloom. Morel mushrooms would come up with the first warm dirt, if the dirt was warm enough. We walked and walked.

During our walks, my dad told me how much we should appreciate the gifts that we have. He would point to the “boy britches,”pink flowers with hearts that resemble boys’ britches, and blooming trees, and “spring beauties” flowers in the meadows.

Easter is a time of rejuvenation and beauty, but something my father said remains with me to this day. He said, “We have done nothing to deserve this.”

I cherished that.


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