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Remembering Life on a Farm in the Mid-1950s

Paul's parents were dairy farmers for many years. He lived on a small rented farm in southeastern Wisconsin from 1954 until 1957.

The author lived on this farm from 1954-1957.  Picture was taken around 1955.

The author lived on this farm from 1954-1957. Picture was taken around 1955.

Remembering Life on a Rented Farm

In March 1954, my parents moved from a suburb of Milwaukee to a small rented farm in Waukesha County. My dad called it the old Charlie Davis farm. It was located 30 miles west of West Allis and three miles east of Mukwonago.

Until 1957, my two sisters and I had a new adventure outside of the city.

After suggesting dad's reasons for renting the Charlie Davis farm, I first recall our living conditions. Next, I look back on my daily chores and harvesting crops. Finally, I call to mind what I did for fun by myself and with others.

Location of Charlie Davis Farm

Location of Charlie Davis farm.  Plat drawing from the early 20th century.

Location of Charlie Davis farm. Plat drawing from the early 20th century.

Reasons for Renting the Charlie Davis Farm

Charlie Davis was a poor pickle farmer who lived in the early 20th century. Mom and dad rented the 70-acre farm that he previously owned from 1954 until 1957. Davis is best known for his youngest son, Glenn, who was a U.S. Congressman for 20 years.

My folks rented the farm from the McNalleys who probably purchased the farm from the Davis family.

Looking back, it was no surprise that dad decided to rent the old Charlie Davis farm. When younger, in the 1930s and early 1940s, my father worked on farms in Waukesha County around Mukwonago. Dad also had a friend who rented the old Davis farm in the early 1950s for one year. I can still remember the one visit that I had to see Gus and Mary with mom and dad.

It was dad's dream to become a successful dairy farmer. To accomplish this, he needed a start on a small farm to gradually build up a herd of dairy cattle. By working full-time in West Allis, my father was able to get his start in farming and mom and dad could also save enough money to put a down payment on a farm.

Living Conditions on the Farm

Our living conditions on the farm were much different from the city where we had come from.

In West Allis, we had lived in a small rented apartment that had had a basement, The apartment was insulated and had central furnace heating. There was plumbing in a bathroom that we shared with another tenant.

Our newly rented farm had an old farmhouse that had been built around 1900. The house was two-story and much bigger than our previous apartment. However, it had no basement and was not insulated. Our only source of heat came from a big noisy oil burner in the center of the house. Worse yet, there was no plumbing or hot water in the house.

With no bathroom, we had to use an outhouse about 30 yards from the house. It had no water and would often stink. When using the outhouse, we sat on a board that had a circular hole cut out of it with a shallow pit below.

In frigid weather, we had a chamberpot in the house that often reeked in the warm air.

For bathing, mom had a big portable tub brought into the kitchen. She heated hot water on a stove before adding it to the cold water in the tub.

In addition to a large kitchen, our house had about four or five small rooms on both sides of the central room where the oil burner was situated. We also had a big living room with an old piano and TV. Mom could play a few notes on the piano. Unfortunately, the living room was closed and not used during cold weather.

Three rooms could be found upstairs. The smallest room was at the top of the stairs. To the right of this room, there were two bigger rooms. I called the room on the right the "bee room" because it had beehives in the windows. The room on the left was used as a bedroom by mom and dad during warm weather. It had a small circular hole in the floor making the living room visible. Like the living room, the upstairs was closed off during cold weather.

Daily Life on a Farm

Having just moved from the city, I experienced big changes in my daily life on a farm. These changes included going to a new school and helping mom and dad with farm chores.

Going to a New School

Although there was a one-room school in Vernon about a quarter of a mile from our farm, my parents sent my sister and me to a Catholic school in Mukwonago.

Every day Beatrice and I had to get accustomed to walking an eighth of a mile to Highway 15 and then waiting for a school bus. The bus took us three miles to Saint James Church and School.

I was in the fourth grade and my sister the first. From fourth through sixth grade, my classes were held in the basement of the church. During my last year at Saint James from 1956 until March 1957, my seventh-grade classes were in the basement of the church's rectory on Division Street.

Besides attending school, I was also an altar boy assisting our parish priest to celebrate Mass on weekdays and Sundays. My most memorable experience was serving for Midnight Mass at Christmas time.

One-Room Vernon School

Vernon School.  The picture was taken in probably the early 20th century.

Vernon School. The picture was taken in probably the early 20th century.

St. James School in Mukwonago

St. James School in Mukwonago, Wisconsin  Picture was taken possibly in the 1970s.

St. James School in Mukwonago, Wisconsin Picture was taken possibly in the 1970s.

Helping Mom and Dad with Farm Chores

When I wasn't in school, I was busy helping mom and dad with farm chores. These chores included first helping mom in the hen house and later assisting dad in the barn and the fields. I also worked for a neighboring farmer and occasionally sold farm produce on the side of the road.

Helping in the Hen House

It was exciting and fun to have animals to care for. Right after moving to the farm, my first memory is helping mom in the hen house. We had 15-20 egg-laying white hens. Besides feeding the chickens, I especially looked forward to gathering the laid eggs. Many times, the hens were sitting on the eggs and pecked my hand as I went to gather the eggs. I think we only had the hens for a few months until a fox or weasel got into the coop and started killing our chickens.

Assisting in the Barn and Fields

Although still only nine, I did my best to assist dad in the barn and fields.

After moving on to the farm, dad bought a cow, heifer, and calf. They were all Holstein. I can still remember the heifer that we called Princess. She was more white than black.

I couldn't milk the cow but helped feed the animals silage, grain, and hay that dad had bought the first year.

Around April, I helped my father repair the fence in the cowyard and also make a new fence. This new fence was on two sides and provided a corridor for the cow and Princess to walk down to some pasture land in a wooded area at the back of the barn.

It was fun watching dad plow the fields. I can still remember following dad on the tractor and walking in the deep furrow that the plow made.

My father quickly started to teach me about the tractor. He had an old International H and by 1955 I could drive it.

After dad cut hay, we had to rake it into rows before it was baled. We only had an old horse rake that was pulled by the H. I sat on the rake and made sure that the raked hay was deposited into rows for drying.

Using a Horse Rake

Working for a Neighboring Farmer

My father quickly made friends with a neighboring farmer who lived on a hill less than one-half mile west of our rented farm. Bill was a dairy farmer and had a barn on the south side of Highway 15 and a house and pasture land on the north side.

In the summer of 1954 or 1955, Bill and his wife Cecilia asked whether I wanted to earn some money. My job would be to help Bill drive his cows across the road from the barn to the pasture land. While driving the cattle, Cecilia and her sister Josie would hold flags and stop traffic on the road. My pay would be $0.25 a day for doing this in the morning and late afternoon. Mom and dad agreed I could take the job and now I had money to spend on baseball cards.

Selling Produce on the Side of the Road

Every year my folks had a large vegetable garden. They planted sweet corn, tomatoes, beans, pickles, and cabbage. When the sweet corn and vegetables were ready for harvest in August, Uncle Augie would come out to get vegetables. Once he took back to Milwaukee a big gunny sack full of sweet corn.

The corn that we couldn't give away or eat was sold. Usually, on a Sunday, my sister and I would sit at a stand on the side of Highway 15. Since our selling price was only $0.10 a dozen, we had a brisk business and quickly sold out.

Memories of Harvesting Crops

Harvesting crops was one of the busiest times of the year. My dad planted alfalfa, oats, and corn every year.

After the alfalfa was in bloom, it was first cut and then raked into rows. Dad didn't have a baler so he had Earnie W. who ran the Midway Market two miles away bale the hay for him. Earnie baled the hay and it was dropped on the field. Later, dad and I loaded it onto a wagon before it was taken to our barn. I was too small in 1954 and 1955 to lift heavy bales. Fortunately, Uncle Dick came out from Milwaukee and helped dad put the bales into the haymow of the barn.

My father also did not have a machine to harvest the oats. He did, however, have a binder that cut the oats and tied the stems into bundles. During one year, Uncle Augie came out and sat on the binder to operate it as dad pulled the binder with a tractor.

After the bundles of oat stems were put into shocks in the field, it was soon time to call a farmer to thresh the oats. Elmer S, another neighboring farmer, had a big thresher. He came over one hot summer day in August to do the thrashing. I still can remember the big noon dinner that mom had that day for Elmer, dad, and other helpers.

Usually, in early September, corn stalks with ears of corn that were just starting to dent were put into our small silo. A silo filler attached by a belt to our tractor would first grind the corn up and then blow it up through a pipe into the silo.

Dad did not have a machine to pick and shell ripe ear corn in one operation. He also didn't hire anyone to do this work. Instead, he first cut and bound the corn stalks, To dry the corn, he placed the bound corn stalks in shocks looking like a tepee. Later, he removed the ears and put them into a corn crib.

Threshing Machine in Action

Corn Shocks

Corn Shocks

Corn Shocks

What I Did for Fun

When I wasn't in school or doing chores, I still had a lot of time for fun.

My primary fun interest was in baseball. During the winter, I also enjoyed ice skating and sledding.

In fourth and fifth grade, I had wanted so badly to play Little League baseball in Mukwonago. Unfortunately, I couldn't because dad worked the second shift in the city and I had no ride to practice.

Instead, I would play baseball most of the time by myself. I would throw a ball in the air and try to hit it as far as I could. On a few occasions, a neighbor boy, Norman, would come over and we played ball together.

When it rained or the weather was bad, I would play with my baseball cards upstairs in the bee room. I would tack some of the cards on the wall. Other cards I would arrange on the floor in the shape of positions on a baseball diamond. I made fences with books around the diamond. Then, I would have a game by using a knife as a bat and marble as a ball.

I will never forget the one Sunday that dad took me into Milwaukee to see the Brooklyn Dodgers play the Milwaukee Braves at County Stadium. On two other occasions, he took me to West Allis, and while he was working, Uncle Augie took me to the Braves games.

Dad also knew that I liked to watch pro wrestling. Once he took me to a match in Mukwonago, and the other time I enjoyed seeing Mighty Atlas and Dick the Bruiser at the Milwaukee Arena.

In the spring of 1955, I remember flying a kite in a field near our farmhouse.

During big snowstorms, my sister Beatrice and I would go sledding down the big hill in the back of Bill L's barn.

My Younger Sister Patty Getting Lost in a Corn Field

Finally, how can I forget my younger sister, Patty, getting lost in a cornfield! In August 1956, Patty was outside on the front lawn alone with no one watching her. After 10 minutes, mom, Beatrice, and I started to panic when she had disappeared and didn't answer our calls.

There was a cornfield next to the lawn and one of us reasoned that Patty had gone into it and was walking around lost. The corn was over six feet high and it was very hard to find her. At last, after hearing Patty's cries, someone said "follow my voice." After a few minutes, I think that mom found her. This must have been a terrifying experience for a two-year-old.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Paul Richard Kuehn

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