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What Was Farm Life 100 Years Ago Really Like?

Timothy Arends earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Fine Art at Berea College, Berea Kentucky.

Remembering My Dad

It's hard to believe, but if my father were alive today, he would be 100 years old this year. I remember him simply as my dad, with whom my brother and I went on family vacations throughout the Midwest, visiting far-flung family members and getting our taste of Americana.

Of course, my father was much more than this. After growing up on a farm in the tiny town of Alexander Iowa, Robert L. Arends went on to pursue his masters degree in philosophy and religion. After briefly pursuing a career in the ministry, he went on to teach history and religion at a number of colleges and universities across the country.

I found an interesting essay dad wrote of his growing up experiences, which gives a fascinating insight into what Midwestern rural life was like 100 years ago, as well as how life has changed over the last 100 years. In this era of suburban life, interstate travel and Wi-Fi, we tend to forget just how hard the average person worked early in the previous century.

Illustrating my dad's experiences with my own watercolors has helped give me a keener insight and appreciation of what life in rural America was like so long ago. I hope it does the same for you.

Note: I plan on adding more original paintings to this article in the coming months, so check back frequently!

what-was-farm-life-100-years-ago-really-like

Houseflies

Mama, what are flies for?" The questioner was a twelve-year-old Iowa farm boy. Mother was a strong believer that God made everything to serve man. Pigs were made to be served up as pork chops and bacon. But houseflies? They pose a more difficult problem. "They eat up garbage," replied Mother. "They eat it and then spread it over our food," the boy thought to himself.

Certainly houseflies were omnipresent. They could be seen on every ledge scratching themselves complacently. Of course, the farm provided much to attract them—manure from the horses, cows, pigs, chickens and ducks was pitched from a horse-drawn wagon on the farmland.

This smelly job was lightened somewhat on the more advanced farms by the use of a manure spreader. A revolving spiked bar at the back of the wagon did the spreading. Just before the cold winter arrived the men would haul loads of manure to put in a wooden rack alongside the north side of our house so that its fermentation would help warm the house.

The farm animals were not fortunate enough to live in a manure-heated house. They had to stay in a cold barn, But, of course, animals didn't have feelings anyway. My parents had never heard of Descartes but they had the abominable Cartesian view of the matter, Human beings are not animals; they are possessed of that remarkable thing called a soul. But dogs and cats can perish on the porch in forty—degree—below-zero weather.

Mother

But I adored my mother, the kindest, sweetest person I have ever known. Of course, I would take her part in the ongoing battles with my father. A child cannot be neutral. When I had scarlet fever, which killed several children in our community, my mother prayed that the Lord might take her life instead of mine. How can I forget such love? Mother tried to love all her children equally, but I flattered myself that I might be her favorite.

My only regret was that she had no time to play with me. Arising before six, she helped milk the cows, then prepared the breakfast—usually piles of pancakes—fed the chickens, cleaned the roosts, perhaps doctored some chickens ailing with the croup, prepared a hearty dinner, hoed the garden, carried the vegetables into the cool cellar, picked the strawberries and raspberries, made the bread, churned the butter, washed the clothes with a hand washer, drawing the water from our fifty-foot well outside, ironed the clothes, milked the cows, prepared a hearty supper (all meals on the farm are hearty), washed the dishes, kept the stoves going with corncobs and wood, cleaned the house.

At other tines she would cut up meat recently butchered, can fruits and vegetables, using paraffin to seal up the jars, make cottage cheese-—which she sometimes sold in the town during the Depression years when I was growing up, helped the men pick corn, made pies and cakes, separated the milk in the hand-powered cream separator, and did a thousand and one other things. No wonder she had no time to play with me.

Father

Of course, Father didn't have time either. When he wasn’t plugging away at farm chores, he was reading his church magazine, delighting in the statistics of church growth, or writing letters to his beloved brother, the pastor, or attending to the affairs of the church. But be did take me to a circus once and would carry me on his back to meet the school bus when the snow was waist high.

Dad was janitor, Sunday School teacher, deacon in charge of everything, and chief financial supporter of our tiny village church. Actually, this town of 350 souls had four churches until a tornado blew one of them away. Father would bring in his best ears of corn and sheaves of oats to the front of the church for the Harvest Home Sunday.

Transportation

We lived in a large frame house set back from the road about a quarter of a mile. The lane was covered with mud or snow during a good part of the year. The first car I remember was a model T with narrow tires. To start it you had to set the choke and the gas, get out and crank it, then run back to manipulate the choke and the gas to the right mixture. You had to be careful when you cranked the car; some cars might kick and break a man's arm.

The progress down the lane was a matter of stopping every few feat to get out and push the car out of the mud or snow. Arriving at the end of the lane, we had another half mile of dirt road before we reached the graveled road leading into town. Dad would use a horse-drawn drag to level the lane and the road; for the latter operation he would receive five dollars a month from the county.

In really bad weather it was simpler to travel by horse-drawn wagon or sleigh.

The wagon had a wooden seat with springs on the front end. The sleigh in the wintertime was particularly fun. Dad put sleigh-bells on the horses’ manes and we filled the bottom of the sleigh with straw and buffalo rugs. Everyone could tell when Johnny was coming by the sleigh-bells. How proudly the horses snorted and tossed their heads when drawing this vehicle!

what-was-farm-life-100-years-ago-really-like

Home Life

Of course, we had no electricity in our house. A progressive farmer
nearby had installed Delco in his home, but Dad was not a progressive farmer. [Editor's note: Electricity didn't become widespread in cities and towns until after 1910, and as late as 1935 electrification still wasn't widespread in farm homes, with only one-in-10 rural homes being wired at that time.] Every couple of days Mother would fill the lamps with kerosene, trim the wicks, and wipe out the smoky globes. For special occasions we had a gas lamp with mantles, that had to be pumped up every so often. But most of the time instead of the clean white gas light we had the dim yellow kerosene light. Perhaps I ruined my eyes at the age of eight by my constant reading in front of the kerosene lights. I started wearing glasses in the fourth grade when I could no longer read the writing on the blackboard.

Our heating arrangements were equally primitive. Of course, we had the usual cookstove fed with corncobs and an occasional piece of wood, in the kitchen. A potbellied stove provided heat for the entire rest of the house. The only place one could be really comfortable was about two feet away from the stove. But after a short while one’s face began to feel like toasted bread while the back seemed to be freezing.

The three bedrooms upstairs were frigid in the wintertime. The only solution was to undress as quickly as possible and jump beneath the pile of quilts and comforters. In the morning I would sometimes find frost on the bedcovers. The windows were completely covered with thick frost and piles of snow had accumulated on the windowsills.

Our drinking water came from the pump outside. In the wintertime icicles would hang from the mouth of the pump and the handle would be stiff. Woe to the foolish child who would put his tongue to the frozen metal! We also had a cistern for rain water and a pump in the kitchen to provide water for hand-and-face washing. We were warned not to drink the cistern water, for dead birds had sometimes been found in it. How the birds got into the covered underground cistern I never knew.

We did have a built-in bathroom with a real bathtub in it. But we almost never used the bathtub. For most of the year the bathroom was suitable only for polar bears. Instead, we bathed in a large tub, filled with water heated on the stove. There was never enough water; what there was would cool off far too quickly.

Our call-of-nature needs were met by a backhouse, a tiny wooden building a proper distance from the house, containing a platform with three holes in it—the smaller one was for children. Hanging from the walls were old Sears-Roebuck or Montgomery Ward catalogues to serve as toilet paper, as well as information and amusement. In the winter time one had to shut the door below the little crescent airhole or the backhouse would be filled with snow.

Hard Work

There was little excitement in the hot, lazy days of August. At this time harvest of the oats and wheat was under way. Dad would cut the grain with a horse-drawn mower which also bound the grain in little bundles, Then we would shock, putting the oats, or wheat into little pyramidal arrangements to keep the grain heads from getting wet in case of rain.

Some time later would come threshing day. This was an important occasion, for a big threshing machine would drive into the yard and about a dozen neighboring men would come in with horse-drawn wagons--those who would haul the grain in from the fields and pitch the shocks into the thresher.

My mother and neighboring women would prepare a huge threshing dinner around the table, lengthened for that purpose, in the dining room. There would be roast chicken, ham, great bowls of snowy mashed potatoes, ample dishes of peas, corn, tomatoes, asparagus, cabbage, hot rolls, Dutch cheese and coffee, baking powder biscuits, homemade bread and butter, pickles, relish.

Everybody was expected to take two servings of everything. For dessert there would be cake, cookies, apple, cherry or blueberry pie, stewed rhubarb, and homemade ice cream. The success of the threshing meal was measured by the amount of the food consumed. Leftover food seemed insulting to the cooks.

The falling leaves and the coolness in the air in September signaled the return to school for the kids and the beginning of cornhusking for adults. The men would drive wagons along the rows of corn and break off the ears, pulling off the husk and throwing the ears into the wagons. Each husker would wear beneath his gloves a little metal hook to aid in the process of removing the husk. Corn picking would continue in October-sometimes even in November—and would terminate in a celebratory oyster stew dinner.

The Farm

Our farm had many attractions. To the south were rows of sweet corn, providing delectable roasts in the summer months. Nearby were weeds. When they grew tall enough, I would cut them off with a beetweeder's knife, imagining that they were pagan Moors and that I was Roland defending his liege lord Charlemagne.

On the southeastern corner stood the beetweeder's shack. This was usually empty during the coldest winter months, after the beet harvest. The thin walls could scarcely keep out the cold, even though Mother had papered the inside walls with old newspapers. The shack always smelt of old grease and half-rotten boards.

Then came the large garden, surrounded by raspberry and gooseberry bushes. In one corner of the garden were the rhubarb plants—or "pieplant" as we called them--providing the material for sauces, pies, and jams, and sometimes yielding a small profit at the village. These were flanked by rows of strawberry plants.

Then came the potatoes, peas, onions, tomatoes, asparagus, lettuce, cabbage, and sometimes broccoli, as well as nasturtiums, dahlias, asters, marigolds, sometimes even calla lilies, pinks, violets, phlox, petunias, and sometimes geraniums—though these latter were usually grown inside in little flower pots. Rambler roses were trained on trellises near the house.

Beside the garden was the garage, depository of various greasy-smelling objects. Here was parked the Model T. When Dad was learning to drive it, he would sometimes drive in through the open doors at the front and continue by crashing through the doors at the back. It was funny to see him emerging through the broken doors, cursing heatedly at the brakes on this goddamned car.

The horsetank came next, our nearest equivalent to a swimming pool. Of course, it was too small for swimming. But the next nearest lake was some thirty-five miles away, which in those days seemed like something on the other side of the moon.

Behind the tank extended the yard from which the cattle and horses would come to quench their thirst. The windmill next to the tank was fifty-feet high. To me it seemed taller than the pyramids. I could not summon enough courage to climb all the way to the revolving fans at the top, but I once got halfway up and felt proud of my achievement.

Our large red barn came next, on one side the wooden stanchions for the cows during their twice-daily milking. The earthen floor was more or less covered with manure. We had little wooden stools on which we sat to the cow's right, squeezing and pulling the teats to get that foamy liquid which tasted so warm and sweet after extraction. Of course, one had to be aware of the flailing bovine tail and of the back legs, which sometimes had a propensity to kick over the milk pail.

From the barn the milk was carried to our cellar, where a cream separator was turned to deposit the cream, which, in turn, was carried to our local coooperative creamery for cash. Some of the unseparated cream was reserved for our table use. The skim milk was fed to the pigs.

what-was-farm-life-100-years-ago-really-like

Holidays

The year was regulated by the change of the seasons and by the various seasonal festivals, starting with New Year’s Eve. There was the fun of staying up to watch the old year out while imagining an old white bearded men with a scythe being kicked by a baby wearing only a diaper bearing the number of the New Year.

In February came Lincoln's Birthday with its log cabin replicas, and Washington's Birthday, enlivened with cherry cake and ice cream and little hatchet favors.

St. Valentine's Day was observed in school with a huge decorated box with an opening at the top for the children to insert their valentines. Every pupil bought the best valentine for the teacher and smaller ones for each of the other children. One mustn't omit any child as a recipient of a valentine.

March brought my birthday and St. Patrick's Day. Everybody was careful to wear something green. There were funny green hats and shamrocks everywhere.

Usually April was Eastertime, marked by a little holiday from school. What fun it was to awaken at dawn on Easter morning and find the colored eggs everywhere, provided by the Easter bunny. Mother was usually very clever about coloring the eggs when I was out of the house. Easter also brought special church services and visions of angels in the air and of women hastening to an empty tomb.

For May Day children would make little baskets of colored paper and cornstarch paste. These would be filled with candy, nuts, sprigs of lilac and yellow forsythia. Town children would hang these baskets on people's doors, then ring the doorbell or knock and run. The lady of the house, if she was quick enough, would open the door, run to catch the child, and give him or her a big kiss.

June brought little but roses and enchanting weather. But July, ah July, provided us with the Fourth. Only my older brothers were allowed to light the firecrackers; I was warned of possible burns as well as blown-off fingers and eyes. There was usually a picnic and general merrymaking. I was told that the bigger towns had parades with clowns and marching bands. Everyone shouted and made as much noise as he could. Mother would sing a song she had learned as a child:

So fire off your guns, like patriot sons,

For freedom was born amidst powder.

Halloween also came in October. We children had great fun carving jack-o-lanterns from our garden pumpkins and installing a candle in each one, dressing up in sheets like ghosts, and wearing horrifying witches masks. There were jointed skeletons made out of cardboard. Everyone tried to scare everybody else. One of my very earliest memories at perhaps the age of three, was that of wailing and shrieking at the ghosts flitting around in the yard.

November brought the gift of Thanksgiving Day. At school we would put on shoe buckles, little black suits, and cardboard collars and cuffs to act out the role of Pilgrim Fathers. Thanksgiving Day dinner was, of course, a highlight. The usual grace at table was very special on that day.

Christmastime

The climax of the year came at Christmas. We would prepare weeks in advance carefully cutting trees for the house and for the church, decorating with strings of popcorn, tinsel balls, little candles and a star at the top.

Santa suits were worn or surreptitiously concealed for use on Christmas Eve. There was the practicing of carols. Christmas cookies came from every oven. Yuletide recitations and Pageants were rehearsed. The children drew up lists of desiderata. Everyone speculated about what Santa would put in the stockings.

We had no fireplace but Santa was still expected to come down the chimney. When he finally appeared at the church festival he sometimes looked suspiciously like an uncle.

Christmas Eve was too tense to bear. There was a holy mysticism in the air. Closing our eyes, we could see the angels over Bethlehem and the shepherds tending their flocks.

Christmas Eve would bring the special church services with the children's recitations, hymns, and the distribution of the candy sacks. Then the trip home in the sleigh or the model T through the drifted snowbanks. I was too excited to go to sleep, but exhaustion finally prevailed.

Christmas Morning dawned. I would run downstairs to my stocking, bulging with home-knitted socks, mittens, apples, oranges, candy canes, and a cheap book or mechanical toy, such as a Charley Chaplin that walked jerkily if you wound him up or an Amos and Andy taxicab that did curious tricks, such as stopping to shimmy, going backwards or around in circles. Once a brother gave me a football which I used in enacting football games on the front porch, in which I acted as players, referee, and spectators all at the same time.

At Christmastime, the great celebration of the year, Father would cut and haul in the large tree, help to decorate it, and fill a paper sack for each child with various kinds of inedible candies, English walnuts, oranges, and apples. Father’s greatest pleasure was giving out these Christmas sacks.

And so this essay begins with mother and it ends with father. Life may change dramatically as science and technology advances, but cherished holiday traditions and the joys of family life never will—or at least, let us hope they don’t!

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