Although I am just now writing this project, I've been saving ideas in a file for years. Some of the titles include "Penny Candy ", "Following the Harvest" and this one: "Hand Pumps and Hay Balers."
I was rummaging through old photo albums and scrapbooks. Somebody wanted to see a picture of me when I was in college ... that's what got me started. Anyway, I came upon a photo that was taken early in the 20th Century. In the picture is a barn, some well-diggers and a farm family. There's a little girl who is about 6 years old ... my mother ... your great-grandmother Ruth Emily Huff.
And there's the just-finished well that would be the source of life on their new farm. No water pipes and faucets in those days ... no electricity ... no gasoline engines to run tractors or cars or trucks, either. Not in 1906.
All that has changed on farms, of course. Now, the farmers have
more expensive gadgets than we city slickers do. Farmers have tractors with stereo music and air-conditioned cabs. But I can remember farm life when water still came from a well and was delivered into the kitchen with a hand pump. A person pumped and pretty soon water flowed into the kitchen sink.
There was no electricity, either. Except for a party line telephone on the wall, the typical farm home in Midwestern America in the 1930's was no different than it might have been in the 1830's. They DID have cars and trucks by then ... but they also kept horses and wagons and used them, too.
Every summer vacation of my life before World War II involved a 2-week trip to Iowa. Mom and Dad and I would visit with my various aunts and uncles ... all of whom were farmers. We would spend a few days with each of them so I got to know about farm life (a little at least). I enjoyed those vacations immensely.
On each trip there would always be one Sunday when we all got
together ... the family reunion. And that would be quite a crowd. Four aunts, four uncles, Mom and Dad and I, and a large number of cousins. Each of the wives would bring one or more items of food (in huge quantities) The boys, including me, were in charge of turning the handle on a large wooden ice cream maker. We'd take turns. When you couldn't turn the handle anymore, it was ice cream ... and ready for dessert time.
Sometime in the afternoon, there would be a drawing of names.
Each person drew someone else's name and that determined who you sent a Christmas gift to the following December.
Toward sundown, the various families would pack up and head
for home. Everyone lived generally in southeastern Iowa but most of the families were separated by 60 or 70 miles. In the days of country roads, that was a considerable distance. Besides, these were farm people who went to bed early and arose early. I always hated to see "reunion" Sunday end because it meant I wouldn't see some of them for another year.
During the weekdays, there was work to be done but somehow we also found time to do other things. My Dad liked to hunt and he would take one of the .22's (every farmer had at least one rifle) and go squirrel hunting. When he had shot enough for a meal, he and I would bring them home and they would be prepared for a meal.
Another highlight was horseback riding. The old farm horses
were very tame. (A good thing because at age 7 or 8, I was hardly The Lone Ranger or Hopalong Cassidy.) Still it was fun to ride over the farmland and go out to where the men were working. In the case of my Uncle Raymond, that could be quite a ride. In addition to their main family farm, Raymond had other parcels he farmed, too. They were all within riding distance.
My Uncle Harvey had the best horse of all ... a dark brown animal named "Nigger". Uncle Harvey named him that and meant no disrespect or hatred to any race in so doing. Far from it! Harvey and "Nigger" had one trait in common ... they were the gentlest creatures on earth. Uncle Harvey was a born-again Christian --- a Holy Roller, I think. In any event, when we stayed at Harvey and Aunt Naomi's, you can bet we had a prayer before each meal there. Saying grace was an art form with them. Harvey was not a particularly good farmer but he was a great preacher. During World War II, he finally sold his farm and moved to Burlington, Iowa where he worked in a munitions factory. He and Aunt "Nony" never lived in the country again.
Another delight was running the "cream separator". When milk
was brought in from the barn, most of it was run through a hand
cranked machine that separated the milk from the cream. Cream was sold to local dairies ... the skim milk was used to slop hogs. The separator had many metal disks on an axle. When the crank got them spinning fast enough (and I mean VERY fast), the raw milk was poured into the top of the machine and flowed down over these spinning disks. Because cream is heavier than the milk, it would be spun into an outer container leaving behind the skim milk.
I can also remember once seeing a "Threshing Party". In the
days before wheat was harvested with a combine, it was threshed with a stationary steam-powered machine. Many people had to work together, carrying the wheat stalks to the machine which then separated the grain from the chaff (the straw). It might take a day or two to harvest one family's crop with all the neighbors helping. Then the threshing machine would be moved to another farm and the neighbors would pitch in there. So it went until all the crops were harvested.
I mentioned hay balers near the beginning of this essay. It was
after the war that one of my uncles got a John Deere hay baler. It took three people to work it. One person driving the tractor that pulled it ... one person to insert baling wire ... and one person to tie the baling wire as the machine moved through the field. My uncle paid his "tying" man a penny a bale ... not bad money in those days. And so if our vacation coincided with his hay baling time, I'd work for the day or two it took to put up the hay. You had to work fast and my uncle Raymond was a "no nonsense kind of guy" and so I was very proud to be able to
do that farm job for him and do it well.
It was on one of those postwar summer vacations that I learned how to drive a tractor. That was a skill that I used years later when my college roommate and I spent one summer in the Midwest harvesting wheat.
Entertainment on the farm ... what little there was of it ... was
homemade. Some of my cousins could play the guitar. My Aunt Grace had an upright piano that she could play (mostly hymns and not very well).
The country telephone provided its own brand of amusement. My Aunt Elsie enjoyed eavesdropping on the party line. That wasn't considered a very nice thing to do but a lot of people did it, anyway.
When Dad would arrive on the scene, the men would pitch horse
shoes if time allowed. There was ALWAYS horseshoe pitching on that Sunday Family Reunion day. Dad was the best horseshoe pitcher in the family ... by far. Several different years, he pitched in a Washington, D.C. citywide tournament. Although he never won, he was generally among the four finalists.
Aunt Elsie and Uncle Tom for awhile lived in town (in Fairfield,
Iowa) Big entertainment for me there! Each evening, the Burlington Zephyr came through town. That was a very fast streamlined train. It didn't stop in Fairfield. It didn't even slow down in Fairfield. It went through about 7 in the evening and each evening someone would walk with me to the train station in the center of town so we could watch the Zephyr pass through. It not only had headlights but an oscillating light that pointed straight up into the nighttime sky. You could see it for miles. My aunt Elsie would stand in the middle of the track and watch as the headlight and that oscillating light would draw closer.
"Aunt Elsie, get out of the track," I'd beg. (Of course, the train was still about three miles away but I'd be scared anyway.) It was a FAST train and beautiful. Diesel power was just coming into vogue. And the Zephyr was diesel, all stainless steel on the outside and streamlined. I went to see the Zephyr at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry many years later. It was as pretty as I had remembered.
Fairfield offered another diversion ... the J.C. Penney store. In
the early part of the last century, some larger stores had pneumatic tubes or pulley wires to take a customer's money from the point of sale to a central cashier's office. It was in that office that the sale was registered, change made (no credit cards in those days!) , a receipt prepared and then all the whole ball-of-wax was sent back to the sales clerk and given to the customer. Try as I may I probably can't adequately describe what that operation looked like ... but it was a wonderful scene to behold. Computerized sales terminals and credit cards are much more efficient ... but they aren't half as much fun to watch.
Life on the farm began to change after the war. The Rural Elec-
trification Administration had been established by the Federal government to bring power to the farms. Eventually the power lines reached reached my aunts and uncles. Kerosene lamps were out. Electric light bulbs were in. So were radios, and all the other modern conveniences. As time passed, electric pumps were installed, water pipes were added and the old hand pump
I went back to Iowa only 3 summers after the war. By 1948, I
was in high school, doing summer jobs at home and saving money for college. Mom and Dad continued to make the summer trips but without me.
Gradually, I lost contact with my country cousins. They grew up and so did I. I returned to Iowa when my Mom died in 1980. But, of course, it wasn't the same. Our lives ... theirs and mine ... had followed such different paths that we didn't have much to share any longer. After Mom passed away there were no ties and I've drifted away completely. It's a time and place that lives only in my memory.
To my dying day, however, I will treasure those summers in Iowa ... the days of hand pumps and haybalers.