A Great Life – Unplugged

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Our barnyard, back when we lived on the old home place.
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Plowing with horses gave way to using ever-improving tractors.
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Plowing with horses gave way to using ever-improving tractors.

I feel lucky that I grew up in the late ’30s and ’40s when everyone in the family played a part in running our farm in upstate New York. We learned responsibility very early, for we each had loads of chores to do. When I was 5, one of my jobs was keeping the wood box by the kitchen stove filled so my mother could cook the meals without interruption. At one end of the stove was a reservoir to heat water. Above the stove top were two compartments for keeping food warm, and beneath, a good-sized oven. In summer we started up the stove early in the morning, cooked as much of the meals for the day as could be done ahead, then let the fire go out during the heat of the day.

I remember well my parents making ice cream in the old hand-cranked freezer for Sunday dinners during the warm summer months. My mother made and cooked the custard mixture on a Saturday night. The next day, after we children came home from Sunday school, my father crushed a block of ice and put the chips and the right amount of rock salt all around the metal canister in the wooden bucket. He attached the crank to the top of the canister and kept adding ice and salt as needed while he cranked. My dad also had to make sure the salty water could escape from the bucket when it reached the drain hole drilled at the right height in the bucket. If the hole plugged up, the salty water would seep into the ice cream where the top fitted over the metal canister. We knew the ice cream had become firm enough when it became too hard to crank. How we enjoyed “licking and spooning” the dasher after it had been pulled out of the ice cream!

We also needed ice to keep food cold in our old ice box. Though electricity arrived in the community when I was 3, we continued to use the ice box until I was 5. The top lifted up to reveal a compartment where we put the blocks of ice. A pipe ran down through the ice box to a drip pan on the floor beneath to catch the water from the melting ice.

In addition to making cheese and churning butter, my mother and my two sisters, both older than I, did a lot of canning. We had no freezer at the time – nor did anyone else in the community. When the sweet corn was ready for picking, my father arose early to pick 300 to 400 ears, which he brought to the back lawn. Two neighbor women, whom my mother always invited to share in the bounty, arrived early to help with the canning. We took two tables to the back lawn where the women and my sisters cut the kernels off the cobs and placed them into large pans. When the pans were full, the women packed the corn into quart Mason jars and placed the jars in water baths. The jars steamed in the baths on the stove for a few hours until all the tops were sealed. At the end of the day, the quarts of corn, enough to last the winter, were equally divided among the three women. Later in the fall, we all picked crab apples for making jelly.

When my brother Ralph and I grew old enough, we helped our father and older brother Bob hoe all kinds of vegetables. It was a real treat for the two of us, when we reached our early teens, to be allowed to cultivate with our horse, Dolly. I generally rode Dolly after we harnessed her to the row cultivator while Ralph walked behind to keep the cultivator even to the row. We used horses to mow hay, work with the hay loader, rake the hay, plant corn, and do many other jobs. We left them unshod because the fields and roads consisted of soft sand.

My father had an old iron-wheel tractor – a 10-20 International. He sometimes plowed with it but used it mostly in the woods where he cut logs every year to pay for the land taxes. In 1948, we purchased our first new tractor – a small one that cost $650. It had a mowing machine, cultivator and a plow. In 1950, we purchased another new tractor – a C Farmall that cost $1,200. That was the beginning of the end of using horses and the iron-wheel tractor. My father gave the horses to a neighbor and traded the old tractor off for a hay loader. By 1953, most of the workhorses and iron-wheel tractors were gone in the area where I lived.

But the cows lived on! There was always and forever the relentless, inevitable, twice-a-day chore – milking. We milked the cows by hand for what seemed like ages until, in 1951, we purchased a Surge milking machine. That made milking cows a lot easier even though the machine meant additional equipment to wash and sterilize. I could not foresee then that when I grew to adulthood I would own a much larger dairy farm near Whitehall, New York, where, shortly, bulk milk tanks would replace the old milk cans, large tractors with cabs would become standard, and the barns would grow in size to accommodate ever larger herds of cows. Pipelines, milking parlors, feeding lots and silo hay storage also became dairy essentials.

Even with all the work we did, we had time for play. Sledding, snowballing, wading in streams, playing Indian and cowboy, organizing impromptu ball games and building tree huts in the woods. On weekend evenings, we popped corn, ate homemade fudge, played board games, and read or listened to Popeye, Superman and The Lone Ranger on the radio. When one of my sisters learned to drive, she took Ralph and me to the movies almost every Saturday evening. Movie tickets cost 10 cents!

After our one-room school closed for the summer, one of our most appreciated pastimes was going for a swim in Big Creek just over a mile away. Local children, when old enough, experienced a proud moment and a real thrill when they took their first plunge from the road overpass to the swimming hole many feet below. No adults supervised the swimming hole or the playground in those days but there were always older girls who acted as guardians of the young, both at school and at the swimming hole.

I haven’t lived in Gum Spring for 50 years, but I remember it as if it were only yesterday – with its rolling farmland and wooded countryside. During my infrequent trips through the area today, I have noticed that the old roads, where once we had known the friendly waves and horn toots of nearly everyone who drove by, have become busy lanes on which locals compete with unknown drivers in fast-moving, unfamiliar cars. All the farms in the community but one are gone now; only a half-dozen old farmhouses still stand. Instead, hundreds of new houses and manicured lawns sprawl over the acreage where one’s memory still paints pictures of old barns, standing crops of corn and hay, and meadows dotted with grazing cows. As I look back, I wish they all could experience my boyhood days when farming meant closer family ties and a simpler way of life.

Kenneth S. Woodruff now lives in Whitehall, New York, retired from dairy farming after 40 years. He currently inspects dairy farms for the National Farmers Organization, a group seeking to improve farm prices. The group’s Web site is www.NFO.org.

The McCormick-International Harvester Collection, which is housed at the Wisconsin Historical Society, contains millions of documents and photographs pertaining to the McCormick family, IH and the companies that merged to form it. The tractor images accompanying this story are part of that collection and were originally taken in color. For more information on the Historical Society, visit the Web site, www.WisconsinHistory.org; call (608) 264-6460; or write or visit, 816 State St., Madison, WI 53706-1417.