While serene photos of lovely farmsteads inspire, the perception of a simple, easy life from the past may be based on wishful thinking rather than experience. While we all have some good memories of farm life, it was also a tough time in a practical sense, as our houses were built as boxes with a shell of siding on them. That shell, and perhaps a door and window, was about the only difference between the house and the barn. In other words, they were cold (or hot) and drafty. The wood pot-bellied stove was the only thing between us and frostbite. (You laugh, perhaps, but a house would drop below freezing overnight if it weren’t for the slow burn of the logs! We found anything close to this unpleasant and painful.) Many of us still live in those 100-year-old houses, although thankfully improved.
A necessary early fall activity was to cut firewood for the winter. Unlike Laura of the Little House series, we did not go off to the piney woods to find it as the two major sources of firewood were the native red cedar of Kansas and the Osage Orange hedge. Cutting the cedar was nasty due to the many-stemmed trunk, as well as the irritation of the sawdust. The trim-out was done with an ax, but was not an easy task for children. The hedge, on the other hand, was a cleaner tree to trim out if one avoided the thorns, but hedge is a very dense tree, which made cutting a difficult and time-consuming task. Cutting wood was definitely something we all had to do, each contributing something to the process. Several cords of wood were necessary for the winter, so the sawing was done by a home-built rack contraption attached to the front of the tractor, which, when lowered, would engage the rough-trimmed log with a huge saw blade mounted on the fly wheel of the tractor. About as safe as a flying chainsaw, we all learned to steer clear of the wheel and any flying debris from the rack.
Our house was typical, Midwest, farm shack. It was square with two bedrooms, a kitchen, and living room in 900 square feet. The parents slept in one bedroom and all children in the other. To keep warm, mothers and grandmothers would create quilts from heavy scraps from coats or work clothes, back it with flannel, and stuff it with cotton batting that would pull apart on the first washing, forming lumps throughout the quilt. These quilts would be piled upon the bed six or seven deep, and although they were quite warm once three kids were underneath, it was the getting under that we hated. An unheated room was cold to the bone, so the mattress as well as the quilts had to be warmed by our meager body heat.
Eventually home improvements were made, and our lot improved. The concept of insulation in homes helped on heat loss, and propane became available at the co-op, making the addition of a gas floor heater possible. While this provided us all a place to sear grill marks onto the soles of our shoes, it still was inadequate to heat bedrooms, so our quilt piles continued. A few years later a wall furnace was added, so we shed half of the quilts from our stacks, but there was never a time when adequate heat was supplied to the bedrooms to reduce the pile to a single layer. Not until we discovered the miracle of electric blankets. To this day, though, I don’t understand why we had a rule of not turning up the heat dial for fear of wasting electricity.
Old But Not Gone
Begone, big quilts. Years later, I would see old quilts in pickup trucks serving as furniture pads during a move. I would even see them providing warmth as dog beds when farmers hauled hay or feed and allowed the dog to travel with them. Old quilts found their way to the floor of the shed, to old trunks, stuffed under mattresses, and I suppose, eventually to the dump. They had served their purpose.
Over the years, I learned to quilt more intricately and dropped a goodly amount of money learning quilting skills. As I eventually made quilts for my boys, they were given with the warning that I would probably be forced to violence if they were ever used to pad furniture or warm the dog. (Use as a cozy cat-bed was an exception to the rule.)
But time has a way of making the familiar less cherished, and this year, as I was cataloging all the quilts I have made and given, I was missing a particular one made of oriental fabric. It was a lovely thing, with goldfish and large poppies and a great contrast of colors, orange and black. The missing quilt was finally accounted for with my son’s simple statement, “Oh, I know where it is.”
I waited. He shrugged. “It’s in the storage unit, covering up my motorcycle.”
You might think my self-control was lost at that moment, but it was not. I’ve learned over the years that boys have an entirely different and creative way of looking at the world. Using a quilt in this manner was a logical solution to a problem and not an intent to disrespect my work. And so my response was to acquire an air of calmness as I spoke.
“Oh, good. I’m happy to know where it is. Not many quilts get the opportunity to warm a Harley.”
Old houses, big quilts, and boys can make you a little snarky sometimes. And I do think there is some interest in seeing the many uses of a quilt. After all, a tarp clearly wouldn’t have been adequate in this situation.