Opinion Columns & Blogs

Farm family’s life on the prairie was pretty basic

On the subject of transformation while getting old, one benefit is that you can look back and compare things to the way they used to be.

So much has changed. When I was young growing up on the prairie, I thought we were pretty progressive at the time. I had no idea how primitive we were, so I thought I’d revisit a few details of my Cro-Magnon lifestyle.

I’ll begin with the subject of food, which was cooked on a stove by a fire that had to be started before each meal. Our grocery shopping list was pretty short because we arranged or prepared for just about everything we ate, such as meat, eggs, bread, milk, corn and the like.

We’d churn our own butter, grind wheat for cereal, fry chickens and once in a while crank out ice cream. Sugar, salt and flour were a few of the staples we depended on from the store, and if there were any byproducts from those items – like a flour sack or a wood crate – we made certain they were put to good use.

The newspaper came on Sundays, and since most families at the time were large, a pecking order was the rule as to who was first in line for the funnies. Sears and “Monkey” Ward catalogues were the source of bathroom tissue in the outdoor privy, with the machinery pages the first to go. There was no such thing as running water, electricity or telephones, and everyone drank water stored in a cream can while using the same dipper.

In the evenings, we all sat around in front of the radio together for the ritual of listening to Henry Aldridge, Major Bowe’s Amateur Hour, Amos ‘n Andy, Fibber McGee, the Shadow and news of the war before turning in.

A few times a year, we’d go to the “show.” I never heard the term “movie” until I was in college. The scripts were much more conservative then. There was no obscene language, and the love scenes were controlled. A kiss was crisp, proper – not the amatory liposuction you see today.

Hanging in the front window was the ever-present star announcing a family member in the service: a silver one if he were living, gold if he wasn’t. Sadly, our silver star turned to gold.

But back to food. When winter began, farmers would gather for butchering pork. This meant scalding the carcass in a barrel of boiling water, then placing it on a table to scrape the bristles away before sectioning. Raymond Doherty was one of the farmers. Raymond had a serious drinking problem. One day he fell during the scraping process. This brought a plethora of taunting from the other farmers, but the resolute Raymond insisted the hog had kicked him,

One highlight of all this ceremony involved young boys and the pig bladder. It created a plaything that represented more than resembled a football. The downside was the makeshift sphere wouldn’t stay inflated very long, and nobody wanted the distasteful job of blowing it up. Farmers weren’t outfitted with air compressors back then.

The processed meat was salted down and placed in storage for future consumption. Tubes of sausage packed in entrails or stockings hung from eaves of the smokehouse. The excess fat was rendered in a cauldron and mixed with lye for the production of soap. It wasn’t delicate or fragrant, but it did clean.

We farmed with horses, and I can still remember the dull look in the horse’s eyes when Dad threw on the harness. We sold milk. It was everyone’s duty, except for my mother, to help in the milking.

Our first refrigerator ran on kerosene. It wasn’t pleasant smelling either, but it worked. I wondered then, and still do, how heating something can make things cold.

The farmer’s reputation then was, very accurately, a hard life, but not anymore. Now he has it pretty soft. He has electricity, running water, supermarkets, tractors, telephones, television – and even air compressors.

Al Bartlett of Gig Harbor, a retired teacher and farmer, is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Email him at albert.bartlett@comcast.net.