by David K. Wright
Time can change so much.
This is a story that, for one reason or another, has always gotten my attention. It involves an element of time and the changes we, as Americans, have experienced.
I recently read a brief history of my wife’s father’s family written by an uncle named Arno. He put it together, I believe, so future generations could get an idea for how life moved on a Wisconsin farm from 1918 to 1945.
For Arno, life started in 1916 and for Ann’s father, Alvin, in 1922. Reinhold was the middle brother. Please understand this is only 100 years ago, and much of it more recent. While it is not possible to relate the entire story, I will attempt to offer the gist of it.
They lived in a five bedroom late Victorian home their parents built on the farm ground in Johnsonville around 1910. One room was used for storage of clothing and food. The only heat in the house was the cook stove in the kitchen, the rest of the uninsulated home was unheated. This included the bedrooms, which Arno mentioned had snow in them after a big blow as it worked its way in through the window cracks and keyholes. The attic was used, in the winter, to store raw meat as it never got above freezing. There was no electricity, no running water, and light was only from kerosene lamps.
As near as I can tell, this setting was the same until after the war when the New Deal brought in rural electrification. He wrote, “Farm children had to do chores long before they were old enough to go to school. Since farm mothers had to help with farm work much of the time, we farm children had to do the easy work like setting the table, washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, bringing in the water from the well outside, pumping well water for the cattle and horses, feeding the calves and pigs, etc.” He implied this began at somewhere around five years of age, maybe younger.
Arno related a strange job while six years of age. He was given two firecrackers and two matches and then walked to the end of the far cornfield. Once there, he ignited the crackers to scare off the crows who were working their way down the rows eating planted seeds.
As they got older, say eight to ten-years-old, they were required to help with most of the heavy work on the farm all of which was hard and dirty. In a moment of reflection, he mentioned that one way of entertaining themselves was to count the number of times they could work the hand pump before they were exhausted. Other times they would watch the clock to see how fast they could milk a cow – by man-power of course. The fields were weeded by hand and the children would be rewarded with an extra piece of pie if they pulled so many hundreds of weeds.
He recalled being entertained by climbing trees and building small forts in the woodlot. In the summer, when time was available, they would head for the pond to swim, the boys separated one quarter-mile from the girls, as no one had a bathing suits.
They largely walked to school, particularly in the winter when the cars were put on blocks because the roads were not plowed. “There was a big hill on the way to school and when I was in 1st and 2nd grade I remember getting stuck in the deep snow on the hill. A neighbor boy who was in 7th or 8th grade would take me by the hand and drag me up the hill, sliding me on my belly.” Arno recalled the temperature being below zero for many days in a row and when they went to school, they all had to thaw out their fingers, toes and noses.
Arno mentions that in 1st grade he never learned anything because the teacher spoke a different language (English). His second year they had someone they could understand (German). The children were obviously all bilingual because they all attended confirmation classes in German until 14. I might add this proved useful later in life.
Arno related an interesting event at the Protestant church. “I recall a bunch of us peaking around the church walls while they were burying someone in the cemetery to see if we could see the “so-called soul” go up to heaven as they put dirt on the coffin.” He did not mention the results.
In going over this history, I recall all three brothers both telling me one of their first outside jobs was driving a team of horses for a dollar a day – and that had to be in the late ’20s to the late ’30s – not that long ago.
In reflecting back he marveled how his parents had purchased 80 undeveloped acres where they had to build everything, and tend the two horses and a few milk cows. “There was never time for parents to play with children. During the day she would put me in a basket and take me out to the corn fields where my parents were hoeing the weeds. She would put me in the shade of a fence post and hoe another two rows. On her return, she would move me to the next fence post. When I was old enough to walk, they gave me a small hoe so I could help.”
One of the more interesting statements in this only partially related story was this. “After considerable thought, I can’t remember any really enjoyable times with my parents that seem special. I saw nothing enjoyable helping my mother clean out the barn and pushing a wheelbarrow up a slippery plank to dump it in a pile.” He went on, “At night our parents were so exhausted from a day’s work they fell asleep at the dinner table.” Sundays were the only reprieve when they would see cousins at church.
He also mentioned a tragic story of seeing an accident with a gun. A young bride, unfamiliar with a gun, discharged a 22 and killed her father-in-law as he worked on the Model T. Arno clearly, to this day, was shaken by that.
What we have here is a short recap of a family’s life from 1918 to 1935 at which time Arno went off to high school, which in those days was a rare experience. Of course, while in high school, some eight and one half miles away, he still had to do farm work, all of it in the manner just described. By then, his other two brothers including Alvin, my wife’s father, and Reinhold were now experiencing the toil of farm work as well. Alvin was also able to go to high school.
The part of this that amazes me is life for them did not really change much until the war. It was a drudgery that can hardly be imagined today. They did it, they became good people and interestingly to me, their lives did not really change much until the day I was born in 1943 – and not because I was born, it was just a timing thing. They had been living on the farm, struggling, succeeding and becoming good citizens. Their story was little different than it had been for the previous 100 years. Yes, I am sure at some point in the ’40s they got a tractor and more cows and machinery, but still – no electricity, no running water. By our modern view, this setting was “primitive, rustic, and backward” but it was that way all over rural America.
Both Arno and Alvin, the backward farms boys who drove horses, went on to the University of Wisconsin. Alvin later flew the plane pictured above, and fought in three wars (one as a spy, using that German language I mentioned). He left us only a few years ago.
Arno, yah, Arno the man who wrote the memories, the man who shoveled manure and didn’t enjoy it but did it, became a physicist and worked on the Manhattan project (also using the German). Reinhold stayed on the farm that is now a modern multi-million dollar operation filled with digesters and robotics. How can all this be?