Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
This story is from Aline Sansome, submitted as part of our Wisdom From Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear.
One lesson I learned: You never go hungry on a farm.
It may have been very hard on the grown-ups involved, but we kids were ecstatic. It was paradise! Babies to play with, not only in the house but in the barn, the pig pen, the chicken house! Horses to ride when they weren't busy elsewhere, pulling the hay wagon or plowing a field. Hills and valleys and creeks and meadows and pastures to explore. And cousins to play with. We literally had “cousins by the dozens” as nearly every farm within riding distance was owned by a relative of our dead mother. Once we had crossed Three Mile Creek, then up a hill filled with wild flowers, and onto a usually empty road, we caught the school bus — filled with our cousins. Kids then went to school in town, but there was an old abandoned one-room school not too far from our place where a boy cousin found a geography book left behind with our mother's name written in it. She had printed her name, written her name, in many styles and places in that old book. I still have it on my bookshelf today.
The kitchen in our farmhouse had a monster stove: it had a holding tank for hot water on one side, a warming oven above to keep the pancakes or just-baked biscuits warm until we all sat down at the big, round table in the dining room — the same table we all gathered around in the evenings when a kerosene lamp was placed in the middle so we kids could do our homework, the men read the paper and the women do the mending. Neither my sister nor I have much recollection of the meals we ate back then, although we can't forget the fried chicken and corn on the cob! The garden and the well were down a steep slope and there was a ladder pressed into the side of it to serve as steps. We must have grown the “usual” vegetables there, as there were jars and jars and jars in the root cellar under the farmhouse full of veggies and fruits and meats. We both remember when we were plunked down on the front porch with bowls in our laps and a gunny sack full of peas for us to shell. When we finished one sack another would be brought up. Neither of us could face a can of peas for years to come!
A lot of the jars held fruit, as this was Orchard Country. We had cherries and apricots and peaches, but mostly cherries. 'Bing' and 'Royal Anne'; 'Lambert' and 'Black Republican' — a variety I have never heard of since. I remember that the ones cracked by the rain were sent to a plant that made Maraschino cherries. All the rest went to the local co-op for shipping. This was the “main crop” of the farm, the main source of actual money. The "leftovers" were then home-canned. When picking time came, everyone picked: the grown-ups, big kids, little kids. Local American Indians were hired to help and “Indian Annie” and the two small grandsons she was raising were regulars. The boys were about my age and sometimes we eyed each other, wanting to go play, but there was no time for that when the fruit was ripe. We were told not to eat the cherries as we picked, but of course we did, cramming as many into our greedy little mouths as we could! One downside: since we went barefoot all summer (shoes were for school), we got something called “dust poisoning” and our feet were red and sore and we had to soak them every night in Lysol. This stung! I was a woman with grown children before it dawned on me that this malady might have been caused by the insecticide that was being used for the first time back then, with the residue seeping into the ground under the trees.
We were also told not to make pets of the calves but naturally we did that too. And one day we were walking home from the school bus to find our latest “pet” strung up on a scaffold for butchering. I cried and cried and my stepmother said grimly, “Well, you don't have to eat him,” but I suppose I did. Eventually.
We had lots of calves because we had six cows in the barn and milk and cream was sold to a creamery in town. And that, along with the fruit crops, meant money! Money for shoes, money for seeds, for anything that couldn't be raised on the farm: coffee, sugar, salt…
The women would mutter under their breath when they had to wash and then replace the million (or so it seemed to me) parts to the cream separator. But the cows meant milk for us, cream for the adults’ coffee, butter and buttermilk. Extra went to the chickens and hogs. The women canned, not just veal, but chickens, too. And the pigs provided bacon and ham and sausage. Did I mention one never goes hungry on a farm?
So today, at age 84 (in case you haven't bothered to do the math), I still have a garden, plan to add chickens and am contemplating a mini-cow. Times are, after all, getting hard once more! And you never go hungry ... oh. I think I already said that.
When I phoned my sister (we live in different states, both widows living alone, so we talk every week — sometimes for hours!) I mentioned the farm. She recalls it fondly but she is a city girl. I told her that morning I had brought in chard, green onions, the first tomatoes.
She said, “You know, they have places, you may have heard of them? Where you can buy vegetables in little boxes — ”
“Mine are organic,” I interrupted.
“ — organic vegetables in little boxes,” she went on without missing a beat, “so all you have to do is put them in your freezer.”
“What fun would that be?” I asked. “You don't know everything just because you're the Big Sister,” I told her.
“Yes I do,” she said.
Photo Credit: Fotolia/Delphine Debressy
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