Borrowing Against Life Insurance to Save the Farm

Reader Contribution by The Mother Earth News Editors
1 / 2
2 / 2

This is the fifth story from Ruth Zwald, written by her father, Robert Zwald, and submitted as part of our Wisdom From Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear. She compiled her father’s stories in his own words, and they are posted in eight parts. Read the other parts: 1900s Farming in Washington County Minnesota; Growing Up on a Farm; Catching Frogs for Money; One Room School House; Changes in Agriculture;Courtship and Marriage and The Wisconsin Farm.

Lake Elmo
About this time (the late 1920s), things got bad on our farm, though things were never very good. There was no money. The depression was on in full swing. Banks were closing, farms were lost, and we had no money. Dad filed bankruptcy, so we rented a farm on Highway 12 (which is now I-94). We paid rent of $2.50/acre – so that was $300/year for rent of 120 acres. In 1935, we seeded 100 bushels of oats. It hailed, and we threshed out 86 bushels. That year, we couldn’t pay the last $100 rent, so we had to move. That is when we found a place in Lake Elmo with 160 acres. It was 1936. The guy wanted $600/year for rent. Dad said, “We couldn’t pay $300 – how can we pay $600?” So the bachelor there said he would leave some cows, and we took it.

We fixed up an old house where chickens and rats had been, but it was a house. It did have electricity – what a thrill – just lights, though. We paid $3.00/month for electricity. We had an open well, which we used as a refrigerator. Using a rope, we lowered food down into the well, where it was always cool. Later on, we got a refrigerator and a radio. We even got a telephone, which we were without for 12 years. I used to walk about a mile and a quarter across the field to use a phone when we lived on the Hudson Road.

In 1936, I quit high school – I had attended for one year – but my Dad got sick and I had to stay home. When we moved to Lake Elmo, we loaded up some hay on a wagon and the cows followed it for four miles to our new farm. Can you imagine that? The Salus kids (Margaret Schultz and her brothers) chased behind them. We rented the farm for 10 years, and then the bachelor died and we had a chance to buy it. It was $8000 for 160 acres – but we had no money. Dad said, “We lost one farm, that was enough.” But I was in my 20s and all I knew was farming.

When my sister had died in 1927, Dad took out a $1000 life insurance policy on me. So I didn’t listen to my dad, and I borrowed $100 on the life insurance policy. I used that money for an earnest downpayment. 

Then, the war was on and prices were good. In three years, I had paid for the farm – worked day and night – milked by hand – and hauled milk to the creamery in 5 gallon cans which I put in the trunk of the car. Milk went to $3.25 a hundred. We could count our money by $1.00 for a 5 gallon can of milk. I knew everyone who worked in the creamery and everyone who hauled milk, too.

Photos from Ruth Zwald:  (1) The Hudson Road farm before Lake Elmo. (2) 1937: Bob before the combine – notice the fly nets on horses. 

Please send email submissions to with the subject line “Elder Wisdom” or send mail to: attn: Heidi Hunt, Re: Elder Wisdom, Mother Earth News, 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609.