With so many people preparing to survive economic depression as previous generations did in the 1930s, I wonder about our “advancement” since that humble time.
Over the years, I’ve talked to many elderly, country folks who gave little thought to the Great Depression. Perhaps it was because they were children at the time. But, I think their contentment during those hard times was because of their families’ self-reliance. Their root cellars were full, water was free and trading among neighbors was a way of life.
Another vast difference is that most rural areas didn’t have electricity in the 1930s. In fact, many areas were not electrified until the mid-1950s. As such, country folks did much of their work by hand, grew and preserved their own food, and relied heavily on horsepower and each other. Their skills were not limited to one trade. On any given day, a farmer could find himself as a carpenter, veterinarian, plumber and mechanic – using mainly human-powered tools.
When electricity, inexpensive fuel and motorized equipment reached everyone, those old treadle sewing machines, galvanized wash tubs, hand-operated push mowers, kerosene lamps, hand pumps and all manner of non-electric tools and appliances were tossed in the city dump. Horse-drawn farm equipment was left to rust behind barns or, worse yet, hauled to the front yard to be adorned with petunias.
Americans migrated by the millions to the suburbs where they could mow 3 acres of grass every Saturday before driving 30 miles to the supermarket for some corn dogs, potato chips and year-round watermelon.
Compared to many nations, we Yankees are ridiculous – turning up the heat in winter so we can take off our sweaters, and then turning down the air-conditioner in summer so we have to wear jackets indoors in July. We had enjoyed decades of a seemingly unending supply of cheap fuel, plentiful food and clean water, and many of us simply never practiced conservation.
Of the two dairy farms I grew up between in the 1960s, the family to the north had 9 kids; the other to the south had 12. My friend, Janet, was second youngest among her clan, behind five brothers and two sisters. I remember only once seeing Janet in new clothes – two cotton summer suits her sister made in home economics class. The chest freezer in Janet’s huge kitchen was as big as a ’69 Beetle Bug and packed to the top with homegrown veggies and bread.
To the south, Rosemary was the baby in her family of mostly girls. She never had a new dress or shoes. Our parents did not have air-conditioners, leaf blowers or jet skis. The funny thing is, looking back, none of us considered ourselves poor. Money was scarce, but food was not.
I especially loved eating supper at Rosemary’s house in summertime. After helping bring in the cows for milking, we’d devour plates of homemade bread smothered in warm applesauce, pitchers of fresh-from-the-cow milk and strawberries. The kids lined long benches on both sides of a 10-foot table, but there was always room for one more.
Our parents never paid any heed to a food pyramid. We simply ate an abundance of whatever was in season. Many August meals were only of corn on the cob as big as our forearms. Butter dripped from our elbows, and we thought there could be no better dinner anywhere.
My mother made raspberry jam in a kettle big enough to boil half a hog. At other times, the same kettle held squirrel stew, pickle brine, tomatoes to can or wild hickory nuts to shell. I could not say so then, but admit now that I do not care to eat raccoon, our main winter meat back then. But, because big, fat Wisconsin coon hides brought $35-$40 each in the 1970s, we scoured the woods for them nightly. The greasy meat was merely a byproduct we did not waste.
Still, although many of us ate from the land and lived by the motto “waste not, want not,” most of our tools and household items functioned on electricity and that cheap fuel I mentioned. Reversing that way of living will not be so easy. Our lives have been built around power and mobility. Who among us can sharpen (or even use) a crosscut saw, make lye soap (without store-bought ingredients), build a cistern or cut grain with a scythe? Only those who are 60+ seem to recognize what a well bucket is or have experience hand-pumping water.
While we are growing as much food here as possible in every season with our saved seeds, heating with wood we cut, and can get water without electricity, we still are on the grid – although working steadily at pulling the plug.
I have seen others, however, invest tremendous energy (and much money) converting to wind or solar systems in an attempt to keep their same comfort level off grid. That is rarely possible. Many, too, are building stills to keep their chainsaws, lawnmowers and roto-tillers going. While I admire their ingenuity, I believe we need to also teach our children not to rely on alternative energy, but to do things by hand. Long before the Industrial Revolution, societies flourished worldwide, built by human muscle.
I am thankful now for the experience of living from the land as a youngster, which has proven useful as we relearn to live frugally and without power. I’m not cooking any coon, though, and have a long way to go before I can run a household as efficiently as Great-grandma did.
Photos from Linda Holliday collection
Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid, and invented the WaterBuck Pump.