Dust Bowl Days in Oklahoma

Reader Contribution by The Mother Earth News Editors
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This story is from Doris Zicafoose, submitted as part of our Wisdom From Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear.

As I look across my 88 years, I realize it has been quite an adventurous life, growing up in the Dust Bowl days in Oklahoma with a father who thought trading horses was a profitable profession. With tractors replacing horses for farm work and the Great Depression at its onset, horse trading proved to be a poor choice of occupation. What little money Dad made was never enough to keep body and soul together.

We lived on the Old Home Place, a 60-acre worn-out farm. It couldn’t grow enough crops to support a family but it was a wonderful place for children to grow up. Dad always had a cow, and we always had a garden, except in the driest years of the 1930s. Those were the hardest. I remember when mom and dad planted the garden and there was no rain, so they carried buckets of water to try to get the seeds to sprout. It must have worked because I don’t remember ever going hungry, but that spring we ate a lot of poke greens; they were a nutritious weed that grew along the fence rows and tasted somewhat like spinach.

It was challenge to live without electricity or indoor running water. Children, or even adults today, cannot imagine what a blessing an indoor bathroom can be and how wonderful it is not to have to go to the outhouse on a cold winter night.

At one time, before 1929, my dad had a dairy. One day, an ornery young cousin brought the bull in the yard and staked him near the door of the house. It was impossible for mom and us children to get out the door to get to the outhouse! Mother raised cain and, after a few hours, the bull was finally moved and we were able to go to the outhouse!

Taking a bath in the round washtub in the kitchen was the Saturday night routine. After pulling up buckets of water from the well, hauling them into the kitchen, and heating it on the old wood or coal cookstove, we all took our baths. The first person to bathe had a heavenly experience (except for lack of privacy); the last one, not so much. All water for washing clothes, dishes or bathing had to be heated on that stove and, oh, how my mother hated that stove. Because it was so hard to regulate the heat, baking was a challenge as was the pressure canner. Dad must have had good luck selling a horse when I was about 12 years old because he bought a kerosene stove. What a great improvement over the old range!

Without refrigeration, it was hard to keep food from spoiling, especially in the Oklahoma summer heat. In the spring, when there was a surplus of cream, mom would send me to a store about a half-mile away, with a half-gallon of cream or eggs to trade for sugar, oatmeal or cornmeal. If there was any money left over, I was allowed to spend 5 cents on my favorite candy bar: Babe Ruth!

There were several years when my folks bought a few baby chicks from the local hatchery. That was an exciting time for us kids! My mother made cottage cheese and baked cornbread to feed those chicks, and they thrived. When a spell of bad weather came, we had to bring the baby chicks into the house and warm them behind the stove. Thank goodness we never had more than 50 at a time!

When the chickens grew up and the pullets were ready to lay eggs, we bought chicken feed that came in printed fabric. One time I needed new under clothes and since Dad hadn’t sold a horse, there was no money to buy clothes. So my resourceful mother did the only thing she could: she sewed a pair of under panties on the treadle sewing machine using the chicken feed sack material. The problem was that the print was big black-and-white checks. Mom finally persuaded me to wear them one day, but it was awful and I threw a hissy fit (I guess I was a little spoiled!). Mother somehow managed to find suitable underclothes (she probably remodeled some of her own) so I was pacified.

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