Heading Northwest to the Farm in Oregon

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

In 1933, when I was 6 years old, my family — father, stepmother, 10-year-old sister and myself — moved from Los Angeles to a farm in Oregon. My electrical engineer father could find no work; what little there was went to younger men, and my father was already in his 40s. Forty was a lot older then than it is now! Nor could any work be found by our stepmother even though she was younger.

This was in the midst of the Great Depression, and the breadlines in the city stretched down one long block and around the corner down another. I asked my father what they were for, and he said “They need something to eat.” He explained about kitchens set up to feed hungry people a bowl of soup and some bread. His face was grim. There were mostly men in long, worn coats, but also a few women whose faded dresses showed beneath their coats, and even some children. I waved shyly to them as we passed; they waved back.

Back home we packed our clothes, household goods, pots, pans, and dishes in boxes and Daddy loaded them into a small trailer hitched to the back of the car. He covered them with a tarp, but the round, green, washing machine stuck up in one corner, the “wringer” with the two rollers off to one side. There would be no electricity at the farm, but our stepmother wouldn’t give up her washing machine! Once all was packed we said goodbye to our rented house and the furniture that had come with it, and drove away.

This seemed a great adventure to my sister and me and we sang songs and played games of looking for license plates from other states. Maybe at age 10 she had a better understanding of the circumstances than I did, but I don’t really know; hard to tell with her. She had a very annoying habit of showing off how much more she knew than I did. We sometimes pulled into a “filling station” as they were called in those days, and there was a sign with a red horse, a flying horse! And my sister said his name was “Pegasus.”

“You don’t know everything just because you’re the Big Sister,” I would say to her.

“Yes I do,” she always replied.

At night we stayed in auto courts. These all looked alike: one small room with a bed (cots brought in for children), with a bath off of it containing a toilet and sink. Between each tiny unit was a carport big enough for the cars of that day; six or more units with carports strung out in a long line. We girls thought them a lot of fun.

We drove and drove and drove … as we got farther north the air grew colder, the trees taller, and we were all getting tired and it wasn’t quite so much fun anymore. We looked for bears but didn’t see any. We did see deer. When we finally pulled into the yard in back of the farmhouse, it was raining and we had to make a run for the back door. We were greeted by our grown cousin and his wife and their two little girls: one a toddler of 2, and the baby not walking yet.

I was too little to understand how hard this must have been for the adults involved — the cousins who had been running the place for my father, the “invaders” who had nowhere else to go. The farm had been purchased by daddy and our mother (who had died after I was born) so that her parents would always have a home. But grandpa had died a few years back, and grandma had moved down the road to live with a daughter and her family. Now … well, we certainly weren’t the only families who had to “double up.”

Folks were forced to do that all across the country. Times were hard!

The farmhouse was very small: a screened back porch opening to the kitchen that held the wood cookstove; a sink with a pail beneath to catch the dishwater; cupboards; then the dining room with a big, round oak table, a crib for the baby, a little potbellied stove; a bedroom opened off the dining room on one side; and then on another side it opened to a tiny “sitting room” with a couch and the phonograph — we only had the one record with “Red River Valley” on one side and “Old Faithfull” on the other (I can still recall the “Old Faithful” lyrics: “Old Faithfull, we rode the range together. Old Faithfull, in every kind of weather. When your roundup days are over, there’ll be pastures full of clover, for you, Old Faithful pal of mine”). Off the sitting area was a set of steep stairs to the attic. That’s where we would sleep. Daddy strung a blanket across the room and our parents slept behind that with my sister and me sharing a bed right off the stairs. We had a chamber pot under our bed — after all, the cozy two-holer was outside — and each “room” had a chest of drawers with a pitcher and bowl for washing up.

Once a week we took a real bath in a copper washtub brought into the kitchen. Babies first, then me, then my sister, and then once we were in bed, fresh water was brought for the grown-ups to take baths. No idea in what order they shared the tub! That was fun for me; but a lot of things weren’t for my sister, especially Wash Day. She reminds me to this day that she scrubbed the skin off her fingers washing out my sox on a scrub board. The “real” laundry was done outdoors in those big tubs with the women poking the clothes around with long poles, wringing them out by hand, and then emptying the tubs and refilling them with more hot water for rinsing before hanging clothes to dry on rope lines. (And the electric washing machine was gathering dust in one of the sheds.) Meanwhile I might be off having fun watching the men break a new horse to the saddle or sliding down a haystack with my cousins. I was just too little to take in all the not-fun stuff.

Photo Credit: Fotolia/Mark Rasmussen

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