Learning From the Past: Adventures in Farm History, Part 3

Reader Contribution by Joy Lominska
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This piece is Part Three of a four-part series, detailing how the author discovered the history of her organic fruit and vegetable farm. Read the first installments on how she began tracing the history of her farm and the immigrant stories of one the farm’s early owners.

One of the treasures that I received from Fredericka was an account book kept by her grandparents. Spanning the years from 1890 through 1896, it included every expenditure and source of income for the farm. Combining this with the state census, which lists crops and livestock on every farm, I was able to get a good picture of how the Bruchmiller family made a living on a small hill farm.

By the beginning of 1890, the Bruchmiller family had ten members: Otto was 47, Augusta 35, Anna 18, Carl 16, Lizzie 13, Emma 12, Herb 10, Dollie 7, Vera 6 and Trudie was 4 months old.  Otto and Augusta had purchased the forty acres directly across the road, making an eighty acre farm. How did they feed and clothe ten people from an eighty acre farm? In 1890, a fairly average year for the farm in terms of income, this is what the Bruchmillers sold:  267 ½  dozen eggs, 456 ½  pounds of butter, $7.50 of chickens, $51.17 of apples (including some sold in January that had been harvested in 1889), $33.24 of vegetables, plus strawberries, blackberries, rhubarb, vinegar, sauerkraut, rags, popcorn, five hogs and one cow. Their  income for the year was $483. The list of vegetables they sold that year includes: potatoes, cabbage, cucumbers, beans, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips and onions. And don’t forget — $0.70 worth of peach pits. (Why, you may ask, would one sell peach pits? I believe they were used in the production of cyanide.) When you factor in what the family would have consumed, they must have produced 15 to 20 pounds of butter each week. To sell 262 ½ dozen eggs, plus feed ten people, there must have been a flock of at least fifty laying hens.

Tracking the farm through the decades on the state census, from 1885 to 1915, I was able to see some farm trends. Early on, the Bruchmillers planted several kinds of grain — wheat, corn, rye, barley, oats, buckwheat and millet. Gradually, some of the grains declined in acreage or were dropped, leaving corn and oats at the primary grains. The oats fed the horses and mules, and were sold for seed, and the corn fed the pigs and chickens. The butter and cheese production increased through the years, indicating that there were more cows on the farm. By 1895, butter, fruit and hogs provided a large portion of the family income. In years when fruit production was poor, like 1892, the family had to make up for the lost income by selling more cheese and increasing the laying flock. When a large sum of money was needed for a major house addition, hogs were sold and building supplies purchased with the money. In the 1895 census, the Bruchmillers reported 43 swine.  This was a pretty typical practice in the area: raise cows, sell butter, feed the buttermilk to pigs, sell the pigs.

Some of the expenditures of the farm I expected: cloth, canning supplies, axes, milk pails. Some purchases surprised me: a sewing-machine needle, gasoline, electric belt (what was that for?).  Some pleased me because of what they revealed about the family: six different newspapers, Youth’s Companion, Lady’s Companion — this family liked to read! 

The family seemed to be doing relatively well during this time. They added to the house a parlor, another bedroom and a large new kitchen. Three stoves warmed the rooms, including at least one that burned coal, and there were three porches outside. Photos show a fence around the yard, flowers, a cistern with a pump near the back porch and a well-cared-for family dog.

There was sadness, too. Vera died at age 12 in 1895. The account book trails off about 6 months after her death. Then in 1898, Augusta died suddenly of a heart attack, at age 44. Lizzie took over the household duties, helping to raise Trudie and perhaps giving up plans of her own. One by one the children dispersed, all marrying except for Lizzie and Dollie. Otto and Lizzie remained on the farm with Trudie, and when Trudie married the boy next door in 1910, she and Arthur began to take over the farm work from Otto. The farm was nearing the end of its Bruchmiller years. 

Continue on to read about how the farm became a modern organic vegetable farm.

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