Growing Up on a Farm: Keeping Cows, Pumping Water And Incubating Chicken Eggs

Reader Contribution by The Mother Earth News Editors
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This is the second 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; Catching Frogs for Money; One Room School House; Borrowing Against Life Insurance; Changes in Agriculture; Courtship and Marriage and The Wisconsin Farm.    

As a kid, I followed my dad wherever he went! I was with Dad whenever I could be – in the barn, hauling milk, grinding feed, riding the old grain seeder, cultivating. I really should have stayed home when it was bitter cold and storming.

My Dad milked eight cows – not very good cows. The farm in Woodbury was a poor farm. We had no electricity. Our barn was dark and dreary, but warm with the calves, cows, and horses. We pumped water into a cistern gas engine once or twice a week, and then we had to pump it by hand into a tank in the barn. Everything drank out of that tank. It was my job to pump the water after school – I was about 8 or 10 years old. After I finished, I can remember going to sleep on the loose hay, which was pitched down from upstairs. I’d sleep until Dad finished milking. Then we would grab the lantern from a nail in the ceiling, and head into the cold house. We had to be careful with the lantern in the barn, as it burned kerosene with a wick on it. I liked the long shadows cast by the lantern. Our house wasn’t very warm in winter. We would move everything into the dining room to keep warm – dishes, stove, and all. We had two stoves, and we’d usually dress by the stove, as we kept our clothes near the stove to stay warm. We had a outdoor summer kitchen, which we used in the warm weather.

We had to carry water in and out of the house. Saturday night was bath night, with water heated on the stove. We had a round tin tub we took a bath in. You had to fold your legs to fit in the tub. Me first, then my sister (Marcella, who was five years older than me) was #2, then Mom, then Dad. Dad carried the dirty water out after he was finished with his bath.

Which reminds me – the pigs would get the water from the house that we carried out. The water was collected in a pail under the kitchen sink. This was the water from doing dishes with homemade soap. The pigs loved it.

We did our own butchering – smoked the bacon and hams, and canned the other meat in quart jars (very good). Our chicken coop was a dark, dismal place. I hated to go in it. The hens didn’t lay any eggs in the winter – it was too cold. We had a fountain with a burner under it to keep it from freezing. In summer, we stored eggs in something called “liquid glass,” – it looked like lard in a crock jar. This preserved the eggs into winter. I used to have to go outside to get in the cellar and dig the eggs out when my mom needed them for baking.

My folks had an egg incubator in their bedroom. It held about 100 eggs, which were fertilized by the roosters in the spring after the chickens were able to get outside and began to lay eggs again. The incubator was heated with a kerosene lamp, which needed steady heat for three weeks. The eggs had to be turned over everyday. The incubator had a glass front on it. I used to watch the chicks pick their way out of their shells. Now, this is a marvel – fertilized eggs to make a chicken peck through a hard shell. Which comes first – the chicken or the egg? Once in awhile, a mother hen laid her eggs in a hidden place and all of a sudden, out came a mother hen with 10 or 14 chicks. They would all hide under her wings and feathers and peek out. 

Photos from Ruth Zwald: Bob with Rex & King and Dick & Dock (1927). Bob with chick, Dick & Dock in the background (May 1927).

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.

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