Remembering Grandma's Stories of a Small Kansas Farm

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

My grandmother, Charlotte (Riley Mildfelt Thornburg) kept me entertained with tons of stories from her childhood. Her grandparents homesteaded land in Clay County, Kansas (coming from England). They were Mr & Mrs Daniel Waterman. Their daughter, Ethyl Waterman, married Winfield Scott Riley and they built a home near the Waterman homestead. The home never had any paint.

This home was a two-story home without electricity, gas or running water. The home was heated with wood. Food was cooked on a wood cook stove. They had a root cellar under the home and a cistern under the kitchen floor that collected rain water from the roof. Water from the cistern was pumped with a hand pump. Baths were taken in a tub in the kitchen and water was not dumped after each person (ewww). Dishes were first washed in lukewarm water, then set in the sink and boiling water was used for the second rinse. Perishables were preserved in a crock in lard and stored in the crawl space of the attic. Grandma Ethyl Waterman baked her own bread, and if food ran out at meal time, someone would go upstairs and get lard to be melted for the family to dip their bread into.

In the summer there was a claw tub outdoors and a large thick piece of plate glass. The tub would be filled with pumped water from the well and the glass was used like a magnifying glass to warm the water. In the winter, each kid had a brick that would be heated in the wood stove and then wrapped in a pair of old jeans to take with them to put at the foot of their beds to help stay warm. If the wind blew, snow would blow into the home through the windows. Same with dust. During the dust bowl, wet towels and sheets were pinned up at each window and stuffed under the base of the doors (every day a clean sheet would be used). The outhouse was close to the back door. Each person had a bedpan and in the winter, and the contents would freeze.

In the root cellar, apples would be carefully wrapped in a brown paper sack and could last a very long time. All food from the family garden was canned. A favorite game was called “shinnies,” or shin knees. Take an empty can and a stick and play the same rules as hockey. It was called shinnies or shin knees because it tore up everyone’s shins.

Each kid would get one new pair of shoes at the beginning of the school year. This was possible by selling one hog. When you outgrew your shoes, you wore whatever you could find or went barefoot. Even boys could wear heels if they needed shoes. Overalls were common, even for girls. Kids went to school up to the eighth grade only. Flour came in cloth bags that were used to make curtains, quilts, dresses, whatever they needed. A favorite treat was similar to funyuns, but made with hog fat somehow.

When my grandmother’s first baby died during childbirth, they had mourning in the kitchen with the baby wrapped and set on the table. She said the wild cats surrounded the house and meowed loudly and tried to get into the house (creepy). Her firstborn was delivered at home (on the farm). Her parents had four biological children and raised the four Greer children after they were orphaned. They also raised a woman with a very low IQ who became pregnant, and they also raised her son as their own. All the children were raised in a deeply religious home, but a very patient and loving one. My grandmother and the youngest Greer (Garrett Greer) were close in age and liked to make their own fun (that would be considered trouble in these times). The home they all lived in is now falling down. The roof collapsed onto the second floor, but it hasn’t changed since Grandma Ethyl died in 1966 … a time capsule. Pictures still on the wall and there’s still medicine under the kitchen sink.

Grandma Charlotte was born in 1911 and was the youngest of the four Riley children. I inherited a Kelloggs children’s book collection from when she was a young child.

Photo Credit: Fotolia/ Barbara Dudzi?ska

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