Living on a Self-Sustaining Farm in Mid-20th Century Virginia


CowsThis story is from Sarah Kohrs and submitted as part of our Wisdom from Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear. 

Grape-stained fingers work stealthily to separate stems from the sticky purple fruit. Jelly, from the generations-old grape vines behind the farmhouse where my mother’s father was born, is still my favorite harvest each autumn. Diligently, my mother and I savor preservation practices that she enjoyed with her own mother many years ago. A resurgence of interest in living on a self-sustaining farm is making the farming way of life seem less like work and more like real living.

For my grandparents, Olen and Anna Mae Showman, who worked an almost 100-acre self-sustaining farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in the mid-1900s, farming was a means of survival. Milking the cow, slopping hogs, gathering eggs, bridling the work horse or mule, and mending fences was a hard reality. Each day required daily chores most children nowadays consider part of the history books. Anna Mae baked bread daily, as well as washed laundry, sewed, and scrubbed floors on different days of the week. The black potbelly stove churned out more delicious food than smoke under her experienced hands. In the winter months, Anna Mae made quilts from clothing scraps while Olen sliced paths through snow for cows so that they could drink water from holes.

Beef cattle, beloved as calves, were sold to pay for expenses, kept to replace older cows by producing more offspring, or isolated in a separate lot where they were fed hearty grains and grass and nicknamed Sirloin or Porterhouse awaiting that unknown day when they would sustain the family’s health. One year when my mother, Sharon, was a teenager, two of the family’s cows had twins — a fabulous stroke of luck. Another year, one of the more docile cows, Cheera, allowed the Showman sisters to take turns riding her about the farm. The Showmans held a respectful appreciation for their animals.

My mother and father, whose parents owned a farm across the Massanutten Mountains in Page Valley, have tons of stories that I love hearing in addition to recollecting my own childhood. Growing up in the late 1980s and 1990s, my sisters and I would help our family butcher hogs — cutting up fat to make lard and cracklings, cleaning the bladder and catskins to use in stuffing sausage, etc. — every Thanksgiving. Some of the ladies would whip up delicious meals and snacks inside while many of the men and older children worked on the task at hand. Although it has been 15 years since we butchered, these memories are still fresh in my mind.

As a girl, we had few channels on the TV’s antenna, thus we spent most of our time outdoors playing in the woods. I often scampered up a maple tree in our yard and read until my legs needed Cows with Peoplestretching. Occasionally, we would help in the garden, gleaning flowers or helping dig potatoes. On days we felt bored, I would weave hot pads on a lap loom, invent some imaginative game, draw, read, or write.

8/6/2017 1:41:25 PM

My grandmother's name was Anna Mae, too.

Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 64% Off the Cover Price

50 Years of Money-Saving Tips!

Mother Earth NewsAt MOTHER EARTH NEWS for 50 years and counting, we are dedicated to conserving our planet's natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. You'll find tips for slashing heating bills, growing fresh, natural produce at home, and more. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.95 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.95 for 6 issues.

Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
International Subscribers - Click Here
Canadian subscriptions: 1 year (includes postage & GST).

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter flipboard

Free Product Information Classifieds Newsletters