Growing Up on a Farm: One Reader’s Memories

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Growing up on farm, the author lived in a two story red brick house with six bedrooms.

In the November/December 1979 issue of THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS, John Shuttleworth–the magazine’s founder–wrote an autobiographical article called “A Report to MOTHER’s Readers: Why the Magazine Was Founded, What It Has Accomplished During Its First 10 Years, and What It Expects to Do During the Next Decade.” A large number of our readers deeply appreciated the story and the vision that John related in that unusually personal piece. In fact, some people felt such a spirit of kinship with the account’s author that they sent in long letters about similar feelings and experiences!

Well, the tributes did a lot more than keep the folks in our mailroom as busy as farmers when the sweet corn comes in … the letters also (and once again) reminded everyone here what fine people read and believe in this magazine. So to share our admiration for the “just plain folks” who’ve made this publication the effective force for change that it is today, we’re giving you a chance to read one of the many missives we received after that issue hit the stands.

Dear Mr. Shuttleworth,

I enjoyed your report on why THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS ® was born. In fact, I read the article over several times because of the truth and memories it contained.

I go back even further than you (I first saw daylight in August of 1920), and since yours was a small farm and you came from a small family, I had–in some ways–an opposite life. I was the third of ten children, and we lived on a 260-acre farm that my dad purchased from his dad and mother in southern Brown County, Wisconsin. About 90 of those acres consisted of woods, ditches, and gulleys … 30 acres were swamp (there was good timber, though) … we used 60 acres as pastureland for 25 milk cows, young stock, and eight working horses … and that left 80 acres for grain, hay, corn, and other crops. (By the way, plowing in those days was “one man, one horse, and one plow.” It was a quieter, saner life … and the work still got finished on time.)

When Dad bought our farm in 1917, the place was a complete disaster (Grandpa wasn’t much of a farmer). Gradually, my father began to patch up a building here, nail a board there, tear down whatever was beyond repair, and mend all the fences. Redoing the place was hard work, but Dad enjoyed it, and it sure provided him with lots of fresh air.

In 1930, my dad, his neighbor, and that fellow’s 12-year-old son dug a pond for our waterfowl, built a new chicken coop and duck shelter, and paved a path that ran from the house to the coop (Mom loved it). Later, Dad built a new machine shed and–in 1933–moved the farm machinery repair shop from above the pigpen to a spot behind the barn.

None of these construction projects cost very much, because Dad felled his own lumber. Each nice day throughout the winter he could be found with a team of horses carefully selecting his board trees out in the timber swamp. The cut logs were pulled into a pile and–on another day–hauled to the sawmill seven or eight miles away.

Whenever he went to the sawmill, Dad brought back some scraps of wood and several bags of sawdust along with his new boards. We stored apples in the sawdust (the fruit would last until February or March) and–for the Christmas of 1929–Dad used the odd 2 X 4’s and other pieces to make doll beds for us three girls and equally good wooden toys for my brothers. Mom sewed marble bags for the boys and doll blankets for the girls that year, too. Actually, I don’t recall having a single store-bought toy in our house for Christmas in either 1929 or 1930.

Our farmhouse–which we figured was built in the 1850’s–was a huge red brick home, complete with woodshed and two woodstoves, six bedrooms, an old-fashioned pantry with a cistern pump, and a parlor. The upstairs had a big storage area filled with Mom’s quilting frames, unused milk cans, and (in summertime) boxes of feather beds and Christmas trimmings.

We had our own supply of butternuts and hickory nuts, plus beef, pork, ducks, chickens, vegetables, and fruit … from apples to rhubarb to grapes. We had three gardens, and Mother canned about 300 quarts of food a year (including the meats she put up), so we had lots of good eating. We could go down to the cellar and bring up a complete meal: canned beef, horseradish, potatoes, carrots … and cherries for dessert. We also had our own eggs, milk, homemade butter, popcorn, and honey from four or five beehives. During the evenings we ate apples and popped corn while listening to the radio … it was a far cry from today’s leisure hours … when folks spend their time eating junk food and watching the boob tube.

When the crash of October 1929 hit, I was a fourth grader in school and nine years old. In class (we youngsters walked the three miles to a rural parochial school each day) we studied world events and saw pictures of long lines of unemployed people looking for work. Folks also read the papers and listened to H.V. Kaltenborn and Walter Winchell … we knew there were soup kitchens and long lines of hungry people, and we were very much aware that–to our own good fortune–Dad had a farm to run and we always had plenty to eat.

Foolishly, I left the farm in 1943 and began working in World War II defense plants, first at shipyards in Sturgeon Bay and then at a factory in Madison. Well, I married, lived in the capital city, had five children, and bought a small house that it took a while to pay for. There were squirrels and rabbits (wild) in the back yard … and we had beautiful flowers, a rock garden, and bird feeders. I enjoyed watching the birds feed and play.

At the death of my father in 1970, I received a small inheritance that enabled me to purchase 11 acres near Sun Prairie. Our garden is huge and our freezer full of good, organically grown food. Our orchard is still young, but the dwarf trees are already producing fruit.

So now I’ve been on the farm, in the city, and gone back to the land. How lucky can I be? I’ve really had the best of both worlds!

Marie Lehman
Madison, Wisconsin

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