A Cold Taste of the Hard Work That Came with the Good Old Days

Frigid 2014 Update: No Snow Day Holidays on the Farm:  On a Virginia cattle farm, life goes on even in the deep snow.

“My Mustache Stayed Frozen All Winter”

Farms may have been frost-lined playgrounds for some kids in the “good old days” (see the blog posting from Jan. 29, 2013 available at right), but many old-timers emphasize the double-edged nature of winter. Dad reminded me that Midwest farm folk of the 1930s and 40s appreciated the beauty and altered pace of winter, but the work didn’t let up. “We always had chores to do, and few places had heat. No warm tractor cabs or livestock confinement buildings. We were out in the elements. Some guys, like old Rhodes, claimed their mustaches stayed frozen most the winter.”

Winter days on the farm were dominated by activities such as collecting eggs, milking cows, or keeping the flames going in the livestock water heaters. Farmers had to carry buckets of water to tanks for the pigs or cattle. On days with the north wind howling, they unloaded corn and pitched hay while trying to keep fingers from freezing. A wrong step and they’d have a frigid mud and manure mixture seeping over the tops of their 5-buckle boots.
Winter was a good time to prepare for summer. Dad tells of an old neighbor named Martin who said, “When I was a kid in the late 20s, my brothers and I sawed chunks of ice from our pond, hauled them to the farm, and stored them in an icehouse for use in the summer. Not many families had their own icehouse. We even had a bobsled to use when snow got too deep for the high-wheeled wagon.”
According to another neighbor, Stella, the cold months were a good time to “bring home the bacon” for later months–“Mom and grandma worked one entire winter day cooking, canning, and storing beef and pork.” Dad agrees that winter was butchering time, since sides of beef and pork could be hung in crib alleys and remain cool.  As he says, “We hung pork on the sleeping porch until it was cut and stored. Neighbors usually got together to smoke hams and bacon.”
Of course winter meant house chores too. Most farm homes were heated with wood stoves and kitchen ranges that were fired up with coal if you could afford it, wood if you had enough, and maybe corn cobs if you had to. Mom recalls the hard work involved–“Kids picked up the cobs in the feedlot after hogs had eaten the kernels. Women had to be skilled at regulating oven heat with such varied fuel sources.”
Even daily routines were affected by the cold. Kids often got dressed near the stovepipe running through their bedroom—if they even had that. Thelma lived first on a farm and then in a nearby small town. She used to tend cattle during the day and try to warm up in a drafty home at night–“Upstairs bedrooms weren’t heated, and outhouses were a long, cold walk from the front door. We didn’t drink much before bedtime, and most bedrooms had a slop jar.” 
Old-timers don’t talk of those winters without mentioning blizzards, such as the 1940 Armistice Day Storm. “We quickly rounded up the cattle, except two missing calves,” said local farmer Otto. “When we finally located them, we put ‘em in the back seat of the car, and then kept them in our basement until the storm passed.” Others reported chickens frozen while perched in trees, and one farm operation lost 900 of 1,000 turkeys.
But it wasn’t all work. As Dad says, “Kids played in the snow, families organized card clubs, and some farmers went hunting. Grandpa Earl used a trained ferret to flush rabbits out of their dens. Occasionally dancing neighbors gathered, and they rolled back the rug, tuned up the violin, and played piano for the dancers. Barn dances brought in a wider assortment of musical instruments, and sometimes a bootlegger or two would show up.”
During my teen years, I experienced the winter chore routine, but technology had improved the situation by the time my generation grabbed pitchforks and tractor wheels. However, I did get a taste of the old routine even as a toddler. When I was two or three years old, I rode in the pickup truck with Dad as he moved feed into the frozen cattle lot. I was young enough to stand on the seat, and somehow I leaned on the handle of the old Chevy pickup door and ejected myself head first out of the stationary truck. Normally the straw and manure would have offered a soft landing, but the sub-freezing temps meant I face-planted on manure as hard as concrete. 
The faded scars under my chin are reminders that when you leave the farm, it might not only be your boots that have memories still stuck to them. And they also keep me aware that when it comes to farming, winter wonderlands can have a hard edge to them too.  by dan gogerty (outhouse photo from mymobilehomemakeover.com; farm photo from iasoybeans.com)

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