Part Four - Farm Life

Thefirst of March came, and it was moving time again. We moved onto the Smith Place March 1, 1929. This place was north and east of Mankato and was quite a distance to move. I do not remember this move; however, I do recall several incidents which happened while we lived there. The orchard, if it could be called that, was a considerable distance north of the house. It was reached by a long lane, fenced on both sides, which ran between the pasture and a field of kaffir corn. Along the edge of the orchard was a row of large hackberry trees. Sis and I made our playhouse under those trees. We spent nearly the whole summer that year playing under those trees. Sis made her playhouse by laying sticks and boards on the ground to outline the rooms. Then she gathered boxes for furniture and tin cans, broken china and bits of colored glass for cooking utensils and dishes. I realize now that her playhouse was at least ninety percent imagination, but it was fun. She did have a couple of store-bought dolls. I did the man things. That is, I built fences from carpet rags stretched out on sticks pushed into the ground. I built log outbuildings with cornstalks. I would take clovis pins and tie them to a match box for a team and wagon, used clay marbles for pigs, picked hackberries for chickens, plum seeds for turkeys and gathered a few black stones from the creek bed for cows. Now, this took some imagination, too. Since it was a considerable distance from the house to the playhouse, we often hitched old Zion to the buggy and drove him to the playhouse. We had a neighbor, Billy Files, who lived on the other half of the section. His farm bordered ours on the east side. Both he and his wife were of Dutch descent and were short, fat people. Their ways were different from ours, so we thought them odd, and we kids were a little afraid of them. Billy talked to Dad and made arrangements for us kids to chop the sunflowers out of forty acres of Billy's corn. Since Sis and I both wanted a bicycle, it was agreed that Mr. Files would get us one when we finished the job. We cut the sunflowers, but we never got the bicycle.

     When the corn had been gone over by the corn disk twice and then been plowed with the cultivator, it was said to have been “laid by,” meaning the working of it was finished until picking time. As the sunflowers growing in the row next to the cornstalks were often not killed by the machine cultivator, it was necessary to go over the corn and cut them down by hand. This was usually done with a hoe or a large rectangular knife called a corn knife. Sis and I spent several weeks that summer cutting sunflowers in that cornfield. As was usual with us, when we had a job we didn't enjoy, we made a game of cutting the weeds. Whenever we found an unusually large sunflower with a large flower on it, we would strip the leaves off the stalk, leaving only two leaves below the flower. This made the sunflower look something like a man. The flower represented the face and the leaves were the arms and hands. Then we would name it someone we didn't like, usually Kaiser Bill, and then cut it down. One time we found an especially large, mean sunflower. After it was all prepared for the final act, I took an exceptionally hard swing to cut it down. My hands were wet with perspiration, and the knife slipped out of my hand and hit Sis' leg about halfway between the ankle and knee, cutting a large gash in her leg. Again, the scorched cloth, turpentine and Vaseline did the job. By the time the sunflowers were all cut, her leg was nearly healed. Mother did exceptionally well with the turkeys the year we lived there. That year at Christmas time, we got a Gramophone. It was an RCA Edison. We also got several records. Most of them were by a classical singer named McCarthy. One, I remember especially, was a song about World War I – “We don't want the bacon, what we want is a piece of the Rhine! We'll crown old Kaiser Bill with a bottle of Budweiser -- Oh! We'll all have a wonderful time!”

     Charles graduated from high school the spring we moved onto that place. The years of 1928 and '29 were good years, and we had exceptionally good crops. The folks decided they needed a car. Dad went to Mankato to look at cars. Mead Beardmore, the Buick dealer, sold him a Buick Master touring car. It had a straight-eight engine, wood wheels about thirty inches high and acres of chrome. It was painted bright red with a tan top and wheels. Most cars of that day were black or very dark green. It also had red leather upholstery. It was about the length of two wagons. It had four doors. When you were to sit in the back seat, you entered one of the back doors and actually walked toward the back to reach the seat. After the rear seat was filled, there were two little seats that folded up out of the floor to accommodate two more passengers when necessary. It was advertised as a seven-passenger car. This car soon found a place in Dad's heart, immediately following the places occupied by Mother and his horses. I know that Dad never realized how much his love of that car was to affect me. The first trip the family made in the old red Buick was to Charlie's graduation. There was five miles of unimproved yellow clay road between home and the high school in Mankato, where he was to graduate. The graduation was to be held in the evening and Charlie was to be there by 7 p.m. As is usual there in the spring, it rained about thirty-six hours before the graduation time. The roads became a bottomless quagmire of sticky, yellow mud.

     Mother and Dad wanted Charlie to ride a horse to town so that he would be sure of getting there, and the family could come later in the wagon. Charlie insisted they take the car and all go together. He finally won. So after the side curtains were sorted out and affixed, we all piled in and started out in the rain. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday best. Mother and Dad and Charlie were in the front seat, and the other five kids were in the back. We made the first mile with very little trouble. Then the mud started to ball up on the front wheels and the rear end was sliding from one side of the road to the other. Then we came to a long grade, and the car stopped. The rear wheels would spin and throw up rooster tails of mud, but the car would not move. Everyone but Mother, Dad and Charlie removed their shoes and socks, rolled up their pants legs and got out in the rain to push. In this way, we got to within about three-fourths mile of the school before the car slid into the ditch and became hopelessly stuck. At this point, Charlie removed his shoes and socks, rolled up his pants legs, covered his new suit with a piece of oil cloth Mother had brought along for this purpose, and walked the remainder of the way. Later, some neighbors came along in a Model T with mud chains and took Mother and us kids on to the school. Dad walked home, got his beloved team and wagon and came to get us. As we went home, he tied the Buick on behind the wagon and towed it home. I sometimes wonder if Dad was conscious of the statement he made by driving the team himself, while he assigned Kenneth to guide the new car as it was towed home in the mud.

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Thatspring there was a nest of squirrels born in a hollow in a big cottonwood tree behind the barn. As the hollow was not too deep in the trunk, us kids could climb the tree and look into the nest. We checked it very often to see how things were going with the squirrel family. Usually when we checked, the two babies were in the nest, but the mother was out gathering food. If she was there, she would usually get excited and fuss at us. But, one day, she just lay there. On a more careful examination, we found she was dead. We took the dead mother and the two babies to the house. Dad examined the mother and came to the conclusion that she had been fatally injured by a dog, but had gotten away and had been able to get back to the nest. We kept the young squirrels and gave the mother a funeral befitting a mother with two babies. We fed the babies a mixture of skim milk, water and honey with an eye dropper. One did fine on this diet, but the other grew sickly and died. We buried it near its mother under the big cottonwood tree. We hung an old pair of overalls on the back of our upstairs bedroom door and made a nest for the live one. We named him Frisky. He became very tame and friendly as he grew. By the end of summer he was fully grown. Squirrels are naturally vegetarians in the wild. They eat only nuts, seeds and tender vegetation and, once in a while, rob eggs from bird nests, but they never eat meat. Now, I don't think Frisky ever ate raw meat; he learned to like everything we ate, including cooked meat. In the wild, squirrels are very afraid of cats and dogs. Frisky was accepted as an equal by an old cat we had. He was very playful and full of life and was a constant aggravation to the old cat. His favorite food was nuts of any kind, bread and cooked meat and milk. He especially liked cheese. We usually fed him on the back porch. If the weather was nice, he usually went outside in the morning and stayed out all day. As the fall season came and the weather became more nippy, he would come in often during the day and, after warming a few minutes, he would want out again. He would notify us of his desire to come in and out by climbing and scratching on the back door. He was still making his nest in the overalls pocket on the bedroom door. One day we realized that he was no longer scratching on the door to get out or in. Then we realized he was not going in or out through the door. He had made his own entrance by chewing through the corner of the window frame of our bedroom. He had also stored bread and cheese in all of the pockets of his overalls except for the one he used for his nest. All the men in the family carried their Bull Durham sack in their shirt pocket with the little tag and the two yellow strings hanging out. Frisky's favorite game was to get on one of the men's shoulders, grab these strings and make off with their tobacco pouch. When he got the tobacco sack, he would not be caught but would wait his chance to get out of the house. We soon learned the easiest way to get the tobacco from him was to let him out, then after a few minutes, the tobacco pouch would be stored in a pocket of the overalls on the back of the bedroom door. As spring progressed the next year, Frisky's excursions out of the house became longer and longer. Finally, he just quit coming back. Sometimes we would see an exceptionally tame squirrel in the old cottonwood tree in the back of the barn. As it was not unusual to see squirrels in the woods, we could never be sure it was Frisky.

     Mother's turkeys did very well and sold for a good price. Dad had several houses to plaster. Everything considered, it was a very good year for us. But, there was a lot of talk of a depression coming. It was March 1, 1930, and moving time again.

     This time, we moved to a farm three miles east and three miles north of Burr Oak, where we spent the depression years and where we lived until Dad sold off the livestock and machinery and gave up farming. I was in the fourth grade when we moved there. Ours was the house closest to the school. We lived less than a half mile from the school.

     That year, I had my twelfth birthday. As was the custom, I got a .22-caliber rifle for my twelfth birthday. So now I was big enough to hunt with the other boys. The first year we lived on that place was a good year. It rained regularly, so the crops were good. Some of Dad's corn that year made ninety bushels per acre, and that was considered a very good yield. We had five milch cows and several head of beef stock, four teams of horses and two saddle horses. Kenneth got two ewes and a big ram, and we had a flock of turkeys, chickens, geese and about twenty head of hogs.

     Dad purchased a sorghum mill and started making sorghum the first fall we lived there. Charlie was working for William Harris, and Laurence worked for McKinley Harris. They worked for thirty dollars a month and room and board. As the Harris places were only about one mile from home, Laurence and Charlie usually spent the weekends at home. Chuck started going with the daughter of the county bootlegger. About this time, he decided he could make some money on the side by making home brew. So he got two twenty-gallon jars and set some brew to working. He continued to work for Harris and made home brew for about four years.

     One time, the first summer we lived there, he was bottling a batch of beer. Willis and I were helping him. He had set the beer to work off in a canyon about a half mile from the house. He had a small rubber tube, which was used to siphon the beer out of the jar into the bottles. This prevented the beer from foaming up in the bottles. We had taken three cases of bottles with us when we went to the canyon. Upon arriving there, Charlie started the siphon hose and left Willis and I to fill the bottles while he went back to the house for more bottles and the bottle capper. When he got back to the house, someone was there, and he was detained. We finished filling the bottles and sat for a long time, holding the hose with our fingers to prevent it losing its prime. This soon became tiresome, so we lay down on our backs with our heads on each other's shoulders. One of us would hold the hose clamped shut with our teeth for awhile, then pass it to the other. Each time we passed it, we would get a mouthful of beer. After passing it a couple of times, we started taking a draw or two on it every little bit, just to make sure it was still working. When Chuck got back, he found two mighty happy boys. We finally got the beer bottled and carried it to the barn. Charlie wanted it hidden in the hay in the loft. Dad was working in the grain bins next to the barn and heard us and came to see what we were doing. When he saw the condition Willis and I were in, Will “talked to” all three of us! That afternoon, neither Willis nor I could stand up because of the size of our heads or sit down because of the condition of the other end. We decided then that, concerning drink, the fun while you was was not worth the misery while you wasn't.

     Nearly every Kansas farm had a storm cave. Our storm cave was only a few feet from the kitchen door. It was cool in summer and warm in winter. It was primarily used for food storage. Mother's canned goods, smoked meats, sorghum, honey, milk, eggs, potatoes, apples, turnips and anything else that needed protection from heat in summer and freezing in winter was stored in the storm cave.

     Most Kansas farmers collected their cream and eggs for a week, and on Saturday night they would take the cream and eggs to town and trade this for groceries. After milking each morning and evening, the milk was strained into stone crocks, covered and put into the storm cave, where the cream would rise to the top and be skimmed off. After it was skimmed, some of the milk would be used to feed the family, the pigs and the chickens and some left in the storm cave to clabber. The clabbered milk would then be used to make smearcase (cottage cheese). You’ve missed something in this life if you have never eaten smearcase on fresh baked bread topped with apple butter. Sometimes Dad would eat the curds from the top of the clabbered milk with a spoon. He did not shave every day, as most men do today, and he had very stiff whiskers on his upper lip. I remember very vividly the sound made by his whiskers scraping against the spoon when he ate curds. I don’t know why, but he only made that sound when he ate clabbered milk.

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