My Favorite Things as a Child
Barbara Lee Collins
One of my favorite things as a child was spending the summer on the farms of my uncles and aunts in Kansas and Missouri.
My father drove us in a 1935 Chevrolet from Virginia to Kansas so that my mother Vera, my sister Shirley, and my brothers Roger and Stanley and I could go. What did my father Harry then do? He visited farms in Nebraska and Kansas where they grew wheat and alfalfa, inspecting the fields and helping the farmers know how to best prepare the soil and care for their crops.
One farm belonged to Uncle Willie and Aunt Wilma Twombly. They lived in a big white two-story house. They needed a big house! Living in that house were Grandma Bettie, Uncle Willie and Aunt Wilma and seven of their children: Bill, Wilma Eleanor who was called Sis, Helen Jean, Ruth, George, Dave, and Bob. When we visited, Mother slept in Grandma’s room; Roger and Stanley slept either in the same room as the three Twombly boys (Bob slept downstairs in his parents’ bedroom) or on mattresses in the hallway; and Shirley and I slept in the Twombly girls’ room. Shirley slept in a bed with Helen Jean and Ruth and I slept on a mattress on the floor.
The first time we visited Aunt Wilma and Uncle Willie, Shirley and I had trouble going to sleep. Country night noises are much different than city night noises. There was no sound of cars and trucks, no sirens, no people calling out to each other. Instead there were crickets chirping, coyotes howling, and SUDDENLY what sounded like a huge bear growling and snarling! We sat bolt upright in terror. Shirley shook Ruth awake and whispered urgently, “Ruth, Ruth, there’s a bear in the hallway!” Ruth listened and then started laughing. This was a sound she heard every night. “It’s not a bear,” she said, “It’s Grandma snoring! What a relief. Never again have I heard such awesome snoring as Grandma Bettie produced.
WINDMILLSEach farm had a tall windmill to pump water for the cattle and horses. The windmill was a tower with big fan-blades on top. As the wind blew, the blades turned and pumped water out of the well into a large stock tank. The windmill kept the tank full as long as the wind blew. If the wind didn’t blow, the farmer had to pump the water by hand. The windmill could be turned off when it wasn’t needed. This was done by turning the fan-blade tail in such a direction as to keep the wind from blowing through the blades. One day when my brother Stanley was three or four years old, he thought it would be fun to climb up the windmill tower. He had gotten more than halfway to the top before anyone saw him. We were staying with my Uncle Ray and Aunt Neoma Twombly at the time. Uncle Ray spotted Stanley and came running into the house to get my mother. He shouted, “Toots (his nickname for her), Stanley’s up on the windmill and YOU have to climb up and get him down. I’m too afraid of heights.” Well, Mother was afraid, too, but she started climbing. She had hardly gotten started when Stanley saw her. She called to him to stop climbing. Instead, when she had climbed a little closer, he jumped, sure that she would catch him. My Mother was terrified to see him hurtling toward her. She barely had time to hook one arm around the windmill tower before he reached her. She was amazed and delighted that she managed to catch him and still hang on to the tower. I guess, however, this jump even scared Stanley for never again did Stanley climb up a windmill.
TELEPHONESFarm telephones used to be quite different from our city telephones. In the city, each family had its own telephone line so that when our phone rang, we knew the call was for us. To call someone else, we just picked up the telephone receiver, dialed a number and were connected directly to the person we wanted. Today, of course, we push buttons to get the number we want. On the farm, several people shared one telephone line. This was called a party line. Each family had its own ring. It might be a combination of long and short rings, or two long rings, or two short rings. There were two ways to make a call. The farm telephones were mounted on the wall and instead of having a dial, they had a handle on the side. When you turned the handle, a light went on in the telephone office. You then told the operator who you wanted to talk with and she connected you. If you wanted to talk to a neighbor on your party line, you could turn the handle yourself to make their ring combinations.
When you heard the telephone ring in your house, you were only supposed to answer it if it was your own ring combination. But many times other people on the party line also listened to find out what was happening in their neighbors’ lives. The more people that listened, the harder it was to hear. Sometimes if it was a long distance call, you had to ask others to hang up so you could hear the person you were trying to talk with. However, the long distance calls tended to be the most interesting, so some people would keep listening anyway.
One day, close to dinnertime, my cousin Helen Jean was having trouble hearing on the telephone so she suddenly said, “I smell your beans burning.” There were several clicks on the line as women hung up their receivers and rushed to their stoves to check on their beans. Of course, later they would realize that a person can’t smell over the telephone and that they had been tricked. But it meant that Helen Jean could hear.
Uncle Willie and Aunt Wilma had quite a few pigs on their farm. These pigs wandered freely in one large fenced-in area of the farm, but they came to the gate close to the house twice a day to be fed. The person who was to feed them went to the gate and called, “Souee, Souee,” and poured their food, called slop, into a large trough on the pigs’ side of the fence. This slop was made up of left-over food from breakfast, dinner or supper mixed with skim milk or water. The pigs loved it.
I liked to wander around out in back of the house looking at the chickens that were there, picking clovers and making chains of them, or lying in the grass watching the clouds. It was fun to look for familiar shapes in the clouds. I could see dogs, people’s faces, horses, all kinds of things. Each shape lasted just a little while before the wind high in the sky blew the clouds into other shapes.
One day, I was out back leaning on the pig gate and singing to myself. Much to my amazement, as I sang, the pigs all came rushing down the hill and over to their trough at the gate. It wasn’t feeding time and I had nothing for them. They eagerly rooted around for awhile looking for their slop and then disappointedly went back to whatever they had been doing. I could scarcely believe that it was my singing that had brought them, but I was suspicious. After awhile I started singing again, and lo and behold, all the pigs once more rushed down the hill and to the gate looking eagerly in their trough. Empty again! They looked at me in disgust, turned around and went back over the hill.
I was shocked and appalled. How could my singing sound like the pigs call to supper!
Another place we liked to visit was Uncle Theodore and Aunt Fannie Jeschke’s home. They had two children, a girl named LaVerna who was my age and a boy named Teddy who was Roger’s age, two years older than I. LaVerna’s nickname was Tookie. When she was little, her mother would read the Nursery Rhyme to her that said, “Pollie put the kettle on, Sukie took it off.” LaVerna couldn’t say “Sukie.” Instead she said “Tookie.” She has had that nickname all the rest of her life.
Uncle Theodore and Aunt Fannie had a chicken hatchery on the back part of their property, down the hill from the house. There were hundreds of hens in the hatchery. They made their nests in a large brick building. Each day they laid many eggs. Aunt Fannie usually gathered the eggs, but once in a while I was allowed to help. You had to be very quiet and gentle so as to not upset the hens. If the hens were upset, they would peck you as you tried to get the eggs out from under them. Also, if they were upset, they would not lay as many eggs as usual. Aunt Fannie was a very skillful egg gatherer.
My sister Shirley and I helped Tookie with her chores. Twice a day, morning and evening, we had to give all those hens water and a chicken food that was called mash. The bags of feed were too heavy for us to carry, so Uncle Theodore took the bags to the building and we scooped out the feed. The feed bags were quite colorful, usually with flower-prints on them. When they were empty, the bags would be washed and then cut and sewed into dresses, skirts and shirts. Often the farmers bought the feed that was in the bags their wives thought to be the prettiest. When it was my turn to have a feed-sack dress, I could hardly wait for the bag to be empty so Mother could start sewing.
After the eggs were gathered, they had to be washed and sorted by size. Then Aunt Fannie would “candle” them. To do this, she held each egg up to a light. If she could see no dark spots, she knew the egg was fresh and good to eat. If she could see dark spots in them, she knew a baby chicken was starting to grow in those eggs. These were not used for eating. Sometimes these eggs had been missed when the eggs were gathered the day they had been laid. Other times, the hens had hidden them because they wanted to set on them and hatch them out. Those hens were said to be broody. They were not happy when you discovered and took away their eggs. They would try hard to peck you.
Another building was called the Brooder House. Here eggs were brought to be incubated and hatched out. Lights were kept on all the time to keep the temperature just right for hatching. Machines regularly turned the eggs. We were not usually allowed in there, but when we were we had to go in and shut the door quickly behind us to keep the temperature constant. When the little chicks hatched out, they were sold to people who wanted to start their own chicken flocks. The chicks were put in boxes with air holes in the tops. People either came to the hatchery and picked up their chicks or they were mailed to the people who wanted them. If they were mailed, some feed was put in the box with them, enough to last until they arrived at their new home.
Other people came regularly to the hatchery to buy eggs. Aunt Fannie knew about how many eggs she sold each week, so she tried to be sure to have at least that many on hand. The others were either used by the family or put in the brooder house.
The one thing we didn’t like about going to visit Uncle Theodore and Aunt Fannie was their dog Dugan. He was chained to a tree between the house and the hatchery buildings. It was his job to scare off anyone who might try to steal chickens or eggs. The trouble was that he scared us too. Anytime we came down the hill, he would run toward us as far as his chain would reach, barking and snarling. I always felt sorry for Dugan being chained up and having such an unpleasant job, but when I had to go near him I was grateful for his chain.
The very best thing about going to the hatchery was being able to hold the little yellow chicks and hearing their peep-peep-peep. They were so soft and cuddly.
People who live on farms work hard. The grownups get up very early. Uncle Willie and Bill, who was almost grown, went out early to the barn each day and milked the cows. Aunt Wilma and my mother, Vera, started cooking a big breakfast because they knew the men would be very hungry when they came in to the house. Sis worked with them.
Uncle Willie and Bill brought the milk in to the kitchen in pails. They poured the milk from the pails into a large, round machine called a cream separator. Someone, usually Uncle Willie, turned a handle which caused discs in the machine to turn. This sent the milk in toward the middle of the machine. The separator had two spouts facing in different directions. One was higher than the other. The skim milk being heavier than the cream, went to the outside due to centrifugal force. This left the cream in the center. The milk flowed out of the bottom spout and the cream out of the top spout. The cream was then poured into clean 10 gallon cans. These cans were set out by the side of the road at the entrance to the farm. A truck driver from the Creamery came with his truck and loaded up the full cans and left empties for the farmer to fill the next day. The farmer was paid for this cream. The skim milk was mainly used to feed to the pigs as part of their slop. We “city kids” who drank a lot of milk were surprised to find our farm relatives who had cows didn’t drink any milk at all. Money from the selling of it was an important part of their income.
We younger girls had regular jobs to do also. When we got up in the mornings we set the table for breakfast, cleaned it off afterwards and washed the dishes. There were no faucets for water in the kitchen, but there was a little hand pump which was connected to the cistern. This cistern was an underground container into which ran the rain water off the roof. This water was called soft water because there were no minerals in to make it hard to get the soap to lather. It was good for washing dishes, clothes or hair. There was usually a tin basin nearby to hold the water for washing when you came in from working or playing outside. You then filled the basin with water, soaped your face, arms, and hands, and washed up.
Drinking water, carried into the house from the well, was kept in a bucket close to the pump. A dipper hung from the side of the bucket and was used by everyone to drink from. No one worried about germs. When it was time to do the dishes, a plastic-like tablecloth, called oilcloth, was put on the kitchen table to protect it from soap and water. Two big dish pans were put on the table. One pan was filled with hot, soapy water for washing the dishes and the other one with just hot water for rinsing the dishes. Usually one person washed the dishes, two people dried them and one put the clean, dry dishes away in the cupboards.
After the dishes were done, we made all of the beds and emptied out the “slop jars.” We did not like this last job at all. There were no bathrooms inside the house and at night people didn’t like to have to go out of doors to the privies, or outside bathrooms. Instead, ceramic or metal containers with lids were used. These had to be emptied out and washed each day. We then left them outside on the cellar door to dry in the sun.
We didn’t really like the outdoor toilets, but time spent there could be interesting. Many times, instead of toilet paper, catalogs were kept there to use for wiping oneself. While sitting, we looked through the catalogs, especially the pages we were going to use.
We also dusted the furniture. Sometimes in the afternoon we were needed to hoe the sunflowers out of the corn fields. Sunflowers are beautiful but are problems in corn fields for several reasons. They grow taller than the corn creating shade. Corn needs a lot of sun to grow well. The sunflowers also take water and nutrients out of the soil which the corn needs. Machines called corn pickers move through the rows of corn at harvest time and can get tangled in the sunflowers. Hoeing out sunflowers was hot, sweaty work. We were glad it didn’t have to be done too often.
Our other responsibility was to take turns reading to our Grandma Bettie who couldn’t see very well. She liked almost any kind of story and waited patiently if we had trouble with some of the words. She gave us a dime every time we read to her. I knew it made her feel good to have something to give us, but I didn’t want money to read to my own grandmother!
I always slipped my dime back in her purse when she couldn’t see what I was doing.
One of Sis’s harder jobs was ironing the clothes. Clothing wrinkled more in those days than clothes made from the mixture of materials we have now so almost all of the clothes had to be ironed each time they were washed. The irons were called “sad irons.” I suppose this was because a woman felt sad when it was time to do the ironing since it was hard, hot work. The bottom part of the iron came off and was set on the wood stove to get hot. It was then clamped on to a handle and was used to iron until it cooled off too much to do a good job. This cool bottom was removed and set back on the stove. Another bottom which was heating on the stove replaced it. You had to be very careful not to burn the clothes when you first used the newly heated one. When I watched Sis ironing, I was always glad I that I was a little girl instead of a big girl. Reading to Grandma was so much easier.
There was a lot of work on the farm, but most jobs were done by at least two people together which made the work easier and more fun.
Sometimes we four children stayed awhile on Aunt Ida and Uncle Emil Jeschke’s farm. Uncle Emil and Aunt Ida had a smaller house than Uncle Willie and Aunt Wilma, but almost as many people living in it. They lived there with 6 of their children; Lucille, Evelyn, Ethel, Gerald, Lowell, and Myron. When we were visiting there, Roger and Stanley slept in the boys bedroom with Myron while Gerald and Lowell moved up to a big attic room. Shirley and I slept in a bed with Lucille and Evelyn moved from that room into Ethel’s room. All these bedrooms opened into each other. Aunt Ida and Uncle Emil had a private bedroom with its own door.
One night after a heavy rain, we were awaked by a loud “SPLOOSH,” followed by gasps and then laughter from Aunt Ida and Uncle Emil. The roof over their bedroom had developed a leak in it. Water had come through and gathered in the wallpaper on the ceiling over their bed. After a huge puddle had accumulated, the paper could stretch no more and the puddle came whooshing down on them sleeping peacefully in their bed. I was quite impressed that they could laugh about this “shower in the middle of the night.”
The work on this farm was a little different because they had apple and peach orchards as well as a large dairy herd. We smaller children never went into the orchards because there were snakes there. The older boys usually were the fruit pickers. Much of the fruit was sold, but there were always baskets of peaches and apples out on the back porch. We could eat those anytime we wanted to.
Having a dairy meant that Uncle Emil and his sons milked 50 - 100 cows twice a day. Sometimes the older boys would let us try to milk the cows. It was much harder than it looked. They could squirt the milk into a waiting cat’s mouth, while we were doing good to get a little bit of milk in a bucket. Because they had so many cows, most of the time they used milking machines. These were much faster. These machines had little suction cups that fit over a cow’s teats and pumped out the milk. One day, in making my way to the milking barn, a cow stepped on my foot. Fortunately I had on my shoes and was able to push her away quickly, but it scared me badly and my foot was sore for a few days. The Jeschkes also had horses and mules to help with the farm work. They were stabled in a large barn.
It was always delightfully cool inside this barn, so we youngsters liked to get out of the summer heat by coming into the barn and climbing up a ladder into the hay mow. This was like a big, open room with a hay-covered floor. From up there we could lie on the hay and watch the clouds sail by or look out over the whole farm and watch Uncle Emil and the older boys plowing the fields or picking apples or peaches or watch Aunt Ida and the older girls hanging out the wash or hoeing in the gardens.
Another item common to farm homes was a man-made cave located near the house. A hole was dug, a ceiling constructed over it, and then dirt was piled on top the ceiling to protect it against storms and to keep it dry. Shelves were built in the cave-room so that canned food could be stored there.
A door was made for the hole entrance and steps built leading down from the door.
This cave was cool in the summer and didn’t freeze in the winter. Thus food could be stored in it. All summer long the farm women canned vegetables grown in their gardens, fruit from the orchards and meat. This was hot work because the food had to be boiled in jars over the wood-burning stoves. Many times, old corn cobs were used for fuel. Another of the jobs that we smaller children had was to carry cobs in from the barn. We were to pay attention and not let the cob bucket get empty. If we forgot, we were reminded very quickly and had to stop whatever else we were doing and refill it.
When winter came it was wonderful to be able to go to the cave and bring in food for the table. Very little had to be purchased at the stores.
Another use for the caves was as a storm cellar. When thunderstorms or high winds or tornados came, you were safe underground in the caves. The Twomblys rarely used their caves as storm cellars. The Jeschkes, however, were very worried by storms and went to the caves as soon as a storm was seen to be approaching. We didn’t like sitting in the caves because they were dark and damp and had spiders. Also, we wondered how we would get out if a tree or tree limb blew over onto the top of the cave! We were always glad to be at Uncle Willie and Aunt Wilma’s when a storm came up.