Seasonal Farming Tasks in the Great Depression

December 28, 2014

Letty Owings, who turns 90 today, explains a few of the farming tasks that were seasonal, during the Great Depression.

Wheat shocking

In the spring of each year, the community farmers watched the sky and talked with each other about when to prepare the fields for planting. For corn, the fields had to be plowed and harrowed, and then the rows were set. The implements used to plow, break up and smooth the soil and form rows were horse-drawn. After the fields were prepared for planting, corn planters were also hitched to horses. A container on the corn planter was set to click open every three feet or so, and release three kernels of corn to the soil. So far, we are talking about mechanization.

The mechanization ended after the planting of the kernels. The next task involved human hands that belonged to kids, for the most part. Once the corn plants were about two inches tall, the kids in the community crawled up and down the corn rows, inspecting each three-plant corn hill, taking visual inventory. We crawled down each row with a knife and a bucket of kernels, to see if three plants were in each cluster. Less than three plants in a hill meant that there was a cutworm in the soil, dining. We dug and chopped the worm, and replaced the eaten kernel with the new kernel. This task was called “replanting the corn,” and if you were a kid, you got that assignment. Replanting the corn was labor intensive and ritually performed every year. In church, farmers would ask each other, “Did you replant your corn yet?”

Another task where fingers did the work was ridding each individual potato plant in any given field of the potato bugs. Potato bugs are fat with orange stripes, and they can completely decimate a field of potatoes. We crawled up and down the rows with a tin can of coal oil that served as our insecticide at the time. We looked at each leaf, picked off the bugs and the masses of eggs, and dropped them into the can of coal oil. These were days before pesticides. In addition to coal oil for the bugs, we rubbed coal oil and bacon grease on our skin to keep the chiggers away. Again, our fingers did the work and like replanting the corn, potato bug removal was extremely labor intensive.

Of all farming activities we performed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, two were notable because they involved the whole community: threshing of the wheat, and butchering the animals. Summer threshing of the wheat was the most exciting time of the year because it was a social time rolled into sustenance activity.

Farmers looked at the sky to determine when the wheat was ready to cut. If the dryness was right for thrashing on a Sunday, the farmers waited until Monday, figuring that God had good reason to wait the extra day. When the dryness was right, a horse-drawn binder (also called a reaper) cut and automatically tied the wheat into bundles weighing 50 pounds or so. The farmer would then pick up the bundles and put them in a shock. A shock of wheat consisted of four upright bundles together with one bundle on top. The shocks of wheat were left for some number of days to dry.

Only one person in the whole community owned a steam engine pulled thresher, and his name was Harry. Each farm set a day for the threshing of the wheat. The threshing of the wheat was special, dramatic, and planned in advance, almost as if the whole community was planning a state fair. The women all wore their best starched aprons and set their finest tables outside for the men to eat the finest meal of the year.

Each woman had a specialty, be it baked bread, custard, pie, butter, beans or canned goods, and all was brought forth on this day. The meat consumed was kept from the year before, unless they killed a chicken for threshing day. This was also the only day of the year for ice. A man would travel to the ice plant, get a hunk of ice, and put it in a gunny sack in a washtub. Then, each man at the table would chip off a piece of ice for his drink. On thrashing day, I woke at 4 AM, to listen for the steam engine. Children were on their best behavior, and they spoke only when spoken to. There was much bragging and comparing about whose wife could cook what the best.

The other community affair that involved mostly men and was not joyous was the butchering. The animal to be butchered was chosen in advance, and it had to be done in the late fall, so that the cold would preserve the meat. The man in the community who was the best shot would do the killing, so that the shot would not miss and the animal would not suffer. That man was usually my father. The community custom was that the man who helped with the slaughter got the best cut of meat from the animal, and that cut was usually the heart.

The women made the sausage, and in those days the intestines were used because there was no casing. The women cleaned, washed and boiled, then stuffed, the intestine casing. Butchering was not a social function as was threshing the wheat. Aside from making sausage was a practice called “frying down the meat.” This involved layering grease, then ground fried meat, then grease, ending with a top layer of grease. The mixture was compacted and kept cold in a shed. The supply of fried down meat lasted all year. My mother canned beef but this was not really a usual practice. Sealing wax was a real mess; jar rubber was, in the end, a great invention.

There was never any idle time in those days. We grew cotton and sheared sheep for our materials and in our spare time, such as it was, we either picked apart the cotton or the wool with our hands. Wool smells awful, and I once complained to my dad because I was dirty and tired of the work. He stopped what he was doing and said, “You did nothing to earn this. Everything is a gift from God.”

Off-topic: If you haven’t heard these guys, make time:

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Texas A&M University-Commerce Digital Collections on flickr.

 


Freak Shows and Patent Medicines During the Great Depression

August 14, 2014

by Crane-Station

Letty and Ray Owings, ages 89 and 91, share their memories of freak shows, patent medicine salesmen, and minstrel shows, during the mid-1930s, in rural Missouri.

Also, if you have not seen The Butterfly Circus, which I have posted before, I suggest you find 20 minutes to see this inspirational film.

Freak Shows and Patent Medicines During the Great Depression

Letty shares:

Imagine a world without newspapers, electricity or central heat. Imagine a world without television. If you can think of a world where all communication was by word of mouth, that was our world, during the Great Depression in the small farming community in Missouri.

In the mid-1930s, people with genetic deformities or other physical issues such as being very heavy, were considered to be ‘freaks of nature.’ People without arms, or maybe with a leg off from the knee down would be featured at the State Fair in Sedalia, Missouri. Also, the shows would travel and come through a series of towns, to show the freaks, and sell patent medicines, all in the same venue. These events would often take place in a town park.

Since no one had any money, nearly all doctoring was done with patent medicines. The salesmen would pose the question, “What would you like to have cured?” They had bottled cures for everything from bad sex to diarrhea. The McNess man, who was the same man for years, would come around, in his horse-drawn buggy, and sell his medicines, but he also sold vanilla, and red sugar for cookies. The medicines were always red-colored liquid in bottles, never pills.

We had two things in our closet, from the patent medicine man. While many consider all things from that time to be snake oil, one of the things we had in our closet is still available today. At that time, we called it “horse salve.” Today we call it “Bag Balm.” We used the salve for everything, including its original intended use, which was to soften cow teats.

We also had “blackberry balsam” for diarrhea and stomach upset. The horse salve and the blackberry balsam were inside the house, in the closet.

If you were outside, and you were cutting the grass in the chicken yard, and you got cut, or in the alternative, if you cut your finger (nearly off) in the sawbuck, you headed to the tractor and unscrewed the cap on the carburetor, and allowed gasoline to flow over the cut. Gasoline was used to prevent infection, and it did prevent infection. These items, the two on the inside, and the gasoline on the outside, made up the whole of our medicine cabinet.

That wasn’t totally true, because my dad would also collect certain plants and weeds that he knew to have medicinal use. Certain plants, for example, would help with menstrual cramps. Also, lots of people ate dandelions, and they were not too bad if you threw in some lambs quarter, and maybe a few potatoes, to cut the strong taste of the dandelions.

As my dad would collect and point out medicinal and edible plants and weeds to me, we did come across what he named at that time, “wild hemp,” and he told me, “It makes people kind of crazy.” We left the wild hemp alone, but there was one woman in the small community who everyone knew was, in fact, kind of crazy, and she was a large woman, big-boned. She lived alone, and everyone called her “Big Annie.”

Big Annie, like everyone else in the community, had examined the plants and weeds in the fields to determine what was fit to eat and what was fit for medicine, and when she came across the wild hemp, she made an agricultural decision to use it, to shade her chickens. She didn’t know what it was, and as far as she was concerned, it was simply an excellent plant for shade use, for her hens. So, the wild hemp plants grew tall and provided excellent shade, and the chickens were happy, and Big Annie was happy and everything was going reasonably well, until one day, when the sheriff drove by.

Upon noticing a very large and obvious outdoor marijuana grow operation in plain view of the road he was driving on, the sheriff reportedly stopped and chopped down the plants. Big Annie was furious. She ran up and down the road, hollering at the sheriff, yelling at the neighbors, “They’re cutting down my chicken shade!”

On rare occasion and only when someone was very sick, did we call for Doc Martin to come around and make a house call. He would always leave with his chicken, for payment.

Ray adds on blackface minstrel shows:

Patent medicines were often sold in the same venue as minstrel shows in our town. Sometimes, a minstrel show would come to town on its own, and set up a big tent on an empty lot. Using shoe polish, white people would pose theatrically as black people. Although these shows stopped sometime in the 1930s in our area, the idea was to make make jokes through a questioning character called “Mr. Interlocutor.” At that time, blackface minstrelsy was so accepted that the obvious bigotry we see today was completely missed then.


The Blue Taffeta Dress

May 25, 2014

by Crane-Station

Alice Heun: The Corn Crib, 1934
Alice Heun: The Corn Crib, 1934 photo by Smithsonian American Art Museum/flickr

note: I don’t have any money, but listening to this guy makes me want to find some. Check this out, great way to raise money BTW:

This is a story from the Great Depression as told by Letty Owings, age 89. It is a true account of three organized community activities in a small rural farming community in Missouri during the 1930s.

The Blue Taffeta Dress

While we worked hard on the farm during the drought years in the mid-1930s, we also set aside three days each year for entertainment. These days were community organized and structured fun that everyone looked forward to and talked about all year.

Each autumn we had a pie supper at the rural school that served as our community center. The idea was that a woman, or usually a girl baked a pie, and the pies were auctioned off. The auctioneer, who was sometimes my father, would hold up the pie and chant, “Now what am I to give for this pie, ten cents who’ll give me ten cents, ten, and raise it to fifteen, ah fifteen and twenty, twenty cents over here and thirty thirty do I hear forty…” A girl would want a good price for her pie, and she may say, “My, they paid a dollar for my pie!” Many of the pies were milk-based custards because mince was too expensive. Pumpkin, squash and apple pies were popular, and on occasion when someone could afford raisins, there was raisin pie.

The rule was that the man who bought the pie shared the pie with the girl who baked it. The quality of the pie didn’t have much to do with the price of eggs, it was the gathering and the fun that mattered. The people would gossip about the drought and gossip about their kids, and interject with who bought what pie for how much by saying things like, “Yeah, you know, he bought her pie.” Nobody ever kept any of the money for the pies. The funds went into the school.

On the last day of school, every woman in the community brought something to eat to the annual basket dinner at school. Women took a great deal of pride in what they brought, whether it was pickles, beans, apple butter or other dishes, so the basket dinner was both contest and entertainment. The women put the food out on the ground for all to enjoy, and we ate on the ground. Some of the coal miner kids were too poor to bring food, but the country people were very generous, so the kids all got to eat.

There was no separation of church and state back in those days, so the next big event, the Christmas program, was held either at the school or at the church, and everyone started planning for it in October. We had an old piano with missing keys and back then no one looked askance that we sang religious songs and Christmas carols. The kids gave speeches and participated in plays that were read from a Depression-era book with scripts. The dialogue was humorous or it delivered some sort of a lesson, but it was all copied, sometimes from Charles Dickens and often from other sources. The names of some of the plays were: Mr. Dash Goes Shopping, Tramp at the Picnic, Change of Heart, and Too Much Spending, but there were others.

I often had a part in the Christmas play, but I never had any decent clothes until 1932 when my Grandpa went blind. My dad took him to California on a train because it was better for my grandfather to be with kinfolks in California who had a little more money. My dad returned with two avocados. We had never seen an avocado and did not quite know what to do with them, so my mother cut them into pieces and put them in the flour bin. We would get a piece, shake the flour off and cut it into bites. My cousin in California with money gave my dad a blue taffeta dress for me, and this put me in a world of my own. It had a lace collar and lace cuffs and nobody that I knew ever had a blue taffeta dress with a lace collar and lace cuffs. My cousin did stage dancing, so she had plenty of access to nice clothes.

I decided to wear the dress for my part in the Christmas play.

The play said that I had to have chewing gum, so I got a stick of chewing gum, but I did not know what to do with chewing gum, so I rolled it on my fingers. The gum got stuck on the blue taffeta dress. I was frantic and nearly forgot my lines, the dress was not washable and I did not want my mother to know, but I had to tell her. My mother figured out that if we put ice on the dress it would freeze the gum so that I could pull it off. So, I am in the back yard with the blue dress in the snow because we did not have any ice to put on the dress.

I wore that blue taffeta dress until I could no longer squeeze myself into it, and years later, I visited my cousin in a nursing home, and told her how much that blue dress meant to me.


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