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.

 


Saturday Evening Ferguson Watch

August 16, 2014

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Good evening:

The public demonstration continues this evening protesting the killing of an unarmed Mike Brown, 18, by Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson Police Department a week ago.

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has declared a curfew between the hours of midnight and 6 am.

The world is watching.

Share your thoughts with us as we keep track on twitter.


Lye Soap and Apple Butter

May 26, 2014

Alice Heun: Barn and Cows, 1934
Photo: Alice Heun: Barn and Cows, 1934. by americanartmuseum, Smithsonian American Art Museum, creative commons, flickr

By Crane-Station

This is a true account of life on a small Missouri farm during the Great Depression, as told by Letty Owings, age 89. It is a description of two precise arts. Other examples of precise arts include quilting, weaving, and canning.

Lye Soap and Apple Butter

Two labor-intensive jobs that the adults did every Fall was to prepare the lye soap and the apple butter. Each family prepared its own supply of these two staples, and the supply had to last the whole year. Equipment was essential for these jobs. For the apple butter, the large iron kettle had to be copper lined so that the apple butter did not stick or burn. For the soap, a large iron kettle was used.

The apple butter kettle was passed down through the generations. If a family did not have an apple butter kettle, they shared with another family. Newly married couples inherited a kettle and when a farmer died and the farm was to be dissolved, there was always much discussion about who was going to get the apple butter kettle.

The apple butter was cooked over a fire with a long-burning wood, and so that the person stirring could withstand the heat, she used a stirrer that was very long- five feet or so. Kids never did the stirring or the stoking of the fire, for fear of scalding or burns. My mother did the stirring, and there was a very specific rhythm to it: right side-left side- middle. The rhythm prevented any sticking and ensured consistency and taste. One part was never stirred more than the other. Each woman had her own recipe of spices and sugar in specific ratios that had also been handed down through generations like the kettle.

DO - Apple Day Apple Butter
Photo by vastateparksstaff on flickr

Farming women set aside three days for the apple butter. The first day was for peeling, the second day was for cooking and the third was for canning. There was always talk about whose apple butter was better and every woman believed her apple butter was the best. Apple butter was a staple and making apple butter in the fall was a matter of pride for each family. The women always wore sun bonnets to stir the apple butter because a tan was considered ugly. Women covered their arms to prevent any burns from splattering. The men built the fire and set the kettle in place, but the women peeled the apples and did the stirring. On the third day, my mother put the apple butter into jars with snap-on lids, boiled the jars and covered the lids with sealing wax. On apple butter days I would run home real fast to watch.

Like apple butter, the lye soap making was both art and ritual, and it was done individually, not communally. Soap was made in a large iron kettle over an outside fire, and a long stirrer was used. Women took great pride in their soap and there was always the exchange among neighbors, “What is your soap like?” My mother saved animal fat from the butchering and this was the basis for the soap. She added lye and stirred to a precise consistency. This was important because she needed to be able to pour, cool and then slice the soap into bars.

The soap had a neutral, clean smell, and the goal was to make the soap as white as possible. The browner the soap, the less respect others had for the soap and for the soap maker. There was great pride in the soap quality and in how nice the cut was, and how pretty the bars. The lye soap lasted all year, and we used it to hand wash everything. I had my own little washboard, that I got for Christmas.

A great deal of expertise went into soap cooking. My mother was an artist and a designer who was an excelled at sewing and quilt making, and these talents carried over into her soap and apple butter making as well as canning. Today apple butter does not taste the same, probably because the apples have changed and because it is difficult to duplicate the unique and wonderful taste of apple butter that is made over an open fire. We ate our apple butter on cornbread. I assumed that cornbread came over from the old country in Germany where my ancestors came from, but I learned much later that cornbread was an American addition.

Note:

Saponification is a process that produces soap, usually from fats and lye. In technical terms, saponification involves base (usually caustic soda NaOH) hydrolysis of triglycerides, which are esters of fatty acids, to form the sodium salt of a carboxylate. In addition to soap, such traditional saponification processes produces glycerol. “Saponifiable substances” are those that can be converted into soap.[1]

Source.

Also, in case your have missed this lovely short film about a circus during the Great Depression, it is very well worth 20 minutes. Please have a look:


How a Missouri Farming Community Handled Death Prior to WWII

May 24, 2014

Photo: amy_b / Flickr

by Crane-Station

note: This is a true account of how a small Missouri farming community handled death before WWII, as told by Letty Owings, age 89.

The customs and traditions pertaining to death in our community were in place prior to the Civil War and remained unchanged until after WWII. Prior to the Civil War, the land that would become our farm was multi-crop plantation territory where corn, wheat and clover grew. After the Civil War, the plantation area was divided into farms. Our farm was 160 square acres. We had no street address; we were part of a community that included a population of about 300 in the country and 600 in the nearby town.

A woman I knew named Minni had lived through the period prior to the Civil War, and I would often visit her and listen to her stories. On the way to her house, I passed a slave graveyard of about twenty graves that remained on the property. Many of the graves were simple stone markers indicating a child’s burial. In those days death was common among infants and young children in general, and it was not regarded with the same concern that it is today. It wasn’t that people were mean about it, they were just more honest. In other words, deaths of infants and children were almost expected. Causes of death among slave children in particular were never noted or studied during that time, although looking back one can speculate that tuberculosis, pneumonia, and other diseases and childbirth complications common to that era for all children may have been the cause. We must bear in mind that penicillin was not available until after WWII.

Read the rest of this entry »


The Lavender Ribbon

May 22, 2014

by Crane-Station, with note- I am trying to gather these history posts all in one place here, so forgive me if you have seen them.

A one room schoolhouse in the forest.

Photo: James Davidson / Flickr

This is a story from the Great Depression, as told by Letty Owings, age 89. It is a true account of country school and community.

In rural Missouri during the Great Depression of the 1930s, each elementary school was different. Rather than fit into any pattern, the one-house schools were community governed, and each community had a social stratification. Mine was a mining-farming community, and the farmers lorded it over the miners, even though, in some cases, the miners made more money.

There was supposed to be a county school superintendent, but there was never any factual supervision because the superintendent only visited maybe once a year. Each community had its own clerk, and the school board, which consisted of a half a dozen farmers, decided who was hired in the schools.

The school was supposed to be in session for eight months, but this never happened, because the kids were needed on the farm to work. Usually the school session ended in April, and kids would begin farm work at sunrise.

The school had no electricity, plumbing, or central heat. There was a coal stove in the floor, and if you got too close to it, you roasted. If you got too far, you froze. There were 42-46 kids in the class at any given time, often sharing seats. The room smelled. Impetigo and bronchitis were common and chronic. Kids had sores and coughed all the time. We all shared one dipper, in a cistern. The toilet was an outhouse that was built when the school was built. We sometimes had a Sears Catalog to use in the toilet, but often not. The toilet was never cleaned, because there was no real way to get water to it.

We were not grossly unhappy as school kids. We didn’t know anything else. We did not see ourselves as different compared to others. There was nothing to compare to. There was no radio, TV or newspaper. Nobody ever thought about poverty. It may seem unbelievable to us today, but back then, we never saw anything else. We were six miles from the closest paved road.

It was a stratified society with the miners at the bottom. The miners were often known to drink and beat their wives, but they went to work in what were nothing more than tunnels in the ground. There were no safety regulations, just tunnels. Kids were sent in, and injuries were common.

I rode with my dad, who was a farmer, on a horse, through the community, to record the names of kids who were supposed to be in school. Often, the miners took to the woods when we showed up, or claimed they did not have any children. We knew they did. Many of the homes had no flooring, and one family had buried their dead twins in the floor of the house. The level of humanity was beyond what we can imagine today. We did not think anything about it. Life and death was just all a part of life.

There was no playground at the school, but sometimes the kids had a rope to play with, or, if a kid got a set of jacks for Christmas, we shared those. Tablets cost a nickel and pencils were scarce, so most kids went without. When a pencil got down to the nub, we attached a stick to it. Lunch might be a syrup bucket or an occasional boiled egg and home made bread, but certainly no butter. Kids were often hungry.

The library was an old bookcase in the back, with mainly old agriculture books; the school board decided to have them instead of encyclopedias. Teachers were only required to have some kind of schooling for one year, it didn’t matter what kind of schooling, and there was no certification for teachers. When I was five, I started school, but, the teacher was mean, so I left school and returned in the second grade, which was okay because I could already read.

There were four of us in school who stayed together: Norman, Betty, Pete and I. School kids were constantly in and out of school, with the miners sort of in the shadows, but the four of us stuck together. Norman and I were related. We met when we were both five; his father had gone blind. Betty’s father was a mine superintendent and an alcoholic, and Pete’s mom and dad ran a store in a clapboard shack that they lived in back of. The four of us were inseparable.

The men in the community often went to the pasture to play baseball on Sundays during the Depression, and the kids would go to watch. One Sunday, one of the men hit a ball and then he threw the bat. The bat hit Pete. Pete developed meningitis, and we were never allowed to see him when he got sick. The men would ride on horses around the community to report on Pete’s condition, and we heard of the seizures that would twist his spine. Back then we called them “fits.” There was no medication.

Pete died in August. He was eight years old, and his death affected the whole community. It affected me because we had played together.We had lost somebody, and it was traumatic when there were so few people that we were close to.

I wanted so much to give a gift to Pete.

My mother gave me a nickel to buy a gift. I went to Hicks Store and bought a lavender ribbon. My sister and I picked some day lillies, and we tied the ribbon around them, real pretty.

There was no funeral and the kids were not allowed near the grave. We gave the lillies with the lavender ribbon to somebody to put on the grave, and we stood on the hillside to watch. They were the only flowers Pete had.

Now there were three of us.


Gross injustice in Maryville Missouri provokes internet outrage

October 17, 2013

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Good afternoon:

I write today about justice denied in a sexual assault case in a small town in the heartland of rural America and the power of the internet as a force for change.

The small town is Maryville, Missouri and it’s located approximately 100 miles north of Kansas City. With a population of 12,000 it serves as the county seat for Nodaway County and the home for Northwest Missouri State University and its 7,000 students.

Football is king. Maryville High School and Northwest Missouri State University (Division II) are football powerhouses with long winning traditions. The athletes that play on those teams are local heroes.

Justice was denied to two girls, ages 13 and 14, who were sexually assaulted by two members of the Maryville High School football team. I say justice was denied because the prosecutor who charged the boys with crimes dismissed the charges despite confessions from both of them and physical evidence that confirms the assaults.

The power of the internet as a force for change has been proven by the prosecutor’s recent request to have a special prosecutor appointed to take another look at the case after a tsunami of citizen outrage expressed over the internet protested the prosecutor’s decision and demanded justice be done. The Kansas City Star deserves a lot of credit for investigating and publicizing this story.

Let’s take a look at what happened.

On a Saturday night in early January, 2012, several members of the Maryville High School football team attended a small get-together at the residence of 17-year-old Matthew Barnett, a popular senior who played defensive end on the football team.

The Barnetts are a prominent and influential family in Maryville. His grandfather, Rex Barnett, was elected to serve four terms as a member of the Missouri House of Representatives (1994-2002) after a 32-year career working for the Missouri Highway Patrol.

Daisy Coleman, the 14-year-old girl, and her 13-year-old girlfriend also attended the get-together. Barnett and Daisy knew each other from school where she was a pretty freshman cheerleader. After exchanging several text messages with her that night, he drove to her house, picked them up and gave them a ride to his house.

Dugan Arnett of the Kansas City Star has the rest of the story.

Jan. 7, 2012, was a Saturday night, and Daisy [Coleman] spent it the way she spent most weekend evenings — with her best friend, a 13-year-old girl she had grown up with in Albany.

During a typical sleepover, the girls played music, made dance videos or watched movies.

On this night, however, their activities were a bit more brazen.

In Daisy’s bedroom closet was a stash of alcohol from which both girls sipped. As they passed the night talking and watching TV, Daisy also texted with Barnett.

/snip/

At some point that Saturday evening, the texting condensed into a plan.

Shortly after midnight, [Melinda] Coleman [Daisy’s mother] went in to check on the girls and found them watching a movie in Daisy’s bedroom.

Around 1 a.m., the teens slipped out a bedroom window and were met by Barnett and another boy, who drove them three miles to the Barnett house.

When they arrived, sneaking in through a basement window, the girls found themselves among some of the school’s most popular student-athletes. In addition to Barnett, there was junior Jordan Zech, a top wrestler and all-state linebacker; a senior football and tennis player whose family owned the popular A&G Restaurant; a third junior football player; and a 15-year-old who knew the group through an older sibling.

None of the teens commented for this story. Normally, The Star does not identify victims of alleged sexual abuse, but this case is widely known in Maryville, and Coleman allowed her daughter’s name to be used in The Star, as well as an earlier KCUR broadcast, to bring attention to the case. She also provided copied investigative records that had been sealed by authorities.

In those records, Daisy alleges that after she arrived, Barnett handed her a large glass filled with alcohol. The boys urged her drink it and then a second glass too, she related later to her mother.

That, she would tell police, was the last thing she remembers.

The sun hadn’t yet risen the next morning when Coleman, groggy from a sleep interrupted, made her way toward the living room.

She had woken moments earlier to the sound of scratching at the front door — the dogs, she figured, had gotten out — and grudgingly went to investigate.

Instead, she found Daisy, sprawled on the front porch and barely conscious.

The low temperature in the area that day was listed at 22 degrees, and the teen had spent roughly three hours outside, wearing only a T-shirt and sweatpants. Her hair was frozen. Scattered across an adjacent lot were her daughter’s purse, shoes and cellphone.

Coleman tried to process what she was seeing. Daisy had a history of sleepwalking — years earlier, she had wandered outside. Had she done it again? In her daughter’s bedroom, Coleman found the 13-year-old asleep. She, too, seemed confused.

Still struggling to make sense of it all, Coleman carried her daughter to the bathroom, to be undressed for a warm bath.

That’s when she saw the redness around her daughter’s genitalia and buttocks. It hurt, the girl said, when Coleman asked about it. Then she began crying.

“Immediately,” Coleman says, “I knew what had happened.”

Coleman called 911, which directed her to St. Francis Hospital in Maryville, where, according to Daisy’s medical report, doctors observed small vaginal tears indicative of recent sexual penetration. The 13-year-old also ended up at St. Francis.

It wasn’t until a captain of the Nodaway County Sheriff’s Office arrived at the hospital for one-on-one interviews with each girl, however, that the full picture of the night’s events began to emerge.

While the last Daisy remembered was drinking “a big glass of clear stuff,” the 13-year-old’s recollections proved more useful.

The younger girl, who admitted drinking that night but denied doing so after arriving at Barnett’s, said she went into a bedroom with the 15-year-old boy, who was an acquaintance. He is unidentified in this article because his case was handled in juvenile court, but sheriff’s records include his interview, in which he said that although the girl said “no” multiple times, he undressed her, put a condom on and had sex with her.

When the two returned to the basement’s common area, the 13-year-old said, Barnett emerged from another room and asked if the girls were ready to go home. She said Daisy was unable to speak coherently and had to be carried from the bedroom.

Around 2 a.m., the girls were driven back to the Coleman house, where, the 13-year-old said, the boys told her to go on inside, saying they would watch over Daisy outside until she sobered up.

The younger girl also offered a significant detail, one later reiterated in the interviews of at least three of the boys.

As Daisy was carried to the car, she was crying.

One by one that Sunday morning, the boys were rounded up and brought to the Nodaway County Sheriff’s Office for questioning.

Barnett, who was arrested and charged with sexual assault, a felony, and endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor, admitted to having sex with Daisy and to being aware that she had been drinking. He insisted the sex was consensual.

Barnett was not charged with statutory rape, as that Missouri law generally applies in cases when a victim is under 14 years old or the perpetrator is over 21. But felony statutes also define sex as non-consensual when the victim is incapacitated by alcohol.

Hospital tests around 9 a.m., roughly seven hours after her last imbibing, showed Daisy’s blood alcohol content still at 0.13.

In addition to admitting his own sexual encounter with the younger girl, according to the sheriff’s office report, the 15-year-old said the boys had left Daisy “outside sitting in 30-degree weather” — even more dangerous with a high alcohol level in the bloodstream.

From him, the lawmen also learned that Barnett and Daisy’s encounter had been captured with an iPhone. That led to 17-year-old Zech’s felony charge of sexual exploitation of a minor. Records show that after initially declining to answer questions, Zech said he had used a friend’s phone to record some of the encounter. He said, however, that he thought Barnett and the girl were only “dry humping,” a term commonly used to describe rubbing together clothed. Another teen, however, told police the video featured both Barnett and Daisy with their pants down.

By midafternoon Sunday, a search warrant for the Barnett home resulted in the seizure of a blanket, bedsheets, a pair of panties found on a bedroom floor, a bottle of Bacardi Big Apple and plastic bottles of unidentified liquids. The sheriff’s office also seized three cellphones, including the iPhone allegedly used by Zech.

Sexual assault cases can be difficult to build because of factors such as a lack of physical evidence or inconsistent statements by witnesses. But by the time his department had concluded its investigation, Sheriff Darren White felt confident the office had put together a case that would “absolutely” result in prosecutions.

“Within four hours, we had obtained a search warrant for the house and executed that,” White told The Star. “We had all of the suspects in custody and had audio/video confessions.”

News of the arrests provoked community outrage against the girls and the police. Daisy Coleman was blamed for the incident, harassed, and threatened with harm on Facebook and Twitter. She was also kicked off the the cheerleading squad. Two weeks after the incident, her mother was fired without explanation from her job at Maryville’s SouthPaws Veterinary Clinic.

In early March, the prosecuting attorney dismissed the felony charges against both boys without notifying or providing an explanation for his decision to Melinda Coleman. Later, he also dismissed the misdemeanor charge.

The community reaction was so bad that Melinda Coleman put her house on the market and moved the family out of town.

Six months ago her house burned to the ground. Although the cause of the fire has been investigated by the local fire department and an insurance company, the cause remains unknown.

Daisy Coleman has attempted suicide twice.


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