Some Tales of Life When Gramps Was a Boy
Written August 22, 1982 by Verne Yost
Copyright 1982 by Verne Yost
Introduction: Jean and Howie [Davidsmeyer] were here in August 1982 to help me recuperate from a hospital stay of five days. We were planning to eat a light lunch for Sunday supper and someone mentioned popcorn. I commented that on the farm when my father was alive, prior to February 1904, we used to have a big dishpan full of popcorn and milk before an 'Economy' stove in our living room, particularly on winter nights. Jean indicated that Jo Ann and she would be much interested in learning more of our life on the farm in the early 1900s. So, here are a few notes which Jo Ann can print from scribblings on paper to printed form by use of her computer.
The following record is a story of a typical midwestern family in Indiana, about their saving and preserving food raised on the farm. This is not a hard-luck story but typical of the early 1900s. Many of the tasks and jobs on the farm required more help than the two or so men who normally worked on the farm. Such times were harvesting, grain threshing, butchering, and gravel road maintenance. The neighbors would help each other and, of course, this required a schedule of such work in the neighborhood.
Our mother would also be busy all summer and early fall in putting up food for the winter. Many of these foods could not be bought in the stores. So, we kids thought we were very fortunate to have such goodies to eat. We were the envy of the town kids then. In the case of processing hogs for our use, the crew butchered the hogs, six or seven, on the farm premises. This provided most of the meat and meat products, such as ham, smoked "side meat" (now called bacon), sausage, lard, head cheese, and scrapple.
Some of the goodies that our mother prepared (with our help) included foods from the farm garden and orchard -- strawberry jam, grape jelly, apple jelly, apple butter cider, applesauce, canned peaches, dried apples, dried corn, canned green beans, tomatoes, tomato pickles, chow chow, sauerkraut, horseradish, onions, potatoes, apples, canned cherries, pears, and plum jam. We ate butter and several kinds of jam on our bread for a snack after school. Mother said this was to "save bread."
I was born in November 1884. At that time, we lived in the house described by Lloyd in the book he published a year or so ago. We lived on the farm and seemed quite happy with our lot. I do recall the Sunday evenings around the wood-burning stove heater, later replaced by a hard coal-based burner. We sat around the fire and ate popcorn and milk, since we lived about two-and-a-half miles from church and there was no adult church on Sunday eve. It was a family gathering with Father, Mother, Dale, and baby Lloyd and I. Mother read stories or Father told some, or maybe played a mouth organ. One of his favorite tunes was "Listen to Mockingbird." These Sunday nights were not carried on after Father died, since I cannot recall any instances after that.
We had a big garden and an orchard. Fruits and vegetables were canned and preserved. Potatoes, apples, and flour were plentiful and the meat was pork, supplied from hogs butchered on the farm. Meats were smoked, preserved, etc. for the winter. We had chickens, also, which provided eggs and were used for roasting. Sometimes, we had beef from Dayton, Indiana two-and-a-half miles away, but not often, since we had no ice to refridgerate it. Beef was a good change.
Then, of course, there were woods and streams nearby, which provided hunting and fishing. I welcomed the opportunity to go fishing in the middle fork of the Wildcat Creek, which ran through a corner of our property, and also on the south fork of the Wildcat about a mile away where it crossed the Hagerty Lane Road. I caught some "goggle eye" fish and sun fish, together with suckers and a few bass.
I recall, one day I went to my favorite fishing holes to get some fish for Mother, to vary the ham or chicken diet. I fished several of the deeper water holes left, as the creek ran less water in summer than winter. I finally found four Kentucky bass around an uprooted tree and used a snare to catch four of these bass. I proudly presented the string of bass to my mother. She was terribly shocked that I would catch bass when out of season. She took them, but the ten-year-old boy never did that again, even later when on vacation in Wisconsin.
Dale and I also bought a .22 caliber single-shot rifle and I used that on many occasions to shoot a rabbit for frying to supplement our monotonous ham or chicken suppers. Just imagine passing up ham or chicken today for rabbit.
As far back as I can remember, we always had cattle on the farm. We usually had five or six milk cows to feed, put in pasture, and milk each morning and evening. We sold or traded the butter for the staple groceries not provided from the farm, such as sugar, rice, and oatmeal.
At certain times after my father died, my mother was sick two or three months with pleurisy in the spring. So, it was up to me to milk the cows, with some help from Dale, the hired hand, or the "hired girl." It was a chore, especially before school in the morning. In the summer, each evening we put the milk cows in a nearby pasture to eat a little grass. In the morning, I would go to the pasture to bring them in for milking.
I would be barefooted until school started in September. The grass was cold and almost frosted. The cows were usually lying down in the pasture, chewing their cuds, so I would kick them to get them going, and then stand in the warm place in the grass that their bodies had made, just to warm my bare feet.
Another thing that was the custom when I was on the farm, 1900 to 1909, was to herd the cows along the gravel roads. There was usually good grass along the roads and I would herd the critters along the roads in our farm. We didn't encroach on our neighbors grass along their farms.
Usually my mother would go to Lafayette on Saturday to do the marketing. We had surplus butter, maybe four pounds, and some eight or ten dozen eggs to trade for supplies. My mother usually took me (I was eight to twelve years old), Dale sometimes, and, of course, Lloyd, when he was two or three to six years old. We drove the one-seated buggy down the Hagerty Lane road to Lafayette, about seven miles away. It was always an occasion for us kids. Mother left the horse and buggy in a livery stable for a dime, feed included for the horse. Mother would trade the butter and eggs for maybe 25 cents a pound and 10 cents a dozen.
We had lunch of a coffee cake (ten cents from the bakery) and maybe bologna from Dreyfus' at ten cents a pound. We ate in the "lounge" at the livery stable.
On the way home, the old driving horse would plod along until she seemed to recognize familiar roads. Then she would suddenly pick up speed and get us home before dark. Mother told us about people who lived along the road. I still laugh at one, "The Cheese Monkey," who made cheese in an old house.
It seemed that Mike was an old, old man with a tobacco-stained beard when I can first recall him and his wife. He was still old after we left the farm. He died later. He and his wife lived in an old log cabin in the woods of Dean Davis, our neighbor to the east of us.
Mike had a garden, or at least his wife did, and the neighbors gave them some meats and flour. Mike ran a junk business. He had a horse and wagon to drive around and buy and sell junk, mostly for drink. My mother accused him of holding the scales slantwise when weighing ten or twelve pounds of old iron, and thus saving two or three cents to buy rot gut. He managed to exist while we lived on the farm.
One day, I was playing with the Davis kids and old Mike drove up in his spring wagon and stopped at the Davis place. Dean and his wife, the kids, and I went to the wagon. Mike brought out a bottle of cheap gin and Dean Davis took a swig. So did Mike. I was looking at them and Mike said, "Here, Verne, take a drink," and he put it to my lips. I took a small swig and it burned so and tasted so bad, I sputtered and spit for so long that they gave me a cup of water. That is one reason I do not relish strong drink. You never know how easy it is to train a kid, sometimes.
When we were kids on the farm with no father, it was our lot to help with the farm work in order to make a living for four people and pay the mortgage. We did this willingly and, as you see from these ramblings, we had fun also. If I had a nickel to spend while in Dayton or Lafayette, I was happy. And it took some weighty decisions to decide where to spend it.
I must have been much like that young man of eighteen or nineteen that I recall seeing in a Dayton store. There were a group of "cracker barrel bums" hanging around, and this young man was asked by one of these characters whether he wanted the five-cent piece or ten-cent piece laid out on the counter. The boy hesitated a moment and took the nickel. "Why did you do this," I asked him. He said, "If I picked the dime, they wouldn't do it anymore, so I get a nickel and they think I'm dumb."
So, we had extra work to bring us a few nickels. We sold junk iron, picked strawberries from the neighboring patch at one cent a quart. Fifty cents was my high picking. We also dug gingseng root in our back woods and sold it maybe for 50 cents a pound. Now it sells for $40 or $50 a pound as medicine. We also gathered marel mushrooms in the back woods to supplement our meals. There was no pay for that, but it was delicious on toast.
There was a country school house about a country block from our house. This school was located on a small plot of ground donated by my Grandfather Warwick. One teacher taught all eight grades in the school. When I was five (almost) my mother wanted me to go to school, as she thought is was "bright." I started and stayed two days. I said I didn't like school, could I quit? I did, and started the next year when I was six, when I should have started.
There was a big wood stove in the middle of the room. There was an outhouse each for boys and girls. Water was carried from our well in a big pail. In winter, when cold enough, the kids skated on a pond in our woods. This was a good exercise at noon recess, even though all kids, except the Yosts, had to walk to school from a quarter mile to a mile each morning and evening.
Oh, yes! One night, I was walking the road home from high school and was passing what we all called the Wildcat Den -- a cave that housed wildcats some years earlier. We had had extra curriculum that night and it was very dark. The awfullest screech came from the direction of the den -- a wildcat! When the second screech came, I must have been a half mile nearer home.
I only attended that high school one year, since we then moved to West Lafayette to be near Purdue. My mother later moved from West Lafayette back to that same school house, which had since been remodeled into a nice small home.
When I was a boy, about 1900, I sat at the knee of my grandfather (who then wore a beard) and listened to words of advice. Now, in 1982, I again sit listening to words of advice, now at the knee of my grandson who wears a beard.
Times have changed and I do not know which are the best times. I enjoyed myself in 1900 and I still do now in 1982. I don't long for the good old days. I like these times.