From an Iowa girlhood to a Wisconsin dairy farm, Marilyn, along with her husband, Justin, raised chickens, cows, hogs, crops, and fourteen children.
Welcome to a window into a time of small farms and big families, told by word, photograph, and painting.
These thirty-some, full-page paintings illustrate life on a 20th-century Midwest farm. The paintings are in gouache, about ten-by-ten inches. Find a book of all these paintings, along with short stories and photographs, at Lulu.com or contact Lorraine for your copy.
We Always Had Chickens
When Mother married in 1952, her new husband’s parents gifted them a team of horses–a matched pair. Her own parents presented the happy couple with 400 baby chicks. Over the years she often said with pride, “We always had chickens.”
Courting Grandma Minnie
John loved Wilhelmina and married her upon his return from the Great War. They raised eight children on the fertile Iowa soil, including Marilyn, my mom.
The Horses Knew the Way
It really surprised Marilyn (my mom), one fall day, when her dad instructed the two girls to take the horse and wagon and go pick the two end rows of corn by hand. Mom was maybe ten and she was worried, but her dad assured her the horse would know what to do, and he did.
In summer, Mom walked a mile and a half up to the school in Mt. Carmel, Iowa, for piano lessons, then back again. Her dad had arranged for a music teacher to teach orchestra during the school year. And, as long as someone would drive the teacher out to the rural school, she would give summer lessons.
Marilyn, my mom, says: We always had lots of apple trees, and every fruit and berry that Dad could plant. We ground the apples into cider, placing it in wooden barrels, where it turned into vinegar used for canning cucumbers. In the summer my mother and I picked lots of strawberries, even taking them to grocery stores to sell.
Learning to Cook
Cream the sugar and butter, show the mix to her mother. “Yes, that looks right, now add the eggs….” Marilyn’s cooking skills developed early. Her mom wasn’t well and Marilyn’s help was valued. Baseball games on the radio gave her added responsibility: While she worked she listened with care. Later she’d report the details of the game to her farming brothers.
Those teenaged brothers worked in the fields, came in hungry. To share the home-grown meal of meat, potatoes, garden veggies, cake, plus the story of the baseball game—what satisfaction!
Baseball was a big deal – national baseball games were broadcast on the radio, and Marilyn relished her important chore of relaying details of the day’s game to her brothers when they came in from the fields. As a middle child, Marilyn easily got in on backyard baseball with her big brothers.
They played for the Mt. Carmel Beavers, and their dad, John, sometimes refereed.
The young men returning from service in the 1940s joined in the traveling community baseball teams. There were great rivalries and more than a little beer drinking. Teams often traveled to away games in the back of a cattle truck.
Dad Gave Us 400 Baby Chicks for Our Wedding
After a road trip honeymoon, Marilyn settled into married life with a husband and the four-hundred baby chicks that her parents graciously presented as a wedding gift. While her husband farmed the land, plowing with a team of horses and tending hogs and cattle, Mom labored daily with feeding, watering, cleaning up after, and egg gathering – chicken chores.
Grandma Helped in the Autumn Garden
Mom hung out wash, planted a huge garden, and worked in the barn nearly every day. Little did we know, as the tribe of us little hoodlums created constant chaos in or around the house, Mother escaped with her hoe to the tranquil peace in the straight green rows of her garden, her prized retreat, coaxed along with her determined, gentle hand.
Pea Picker I’d Much Rather Be
Garden work was an easy assignment, although I don’t think we kids always weeded our row with much diligence. Done, can I go play now? Hang the diapers on the line, then off we were until dinner time.
However, as the garden grew, picking peas was a joyful first produce to harvest, though more usually went in the mouth than into the bucket.
We had a big cucumber patch that year
Whose idea was it to put in an acre of cucumbers?
As the kids grew, it was sure to become an unruly mob or a mighty workforce. It may have been Dad’s brainchild, but the pickle patch was Mom’s enterprise.
The Yard was Huge
My sister says: Fifty years ago I sat on that soft grass and decided to pick a few blades for my scrapbook. I wondered if they would be important to me in the future; I still have them. It turns out that what I value is having the fond memories of play on that soft carpet of green, whether I was kicking a ball through the air, chasing a sibling in a game of tag, or being the lucky person to call a game of Captain, May I.
Playing in the creek
“Aaaaah! get it off me!” Leeches just grossed me out. A sister sat me down and pulled the slimy bloodsucker from my heel. Eventually I learned to stay out the muddy spots in the creek.
Spring often meant fifty or so broiler chicks. Mom set up heat lamps, special feeder trays for the precious little chicks, and cleaned and refilled the waterers daily. These critters are messy!
After a few weeks of feeding them we feared the time had come to start putting the little fellers in the freezer. The giant kettle was on the stove and out Mom would come with her butcher knife–off with their heads.
Turning Rags into Rugs
Nothing wasted. Old clothes, donated by older neighbors, handed down and handed down, and turned into barn clothes and cleaning rags and doll clothes. A last resurrection into rag rugs, buttons saved and zippers removed, sewn into long strips and balled into bundles for the loom-lady down the road. Months later, new rugs adorned the kitchen floor.
My brother says: There were few jobs on the farm that I truly did willingly, but there were times when I just walked out into the oats on my own and pulled weeds.
Clean oats fields were important, Dad sold oats to neighbors for seed.
The First Step-saver
My sisters had terrific strength. It was their job to carry two galvanized steel pails filled with milk to the bulk tank and lift each shoulder-high to dump through the funnel and filter. Repeatedly. Two hours a day. A step-saver changed the way we milked; it changed our lives.
Blue Cows at Dawn
My sister says: It was the job of Ellen and me to bring in the cows for evening milking. Of course, we did this barefooted–at least this time I was barefooted.
As it happened there was a large patch of thistles near the end of the lane where we had to guide the cows through. I picked my way through, trying to not step in a thistle. When I got to the middle of the patch I started to cry as I had no where to turn. I was surrounded by thistles and my feet hurt terribly.
Mom calmly walked in and picked me up and safely carried me out.
Washing the Bulk Tank
For winter Saturday morning chores we sisters took turns: vacuum the upstairs, change sheets on beds, take the milking machines apart for a full wash. I traded for the milkhouse–alone with a radio and a heater, it was my first choice.
My brother says: We always had the chains in a bucket of warm water when we brought them to pull a calf. Chain was about six feet long and you would put a loop in each end, one loop for each front foot. Best case scenario, you waited till the feet were just sticking out, otherwise you reached in with the chain around your arm, grabbed a foot, and slid the chain onto the calf.
Lawrence, the ninth child writes:
Later in the evening, in the dark, during milking, climb up the ladder into the hay mow. (That was where, during the summer we had put 5,000 to 12,000 bales of hay, filling it from one end of the barn to the other and up to the roof. The hay was so high we drew with chalk on the roof boards.) Throw a few bales down to the chutes on each side of the barn, crawl down, and push them through the chutes to the cows. It was so cold up in the mow that the heat from the cows steamed up through the cracks in the chute door. And it was dark, you might have to feel your way. Spread the hay out for the cows and about then milking was done; barn cleaned, calves fed, cows fed, milking pulsator silent, lights out. Nothing but the sound of cows chewing and watering cups running. Crunch back through the snow up to the house in the dark.
Hiding in the Corn
There was that day when I hid in the corn field. Maybe someone was calling, maybe there was a chore to do, maybe I should have responded. But I hid and made a corn husk doll.
Peggy’s Wedding was in 1974, Booby the Milkman Played Accordion
Big Catholic church wedding, pastel bridesmaids, live accordion polka music, and the community all there. This was Peg and Dave’s wedding–the first wedding I went to.
We girls all got new floor-length dresses. Over the years each dress had many wearers, but they were new for that day. Mine was blue.
They Talked about Delivery, I Listened In
I remember that afternoon well. Mom could tell I was anxious. She tried to calm me by telling me it will hurt enough to make you cry but it stops as soon as the baby is born. Guess I figured she should know.
Calligraphy for church
There was a sort of promotion system: when you were five, you changed straps for evening milking, later you did chicken chores, got cows, fed calves, washed the bulk tank.
But when I did calligraphy for the church, well. I didn’t do chores.
During haying Dad used a large hay fork to move sets of ten bales to the upper areas in the hay mow. The hay fork was powered by a long rope attached to a small tractor. Once the fork tines were set in the bales, the group of bales held itself together by pressure as the tractor reversed and pulled the bales to the top of the inside of the barn, then along a metal track under the roof.
When the bales were positioned over the area to drop them, Dad signaled, the tractor stopped reversing, Dad yanked a release rope, the bales dropped. The tractor started driving forward to give slack to the rope.
Dad pulled, hand-over-hand, to bring the fork back to the wagon for the next set of ten bales. The tractor drove toward the barn speedily, and we younger kids (too young to be in the mow, where siblings arranged the bales neatly) grabbed the rope and ran it forward to keep it out the way of the tractor wheels.
The work was rhythmic and in the 30 seconds or so between sets of bales, we lay in the grass, gazed at the clouds, listened to the roll of metal pulleys and songs of displaced sparrows.
Haying: the Last Load
When every hay field was harvested, and each bale orderly in the mow, it was time for a treat. Dad had a grocery bag that hid a dozen candy bars. He’d reach in and sing out, “Who wants this one?” We were never disappointed.
Dad’s joy was to see the orchard. He planted pears, grapes, mulberries, and many apple varieties.
Some trees were so laden we propped up branches with fence posts and harvested from the bucket of a tractor.
With so many apples, you can bet we had apple pie, apple dumplings, apple crisp…and the apple grinder and cider press got lots of use. That press was the same one Mom grew up with. More than 80 years later, it’s still squeezing apples.
And Mom is still making pies.
Watermelon in the Swimming Pool: Independence Day
Dad was involved in the community. Besides farming, he sold insurance, was the president of the school board, on the parish board, and on the co-op board. When Independence Day rolled around he helped coordinate the small town activities, among them a watermelon-eating contest. And the best place to keep all those watermelons chilled? the swimming pool.
Starting Public School
My sister says: On fall days I would often cut through the orchard to pull an apple from the tree to add to my lunch.
Trips to Grandma’s house—hours away in Iowa—were rare for this shy granddaughter. When we did spend a day, we also saw Aunt Joanne, who lived with Grandma at the family farm.
Joanne’s playful spirit melted our timidity. The adults could visit in peace as we kids followed Joanne around that old farm, searching for adventure.
One summer day, barefoot and bold, we climbed an ancient mulberry tree and were rewarded with not just berries but with a view and gorgeous purple toes.
My sister says: In the early ‘60s carrying lunch to Dad as he worked fields was done with a quart jar of water and a sandwich in a syrup bucket. There was always a sandwich for the carrier, too, and it tasted so good out in the open field.
Dark during morning milking, dark during evening milking. But winter glowed with reflected snow and holidays. We celebrated St. Nicholas night December 6. St. Nick somehow surprised us, despite our constant peeks out the window. There would be hard candy and angel foam. And many, many walnuts in the shell.
My sister says: Even in the winter the call to explore the woods was strong. All alone I tried walking across a field covered with a foot of fresh, soft snow. It was an elegant carpet of sparkle. Alas, I had to retreat back to our farm buildings, where Dad’s tractor had cleared pathways and formed mountains of white.
Blackbirds in the Morning
By the time I was ten I knew east from west. The sun rose on the east side of the barn, set on the west side. Gypsy, one of the oldest cows, always had a stanchion on the west.
Leaving the Farm
My sister says: When I moved away from the farm I was relieved. No longer did I have to work seven days a week. The labor of my new job was a walk in the park in comparison to farming, and the paycheck seemed so extravagant.
Yet I’ve never really left the farm completely. When I visit I still enjoy washing cows at milking time, or riding on the tractors. The creek and woods are smaller than what they once seemed, but they’re still an enjoyable escape to serenity. I’m so thankful that two of our brothers have successfully taken the reins as stewards of the land, and it seems a third generation will be proud to take their turn at it, too.