This is the last in a three part series written by Norman’s Uncle Jack about life on the Costello farm around 1920.  The first two parts can be found here and here. Again, the words are Uncle Jack’s, I have added some pictures.

Uncle Jack

Convenience was not to be associated with the family wash. The transition from scrub board to the washing machine marked the advent of the use of small engines to power appliances.

The internal combustion engine on the washing machine made lots of blue smoke, and, with the carbon monoxide, had to exhaust outside. Moved to an outbuilding, the function required another kitchen range to heat the water. The powered mechanism moved an agitator in the center of the machine, but each article had to be put through two rinses after leaving the machine. It all went through the wringer three times, and that wringer was hand operated. Since cloth will freeze dry, the winter wash was occasionally hung out. Wet weather, however, meant trying to find room inside on folding, collapsible clothes racks.

Power was also required to pump water, chop feed, and generate electricity. This stationary power plant was a primitive, gasoline powered, combustible engine, commonly known as a “one lunger”. Appropriately named because it had only one piston. It was inordinately large by modern standards. The combustion chamber was about the only part that was not exposed. While fascinating to watch, it was inefficient in operation. The “V” belt had not been developed; the one lunger moved the load with flat belts and these were often a source of trouble. Overall, things were better with than without.

The Model T

The Model T Ford was the family car at this time. The first Ford was purchased around 1918. Like all else on a farm, the family car was used mainly for necessities, for carrying the family to church on Sunday, and for emergency runs into town for machine parts or provisions. The first family automobile was not a Ford, but a Stanley Steamer. Operating one reputedly required more plumbing skills than mechanical. Eventually the Stanley failed and was replaced by the Ford Model T. The successful farmer, always resourceful, usually kept a supply of gasoline on hand in 5-gallon cans (no AAA to call on in those days). That reserve enabled a driver to “tank up” before heading for town.

Another reserve that was standard practice was keeping a supply of flour on hand for baking (bread was made four loaves at a time). The town of Sprague, like many communities, had a small flour mill. Wheat grown locally, especially Turkey Red, made an all-purpose flour, so the farmer saved a little and used his own. Flour was stored in 50-pound sacks, 6 to 8 at a time, upstairs on a landing near the bedrooms.

Before the consolidation of country school districts, the country school was a significant factor in the lives of farm families. The district hired its teacher from Cheney Normal, and arranged for housing for her with one of the families. Textbooks and curriculum and an occasional visit came from the County Superintendent.

The school building, a one-room frame, with anteroom in front for boots, coats and lunch boxes, was heated by a big wood stove. Most teachers were young. One 18-year old resigned after a few months because her “nerves were all unstrung”. Her successor was a more resilient 19-year old who enjoyed outdoor games even when rules were altered to her disadvantage. Teachers were thought to favor the children of families with whom they boarded so that was a cause of some friction. The “student body”, always small, was at one time in the 20’s all Costello cousins. For high school, students had to travel into Sprague.

Swimming at Crab Creek

Although farm families were notably hard working, there was some time for recreation. Summer picnics were big events, most notably on the 4th of July, at Sprague Lake. And family feasts of fried chicken, corn on the cob, and homemade ice cream, were memorable. On days off, Crab Creek was close enough for a car full of swimmers (in make-do swimwear).

Uncle Jack and Aunt Gertrude sledding

In winter, despite the hardships of the cold, children had their compensation in sledding,  and occasionally a large section of the yard was flooded to form a pond for ice skating.

Regardless of the time of year, water was critical to the farm operation. With all of those horses, the farmer that had insufficient water, especially at harvest, was in deep trouble. Money spent to increase well depth was good insurance. The windmill sat over a well casing that penetrated over 100 feet, and through a rather clever valve arrangement, sent water either to a faucet open at the time or to a cistern for storage.

The old windmill

The cistern was located on a hillside at an elevation well above anything in the house or farmstead so if the windmill was shut off, water came from the cistern and was gravity fed. Rather infrequently the wind failed to develop sufficient force to turn the big fan and pump. The the “one lunger” was called upon. With a device called the “pump jack”, clean cool water was sent to the open faucet.

Hot water for the house was provided through a system of coils in front of the kitchen range. Because no other heat for cooking was available, the cookstove was used daily, and the hot water circulated to a nearby galvanized storage tank. This system worked, but provided a limited quantity, enough for dishes, and perhaps a couple of baths. The family wash required a topside boiler, a copper lined job of 20 to 30 gallon capacity, sitting directly over the flames. The electric hot water tank did not arrive on the farm until the mid 40’s.

Construction of the cistern has to be one of the truly clever undertaking of that time. Reputed to have a capacity of 13,000 gallons, from the inside it appeared to be a concrete bottle with its lower 90% below the earth’s surface. Bottom and walls were concrete grout and mortar trowelled to a firm earthen surface. This thing was a hand dug hole with symmetry that approached an art form. Everything above ground was bricked up, with a 3-foot opening at the top, covered by a piece of sheet metal. Native grasses and weeds hid everything but the very top of the cistern and the overflow pipe. Another thing hidden was the fact that covering the cistern with sheet metal, with weights to keep it tight, did not prevent field mice from squeezing in and dropping to their doom, settling at the bottom, below the outlet. Now, while the water had qualities that made for strong teeth, those drop in visitors weren’t exactly an amenity. The horses never complained, but for the farmer, cleaning the cistern was a chore with some rewards.

Critical to the farming operation was the prudent marketing of crops. With only one payday per year, the successful operator combined all of his skill with perhaps some good fortune to net a profitable return for the year’s effort.

Winter wheat ready for harvest

He was assessed a handling charge immediately upon delivery, and from there on a month storage charge. Quotes would be available from several grain dealers at different destinations, sometimes involving a knowledge of freight rates. Market volatility and poor relations with grain dealers, who often profited handsomely at the farmer’s expense, eventually resulted in the formation of cooperatives. These co-ops did not completely remove the need for competent marketing but the atmosphere was made more friendly. Modern farm operators have computers and ready access to market information and also the advantage of governmental regulations limiting price changes. While there is still some wailing and gnashing of teeth, marketing has become easier.

The era ends! Following a typical auction of stock and equipment, the family moved to Spokane in September 1928. Due to health problems, John T. quit farming at age 55. Despite his disappointment with this early end to his farming career, the timing was somewhat fortuitous because the Great Depression was only a year removed. And that’s another story.

In the subsequent decade, wheat farming underwent drastic changes. Tractors replaced horses and, with the advent of farm trucks, harvested wheat no longer had to be sacked. The new method, called bulking, eliminated the highest paid member of the harvest crew, the sack sewer. And the young man who jerked the top of the sack to insure a filled sack, the jigger, was no longer needed. While bulking was progress, the less progressive cited commingling of grains in the co-op elevator as unrewarding to the quality producer. Grading by the State Department of Agriculture solved the problem.

Further progress came when electricity became available. A federal agency, the Rural Electrification Administration, made low interest loans for their service. Later, to, come indoor plumbing!

This brief account of farming in general and the Costello farm specifically, does not pretend to be a literary effort nor an exhaustive compilation of facts. It is presented, however, in the hope that it will help our posterity appreciate the challenge of early times in the wheat country of Eastern Washington, especially as experienced by John T, Elizabeth, et al.

John A. Costello

June 1992

I am pleased to share with you a piece written by Norman’s Uncle Jack about life on a wheat farm in Eastern Washington in the early part of the twentieth century.  This was written for a family reunion in 1992.  This is the first part, two others will follow in the coming weeks.  The words are all Uncle Jack’s; I have added some pictures.

Uncle Jack

John Thomas Costello (born 1874 in California) left agricultural pursuits long enough to rise to the rank of fireman on the Northern Pacific, which even at that time (circa 1904) had to be an early accomplishment. In June 1906 he married Elizabeth McDonald, a teacher, who was born near Walla Walla and had moved to Sprague with her family. She deserves equal credit for the success of the farm and of their large family. He later stated that his reason for returning to farming was “You never make it working for somebody else.”  It was a challenging era and posterity should have some knowledge and, hopefully, some appreciation for “early times” and their farming forebears.

Many Americans at that time were involved in agriculture, so it was not unusual that John Thomas, like his parents before him, turned to farming. Owning land then was a significant matter of pride and accomplishment for those that did.

Costello family Farm about 1916

While the city dweller and the professional or more formally educated might exhibit some feeling of superiority, those unassociated or actively involved could not appreciate the farmer’s station. With the advent of the internal combustion engine and the mechanical revolution, the industry is very different. The modern farm is “cash crop” oriented, highly mechanized with all of the conveniences, with transportation facilities that permit easy farm equipment mobility and nothing specific in domicile requirements. This significant change in farm life began around 1930 when tractors replaced the work horse.

Farmers have always been noted for their self-reliance and independence, sometimes at a terrible price, they actually had no alternative. The farmer saved and provided-or went without. Considering all of the manual labor required, was the farmer more peasant than entrepreneur? Owning their “place”, as the farm was referred to, then adding acreage as a good crop allowed, was an obsession with a farmer. The owners of the King Ranch in Texas lived by the rule of “buy land and never sell”. What farmer was different?

Top priority was for care of the animals, especially the horses, which usually numbered around 30. Here was the power needed to pull the equipment for tilling and harvesting. They also pulled the wagons, loaded with sacked wheat, the eight miles over rough roads to market. Several months of the year horses could be pastured on range land where they would graze on native grass, but for the most part they were held in or near the farm and had to be fed hay and grain daily. The feed was part of the crop. Hay was cut for winter storage as roads were cut through the growing wheat to make way for the harvesting combine that followed a few weeks later. Without these roads through standing grain, 20-odd head of horses would move through and destroy the wheat in front of the combine (the combine’s cutting device was off to the right side). The work horses, large animals weighing 1500 to 1800 pounds apiece, could easily consume their weight in hay and grain each year. Since their output would not vary significantly from their intake, disposal of tons of manure was an added task. As draft animals, feet and shoulders were in jeopardy. The shoulder problems required medication or adjustment to the harness, but work horses also needed horseshoes. In modern times the farrier’s is a specialized craft, but farmers became blacksmiths and did their own.

Veterinary services were expensive and not readily available. Stud service, however, was provided by a circuit rider that made a business of it. This was selective breeding to provide large, strong stock. Since the stallions lack the preferred temperament, all male foal went under the knife. Professional horse traders are prototypes to auto dealers (especially used cars) but for the most part the farmers looked to their own mares to provide replacement stock. Rendering companies were not available to dispose of a dead animal’s carcass so nature was again employed. Remains were removed to a remote location of the farm, there to await the coyote or carrion friends.

Of all the many chores and challenges presented by horses, the one most probably requiring most judgment and organizing skill was the selection of teams. Horses are of all types, from placid and gentle to spirited and mean. Most operations required only a few horses at one time but the combine harvester usually called for 24 or more. Arranging these teams into a harmonious unit was a test of real horse sense. If disagreement arose in the ranks, harness could be broken and other calamities occur, all resulting in delay.

The off-season winter months were times to repair and replace harness. Each horse was custom-fitted with approximately 20 pounds of heavy gauge strap leather. A shoemaker’s set of tools, with rivets and heavy waxed thread, was the mainstay of this operation. The equipment and skill that the farmer used to maintain 25 to 30 sets of harness also enabled him to keep his family’s footwear in good repair.

While the horse was the prime mover and first in priorities, a successful family farm required a full complement of domestic animals. With no “butter and egg” man serving rural areas, milk cows, at least two, were a requisite. The cow produced milk only after having giving birth (after a gestation period of nine months). With only one cow, a farmer’s family would be without milk for several months each year. Reproduction, as usual, involved the male of the species. Unlike the equine with delivered stud services, the bovine reversed procedures and made the farmer deliver the female to the bull’s quarters. Fresh milk, cream, and butter were all accepted as standard fare, but an important by-product essential to the family’s wellbeing was an abundance of skim milk to feed pigs. Their population ranged from 2 or 3 to 10 or 12, depending on the presence of brood sows. In their absence, young pigs (weaner pigs) were purchased. Chickens ran free, which made egg gathering a real detective chore. Nests had to be discovered before mother hen decided to start setting, which would be bad business for fertile eggs. But that is another chapter under the heading “kid’s work”.

The farm dog, “man’s best friend”, fueled only by table scraps, worked like the rest. Due to the incompatibility of chickens and hunting dogs, farm dogs ran to the working types. The Costello’s Max was a generic dog, black and white, with some semblance to a shepherd, and smart.

Max with Costello children

While Max could assist in moving horses, his real worth was demonstrated when cows figured in. Although never many cows, bringing them in for evening milking was “kid’s work” and Max helped if needed. It gave him an opportunity to grandstand a bit because he knew cows, unlike horses, can’t kick while running. The procedure started with a loud, clear call for Max, directed more toward the cows than the dog. Same cows, same dog, no need for the kids. When the cows heard the call for Max, they would head for the barn. The smart dog got a pat on the head, and the smart cows got milked. No shaggy dog story-this is the way it was.

I was absent from the blog for the month of August because I was traveling in the Pacific Northwest.   The best part of my travels was attending the Costello family reunion in Spokane.   This is my husband’s family.  There was a roomful of Costellos I had never met. The family is scattered around the globe now, but the greatest concentration is in the Northwest.  Since Norman and I have spent most of our married life on the East coast I had not met most of his cousins.  Six East coast Coles were together with our Northwest cousins for the first time. We were welcomed both literally and figuratively with open arms.   It was such a joy for us to put faces to names and to feel a part of this large and wonderful family.  I will have more to say about this in future posts, but today I want to talk about the family farm.

I have written about the family farm in the past.  John and Anna Costello homesteaded the farm in 1882.  The farm was divided between Anna’s two sons when she died and a portion of the land is still owned by Costellos.   I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see the farm and the Catholic cemetery where Norman’s great-grandparents are buried. Our cousin John, who grew up on the farm gave us a guided tour.

It is amazing for me to think about all the changes that have happened to the farm and to the Costellos.  By 1901 the original farm had grown to 640 acres under Annie Costello’s care.   Farmed by Anna, her husband and her sons the farm provided the vast majority of the family’s need for milk, meat and produce.  The cash crop was wheat and remains so today.  In the early days of the farm the wheat was harvested with a cutter powered by a team of 20 or more horses.  All the neighboring farms joined together to bring in the harvest.  Depending on weather conditions it could take more than a month to harvest the Costello farm.

In the 1950’s and 60’s when cousin John lived on the farm the harvest took about 3 weeks.

Today the land is leased to a local farmer whose family was also one of the original homesteaders in Eastern Washington.  The family farms several thousand acres of winter wheat with a modern combine.  These are amazing machines with computerized systems that allow the farmer to control all the height of the cutting, speed, and all of the other things necessary for harvesting andto set a GPS system to cover the field efficiently and deliver clean wheat without the backbreaking hours of threshing required in the 19th century. The family that leases the farm harvests several thousand acres of wheat in a week or less.

Everything changes over time. Modern equipment has taken some of the most difficult labor out of farming.  Large farms have replaced small ones.  The Costello acres no longer provide for all the families needs.  They are planted exclusively on wheat; the house is not used anymore.  The house was recently purchased by someone and has new windows.  Perhaps it will be renovated and provide a retreat for another family.  It pleases me to think that one of the families that originally homesteaded the land farms it now.  They will probably buy the farm eventually.  I am hopeful that some small portion, an acre, a half acre, might remain in Costello hands.