This is the second part of a series of the memories of Uncle Jack Costello about life on a farm in eastern Washington in the early twentieth century. You can read the first part here.
Family farm diet ran heavily to pork because it was easier to preserve. Due to the lack of refrigeration, beef and poultry had to be fresh. Hog butchering was scheduled for cold weather when the natural cold helped prevent spoilage. Ultimately, the hams, shoulders and bacon were hung in the smokehouse to be cured by smoke and salt. Nothing was wasted. Feet were pickled and head cheese made from the boiled head. The family kitchen became a sausage factory as freshly ground meat was mixed with spices and forced into its casing (intestines). Meanwhile, a battery of large utensils filled the oven for the purpose of rendering fat. This project netted white lard which was stored in 5-gallon cans for the year’s supply “Crisco”, or the necessary ingredients for homemade soap. Overall, while butchering was hard work, it often took on an air of socializing. There was “more the merrier” attitude about numbers required, and neighbors worked on an exchange basis.
After many high priority chores were completed and the weather permitted “the man” hitched a team to a wagon and headed to the creek four miles away for firewood. These mid-winter forays produced the year’s main supply of heat, sometimes supplemented with a chunk of coal in the family room space heater. The wood was cut into usable lengths, split, and thrown into a large pile. If thoughtfully placed, this pile was passed on the way back from the outhouse, and cooperative family members helped keep the box on the back porch filled.
When the weather was bad, the farmer could take either harness or grain sacks into the sheltered area for mending. Thousands of burlap sacks were needed for the harvest. Used ones could be checked over in this off-season and those worth mending, attended to. Approximately 30 sets of harnesses required at least annual inspection. When sacks and harness were finished, attention might be directed to the potatoes in storage. A potato that had started to spoil, like a bad apple, needed to be discarded. So the stored potatoes needed to be inspected occasionally to reduce the number of rotten spuds. A bit of country humor is generated through the job requisite. One sorting potatoes must be able to make a decision. Another seasonal task for this time of year was orchard pruning. Taking a day or two, the 20 or so fruit trees would furnish the wood for use in the smoke house to cure the recently butchered pork.
Jobs that had to be squeezed in when time and weather permitted, were building maintenance and fencing. A quarter section of land has a circumference of two miles. Fencing generally consisted of three strands of barbed wire with cedar posts spaced approximately 15 feet apart. Keeping miles of fence in good repair was no small task, but still easier than retrieving stock that could easily trot over the hill. Especially in the spring, both horses and cows were wont to break out and take off for anywhere, maybe just for the sake of running.
Now came a time to await some serious cold. With no refrigeration, a good store of ice was essential to keeping some types of food during the next season. For this operation horses were hooked to a sled and driven to a lake where ice was cut into cakes of approximately 80 to 100 pounds, loaded onto a sled, and brought back to the farm to be stored. In the shed known as the ice house, the big cakes were carefully layered and covered with sawdust. Insulating qualities of sawdust made this ideal for this purpose but not easily removed from the ice cake that was on its way to the swamp cooler. This was an item developed through a little local carpentry, with some semblance to a modern refrigerator in size and shape, but without the cooling capacity. Ice and evaporating moisture on a burlap frame was the best available. This thing was usually located with ready access to the kitchen.
Did the outbuildings on a farm always take precedence over the dwelling, or did it just seem that the barn always got its coat of paint before the house? And in the house, probably the most important room was the kitchen. At mealtimes the numbers varied from family members plus one hired hand to the family plus seven or eight. Harvest time, especially, called for three big meals a day, all prepared on a wood stove. No electric appliance of any sort. Needless to say, on the successful farm the “lady of the house” didn’t lead the life of a lady. Besides the vegetable garden which needed tending because it produced a good portion of the family’s summer food, the orchard supplied fruit in great quantity, everything from the first cherries to late apples and pears, with crabapples and prunes between. Canned fruits, jellies and preserves were important for the winter menu and rhubarb, currants and berries of all sorts were canned in sufficient quantities, hopefully, to carry through to the next season. The root vegetables, such as carrots, turnips, and parsnips were dug late and stored in boxes covered with dry soil. Cabbage was a big ticket item because it was served frequently as slaw, and every family had a large crock, usually 20-gallon, for a store of sauerkraut. Not a gourmet item for everyone, but inexpensive and an easy keeper.
These foodstuffs had to be stored in a so-called root cellar because few farm homes had basements or storage areas under their living quarters. The root cellar provided both protection from freezing in winter and a cool, even temperature for year round. The floor of the building was poured concrete about six feet below ground level. Ten inch thick walls, also of concrete, rose about a foot above ground level. The frame ceiling had to be strong enough to support a healthy level of earth, the insulating agent. Double doors kept heat loss to a minimum, and a conventional pitched roof over all protected from rain and snow. Although the root cellar wasn’t ideal, it worked.
An unhappy feature of putting all these good things away was the timing factor. Most of the picking, canning and preserving coincided with harvest, or crush time. A harvest crew consisted of five men, and because half of the acreage was in crop and the other half fallow, teenage boys were sometimes hired to hoe weeds in the summer fallow. There was always a roustabout, and with mother and children, numbers at the table, if all together, would be 10 to 15. Since tables usually couldn’t accommodate that number, two settings were required. The harvest crew had priority, and since the meals were 6 a.m., noon, and generally around 7:30 to 8:00, hard work, fresh air, long hours developed the voracious appetites for which the harvest hands became renowned. The cookstove, fueled with wood and an occasional chunk of coal, boosted the temperature in this hottest part of the year. And natural ventilation, windows open, was the only air conditioning.
During harvest the evening meat was invariably served after dark. Some farmers had electrical generators but they were primitive, with insufficient juice to illuminate a room. The principal light at the evening meal was usually a kerosene lantern, suspended over the dinner table. The typical lantern had two very delicate cloth mantles wherein kerosene mixed with air under pressure was ignited to form a very bright but fragile light. While everyone was busy eating, cooking, and serving, the dull but elusive miller moth made the scene. Like many other flying insects, this thing has a strong affinity to light. The brilliance of the mantles turned the moth into a kamikaze character, with folks in the kitchen becoming spellbound over the impending disaster. After circling for a few short seconds, the moth would hit, and the mantle disintegrate. A small ash and dead moth were some place on the table. The meal continued after the kerosene lamp was replaced with either candles or a coal oil lamp. While this was not a daily occurrence, it did happen several times during a harvest season. While adults undoubtedly found it an unwelcome event, for the kids it really pepped up the meal.
The farm family was big on pork because pigs were raised on home grown food and pork was comparatively easy to cure. If the weather was bad enough to justify stopping field work, a very rare occasion, the crew went fishing. The Friday fish requirement was usually met by the man who weekly peddled fish. North Sprague was predominantly Catholic and church law at this time forbade meat on Fridays. There was a strong demand for fish and beef. Scriptures might have read, “Man does not live on pork alone.” due to the lack of refrigeration, purchases could last no more than a couple of days. After that was gone, it was back to pork, chicken, or whatever.
An interesting aside is found in the merchants. One was an Irish phenomenon who served his customers weekly, extended credit, and kept no written records. He was never found in error. The other, not identified as Irish but could have been, at least on his mother’s side. The second merchant sold meat, fish and sly grog. The nature of this business and the personality required records. By modern standards this would not be considered a convenience, but it was in those days. Although Sprague had a small dry-goods store, the Sears Roebuck catalogue was heavily relied upon, for everything from hats and shoes to all manner of household and outdoor equipment. Catalogue shopping, now an option for specialized taste, was then a family necessity. The Sears catalogue, used by the whole community, reflects the culture of the period. For the farm family it was one of the strongest contacts with the larger world.
Without the “blessings” of our present day technology, farm life must appear to have been the ultimate in isolation. In a time preceding radio and TV, written communication must indeed have been more valuable. Mail delivery to the boxes a mile away, where county and state roads met, was at best three times a week. Because volume of mail influenced service, farmers were anxious to add their names to mailing lists.
For voice communication there was the telephone, probably on the kitchen wall. The telephone was in a hardwood box with a mouthpiece extending from its lower front center. On the left side was a handheld receiver to be lifted from its bracket when one wanted to use the telephone. Not unlike a modern phone, a dial tone could be heard. On the right side of the hardwood box was the “crank”. With this the caller identified the callee. Each member on a party line had their own sequence of short and long rings that alerted the seven other members on that line that an incoming call was in process, that someone was trying to reach a neighbor.
For calls beyond the neighborhood, the one on the crank rang for the switchboard in town. The switchboard operator, an institution of many years, was never addressed by anything other than the title of her office. On the street or at church, she was Alice Vent, but on the telephone “Central”. The system was owned and maintained by the farmers. While it involved many miles of smooth wire, the poles were ten foot 2×4’s attached to fence posts, nothing sophisticated but it usually worked.
An occasional humorous situation developed when reception was weak. The user, making a natural assumption that the same was true at the other end, turned up the volume a couple of hundred decibels, and a comment usually followed that the phone was very incidental to the communication.
On the country phone line news traveled fast. “Rubbering”, listening to the neighbors, was rampant, but never acknowledged. For confidentiality, postcards were better.