Our primitive humanoid ancestors managed to survive for about a million years or so as hunters and gatherers. A recently discovered genetic marker seems to indicate that all men on earth today are descended from a single male who lived about sixty thousand years ago in East Africa. Many scientists believe that it was this single individual who first developed a primitive reasoning ability. Even so, it took another fifty thousand years or so for man, using this new trait, to learn how to manipulate the gifts of a bountiful earth.
J. Bronowski, in his book The Ascent of Man, aptly describes how man, in the fertile crescent of the Middle East about ten thousand years ago, discovered how he could better live off the land by planting and harvesting a primitive type of maize and an early variety of wheat. Two great civilizations later developed, first in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers of Irag, and then along the Nile River in Egypt. Human migrations since then, for the most part, have been prompted by a desire to find more and better land to grow an expanding list of consumable grains, fruits and vegetables, as well as space to corral their domesticated animals.
The migration of early man over the next several thousand years is a fascinating subject, but one of the most dramatic events in human history occurred more recently. Beginning in the late 1600s AD, it was the flow of men, women and children, with their dogs, cats, chickens, horses, cattle and hogs, from the east coast of Colonial America into the vast wilderness of central North America.
Unlike the Spanish soldiers in South and Central America, and the French fur traders in Canada, this migration was an entirely different phenomenon: It was husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, babies and adolescents, searching for a new life. The Mayflower, and most of the ships that came later from various European countries, brought men, but they also brought women and children, proof that they intended to stay, and for the next two hundred years or so they stayed primarily on the land. They came to work with their hands, and what they worked was the soil, and what they made was farms.
Farming in colonial America would have been bone-numbing hard work. The first task—assuming that the pioneer purchased raw land—was to clear it. Of course he would have cut down a few trees for his log house, but he would ultimately need at least twenty or so acres to raise enough vegetables, corn, and other grains for his family and his animals. As time passed he would have cleared more land in order to raise corn and other grains to sell. He may have started out with just one horse or mule, but a serious farmer would have had at least one team of horses or oxen.
Visualize—if you can—how much labor it would have taken to remove just one tree that was perhaps eight inches in diameter. First he would have had to cut down the tree, then (assuming he had that team of horses or oxen) drag it away with his work animals. The next step would be to dig a big hole around the stump, cut off the roots with his pre-double-bitted-ax, drag the stump away, and then fill in the hole. All of this—without a bull dozer, dynamite or a chainsaw—would have taken a couple of days at least...for just one tree. The bottom line was that most of the early settlers did not remove the stumps, and some even followed the lead of the natives and girdled the trees at the base (cut through the bark all around the tree), then built a fire around the tree to hasten it’s death. After the tree died, sunlight could then reach the ground.
After the settler had a small plot cleared he would have had to prepare the soil for planting. The modern steel plow had not been invented yet, so he would have used a plow with a wooden mould board and an iron point, very inefficient by today’s standards. His harrow would probably have been made of wood also, with hard wood points to break up the dirt clods, but hoes and wooden hand rakes may have been used as well. The frontier farmer used a hand-scythe to cut his wheat and oats, then he had to place the grains on hard-packed earth and beat them with a bundle of twigs or similar item in order to separate the grain from the chaff—no threshing machines for almost another hundred years.
Most of the crops that the Indians were growing soon became popular with the pioneers. These included corn, potatoes, tobacco, yams, snap beans and tomatoes, all native to the Americas. Even cotton, which soon became the dominant crop in the South, was new to the pioneers, although European army veterans who had served in Egypt had seen this crop being grown there.
The newcomers to North America settled first in the rocky New England valleys and in the forests of Pennsylvania and New York, but new land in Virginia and the Carolinas soon beckoned. Some put down roots and decided to stay where they had first settled, but the more adventurous, as well as later immigrants, moved west to the black loam of what would be Ohio, Missouri and Kansas where crops of corn, oats and wheat would flourish. Others settled in the South's low fields and smoky mountains to grow cotton, tobacco, rice and sorghum. In the southwestern desert stretches of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona they created cattle ranches, and in California, after the gold rush, they developed one of the major breadbaskets of America. Also, in the late 1800s, French, Italian and Armenian immigrants brought grape rootstalks—sometimes secretly—when they settled there. Today the wines of the San Joaquin and Napa Valleys rival the best of Italy and France, and more raisins are produced in the central San Joaquin Valley than anywhere else in the world.
Ultimately they moved from peak to ocean, north to the forests and plains of Oregon and Washington, into the Wyoming and Montana wilderness. Everywhere they went they turned the land into new farms and ranches. The Erwins and many of their related families were part of that immense migration. Some of them were:
George Haworth, my mother’s immigrant ancestor, was born in Lancashire, England in 1682. He was a Quaker, and in 1699, though only seventeen, fled the religious persecution that was then rampant in England. He sailed from Liverpool on the Brittania, and after fourteen weeks arrived in Pennsylvania, where he lived for a time with a sister. In 1710 he married Sarah Scarbourough in Bucks County. Sarah’s father, John Scarborough, Jr., had himself arrived in the colony in the 1680s.
George, like almost ninety percent of the immigrants of the era, farmed. In a letter to a brother in England, dated July 27, 1715, he described his farm:
“I clears land and plows I count I have 100 bushels of Corn this year very good wheat Rye and Barley and Indian Corn, I plant trees and hath Apples Peaches and Cherries and I hath good land and wants more hands to help me I hath 4 Cows and 4 Horses and 31 Swine…”
George and Sarah had eight children. Absolom, their fourth-born, was the ancestor of my mother, Hazel Dell Hayworth. Later generations of this line of the Haworth (Hayworth) family lived in South Carolina, Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, and finally in Kansas. John, the fifth-born, was an ancestor of Herbert Hoover, President of the United States, but that’s another story.
James and Susannah Hayworth, my great-grandparents, moved from Ohio to Elk County Kansas in 1880. James was a farmer, but as early as 1850 he augmented his farming income by trading in furs. It was his practice to drive through the countryside with his horses and light wagon buying furs, and then periodically go by rail to Detroit, where the main market was, to sell them to wholesale dealers. Alpha, my mother’s sister, recalled that he did this even after he moved to Kansas and settled on a farm in Elk County.
Charles Ellis Hayworth, my grandfather, was the ninth of eleven children. All were raised on one or other of their father’s farms, and most either became farmers themselves, or married farmers. Charles made attempts to farm. He even made the run into the Cherokee Strip in 1893, but his heart really wasn’t in it, and spent most of his doing other things. He ran a saloon in the Oklahoma Indian Territory for several years, but was jailed in 1897 for selling liquor to Indians. He was a musician, and in fact played several instruments. He played with traveling shows, and even had his own band for a time. Later he was a dance hall owner, and in the early 1920s ran the first silent movie theater in Elk County, Kansas. The brick shell of the building still stands on the main street of Longton, Kansas. Charles was a colorful character, but he was not a farmer.
James N. Irvine, my paternal immigrant ancestor, was a son of the sixteenth Laird of Drum. James ran afoul of the establishment in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, and his father sent him to live temporarily in Northern Ireland. There he fell in love and married Agness Patterson. Sometime in 1739 he and his wife and infant son joined a family group that was leaving Northern Ireland for America. The group consisted of his Patterson in-laws and Irvine family members who lived in Northern Ireland. Most of the parents and grandparents of his Scots-Irish in-laws and other relatives had left Scotland for Northern Ireland in the late 1600s just ahead of the King’s men. In late 1739 or early 1740, after sixty to seventy days at sea, James N. Irvine and his family group arrived in William Penn’s colony of Pennsylvania.
Although James was raised as “one of privilege,” and probably had no first-hand knowledge of farming, it is probable that his Scots-Irish in-laws, as well as his other relatives, helped him adapt to farming. Most of the people in Penn’s colony made their living by farming, but—unlike the pioneers in New England—they did not settle in small farming villages. As a result of the generally peaceful nature of the local Indians newcomers tended to build their homes on their farms.
One had to adapt quickly on the frontier, and in the early 1750s James N. Irvine—now spelling his name as E-r-w-i-n—moved his growing family to North Carolina, where he purchased several tracts of land near Salisbury from Lord Granville. It was in an area that would be designated Rowan County on March 27, 1753.
But it was a long way and a dusty journey to North Carolina from Chester County in William Penn’s colony. On the march a group of rifle-bearing woodsmen on foot took the lead. Behind them came the pack animals led by the older boys, and next came the wagons. A small common herd of hogs and cattle, that would form the nucleus of the livestock in their new settlement, brought up the rear. Behind the animals were men on horseback to round up strays, and finally, a rearguard of riflemen, again on foot. Though the youngest children and many of the older women probably rode in the ox-drawn wagons, the journey was not a pleasant one for anyone. A few of the travelers—other than those assigned to guard the animals—would have had riding horses, but most of the able-bodied family members of the wagon train would have walked alongside their wagons. An average day’s travel, for this type of combination train, did not exceed ten miles. When the travelers reached the Yadkin River they most likely crossed the 300-yard-wide waterway by ferry at Ingles Crossing. On the opposite side of the river the Great Wagon Road broke up into a series of trails and old Indian paths, but Salisbury was only about twenty miles further on, and the path to it was well-traveled and obvious.
James and his family were products of a determined Scottish heritage, and it didn’t take them long to become established in the rugged frontier area. They initially built a large fortified log house and two mills along the Yadkin River northeast of Salisbury, and cleared fields for planting. They experienced occasional raids by roving bands of Indians, but these were minor distractions to the well-armed family, and they were soon harvesting crops of corn, wheat and indigo. Later James purchased several additional tracts of land to add to the ones originally obtained from Lord Granville.
The various operations on the sixteenth-century farm on the frontier were carried out with rude and simple implements. It can be logically presumed that it was no different on the James Erwin farm. Even so, the rich new virgin soil of the bottom lands, as well as that of the newly plowed uplands, was soon producing bountiful crops for James Erwin and his large family.
Most of James’ eleven children (six were sons) remained in North Carolina, but Isaac and James, Jr. went to Mississippi, and John settled in Giles County, Tennessee. His sons, as near as we can tell, were all farmers, and it appears that his daughters married farmers as well.
Joseph Erwin (1769-1846), one of James’ grandsons, and my g-g-g-grandfather, also moved his family to Giles County, probably in 1812. The 1820 census indicates that he and wife Catherine Nancy Cowan and their minor children were living in a rural area, undoubtedly on a farm. About 1827, soon after large tracts of Chickasaw Indian lands were opened up for settlement, Joseph Erwin moved his family to Henry County, Tennessee. He settled on a tract of land near the Palestine Church, which is a few miles west of Paris. Reading between the lines it is easy to surmise that Joseph was not that successful as a farmer. There may have been several reasons, but it could have been simply that he was getting up in years, and that all of his adult sons had left home to seek their own fortunes. When Catherine died in 1839 he sold whatever holdings he had and went to live with a son in Oktibbeha County, Mississippi.
Joseph and Catherine had fourteen children, and several were afflicted with the “itchy-foot syndrome.” Thomas Barkley Erwin, the eldest, served in Andrew Jackson’s army in the War of 1812, and when released settled in Chambers County, Alabama, probably in 1822. There he eventually became a large plantation owner, primarily raising cotton and tobacco. In 1850, shortly after Texas was admitted to the Union, Thomas sold all of his land holdings and moved his family, slaves, and most of his animals and equipment, to Texas. Land could be had there for as little as fifty cents and acre, and he purchased several thousand acres near Tyler in Smith County. Thomas eventually moved his family to a grand house on Erwin Street in Tyler, leaving the running of his plantations to his sons and one son-in-law.
Joseph Erwin, Jr., the second-born child of Joseph Erwin, Sr. and Catherine Cowan, left Henry County, Tennessee with his wife Nancy Caroline and some of his children about 1853, and settled on a farm near the little town of Carrollton in Carroll County, Arkansas. Although Joseph and Nancy moved to Springfield, Missouri during the Civil War to escape bushwhackers, they returned to Carroll County when the war ended, and lived most of the time on their farm until Joseph died in 1879.
Thomas Johnston Erwin, Joseph Jr.’s son and my great-grandfather, had preceded his father to Carroll County in 1848, and eventually homesteaded land near the little town of Denver. The original homestead is today part of a three hundred-acre-plus farm of descendant Glenna Trigg Combs and her husband Gene Combs. Ruth and I visited Gene and Glenna in 2001. We stood on the very spot where Thomas had built his log cabin, and a chill of wonderment went down my spine as I looked out over the fields that he and his sons had once worked.
John Johnston Erwin, the sixth-born of Joseph and Catherine, married Sarah Mariah Allison and settled in Calloway County, Kentucky, near the little village of Crossland. John and Sarah had eleven children, and most, contrary to the pattern of many other Erwins, stayed in and around Calloway County, lived on farms, and grew primarily tobacco, corn and cotton.
Joseph Lafayette “Fate” Erwin, a younger brother of Thomas Johnston Erwin, and one of my great-uncles, moved from Henry County as well, but only twenty miles or so north into Calloway County, Kentucky. In 1847 he married Mariah Anastasia “Maria” Erwin, a first cousin and daughter of John Johnston Erwin. Other than the year or so he was away during the Mexican War he and Maria lived their lives on a farm near Hazel.
In 1898 Michael Rensellaer "Mike" Erwin and Minnie Olive Freeman, my grandparents, with ten year-old Odes (who would be my father), Dale who was eight, and Thomas, born in 1892, moved by covered wagon from Carroll County, Arkansas to rural Elk County, Kansas where Vachel Freeman, Minnie’s older half-brother, lived. Details are sketchy, but it is believed another Erwin family, perhaps that of Cole and India Erwin, made the trip as well. The joint family-group traveled west from Green Forest, Arkansas into Oklahoma Territory, crossed the Grand River about where Grand Lake is now (also called Lake of the Cherokee), and on west and north into Kansas. According to my father’s recollection the trip took nineteen days. Near Longton, in Elk County, Kansas, Mike and Minnie settled on a rented farm.
Keeping Company—Courting, sparking, keeping company, dating. No matter what words we use to describe this human phenomenon, the purpose—a hundred years ago as today—has not changed. It is a desire, as well as an instinct, to choose a companion and build a home and a life together.
In the rural farm areas of the early 1900s there was little time for idleness. While it is true that the telephone had been invented in 1869, and Thomas Edison had invented the incandescent light bulb, and some folks even owned automobiles, the times and customs in rural America had changed very little from that of the 1700s and 1800s. Farming and housework were both hard, and always needed to be done, and left little time for fun or “foolishness.”
Until the age of about fourteen boys showed very little interest in girls. In the one-room country schools romance was seldom a factor because most boys and girls did not attend school past the eighth grade. In fact, many students—especially the boys—attended only sporadically, and then only when essential farm work did not interfere.
But farm life—and its responsibilities—did leave room for some entertainment. Social gatherings were well publicized, and people caught up on their farm work in order not to miss them. A neighborhood picnic or church social was an excellent place to meet girls and boys from surrounding farms.
Everyone looked forward to the Fourth of July picnic. It was the first big event of the year after a hard and cold winter, and it was usually held at the local fair grounds. It often drew crowds from as far as fifty miles away. Those traveling the longest distances, in a horse-drawn wagon, would have to camp along the way. The Independence Day celebration of one hundred years ago was totally different from what we experience today. It was just a country social gathering, except on a larger scale. Ice was dug out of its sawdust storage for lemonade and fresh-churned ice cream, and pigs were roasted on a spit or deep-pitted. Steaks were cooked over an open fire, and roasted ears of corn and red beans would have been available also; all the bounty of local farms.
It was in the above described time and atmosphere that my father courted my mother. Hazel Dell Hayworth was seventeen and Odes Herman Erwin was nineteen when they married. For the first two years or so of their married life Odes farmed a rented place in Oak Valley, about two miles from Longton in Elk County, Kansas. He also ran a dray, delivering freight from the train depot to local merchants, to help with family expenses. By the time their second child was born my father had moved from the farm, setting a pattern that was to last most of his life.
Odes Erwin was a restless person, and until he reached middle age never stayed in one place more than about two years. There were several reasons, real and imagined, for the gypsy-like existence that was to be the family’s life for many years. According to my father there was a more productive farm in the next township or the next county, or the discovery of another oil field in Oklahoma, or high-paying jobs for teamsters in the oil field down the road apiece, or the railroad was hiring men with strong teams, or… or…. My father was an eternal optimist, and always seemed to believe that there was something better just out of reach. This, along with his natural wanderlust—common in many branches of the Erwin family—prompted him to move his family on the flimsiest rumor of better things, and on very short notice.
My family moved to a farm near Virgil, Kansas around 1932, and I came into the world there on March 12, 1933. I was born at home, as were all of my seven brothers and sisters. Although my father worked at many things during his lifetime it seemed that he always reverted to being a farmer. It was undoubtedly in his blood, for his father had been a farmer, and in fact, many generations of his Erwin ancestors had been farmers. Two of my three brothers were farmers, and one might think it probable that I would grow up to be a farmer. After all, most would opine that working the land is a noble vocation. No such thought—however—was ever in my mind. I hated the farm as I was growing up.
My oldest brother Clifford recalled that Dad had a hay baler for several years in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He probably came into possession of it while he was still on the Virgil farm, but he kept it after he moved the family to town and started operating the local blacksmith shop. Bud remembered that the baler originally had a noisy one-cylinder gasoline engine for a power source, but that Dad later converted it to belt drive when he traded for an old iron-wheeled Fordson tractor. Dad worked at blacksmithing when he could, but he baled hay on the side to make ends meet. His hay baler only remotely resembled those of today though. Where today’s machines are mobile and are operated by one person, Dad’s baler was stationary and required a crew of five or six to operate it, and most of the family members were pressed into service. My sister Helen remembers working on the hay baler at around ten years of age, and of the choking hay-dust she had to endure.
The Dust Bowl—When the first Europeans arrived in North America most of what is now the forty-eight mainland states of the United States was covered with a dense growth of trees and grass. Here and there open spaces had been taken over by the Indians and planted in corn and other food crops, but most of the forest land had been left to nature. Giant trees grew up, died, and fell back on the soil. Farther west, much of the prairie grasses did likewise.
Our European ancestors cut down the trees along the eastern seaboard and put the rich land to the plow. As the pioneer population grew the need for more land grew as well. Soon the pioneer movement reached the Great Plains where some sixty million buffalo roamed. Over time they slaughtered the buffalo almost to extinction and plowed up much of the land they had grazed on.
Once the roots of the trees and grass that stabilized the earth were gone the water and wind began to do their dirty work. At first the erosion of the soil was a slow process, barely noticeable, but it was not long until the run-off from storms began to eat at the rolling hills, and the winds on the prairies tore at the soil. Great gullies eventually formed in the soil of the hill farms, and the wind began to remove the topsoil of freshly plowed prairie fields.
It was a common practice to then abandon the land and move further west or south, for there was an abundance of new land to be had, sometimes even free by way of homesteading. This process continued to some degree throughout the nineteenth century, but by the 1920s there was no more free land to be had. Most of the once-productive farms in the middle states had been worked out, and the rangelands of the buffalo were little more than deserts, but the worst was yet to come.
A massive drought hit first in the eastern part of the country in 1930. In 1931 it moved toward the west. By 1934 it had turned the Great Plains into a desert.
"If you would like to have your heart broken, just come out here," wrote Ernie Pyle, a roving reporter in Kansas in June of 1936.
"This is the dust-storm country. It is the saddest land I have ever seen."
As the years passed it rained less and less, and in 1936 the rain stopped entirely. The sky became bright and hot, and it stayed that way every day. The next eight years or so would come to be known as the Dust Bowl Era. The drought would ultimately affect the northern part of Texas, the western part of Arkansas, most of Oklahoma and Kansas, the eastern third of Colorado, and the southern half of Nebraska. Life had always been hard on the farmers who lived on the small family farms of forty to eighty acres. They had no irrigation system, no reservoirs to store water, and no canals to bring water to their farms. They were “dry farmers.” When there wasn’t enough rain, they were forced to sell their livestock and farm machinery and borrow money from the bank. Every year they gambled with their lives, hoping for enough rain to get by.
Then when it seemed that things couldn’t get any worse, they did. The wind started to blow, and it would blow for four long years. The wind blew the dry soil up into the air, and every morning the sun would rise, only to disappear behind a sky of red dirt and dust. The wind knocked open doors, shattered windows, and leveled barns. The worst of it was centered in the Oklahoma Panhandle, but it also devastated most of Kansas. In some areas the fierce gales buried chickens, pigs, dogs, and occasionally even cattle. Children were assigned the task of cleaning the nostrils of cattle two or three times a day. The wind and sand made life on the farms almost intolerable.
Many of the small country farmers—land owners as well as sharecroppers—were severely destitute, and resorted to anything they could to bring in even a small amount of money. There was a bounty on coyotes, so some farmers acquired greyhound dogs which were capable of actually running down them down. This, however, eventually brought on another problem: rabbits. Coyotes would normally keep the jack rabbit population in check, but with a dwindling population of coyotes the jack rabbits multiplied, and the jacks liked just about everything that the farmers would normally grow.
There were tumble weeds in abundance in those days. When mature they are two to three feet in diameter and light enough to be blown by even a moderate wind into the fence rows and around farm machinery. Once stopped the normally mobile thistles would catch the sand as it blew, and in a few months fences would be completely covered with sand, and farm animals could walk right over them. If machinery was not used for a time the sand would completely cover it. Even today, in the Great Plains area, one can see fence rows that are four or five feet higher than the roadbed or of the fields that they surround.
When the drought and dust storms showed no signs of letting up, many people abandoned their land. Others would have stayed but were forced out when they lost their farms in bank foreclosures. In all, one-quarter of the population left, packing everything they owned into their cars and trucks, and heading west toward California. Although—overall—three out of four farmers stayed on their land, the mass exodus depleted the population drastically in certain areas. In the rural area outside Boise City, Oklahoma, the population dropped forty percent, with 1,642 small farmers and their families pulling up stakes.
My parents didn’t own real estate, and thus didn’t have to go through the agony of seeing it gradually blow away, but aside from that, they were in the same boat as all of their neighbors. The farmers were caught in an impossible situation. They were already suffering from the side effects of the Great Depression, which had started in 1929 when the stock market collapsed, causing an already tight economy to get even tighter. When the prices for their crops fell, most couldn’t make payments to the banks that held title to their land, or held their notes for machinery or seed. My folks weren’t exempted. I can remember years later—after we were in California—my father railing on about “…that damned Ollie Weymeyer at the bank.”
The Dust Bowl exodus was the largest migration, in the shortest period of time, in American history. By 1940, 2.5 million people had moved out of the Plains states. Of those, hundreds of thousands moved to California, mostly by road on U.S. Highway 66.
My immediate family’s move to California was in the timeframe and conditions described above, and the day that we left is the point of my earliest recollection. It was 1936, and my family was preparing to leave Kansas and strike out for California. An older brother Raymond, and his wife Alma, along with her parents, had already gone there. Dad had disposed of all of his farm machinery, blacksmith tools and the family household furniture. He had purchased a 1931 Dodge sedan and a little two-wheeled homemade trailer. All of our worldly goods had been packed in the car and trailer. Goodbyes had been said and everyone was ready to go... except me. I took off down the gravel driveway. I can still remember… it seemed as if the gravel was a foot deep. My Dad ran after me and scooped me up. The trip to California had begun. I was three years old.
The move must have been a tremendous and brave undertaking in 1936. There were five of us: Mom, Dad, my sister Mary who was eighteen, my brother Bud who was eleven, and me. All of our family possessions were in the small trailer or in the Dodge sedan. The only piece of furniture that Dad apparently allowed Mom to bring on the trip was her Singer treadle sewing machine. He had placed it in the trailer upside down, and then packed other prized possessions and necessities around it. On top of everything went a mattress, where he and Mom would sleep on the way to California.
Money was limited, so there was no possibility of staying in “tourist cabins” or of eating in restaurants. We camped out each night and cooked on a Coleman gasoline stove. Mom and Dad slept on the mattress in the trailer, and Bud, Mary and I slept in the car. About the only things that stand out in my memory about the trip was the seemingly endless expanse of very white dirt, and of standing on a bucket in the back of the car in order to see out of the car window. Bud tried to convince me that the white stuff on the ground was snow, but I knew that it was cold when it snowed, and it was hot! The white dirt was, of course, the salt of the Great Salt Lake Desert west of Salt Lake City, Utah.
My father had heard of some of the horror stories about early day pioneers, as well as those of depression-era travelers crossing the Mojave Desert, so he elected instead to take the northern route to California. I feel certain, however, that he hadn’t bargained on the heat of the Utah salt plains, or the high passes in the western mountain ranges.
The wheels on the 1931 Dodge had wooden spokes. In dry weather the oak spokes would dry out, the wood would shrink a bit, and the wheels would creak and squeak. I remember that Dad was always afraid that the wheels would collapse, and whenever he could he would wet them down to make the oak wood expand. He also had little moon-shaped spacers that he pounded in between the end of the spoke and the rim. We made it across the blistering Utah desert okay, albeit slowly and with one eye on the heat gauge, but then we had to cross the ten thousand-foot-plus passes in the Rocky Mountains, and finally the Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
I’m sure that about this time my father was wishing that we were all back in flat old Kansas. Picture if you can, that he had only learned to drive about fifteen years previously, and that he had never in his life seen real mountains. The Ozark Mountains of Northwestern Arkansas, where he was born and lived until he was ten, can be compared to the low foothills on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley in Central California. Before the trip to California the only “mountains” that he had been exposed to were the rolling hills of northern Oklahoma and southeastern Kansas. Add to this the reality that in the 1930s there were no freeways or four lane highways on the way to California, only narrow two lane winding roads, and sometimes they weren’t even paved. There were places in the mountains where the road had a single lane only. When two cars met one or the other would have to back up. In addition, Dad often felt the wrath of other drivers because he drove so slowly. He constantly worried about his supply of “cash money.” He felt that he had just enough money to get us to California, if he had planned right, and if nothing went wrong with the Dodge.
But we made it. The trip took about three weeks. According to Bud and Mary, Dad didn’t drive very fast; his average speed was about twenty-five MPH, and if he got up to thirty he was really moving. Nothing drastic happened, but my father always said that he had exactly twenty-five cents in his pocket when we arrived at my brother Raymond’s house, which was near the little community of San Joaquin, about thirty miles south of Madera in Fresno County.
In the spring of 1940, after working for wages for about four years, Dad was able to start a small dairy farm in Madera County. He had managed to accumulate $50. With that as a down payment he was able to convince Jim Beck—a local cattle dealer—to sell him fifteen dairy cows. At the same time he made a deal with a western Madera County farmer to sharecrop forty acres of alfalfa, which included a small house. A team of big mules, a flat-rack hay wagon, and a McCormack-Deering sickle-type mowing machine mysteriously appeared also, and we were in the dairy business. Dad’s self-respect shot up a mile. He was no longer an “Oakie” cotton picker.
For most of his life my father never owned land, often saying that he “didn’t want to be tied down.” As a young man he had applied for a homestead in Oklahoma, but left it before it was patented. In California though, in early 1942, he purchased his first real estate. It was thirty-two acres about three miles south of Madera, California, on the east side of the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks and U.S. Highway 99. It had been a vineyard at one time, but all of the vines were gone. The property had a barn, but no house. Dad was a good talker and always seemed to elicit trust in people. At a time when consumer credit was not all that common he seldom had any difficulty buying things “on time,” often with just a handshake. The farm cost $2250, and he put $100 down.
There was a well on the property, but it had been drilled when the water table was less than one hundred feet below the surface of the earth. By 1942 the water level had dropped below one hundred and fifty feet, making the well useless. Dad was able to convince a local pump company to drill a new well and install an irrigation pump. He put $150 down and made payments on the rest. At first he had an old Buick automobile engine hooked up to the pump with a long belt, but the engine ran erratically, and he later replaced it with a conventional agricultural electric motor. As soon as we had water we moved to the farm, making numerous trips with a borrowed truck and a two-horse (cow) trailer.
We camped out for a couple of weeks or so until my father could build a little one-room cabin. He later added a screened-in porch that would serve primarily as a sleeping area for me. We must have appeared pretty pathetic to our neighbors about that time, but Dad was proud. It was the first time in his life that he’d actually owned land.
Most farmers of the era, especially in the San Joaquin Valley of California, had long since converted to tractors, but my father preferred horses or mules. And because mechanized farming was prevalent there was an ample supply of used horse-drawn farming equipment available. Soon we had a wide variety of equipment, all bought very cheap at local farm sales. Dad had picked up turning plows, a couple of additional McCormick-Deering sickle mowers, a hay rake, a section harrow, two hay wagons that had wooden wheels with iron rims, as well as a manure spreader. Thankfully we were past the time when he would have considered using a buggy to go to town, but we did use the hay wagons to haul loose alfalfa hay for the dairy cattle, sometimes from as far as ten miles away.
Chores—Although I was only six years old at the time Dad first started the dairy I was assigned “chores.” In the beginning my duties consisted of simple “busy work,” such as hosing down the milk barn after milking time, even though Mom had to do it all over again to suit my father. I hated having to wade through the fresh cow manure, sometimes having it squish up between the toes of my bare feet (Dad couldn’t see buying rubber boots for me since I would soon “grow out of them”) as I used the hose to move the fresh cow patties towards the concrete trough that lead to the “lagoon.”
Later chores consisted of washing down the udders of the dairy cows with warm soapy water so that their milk would not be contaminated. The cows often showed their appreciation by kicking at me, stepping on my toes, or swishing their manure encrusted tails in my face. I hated that.
As I got older I was assigned other duties, and one of them was as an irrigator. We grew alfalfa for the dairy cows, and in California most everything has to be irrigated. The alfalfa field was broken up into long rectangular sections, and my job for several summers was to change the irrigation water from section to section. In the early spring it was an easy task; I would sit on a ditch bank and daydream between changes. As the summer wore on, however, all of the water bred millions of mosquitoes. It was then necessary to dash across the field to the applicable ditch bank, change the setting as quickly as possible, and then race back to the relative safety of the house and barn area, all the while with a black cloud following me. I hated that.
When I was about ten I was entrusted with operating our horse-drawn mowing machine to cut the alfalfa. Although my Dad had a team of big mules, who were often hard to handle, he also had a team of old draft horses who were as tame as an old lazy hound dog, and thus easy for even a ten-year-old to handle. My chest would swell with pride when I got up on the metal seat of the McCormick-Deering mower, flicked the reins and said, “Giddup.” Things would go well until the sickle of the mower would pass over a nest of young rabbits, often slicing them to pieces. I hated that.
War Time Shortages – The Japs attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the United States was suddenly transformed from a passive country into one which wanted revenge. President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech stirred the population, and the national economy was transformed, almost overnight, into one with the sole purpose of winning the war. Ships that once carried sugar from Cuba and coffee from South America were suddenly appropriated for the war effort, and to budget the nation’s limited supply, sugar was rationed in May 1942, and coffee in November. In February 1943 canned meat and fish were included, and the next month fresh meat, butter and cheese were added to the list as well.
The rationing system was implemented through the distribution of coupons. Each month every American man, women and child was given two books, one of blue coupons for canned goods, and the other of red coupons for meat, butter and cheese. In 1942 these coupons allowed the purchase of two pounds of canned fruits and vegetables, twenty-eight ounces of meat, and four ounces of cheese a month. Depending on availability of certain foods, these allotments rose and fell during the war years. In some areas, however, a de facto rationing prevailed, as regional shortages meant that even non-rationed foods were unavailable in stores.
Since my family had only recently graduated from being practically homeless, the shortages of WW2 affected us less than most. My parents were used to “making do,” and even as their economic circumstances gradually improved their lifestyle stayed pretty much the same. Everyone seemed to be amazed at my mother’s green thumb. She always had a garden, her specialties being green onions, radishes, cucumbers and lettuce. I still remember how great the green onions and radishes tasted right out of the ground. The first winter we lived on the little thirty-two-acre farm Dad sent away for several varieties of fruit trees and planted them in a small orchard next to the house. I can still visualize, in my mind’s eye, how great it was to stand under the trees and eat the fresh-picked fruit. After about two years the trees began to produce more than we could eat fresh. Mom canned a lot of it, and vegetables from the garden as well, but she was especially famous for her bread and butter pickles.
Dad had a weakness for watermelons, and for several years, in the spring, he would plant about one half acre or so of them. We had so many watermelons that he and I would go into the patch, break the melons open and just eat the center part that had no seeds. The birds got the rest. They were especially tasty early in the morning when they were still cool from the night air. One summer we raised a pig for locker meat, and he acquired a real taste for them as well. Every time he would get out we always knew where to look. He would be in the watermelon patch, “pigging out.” For a long time after that every time my mother cooked pork we would say that we were eating “watermelon pig.”
We did miss not being able to buy sugar during the war. I remember that the white Karo syrup we were able to get wasn’t too bad on my cereal, but that I sure hated the imitation maple variety; it really didn’t do much for the taste of my oatmeal. We were in hog heaven for several months, however, after Dad was able to acquire a three-gallon can of honey. It was good on cereal, on pancakes, as well as in my parents’ coffee. When Mom wasn’t looking, I would often get a big spoon and eat it right out of the can. Jams and jellies were also in short supply, but for some reason one could buy as much orange marmalade as one wanted. The only problem was that it was in gallon cans. Dad bought several cans, thinking it was a one-time opportunity. He really developed a taste for it, but I have hated orange marmalade ever since.
One thing we had plenty of, of course, was milk. As a youngster I liked warm milk, fresh from the cow, but the thought of that now almost turns my stomach. I didn’t care for cold milk because there were always bits of thick cream floating around in it. My father, however, would drink a quart at a time without putting the bottle down…that is until he developed an intolerance of lactose. My mother churned her own butter, and she would let the cream rise on the milk in large crocks and then ladle it off into the churn. I always tried to make myself scarce when it came time to turn the churn handle. A side benefit to the cream on the crocks was as a snack when I got home from school. The thick oozy cream really tasted great spread on fresh-baked bread with sugar sprinkled on top. It’s no wonder I was chubby as a child.
My sister Mary and her husband Roy lived in Fresno, and prior to his leaving to go overseas with the Army Air Force they frequently came out to the farm to visit. It was only about twenty miles, but it was wartime, and an “A” gas allotment really didn’t go very far. In order to help out, Dad would often give them a gallon or two of his tractor gas. Their visits were a treat for me because they almost always brought me something. Birthdays and Christmas’ were especially fruitful. One Christmas they gave me a year’s monthly subscription to the Donald Duck comic book. Another time, possibly on my birthday, they brought me a whole box of Milky Way candy bars. I was in hog-heaven, at least I was until my mother announced she would take charge and ration them out to me.
Mary and Roy never went home empty-handed though. My parents always loaded them down with whatever produce or fruit that was in season, and of course there was fresh milk, butter and eggs. Sometimes Mom would even include a freshly dressed fryer. My mother and father were both very proud that they could help out with these relatively scarce items. Soon Roy would be gone overseas, first to Italy and then to the South Pacific. These contributions of fresh food items were be even more important as the war dragged on.
Better Times—There were several changes on the farm during the next three years or so. Dad managed to get a used Farmall tractor about 1943. It was an older model with spiked steel wheels, but he managed to convince the Ration Board to give him a Priority Authorization to buy new wheels with rubber tires to replace the steel ones. In addition, since Dad operated a dairy farm—which was considered essential to the war effort—he was able to get a “T” gas ration sticker to run the tractor and our 1929 Ford Model A pickup. Most people had “A” stickers, which meant that they parked their car most of the time, and some had a “B” or a “C”, but a “T” allowed my father to purchase almost all of the gas he wanted for the pickup and his newly acquired tractor.
About this same time Dad was also able to buy a new Montgomery Ward conventional refrigerator. I can still visualize the M/W logo on the door. My mother was ecstatic. Up until this time we had used a real “ice box,” one which had to be loaded with block ice a couple of times a week, and more often during the summer.
Everything about the little farm was primitive, and of course we had an outside privy. Members of my folks’ generation, especially those who had been raised on farms in Arkansas and Kansas, pretty much took them for granted. When my Dad decided to modernize by putting in a water “pressure system,” which would allow us to have running water, he included plans for a propane hot water heater, as well as a shower, in an adjoining little building that would always thereafter be called the “washhouse.” He even got Mom a new electric Maytag washing machine with a “wringer.” Mom was again very pleased; this meant the end of her old washboard and the need to boil the family clothing outdoors in a copper tub. Mom’s new washing machine and her ironing board were also kept in the washhouse. An inside toilet, however, was not even considered. Even my mother, at this time, considered an inside toilet uncivilized, and this was about 1944.
From the beginning my parents always milked the cows by hand. They were mostly Holsteins, and each could produce up to six gallons of milk per day. Milking them was a big enough job when they had only fifteen cows, but the herd gradually increased in number so that by 1946 they were milking about thirty-five head. At one point my father tried to enlist my help but I never seemed to do a good enough job to suit him. If the person doing the milking didn’t get all of the milk at each milking the cow would slowly give less and less milk, and eventually “dry up” prematurely. Apparently this was my problem, for Dad would have to “strip” all of the ones that I had milked. Finally, and much to my relief, he told me that—as a milker—I was “more trouble than I was worth.”
Shortly after the war ended, when my father was feeling rather flush as a result of the good economic times, he bought a mechanical milking machine. There were several brands available by then, but I remember that Surge was the brand name of the one he purchased. The main component of the milking machine was an air compressor. Airlines ran from the compressor to a socket in each stall, where a milking apparatus—consisting of four six-inch rubber-lined stainless steel tubes—could be attached. At milking time the tubes would be placed over the four teats of the cow, and a pulsing action supplied by the compressor would simulate the squeezing action of a human hand. Even though the cows still had to be “stripped,” the milking machine eliminated about ninety percent of the hand labor.
The acquisition of the milking machine came at a good time for my mother, for she was beginning to have a lot of arthritis pain in her hands and hips. From that point on Mom didn’t have to help with the actual milking, although she still hand-fed any baby calves that we might have.
Farming was the major American activity in the 1700s and 1800s, in fact until the mid 1900s, and the people who worked them were, by necessity, self-sufficient. They built their own houses, grew or raised the food they ate, and made much of the clothing they wore. The farmer and his sons also had to have the basic skills of a mechanic, carpenter, and veterinarian, and the farmer’s wife must be a universal person as well. She and her daughters canned the fruit and vegetables that she has raised herself in sight of the kitchen window. She was usually in charge of the farm’s flock of chickens, as well as the recently-birthed animals. She may also have found herself helping with the tough work in the field and barn, all in addition to the normal activities of maintaining a household and raising a family.
Life on a small farm had changed very little by the time I was growing up on a farm in the mid-1900s. As a youngster I was always amazed at the varied skills my dad possessed. It was my impression that he could fix almost anything, and his knowledge of animal husbandry seemed boundless. Early on, however, I realized that I was a lot more interested in his mechanical knowledge than what he knew about our farm animals. I found that I would much rather help repair a piece of farm machinery than clean out the chicken pen, and it was definitely more interesting to operate our horse-drawn mowing machine than using a pitchfork later to load the cured hay on a hay wagon.
Farming has always been dangerous. Animals kicked and bit, tools would cut the flesh. There were roofs and windmills to be climbed, high wagonloads of hay that could tip over, unseen holes in fields, axes that could slip, heavy rocks, wheels, beams to be lifted, horses that could panic and run away, fires that could leap out of the firebox on a stove and burn hand or house. I recall my Dad having a number of injuries, as well as a sprained back or limb from time-to-time, but to my knowledge he never once went to a doctor. He used the same liniment or salve on himself that he used on our farm animals. My mother was less prone to such things, but even so she experienced ailments that most folks today would seek a doctor’s care for.
The sounds and smells of a farm are unmistakable, and often beautiful in their own way. One of the sounds is that of a rooster crowing at the crack of dawn as he announces his power and domination over the rustling, clucking, nervous hens nearby. Many farmers have given up chickens because they are a nuisance and because it is so simple to buy eggs and processed fowl in town, but that was never the case on the Erwin farm. My mother was in charge of the chickens. Several times a year Dad would bring home a box of freshly-hatched day-old chicks, and in a few weeks they would be “fryer size.” We had fried chicken several times a week, and it was my mother’s practice to catch and kill one just prior to meal time. She used an old broomstick with a hook on the end to catch the unlucky individual. The chickens would scatter when she went into the chicken pen, but she would expertly reach out and hook the leg of a likely candidate for her frying pan. While it was still squawking she placed its head under the edge of an old galvanized washtub. With her foot on the washtub she yanked the chickens legs, separating it's head from it's neck. She then dropped the carcass on the ground, and the chicken—now without a head—ran around in circles for a few seconds and then toppled over kicking. When it finally stopped moving Mom would pop it into a large bucket of boiling water. This immediately loosened the chicken’s feathers, which she plucked out in a matter of minutes. An hour or so after she had popped the head off of the chicken it was cleaned, flowered, fried and on our table.
Even when I was growing up on a farm much of the slaughtering of cattle and hogs on the farm as gone. My father, on the other hand, would periodically slaughter a pig and calf, and take the meat to a “locker” plant in town. There the meat would be cut up and packaged. The locker plant was aptly named, for the lockers were much like those in my high school gym, except that the locker room was kept many degrees below freezing. There were exceptions to this practice though. Our Yugoslavian neighbors across the road processed their meat themselves. They had a smokehouse. I can still remember the greasy odor of tangy wood burning, and of melted fat dripping into the flames as they smoked a recently slaughtered member of their goat herd. After an appropriate time in the smokehouse the meat was hung in their basement.
Another of the unique smells of the old farm was the swill barrel, a place where all kinds of nourishing objects were placed for the hogs to eat later. I remember cabbages, corncobs with some grains still clinging, stale bread, old carrots, potato peelings, moldy oats, and sometimes over-ripe watermelons and cantaloupes, being thrown in the barrel. All of this combined produced a nose-piercing odor as it fermented. When I leaned over the barrel to dip out a portion for the hogs at feeding time—and happened to inhale a deep breath—the powerful smell would sometimes make me dizzy.
The farm kitchen was filled with smells no city kitchen ever holds. Early on we had a cast-iron range that gave off a metallic smell when the wood fire was intense, and during the cold months it was my mother’s practice to have a bubbling pot of stew on the back of it. She put all manner of ingredients in it, never at the direction of a recipe. All winter it stayed there. Dad, coming in cold from chores, would often ask for a bowl to be dished up, even between meals. I still remember that tantalizing smell of it.
My mother was not a gourmet cook by any stretch of the imagination, but I never went hungry. She cooked all of the basic things: fried eggs and pork or beef strips (we couldn’t afford processed bacon) with sliced fried potatoes for breakfast, meat and potatoes and corn on the cob for the noon meal, and, more often than not, fried chicken, potatoes and gravy with farm vegetables for supper (that’s dinner to you city folks). Every meal was served with homemade butter and some form of bread. For breakfast it was usually fresh-baked biscuits, and at the other meals thick slices of loaf bread. Sometimes, however, Mom served fry-bread. She made this from bread dough sliced off the rising loaves of “light” bread and then deep fried. Store-bought bread was usually limited to the sliced white variety purchased for my school lunches.
The eyes of people living on farms are different from the eyes of city people. They look farther in space, across long landscapes of fields, whether their own or belonging to others. They identify distant moving objects such as cows, horses and people. They can tell the quality of crops in remote fields by their height and color. Dad could look at a plot of alfalfa on the far side if our farm and say, “Boy, it looks like a levee has broke, better run out there and check.” He could spot a hen pheasant silently whirring into a fence corner and comment, “Bet she's got a nest of young’uns there. Better mow around it.” Dad could see a cow in the barnyard or pasture and tell by her gait how close she was to having a calf. He could tell by the uneasy, circling movement of a sow whether she should be penned up at once before farrowing.
The voice also takes on different roles in the country. How many times in the city do you hear a human voice talking to an automobile? Yet where there are horses there is talk, as simple as “Whoa” or “Back, back,” or as varied and complicated as the first calling of a horse's name before entering its stall so it will know you are there and won't kick. There is also the soothing hum in a driver's throat as he tries to settle down a horse that has been frightened. My father always controlled his horses more by tone of voice than by force of a bit in the mouth because that way he prevented the callusing of the inner edge of the animal's lips that would make it “tough-mouthed.” I never heard him speak to me as gently or as reassuringly as he did to his horses and mules. He had endless patience around animals. Most of the time around them he would be making some sound to let them know he was close. One reason was that he was so often alone with them, out in the fields, down in the barn, sitting behind them on an implement in a field, or driving on a country road, and it was a proof of shared companionship. On the other hand, he was quick to punish if an unruly mule bite or kicked him.
My father, always good with animals, seemed to be able to actually communicate with them, especially his horses and cows. He named them all, and while most people would have been able to remember the names of the two or four horses or mules that we had in the early days of our Madera County farm, the cows would have been something else. At one point, when we had about thirty milk cows, one of my teachers stopped by to deliver a costume for a Christmas pageant that I was in. It was milking time, and I was at the dairy barn helping Dad. She watched for a bit, and was impressed as Dad progressed through the cows, talking soothingly to each by name. She commented to him that he seemed to have them all named. Dad acknowledged that he did, and demonstrated it by naming the next ten or twelve cows down the line.
“Amazing!” my teacher said, “I can’t even remember the names of all of my students.”
“That’s because you don’t have to milk them twice a day,” Dad said with a straight face.
On The Road Again—My father had been talking about moving back to Kansas for some time, but during the winter of 1947/1948 he had an opportunity to sell the farm for several times what he had paid for it. That was all the incentive he needed to scratch his itchy feet. I don’t recall what my mother’s feelings were, but I feel certain that her memories of California included deprivation, hardship, extremely hard work, and occasional ridicule as “...a damned Oakie,” a derogatory term that included all poor "dust-bowlers," no matter what state they had migrated from.
At any rate, in the spring the farm, the cattle, the farm machinery and all of our household goods were sold. Mom kept her Singer sewing machine, various keepsakes, and Dad kept a few tools, but everything else, except for our personal belongings, things were sold by auction. As part of the land transaction Dad took in trade a near-new 1947 Jeep Station Wagon. My parents used it to go back to Kansas to get “the lay of the land,” and find a farm to buy. In the meantime I stayed with Raymond and Alma until they returned.
Dad wanted to sell my Model A Sport Coupe, but I put up such a fuss that he soon gave up on the idea. He opined, albeit reluctantly, that we could convoy back to Kansas. They returned in June, when school was out, and we immediately started for Kansas. The trip from Madera to Wichita took five days. I was fifteen years old.
We arrived back in Kansas in late June. The trip was a great adventure for me, even though it was frustrating to have to stay behind Dad’s Jeep all the way. He drove only about thirty-five MPH, and most of the time on the shoulder of the road. My Model A would cruise at about 45 MPH, and I wanted to Go. Other drivers went by with their horns blaring, but it never seemed to faze my father. Even so, I felt very adult driving my own car all the way to Kansas. It was then about fifteen hundred miles from Madera to Wichita. It would be shorter now, but in 1948 the Interstates had not yet been built, and Route 66 wandered all over the place. On this trip, in contrast to 1936, we stayed in a “tourist cabin” each night.
We stopped over at Flossie and Oran’s farm in Sedgwick, which is near Wichita, and Oran offered me a summer job on his farm. I got room and board plus spending money. In addition I got to drive Oran’s brand new John Deere tractor, which I promptly drove through a hedgerow. Oran was pretty irritated until he discovered that the steering had failed, and that I wasn’t really at fault. Later, as his confidence in my driving skills returned, he also allowed me to drive his self-propelled combine. The harvested wheat was then transferred to a one-and-a-half ton grain truck, which at times I also drove to the wheat elevator. I was really in hog heaven. Once Oran even let me drive his brand new 1948 Chevy pickup truck to town. Now that was something!
The New Farm—The eighty-acre farm my father purchased was near Neodesha, but it was also only about three miles from where my brother Clifford and his family lived just south of Altoona. We couldn’t take possession of the farm until late fall when the previous owner had gotten all of his crops harvested, so in the meantime Dad took a six-month lease on a house in Altoona. My father had paid five thousand dollars for the farm, and with some of the remaining money from the sale of the California dairy farm he bought a brand new Case tractor. It was his pride and joy for several years. It was a far cry from the old Farmall we had had in California, and the new Case even had an electric starter! No horses or mules on this farm.
The house was a typical two-story white wood-frame Kansas farmhouse. It had a huge family kitchen and a screened in porch on the back of the house where we kept a copper bathtub. It had a “front room” and a master bedroom on the ground floor, and stairs led to two more bedrooms on the second floor. Two wood stoves heated the house during cold periods, one in the kitchen and one in the front room, but the latter was only fired up if we had “company.” There was a provision for a third stove on the second floor where I had my bedroom, but one was never installed. And, also typical of many rural farms of that era, there was no electrical service, running water, or inside toilet facilities.
In the summer of 1948, however, the Rural Electrical Authority made it to Wilson County, Kansas. Rural power lines had been installed along the road next to our house, so after the previous owner vacated Dad and my brother Clifford installed a basic electrical service. We had one wall outlet and provision for one light in each room.
Much to my disgust we were back to no running water and no hot showers. The house had a cistern under the back porch, which was fed through a charcoal filter by rainwater from the roof. There were two hand-operated pumps, one just above the cistern and one on the kitchen counter next to the sink. In the warmer periods bathing was taken care of with the copper bathtub on the back porch, with bath water heated on the kitchen stove. When my father shaved he had to go through much the same process. During the coldest months we had our infrequent baths in the kitchen, and my father shaved in a washbasin next to the wood stove. We still had to use an outhouse, but we had never had anything else, so we didn’t really feel deprived. My mother got a new washing machine to replace the one left in California, and it was kept on the back porch as well.
During the winter of 1949-1950 relations between my father and me became almost unbearable…at least for me. There was constant friction, and the scenario was very comparable to that when my brother Bud left the nest back in 1941. My oldest sister Goldie, upon learning of the increasing friction and verbal exchange, offered to take me in if I would stay in school. She had done the same for my sister Helen, who went on to graduate high school in Topeka. She and John had also provided temporary sanctuary from time-to-time for other siblings during periods when my father became unbearable. When the second semester of my junior year of high school started I was enrolled at Topeka High School.
Goldie and John had made a big impression on me during their 1939 visit to California and, although I hadn’t seen them again until we returned from California, they still seemed to have an upscale aura about them that I envied. They lived in town…and had a real bathroom. By 1950 their two children were long out on their own and, I suspect, Goldie welcomed someone to mother. Whatever the reason, I am still grateful for her understanding, compassion and love during a very difficult period of my life. Goldie was working full time, and thus was able to buy my schoolbooks, as well as provide me with a weekly allowance of five dollars, a generous sum in 1950. Everything should have worked out fine; I was relieved of the constant friction with my father, and Goldie and John provided an environment that should have made me happy.
But I was lonesome, and the school was big, and I didn’t know anyone, and…and…. There seemed to be a number of imagined reasons why I didn’t like going to school in Topeka. By not eating lunch in the school cafeteria a couple of times a week I could afford, on alternate weekends, to drive my Model A back to Neodesha to visit my parents and my friends. During these visits my father and I got along famously, but we both realized, I’m quite sure, that the potential for friction was still present. During this same period, my friend Jim Lour was becoming increasingly frustrated with his situation at home as well. In his case it was not his widowed mother, but his older sister whom he imagined was making his life intolerable. Fifty years plus make these issues sound trivial, but they were serious for us at the time.
Jim and I consoled each other about our imagined problems, and gradually hatched the idea of joining the military. The more we talked the more we became intrigued about “seeing the world.” One day I went by the Marine Corps recruiting office in Topeka and picked up some brochures. The following weekend Jim and I read them over several times. We were hooked.
At that point I was not yet seventeen years old. Jim’s birthday was in January and mine was in March, so we decided to wait until March 12. There was a problem, though. The military services, as a result of a holdover from WW2, would not enlist anyone under eighteen without parental consent. Jim had little difficulty getting his mother to sign a waiver. She was very old, and had had several sons in the military. My parents, however, were another story. They had both refused to sign to allow my brother to join the Marines at seventeen in 1942, and they were firm in their resolve about not signing for me.
My father finally gave in with,
“Aw hell, it’s okay with me if it’s okay with your mother.”
My mother, however, was a harder nut to crack. She was more concerned that I was proposing to quit school than she was about my joining the military. My father had only gone to about the third grade and she through the eighth, but she knew that education was important. She eventually gave in as well, however, when she realized how determined I was, and after I pointed out that there were no wars at the time, and that there would be little danger involved. The brochure on the Marine Corps correspondence school seemed to impress her as well.
I spent in the next seven years in the Marines (the subject of another story), but I was finally off of that blankity-blank farm!!
Years later, however, I began having visions of owning “a small piece of ground.” Not that I wanted to be a full-fledged farmer, but the old saying that goes something like: “You can get the boy out of the farm, but you can’t get the farm out of the boy,” is probably true. The farm atmosphere that I had hated as a boy seemed to be something that was desirable after I became middle-aged.
In 1981 Ruth and I bought three acres southeast of Bakersfield, and built a new home there. Remembering my Dad, I planted over fifty fruit, nut and citrus trees, plus two two-hundred-foot rows of several varieties of grapes, and laid out a half acre or so for a vegetable garden. I also fenced one acre for animals (I planned on getting a horse), and built a chicken coop and run.
In no time at all we were deluged so much fresh fruit, vegetables, melons, oranges and lemons that I couldn't give it away...in fact people started avoiding me after awhile rather than hurt my feelings by refusing my gifts. Like my folks, I bought day-old chickens, turkeys, ducks, but we couldn't eat them fast enough, and pretty soon, instead of being "fryers," they were designated as candidates for the chicken and dumpling pot. The turkeys came in handy at Thanksgiving and Christmas, but no one wanted our roast duck...that is except Lizz, our Blue Heeler. Some our chickens grew into laying hens, but they produced so many eggs that I was giving them away at the office. We did make good use of the pigs and calves...but even so I had to buy an extra freezer for the meat. I never did get the horse though.
Needless to say, I got carried away. At first it was fun, and I really enjoyed playing farmer as I worked the ground with my little Ford tractor, but after three or four years I suddenly realized that all of my spare time was taken up with "farming." There was no time to ride my Honda Goldwing, to go camping, or to go four-wheeling in the mountains in my Jeep, and it certainly wasn't as much fun as it had been in the beginning.
In early October 1989 I was transferred to San Francisco, just in time for the earthquake that brought down a section of the Bay Bridge. What a relief; my nostalgia with regard to farming had been satisfied, yet I did not have to admit defeat.