After spending some time in the early spring of 1940, working for the railroad in the car repair department, my uncle, William Malrose Spencer, decided the work was not for him. He quit the job that paid him 38¢ an hour…an amount that made every kid in Holyoke, Minnesota green with envy. With some of the money he had made, he purchased a 1934 Plymouth for which he paid $65.00. I’m sure that was a lot of money to pay for a car back then, but today, we would not get much of a car for $65.00. Nevertheless, in 1940, $65.00 bought my uncle a car that was only six years old, and that is truly amazing. No wonder the kids in town were envious of my Uncle Bill’s great job. At 18 years of age, he must have seemed quite grown up.
After leaving the railroad, Uncle Bill returned home in early June…just in time to make hay, which took most of the month of June. Toward the end of June, Uncle Bill decided to head out to North Dakota to work in the harvest fields out there. Although he was only 16 years of age, my dad, Allen Lewis Spencer and their friend, Bob Croft decided to go along. So, they loaded up in Uncle Bill’s 1934 Plymouth and headed out. Their plan was to work in different harvest ready fields along their way.
This all seems like an easy money scheme, until you think about the fact that this trip was made during the pre-combine years. At that time, the grain was cut with a binder and then hauled to the threshing machine, with horses and wagons. Of course, all this was done in the heat of the day, and the men didn’t really wear tank tops and shorts back then. They simply sweated it out. The work was not easy either. There was a lot of bending, lifting, loading, and unloading. They worked liked dogs from sun up to sun down, but that was just the way things were done back then.
The guys spent the rest of that summer in the fields of North Dakota, before returning home when the harvest was done. Uncle Bill says that the trip was quite the adventure, but they made a little money while they were at it, so it was worth it in the end.
Farm work in years gone by, was a much harder job than it is these days, but with the invention of machinery, things got easier. Still, most people couldn’t afford to own those machines in the early years, so they either did the work by hand, or hired the threshers to come and do it. Soon, most farmers were hiring the threshers to come. It was a lucrative business for someone who had enough money to buy a machine…or better yet, several. I know that those members of my family, who were farmers, did hire the threshers, or else, they had enough money to buy their own machines, but I have to think that most people in those early years did not think the machine was a good value, if a man was going to just use it on their own farm, so the work was mostly hired out.
When the threshers were scheduled to come to your farm, it was a big day. The women would get up early and start cooking for the men, who would be very hungry by lunch time. This was heavy work, even with the help of the machinery. Nevertheless, everyone was excited when the threshers came…from the adults to the little kids. I’m sure that being able to watch the big machines working was a novel thing in those early years, and nobody wanted to miss out. Not only that, but everyone wanted to get their picture taken with the workers too, so that they could say they had been there when they were working. It was almost like having a celebrity visit your house, I suppose. It is a day like no other in the year. Everyone wants to be in on all the excitement, and it’s hard to keep the little kids out of the way. Nevertheless, they had to stay out of the way, because the huge machines were also dangerous and could easily kill a small child.
With the excitement, however, comes hard work. When the threshers are done. The grain had to be bagged for storage or sale, and the straw stacked for use in the barns. Nevertheless, it took a lot less workers to harvest the crops, and many farm laborers were not happy about that, because they faced the loss of their jobs. I suppose that with every bit of progress designed to make our lives easier, comes the possibility of job loss. Every time a machine takes over the hard labor, a worker becomes unnecessary. People have to adapt and change, educating themselves to run the equipment so they can move into a job that takes more skill, and thus creates job security. I know that for the farmer, the machines were the best thing to come along. The wages they didn’t have to pay out to the laborers added up to pure profit for them, even with the cost of the threshers. It was a new era, and things would never be the same again.
Kids have always had a fascination with animals. Any animal will do, but pets don’t seem to fall into the same category as other animals. I suppose that the reason for that is that after a little bit of time with a pet, they become normal everyday parts of the family. It doesn’t mean the child doesn’t love the pet, because they do, but the pet is an animal they see everyday, often in the house, so it’s nothing special. Farm animals, on the other hand are something different. Here is an animal that isn’t a domesticated pet, and yet it isn’t afraid of people either. They understand that they need people to bring them their food and water, and they also understand that people aren’t usually scary. Yes, the animal could hurt a child, especially if it stepped on the child, but for the most part the animal is as curious about the child as the child is about the animal.
As small children, my dad and his siblings lived on a farm, so being around farm animals was a part of life. Still, that did not stop the curiosity about those animals from forming in their minds. When they went out to play, a part of their time outside always seemed to be spent visiting the other residents of their home. They would trek out to the haystacks where the cows would be feeding, and watch those strong, yet gentle animals eat, while the cows watched these tiny versions of the people who cared for them watching them. Funny how we all teach our kids not to stare, but when put in a situation like this, all that rudeness doesn’t seem to matter. Both sides are staring anyway, and since it isn’t a person…it just doesn’t matter. I suppose in many ways the whole situation was a lot like the petting zoos that most city children have been to as their only real interaction with farm animals.
When my girls were little, we too had a little place out in the country, and we raised a cow now and them. The girls were quite curious and really wanted to help with our cow. I had to be careful what they helped with, because when it came to grain…our cows always became pigs, and a tiny little girl could get trampled in the cows effort to get to what the cows considered candy. Most of the time the cows were a gentle as they could be, but the grain had to be given in a certain way, and very quickly, because they couldn’t wait to get to it. One cow we had named Rosie, due to her red color, was so excited that she was trying to follow me and still scratch her belly too. The end result was one good, but unintended kick to the back of my knee. It left a knot that stayed with me for the better part of 6 months. It was a good thing for Rosie that I liked her, and it wasn’t butchering time, or she would have been on our table in a matter of days.
Hay was always a very different matter. Little kids could be around cows eating hay, and there was not a dangerous rush to the food. I suppose that was the vegetables of the whole deal, and we all know how kids, which is what cows are a lot like when it comes to food, are with vegetables. The girls loved to help put the hay in the feeding troths for the cows, and then sit and watch them eat. I suppose it was an interesting sight. If you have never watched a cow eat, you might not know it, but they really are strange when they eat. I suppose that is why Aunt Ruth, Uncle Bill, and my dad were just standing there, out by the haystack when they could have been playing in the snow, just watching the cows eat.
These days when the fair comes to town, many people think of the rodeo and the petting zoo, but years ago petting zoos didn’t exist. I suppose that might have been because so many people raised their own animals that they didn’t need to go out somewhere to see the farm animals…or at least, many of them didn’t. With the urbanizing of our country, more and more, people don’t get to be around farm animals as much in their everyday lives. I guess that has made us a little nostalgic is some ways. We keep trying to connect to the past in many ways.
I think most little kids these days have been to a petting zoo, but years ago, the petting zoo was out at the barn after the calving was over, and your admission fee was cleaning out that barn. It just didn’t have quite the same effect on a kid, whether they really liked animals or not. Taking care of animals is a messy job, as any rancher or 4-H student can tell you, and not one you usually associate with little girls. Nevertheless, little girls do like babies, and baby cows are very cute.
Personally, I think I would rather go to the petting zoo. We have raised a cow or two in our time living out in the country, and while the baby is cute when you get it, they are messy, and a lot of work. They grow from babyhood very quickly and then they aren’t so cute. They want their grain and they are willing to rush you to get it. Having a cow…sweet as they can be, step on your foot, or accidently kick you while trying to get to that food or grain really hurts. Oh, they don’t mean anything by it, but it was not a job I was willing to allow my girls to do,
And the saddest part about raising a cow…the main reason I would rather go to the petting zoo is that once they are grown…they must be butchered. They had been like a pet to us. We had even named them, and then we were expected to eat the meat. It truly got to the point where I could hardly stand to eat it. It’s not that I don’t like beef, because I do. It’s just that I don’t want to know my dinner by name!! No, I’ll buy my beef at the store, and go to a petting zoo, if I really feel the need to get next to nature in that way.
Living in the country and raising a few head of cattle for the purpose of butchering to feed the family is the way of life for the small rancher. A small rancher is of course, someone who doesn’t sell the cattle for profit, but just uses them for a food source. That is what Bob’s family used to do…Bob and I included. This was a new kind of life to me, as I had never been around cows much.
Corrie, Amy, and I would feed the cows in the morning, or at least the girls would come along. If you have never been around cows when someone is bringing in a bucket of grain, I promise you that you do not want to let small children in there. You see the grain to a cow…well, that’s their candy, and you had better move fast and get it into the feeding trough, or you will get run over. They have absolutely no discipline when it comes to grain.
I remember one cow in particular that I had named Rosie, because of her coat. Rosie was a Hereford cow. She loved her grain. She would run along side me to be first in line. One time, she was running and needed to scratch her belly at the same time, so she tried to do both. The result was that she kicked me in the back of the knee. Man…that hurt. She left a quarter sized bump and a huge bruise. The bump was with me for about a year and the bruise actually re-occured off and on. I can still feel her kick. She didn’t mean to do it of course. She was like a little kid and very gentle, but she loved her candy, and anyone in the vicinity of the bucket had better beware. Needless to say, you can see why the girls watched me feed the cows. They did help with the hay though, but that was done from the other side of the fence where they couldn’t get run over.
Butchering the cows…well that is another story. After caring for the cows and even naming them…probably not the best idea, I simply could not stand the thought or the sight of my pets being shot in the head, even though I knew it had to be, and I was ok with eating the meat. So the girls and I stayed in the house…with the TV or radio on fairly loud while the butchering was taking place.
We have long since moved into town, and we do not raise cows anymore, but I look a little differently at the cows we pass on the roads when we travel, because I know a little more about how they act, and what it takes to raise them than I ever imagined I would.