Monday, April 21, 2014

Dirt Poor, Experience Rich

Spring has finally sprung in Annake's Garden (the green and dirty version), and we're scrambling to catch up. Taking a break from craft subjects, this time Annake offers a short photo essay about growing things and getting by on less:  a personal reminiscence of growing up in the rural Midwest during the Great Depression.

Strawberry plant first spring growth
Some of our strawberry plants
The time we have waited for through a long, hard winter has finally arrived. It's planting time! The raised beds have been cleared and turned so we can transplant the seedlings from our little lean-to greenhouse. The areas around our currant and gooseberry bushes have been cleared and the grapevines are pruned. Four kinds of berry briars are trained to fences and strawberry vines are spreading out under their chicken-wire dome. The herb beds are thriving. I can hardly wait to gather baby greens and fresh herbs for salads. And the smell of freshly-turned earth takes me on a nostalgic journey back to my Midwestern childhood.

Our hardscrabble farm was on hilly land. The Ice Age glaciers had never gotten there to make the land smooth and flat like so much of Illinois. This was not tall-grass prairie, where thousands of years of grass tall enough to hide a man on horseback had left deep deposits of soil, black as night and soft as velvet. Our fields and pastures had been hacked out of woodland and the soil was thin and rocky. We had forty acres of ground and two mules to farm it with, around a house built in 1814 to replace a sod house.

corn on the stalk with tassel
Corn on the stalk, with tassel
We cultivated corn, a few soybeans for livestock feed, sorghum for molasses, three kinds of clover for pasture and a little broom corn. We had a fruit orchard, a grape arbor, and a large vegetable garden. We raised a few dairy cows, hogs, goats, chickens, ducks and geese.

Potato beetle
Potato beetle
As soon as I could toddle in a straight line over rough ground without falling down too often, my dad handed me a Campbell's soup can half-full of kerosene and a stick. He showed me what potato beetles looked like and instructed me to knock every one I found off the plants and into the can. Then there were fat, wiggly cutworms to be pulled off the tomato plants. That was my introduction to agriculture and the world of work. And there was plenty of work to be done. 

Pretty, but still weeds!

When I learned to distinguish weeds from young seedlings, I got to pull LOTS of weeds.

Since I was a lot closer to the ground than my dad, I got to plant lots of seeds. I learned to mound up little “hills” of dirt to plant seeds of beans, squash, and pumpkins. I planted four seeds to a hill. Dad taught me a little rhyme to remind me:

One for the cutworm,
One for the crow,
One for the field mouse,
And one to grow”.

Cows at the water trough
Cows at the water trough
Livestock had to be fed and watered every day. Cows had to be driven to pasture every morning up the hill to the crossroads, down the hill past the cemetery, along the creek where fox grapes hung heavy in the trees and brought home every night. Chickens had to be driven into shelter whenever a storm was coming, or else they would pile up along the fence and smother or even drown in a hard rain. They had to be cooped up at night to protect them from foxes and raccoons. The mules pulled the heavy farm equipment. They had to be harnessed, hitched up, driven, unhitched, unharnessed and rubbed down.

Sow nursing piglets
Sow nursing piglets
There were always babies being born or hatched. Sometimes their mothers needed help with the process. Sows trampled piglets and cut them badly with their hooves. It was my job to clean the wounds with peroxide and treat them with fish oil and turpentine. It wasn't a pleasant smell, but that was the smell of springtime to me. I still miss it; springtime doesn't seem the same without it.

Baby chicks
Eggs had to be gathered every day, and some sneaky hens liked to hide their nests. They had to be sorted, washed, candled and packed for safe transport to town. Baby chicks had to be monitored constantly. If one got hurt and started to bleed, the others would peck it to death. Once they were let outside, you had to watch for hawks. I concluded early on that chickens were not very smart; I preferred the independent ducks and geese.

Toggenburg Goat
I learned to milk cows and goats two very different techniques and crank the cream separator and butter churn to prepare the dairy products we sold in town every Saturday, before we went to the cowboy movie. I helped Dad make “teepees” from willow saplings to support pole and runner beans. I raked and hoed and rode the cultivator and harrow to watch for obstacles and rescue birds' nests and baby rabbits. I led the mules in endless circles every fall to grind apples for making cider and vinegar. One of my great disappointments was that I never grew tall enough to de-tassel corn with my boy cousins.

The work was hard, often dirty, sometimes dangerous. But we got to see the results within a matter of weeks. The chores changed with the seasons. By the time you got really tired of planting, it was time to cultivate the new crops. Sick of weeding? Hey, it's harvest time! Harvesting the last fat pumpkins with a full harvest moon rising in the evening sky made all the work worthwhile.

Winter was cozy, with less outside work and time to dream and plan for the next spring's planting. The livestock were in the barn or the feedlot, not out in the fields. Seed catalogs appeared in the mailbox out by the road. We were never bored, but always looking forward with hope and anticipation.

Not every 9-to-5 job can give you that kind of satisfaction.

Love to all you farmers and gardeners out there,


Photo Credits (photos are hyperlinked to originals):  
  • Mules:  Farm Security Administration  (
  • Potato Beetle:  Björn Appel  (Wikimedia Commons)
  • Baby Chicks:  pippalou  (
  • Corn:  Petr Kratochvil  (
  • Cows: Mike Coates  (
  • Pigs:  Michael Miloserdoff   (
  • Pumpkins:  David Wagner   (
  • Goat:  X posid  (
  • Weeds, Seeds, Strawberry plant, Catalogs:  The Gnome @ Annake's Garden 

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