LOOKING BACK: The farmer and how he fed his family

Early settlers found a way to eat well. The secret was that they didn’t mind hard work.

On a farm in 1900, food was plentiful, but its production was not easy. The farmer used about three-quarters of the year for outdoor farm work. In the slack months, he mended fences, repaired buildings, fed and watered animals, milked cows, sawed wood and brought it into the house; he threw down hay from the barn loft and butchered the hogs. He also did the fall plowing, and in the spring, he prepared the garden for planting.

For the housewife, work was year-round. She produced the chickens from eggs under the setting hens, and prepared and cooked everything that went on the table. She preserved the fruit by canning and drying. She weeded the garden, harvested and brought the vegetables into the house and cooked them. She baked the bread and churned the butter. Each child, as soon as they were big enough, helped too. Sometimes the work was fun but not always. In addition to the chores listed above, the farm wife made clothing and quilts for the family.

Meat was very important. Chicken and other fowl provided fresh meat all year. Wild game served the same purpose. Fish caught from the nearby slippery banks of Salt Creek were sometimes a source of protein. Wild meat was much liked: rabbits, squirrels, wild turkeys and quail. Besides the need for food, hunting and fishing were favorite sports of the farmer.

Pork was the mainstay meat because cows and calves were needed to sell to put cash in the farmers’ pockets. Food, shelter and fuel seemed free, but it took cash to pay the taxes and doctors, and for clothes and hardware.

On butchering day, neighbors helped each other. Hogs furnished many different food items that no other animal could: sausage, ham, bacon, pork chops, tenderloin, spare ribs, pork roast and, very importantly, lard, the only shortening the early settlers had.

Hams and bacon hung in the tightly built smokehouse all summer after being salted and smoked for days over a fire built on the earthen floor.

They made their bread from the grains the farmer raised and harvested, husked or threshed, then took to the grist mill for grinding.

The best known gristmill for corn and especially wheat was at Stone Head near Storyville, now called Story. Wheat was ground into white flour.

Threshing day was another big day in the life of the farmers. Neighbors would gather to help. At noon, all would sit at a big table under a shade tree and eat one of the biggest dinners of the year. Day after day until all of the farmers in the township was served, this day would be repeated until all the wheat was in large bins and the straw was in huge stacks.

I know you are beginning to wonder how we had butter to spread on those wonderful biscuits mother made. The girls had to churn it. And it was a dull job, but most of all, it was a tiresome one. The churn had a long stick with a plunger on the end. The stone lid had a hole in the middle for the handle to go through. One simply stood and plunged the handle up and down for what seemed hours and hundreds of times. To begin, the churn was about half full of slightly sour, whole, rich milk. Mother would come and look for flecks of butter. By the time the flecks of butter formed and were ready to be skimmed off, everyone was worn out. Every wife had a fancy butter mold that would hold a pound of fresh butter. Mother could sell the extra butter to the huckster or to the country store.

Most everyone gathered honey and made maple syrup to go with that fresh butter and fresh biscuits.

Yes, this rings truth to the phrase, “The farmer works from sun to sun, and the farmer’s wife’s work is never done.”

This brings us to the Hands on History program presented by the Brown County Historical Society. The last session of 2017 is Thursday, Oct. 19 from 1 to 4 p.m. for children ages 8 through 12. The focus will be on harvest, cider pressing, bobbing for apples, canning pickles and smokehouse operations.

Pauline Hoover, Brown County Historical Society