One of my favorite things to do is to chat with a member of our oldest generation about the chores they had to complete each day on the farm. It serves to remind us just how much easier life has become for all of us, and in many cases, this enormous change has come at a cost to our youngest generation.
It saddens me to think that many children have no idea how to complete the simplest of chores, or worse yet, to be part of a self-sustaining unit.
Chopping wood, and making some of that wood in to kindling, was once a large part of the life of every farm kid. If there were dried corncobs or dead wood sticks from the yard to mix in with the kindling, that was often one of the chores for the little kids. It wasn’t enough to chop wood, but to be sure that there was a good supply of this near the house and another inside the house.
And there were always ashes needing to be hauled out from the old wood burning stoves. Later, when coal furnaces became the desired method of heating a house, there were still plenty of ashes needing to be taken out. It was one of my first jobs as a little kid.
When I think back on that job, the overwhelming memory of the smell of that dirty, damp and dusty chore in the cellar still makes me cringe.
We were taught not to complain, because maintaining a happy heart in the face of adverse conditions was said to build character. Because of this, we tried to make a game of this grueling chore.
One day, we were Cinderella searching for gold dust in the ashes, another day we might pretend to be firefighters cleaning up after an enormous fire in New York City. Instead of grumbling and dragging our feet, we tried to move quickly up and down those cellar steps with the gritty, smelly ash buckets.
We had been taught to spread the ashes along the driveway, serving two purposes: Not only were we completing the necessary work of cleaning out the belly of the home furnace, but we were helping to make the driveway more passable in the dead of winter.
I was still quite young when I was called to duty with my three older sisters. Everyone had to pitch in to complete all the chores of both the house and the farm, and if someone neglected to do their part, it was not going to end well. There was a whipping paddle on a hook in the kitchen and no one wanted to develop a personal acquaintance with it.
We had a farrow-to-finish hog barn as well as a dairy barn, and I remember feeling such fear when it came time to feed the sows. I would stand in the corn crib, which took up the middle part of the hog barn, and try to decide which fear I must try harder to overcome, my horror of the mice scurrying in the corn crib when I scooped out ear corn, or the sows which I must face next.
I learned to fill my coverall pockets with ears of corn, throwing one in to the sow’s pen before pouring the slop mix in to the trough in hopes that the sow would look toward the back of the pen and ignore me.
I worked as fast as I could to complete the feeding chores. There is nothing meaner on a farm than a sow with piglets.
Dad always taught us to beware of the one bull that he kept on the farm. He never kept a bull for long, because the older a bull gets, the meaner it can become. He often repeated the story of a woman we all knew well who had been knocked down by the bull in their dairy barn.
The only thing that saved her life is that she was able to grab ahold of the ring in his nose as he trampled her. She twisted the ring until the bull buckled, and she did not let go until she could get up and make her escape.
When all of the animals were fed, the cows milked and the milking parlor cleaned up, it was time to help get the meal on the table. It went without saying that we were to help in the house the minute we finished out in the barn.
After everyone was done eating, we were to clean up the table, wash, dry and put away the dishes, carry the kitchen slop bucket out to dump it over the fence to the pigs and, if necessary, help start preparations for the next meal.
There was very little free time, for we were expected to bring home good grades. Homework and studying filled any idle moment. If homework was completed, we knew to practice our piano lessons.
Only a fool would utter the words, “I’m bored.” Chores would rain down on that child so fast the head would spin!