“We are each feeling quite alone and low now. For what is a home without a mother?”
— Alexander Smalley, 1894
The next best thing to a diary has proven to be a series of annual ledger books kept by my paternal grandmother, given to me by my father.
The fragile three-ring binders reveal remarkable record-keeping in Helen Myers Young’s handwriting, the cursive so nearly perfect that one might guess, correctly, that she was a schoolteacher.
Each pup was recorded in two simple lines, the first carrying the date the pup was born, and to whom the pup was sold, as well as the sire of the litter. The second line carried the date the pup was sold and the address to which it was shipped, along with the name of the dam. Simple, succinct, complete record-keeping in two simple lines.
I cannot begin to know how she kept up with it all, especially in 1941, when 353 puppies were sold and shipped by rail. Male puppies that year brought $12, with females going for $10.
A surprising number of puppies went to Connecticut and New York from my grandparents’ Ohio farm, though the vast majority went to areas that we still consider agricultural states: Texas, Alabama, Kansas, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois.
One of the most interesting ledger entries in 1941 was a female pup sold to Eagle School of Beauty Culture in Blytheville, Arkansas. I would love to know more.
Over Helen’s brief life, English Shepherd pups were sold and shipped to all 48 states.
In the back of each annual ledger, Helen kept income and expense details, and the cost of advertising strikes me as fairly high for that day. She spent $2.25 for an ad in Breeders Gazette, $2.55 to New England Homestead, with Ohio Farmer ads running $1.95, Pennsylvania Farmer, $1.80.
Each monthly expense included payments to local farm families who had been given one of Young’s females, bred, with the agreement full-blooded English Shepherd litters would be bought back. By 1946, females were bringing $15 and males $20 to $25.
With a little extra money in this successful year, Helen bought 1,000 strawberry plants for $5, and a note that caught my eye in July of 1939 was $2.60 spent at Wards for “Sonny’s suits”, her nickname for her first-born, my father, who would have been 7 years old, and “dress goods for Marilyn, 41 cents”, my dad’s sister, age 5.
Expenses included supplies for dog food and crates, $3.60. The purchase of 30 gallons of gas and 10 gallons of kerosene cost $5. Seed corn in May 1936 was listed at $36. Plow points, salt and limestone was $4.50.
My dad’s memories of this remarkable woman told a story of a mother who cared deeply for others. She addressed the school board about the fact that some children in the community were going hungry, and proposed a kitchen inside of the school. It was a prospect unheard of in that day of tin lunch buckets carried to school by students, some with nothing inside to eat, a hard truth that Helen wanted to change.
She would tuck her children in to bed each night and then finish working dough to rise by the heat of the stove overnight, her children waking to the smell of bread baking. They spoke of remarkable meals cooked in the wood stove, marveling at how she timed everything to finish just right, even on Sundays upon the family’s return from church.
Feeling the lighter weight of Helen’s 1946 ledger book made me pause. Expenses in the three previous years listed “Medicine, 75 cents” or “Doctor visit, 50 cents” several times as Helen began to battle many sore throats. Her younger sister Virginia urged her to have her tonsils removed, convinced she would feel better.
The very few pictures I have of my grandmother portray a woman who appeared tired, dark circles under her eyes, though still smiling.
March 13, 1946, is her final entry, four pups shipped to West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Indiana and southern Ohio.
“I will be home in a few days, Sonny,” she said as she walked her oldest son out to the bus that April morning. “I need you to be the man in charge.”
She went in to the hospital for a tonsillectomy, and died there at the age of 35. Her body was brought back to the family home, as was the custom, for viewing. Relatives have said the beloved boy she called Sonny never left her side to go to bed that night, numb with the shock of this tragic loss.
Many years later, on the day we buried my 86-year-old grandfather, who had never remarried, I saw emotion overtake my father.
“It just brings it all back,” he said.
On the day of his mother’s funeral he had memorized the number of steps from her grave to the street so he could be sure to find her final resting place again.
His father retreated into depression, and Sonny really was to become the man in charge at the tender age of 13, three younger siblings counting on him. He would harvest the crops and drive to the grain elevator to strike a deal on payment long before he was even old enough to drive a car. He became wise beyond his years out of necessity.
Marilyn tried in later years to revive the dog business with the English Shepherds they had kept. As the business was building, our dear Aunt Marilyn became ill with cancer and died, also at the age of 35, and is buried beside her mother.
I grew up with one of the great dogs from a final litter. The dog my dad named Bill was so helpful on the farm that he was better than a paid farm hand, bringing in the Holstein herd at milking time, helping sort hogs for market, watching over all of us, alert to everything.
“Young’s Old Bill Blazin’ Anew” is the registered name I have given the dog who now works our farm, carrying on my grandmother’s work, attempting to preserve the fine genetics of the dog now listed, sadly, as a rare breed.
I have come to realize that dogs hold special meaning in our lives for various reasons, too numerous to name. For us, the English Shepherds — a strong, sturdy, calm, working dog — represent a generational bond, uniting us in a way that cannot be defined.
Check out Part I and Part II in this series.
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