The way it was in the spring of 1939


In March 1939, I was still five months away from my sixth birthday and one more from my first year in a one-room country school (no kindergarten or preschool in those days).

My folks may have read the March issue of Farm Journal, but even if they didn’t, I have a copy in front of me now.

Inside, on the page headed, Topics in Season, is the following advice: “Mend and oil the harness soon. There’ll be no time in May or June.”

Listed are jobs that needed doing before field work started. “Repair and oil harness; sharpen plow shares and cultivator shovels; put new sections on mower and binder cutter bars; sharpen garden hoes; replace worn hooks and clevises on singletrees and doubletrees; replace worn or broken parts on farm implements; put new handles in hammers; sharpen the disk harrow; remove rust from mouldboards. Sharpen the plow coulter and put on a weed hook to cover trash.

“The man who sprays his apples well, has fruit to eat and some to sell.”

The author goes on to tell farmers that “March should find pruning finished, brush cleaned up and burned, and the spray rig ready to go.”

Under now is the time to are these recommended tasks: “Test seed corn. Make a hotbed. Plant sweet peas. Roll winter wheat. Top-dress pastures. Rent a cold storage locker. Build creep for early lambs. Order garden and flower seeds. Transplant large trees and shrubs. Ask your wife what color she wants the house painted. Prune the orchard, clean up and burn the trimmings. Buy some corner fasteners and make screens for the windows. Clean, scrub, disinfect brooder and farrowing houses.”

Today, we think ethanol-laced gasoline is new, but in 1939 came news that the Atchison “alky-gas” plant was closing because the cost of distilling alcohol from surplus grain was too high.


Called “Agrol,” sales of the product didn’t reach expectations even though there were “steady sales at some filling stations and the good will of many co-operatives. Thus all available information indicates that alky-gas is not economically sound.”

Farmer Burt Washburn, of Susquehanna, Pa., wanted to order a new plow equipped with a radio; he said that if he was “to sow, cultivate and reap as Washington directs,” he’d need to check every hour “to find out what’s going on.”

John Proud, of Bartley, Neb., was milking a cow when the critter stepped on the cat’s tail. The cat scratched the cow; the cow kicked Mrs. Proud and broke her left leg causing her to fall under the cow. When Mr. Proud attempted to pull his wife from under the cow, the excited bovine kicked him and broke his left leg.

Talk about a chain reaction.


The machinery column tells us that dry weather at cornhusking time last fall caused the Boros Brothers, of Illinois, to put lights on their custom-work tractor so they could pick corn at night when the husks were tougher.

A farmer from Minnesota, named James Leet, bought a 2-row corn picker and it paid for itself the first year. After Leet picked his own 75 acres of 45-bushel corn at an estimated cost of 3.12 cents per bushel, he did 525 acres for neighbors at $1.50 per acre plus gas, from which his total receipts were $787.50.

It was reported that 80 percent of the rural children in Illinois had decayed teeth, and that the average cost of treatment for each child would be $8. Also, layer cake with chocolate frosting had been recently voted the most popular cake by 1,500,000 housewives (perhaps the cause of the decayed teeth?).

On the editor’s page: “Some college professor predicts that in another thousand years women will rule the world. What we would like to know is what he calls what they are doing now.”


Things in Washington were about as they are now, except then it was the Senate, even though it was heavily Democrat, who was fighting the president (Roosevelt) on appointments, was trying to trim a new relief (welfare) bill, and questioning the president’s support for England and France as they rearmed in the face of Hitler’s aggressions (German troops marched into Czechoslovakia that month and World War II would officially begin less than six months later).

In the comic strip, Peter Tumbledown’s long-suffering wife left him (for the umpteenth time) because he, unknownst to her, emptied some bottles of her newly-made tomato catsup and refilled them with his new grape wine which blew up all over her.

New movies reviewed were Gunga Din with Cary Grant and Sam Jaffe (“Good adventure film”), Four Girls in White, a film about nurses starring Una Merkel and Buddy Ebsen (“So-so”), and St. Louis Blues with Maxine Sullivan (“Pretty good tripe”).

For the farm wife were half-a-dozen recipes to make “Eggs for Supper,” how to use “Ornaments and Color to Help Your Home’s Personality,” how to arrange “Early Spring Bouquets,” and patterns to make “That New Spring Dress.”


Ads included Gold Medal Flour, Chevrolet trucks and Hudson and Ford cars, Prince Albert tobacco and Lucky Strike cigarettes (still in the green pack; remember “Lucky Strike Green has gone to war?”), Goodrich and Firestone tires, Havoline motor oil and Willard batteries, Farmall F-series tractors, Case and Allis-Chalmers combines, the new 3-4 plow Caterpillar R2 tractor, Fels Naptha soap, the Bell Telephone System, Zenith battery-operated radios, Black Leaf 40 insect spray, Bag Balm for sore cows’ teats (and hands), Galloway “Streamlined Creamaster” cream separators, and Gusta B. Atz’s Famous Chix featuring a photo of the winsome Mrs. Atz herself.

The best of the jokes under “Passed by the Non-Sensor” was this: Mrs. McCleod returned a new radio to the store. The clerk asked “What’s wrong? Won’t it get the stations?”

“Aye,” replied Mrs. McCleod, “It does that, but Sandy finds the wee light too hard to read by.”

And that’s the way it was in the spring of 1939.


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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.


  1. I’ll be 78 in July. I was born in 1937 in the Imperial Valley in extremely Southern California. It was 116 degrees that day. We lived on a 120 acre farm. We irrigated with Colorado River water brought in with All American Canal. By 1939 ,or so, only 20 acres was in cultivation, but Dad was working on digging out mesquites & knocking down small sand-hills to get another 20 ready. He used a mid-1920’s gas Caterpillar in the daytime & a team of horses at night … too hot for horses during the day.

    This morning I awoke with a memory floating up in my mind of a cartoon in the in a 1940 issue (apx) of the Farm Journal (we subscribed) of Peter Tumbledown & family riding in beat up old truck. They were intently staring at the odometer waiting to see the odometer turn over a cardinal high mileage. That was their entertainment for the day!

    I was curious if anyone else recalled that era. In a fit of nostalgia I Googled “Tumbledown” & discovered that quite a few did.. I found a contribution of yours. I enjoyed what you wrote & my nostalgia intensified. Thanks for the memories. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Marv (Scotch-Irish & proud of it) Mayo


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