One certain way to raise my agricultural bona fides among farming friends was to casually mention my upbringing on a 100-cow, southern Illinois dairy farm.
“Oh,” they would say reverently, “that’s real work.”
Yes, it was, but mostly for my father who began his farming career milking cows by hand in 1950 and ended it in 1989 in a double-six herringbone parlor complete with glass weigh jars, glass pipelines and a spotless, stainless steel 1,000-gallon bulk tank.
Across those nearly 14,500 early mornings, long days and late evenings, Dad saw thousands of cows, a couple dozen hired men, and five sons walk into his noisy milking parlor and, usually within a few short years, walk out for greener pastures.
The few constants across the decades — other than the barn’s concrete block walls and glass block windows — was a radio tuned to KMOX-St. Louis, a manure-spattered clock, and Dad quietly tending the far half of the parlor while trusted herdsman Howard tended the front half.
Work rarely fazed either. Milking cows isn’t hard work but everything else about dairying — baling hay, making silage, hauling manure, pulling calves, climbing silos, scraping barn lots in blizzards — is.
Harder still, maybe, was knowing that no matter how hard you leaned into it, the work pushed right back and you often started the next day further behind. Everyday, in truth, was a labor day.
Herdsman Howard, though, took it all in stride. Everything about him was measured. He walked slowly, talked slowly and even milked cows slowly, but he wasn’t slow. He simply was unrelentingly, unshakably steady. He was a man who had mastered mosey.
Since Sunday was my father’s day off, Howard and I spent most Sundays of my high school years together in the milking parlor. Often we’d talk about his upbringing in the Mississippi River bottoms of the 1930s. It was quite a tale. (You may remember Howard; every Christmas he returns to this space to remind us about heartfelt giving.)
Born the eldest of five children, Howard attended a one-room school that stood only 200 yards from where, 30 years later, he would spend the last half of his life milking cows with my father.
Growing up during the Depression was tough, but he had a part-time job that allowed him to save an occasional dollar — just not in any bank.
“We lost our savings when the bank went under in 1933,” Howard told me during one Sunday session, “so I hid my money in the wall of the bedroom I shared with my brothers.”
One day, probably in the late 1930s, he reckoned, his father wanted the money he knew Howard had hidden in the house. “He didn’t say why; he just wanted it. I said no.”
A fight ensued and — as was possible in southern Illinois back then — his father had Howard arrested and put into what everyone pejoratively called “Anna,” a state mental facility.
And there Howard remained for years until he turned up in the mid-1960s to live in the provided, frame house with the farm’s main hired man, Jackie, his younger, wiry bachelor brother. In short order, Dad hired the bigger, stronger Howard for the haying crew.
From the start, though, it was evident that Howard had the gentle, caring demeanor to be a great herdsman, so Dad soon shifted him from the alfalfa field to the milking parlor.
That demeanor was the result of his long institutional stay. “I milked 13 cows by hand every morning and every night for more years than I can remember,” he told me one Sunday. “You learn to be quiet after a time.”
The time away also meant no marriage, no children, and no family — except brothers Jackie and Orlee, another bachelor who lived with them a half mile from the milking barn, and two other siblings who lived nearby.
Was he bitter about what had happened? I once asked him. “Sure,” he said, “but not anymore. Besides, without that I wouldn’t be here and I like being here.”
And so did I.
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