Winter from the window

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January’s week of blistering cold was met with the blissful heat from the farmette’s two efficient wood stoves. Red oak and hickory are, after all, the July and August of wood heat both when you split ‘em and when you burn ‘em.

Zero degree cold was not common on the big southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth. While winters were cold, I don’t recall any as cold as every one of the 30 winters at my adopted home 200 miles north.

Oh, the ground down south did freeze every winter but it rarely frozen all winter. In fact, we often counted on a lengthy, warm February thaw for Uncle Honey to finish any delayed plowing and hired men Jackie and Howard to haul manure.

Short snaps of deep cold were not rare but all were deeply unwelcome. The cows, the hired men, the plumbing, the shivering calves, the machinery—everyone and everything—moved slower or not at all when temperatures fell to zero or below.

The cows suffered the worst. Ice and manure froze on their tail switches; frozen barn lots made for slow, treacherous walks to the milking parlor and feed bunks; udders chapped; straw bedding was never deep enough nor fresh enough.

Next in line were the hired-men, brothers Jackie and Howard.

Field hand

Jackie, the field hand, was outside in the weather most workdays so winter hit him especially hard. If the cows needed bedding, Jackie put his cap’s earflaps down and got the straw. If the cows needed feed, Jackie got his coat and hauled corn. Busted fence, broken water line, flat tire? Where’s Jackie? No matter how cold he might get, Jackie’s tiny frame always held enough spark to ignite a streak of flaming cusswords to describe how cold it was yesterday, how cold is was today and how cold it was going to be tomorrow.

He railed at the cold with such fervency you’d have sworn he had a background in tent preaching—except for the swearing, that is.

Herdsman

Howard, the herdsman, had far better reasons to cuss winter, but he rarely did.

The worst was his hands. From 5 a.m. to 7 p.m., six days a week, Howard’s milking-parlor hands were either just wet, soaking wet or dripping wet. Cold weather then chapped them so badly you’d have thought ‘em skinned.

His home life offered little time for the painful, raw hands to heal. He was the main cook and housekeeper for Jackie and a third brother, Orlie. That meant he made their meals, did their dishes and, on his day off every Saturday, washed their laundry.

Each task brought more water, more soreness and more cracks to his big hands.

Howard’s home cure only made all worse. Daily he’d wrap each cracked, bleeding finger in cotton cloth soaked in rubbing alcohol, then wrap ‘em tight in black electrical tape. No one—not my father, a doctor, the visiting veterinarian—could convince him to stop the awful practice.

He continued it each winter until he retired when we retired the dairy.

Machinery in winter

Thankfully, the machinery didn’t run on turpentine or diesel, so getting the gas tractors started those winter mornings took little more than a lot of choke and a little patience. Running the machinery, however, took layers of long underwear, jeans, socks, overalls, vests, coats, gloves and “stocking” caps.

We had all that clothing because no tractor on our farm had a cab or heater. The more-used winter tractors, Uncle Honey’s Oliver 77 and Jackie’s 88, did sport “heat housers,” flimsy canvas get-ups that directed engine heat toward your feet.

The design, though, ensured your toes toasted as your eyelids froze tight.

If your eyelids did freeze tight, you had two choices: you could wait a week for a thaw or you could just stand next to Jackie for a minute or two when he got on red-hot cussing jag about the cold.

If you chose the latter, though, you had to keep your earflaps down.

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com

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