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American Farmers Don’t Talk About Family Values, They Live Them

In 'Every Farm Tells a Story,' Jerry Apps reflects on the sense of ethics that come out of hard, long days working on the farm.

At the end of World War II, farms in America experienced radical technological changes. The arrival of electric lines, gas-powered tractors, and running water (not to mention television sets) upon the fruited plains transformed agriculture and rural life in America. Jerry Apps saw this change first-hand in the 1940s and 1950s on his family’s farm in central Wisconsin. In his memoir, Every Farm Tells a Story (reissued by Wisconsin Historical Society Press) Apps details what it was like to grow up in the middle of this agricultural revolution and exactly how family farm values shifted in a short period. In the below excerpt, Apps explores chores, hard labor, and the deep-rooted sense of ethics that comes from a truly full day of work.

My brothers and I were born on the farm, as the nearest hospital was forty miles away. A doctor from Wautoma assisted in the births, along with a neighbor woman, Augusta Miller, who served as midwife to many mothers in our neighborhood. We grew up calling our folks Ma and Pa – no Mom and Dad, Mother and Father, or Mommy and Daddy business. Those titles were used by city kids. Donald was called Duck (as in Donald Duck), and Darrel was called Murf (for his love of potatoes, or “murphies”). Ma and Pa raised us to work together, play together, and live together. We helped each other, depended on each other, and at times defended each other, such as when a school bully picked on Duck or Murf.

My brothers and I also scrapped and argued and tried to best each other, to the utter dismay of our folks. “Would you kids quit bickering?” Ma often asked. We heard her, sort of. But when Pa said quit, we quit. He knew where the “lickin’ stick’’ was, and the threat of its use stopped many an argument, especially those that resulted in some homegrown wrestling.

Everyone in our family contributed to the workload. Our mother, like farm women for a hundred years before her, washed and ironed clothes; canned fruits, vegetables, and meat; cooked meals; kept the big old drafty farmhouse in order; took care of the chickens; looked after the garden; and lorded over her big patch of strawberries. The egg and strawberry money were hers and hers alone. She used most of the money to buy clothes for us kids, home furnishings, Christmas presents, and greeting cards. She was forever sending birthday cards, sympathy cards, and get-well cards to relatives and friends near and far.

Chores were an important part of our growing up years. Pa and Ma had a wonderful “psychology” of chores. By this, I mean they introduced chores in such a way that we looked forward to doing the more difficult and time-consuming ones, such as milking cows by hand; new chores were a reward for having done lower level chores well. Pa’s psychology was especially well developed. “You should be proud that you have chores to do,” Pa often said. “Look what city kids are missing.” Along with this psychology came several unspoken rules.

Though I sometimes wondered just what city kids were missing, now when I look back at chores, several lessons come to mind. We learned how to do a job well. We learned not to complain about work. We learned to show up on time, every time, day in and day out, including weekends. And we took pride in what we were doing. Chores were not drudgery, at least not on the farm where I grew up.

Farm work differed from chores. Farm work followed the seasons, particularly planting, growing, and harvesting seasons. Planting season opened with Pa plowing the field, a process that unearthed hundreds of stones, all of which had to be picked before crops could be planted. By the time you were six or seven, you helped pick the smaller stones. After the stones were picked, the fields were leveled by a team of horses pulling a disk harrow. This was followed by a fine-tooth drag that further smoothed the field. When you were ten or twelve, you drove the team while sitting on the disk harrow or you walked behind the drag while a dust cloud swirled around you.

Growing season meant hoeing corn and potatoes from the time you could walk (or so it seemed). You became a serious hoer when you were seven or eight – though it was hard to be serious about one of the farm’s most boring, never-ending jobs. Pa always hoed with you, to set an example and to keep you on task. By age twelve or so, you were cultivating potatoes with one horse and a walking cultivator. This job involved holding a curved cultivator handle in each hand and, with the horse reins around your shoulders, steering a several-shoveled cultivator between the potato rows. The cultivator rooted out weeds; those it didn’t remove, it buried. Cultivating was hard work, but considerably higher level than lowly hoeing.

Harvesting season began in July with haymaking. At age eight or nine, you helped bunch loose hay so Pa could fork it onto a horse-drawn hay wagon. By the time you were ten, you were driving the horses and performing simple tasks like handling the team while Pa pitched hay. When you were twelve or so, you were pitching hay along with Pa. Harvesting continued into September with threshing, when a crew traveled from farm to farm in the neighborhood. Men carried bags of grain from the threshing machine to the granary and dumped their bags out in the front of the grain bin. You started out at age eight or nine shoveling the dumped grain to the back of the bin. By the time you were fourteen, you were driving a team on the threshing crew. Harvesting wound down in October, when, by age twelve, you husked corn by hand for the hogs after school, often a wagonload every afternoon.

Winter farm work meant “making wood,” which consisted of sawing down oak trees, limbing the downed trees, cutting the wood into manageable lengths, and toting the cut wood to the farmstead with a team and bobsled. Two or three times during the winter, Guy York, a neighbor with a large circle saw, came by for a sawing bee. After York sliced the wood into stove-length pieces, most still required splitting into a size that would fit into the kitchen wood stove. Splitting wood was a gray area, falling neither into the category of farm work or chores. Making wood was dangerous and Pa kept you away from helping until you were twelve or older. Then he introduced you to the job by teaching you how to use a splitting maul. Splitting wood, as Pa taught the skill, was more art than brute strength. It didn’t matter how hard you struck the chunk of wood but where you struck it. In Pa’s words, you had to “read the wood.” (It took me most of a winter to figure out what he meant.)

All this and much more was farm work. Chores were done in the morning and the evening, after the farm work was done.

As to any money we received, Pa gave me and my brothers each a dime on Saturday night, just before we went to town. With five cents, I could buy a double-dip strawberry ice cream cone and an immense Hershey candy bar, with or without nuts and divided into neat squares that could be broken off and eaten one at a time. In the summer, we also drove to town on Tuesday evenings to see the free outdoor movies. Pa advised us to save some of the ten cents we got on Saturday night for Tuesday night popcorn.

Relatives often gave us cash on our birthdays—fifty cents and sometimes even a dollar from a city aunt. We were strongly urged to save this unearned money. Pa helped me start a postal saving account at the Wild Rose Post Office – interest at two percent.

Our major source of income came from picking potatoes in the fall—one cent for each bushel picked. The country school gave “potato vacation” so all the children could stay home and help with the potato crop. Some vacation! But working behind two sturdy men digging potatoes with six-tine forks, I could pick one hundred bushels a day and earn one dollar. I purchased my first .22 rifle with potato-picking money.

Our second major income source came from picking cucumbers and green beans in the summer. Pa usually grew an acre of each crop, and we could keep the money earned from selling the cukes and beans we picked. Sometimes we would pocket five dollars or more from a day’s work. Most of this went into the savings account. “Never can tell when you might need the money,” Pa often said.

Pa had known good times and bad. “One always follows the other,” he would say. “But sometimes you don’t know when times are bad, until they’re really bad. That’s why you need some savings to tide you over until the good times roll around again.”

By the time I was twelve, I put every nickel I earned toward buying books. (I didn’t yet understand Pa’s good times–bad times the­ory.) Forty-nine cents bought a hardcover copy of Treasure IslandThe Black Arrow, Swiss Family Robinson, or other such classics.

As I look back on those years, I realize that Pa and Ma made absolutely clear what was important in their lives. I never doubted what they valued or what they wanted their boys to value. Family came first, then neighbors, the farm, the barn and other outbuildings, the milk cows, the team of horses (later a tractor), our farm dog Fanny, the well (good water was invaluable), good fences, a big garden, our farm house, and, finally, the 1936 Plymouth car.

Some of what Pa and Ma valued was more subtle. As I recall, Pa valued silence, darkness, knee-high corn, sunrise and sunset, animals both tame and wild, a walk in the woods, baby kittens, wildflowers, freshly mown hay, a snowstorm, newly plowed soil, country roads, a rainy day, melting snow, and a good story.

Ma valued a clean house, her church, a well-kept parlor, a good canning season, favorable garden weather, the coming of spring, her boys doing well in school, her flowers, her chicken flock, and home­baked bread.

Ma and Pa also taught us to value our own conduct. These values, often unspoken, translated into a deep-rooted sense of ethics. Farmers in my community didn’t talk about values; they lived them. You could see their values come through every day in their respect for the land, their compassion for their neighbors, and their love for their families.

The second edition of Jerry Apps’ Every Farm Tells a Story is published by Wisconsin Historical Society Press and is available at book retailers everywhere.