Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Farm in 1940

In 1940 life in Canada was difficult.  The world was at war, rationing was in force and families were being torn apart as soldiers marched off to war.  My father enlisted in the airforce and headed to basic training while my mother, at home with a new baby, was packing up the family belongings and preparing to move back to her parent's farm.  What to do with an active four year old at this time?  Finally,  my  grandmother offered to take me.  Soon we were on the train and off to the farm near Rosetown. 

When we arrived I was excited.  There was a cow and calf and some chickens and dogs and cats as well as a big swing which had been a favourite of my mother's when she was a child.  The lustre wore off in a few days though when I realized how lonely I was in what felt like the middle of nowhere without my familiar neighbourhood playmates.  Even the swing, which was too big for me anyway, was rotted out after years of neglect.  It was the end of June and everyone on the farm was busy. 

On the farm with Grandma, Shirley and Tiny the dog, 1940 - picture sewn into a quilt

My grandparents worked hard to feed themselves with what was produced on the farm and to put food on the table for the harvest crew who would be arriving in August.  They would stay in the bunkhouse and remain until the grain was off the fields, then my grandparents would  harvest the big vegetable garden and the produce would be put down for the winter.  Hay was cut and tied in bundles called stooks to feed the cow.  The cow was milked every day and the milk was hauled into the house and put through the separator, then a pail of milk was taken back to the barn for the calf.  I would watch my grandfather do the milking and enjoyed seeing him direct a teat towards a dish where several cats were waiting, eager to enjoy the milk which would soon splash up against their faces.  Then my grandfather would carry water from the well where a gas powered pump had replaced a windmill destroyed in a storm years before.  The storm had also damaged the barn and reduced it to half its original size.  Not far from the house there was an outhouse.  I didn't like the smell and the flies that swarmed around, and when I looked down, ugh!  It was hard to use a piece of an old Eaton's catalogue when I went number two.  Inside the house there was chamber pot under my bed.  There was also an inside toilet which consisted of a toilet seat over a large pail which my grandfather then emptied in the field.  Each week a metal tub was placed in the kitchen, water was heated in the reservoir of the wood burning stove and I had a bath.

In spite of my grandparent's best efforts, I missed my parents terribly.  Sometimes my mother would phone but long distance calls were expensive so it was a rare event.  My grandparents had an old wooden phone on the wall and shared a party line with several other families.  There was no dial, you just lifted the receiver and turned the crank on the side.  Everyone listened to each other's calls.

In the evenings my grandmother would take balls of pastel coloured wool supplied by the Red Cross and knit baby layettes as her part in the war effort.  As the knitting needles clicked away, my grandfather would sit in his rocking chair holding me on his lap and sing the old hymns while the light from the coal oil lamp flickered and I fell asleep.  I loved those evenings  and as I grew up, had fond memories of his deep voice as he sang his favourite hymns.  One song, The Ninety and Nine became my favourite and each evening it was my special request.  My grandmother/s favourite was Nearer My God to Thee.
Sometimes I would accompany my grandfather to the grain elevator and watch in amazement as the front of the truck was lifted up and the grain poured down a big grate in the floor.  The agent would take a long handled scoop and get samples of the grain for grading.  He said the grain was stored high in the elevator but I couldn't quite understand how it could get there.  One day I was trying to look down the hole to see where the grain was going when my grandfather quickly grabbed me.  That was the end of the elevator trips.

My time was often spent exploring the farm and one day I found a nest of chicken eggs tucked away in the tall grass.  I quickly ran to the house to tell my grandmother because I was sure there would soon be baby chicks hatching.  My mother had explained some of this to me with a very rudimentary "facts of life" story about how baby chicks develop in eggs.  Quite enough information for a young child, at least it was until I found the chicken's nest.  Thus, I led my grandmother to the nest and was quite shocked when I was told there would be no baby chicks.  My grandmother explained that there were no roosters on the farm and I could not see why boy chickens were necessary.  My grandmother got rid of the eggs as I watched in tears, quite convinced that my beloved grandmother was murdering baby chicks.

As I recovered from the baby chicks episode, I loved to follow my grandfather to the field across the gravel road from the farm house where the crew was hard at work.  In the farmhouse my grandmother would be making meals for the hired hands and would spend hours pounding away at the dough and forming the loaves of bread.  Then the pans would go into the big black cook stove and soon the tantalizing aroma of homemade bread would be filling the tiny house.  By this time it was late August and a very busy time for farmers.  Potatoes, carrots and turnips were dug and when the trap door was opened, produce was hauled down a ladder to what I always considered, a mysterious room under the kitchen.  It was a dugout carved in the ground beneath the house to store food for the winter.  It had a strong musty smell and I could see the vegetables buried in the soil until needed many months later.  There were balls of yeast hanging in a mesh bag and when my grandmother retrieved one of these balls, I knew it would be a baking day.  There were shelves in the dugout and sealers of fruit and vegetables were added for the long winter.  There were always lots of pickles and the mustard pickles made with yellow beans were  my grandmother's specialty.  Each day after the milk had been separated, extra cream was put in a crock in the dugout.  When butter was needed, the accumulated cream was brought up to the kitchen and poured into a  churn.  Churning the butter was hard work so usually everyone in the house took their turn at rotating the paddle.

M grandparents were busy and I felt lonely.  The two farm dogs, Buster and Tiny were getting old and not too playful.  Sometimes I would look for baby kittens in the hay loft, but as soon as I found them the mother cat would move them somewhere else.  Finally, success.  I found a pet, it was a mouse in the field.  I carefully placed it in the pocket of my overalls and headed back to the house to show off my new friend.  My grandmother quickly took it away from me and threw it in the garbage.  Once again, I was in tears and asked why my grandmother got rid of my pet.  There was just an abrupt reply, "It was dead."