The co-publishers of The Press recently invited farm-related stories and photos from years past. I have no interesting photos from that period, for me the 1950s, but they were all black and white anyway. My memories, on the other hand, endure in vivid colour and are retrievable with little persuasion – some would say, too little persuasion.
A year ago, The Press reprinted Personals from 1901 to 1927. I don’t go back quite that far, but the Personals were the social medium of the day, appearing in newspapers until the late 1950s. This was how you kept tabs on your neighbours – at least what they wanted you to know. “Mrs. William Foster, Mrs. Henry Drake, and Miss Helen Hamilton visited Mrs. John McCarthy for afternoon tea.” Most such occasions were equally momentous.
Married women in those days had no first name. When Miss Joanne Baker married Mr. Fred Wilson, she became Mrs. Fred Wilson. Fred still was Fred, but socially Joanne would be Mrs. Fred for so long as she lived, even after Fred died.
While mundane social activities were meticulously chronicled, to me the most excitement in Oneida Township occurred at harvest time. Men of all shapes, sizes, and nationalities suddenly arrived at the farm to help harvest the crops. It was from these men, oblivious to young ears, that I first overheard colourful language. My only attempt to showcase my new vocabulary during family dinner conversation did not end well.
A large threshing machine was the star performer. Unlike combines that move through the field harvesting crops, threshing machines stayed in one place, and crops were loaded onto wagons and brought to the machine, which separated grain and straw with much noise and choking dust. The men worked very hard and they anticipated a hearty midday meal. Farm women were expected to provide hot meals to fuel the threshing crew. For many years, that job fell to my mother.
Many men harvested the crops, but my mother worked alone in her kitchen, where the temperature approached that of a blast furnace. Aided by her enormous wood burning stove, she prepared two beef roasts, two pork roasts, three chickens, 10 pounds of mashed potatoes, and five pounds each of cooked carrots and green beans. There were no salads. Real men didn’t eat salads. For dessert she baked five pies; three apple, two cherry and one raisin, accompanied by gallons of scalding tea. For a thresher, one pie made four pieces. If there was more than one type of pie, many took a slice of each. After their feast, the threshers struggled outside where they collapsed in the shade to sleep off their abundant meal until called back to the fields.
My mother cleared the tables, stacked the dishes and took a slice of bread for her lunch. No other food was left behind. This ordeal was repeated daily until the threshing crew moved on. I never once heard my mother complain, although she was left with only drenching perspiration, which I understand is good for the complexion. She always had a lovely complexion.
Reflecting on how she persevered, I am more in awe of my late mother now than as a youngster. It came as no surprise that, after my sister and I had grown and left home, she completed a university degree and then put herself through law school. After she became a lawyer, she opened her own law office and practiced for 32 years. No wonder she is my hero.