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Journal of America Team:

 Editor in chief: 
Abdus Sattar Ghazali

 Managing Editor:
Mertze Dahlin   

Senior Editor:
Arthur Scott

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Rural American life in the Upper Peninsula
 after the depression years

By Mertze Dahlin

For years after the great depression, many people were having a hard time, especially those who lived in the cities. There were very few jobs and they were only for those who could create a small business. But that didn’t matter, because there were no customers. Probably the most well known stereotype job was that of selling pencils on the downtown streets. A little later in 1935, President Roosevelt instituted the “Works Progress Administration”, known as the WPA. A lot of public works employment developed from that and the “man on the street” could now say he was employed.

Some of the projects became national parks or highways and the local work may have involved digging drainage ditches along the side of the road, but it was a start and over three million people now had jobs due to this effort. Urban life was probably the hardest hit and if you could produce your own food for the family, life was considerably easier.

Among the most remote rural areas were the towns in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Nearly everybody in Ironwood, which would have been an example of the typical towns, had a garden. There was no community movement involved, it was simply a necessity. I don’t know the desires for a garden before the depression years, but I suspect there was no less need for a garden then too. Besides, at that time, when World War II was developing, it was the patriotic thing to do, it was called a victory garden. We all had to do our part in the war effort and we were involved in a war extending around the world.

It seemed that I became old enough to “spade” the garden at a very early age. At least I can’t remember not doing that family chore, along with Dad of course. If I thought it was a tough assignment, it was at least tempered by the occasional discovery of an Indian arrow head while digging in the dirt. That happened nearly every day. The crowning achievement was to also discover Indian head pennies in the garden. I don’t know if this was an early place to do business or perhaps a good place to hunt but those artifacts just kept appearing. I did have the foresight to at least save some of those pennies and I have them to this day.

We had a very prolific garden. It never needed watering as the rain came every few days and was very generous in its application.  Somehow, the cucumbers were among the most important crop, so we had a lot of them. Mom would pick them by the basketful and proceed to make the first batch of Dill Pickles. We had a large earthenware crock, about fifteen gallon size that was full of Dill Pickles. Right next to it was a crock full of sweet pickles and also one full of watermelon pickles. (We had to treat ourselves to watermelon rather frequently in order to provide the “rinds” which were the ingredient of watermelon pickles.) I suppose we also ate cucumbers fresh from the garden, but the pickles kept my attention the most.

Mom was an expert at canning the several items from our garden. We had a large “double boiler” pot which was placed over the wood burning portion of the kitchen stove and was meant to bring the canning jars up to boiling temperature and then we placed the covers on them as they cooled and became “vacuum sealed”, hopefully to last until the next growing season.  Some didn’t need to be canned. The carrots were kept in a large bin covered with sand between each layer of carrots. These were all stored in the cellar in what would be the basement of most homes, but in our case, it was just a room created by dirt removed from an area under the house and some boards laid on the earth to become the floor (later, my dad improved it by pouring concrete inside so now we had a cement floor. There was room for another large bin that we kept full of potatoes. The potatoes were grown on another piece of property that belonged to my Grandmother and that entire property was devoted to a field of potatoes. That was so large that we had to have it plowed in the spring with a horse and plow arrangement by one of our resourceful neighbors.

Turnips were a necessary ingredient of the garden and they were grown much closer to the barn. That way we didn’t need to walk over them when we wanted to reach the earlier variety of vegetables. I’m glad that we didn’t have too many of them since they weren’t one of my favorite vegetables. They seemed to take longer to get ripe so we saved them for the last. It was often during early autumn when the first winter storm came before the turnips got harvested, but that didn’t seem to matter. The snow was only a couple of inches deep and the ground wasn’t really frozen then. We could pull them up by simply grabbing the leaves and giving them a tug to come out of the ground. These were also stored in the cellar and kept separate from each other by layers of sand. This was to ensure that they survived the entire winter. 

The other garden items such as peas, radishes, lettuce and celery were seasonal and there was no attempt to store them for the winter. These were just yummy foods that we ate as they became ripe.

Living as we did in a rather rural environment, we had access to products of the forest, or rather, some former forests which had been logged out and only very young trees remained. This was where the new growth included a variety of wild berries including raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and several kinds of unfamiliar cherries. Yes, that was our source of jam and jelly. The flavors, as I remember, do not seem to exist in the stores these days.

If we didn’t have the good fortune to live on a farm, as was the case with most of the people, we went to the farm. Every autumn, we went to a farmer who raised chickens as part of his livelihood. Our order consisted of perhaps twenty to twenty five chickens which were slaughtered there and we took them home. Again, my mother had the main responsibility of cleaning, de-feathering, cutting up and cooking the chickens. Why so many? It seems that we were one of the few families who would “can” chickens. We had dozens of jars of canned chicken in our cellar and they were most appreciated on the occasions when we had “company” over for dinner. Chicken was a real treat. This was something we could not purchase in a normal grocery store. If we could, they would have to come from a long distance and perishable food was simply not delivered to these somewhat remote areas. Beef, on the other hand, was sometimes available from local farmers, but they were not normally in the business of providing beef. This was probably one reason many families looked forward to deer-hunting season (actually, there was often venison available between deer seasons).

There was more to life than providing food for the year. However, come to think of it, food was one of the necessities of the time, as it is today. Although we really didn’t think much about it, it occupied nearly every aspect of our life, at least as I looked at it from a youngster’s point of view. Aside from the efforts of the “grown-up” people who had to do such necessities as go to work and pay the bills, every youngster had family work to do ranging from yard work and garden tending to looking after the family cow, if we were one of those families.

We lived in a neighborhood not far from the downtown area, actually less than a half mile. When I was but a little boy, way before school, my Grandmother had a cow. It was kept in a very small shed that defied being called a barn. There was room for loose hay stuffed into the upper portions near the roof area. The cow was pastured about a half mile away in the opposite direction of town, in the “Curry Fields” area. This was to the South of Norrie location where we lived. At that time, I was too small to go with anyone to get the cow when it was milking time and I have some concern now as to where the cow stayed during the winter. The “barn” was just too small to be warm and besides it would have required several cows to bring the temperature up.

As I reached a more understanding age, the cow was gone. I suppose it was due to the fact that nobody was still at home to take care of the cow. One of my Uncles, Uncle Ilby had gone into the Army and my other Uncle “Guzzy” went away also. At first he responded to the draft call for the war but he wasn’t physically fit and he was turned down. Some time after that he went to Waukegan, Illinois to get a job and then got married.

Several people in our neighborhood had a cow or two. The Aikala’s down the street had a couple of cows and we got milk from them for quite a while. On the next block between our house and my Grandmother’s home, the Raivio’s had cows too. I was more familiar with those cows because I fetched them from the pasture and returned them after milking many a time. Sometimes Mrs. Raivio would let me milk one of the cows because we knew them so well (the cows, that is). There was one time that one cow thought I had something in my pocket for her so she stuck her tongue inside and almost tore my pocket. I didn’t have anything but I learned to not let her stick her tongue in my pocket again.

During the summer, we boys would walk through the pasture lands in Curry fields to go to the Montreal River about a mile away in order to go swimming. It seemed to be a long way because we also had to cross the railroad tracks which served the local Iron ore Mines and two sawmills. Along part of the railroad track iron ore train assembly area was a water tower since the steam engines were forever requiring more water. This was an ideal place for us to climb up the steps to go into the top of the water tower. It was a neat place because there was a hatch door on top and a small deck inside just above the water. We just couldn’t resist getting off the deck and jumping into the water and going for a swim in that little twelve feet or so round building.

On the way back from the river, we managed to raid somebody’s potato patch and we came into the cow pastures with three or four potatoes. That’s when we made a little fire and roasted our potatoes. You could tell when they were done by checking that the peel was burned about an eighth to a quarter of an inch thick. They always tasted good and sometimes we cooked a song bird or two which we shot with our slingshots. We were never without them.

Usually we made our “lunch” near a small natural spring which formed a pool about four feet across and about four or five inches deep. The cows also liked to drink from there and we sometimes needed to move the cow manure out of the water and stir it up until it looked clean, then we could drink from it. The water was really fresh because we could see it coming up from the sandy bottom sort of swishing the sand as it came up and it tasted so cool. It must have come from some distance under the ground.

When we wanted something more delicious to drink, we simply cornered a cow and started milking. It was no problem to squirt the warm milk into our mouth, even though some of it squirted on our face. We never thought that we took too much since we knew that each cow would produce at least two gallons and we only took a few good swallows. If it happened to be getting time to bring the cows home, this was the ideal place to be since we didn’t have to make the extra trip after we got home.

A little closer to home, there was an old hay barn on the beginning of Curry Fields. This was just across the street at the last street in upper Norrie Location. The field in front of the barn was flat and it made an ideal place to play baseball. The cows kept the grass trimmed down so it didn’t look like a “hay field”. We laid out the bases using dry cow manure for the bases. It wouldn’t do for first base to be wet when we had to slide into it on a close baseball maneuver.

My summers were divided up mostly two ways. Part of the time we went to our cottage on Horsehead Lake, just outside of Winegar (now known as Presque Isle), Wisconsin. Sometimes when my Dad didn’t have his vacation at the right time, in our 1931 model A Ford, he would drive us, Mom, my brother Bernie and me to the lake. Usually we were accompanied by my Uncle Suma’s family at the cottage. Then my dad would return home and go to work for the week or two that we stayed at the lake.

On other occasions, our family would go to the farm in Marengo, Wisconsin to stay with Jack Stevens, or in earlier days, with his father Charlie at his farm which was only about a mile away from Jack. Going to the farm was not an easy playing vacation time. All of us children were given things to do. Quite automatically it was understood that we had to get the cows home in the morning and return them to the pasture after milking. Then the same thing had to be done in the evening. Because milk was always being produced, milking didn’t wait until we took our own good time. The cows knew and they were ready to come home when they felt it was time to be milked.

I remember that Jack had about thirteen cows. They were all pastured down the hill in the woods in the Bruns Willow creek area. It was a huge pasture area because it was also a forest and the cows needed a bigger area to find enough grass to eat. We never had much trouble to find them because each one wore a cow bell around her neck and we could hear them as they moved around. We carried a willow switch in our hand to smack the cows in the rear in case they would take too long to get into line coming home. They always knew the way to go. They had made permanent paths in the ground where they always walked and they never took a different route. We wisely always walked to one side of the cows, never right behind them unless we wanted to step in fresh cow manure which they dropped every so often as they headed for the barn.

Every cow had a name and each one went into her favorite stall, the same one every time. That was when we attached the holding chain around her neck and made sure she had something to eat in front of her. They were nearly ready for milking but we still had to wash their teats to get rid of the mud and dust that had accumulated. I was usually assigned “Kirriou” and “Pikkuu Kirriou” to milk. The Finnish language names meant Spotty and Little Spotty since their color was black spots on white and they were mother and daughter.  Sometimes we used some Teat Balm on our hands if everything seemed to be too dry. We usually tied her tail to her leg because it was always swishing; trying to chase the flies away and we didn’t want her to swish the milk pail or our face.

For me, the most workable and comfortable position for milking was to sit on my three legged stool and hold the milk pail between my knees. I would lean into the cow so she knows not to lean against me and perhaps stay rather still until I milked about two gallons of milk into my pail. I would start by milking the two teats close to me and then switch to the two that were on the other side. Then I would try each one sort of rotating between all four until the milk was gone and into the pail. There were also tall commercial milk cans that held about six gallons waiting nearby to put the milk in. We then set the milk cans into a wooden reservoir filled with cold water just outside the cow barn to keep the milk cool. This was the time we could release all the cows and send them on their way back to the pasture.

Afterward, we loaded the milk cans into the farm car which had the rear seat removed (we had no truck) and were able to accommodate all the cans on our trip to the creamery which was only two or three miles away. The fate of this particular milk, since it was going to the creamery, was to be made into cheese. They dumped it into huge vats where they did their thing, whatever it was, to start the process of making cheese. We hoped that a quart or so would not fit into the milk cans so we would have some to drink at home. We kept this in a mason jar in the cellar of the house. The cellar doorway was in the kitchen floor. We just pull on the handle and the door would lift up so we could reach one of the shelves in the coolness of the cellar.

The depression years for most people affected how well they ate and whether they had a roof over their heads. Since we were closely affiliated with farm life and we did not rent an apartment in the city, we were relatively comfortable. Our only concern, as time moved on, was how the war was progressing and when would our brothers, uncles and neighbor’s boys return home from fighting in the war.

Mertze Dahlin is a Member of the Board of Directors of the American Institute of International Studies.