A Chronicle of
The Loss of Agrarian Culture

Dateline: 10 January 2009

Every Farm Tells A Story: A Tale of Family Farm Values, by Jerry Apps is a 71-year-old man’s recollection of growing up on a 160-acre farm in Central Wisconsin.

I have just finished reading this book and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Mr. Apps writes so well of his childhood experiences and the rural farming culture he grew up in. It is a culture that is now gone.
In those closing years of the Depression and into World War II, our family farmed not too differently from the pioneers who had arrived nearly a hundred years earlier. Horses and humans powered the machines that worked the land. Kerosene lamps and lanterns lighted the house and barn. A windmill pumped water; later a gasoline engine replaced the less dependable windmill. A one-room school provided the education for all the area’s farm children, ages five to 13.
On the one hand, this book is a heartwarming memoir of America’s agrarian past. But it is also a historical revelation of the significant change that came to agriculture in this nation after World War II.
What we didn’t realize during those years was that the family farm was changing in profound ways. Some historians claim 1940 to 1955 represents the second great revolution in agriculture; the first occurred hundreds of years earlier when horses and oxen replaced human power.
But there is another facet to this book. Mr. Apps saw not only profound changes come to the work of farming, he also witnessed the unraveling of a once-strong culture of family and community that was so common in the farmland of America.

As Apps tells it, life was much harder back in those days, before electricity, running water, milking machines, hay balers, combines, corn huskers, and local fire departments. But families and communities worked together and were closer.

The Apps family’s farm had dairy cows, pigs, and chickens, not to mention work horses. They raised hay and corn and oats in the fields, as well as big patches (acres in size) of potatoes and pickles. Ma Apps had her own strawberry patch and a pick-your-own business. They were a diversified farm, as were all farms of that time.

One story that I found particularly poignant revolved around the morning milking. When Jerry Apps was in fifth grade he helped his Pa milk their ten cows every morning. He would milk four and Pa would milk six.
The barn was warm and rich with cow smells—clearly the warmest place on the farm these frigid winter mornings. Pa already sat milking when I arrived. I hung my kerosene lantern on a nail back of the cows, grabbed a milk pail and stool, and slid under a Holstein, embedding my head in her warm flank.

“Thirty-five below.” Pa said. “Coldest morning so far this winter.”

“About froze running out here,” I said.

Two streams of milk zinged against the bottom of my shiny milk pail; soon a layer of milk covered the bottom of the pail. Foam formed in the pail as I continued milking, alternating between one hand and the other. When the front two teats were milked out, I switched to the back two. the pail was about half full. In a few minutes, the back two teats were milked out as well. The rich smell of milk wafted up as i carried the nearly full pail to the milk can back of the cows.

Although tedious, hand milking had its advantages. One was the cows warmed you up, no matter how cold the morning. Milking was also a time to think. The repetition—squeeze and release, squeeze and release—had a mesmerizing effect. I thought about school. I thought about the neighborhood kids. I thought about spring. I thought about summer vacation. I thought about high school and what I would do when I graduated.

Milking put you in the closest possible relationship to an animal, even closer that riding a horse. You heard the animal chewing her cud and smelled her many smells, ranging from sweet to pungent. You learned her personality, what she liked and didn’t like. You found out quickly how hard to squeeze her teats to get a steady stream—not so hard as to irritate her, but hard enough to make the milk flow easily. You learned that she had good days and bad days. Some mornings she seemed genuinely pleased to see you; other mornings you were an annoyance.

Milking also allowed me to have Pa to myself. If I wanted to talk with him about something, ask him a question, this was the time. He usually milked a cow right next to mine, and the barn was quiet apart from the cows rattling in their stanchions. So conversation was easy.
That quietness, that time for father and son to work together and talk easily, was not to last. After initial resistance to the idea of a milking machine, Pa changed his mind. All the agricultural magazines of the day proclaimed that milking machines were the way to go. So Pa bought a milking machine. It was powered by a big gasoline engine. He got it from Sears and Roebuck. The milker made work easier and they were able to add more cows to the heard. But there was an unexpected cost...
The coming of the milking machine also brought an end to our once quiet, peaceful milking time. Whereas the barn atmosphere once invited easy conversation, now I had to raise my voice to be heard. With the milking machine operating, I only asked the necessary questions because unless Pa was standing near me, he couldn’t hear me and I couldn’t hear him. The constant whir of the engine and whoosh of the vacuum also overshadowed the subtle sounds of cattle eating, stanchions rattling, and barn cats meowing for handouts.
Emotions welled up in me as I read some parts of this book. Chapter 19, Ma’s Illness was one. When Ma goes to the city for an operation and is gone a long time, Pa and Jerry and his two younger brothers come to a better understanding of just how important Ma is to the family economy. And the chapter titled, Fire, wherein all the neighbors turn out to save the Apps farm from certain ruin was enough to bring a lump to my throat. Later, a violent wind storm threatens to destroy the barn. Large timbers fall onto the cows inside, injuring them, and, again, the neighbors show up.

Through the setbacks, Pa is stoic. But when brucelosis hits the herd, that’s the hardest for him:
Fourteen of our fifteen cows had to be destroyed. We had known the cows since they were calves. They had names—Mary, Jane, Eleanor, Sandy, Lorraine, Mildred. They had personalities, special traits, likes and dislikes. We knew each one as a member of the family, as indeed they were. Now they had to be destroyed, all except Violet, who for some reason, tested negative and continued to do so each time she was tested.

Ross Caves, the local trucker, sent two cattle trucks to our farm on a Monday morning in September. Each cow walked up the ramp to the truck. They looked at us through the slats, wondering what now, after all they had been through that summer. It was a sadder morning than when the barn nearly blew over. it was one of the few times I ever saw Pa cry, as his prized possessions walked up the ramp to their slaughter.
In the final analysis, I think Every Farm Tells A Story is a wonderful book because it provides a glimpse into the cultural beauty of traditional farming in America. But, at the same time, it is a terribly sad book because it chronicles the destruction of that way of life by the forces of industrialism, under the guise of “progress.”

I wonder, is such progress really worthwhile when it destroys family and community?

In the last chapter of the book, Jerry Apps tells of how he and his two brothers all left the farm for greater opportunities in the world beyond. It is the common story in that regard. Ma and Pa continued on with farming as long as they could, then retired to a small town, and lived into their 90s. The farm was bought and subdivided. It is a bittersweet ending.


Jim Curley said...

My neighbor will be 90 this year. For all his life except for 1 month of factory work right after WWII he was and still is a farmer. One of his sons and one grandson still help between their full time jobs. All his other children left for the city.

He told me once that they have never had any extra cash, but they ate well. All the young people want things and that's why they leave the farm, they are not satisfied with hard work and good food.

brierrabbit said...

I remember talking to my Dad recently, about his growing up on a farm in Oklahome. He milked cows till he left home for the Air Force at age 18. We were talking about it, and then he said quietly, and a little sadly "some things should have stayed the same" The way he said this, made an impression on me. There was a sense of some things gained by leaving, but some important things lost too. People say "change is normal, things always change" but for centuries, for most people they didn't much, except around the edges. I don't think people realize this. My Dads childhood wasn't much different from his ancesters back in the nineteenth century. Granpa still used a wagon, and horses to do his work around the farm, for instance. My Dad sometimes rode horses to school. I still have Grampa's draw knife, which I still use.

mitzi said...

I probably couldn't make it through that book. I grew up on my grandparents' dying farm. they had vegetables, chickens, dairy and beef cattle, hogs (before I was born in 71), tobacco to pay the taxes, fruit orchards (until they bulldozed the peach trees after one-too-many late frosts- kept a few apple and pear trees for personal use), and sheep (I remember bottle-feeding lambs with an adult behind for support when I was eye-to-eye with them, from big green wine bottles). The last of the farm was sold to pay for Granny's nursing home care a few years ago. I inherited the pictures and a few antiques. I stood in the house my grandfather built with his own hands for Granny (small, tight, and warm in the winter), and mourned for what my brother's children will never experience. The land was bought by a developer. A part of my heart weeps every time I read these stories.

Anonymous said...

The quiet of working together without equipment noise, enjoying each other's company while you work together, the thought of that kind of lifestyle brings tears to my eyes. We are planting an orchard, and I got scythes for my sons and I to mow with. My friends think I'm crazy, but they have no idea...

Gary Maske said...

When you report that the author and his two brothers moved away from the farm due to "greater opportunities," you provide evidence that the author did not understand the moral of his own story. I mean, I am all in favor of giving people the benefit of the doubt, but if that is truly the theme of the last chapter of the book, the author is self-incriminating.

What we are left with in this book, if I understand it correctly, is a chronicle of the demise of agrarian life without any real understanding of the spiritual causes.

For the most part Americans were blessed by a God-given opportunity for a very hard but good life conducive to godliness and building and keeping strong families. But they exchanged all this for "greater opportunities."

As the Scriptures say, "the people perish for lack of understanding."

Dan said...

There's something inside of me that longs for this. I'm working toward it. My kids have no clue what life will be like when we move to the country (Lord willing). I know it will be tough, but it will be oh so worth it.

Boiling Pot said...

This is tugging at my heartstrings something awful.

Anonymous said...

Gary, When you report that the author and his two brothers moved away from the farm due to "greater opportunities," you provide evidence that the author did not understand the moral of his own story. I mean, I am all in favor of giving people the benefit of the doubt, but if that is truly the theme of the last chapter of the book, the author is self-incriminating.

Perhaps the author did understand the moral or his own story and he meant to incriminate himself.

God help us to repent of throwing away our heritage.

Momzoo said...

I am about half way through this book and I love it! I will be reading this out loud to my children.

Unknown said...

I have been reading your blog for a while now and I am very much in line with your thinking... but not living it as much yet. I just read your little bit for the 29th and was very excited when someone told me about a little movie on the web and it was very in line to what you were talking about... you might want to check it out. It is 20 minutes long but I am so glad that I watched it. www.storyofstuff.com

Unknown said...

About milking machines.. should machines suppose to increase the hygiene of the milking operation? Good to hear the explanation.