People today like to talk about the good old days on the family farm. Actually, before the coming of mechanization, daily farm life was a lot of unrelenting, often heavy and isolated work all day long. This made occasional social and other activities all the more enjoyable and memorable.
Bauer presents a realistic view of life on a north-central Kansas family farm from the time of its homesteading, in 1868 to the late 1950s, when mechanization and economics made the traditional quarter section, 160 acre, farm untenable.
Although he talks about earlier times, Bauer, who was born in 1931, concentrates on the period he knew personally. His book has 22 chapters, averaging seven pages in length, each dealing with a different aspect of farm life.
Like all farms of that era, they were basically an isolated, self-supporting economic and social unit. The family’s small amount of household cash came from Bauer’s mother selling butter and eggs in the nearby hamlet of Fact, which no longer exists, or Green, which barely exists, seven miles to the south.
Because the farms were largely self-contained economic units, the Depression of the 1930s did not affect them as quickly as the rest of the population. Eventually, crop prices dropped and government assistance of some sort was needed. Even so, the farmers remained quite independent-minded and did not like the government getting into their own private business.
The drought and dust storms destroyed the soil, damaged people’s health, ruined crops, killed livestock and generally made life very difficult. Added to this was the grasshopper invasion July 16, 1936. They ate anything that grew, totally wiping out crops and orchards and poisoned wells and horse troughs.
An important social activity was visiting relatives and friends in the area on the weekends. This was not just entertainment because it created “a sense of connectedness, of shared interests and shared problems that could be discussed and resolved with our neighbor’s help.” Adults arranged exchange of work, tools, machinery, workhorses and other things. Children got to know each other and often chose mates when the time came.
His family’s occasional trip of fifteen miles to the county seat, Clay Center, on a Saturday was a special event, for the city was a different, unknown and exciting world.
Farm children attended nearby schools, which had eight grades in one room. The teacher — there was only one — was considered qualified if she were a high school graduate and had a normal school certificate, probably from Emporia State Teachers College. Women teachers usually were single, for their contracts required it and typically did not last more than a couple of years as a result.
One-room schooling might have prepared Bauer and others intellectually for high school, but otherwise, they were outsiders who were not well prepared to engage in sports, dances and other social activities with the city children who had known each other for years. It took the farm children a year or two to catch on and become accepted. High school caused major adjustments in Bauer’s life, attitudes and values.
Rural electricity came to his area in 1939, opening up possibilities for a much better life than they were accustomed to. They now had electrical lighting rather than the kerosene and Coleman lanterns they were used to. They also gained electrical refrigeration, stoves, clothes washers, motors to pump water and eventually all of the tools, appliances, computers and other electronic devices that farmers have today. Bauer’s father was mechanically talented. He wired many houses, barns and other buildings in the area — often with Bauer’s help. Such was the life they knew. When young men went away to war, they learned of completely different values and ways of life. Many girls somehow found attractions outside of the farm. Both left when they were able. This was the beginning of the end of the traditional, labor-intensive family farm.
Contemporaneously, farm machinery became ever larger and more powerful with the result that one man could farm ever more acres and needed to because of ever declining crop prices. Bauer says that today, a farm needs to be 2,000 to 3,000 acres to be viable; his cousin, Kyle, works 4,000 acres that were formed by joining 25 traditional farms, including the Bauer family’s farm. Most of the old buildings have been leveled to increase the tillable area.
The picture Bauer paints is not unique to Goshen Township in Clay County. He says it was always so, for traditional farmers liken their lives before mechanization to the lives of peasants that the Dutch artist, Pieter Breughel, painted in the mid-sixteenth century.
My great-grandfather’s homesteaded in 1870 was on the Republican River, south of Clifton, about 25 miles from Bauer’s farm. My grandfather worked the farm until he got flooded out two years in a row and moved to western Washington State in 1903. When I was young, he reminisced about similar experiences while growing up on his farm. Many readers in this area will without a doubt remember hearing such stories from their elders.
For all of the talk about the good old days the reader cannot escape the suspicion that the good old days are now.
Christopher Banner is an emeritus senior specialist in music at K-State and a Manhattan resident.