Sunday, February 24, 2008

Agrarian child rearing: lessons from my grandfather

Yankee agrarian Walter Jeffries and my wife recently had a nice discussion about Walter’s son growing into becoming a woodcutter. This got me thinking about raising kids on the homestead. I thought I would offer a few posts for those who are raising children on a homestead or small farm, but who grew up themselves under other circumstances. I am blessed in having several generations of wisdom beyond my own, starting with my paternal grandfather.

I never knew him. He died in the living room of the house we now live in. One Fall day, he went out to get the mail; came back in; gently teased my grandma that a check they were waiting for had not arrived (It had) laughed; and died. Incidentally, my Great Grandfather died in the same room. According to my father's oldest brother, they went out one spring day to plant potatoes, he felt tired, came in, laid down on the davenport, and died peacefully.

At family reunions, my older cousins and aunts often compare me to Grandpa, and I take it as a compliment. He was born in the 1880s. He never owned a car and farmed with horses and mules. He was known for his sense of humor, and physical strength. He did have the common rural failing of excessive gossip. His first wife died in 1902, leaving him one young son. He married my grandmother in 1917, and they had five more children, the last of whom died as an infant. My grandparents were poor their entire lives. There was always too much hard work. It was a stretch for my father to graduate high school. However, all of their children had memories of a happy childhood. In fact, some of the cousins used our farm as a place to escape relief from various forms of abuse in their own homes, so there was always a passel of kids around.

At that time and place, the amount of hard work to be done brought a constant temptation to extract all of the work possible out of children. I still talk to old people who remember with resentment hours of mucking stalls, hoeing gardens, chopping wood, and carrying water. Some Children were worked from dawn to dusk at tasks that are hard for adults. Many of these children grew up and left the farm at the first possible opportunity. Even if they stayed, they harbor resentment to this day.

My father said that grandpa always gave kids chores, but he was very careful to ensure that those chores would not take the entire day (Especially if not a school day). He would also make sure that the task was appropriate to the age and ability of the child. When Dad was very young, his primary chore was to split wood to start the cookstove. When that was done, the day was his to fish or swim the crick or play. However, that chore had to be done. Once when he forgot, grandpa got him up in the middle of the night, and dad split wood by a lantern while grandpa watched. There was no other punishment; just a realization that it was my dad’s responsibility to ensure the family had wood to cook. Dad said he never forgot again.

When dad grew older, his responsibilities grew. He helped muck the horse stalls, make hay, milk and shock corn. However, he still had time of his own. He spent a lot of time hunting with his two brothers. Grandma canned rabbits and squirrels, so this recreation still contributed to the household economy. From the time Dad was ten, he could wander about with a 22 and shoot groundhogs. I understand my grandfather once had words with one of his in-laws about this. The in-law came to hunt groundhogs and was offended my grandfather would allow a ten year old to wander armed and unsupervised. The short conclusion to this is that the in-law left and Dad kept hunting.

Dad did misuse his firearms twice. When he was ten, his older brothers tricked him into shooting the mailbox (Which was full of mail). They kept picking him targets and saying he could hit them. He would shoot them to prove he could. The mailbox was the last taunt, and by that point, dad was pretty much in the spirit of the thing, and not thinking about what the target was. He drilled the mailbox clean through. I do not remember what punishment might have been doled out. When he was fourteen, he shot a hole in the upstairs ceiling with a sixteen-gauge shotgun. He had been left alone all night for the first time, while the rest of the family went visiting. He got up in the middle of the night and thought he better check out the house for burglars. He bumped the closet door, got scared and fired into the ceiling. Grandpa replaced the damaged plaster with a board upon which he had painted a bull’s-eye target. The board remained visible until the house was remodeled in the 1970s. I found it in 1999, when we remodeled again. The board was a pretty unforgettable reminder about the misuse of firearms, placed there by a man who carried a gun nearly every day of his life (Many of the old time farmers around here carried 32 H&R pocket revolvers. They were peaceable, but realists). Thanks to that target in the ceiling, my father never had another negligent firearm discharge for the remainder of his life.

Grandpa also left enough time for Dad to make a little money working for someone else or himself. In summers, dad worked for a nearby truck farmer, or raised a small patch of his own sweet corn to sell. In winters, he hunted and trapped muskrats, skunks, possum and coon. The money from furs bought his school clothes. Dad once told me the skunks stank, but the money never did.

There were limits to permissible off-farm work. At that time, our area was dotted with small coal mines. Our family had a small mine (called a coal bank) that provided winter work for men, and coal to sell. There were some larger mines nearby. Dad was not allowed to work in the larger mines. When he was sixteen, he secretly got a Saturday job at a pit nearby. After the first day, he didn’t clean his fingernails well enough and Grandpa knew where he had been. He was made to quit. Grandpa said he had cut enough coal for the both of them.

Grandpa was very much a man out of step with his time. Neighboring farmers were beginning to buy tractors and gear up for larger scale commercial farming. This often required pushing family labor resources. Grandpa’s farm was primarily to feed the family, and sell enough products to pay the taxes. As far as I can determine, He never got beyond two horses, a mule, six cows, 200 chickens, and a few hogs. He had a pear orchard, and did some truck farming. He still often had to work off-farm, laboring in local mines, on other farms, and doing carpentry work. However, my family ate very well throughout the great depression. There were always milk, eggs, vegetables, and meat.

I think there are still some lessons here. Children are not a free farm labor force. Chores impart responsibility, but there is a limit. Kids will often own up to responsibility if they understand that. The intimate connection between hard work and good food can be a happy one. Due to grandpa’s influence, many of his progeny are still raising chickens and vegetables. Few became rich, but all are small property owners, and many are very good gardeners. Country life also gives kids a chance for freedom and responsibility that town living does not. If they misuse this responsibility, the punishment should teach them the consequences. Allowing kids to make their own money is important to create independent adults. Dad had his own corn patch to make money, and also learned about working for others. I am sure that grandpa could have increased the family fortune by regulating this energy to the home farm, but he chose not to. The children who grow up in this household remember some hard times, but they also remember a lot of happiness and love.


Walter Jeffries said...

Like your grandfather we have limits on our work day. Farm work is the morning time with maybe a simple thing or two later in the day like checking on a farrowing sow or gathering some late eggs. Generally we are done with them before noon. The afternoons are for schoolwork and research - indoor thinking type projects in the heat of the day. There is also lots of times when the weather is right for swimming, sledding and such. Evenings we read after dinner aloud and do quiet projects. Variety - much of it follows the seasons and weather.

The Midland Agrarian said...

Thanks for commenting Walter. Sounds like you have a good balance. Did you notice that when there is a balance between work and play, the kids often actually want to work?

Walter Jeffries said...

The issue is more that we have a common goal, work together and all see the benefits of what we do. At different ages and health levels there are different expectations. e.g., Hope, age 4, helps at things within her ken. She likes being with the rest of us and sometimes there are things she can do along side.

As she gets older, say Ben's age at 11, there is a tremendous amount more she can do.

By Will's teenage they can do almost any physical task and most mental tasks. Will, age 15, is now actually stronger than my wife Holly which is saying a lot as she is a big strong woman having been a construction worker, farmer and more for decades.

A big key is doing things together and having appropriate expectations. We all divide our day up in to the parts I described, in general. There are periods when we'll push to get a specific project done, such as when we did several solid days in a row of putting the roof on the new tiny cottage.

There is a direct connection between what we do and benefits. You get that on the farmstead and I like it. That makes you want to work to make things happen.

The Midland Agrarian said...

Sometime I will blog about working together as a family when I was a little agrarian kid with my Dad Uncle and Grandma.