Farms of the Past
All the farm stories that were shared in my groups took place a many years back. In 50 years I wonder what kind of farm stories anyone will be able to tell?
My Silverado Group
Betty remembered when she was young trying to make some money by picking cotton. "Just once!" She laughed. It was the most difficult job she ever tried and she only lasted a day. Mimi shared some interesting facts about cotton farming and when I asked if she had ever picked cotton she shook her head. "Oh no! My father was involved in the export/import cotton market. He was an accountant for Alexander Sprunt and Sons." Such different points of view!
Milk and Eggs
At the hospital we chatted about cows and chickens. Alice said one of her chores was milking the cows. Ken said he never got to do milking at his grandmother's farm but he got to collect the eggs. Robert grew up in San Diego where dairy was the #1 agricultural product. He talked about the sadness of seeing the farms disappear over the years. 50 years ago, there were 150 dairy farms in San Diego County. Robert talked about the frustration of watching the land turn into shopping centers and subdivisions. When he was a young man he made a little money with his friend on one of the dairy farms. They didn't milk cows, but they hunted rats using impressive sling shots, that he described in detail. At the end of their hunt, they tied the tails of the rats together and turned them in for pay. I made a face at that image, but Robert laughed. "25 cents a rat was pretty good money for kids!"
On to the Community Center
Every single one of the 10 at our table had farm stories! As soon as they sat down and started picking up husks of corn and bolls of cotton, the stories began to fly. There were so many talking at once I had to lay down the law. "Here's a potato!" I shook my head, grinning. "We can't all talk at once! When you've got the potato it's your turn to talk!" They went along with my silly preschool approach and I had to laugh to hear them enforcing it. "Wait a minute! You can talk in a minute, I have the potato now!
Helping on the Farm
I was blown away by the enthusiasm of this bunch. Some talked about helping with the family farm, but many worked on numerous farms to support the family. Some moved within a number of states with the picking of numerous crops. I'm sure these were tough times for many in our group, but the fact that they shared so many similar experiences created an explosion of eager voices. "I remember that, too!" "How many pounds did you pick!?" I had to ignore the potato rule now and then and let them just go at it.
Since most grew up in Texas, cotton was the main crop they all had in common. Many had memories that went way back. R. was 7 when she joined her father and 12 siblings riding on the back of a trailer to a farm for a day's work. "They called us the Little Rats!" She laughed, even though it sounded cruel. "They didn't think we were going to be able to do much but we showed them!" She said her nickname was still "Little Rat" to some.
V. was about 11 when she did her first cotton picking. She so carefully plucked the dirt and twigs from each boll and placed it in her flour sack. When her father saw her full bag of perfect white cotton he scolded her and emptied the cotton in the dirt. "Don't clean all the dirt off the cotton! It won't be as heavy!" They coated the cotton with dirt and returned it to the bag.
J. proudly announced that he picked 500 pounds of cotton on his very best picking day. The words flew so fast I kept trying to remember it all. There were tips about stretching the cotton to see how valuable it was and the different ways of hand picking whether you're picking the cotton from the boll or pulling the cotton with the boll. It made me wish the cotton hadn't already been picked this season, so we could all go out in a field and they could show me!
A few mentioned that Friday was the day the cotton went to the gin near the RR tracks in Richmond. "They called it Mud Alley." Said A. "On the weekend we would go to town and sit under a tree near the water tower while my mother and father went shopping. Sometimes we'd go in the 10 cent store." It was so fun picturing that very tower I drive by on my way to the Center.
There was less talk about farm animals because this was a group that knew more about working in the fields. But there were a few rather dreadful stories about animal slaughtering and chicken killing techniques. I won't go into those!
J. talked about all the different crops that had to be picked. After the corn came the pecans. She couldn't go to school until the picking was over...unless there was a rainy day. M. remembered how they learned to feel the corn to know when it was ready for picking.
S. was living in Michigan and picked potatoes in the snow and cherries in the summer. "I used to get to the tree early morning and I would just keep eating cherries until I was full. Then I'd start picking!" R. loved picking tomatoes. She used to carry a little salt shaker with her because there was nothing better that eating a tomato right off the vine, with salt! A. said cotton was the only thing she hated picking. Then she listed with great pride all the crops she remembered. "There were sweet potatoes and corn. Okra and strawberries. We had peach trees, apples trees, fig, plum and persimmon... but that was nasty." M. remembered her job of peeling the potatoes. "Mmm, I would eat the potato raw, even the peels!" G. remembered her grandpa growing tobacco right near his porch steps. "He'd smoke it in his pipe!"
Wells and Windmills
Everyone loved windmills. I forgot to ask if anyone ever climbed one. That's something I always wanted to try.
A few couldn't speak highly enough of well water. "It was so cold and delicious!" M. described visiting her grandmother and looking under the lid of the well. There she discovered all the wonderful foods that her grandma kept cold. "There was butter and smoked bacon!" They had hit the jackpot!
I had one last question before we left. "I know it's just because of movies, but I picture people singing when they pick cotton. Did anyone ever do that?" A few shrugged and nodded as if they maybe couldn't recall. But A. chuckled and said her parents did. "Sometimes they'd get so caught up singing spirituals they'd just stop picking and sing until they were practically yelling and crying." That was a pretty powerful image to end with.
What I learned: People find it a lot easier to share when they're gathered with others who have had similar experiences. Everyone at the Center seemed to be in sort of the same farm club. It was interesting to see how comfortable they were sharing. I wish I could spend a day on the farm with all of them!
For 20+ years children have called it the Magic Quilt. They've danced and pretended all over these colorful squares. I've dragged it to schools, shelters and studios where children have climbed on top to hear Magic Quilt Stories and to act them out.