Rev. Edgar F. Wheeler: 30 Farm Experiences

As time went on, I was given more responsibility on the farm. I would run the cream separator – first a De Laval and later a Melotte (who else would remember such details?). We sold the cream and fed the skim milk to the calves and the hogs. By the time I was a teenager, we were delivering most of our milk to the Condensary in Nortonville, but we also sold whole milk and bottled some.

During the thirties, farmers sometimes received as little as four and a half cents a pound for hogs on the market. I think it was about the same for cattle. My father would listen on the radio for prices being offered when we had livestock ready for market, then try to pick the day when prices seemed best. We marketed at St. Joseph, Missouri, about forty miles from our northeastern Kansas home. Incidentally, that day would be one of the few on which we could get any distance from work on the farm. We went with Dad to market.

As I remember, fifty cents a bushel was considered a good price for wheat–our only cash crop. At that time, we cut wheat with a grain binder, and put the bundles in standing shocks until we and neighbors were all ready to thresh the grain (wheat and oats). The owner of a steam engine and threshing machine would do custom threshing on each farm, and farmers would help each other haul the bundles to the threshing machine. We “kids” loved the big dinners the women prepared for the workers!

Bread was around ten cents a loaf, and day old was often five cents or even less. Gasoline varied from twelve to fifteen cents a gallon. Men’s work shoes could be bought for $2.98, overalls for about the same. A new Ford or Chevy could be bought for around $450.00. That didn’t matter much to us, because we were more apt to buy a (often much-used) car for $150.00, or sometimes much less.

Our family, like so many conservative Midwestern farmers, thought of FDR as a radical, so did not appreciate him. Remarks were often made that he would lead the country into socialism and bankruptcy. We steered clear as much as possible from his new programs. He did initiate a farm program in which farmers were paid to reduce production in order to raise prices. I think we did profit somewhat from that. Some local farmers who could not “make it” got on WPA for a boost. The staid older farmers thought that was pretty degrading.

The “Dust Bowl” rolled like a dark curtain almost shutting the sun out at times. At the worst times there were lung problems because of breathing in so much dust. We wore damp handkerchiefs over our nose to filter out the dust pretty much inside or outside. Housewives had to contend with little piles of dust that filtered in around the windows. It was a bit scary, and people who thought a lot about the “end of the world.” Of course the dust resulted from drought, so crops were poor, if there were any at all. It was a little better in eastern Kansas than western Kansas and Colorado. We had to cut our corn before maturity because it completely died, using it for fodder.
None of our family worked for any government agency.

Entertainment was mostly home grown. We made our own toys generally and played table games in the evening when we had time. Also, our church had programs for the youth in which we participated–activities mainly socializing and table games. Movies were rare. I think the cost of a movie was ten to twenty-five cents, depending on age.

Farm families were far more fortunate than urban families during the depression, because we could pretty largely “eat off the land.” We raised our own meat, had our own chickens and eggs, had garden produce, etc. Urbanites often were on welfare or bread lines for food. There was a lot of patching clothes, socks, etc. Often, feed for livestock and chickens came in printed cotton bags that were used for dresses, aprons, shirts and underwear. Flour and sugar sacks were also printed cotton.

We farmed with horses until we could finally buy a well worn Fordson tractor. We always had a car, open (now called a phaeton), and in the lowest price range–because of make and condition. To sum up that part, it was one of the best times of our lives. There was a mutual support and family life. We did not have high expectations materially, and life was simply less complicated. To this day we who lived through those times benefit from having learned thrift and being conditioned to expend effort for what we have. In the very early thirties, we got that old Fordson. It was a cantankerous machine; but it would do a day’s work once we got it started, provided we had enough water to replenish the radiator. I remember yet the whine of the rear end. I could hear Dad plowing the west end almost a mile away. A McCormick – Deering 10-20 was next. It was a big step upward, rough and ready with its lugged wheels. Newer roads were developed, and the state forbid lugged tracvtors to travel on them. This led to a new rubber- tired row crop Farmall F-20 in 1939. Then tractors could be used to cultivate row crops.

Tractor farming was a great advance. There was no longer the need to pasture, feed, and sometimes doctor the horses for sore shoulders or other ailments. Once in the field, time was not lost resting the horses periodically. A couple of things I did miss, though. One was bird song – the meadow lark, the robin, the killdeer and other birds of the field. The killdeers nested on the ground right in the corn rows. When one approached their nest, they would make a mournful cry and do the “broken wing” act to lead approaching danger away from her nest. Their cry always gave me a sad, lonely feeling, especially in the field at the back of the farm, working alone.

I also missed the sound of the train whistles. The Sante Fe whistle had a rather high shrill sound. The Missouri Pacific was a low, pleasant tone. We could see the trains about ten miles to the north, leaving its trail of black coal smoke as it traveled across the horizon going to Omaha, Nebraska, and points west. All was drowned out by the unmuffled sound of the tractor.

1938 was an especially memorable year for me. I was eighteen years of age. First of all, it was a time of spiritual enlightenment. In the midst of the struggles of my teenage years, I was troubled about my relationship with God, in the light of guilt for sin. My close friend, Allen Bond, had left home to escape what he considered religious restraints. He hitchhiked to New Jersey. There he was converted and returned home as an enthusiastic witness for the Gospel. He brought me to faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour, for which I am happily indebted to him. That year the Nortonville church hosted Youth Conference for the Midwestern church youth. That was an inspirational experience for me.

I graduated from high school in the spring of 1938. I agreed that I would stay at home and work on the farm until I was financially able to go to college. That was January, 1940.

Fall was a wonderful season in Kansas. Summer heat was broken, the corn had ripened and crops were taken in to prepare for the winter. I remember the rustle of dry corn leaves, gray and cloudy skies in the north, shorter daylight hours, and flocks of Canadian geese heading south. Late September and early October we listened to the weather news. We would hear that Denver had snow, and we began to expect colder weather. That signaled time to start husking corn.

The drought years ended in 1938, and we had a bumper crop that year. Dad put Charles and me to husking corn off the standing stalks. Our wagon had high sideboards on one side, and as we shucked the ears out of he husk, we threw them against the board, and the ears fell into the wagon. We wore inexpensive cotton gloves, with a hook attached to a metal plate, which was secured to our left hand palm by leather straps. These pulled the husks loose so that we could snap the ears out. I would walk a little ahead of Charles doing the first row and helping on the second row as necessary. Charles did the second and third row. Rarely would I catch an ear on the side of the head!

We worked early and late in all kinds of weather in the fall of 1940. We got to the field a mile from home soon after sunup and unloaded the last load for the day after dark in the evening. We would see the school bus on which our younger brother, Bob, rode to Effingham to high school. I stayed on the farm until harvest was over that year. Charles and I finished husking just afternoon at the Ashley Riley farm we rented about two and a half miles from home. I remember the relief as we rode home on the last wagon load of corn. It was Thanksgiving Day and we were ready to “give thanks” as we sat down with our family later that afternoon to enjoy our “feast” together in “thanksgiving.”

My first car was a 1929 Model A Ford. I was the third member of our family to own it. My Dad first bought it around 1936 from a junk yard. It was originally an open touring car and had been damaged in a broadside accident. Dad bought a tudor sedan body and hired a local “jack of all trades” man to help change the body to the original chassis. It was the family car for three or four years and saw hard use with some teenage drivers. Later it came into the possession of my next older brother, Charles. Finally in 1941 I bought it from him. The mileage on it at the time was round 120,000 miles.

I proceeded to put new rings in the engine and generally “fancy” it up until it was a really nice car, in my opinion, one of the best Model A’s around. I drove it from Kansas to Milton to college, where it faithfully started in minus 30 degree weather. A year later I drove it to West Virginia to Salem College, without any hint of mechanical trouble. Finally I drove it back to Kansas the end of that school year. In Kansas, I sold it to a neighbor for the fifty dollars I originally paid for it. Years later I was told that he had completely worn it out and put it to rest in his pasture–I guess one would say, “Put it out to pasture.”

That car was truly part of our family and a very dear part of my life. I have often thought of how I’d like to have this resurrected Ford back again. It would be great to have a car so simple and dependable when later models have become so confusingly complicated. To me it is worth a mint in memories, as well as for its dollar value today.

The awaited departure for Wheaton College in Illinois came early in January of 1941. My mother helped me pack and gave me last-minute suggestions for living away from home. I later found that she had attached a note inside my new leather-bound Bible encouraging me to be faithful in reading it. I think Dad took me to Atchison to get on the Greyhound bus for the trip. The next day I was in Wheaton, settled in the home of Mrs. Benson who lodged college boys.

I enjoyed college in Wheaton, but due to expenses, I transferred to our SDB Midwestern college in Milton, Wisconsin the Fall term of 1941. While in Milton war was threatening and in early December the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and we were at war.

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