Fata Morgana (chimerically) wrote,
Fata Morgana

Michigan and sociotechnical change since my grandparents' generation

My Michigan vacation was enjoyable. I caught up on novels, nonfiction, and the last year of National Geographic in the unseasonably cold weather. Last Tuesday night we ate out to celebrate the year's accumulated holidays, especially my birthday and graduation, then sang old tunes in six-part harmony on the way back (one benefit of having a family full of musicians). Back at the cottage, we coaxed Grandma and Grandpa into telling us about growing up on a farm. I used to be indifferent to my family's history, but in the last couple of years I've become more interested.

It's strange to consider how much has changed since my grandparents' childhoods. Both of my mom's parents grew up on dairy farms, and didn't have electricity or running water in their early childhood, relying instead on rainwater cisterns and windmill-pumped wells. A dairy wagon (later a truck) came around to pick up large metal canisters of milk which would be cooling in the cows' water trough (later in a separate water tank). The dairies paid more money for higher milkfat. Both families kept one bull around, and other farmers who didn't have one would pay for the bull's services. In addition, my grandma's family owned a cow scale that other farmers paid to use.

Though they made most of their money on their dairy cows, both also kept pigs, horses, and chickens, and grew crops for themselves and for the animals - wheat (60 lbs/bushel), corn, spelt (48 lbs/bushel), and some oats (36 lbs/bushel). My grandma's dad would kill pigs by hitting them on the back of the head with the blunt end of an axe; my grandpa's dad with a bullet between the eyes (both ways were supposed to lead to a fast death). All parts of slaughtered animals were used. Intestines were scraped and boiled and meat leftovers were ground and placed in them for sausage.

My grandma's father got his farm via a government land grant; my grandpa's father bought 80 acres initially, then purchased 40 from a neighbor and another 40 across town that was half woodlands, where my grandpa would sometimes stay out all day and night. During some times of the year, he would hunt for mushrooms. He would often find morels, which, when fried, tasted just like steak. My grandma hunted puffball mushrooms in the forest near her farm, which she said also tasted like steak. (A nearby city served a fancy mushroom dinner once a year that cost $50/plate in the 1930's, and included these mushrooms as main courses.)

Both grandparents' farms were electrified when my grandparents were in their early teens via the Rural Electrification Program. Electric pumps replaced the windmills, and gas-powered clothes washers and wringers replaced hand-powered ones. (Aside: my parents used an old-fashioned washer and wringer on their farm in the seventies, along with wood-burning stoves.)

My grandpa vaguely remembers having a buggy, but his family got a car fairly early on. His family first owned a "Star," then a 1928 Dodge, which my grandpa learned to drive at 12 years old, sitting on his brother's lap. He also learned to drive the lug-wheeled tractor at age 12 (later, the lug wheels were replaced with rubber ones), and could also lead a team of 5 horses, or 3 horses and a plow. Even when his family had cars and tractors, they kept at least two beautiful Belgian horses, which could haul over a ton.

My grandpa couldn't finish high school because he was needed on the farm, but he took night school, where he was good at math. Later, he took engineering correspondence courses, and his teachers told him, "Please don't stop, you're a natural." When he was about 20, my grandpa went to design school at the American College of Mechanical Engineering, and also worked at Benedict's (sp?), where he learned a lot about brakes, carburetors, struts and wheels, and many other things. He later took a job at Motor Wheel.

Around World War II, my grandpa married my grandma and they moved to the city. My grandma was completely uninterested in continuing the hard farm life; she said that when my grandpa would mention it she said she'd rather leave him than go back to it. Only one of my grandma's 12 siblings continued to farm, and only one of my grandpa's siblings continued to farm as well. Aside from my parents' stint of farming, none of my parents' siblings farmed.

I have a tendency to idealize farm life - so sustainable, so healthy! - without thinking much about the back-breaking labor and 18-hour work days involved. While I've helped tend a 1/2-acre garden, read plenty of Willa Cather, and listened to my grandparents' and parents' stories, I still don't really know what full-scale farming would really be like, and I can't help but feel uncomfortable when I promote it as an alternative to consolidated agribusiness and mass migration to overcrowded cities.

... Anyway, yes, Michigan was pleasant, though cold! I left Thursday morning for the USABDA National Championships, which I'll write about another time. (I'll just say now that we solidly made the quarter-final round - which put us in the top 24 of 44 couples - but got very few recalls and didn't make it into the semi-final round of 12 couples.)

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