April 13, 1939 – More About My Childhood – Farm Experience

This article was written in German by Gotthilf Birkmann for the 13 April 1939 edition of the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt. It also appeared on page 278 in Worthy of Double Honor, the Rev. G. Birkmann, D. D. where it was translated by the author Ray Martens.

More About My Childhood – Farm Experience        

Even though I readily confess that I was minimally qualified to do farm labor, I did like to observe those devoted to this calling and to talk with farmers about their work and about their successes or difficulties or even failures. I always have loved to see fields of waving grain and of white cotton. For a number of years, I also read an agricultural journal (Texas Farm and Ranch), which did not cost much but did present many interesting reports about Texas regions and their agricultural activities.

It was a joy for me when I came to Texas and here to Lee County to see wagons filled with cotton passing by my house to the gin, one behind the other from morning until night, every day of the week. Cotton picking went on for months, almost into the following year. Regrettably, certainly, many children were kept out of school to work in the fields with this excuse from their parents: “Without our children, we cannot bring home the bounty, and we dare not let it go to waste.” At that time and later, much more cotton was raised than is the case now, and the yield was larger.

Up north in my home area, the farmers raised grain: wheat, barley, oats, and especially also Welschkorn (or maize). Only a little cotton in southern Missouri and in the far south of Illinois. My home was not that far south, Monroe County being just southeast of St. Louis near the Mississippi River. We did not live right next to the river, but in the hill country bordered by the so-called “bluffs.” Originally, that land was entirely wooded. (I saw no pastures as a child.) Clearings and fields came to be as trees were cleared with great toil and sweat, already one hundred years ago. (My home congregation will be able to celebrate its centennial in two years.)

My foster sister, taken into our already large family as an orphan, married a farmer in our congregation after she grew up. I spent school vacation time with her for a number of years, always most happily, because it gave me opportunity to see more and to find more to do than in the parsonage. A boy who would bring drinking water to those working in the fields or who would run errands was useful on a farm. I was also of use at harvest time, following the man cutting the oats with a cradle. (“Cradle” is not easy to explain to someone who has never seen one. It was a scythe with a number of pegs built into it to hold the grain stems upright as they were cut with each swing, then to lay them down smoothly.) I would follow with a rake to bring enough together so that the binder behind me could tie it into a bundle. So we proceeded from end to end of the field, until all the oats were cut and bundled.

Reapers, as they were called, already existed at that time, from the McCormick factory, though not nearly every farmer had one. Several would ordinarily go together to acquire one. The farmer with whom I stayed bought one with his brother, and the two of them harvested their large fields together, all working on the project at one time. The task required quite a number of workers. Two worked the machine, one to drive the horses and the other to remove the cut grain from the platform with a rake or pitchfork. Behind the machine came those who tied the bundles, a task that required not fewer than six because of the rate at which the reaper was able to cut. Then the bundles had to be gathered, work for us boys. Sixteen bundles (if I remember correctly) were gathered into one pile, from which a worker would build them into a shock, with two folded bundles serving as a cap, covering the heads of the grain to protect them from moisture. A few weeks later, the grain was brought nearer the house and placed in big stacks. Wheat stacks would be eighteen feet in diameter at the bottom. Some farmers would end up with seven or eight such stacks, though most had fewer. Oats was gathered in the same way, though the stacks were somewhat narrower.

After several more weeks came threshing, a busy time, not only for the men, but also especially for the women, who had to provide for the dozen men or so who were needed for the task seventy and more years ago. It took eight horses to provide enough strength to pull the rotating mechanism [Göpelwerk]. (We called that “horsepower,” literally.) Two men stood on the stack being threshed and another two on the threshing machine, one to feed it and the other to hand untied sheaves to the one doing the feeding. In back, where the threshed grain came out, a number of men all kept busy filling sacks. Finally, the machine ejected the straw, which was forked onto horse-drawn sleds to be piled into straw stacks. This straw provided feed for the cattle, along with protection against winter weather, among other uses. So it was that many workers were required for threshing and for hauling away the straw, all of them with the proverbial thresher’s appetite. Boys could also be a part of the crew.

I often stood on a stack of wheat or oats and tossed bundles down to the threshing machine. Nor did we boys turn up our noses at the good food which the women had gathered and prepared from their gardens, cellars, and smokehouses.

Farming was not limited to raising grain. There were also orchards and vineyards (with cellars storing a little something made with the juice of fruit and grapes [cider and wine, one would guess]). There are fewer orchards and vineyards now than there were seventy years ago. Now farmers experience more trouble with them because of rapidly multiplying vermin, along with blight and fungus and other things, all of which harm the trees and cut down on their setting fruit.

The consequence of repeated cultivation of wheat and corn for years and years was that the land became not nearly as productive as it had been. [The German terms Korn and Mais are ambiguous in that either may mean what we in English distinguish as corn and maize. My experience suggests that Illinois is a corn (and soybean) state, while, more characteristically, maize is grown in Texas. I can never tell which he means. In this instance he uses both German terms.] Earlier, wheat probably had a yield of thirty bushels per acre, now only twelve or fewer. Corn [maize?] really did not thrive anymore either, producing just as little. The man with whom I was staying knew that in the American Bottom, as it was called, corn [?] was producing a yield of sixty bushels per acre. So he, young and enterprising as he was, joined other farmers in renting acreage in the Bottom. That was an adventurous thing to do, for it involved driving ten or twelve miles and camping out for a number of days at a time. I was permitted to be a part of the group, and how happily I went along.

The required implements were loaded, along with bedding, provisions, cooking utensils, and the like. With tarpaulin covering the wagon, we made our way toward the Mississippi River, because our goal, the little bit of field, was almost immediately at the river’s edge. The whole episode to this day seems romantic to me.

We passed a Catholic church at a place called Madonnaville, and, of course, Catholics lived around there. Until that time, I had only heard about Catholics (quite a lot, really). So it struck me as almost weird to come across a place with a Catholic church, this rather large one in Madonnaville. Then we went down a long slope, a quarter mile or so, to a community called Monroe City (many a place appropriated “City” as a part of its name), at the edge of the Bottom. To our left were steep bluffs, thickly overgrown with trees and bushes, many of which were new to me. I specifically remember seeing maples.

After several more miles, we reached our goal. There we relaxed and in the open air lit a fire, cooked, fried, and dined. In the next couple of days, the land was plowed, harrowed, and cut with furrows, both east to west and south to north. I was one of those doing the planting, placing three or four kernels [this encourages me to think that it is corn] at every place the furrows intersected. I was struck with the fact that the soil was so unusually soft that one could have fashioned the most beautiful garden from it. The fertile humus was very deep, soil deposited by the river when it occasionally overflowed. No wonder one could harvest sixty bushels per acre. At night we slept outdoors; it was in May when we planted. We had to have a fire, though, because of the many unusually large and hardy mosquitoes, which kept us very busy, until we finally found well-earned sleep.

In that area I located a watery swamp full of fallen trees. One noon I saw more snakes there than ever I saw before or since. I was up close and know very well what I saw, but I know I report it at the risk of not being believed. Hundreds of reptiles lay on the tree trunks, doubtlessly non-poisonous water snakes for the most part, all trying to be dry and warm in the sun. If you take into account all those covering the fallen limbs in the water, then one can surely say that thousands of snakes were to be found in that swamp.

After our couple of days in the Bottom, we made our way back home, tired and sunburned. But we had seen so much: the big river with its steamships headed upstream and downstream, and, on the far bank, the castle-or fortress-like deltas of the state of Missouri.

I traveled to the Bottom again a number of times, including the time when the corn we had planted was brought home. I still know what trouble the horses had pulling the load of the heavy wagon full of corn up the almost endless hill at Monroe City. We had to get off the wagon to lighten the load. I could hardly catch my breath when I got to the top of the hill, when all I had to carry was my own small load, bringing along what little bulk I had. We needed to make that trip a number of times, until the reward was no longer worth the trouble, for later none of our people rented land in the Bottom anymore to grow corn. Instead, they planted clover on the old farms until, with time, they were restored.