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Growing Up on a Michigan Farm in the 1890s - Background Reading

This article was originally published in the March/April 1984 issue of Michigan History Magazine.

Growing Up on a Michigan Farm in the 1890s

By Edith Butler

My earliest recollection is of the old wood house at the southeast corner of the farm in Section 26 of Overisel Township in Allegan County. A small structure nearby was where Mother leached a collection of waste fats with wood ashes to make soft soap. East of all this was the apple orchard: early Red Astrachans, Harvest apples, St. Lawrence and Snow apples.

As soon as we were old enough, we had many duties. The boys had the job of keeping the woodbox full. Two small girls could make beds—one each side of a double bed with a straw mattress, reaching inside through the opening provided to stir the straw and make it even, or level, then buttoning it up. Ten beds made quite a chore.

Weekly chores included washing the clothes. The grown-ups did the hardest work—rubbing the heavy work clothes on a board in the tub. We hung them on a line in the yard, brought them in, sprinkled and ironed them with "sad irons" heated on the wood-burning stove and handled by a thick pad to prevent the hand from burning. Irons with removable handles were quite an improvement. Before we left the farm we had acquired a "Terriff's Perfect Washer." Two curving washboards rubbing the clothes between them took out the dirt—and, alas, many buttons, which were collected in Mother's button box for use again on clothes or a checkerboard.

Chickens were also in Mother's realm, and we girls had much to do with them. We bought a "setting" of Plymouth Rock eggs. When they hatched, one chick was more like a Leghorn. We called her Priscilla. Priscilla quickly became quite a good laying hen. She chose the pile of clothes accumulating in the washing machine on the back porch and announced her daily accomplishment by a loud cackle. When this nest was disturbed, she got into the cellar stairway where eggs were being collected for market in a basket and laid her egg on top. Chickens were supposed to keep their distance from the house, but Priscilla felt that she was "people."

A large wagon from a country store six miles away made a weekly visit with groceries—sugar, salt, Karo corn syrup, kerosene and dry goods. We youngsters went out with Mother to do the trading—butter and eggs for other goods—and get a present. The grocer always threw a handful of hard candy into the empty crock that he gave Mother in return for the one of butter that he bought. In spring there was Mr. Belden, the tin peddler, coming over the hill at the schoolhouse, ringing his bell. When he drove into the yard we were ready for him.

Spring in the house meant that the heating stove was taken to the woodshed for storage. Windows were washed. The carpet was taken up and thrown over the clothesline for a thorough beating to get all the dust out. The layer of straw under it, for warmth, was removed. When threshing was over, new straw would be spread and the carpet tacked down again.

Bed ticks (mattresses) were emptied of their old straw, washed and refilled with fresh new straw. Several of us went to the barn with a fresh tick and had fun stuffing it until it puffed up. Then, one or two under one end and one or two under the other end, we carried it back to the house. At first it was so fat that Lou and I had to climb onto the sideboard of the bed to reach into the opening to stir the straw.

Outdoor activities picked up speed in springtime. Wheat had been sown during the fall and was showing green in the fields. But the corn ground must be readied for planting, and then the hay must be cut and hauled to the barn.

Soon after the hay was in, the wheat was ready to be cut. Three horses were required to pull the heavy binder round and round the field, binding the wheat into bundles and throwing them to one side. They were picked up by footmen and placed in small shocks with a bundle on top to help shed rain until all could be hauled to the barn for threshing.

Threshing time was exciting to those too young to take part. When our turn came, the big puffing engine appeared over the hill at the schoolhouse. It pulled the bigger separator and a water wagon. (At first they were hauled by horses, then a "traction engine" did it.) The separator was maneuvered into place at the barn door and the engine at the right distance down the lane so that a long, wide belt could run between a wheel on the engine and one on the separator. The water wagon was taken to the river and filled. A pile of wood was ready to stoke the engine and generate steam for power. The next morning, while the engineer built up steam in the engine, neighbors gathered, exchanging work for like help in their threshing. A man stood on the platform at the rear end of the separator to receive the bundles of wheat pitched to him. He push the bundles at the proper angle into the hungry machine. Out came the straw onto a carrier that conveyed it to a mow or stack. At the other side of the separator the grain poured into a sack. Two men alternated at grabbing the filled sacks and carrying them to the granary.

When there was a lull in the summer's work, the boys hitched a team to the double buggy or wagon and we all went to Saugatuck to play on the Lake Michigan beach, climb Mount Baldhead, the area's highest sand dune, wade and swim. On a Sunday we might go to a camp meeting in the woods near Diamond Springs.

On one beautiful June Sunday morning, around 1895, our house burned. The boys had gone to the river to swim. Mother and Grace started ringing the dinner bell, which hung high on the frame of the windmill. The boys came running. Others, hearing the bell, came and started carrying, or throwing, things out of the house, after a "bucket brigade" proved useless.

We were given shelter that night at the McCreery's, across the road east of the apple orchard. The next day our cousin, Lucinda Ingham, and aunt, Susan Butler, came and took Lou and me to Lucinda's home in Hamilton. One of us had shoes, the other had a hat. We saw a train puffing through the fields and we, as well as the old gray horse, were terrified. We stayed at Lucinda's home near the river four days, which seemed a year. Each day we ran out to see the train creep across the bridge over the river. Father came daily to bring wheat and corn to the gristmill and get the mail and building supplies. When he took us home, it was to a hastily built shack at the edge of the apple orchard. A new house had been planned—of brick.

(Arline B. Campbell sent this portion of her Aunt Edith Butler's memoir.)

Contact the Michigan Historical Museum.

Updated 08/05/2010

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