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Reflections: Farm life during a far different time in Illinois

Clarence and Sylvia Matile worked four different farms in the Kendall County area.
Clarence and Sylvia Matile worked four different farms in the Kendall County area.

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” observed British author L.P. Hartley. And given how different people’s lives were then, the quote has the advantage of being quite true.

My parents would have celebrated their 90th anniversary on Washington’s birthday this year. Feb. 22 doesn’t sit at an ideal time on Illinois’ seasonal calendar. In fact, February is just about northern Illinois’ worst weather month.

So I once asked my mother why she and my dad picked such a horrible time of year to say their vows, since just about any other month would have offered the prospect of nicer weather. And she replied that March was moving month for farmers who rented their land, and since she and my dad proposed to go farming on their own, they needed to be married before they moved to their first rented farm.

My dad came east from Kansas around 1920 to escape the farm depression and the dust storms that were even then ravaging the shortgrass prairies around Emporia. He found work in the glass factories at Ottawa, Illinois, where the huge deposits of silica sand along the Fox River were being turned into all sorts of glass products. His job was painting factory smokestacks – steeple-jacking didn’t bother him since he’d worked on drill rigs in the Kansas oil fields.

Tiring of that after a few years, he took the interurban trolley from Ottawa to Joliet through Plainfield to Aurora where, on the farmers’ Saturday shopping night, he found farm work in Wheatland Township. There he met my mother, whose family had moved to the farm from their home on Hinman Street in Aurora’s “Dutchtown” about the same time my dad got to Ottawa.

They dated in those pre-Great Depression days when, nevertheless, there was a crushing farm depression that was so severe that when Black Friday’s results began to be felt after that October 1929 stock market crash, no one figured it was much worse than what they’d already been going through.

My parents dated along with a group of other young rural couples. One of their favorite things was to pack a picnic lunch and, early on a Sunday morning, hop in one of their cars and drive to southern Wisconsin.

There, they’d look for a one-room rural school to spend the afternoon. Why? In those days, rural schools always had outdoor bathrooms and outdoor water pumps, and they’d look for one with a swing or a teeter-totter and maybe a baseball diamond where the guys could play a game of baseball.

After getting married, they rented four different farms, one on Route 126 between Yorkville and Plainfield; one on Minkler Road (the infamous Gates’ place by which the inadequacies of all other farmhouses were judged); the McLaren place on Simons Road, about a mile from the farm my mother’s parents were renting – also from Louis and Margaret McLaren; and, finally, the Butcher Place on Heggs Road, about a mile north of the Wheatland United Presbyterian “Scotch” Church, where I lived until I was 8 years old.

It may seem strange that so many people were renters back in the early 20th century, especially given today’s near-mania for people to become homeowners. But renting, from homes in town to farms out in the country was really the rule rather than the exception.

The March 1, 1911, Kendall County Record’s “Oswego” column explained the process: “The annual moving of farmers is in full swing. Short leases do not mean much for the tenant or the farm. Long leases to good tenants will have to come into style yet.”

This note in the Feb. 18, 1931, edition of the Record was repeated annually, with only the names of the moving farm families changed: “Members of the Gaylord Community club and the threshing ring surprised Mr. and Mrs. Fred Schusler at their home last Saturday evening. Mr. and Mrs. Schusler and family are moving to a farm between Naperville and Wheaton and the neighbors gave them a rocking chair and a lamp for parting gifts.”

It was the era of diversified farming, but it was an era that was slowly drawing to a close, as well.

By the 1930s, when my parents began farming as young marrieds, farms were still fairly self-contained, producing both grain and livestock products. The farmer was responsible for growing crops and tending whatever livestock – pigs or cattle or milk cows – the farm raised. Meanwhile, the farm wife was expected to manage the garden, the orchard and the chicken house. Chickens were raised for the eggs they produced and for their meat. Both eggs and chickens could be traded in town at grocery stores for the staples farm families needed.

In the 1930s, home canning was becoming very popular, especially in farm areas. But it still was a technology in its infancy, and canning meat and vegetables, if done incorrectly, could lead to serious illness. So the newly formed Farm Bureau and the University of Illinois Home Extension Association gave classes for farm women on the safe way to preserve food. At the same time, the Farm Bureau was urging farmers to try the new cash crop of soybeans, showing movies to farm groups on how to grow them using a projector powered by a generator run by replacing the back wheel on the farm adviser’s Model T Ford with a pulley to run the belt.

It’s likely none of them realized even than that the diversified farm era was on its way toward the gradual change over the next 40 years into the livestock or grain farming specialization we see today. And they undoubtedly didn’t understand that the growth in agricultural machinery technology and plant science slowly but surely would reduce the need for farmers themselves, so that land once farmed by 10 families could easily be farmed by one.

Our farming past does indeed sometimes seem like a foreign country where things were done differently. It’s something I’m thinking about this week as I recall that was the country in which my folks lived.

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