Back on the Farm

A few years ago Professor of Economics at George Mason University,  Carrie Meyer, went home to the Midwest and stumbled upon a cardboard box of diaries kept by her grandmother. She turned them into a history lesson, love letter, and wonderful story.

days-onDays on the Family Farm: From the Golden Age to the Great Depression
by Carrie A. Meyer (Dominican Republic 1980–83)
University of Minnesota Press

Reviewed by M. Susan Hundt-Bergan (Ethiopia 1966-68)

In 2000, Carrie Meyer’s family stumbled upon a cardboard box of diaries in their grandmother’s attic in Guilford Township, Illinois.  Most of these diaries were kept by May Lyford Davis, their grandfather’s cousin’s wife, about her life on the very farm where Carrie Meyer had grown up.  Out of these diary notations, Ms. Meyer, an economist at George Mason University, has crafted the story of May and Elmo Davis, their lives and that of their extended family and local community.  The author sets that narrative within the general economic and political framework of their region and the nation.

May and Elmo married on January 1, 1901; May died on February 25, 1944. During their life together May and Elmo experienced World War I, the Depression, and World War II.  During these years the farmers of Guilford County enjoyed economic high times and endured the hopelessness of the Depression. From May Davis’ diaries (supplemented by those kept by her mother and a niece by marriage.), the author has been able to sketch a very detailed picture of the family’s life.  Indeed, sometimes this specificity becomes a bit tedious for the reader who does not know all the individual members of the Lyford Davis clan, nor every county highway and local landmark, as Meyer does.

Much of the book focuses on farming as a business, the primary orientation of May Davis’ diaries.  During the course of the diaries one witnesses, in the economy of May and Elmo’s farm the transitions from horses to tractors on the land, the advent of trucks and cars for transportation, and other changing agricultural patterns. It is instructive and sobering to read this book in the context of our current economic tailspin. One is reminded just how long the Depression dragged on before the engine of World War II pulled the nation out of it.

In a spare but revealing way, May’s entries show us not only farm economics but how her family and community functioned.  I was struck with the profoundly communitarian nature of their lives. May and Elmo had no children, but their lives touched family and others in many ways each day.  Family members and neighbors were in and out of each others homes with a frequency and familiarity that is different from the way most Americans live today. They relied on each other and supported each other in good times and in bad.

The dairy farm where I grew up lies about 200 miles northwest of the Davis farm, in LaCrosse County, Wisconsin. Although I was born in 1944, the same year May Davis died, my childhood had many things in common with May and Elmo Davis’ life.  Much as Ms. Meyers describes it, I remember the rhythms of farm life: the planting, cultivating and harvesting of crops; the demands and pleasures of growing and preserving foods from the garden and orchards and forests; the anxieties about rain that wouldn’t come, and snow that wouldn’t stop. As a small child I can remember my father and the hired man working the fields with horses, but they were soon displaced by tractors.

One of summer’s highlights for us – as for May and Elmo – was the arrival of the gargantuan threshing machine. I remember waiting at the top of the hill with brothers and sisters (I have ten; we were a community unto ourselves.) for the first sighting of the threshing crew, slowly pulling that monstrous machine.  For several days our farm was in ‘high gear’ with the noise and dust of the machine that separated the oats from its straw. A couple dozen neighbor men, with teams of horses or tractors, piloted a stream of wagons loaded high with oats bundles up to the threshing machine. At noon the giant machine was turned off, quiet fell over the farmyard, and the men trooped up to the house for dinner, pausing to wash outside and flop on the grass with a cold bottle of beer. My mother and her helpers (I was one of them.) were ready with platters of roast chicken and new potatoes, cabbage salad and sweet corn, homemade bread and fruit pies.  And how the men ate! My childhood memories of threshing time could have come right out of May’s diary.  Soon the threshing machine was replaced by the combine and combining the oats did not require the rotation of neighborhood help from one farm to the next, a sadness for us children.

In my recollection, much of our life beyond the farm was tied to our church community.  We were part of a German Catholic parish that included a school for grades 1 through 8 where most of my brothers and sisters and I attended.  Based on this book, it does not seem that church was as big a part of May and Elmo’s lives as it was for my family.

In her epilogue, Carrie Meyer summarizes the history of the farm after May and then Elmo’s death. Meyer also provides a broad-brush perspective on American farm life today, both changing economic patterns as well as social. She notes that there are now many leisure time alternatives to the frequent visiting of friends and relatives that was the norm in Elmo and May’s time, to the detriment of our rural communities today.  Strong family and community bonds enabled Elmo and May and their neighbors to endure the stresses and challenges of their times.

Since our parents died six years ago, my ten brothers and sisters and I own together the farm that my parents lived on for the last twenty-five years of their lives. This farm, adjacent to the larger home farm we grew up on, is our common ground. We gather there with our families to celebrate the holidays throughout the year.  In summer we grow tomatoes cucumbers and raspberries for canning and freezing. In August we pick blackberries and wild apples along the woods edge, and in October hickory nuts for holiday baking.  The tillable and pastureland as well as the cattle barn we rent to our nephew, who owns the original home farm adjacent to ours.

The trends toward consolidated land ownership and the movement away from diversified farming are obvious in our community. That is offset to some extent by the emergence of a vigorous organic farming movement that enables a family to make a living on smaller acreage. There is also a significant and growing Amish community. In a sign of the times my son, who grew up a city boy and was once a stock analyst on Wall Street , now owns a farm (about twenty five miles from my family farm) where he and his wife raise free range beef, pigs and chickens. One day they hope to be able to totally support themselves from the land.

After reading Ms. Meyer’s book, I am resolved to do one thing: open the two big boxes containing my mother’s diaries and begin transcribing them.  Who knows what interesting and beautiful thing will come of it?

M. Susan Hundt-Bergan (Ethiopia 1966–68) is retired from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. She and her husband Hal live in Madison, WI, where she divides her time among family and community efforts. Especially close to her heart is ministry at the Dane County Jail.

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