Ira’s Farm: Growing Up on a Self-Sustaining Farm in the 1930’s and 1940’s

By Virginia Johnson

A WWI veteran with a young family, Ira bought a sixty-acre farm in the rural community of Harlan Michigan just ninety days before the October 1929 stock market crash and its ensuing financial crisis.

He fashioned a living with a team of horses and a never-give-up work ethic on land his wife often called “sand banks” when a harvest failed. This memoir covers a thirty-year span of farming through the eyes of Ira’s daughter who went from a bare-footed carefree girl to a “hired hand” when her older brother joined the Navy in 1942. She drove horses, hauled hay, picked up stones, bagged milkweed pods and a myriad of other tasks. For senior citizens it may bring back childhood memories. Young readers will perhaps experience a tinge of fantasy or a scene from TV’s Walton family. An easy read about rural farm life in the thirties and forties.

You can buy my book, Ira’s Farm: Growing Up on a Self-Sustaining Farm in the 1930’s and 1940’s on Amazon.


Mary,  Mary quite  contrary, how does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockleshells and cowslips all in a row.

Old nursery rhyme

Have you ever wondered what a garden of weeds would look like?  Two rows could have the tall and graceful green milkweed where caterpillars turn into butterflies and the pods open up with fluffy white strands to blow on and scatter to the wind.  Next row could be a rather scraggly-looking chicory plant, the kind that grow along most roadsides.  Its spindly stem holds two or three deep blue flowers that seem to bloom in no particular pattern up and down the stem.  Then the Queen Anne’s Lace that looks kind of like a seeded asparagus plant and spreads its bushy stems wide over the row when in full bloom with the white lacy flower petals.  They make fine bouquets and can be sprayed with hair spray and dried to last through the winter.  Mullein stands stiff as a statue and has small, seedy flowers but they would add a strength of character to your garden.

     No weed garden would be complete without a row of unruly, massive burdock just waiting for the master gardener to walk by so the burrs can reach out and attach to his jeans.  It is a sticky, prickly burr that holds tight until forcefully pulled off and has sometimes been suggested as the forerunner of Velcro.  A row or two of dandelions planted just for the children to pick a flower for their mom.  Dandelions are edible, also.  And when ready to go to seed, the flowers burst into fluff that kids love to blow and watch it fly away.   

   That garden would flourish and bloom and grow like none you had ever planted before.  You would never have to weed it or re-seed it or cultivate it.  There would be butterflies and bugs and worms to delight every child.

City Girl Gone Country

From the “Around the Kitchen Table” Guest Blog Series

Guest Blogger: Debbie Odette

Note from Ginny: Debbie was 7 ¾ years old when her parents bought the farm where I was born and raised. Here’s a memory of her first day as a farm girl in Harlan, Michigan.

My first morning waking up on the farm! I had waited months for this special day. Would it be all I had dreamed of? Would I be a different person at the end of the day? Would I be picking wildflowers to wear in my hair instead of roller skating? I always wore a ribbon around my neck with a key on it to tighten the roller skates to my shoes. Oh, I so wanted the most perfect day of sunshine and breezes. I had determined that I could climb a couple of those apple trees in the yard, they didn’t look dangerous. And that mile high grass between the garage and the barn was going to be a great place to play hide and seek.

Anxious to explore, I dressed in shorts and a summer top, combed my unruly curls and remembered to make my bed while the smell of bacon crept up the steep steps of the farmhouse. In Daddy’s house, you wouldn’t get a single bite of those fluffy pancakes or a slice of bacon if you dared to come to the table wearing pajamas or without combing your hair. Being the kind of kid that woke up hungry, I sure didn’t want to be sent back upstairs to do right what I should have done in the first place. The coffee and bacon aroma was enough to make my stomach growl. And it was so good! Daddy always made perfect silver dollar pancakes which I lined up around my plate and spread generously with butter and syrup. Mom cooked the eggs and Daddy always teased her about using a spatula to turn them over instead of flipping them in the air.

I gulped frozen concentrated orange juice and slathered another couple of pancakes while dreaming of the day’s adventures. That huge old barn was going to need a complete inspection as well as the small building with the sloped roof and all those windows. Hmmmm, what to inspect first?

Just as I soaked up the last of the syrup on my plate, Daddy peeked under the table, saw my shorts and said, “You’re going to need long pants out in the field.” What? What was he talking about? Field? I’m not going out there…no, nope, not me. That’s a long way from the house and even my big sister probably couldn’t keep me safe if something came out of the surrounding trees to growl at us or worse yet chase us! Daddy had to be going crazy. He didn’t expect two little girls to go to the field, did he? I mean, what for? It didn’t make sense. I remembered I had left my roller skates and beloved two-wheeler in the city. What would I do all day? It didn’t take long to get an answer to that question. Mom suggested I change my shorts for long pants and I grudgingly complied. Apparently the adults in the family had made plans that I was learning on a need-to-know basis. Well, they weren’t going to spoil my day. It was still a sunny, breezy morning with lots of fresh air and this place smelled of adventure at every turn.

Daddy said my sister and I could ride in the back of the truck. Really? Isn’t that dangerous? What if I fall off? Dad laughed at us and said to sit in the corner near the cab and keep those bushel baskets and crates from falling off. The truck had no tail gate. It occurred to me that this was my very first responsibility on the farm and by golly, every single basket and crate would still be there when we arrived as when we started. It was a long way out to the cornfield and watching the farmhouse get smaller and smaller wasn’t comforting. (Although knowing I didn’t have to wash the breakfast dishes was almost a reward. I just might prefer to be out in the wide-open air rather than in the kitchen with all that drudgery.)

Where we stopped, corn stalks had been grouped together and stood here and there like an Indian village of the past. Asking about them, Daddy said these were called corn shocks and had been put together last fall, safe for the winter and still good food for animals. The trick was twisting the ears off the stalks and tossing them into our containers. It didn’t look too difficult. The three of us could finish in no time. But after Daddy loosened the twine from some of the teepees, shaking them a little, he said, “Okay girls, give it a try and I’ll be back in a little bit to load the baskets in the truck. Don’t miss any ears.” And then he left. This was unbelievable. We watched him bounce back across the field in his truck. Was this being a farm girl? The future looked bleak. I dropped a couple of ears in a basket and we decided we would work together filling a basket because it would go faster. But it didn’t go fast. Looking for hidden ears of corn was difficult. 

“What if the Indians that built these teepees came and wanted their corn back?” I proclaimed to my sister that I wasn’t going to stick around and bargain with them. I thought of animals in the trees that might eat me and that was scarier yet. We agreed to stick together no matter what. We soon had picked all the ears off the loosened stalks and had to reach into the shock for more stalks. At my third or fourth time of digging into that dusty mound, something small and round ran across my hand and right down my leg into the tufts of grass surrounding us. I gasped with terror and backed fifteen feet or so away from the haunted corn stalks. What on earth? When my sister and I caught our breath, we started picking corn again and it didn’t take long to find what had caused such a fright. A nest of tiny wiggling, sightless, hairless bodies with tails. We decided they were harmless. But we couldn’t let them die. Daddy would know what to do. We took off running, holding hands and dodging cowpies and rocks. We ran until our throats burned with the effort. Such a relief to find Daddy outside wrapping wire around a post. We explained something was living in one of the teepees, so teensie tiny and we didn’t know what to do.

Daddy handed us a drink of water from the Mason jar he was holding. I thought about looking for a cup but just took a quick gulp from the rim of the jar. Mom arrived just as I was considering sliding off to the farmhouse to find my Little House on the Prairie book to remind myself why life in the country is so wonderful. Mom had brought a couple of fresh baked oatmeal cookies for us. Oh, they were a chewy little piece of heaven! The world was beginning to look normal again. Time to get back to the cornstalks.

We all piled into the truck cab and bounced along the ruts in the fields to the corn shock with the squirming animals in it. Daddy said, “Mice.” Really? These were mice? Saturday morning cartoons mice were cute and furry and ate cheese. These were furless, sightless, squirmy little animals. Daddy placed the wriggling mass next to a fence post and said nature would have to take over from here. It was no stretch of the imagination to know how their day would end. In short order a lesson was learned by this city girl. Living in the country was going to mean a lot of different things. We might not like everything we see but learning from those who had been here before was going to help show us how to love life on a farm.  

The Marking Pole

Ah, February. Flipping the pages of the latest issue of their seed catalog, true gardeners can almost catch a whiff of newly-turned soil. Gone are the reminders of aching backs and sore knees, of bugs and worms and weeds—memories that, alas, have stayed with me these many decades since I was a ten-year-old girl helping my dad get the ground ready to plant. 

Vivid reminders of those days came flooding back in the early spring of 1996. I had been invited by Kathy Gibbons, then editor of Active Years, a magazine published by Record Eagle for and about seniors in the local area, to interview and submit articles of interest to that age group. The stories could feature incidents from the past or accomplishments of the present. I would often be reminded of events in my own past and if I shared that memory with the person being interviewed, it led to more stories and hoots of laughter between us. 

One particular day, the senior citizen being interviewed suggested I should submit to Active Years a garden story I had told her. It was about my dad and his broken rake. I was reminded then of the times I had to help carry the marking pole as we walked from one end of the garden to the other to identify the rows that would be planted. It was utter misery to hold that heavy pole and try to match his long strides so the marker would make straight rows.

I submitted an article of memories gardening with my dad—the good, the bad and the ugly, including mention of the marking pole and a few days later, I received a call from the illustrator of Active Years. 

He asked, “What does a marking pole look like? I have never seen one.” 

Well, that was a striking reminder that the times they were a-changin’ and marking poles were no more. Probably replaced with an automated device that was hooked to a garden tractor and required no steps at all.

Oh, did I mention the row marker was homemade by Dad, using a pole which was originally a small tree limb and the markers were five heavy chains placed about thirty inches apart. The illustrator did one fine job sketching it for the article, titled “My Dad Had A Garden.”  Ah, the memories of spring.     

A Place to Start

I’m a farm girl at heart. I know a little bit about seeds, about their purpose after being bedded beneath a sprinkling of good earth. I know the solid truth that if I buy a seed envelope with green peas pictured on it, and plant the dried and wrinkled green peas enclosed within, plants will soon emerge and eventually I will have a serving of cooked green peas on my dinner plate.

But walking through a garden center a few months ago, I gazed in disbelief at a packet of common milkweed seeds on that same rack. Who would actually pay a dollar twenty-five for milkweed seeds? 

I would, of course, soon learn why the lowly milkweed seed has emerged as a marketable item. The story begins not with a weed, per se, but with a host of men and women who, over the years have dug and hoed and cultivated the soil they owned, and saved the seeds from their crops for the years ahead; men and women who’ve dreamed and explored and questioned and learned a lot about the ground we walk on and the soil we use to grow our food. 

The milkweed and our beautiful monarch butterfly are intricately bound together in one of the most fascinating acts of nature and, indeed, a beautiful mystery. So, what has happened that there is a market for the seeds of this almost homely plant with poisonous leaves, a plant growing wild and really considered a pest to some farmers? And though I understand the genus of insects, how can a delicate gorgeous butterfly be called an insect? I think a “flying flower” describes it better.

So, why the milkweed seeds? Well, the monarch butterfly has at times almost made the endangered species list and one of the problems is the scarcity of milkweed plants. The common milkweed in the temperate zone of the United States has been all but eradicated through chemical fertilizer spraying and cultivation of arable lands. Since the larvae or caterpillar stage of monarch butterfly reproduction only feeds on milkweed plants, the monarch population has been affected; affected to the point that biologists suggests a few plantings of milkweeds throughout your front yard landscape would be beneficial and, as a side benefit, homeowners could catch glimpses of those orange “insects” fluttering around in their flower beds. Hence, the packets of milkweed seeds. 

Photo by Richard Lee on Unsplash

Holidays in Times of Tragedy

Perhaps those of you who were not around in 1943, are experiencing some of the heaviness of these tragedies in the same way Americans felt during World War Two.

Christmas 1944 in the small community of Harlan, Michigan, seemed quieter to me than previous ones. I was thirteen years old. The winter had been a cold one and this night was blustery, snow swirling and drifting. Dad had cut a small pine tree from the back woodlot and we had decorated it with the usual stringed popcorn and colored paper chains. Mom and Gene and I made taffy candy, the kind you pull until it gets stiff.

But there was no way we could keep from thinking of Dean, serving in the Navy and the last we knew he was somewhere in the western Pacific Ocean area. Margie was home and because she had a job in Traverse City, there were pretty wrapped gifts under the tree for us all. Dad had kept the farm going but it had been a difficult year. Rationing was affecting every part of his farm life. Stringent requirements to purchase gasoline – one “rationing calendar” entry in the Cadillac Evening News dated July 31, noted “Use #7 stamps good for four gallons through September 21.”

Mom’s rationing book was no simpler: “Stamp 13 good for 5 lbs. thru August 15; stamps 15 and 16 good for five pounds of canning sugar up to October 1, Stamp 14 valid for 5 lbs. from August 16 thru October 1.” The war effort with its constant news on the radio and battle reports in bold letters almost daily in the newspaper– it was a subdued time for families all over the country.

As I sat here in my apartment a few days ago, I thought of this past year and how Covid-19 has seemed to permeate all of our lives almost hourly for the past nine months, much like the war effort in past years. The stunning increase in deaths due to this virus is sad.

Perhaps those of you who were not around in 1943, are experiencing some of the heaviness of these tragedies in the same way Americans felt during World War Two. We are a resilient people. We are a free people and our resources are being used to fight this coronavirus even as we did in those war years. I wish for each of you a time of peace and reflection during these beautiful days of Christmas. May we look to the year ahead with hope and believe in its promises.