THROUGH THE WOODS: Winter farm 1958

TIRED AT AGE 12… Sledding and playing in the snow on an afternoon in 1958. The temperature was about -15 F and heading down the thermometer. Coming into the dairy barn was always pleasant. The cows were natural heaters and warmed the barn to a pleasant state during most winters. That day you could see their breath, and the moisture in the air was palpable and beginning to freeze on metal near the doors. The barn’s manure cleaner had frozen in the morning and the manure spreader wasn’t doing well either. Fortunately, the tractors had started up with a few tries. Lots of cold hard work on a small family farm without extra help.

The cold had brought in flocks of snow buntings and many hundreds of horned larks. There was also a small flock of common redpolls, but no hoary redpoll among them. Grandmother’s Christmas present of a Roger Tory Peterson Field Guide to the Birds had said to search for this rarer, whiter type. These birds were spooked up off the freshly spread manure during a late morning horseback ride. Bareback riding was the warmer and preferred way to go on these cold days, with flannel lined blue jeans, long heavy wool socks, high boots, and lots of wool everything else. The horses were always frisky and glad for a run, hair thick, warm, and full of static electricity, snorting and blowing through the squeaky snow and down to the “crick,” for a good drink.

The sun was out, and everything sparkled. The water bubbled around stones and under the ice at the sides. Weird shaped bubbles caught and then oozed out from underneath translucent ice. A disturbed trout shot upstream with a splash. Little balls of crystal ice hung from low twigs and jigged at the surface of the water. Mink tracks were frozen at the water’s edge, and a red-tailed hawk perched at the top of the dead elm tree 200 yards ahead. It watched the east pasture where the heifers sometimes trekked down from their shed to get a drink and might disturb a mouse from under the snow.

Milking was finished about 6 p.m. that night, but the work had just begun. After supper we worked through the night carrying pails of hot water to thaw pipes. The cows had individual water buckets attached to each stall’s stanchion and ice was forming in most of them. The barn had no insulation, so we carried many bales of straw and hay to stack up against the inside walls. By midnight it was -20 outside and by morning -30 degrees!

It was an awful night, but our teamwork succeeded and not one pipe broke. Inside the barn it was above freezing. At dawn, the usual day’s work began again with early morning milking, breakfast, feeding, cleaning, and more manure removal as best as possible with the cold. While father worked, we had the luxury of some hours of sleep. No one whined or quit that night because we knew how important it was for the business, the livestock and the family. It was just another averted crisis, part of our way of rural farm life.

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