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Evansville-area farm wives discuss life on the farm for local history project

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GINA R. HEINE
March 18, 2011
— For some Evansville farm wives, their first memories of the farm are from a crib or pen watching Mom do chores.

"We had calf pens and fresh cow pens, and they made a little pen inside the pen to keep my older brother and I in so we didn't get out in the driveway and in the gutter while they were milking," said Barb Andrew, who grew up on a farm in Bradford Township.


For other veteran farm wives of Evansville, marriage delivered their first taste of farm life.


"I didn't really want to be a farmer, but once I was there, then it kind of grows on you," said Pat Hermanson, who went from being a secretary in the city to life on a farm when she married her husband, John. "And I think it's a wonderful place to raise kids."


Nearly 20 Evansville-area women gathered recently at the Bank of Evansville to share their stories about life as a farm wife. The roundtable discussion was the latest in a series started by Evansville native John Ehle to record the history of area residents. The women's counterparts participated in a recording in December.


Family, neighborhood dynamics

Andrew went to college thinking, "I am never going to marry a farmer. This is it. I'm not going to live on the farm. I know what hard work it is, what the long hours are," she said.


"That was before I met Gordy. Life has a way of giving us what we need, and that was what I needed."


Knowing neighbors and being able to rely on them are advantages lost in many areas today, the women said. Years ago, card parties brought community members together to meet and bond, Borghild Viney said.


Something not seen as much anymore is generations working together in the home, Andrew said.


Some of the women expressed regret that many families today don't sit down together at the dinner table and discuss matters of the day.


"Truly, you really got to know who your children were with and who they were around and the things that were being instilled in their mind," Sherry Crull said.


Good hired help was hard to find, women said, because farming is a job that never ends.


"I don't regret ever having to do the work seven days a week," Crull said, "but when it was 20 below zero and you had to go outside and fix a window because a cow stuck her head through, it's just like, 'Come on. We just gotta be the dumbest people on earth to keep doing this day after day after day. But it all works out in the end."


Childhood life

Viney, 90, recalled how she always had jobs to do as a child, and kids never said they were bored.


"We found things to do," she said. "Our parents were not there supervising every time we turned around. We played in the trees, thought nothing of climbing to the top of the windmill, which was 40 feet in the air, and our mothers didn't call the emergency squad to come in and get us down."


One-room schoolhouses brought memories of spending December preparing the Christmas program, of packing lunch everyday and of pumping water outside.


"Somehow, despite having all those grades (and) kids, we learned. Isn't that amazing?" Kathy Starostka said. "I loved it. It's one of my best memories living in the country going to that school."


Tractor lessons

One memory not quickly forgotten was learning to drive tractor.


Ardis Zwicky said her dad was short a man to drive the rake while he baled.


"I could not even stay in the right row. I didn't know what I was looking at in that field," she said.


He would motion from the baler, "over, over," she said. Twice he got off and got her back in the right spot.


"The third time he said, 'Go and find somebody else,'" she said to laughter.


Crull's husband gave her her first tractor lesson before they were married.


His instructions: "Whatever you do when you go down that hill, do not push the clutch in."


She went flying down the hill, "It felt like 100 mph, and I pushed in the clutch and I went, 'Ahhhh,' I covered my eyes."


She looked back at her husband, who was clinging to the back of the wagon thinking, "Oh my gosh, she's going to kill us."


By the bottom of the hill they were "absolutely jackknifed."


From garden to jar

Families decades ago canned all their food, from pickles to tomatoes to jellies.


"If you didn't have a garden and can all that food, you wouldn't have food for the winter," Starostka said.


Sally Reisem will always remember the five field rows of peas they planted, weeded, picked and shucked by hand. Nowadays, kids need an iPod playing to get anything done, she said.


"We sat around the kitchen table and talked all day (while shucking). … This is how you find what your brothers and sisters—who they are."


4-H

The pledge to head, heart, hands and health shaped many lives, and message of 4-H still is important more than 100 years after it formed, Starostka said.


She said she wasn't a good person to show animals because she became too attached. When Woodman's grocery store bought her black Angus steer named Curly at the fair, she cried and "called everybody I knew and said don't buy any meat at Woodman's because it might be my Curly."


When Andrew showed Holsteins at the Wisconsin State Fair near Milwaukee, her dad would arrive the morning she showed.


"I never felt just quite right about going in the show ring unless I knew my dad was there to watch me," she said. "I think it was part of the family relationship that cemented that because you did a lot of things together."


"I think you're right," Crull said. "The kids really wanted to make Dad proud. Not that moms are not important, moms are just there for everything."


Viney met her husband in 4-H, and all four of their children participated in 4-H.


Viney's family motto was "cows, corn and continuity," which they maintained until selling the cows in 1982. Her grandson is the fifth generation now on the family farm, she said.


"We still have the corn and the continuity," she said.


Crull is a facilitator with the Wisconsin Rural Woman's Initiative and through it has learned "as farm women, sometimes we feel like there's nobody that cares."


Heads nodded in agreement when Crull talked about how the respect for farm wives has grown.


"Because we do do so many different things. The one thing I've learned is all women need to be empowered to be themselves and know they are good and they are special people," she said. "Just don't ever, ever underestimate yourself because women are amazing people, we do a lot of amazing things, and you don't get credit for it a lot of times."



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