Christ & Ingeborg Hansen Families
Photos out of Ida's book
This article is taken from the San Antonio Express newspaper, August 21, 2007. It is about a woman growing up on a farm in Iowa during the 1930's. She is not related to the Hansens, however her book expresses the real experiences of life on a farm during that time which the Hansens and their children and grandchildren know. www.Little-Heathens.com
Ah, the good old days, growing up on a farm during the Depression. No running water, no indoor toilet, no electricity, no central heat, no money, long days of bonehard farm work in numbing cold and baking heat and kid chores that included luring plump little hens with corn, swiftly chopping off their heads and frying them up for supper.
"We had great fun," Mildred Armstrong Kalish says without a trace of irony about childhood on the family farm in Iowa during the 1930. More that fun, "it was a romp," she adds during a phone interview from California, where the retired college English professor now lives with her husband, retired psychology professor Harry Kalish.
Talk about the worst of times and the bet of times. From big cities to rural hamlets, the country was reeling from the greatest economic collapse in its history with up to 25 percent unemployment and real hunger in many quarters. "The Depression seized all people, all classes. It was 10 years of a challenge beyond all challenges and it seared people. It seared people's souls," says Bruce Daniels, a history professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
That it did, and Kalish, 85, doesn't romanticize or sugarcoat the sometimes-grueling physical labor or economic hardship or the terrible "Dirty Thirties" winters and droughts that punished the Midwest. Still, she has fond and evocative memories of an electronic-gadget-free time when a warm kitchen held the simple pleasures of apple cram pie, a kettle on the stove and a comfortable chair in the reading corner. When old-fashioned virtues and the Protestant work ethic were instilled in her and her two older brothers and younger sister, especially by her grandparents who oversaw their upbringing. "Little heathens," her grandma would call the kids when they strayed from those strict standards.
That's the title of her book -- Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression (Bantam Books, $22). It is more that a nostalgic memoir. It's history and sociology and a primer for character and confidence-building. It's about growing, raising and preparing the food on the table, fixing what's broken, mending what's torn and making do, always making do. A lifetime before the DIY Network, you did it yourself , or it didn't get done.
"They didn't really treat us like kids," Kalish says, recalling the formative power and life lessons of those times. "They taught us to work, to be cooperative, resourceful, responsible, self-sufficient. They taught us delayed reward and thrift and frugality. You never wasted anything."
Out on America's farms, kids and their labor and skill in the fields and home were vital to the family's livelihood and survival. Their shared experiences shaped them as men and women and boned the generation.
As Kalish puts it, "We kids had been having our character built from the day of our birth. Remember; I tell about my grandma snatching my sister Avis away from my mother's breast and saying, 'You can't start building character too soon.' That was a little harsh. I think a lot of it was. There were times we felt put-upon."
"Grandma, tell me a farm story," Kalish's granddaughter Meredith used to plead as they walked to school many years ago. Five years ago, she started writing down those stories with an amazing recall of details.
When Kalish was 5, her father vanished from their lives amid whispers of bootlegging, bankruptcy and jail. Because of the harsh winters, the children lived from January to mid-May at their grandparent's house in Garrison, attending school there. The rest of the year they were at the family farm with their mother, attending a one-room country school during the fall. Despite dawn-to-dusk milking, weeding and harvesting, the farm spelled freedom, nature and the joy of animals, including some cuddly raccoons that became much loved pets for a time.
By the time Kalish was 8, she was doing most of the cooking "My mother was a great baker, but she never learned cooking. Her meals were barely edible. I loved to cook from early on, and I became a really, really good cook, if I do say so."
With no refrigeration and only the pantry home canning and the cool of the cistern for food storage, meals were fashioned of what was available. Reading Kalish's description of what went into a "simple" midsummer midday dinner of pork chops -- fetching wood and water, harvesting the vegetables---can tire you out.
This was an era when farm families relied on the People's Home Library, Vicks VapoRub and old home remedies like cupping to treat sicknesses and scrapes. Kalish describes how she was sick for a month and nearly died of measles when she was about 8. Some home remedies for ailments or warts sounded like voodoo, but worked in a very real way, we felt that possessing such a large treasure chest of knowledge about taking care of ourselves from birth to death, was empowering."
Life changed as Kalish began to earn some money. By eighth grade, she was a hired girl on a large farm south of Garrison, pocketing $4 a week. The money allowed for "luxuries" like Tangee lipstick, sanitary napkins, an extra pair of shoes and a Hawaiian guitar and lessons. Sense of self-worth soared, along with her finances.
Then, the summer after high school graduation, while working on another farm, she had a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus awakening. She was riding to a nearby small town to do the marketing in her employer's Lincoln Zephyr on a rainy Saturday when it struck. "It was truly like a revelation," remembers Kalish. "I just said, girl, you've got to do something. This is not going to be my life."
Kalish received her teacher's certificate from Iowa State Teachers College, but instead of signing up to teach became a governess for the children of a widowed bandleader in Yonkers, N.Y. With World War II, she joined the Coast Guard, where she met her future husband. Both served as radio operators. They married in 1944.
Thanks to the G.I. Bill, they went on to the University of Iowa, where she received a master's degree and he earned a doctorate.
A string of faculty assignments followed at the University of Missouri, Duke University and Adelphi University on Long Island, N.Y., with Kalish, who taught 19th century American literature, taking time off to have two sons. Her husband built the behavioral psychology department at Stony Brook University on Long Island, and she taught at nearby Suffolk County Community College. "I counted up. Together, we have 80 or 82 years teaching." she says proudly.
Today the couple, who have four grandchildren and one great-grandchild, live in a retirement community near a 4,000 acre nature preserve.
Daniels says many in the Depression generation put their faith in education. Markets might crash, jobs might disappear; farms could be lost. "The saying was, 'Get a good education. They can't take that away from you.' No one knew how it would all end. But the country didn't fall apart. It did survive.
In a way, surviving hard times gave people confidence in their own abilities, observes historian Pamela Riney-Kehrberg. director of the agriculture history and rural-studies program at Iowa State University in Ames.
But out on the farms in particular, trust and optimism were guarded because the next hail storm could bring disaster. "The break point was World War II, where life changes so radically. Those who were born after that point took levels of prosperity and expectations of work for granted."
With the popularity nowadays of organic foods, cage-free eggs, free-range livestock and farmer's markets, Kalish's stories of a time when people grew their own produce , raised their own meat and produced their own milk and cheese resonate with older and younger readers.
It was grubby at times, but Kalish thinks that in this age when many kids have few responsibilities at home and enjoy instant gratification, her childhood is instructive. "We were made to feel useful almost from the moment we could first walk. We had to work and contribute to the household, and then we had free time. Young people need to be brought back to the idea of delayed reward, of being dependable, resourceful and thrifty."
It wasn't all sweet corn and fresh buttermilk. There was one thing Kalish hated about those good old days on the farm. "I never got over the winters, never recovered from them. It was so cold. Right now, I'm putting my hands in my armpit because it makes me cold just thinking about it."