By: Mary Ann Miller
There is a large two-story farmhouse that sits across State Route 50 from the little town of Avon, South Dakota. Over the years it has been substantially remodeled and although it sits on its original foundation there is little about the house or property to remind me of the farm I remember from the 1950’s. My grandparents lived and farmed at this location for many years.
“Working from sunrise to sunset” was not a cliché for them it was their way of life, their livelihood. I was raised in the city so as a child I did not realize how hard they worked. There were no three-week vacations for them; no nights in fancy hotels, just days of chores repeated over and over again. Electric lights and running water were their luxuries.
Early in the morning, sometimes before the sun was up, and again each evening, Grandpa lead his cows into the barn, lined them up in a row and secured their heads in stanchions. The cows were content to eat the hay or chew their cud while Grandpa went about the milking. If we entered the barn before the milking started the smell of freshly tossed hay would tickle our noses and make us sneeze. The cows however never seemed to mind. They just stood there, swishing their tails back and forth like a row of metronomes, and started their daily chorus with a low rumble increasing volume until they reached their peak. Then the volume would decrease before their mooing surged again.
Grandpa would grab a bucket and balance himself on his three-legged stool. Then with hands made strong by daily labor he would manually extract the milk. After emptying the pail into the separator he would move down the line until all the cows were milked. Sometimes he let us try. He would wrap his weathered hands around ours and gently squeeze until the milk flowed freely into the bucket. When the milking was done Grandpa ran the milk through the separator and filled freshly washed quart jars, readying the milk for the daily customers.
Normally Grandma gathered the eggs, but occasionally she would hand us the big brown basket, the one filled with straw to cradle the eggs, and send us to the hen-house. There was no harmony in the hen-house. When we opened the door there was a flurry of squeaking and squawking and of wings beating. Straw and feathers filled the air. It was a good thing Mother always went with us because there was sure to be one old hen not willing to relinquish her eggs. Mother would prod her gently until she flapped her wings in defeat.
Late in the afternoon, when the summer sun still baked the fields, Grandma might hand us the bucket from the counter in the kitchen and send us out to the pump. Although pipes for City water had been extended under the highway and connected to the house and then to the faucet in the kitchen, my Grandparents still pumped their drinking water from the cistern on their east porch. We would stand outside and pump and pump. Then we’d say, “But Grandma it doesn’t work.”
Grandma would say, “Keep pumping.”
And suddenly “Splat,” the first splash of water would hit the pail. We’d stop pumping and the water would stop running, so we’d pump some more. When the water started to fill the pail we would pump and squeal with excitement not realizing we needed to stop before the water reached the top. When the water reached the rim it gushed over the sides and slithered along the wooden porch until it found the openings between the slats. Then it ran freely onto the ground below. It always took at least two of us to transfer the pail from the porch back to its spot in the house. Nothing ever tasted as good as a long cold drink of water drawn from a pail we had filled ourselves.
By the end of the day my Grandparents fell asleep early, worn out by their daily chores. We, too, fell asleep early, worn out by our daily adventures. But early the next morning when the light came through the window we crawled out of bed and tiptoed to the window. We listened for the melody from the birds that lived in the big old tree that sat in the corner of the yard.
It is different now. The hen-house was dismantled years ago. The barn too, has been torn down. There is no longer a faded red porch or water pump on the east side of the house. Even the tree where birds used to sing has been removed from the yard. It saddens me when I look at that spot, where once was a farm, an adventurous plot, for today there stands only–a house on a lot.