Life Before The Internet
© Copyright 2021 by James Osborne
Photo by andre govia on Unsplash.
Mom’s firm admonition to use the dipper for drinking water only prevailed most of the time. But it didn’t stop my sisters and me from employing the dipper’s long-handled reach as a weapon during arguments while engaged in a chore we mutually hated: washing dishes. Our arguments often were about whose turn it was to haul outside the waste-water bucket under the sink or fill the drinking water bucket with fresh water from the rusty hand-pump in the back yard, especially in winter. We had no running water.
My sisters and I used the water dipper also to ladle dirty dish water out of the sink so we could add more hot water from a kettle perpetually steaming on the cast iron kitchen stove. And I’ll confess to using the dipper to scoop water from that five-gallon slop pail under the counter where the sink drained. When full, that pail was impossible for any of us kids to haul outside by ourselves and dump. Hey, I rinsed the dipper off each time with fresh drinking water from the bucket. Well, okay, I swirled it around a bit in the fresh-water bucket … most of the time.
Yes, our wilderness farm was primitive. But rest assured it was a fabulous place to grow up. Like most other farm families in the area we were poor, although we didn’t know it and that knowledge wouldn’t have mattered had we known. We had all we needed – food, clothing, shelter, good health and the unconditional love of our parents.
My sisters and I spent most of our waking hours playing outside or doing chores when not in school. We’d come inside reluctantly for meals, at bedtime, or to escape nasty weather. Most evenings we huddled around the dim light of a kerosene lamp on our kitchen table. The white oilcloth on the wood board tabletop was speckled with tiny red and green floral patterns. We did our homework there, and later played cards and board games. The kitchen was our social center.
Our cast-iron cook stove was enormous. It rarely cooled, never during the day. The black and chrome monster had an insatiable appetite for firewood and coal, especially in winter when it was the primary heat source for our aging two-story clapboard home. One of my chores was to split and carry in the wood to feed that unforgiving monster.
Our home didn’t have a phone for years. Unthinkable today, but we didn’t miss it. Nor did we know the convenience of electricity, or hot and cold running water, or even sewer. One day, that creaky cast iron pump in the back yard supplying our drinking water stopped working. Dad had to climb down the 40-foot well to find out why. The rickety ladder nailed to the inside of the rotting wood casing prompted much handwringing by Mom, until Dad re-emerged with the solution in hand: a mouse had fallen into the well and clogged the valve.
A key component of our “bathroom facilities” was the outhouse. The tall structure of gray weathered wood stood guard at the end of a dirt path that curved around to the far side of our garage, discretely out of sight from our back door. Inside the outhouse was a bench with a big hole in it. That’s where we sat. Located conveniently on one side of the bench was last year’s department store catalogue that served as toilet paper. The softer pulp paper pages always disappeared first. The glossy full-color pages left behind eventually were replaced by the next discarded catalogue.
Another important part of our bathroom facilities was a huge, galvanized tub that everyone used on Saturday night, starting with the youngest. Poor Dad was last. Most of the water was hauled in by hand in buckets. Some water was heated on the cook stove … not nearly enough!
We did learn about the outside world. A battery-powered mantle radio occupied a corner shelf in the kitchen. It brought us the latest news and entertainment. To conserve the battery, our parents turned it on for an hour or two in the evening, once or twice a week. Batteries were expensive and not rechargeable.
Our imaginations soared as we listened to the earliest episodes of Batman, and to classics like The Lone Ranger, or The Shadow Knows, or to Lux Radio Theatre, a precursor to the TV shows that would come later, like The Ed Sullivan Show and still later, Masterpiece Theatre on PBS.
The House Fire
Feeding the cook stove’s unrelenting appetite for wood was a chore without end. It seemed that Dad and I were forever chopping kindling needed to get the fire going in the morning and the larger pieces to keep it going all day.
In winter we had the added challenge of chopping wood outside in sub-zero temperatures. It usually was covered in snow and ice that rendered the kindling produced frustratingly difficult to light … not welcome in a cold house first thing in the morning.
One afternoon just before we were leaving for dinner at another farm family’s home, I was told to fill the woodbox in the kitchen, ready for the next morning. Turns out snow had frozen to the kindling. Mom’s creative mind kicked in, as usual. She opened the oven and filled it with kindling to dry while we were away. It seemed like a good plan. When the family returned home, we kids dawdled in the snow even though it was dark, while Mom headed inside.
Mom came back out screaming, “The house is on fire.”
My older sister and I ran after the car as Dad pulled out of the driveway heading for an errand down the road. Dad raced back through the deep snow to the house, ordering us kids to stay outside.
A few anxious minutes later both our parents emerged coughing and trying to smile. The stove’s oven had been hot enough to ignite the kindling, filling the house with smoke. Fortunately, none of the burning kindling had fallen from the open oven door onto the linoleum-covered wood floor, where it surely would have set the house on fire.
Before going to bed at night, our parents would stoke that kitchen stove and a small pot-bellied heater in the living room with coal piled on top of hot wood embers. These smoldered away keeping the stoves warm for a while. They were cold by morning. Many winter mornings the water in a chipped enamel washbasin on a stand next to my second-floor bedroom would be covered with a thick layer of ice. Sometimes the temperatures outside dropped to 40 below F/C, occasionally even lower.
The deep snow in winter made it easier for Dad to harvest wood to make into firewood, fence posts and fence rails. Gathering the wood was always a welcome adventure for us kids. Dad would take us out into the wilderness perched on a huge farm sleigh drawn by our two heavy workhorses, one a Percheron (we think) called Pat and the other a Clydesdale (most likely) named Mike.
That team could pull a farm sleigh through snow in the woods where our big tractor couldn’t begin to navigate. Their hooves were the size of pie plates and acted like snowshoes in the deep snow.
The summer after one of those excursions, my older sister and I traced our route back through the forest to where Dad had cut a number of trees for our load of fence posts, fence rails and firewood. We discovered how deep the snow had been. The stumps of those trees were taller than us, yet Dad had cut them off level with the top of the snow.
Summers were awesome. When not busy with chores, the variety of interesting things available to pursue was limited only by our imaginations. Among these:
Building a creaky raft, we sailed on a brackish pond behind the outhouse. The pond resulted from snow melting in spring or heavy rains that meandered through our barnyard before flowing past the outhouse and into that pond. It’s amazing we didn’t drown or come down with something dreadful.
Adding to our tree house built in a clump of Aspen behind our cow barn. We were starting on the fourth floor when Mom discovered it and demanded that we dismantle it down to a platform with a railing. Pity. We were convinced the view was much better from the fourth floor than the first.
Picking wild strawberries and blueberries on a knoll in our cow pasture and savoring their intensely distinctive flavors. We put a dent in the amount Mom planned to turn into preserves for later use.
Swimming in a shallow pond formed by a burned-out patch of moss (muskeg) on one corner of our farm. We found ourselves in deep trouble when we returned home with our bright white underwear having been turned grey by the ash-colored water of the pond.
Exploring the unspoiled beauty of forests of evergreens and Aspen that surrounded our small farm. Often, we would flush out flocks of partridge and once were terrified when an aggressive ruffled grouse rushed at us in defense of its nest.
Climbing tall slender Aspen and swinging from one to another 10 feet or even 20 feet up (no, there were no nets or special landing pads, just grass, exposed tree roots, rocks and dried cow paddies).
Tending our huge garden in summer, a chore that came with a bonus. We’d often lay on our backs in the garden, chomping on freshly pulled veggies while watching clouds swirl and dance above us. We were supposed to be weeding, thinning and watering, and we did that some of the time. Fresh baby carrots thinned from the rows were scrumptious once wiped clean, more or less, on our pants or shirts, as were fledgling radishes, and juicy little green peas squeezed from fresh pods … delicious. A less attractive chore was tending the hills of potatoes that generated more potato bugs than you could possibly imagine. With thumb and forefinger, we turned them into fertilizer. We tried to remember to clean our fingers before munching on those tasty baby veggies.
My sisters and I understood the vegetables represented a key part of our diet from mid-summer until they were all eaten by early summer the next year. Our job included watering the long rows of vegetable plants by hand – no running water, remember? Buckets of water came from that infamous pond and that hand operated cast iron pump.
Occasionally our city cousins would come to visit. They thought it was really cool to help with the chores. We encouraged them to hold that thought while we let them take our place to:
Fork hay for the cows and horses,
Spread grain for the chickens and turkeys,
Prepare a soupy mixture of skim milk and chopped grain to feed our calves and pigs.
Turn the handle on a machine called a separator used to separate raw milk from our half-dozen cows into skim milk and cream, the latter an important source of cash.
Gather eggs from the chickens and turkeys, then wash and count them.
Draw water from the hand pump in pails and haul it to the troughs for the cows, horses, pigs and chickens.
Despite our best efforts, none of our visitors jumped at the chance to help clean the cow or pig manure from those barns. Instead, our visitors went searching for newborn kittens in the hayloft while we performed those chores.
A star attraction for them was trying their hand at milking a cow. They took turns learning to squirt milk from a cow’s teat to kittens lined up in the aisle of the barn with their mouths wide open in anticipation.
Mercifully, our visitors usually lost interest quickly in another chore – chopping wood. Sharp axes in young, inexperienced hands gave parents much stress. Fortunately, we had no accidents to report.
For us, those chores weren’t quite so cool. Some were unrelenting daily demands, and thus aptly named chores. Full disclosure: our parents did far more of these than we ever did, although we complained a whole lot more.
Those Awesome Horses
Some of our older neighbors were still using workhorses for much of their farm work, even to plow fields, haul seeders and harvesters, and pull hay mowers and rakes. In summer, our pair of heavy horses – Pat the black Percheron and Mike the gray Clydesdale – pulled a mower to cut and harvest the hay in our meadow, where the ground was always moist and soft. Our tractor would have sunk to its axles, but their big pie plate-like hooves cruised along easily.
We loaded the hay with long-handled pitch forks onto a flat wagon with side rails that the horses pulled over to a haystack, where the hay was offloaded, again by hand. Yes, labor intensive.
We were allowed to ride those big mammoths once in a while, holding on to the harnesses Dad would throw onto them before putting the pair to work. My legs never could straddle the backs of those big friendly animals.
One summer, we had a ringside seat to an especially violent thunderstorm. As usual, distant thunder announced the storm’s imminent arrival. This time the thunder grew close quickly, signaling an unusual storm was coming.
Heavy clouds borne by strong winds threw off luminous tentacles of lightning, prologues to more and stronger rumbles of thunder growing more intense. We watched from the kitchen window as a stand of tall trees across a rough-hewn gravel road began dancing and swaying to a staccato rhythm of the intermittent bursts of wind. It was early afternoon, yet the tumbling blue-black clouds had filled the kitchen with darkness. Occasionally, a blinding flash of lightning illuminated everything outside and inside for a fleeting nanosecond with its one-dimensional brilliance.
Heavy rain began to fall. Then an especially bright flash of lightning announced an instant crash of thunder. Then another flash of lightning spawned even more deafening thunder.
Wind-driven rain began pelting down outside. Without warning, hail mixed with heavy rain pounded against the windowpanes. Rivulets created by the downpour were running zigzag patterns through the sand and gravel on the soaked roadway. Shallow ditches on both sides filled rapidly with muddy water.
A brilliant flash of white lightning paired with a simultaneous concussion of thunder came crashing down. Shock waves rattled our wood-frame farm home. Glass in the windows clattered loudly.
Instinctively, we leapt from our chairs and backpedalled away from the windows. Mom rushed over and checked us. Dad raced in from the living room his pale blue eyes making sure everyone was okay.
We climbed back onto our chairs to see what had happened. An enormous old Poplar tree across the road that stood guard at the edge of the forest was gone. The tree had taken a direct hit from lightning. For years, its abundance of low sturdy branches had invited my sisters and I, and scores of other children, to play in its branches. We loved climbing in and around those huge welcoming arms, inventing games as we went.
Now our favorite tree, once 60 feet high and 30 feet wide, had been transformed into a battle-scarred stump surrounded by a massive scattering of leaves, branches and wood shards. The tree’s lower branches had become awkward versions of their former grandeur – the now mangled stubs reaching out almost pathetically from an abbreviated trunk. Strips of bark, peeled from the six-foot stump, slithered thorough the underbrush like an oversized tangle of wet spaghetti. Out of the top of the stump poked long thin spikes of buff-colored raw wood.
Minutes later I was roundly cursing another consequence of that lightening. To our chagrin, Dad assigned us to clear the debris from the road. It would take a few days to harvest our favorite climbing tree and repurpose it to feed the ravenous firewood appetite of our cook stove.
Back To School
Fall meant a return to our one-room school. We missed losing our freedom, but the upside was spending more time with other kids who lived too far away to see often in summer.
Education at the time was inexact, even haphazard. A new teacher took charge of our single classroom almost every year. Teachers were in short supply and especially difficult to attract to the backcountry.
One year, a young male teacher arrived fresh out of what was called Normal School. He hadn’t graduated all that many months earlier from high school and had received six weeks of teacher training, after which he was turned loose on us as if he were a real teacher. The Normal School system was an illusion invented by government to gloss over an endemic shortage of pedagogues. They became known as Six-Week Wonders. A few were excellent; most were somewhat less.
Winter posed challenges to schoolchildren. Our father instructed my siblings and I on how to keep from getting lost in a blizzard while enroute to and from school. We were told that when dealing with heavy swirling snow, one of us must hold onto the top of a fence post or the barbed wire between the posts, while holding hands with the others, until one of us could spot the next post, usually eight or ten feet away. Some blizzards made it difficult to see the tops of the posts poking up through the deep snowdrifts, or locate the connecting strings of barbed wire, often buried in snow.
Almost every challenge in farm life can have a positive side, if you allow it. Those blizzards were no exception. Each winter, snow driven by howling winds drifted into a creek valley next to our school, filling one side of the valley with hard-packed snow. The 12 to 15 pupils distributed across grades one to eight skillfully converted those snowdrifts into caves we played in for hours … when we should have been in school, of course.
The Field Trip
Our first Six-Week Wonder devoted more time to field trips and sports days than to anything resembling education. One day he took us on a field trip that, in fairness, became an extraordinary learning experience. Our trek took us to a remote cabin occupied by a lone hermit.
When we arrived at the log cabin, the whole setting looked spooky. The hermit was sitting on a wide rough-hewn deck in the warm sun of a June afternoon, carving away at a block of wood. He looked scary at first, with his dark piercing eyes, homemade leather hat atop long unkept hair, scraggly gray beard, angular features, and skinny physique. At first, even our teacher seemed apprehensive.
A set of steps from the deck led down to a crescent-shaped area covered in wood shavings. A spiral of lazy smoke curled up from a stone chimney. On the far side of the cabin, logs cut to firewood-lengths had been thrown into a huge woodpile almost as high as the cabin’s eves, waiting to be split. Stuck into a sturdy chopping block was a huge axe. A row of neatly stacked split firewood four feet high lined one outside wall of the cabin.
Looking closer, we could see the hermit’s clothing had been made from animal hides. His feet were clad in calf-length moccasins. The old wide-brimmed hat angling down over his forehead was unable to tame his long grey unkept hair. His beard was even longer. In one hand he held a small sparkling knife. The other grasped the block of wood he’d been working on when we arrived.
We held back at first a little nervous, even our teacher.
The hermit glanced repeatedly our way. He squinted each time and shrugged, and smiled through his beard, and then waved impatiently for us to approach.
“C’mon,” he said, his voice was a muffled growl. “It’s okay. I won’t bite.” He chuckled.
Our teacher told us quietly to be polite, don’t get too close and speak only when he spoke to us. He said that although the man was a hermit, he seemed civilized enough.
All of us moved forward gingerly. The bigger kids were in front. In retrospect, it’s likely we were more unsettling to him than he was to us … living in seclusion all alone and suddenly being descended upon unannounced by a horde of rambunctious, chattering school kids.
Our teacher surprised us by walking up the steps and sitting beside the hermit on the porch. He asked the man about his home, his carving, if he enjoyed living alone and what his daily life was like. Our teacher did most of the talking. The man replied in short phrases and shakes of his head. It seemed clear he wasn’t planning to be very talkative.
Our teacher told us to form a semi-circle in front of the hermit’s deck so we could watch him carve. The hermit walked down and sat on the bottom step to give us a better view of what he was doing. The strange quiet man carved small shavings from a block of wood as we ate our lunch. He kept carving away, looking up occasionally, traces of a shy smile tickling the deep creases around his eyes and licking at the corners of his mouth, barely visible through his bushy moustache.
One of the kids asked him what he was carving. The hermit shrugged his shoulders but didn’t look up at first. Then much to our surprise, the hermit patiently described the lives of the remarkable animal likenesses he’d carved and meticulously painted. He pointed to an amazing collection of carvings arranged on his deck. It included a moose complete with a huge rack of antlers, a family of wolves with young puppies, and a black bear sharing a newly caught fish with her two cubs.
Modern vernacular might describe the hermit as a reclusive artisan scratching out a subsistence living from hunting and trapping, and from the sale of brilliantly executed wildlife carvings.
Finally, we prepared to leave, feeling a mixture of relief and disappointment … sad about leaving him alone, still curious about his life and the numerous other carvings scattered around his deck: a beaver chomping on a tree trunk, a moose looking up from a pond, a deer with a fawn, a hawk with wings fully extended landing on a tree branch, a grouse with its tail feathers shaped in a fan, and a black bear striding across a green base. All were carefully painted to faithfully represent the colors of live animals and their settings.
That evening we told our parents about the field trip and got a worried look from our protective mother. A few days later, Dad told us over supper: “That’s a very interesting man!” Curious and concerned for our safety, Dad had made a trip to meet the hermit and learn more about the recluse inhabiting the wilderness a few miles north of our farm.
“He lives alone up there, you know … all by himself,” Dad said. “You should see his wood carvings!” he told Mom. “They’re amazing … that man’s very talented.”
We learned the hermit’s name was Anton Rumstead. Dad had spent several hours with him. He pronounced Mr. Rumstead to be a kindly man, not someone we needed to fear. Such compliments were not easily earned from our father.
Months later, we learned that Mr. Rumstead would venture forth occasionally for supplies from his cabin to a tiny village a few miles away. There, in the limited hours he granted civilization, Mr. Rumstead would trade animal pelts for supplies to last through until he granted the world it’s next brief audience with him.
Mr. Rumstead would also bring some of his carvings. The rumor was someone had a standing order for all of the carvings he cared to part with. We never learned whom … but suspected the owner of the tiny general story/post office.
Dad once saw a small pile of pelts left there by Mr. Rumstead after one of his trips to town. He was sure the value of the pelts was nowhere near the cost of the supplies Mr. Rumstead stuffed into the huge pack he somehow managed to carry on his back, as he made his way home on foot to his log cabin in the woods.
For those living in the wilderness, some medical procedures necessarily become do-it-yourself events. One day I fell and caused a deep cut under my left eye. Blood flowed like sacramental wine on Easter Sunday. Before I knew it, there I was laying on the kitchen table, Dad holding me steady while our mother dipped thread and a sewing needle into a saucepan of boiling water.
Our father normally was a remarkably calm man, except that day. Regardless, he stitched me up with skill that could have drawn envy from micro-surgeons and did a few times in the decades to follow.
There’s much to be said for today’s modern conveniences and advances in communication, science, medicine, health care, safety and respect for differences. During the early years of the 20th Century, the Internet had entered few of even the wildest sci-fi imaginations, much less the lexicon of that era. Today, we’d feel hard pressed to live without its many features.
up back then presented
some challenges, to be sure, but it also bestowed valuable benefits.
We learned to solve problems, self-reliance and being resourceful,
the importance of material things, and values that really matter:
good health, integrity, honesty, honor, and respect for oneself, for
others and for Nature.