In the 50s and 60s, my parents, my two brothers and I made a trip every summer from Renton, where we lived, to western Montana to visit my father’s parents who lived on a on their farm near the town of Ronan. My grandparents lived in a world different from my own.
My grandfather, Herbert Elfers, never graduated from high school. His father, George Elfers, a German immigrant, came as a young boy with his older brother to America in the late 19th century. They first settled near Wenatchee. When Herbert was thirteen, his father kicked him out of the house. I never found out why. That was the end of my grandfather’s formal education.
Around 1912, my grandfather left Wenatchee and came by train with his wife and their one-year-old son, Paul, my father, to Dixon in western Montana. From there they traveled the twenty-three miles in a snowstorm by horse-drawn wagon to Ronan. My grandmother didn’t have a coat so my grandfather gave her his. He got pneumonia and nearly died.
They homesteaded 320 acres of land west of Ronan granted by the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, raising cattle on most of the acreage they were allotted. My grandfather raised grain crops like wheat and barley and also hay. I remember as a child, that my grandfather let my middle brother John ride on the horse-drawn cultivator, with the seat at least 8 feet above the ground. I remember I was jealous.
My grandmother had a large vegetable garden, as well as a flower garden which still exists today on the property. After my father, three girls and another brother were born.
There were a lot of chickens running around the house and a chicken house where my grandmother would collect eggs. She let me do it, but I didn’t like getting pecked by the hens. Occasionally, my grandfather or father would catch a chicken, put its neck over a round of wood, and chop its head off. I watched in fascination as the decapitated chicken would continue to run around, with blood spurting out of its severed neck. That chicken would become our dinner that evening.
Being a farmer/rancher was hard work! Posts holes for barbed wire fences had to be dug by hand with a post hole digger. Imagine doing that for 320 acres! Part of the fence near the barn was electrified, and I remember getting shocked a couple of times.
Grandfather milked some family cows in the barn every morning and evening. I remember learning to pull the teats in just the right way to shoot the warm milk into the bucket. Sometimes the cow would kick the bucket over, spilling the milk for the cats to lick. The cow’s tail hit me on the head and back as I leaned over to milk her while sitting on a three-legged milking stool, my cheek resting on her smelly flank. Once I got the hang of it, I would shoot a stream of milk into the mouth of one of the numerous barn cats.
Grandfather and his hired hands filled the barn with loose hay. We kids got to jump from the upper level of the barn onto the soft hay piled below.
One summer when we visited, grandfather and some neighbors were branding and castrating calves. They heated the branding iron in a wood fire and then branded the cattle. They used a knife to castrate the male calves. The dogs would take the severed testicles and play with them like a chew toy. I have that bent branding iron as a memento of that experience. The brand was lazy P/H for my father Paul and his younger brother Herbert Jr.
There was a milk separator in a room at the back door. The family sold the milk and the cream they did not need for themselves. Grandmother cooked and baked delicious meals on a large wood stove. The house was heated by a coal stove in the living room. Grandfather had a large bucket placed next to his chair where he would chew and spit tobacco. I thought it was gross, but nobody commented about it.
My grandparents had no indoor plumbing or electricity until the early 1950s when my father and some of his brothers-in-law connected the pipes and wires to the farm house.
My father went to college to become an electrical engineer. It took him eight years to get his electrical engineering license because of the family poverty during the Great Depression. Each summer, my father would come home from college, finding work to pay for his next year in college.
There are many more stories from my childhood, but the point of this account is to make all of us understand how far we have come from my grandparents’ time. Sometimes, reflection gives us perspective into what we take for granted today.