Many winters have come and gone since those days growing up on a farm. Although the stories happened many years ago, they are forever embedded in my mind. The details are as vivid to me as something I experienced yesterday. However the meaning of the stories has only begun to come into focus in recent years, as I began to write about my childhood experiences on the farm.
In the North, the seasons are sharply defined, especially winter. In Wisconsin for most years the winter months are November, December, January, February and March. These can be cold, cruel months, especially January and February. They can also be exhilarating and beautiful.
So what have I learned from revisiting my winter experience and what of this knowledge is of value today? Several things. Winter has taught me the value of patience. It takes longer to accomplish things in winter. Winter storms blow in regularly. When I was a kid snowstorms regularly plugged roads with snowdrifts and stopped all travel by our farm — sometimes for several days. There was nothing we could do about it except to wait for the snowplows, which eventually came. Winter also meant slowing down. On the farm, spring, summer and fall were near nonstop activity — all in preparation for winter. But winter was for taking it easy, and enjoying the season as we waited for spring.
To survive winter on the farm required planning and preparation, lots of it. We grew, harvested and stored feed for the animals. We filled the hay mows in the barn with alfalfa, clover and timothy hay. We filled the silo with corn silage and shoveled full the grain bins in the granary with freshly threshed oats.
By the end of autumn, the cellar under our farm house was filled with garden produce. Ma stacked the shelves along one wall of the cellar with canned vegetables, fruits and jellies. We made a huge crock of sauerkraut that fermented in a corner of the pantry, sending a subtle but not unpleasant smell throughout the kitchen, a smell that often mixed with that of wood smoke and fresh baking.
Because we depended on woodstoves for winter warmth, Pa and I spent many days in the woodlot back of our farmhouse sawing down dead oaks with a crosscut saw and toting the limbs and trunks to the farmstead for sawing and splitting into stove lengths.
For me, the importance of family came into sharp focus during winter. There were five of us, my father and mother, my twin brothers (three and a half years younger than me) and myself. On snowy days, beyond attending the country school, we did not venture out from home. Sometimes, when a blizzard blew in, we might not travel to town for ten days or even two weeks. During these snowstorms, doing chores was more difficult as paths had to be cleared from building to building, and heavy winter wear made moving and working a bit harder to do. But these were also times for our family to have fun together — playing games, enjoying the snow, and eating special meals.
Winter also taught me about neighbors and community. Though we may have been isolated and not physically close to our neighbors, we knew them, enjoyed them and often depended on them for their help. We were part of a community in the best sense of the word. Besides depending on neighbors for their assistance with such winter tasks of butchering or sawing wood, we also got together for neighborhood card parties, and on occasion for dances, which we sometimes held in homes and more often at the country school. We celebrated weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. We welcomed the occasional newcomer to the community with a potluck house warming party. Women in the community got together for quilting bees, where they met at a farm home and together made beautiful quilts.
One of our neighbors, Mrs. Miller was a mid-wife and assisted with many births in the community. On a cold last day of January night, when the roads were blocked and the temperature was below zero, Mrs. Miller helped with the birth of my twin brothers. Of course everyone was born at home in those days.
Neighbors all mourned a death in the community — generally an older person as several generations lived together in those days. Casseroles, cakes and pies quickly appeared at the grieving family’s home, and everyone attended the funeral, no matter what their religion or whether they were religious at all, as was the case with several neighbors. Neighbors volunteered to do the milking and help with the other farm chores during these sad times.
Winter is more than cold and snow, frozen water pipes, slippery roads, and dark and dreary days. For we Northerners, winter is a state of mind.
Excerpted from “The Quiet Season,” Wisconsin Historical Society Press. Visit www.jerryapps.com for more information.