In 1936 when I was 6, Dad and Mother bought a 120-acre dairy farm in western Sheboygan County for $8,500 from the Farm and Home Administration, one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. The farm had been in foreclosure by the previous owner who couldn’t pay his property taxes. The farm was one 40 wide and three 40s long, or ¼ mile wide and ¾ miles long. The front two 40s had gently rolling slopes that were quite fertile and were all cropland.

The back 40 had an 18-acre woodlot spanning from one property line to the other that screened four small fields behind the woods from the farm buildings. These fields had gravelly knolls and were not very productive. (It’s a large gravel pit today.) Most fields on the entire farm, the farm lane and the property lines were bordered with stone fences.

The house was old and drafty and without running water. We practically lived in the kitchen in the winter. I recall my mother practicing on her piano in the unheated parlor for the next Sunday’s church services. The 40-by-80-foot barn and most of the outbuildings needed new roofs. The barn had a feed alley through the center, making the alley behind the cow stalls and the outside wall too narrow to drive through. Dad used a wheelbarrow to form strawy manure from the gutters daily all winter. Each load was wheeled on planks over the manure pile and dumped over the end. His first task in the spring was to fork load after load of manure onto a horse-drawn manure spreader and spread it on fields to be planted into corn for silage. It was his main fertilizer — still a good practice today.

In the late 1930s, Dad had about 18 milk cows, four horses, four or five hogs and 150 laying hens. Without electricity, all milking was done by hand. I was assigned two gentle, easy milking cows; an older sister had three or four, and Dad and Mother milked the rest. All cows had names. The cow at the end of the stanchion row was named Dynamite for obvious reasons. Dad milked her. Milking time was 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., 365 days a year, and took about 1½ hours for each milking.

During the first four decades of the 1900s, change came slowly to the dairy farm. One of FDR’s many New Deal programs was to electrify rural America. With federal seed money, electric cooperatives were organized all over Wisconsin. Electricity came past our farm in 1938 or 1939. Dad wasted little time in having our farm wired. He bought a DeLaval milker with two units and an electric motor to run the pump jack. With the flip of a switch we had well water. Ah ha! No more waiting for wind to operate a windmill or trying to start a bulky one-cylinder engine.

Summers were busy with planting, weeding and harvesting a rotation of about three years of hay, one year of corn and one year of oats. Dad’s horse-drawn wagon chassis had wood wheels and steel rims, later refitted with 6/​16-inch inflated rubber tires. This chassis doubled with a hay rack and dump planks. Dad had a pretty complete line of horse-drawn implements. I must have been 9 or 10 when Dad asked me to operate several horse-drawn machines. Our draft horses were steered with a pair of lines. Driving a team and walking behind a springtooth harrow was dusty but not difficult. 

Operating a horse-drawn one-row riding corn cultivator with foot pedals to guide shields to remove weeds without uprooting newly emerged corn plants required constant attention. I mowed hay with a 5-foot mower, trying to cut a full swath of hay without leaving any uncut streaks between passes.

Operating the dump rake to make windrows for the hay loader to follow required hitting the trip lever at the proper times on each pass. I drove the team while Dad forked hay from the hay loader to the front and sides of the wagon to haul as much hay as possible per load. Each load was hauled to the barn and stored for the winter feeding period. One year Dad was making the opening round on an oatfield with his new Case grain binder when the binder reel knocked down a wasp nest. The wasps were furious. While Dad fought them off with his straw hat, the horse team was being stung multiple times and ran at full speed across the field and toward the gate. The binder probably set a speed record for grain binders.

In 1936 Dad built a milkhouse with a cold-water tank to cool milk as quickly as possible. One of my jobs after the morning milking was to stir milk in each can to cool it before the milk hauler came. Dad began marketing Grade A milk, which paid a premium price. To stay on Grade A we had to have the barn and milkhouse pass inspection twice each year and the barn had to be whitewashed once each summer. In 1938 or 1939, he built a 14-by-40-foot concrete silo. In 1948, Dad and Mother built a new house.

By 1940, money became more plentiful and dairymen were on the verge of mechanizing much of their fieldwork, only to have World War II halt almost all farm machinery production. Fortunately, Dad bought a new Farmall H tractor in late 1940. With rubber, starter and lights, I believe he paid $936. I think he sold two of his four horses about that time and added more cow stalls to bring the milking herd to about 30 cows. Most of the poles on the horse-drawn machinery were shortened to use with the new tractor. Through the war years, most dairymen learned to make do and became especially adept at maintaining machinery.

Neighbor helping neighbor was a must during the first five decades of the 1900s. Threshing grain was the big event each year. A nearby custom operator with a large tractor and large thresher would move from farm to farm and thresh every farmer’s grain in our neighborhood. The evening before the thresher was scheduled to come to our farm, Dad would ask four neighbors to bring a team or tractor-drawn wagon to haul shocked grain bundles from each grain field to the thresher: four men to go from grain field to grain field with forks and load the wagons, two men to pitch bundles from wagons into the thresher, and several men to carry bags of grain into the granary. At noon Mother fed all of these hungry men, often with the help of several neighbors’ wifes. At the end of the day, however, it was a satisfying feeling to have a granary full of grain and the straw in a large stack to feed and bed the dairy herd through another long Wisconsin winter.

Once World War II came to an end, major changes came to Wisconsin’s dairy farms. The rubber-tired tractor replaced most of the draft horses. The hay baler replaced the hay loader and made hay a marketable commodity. The combine ended the annual threshing bee. The corn chopper replaced the corn binder. And one thing is sure. Much like the first decades of the 1900s, technology on the farm will continue to evolve.