Over the holidays, I was visiting with my godson and his family at my mother’s home when the topic of children — the number a family has, to be precise — came up. I noted that many farm families years ago had a large number of children who came in handy at chore time. More children meant more mouths to feed but also more workers to handle the labor-intensive work of rural America and Wisconsin.
My godson’s significant other thought it odd that people would have large families so they’d have built-in hired hands. That’s probably an over-simplification, but on the farm, having multiple children around to pitch in at chore time certainly was a side benefit.
Especially before technological advances like barn cleaners, silo unloaders and conveyor systems, it took many people to handle farm operations. It was all-hands-on-deck when it was time to daily feed the calves, clean the barn and milk the cows. Farmers could never have too many workers around to clean calf pens and mow hay.
My mother-in-law likes to tell us about growing up with 10 siblings. Families that size weren’t uncommon. Older children helped care for the younger children in addition to their farm work. The younger children graduated to more physical labor as they grew. And the cycle continued.
During my first newspaper job in Arcadia in the 1980s, farms still peppered the hillsides of Buffalo and Trempealeau counties. I knew multiple farm families who had double digit children. One very successful farm family had 18 children and one of the nicest dairy operations around. The adult children would become partners in the farm business after growing up together in the countryside. That’s just the way it was. The next generation took over the farm from their parents; yet another generation would be born so the farming operation would continue to prosper.
I grew up in a family of four boys. A family that size was pretty normal back in the 1950s and ‘60s. My parents operated a Jackson County dairy farm, and they certainly put us to work to make sure it stayed operational. Three of my brothers became dairy farmers at one time or another over the years; all have moved on to other careers now. I was the black sheep of the family because I didn’t head into the ag field — allergies to first crop hay sent me off to newsrooms instead.
Several of my friends who also grew up on farms had five and six siblings. Some would stay home from school a week at a time in the spring to help with field work. They’d plow and drag the fields, and even handle the planting. Looking back, it seems crazy that our parents allowed us to operate dangerous machinery at ages as young as 8. But we thought nothing of it. Our fathers showed us the safe way to drive a tractor, and we were pushed out of the nest.
All of this brings me back to my godson, who knows a little about big families. He is the oldest of six children who took his first steps on a Jackson County dairy farm. His potential farm career ended when my brother moved the family to Tennessee decades ago, where they still grow alfalfa near Nashville. The big family couldn’t get all the farming out of their system.
Johnson is the Leader-Telegram editor.