Life on the Farm:
Family History and Memoir of Wanda Sokowoski Dolzani, Excerpts
Written c. 1990
My grandparents purchased “the farm,” with its forty-four acres, in 1925, and my mother was born there on October 25, 1926: home birth was the rule in those days, at least for working people. She spent the first sixteen years of her life there, so far out in the country that there seems to have been no real address (although there was mail delivery: “Our mailbox was on Rt. 39, about ¼ mile walk approximately. I always went for the mail, Daily Times, Polish paper, etc. Mom ordered from Spiegel’s catalog mostly by mail.” The nearest town (really just a village) was Roswell (present population around 200), the nearest city New Philadelphia (present population around 17,000) in Tuscarawas County in north-central Ohio. The Sokowoski family was not completely isolated: at one point in her family history, my mother names, in a startling feat of memory, the names of at least a dozen other families who lived on farms along the three main roads: Rt. 1, Rt. 39, Taber Ridge Road. There is a reason, though, why she might remember these other families fifty years later: every year, they would pitch in and help at threshing time. One family, the Androskys, had a daughter, Anna, who became my mother’s playmate. “She taught me my first lessons in sex, other than what was natural to learn on a farm from farm animals. Animals raised on a farm make biology in high school a breeze.”
My mother was glad to escape to city life in Canton, Ohio, which probably had a population around 100,000 when I was growing up. Life on the farm was too hard to leave her with any nostalgia for country living. But it is early life that makes the deepest impression: most autobiographies trail off or get less vivid at the point of adulthood. The centerpiece of my mother’s family history, to me at least, is a description, in astonishing detail, of life on the farm that goes on for forty-four handwritten pages, from which the following account is drawn, mostly verbatim, as there is no need for commentary.
“The house was over a hundred years old when we had it” (which means it dated to the 1820’s). “The foundation was stone, before cement block….Two bedrooms up and one down off the dining room, mom and dad’s. A huge dining room with a fireplace we didn’t use, afraid of the chimney. Bought a wood-burning stove to heat. Large walk-in pantry off the dining room. We stored all our food and supplies there. The living room was medium-sized with a brick fireplace we used always. A coal cook stove in the kitchen that had a water tank connected to it (15 gallon). We filled it always and that was our hot water supply. A huge front porch across the length of the house, connecting it to a two-room house that John Click lived in until his death). Then when my older sisters were growing up they used it as a party room. The decorations in it were from Mary’s 21st birthday party.” The house was not wired for electricity until the 1940’s, when the TVA “brought poles through that area and everyone paid to connect….We never did have a phone put in, always used Waltz’s on Rt. 39.”
“The farm buildings consisted of a large old barn, upper and lower levels, with a tool storage shed connected to the pig pen, with a small room for chicken and pig feed. Dad built a new chicken house connected to the pig pen….The pig pen had a large separately fenced area (about maybe an acre) for the pigs to run. That’s where dad planted his plums. All dropped fruit in the orchard was picked daily and fed to the pigs. He had everything fenced, all the pastures, yards, and fields….He had locust trees all over our huge lawn and when they bloomed the smell was heavenly.” He used locust posts for the fencing. “The house had no full basement—just a small one under the living room….Large enough for all our canned goods, year’s supply of potatoes, sauerkraut and other stuff like wine, beer, etc. Mom always made beer and root beer and dad made dandelion wine.”
“For dairy farming, most farmers have a separate building to wash milk pails and cans. We had to do that sloppy work in the kitchen and it made a mess that was unavoidable. Whenever dad finished plowing and harrowing any field for planting, the girls and mom picked all the stones in buckets and a horse-drawn sled (we all hated that job). Dad used a sledge to smash them and we used them to fix all our roads….No gravel was ever brought for the roads. That was a yearly chore—fix roads….We had a coal mine on our property and dad dug a small mine. Once a year he dug enough coal for our winter supply in a coal house by the house.”
“We had a large orchard. Large strawberry patch—half the garden was strawberries. The grape arbor was the fence dividing the garden from the orchard, with an old huge crab apple tree for jelly. Had all our own apples, pears, cherries, and peaches….A huge black walnut in the yard, and hickory nuts by Kriegs’ woods. We picked blackberries and raspberries in Kriegs’ woods every year that mom canned for pies….All vegetables were canned for winter use, along with sausage and pork chops. We rendered our own lard from the pig. Every year dad loved to go mushroom hunting, as he did in Poland. I was always afraid of them. We raised corn, wheat, oats and hay for the animals. After we started dairy farming we had to sow soybeans for the cows for better milk. We girls helped when not in school, but we had equipment for all the heavy work. We had a mower and rake for hay and an automatic fork lift to put hay in the barn, drawn by a horse. My job—lead the horse. We had a binder for the wheat and oats, to cut it and tie it in sheaves. …We had a machine to plant and to fertilize and sow lime with, and a manure wagon that automatically spread it. The only thing bought when they started dairy farming was a hay turner and corn husker. Dad did all the plowing after work….We had a corn planter and cultivator. My job was to uncover the plants that the cultivator might accidentally cover up.”
“Farmers from all around with teams came and hauled it to the barn on threshing day. The thresher went all over the county and you made an appointment and contacted all your neighbors to help. Mom and me fed them and hauled tubs of water to wash and kept them supplied with drinks for refreshment. Dad always stacked his own straw. The pipe from the thresher stuck out a window in the top floor of the barn and the straw was cut and thrown on the stack by the barn with a man on the pipe guiding it wherever my dad wanted it thrown. Two men took the grain off the thresher in sacks, which was dumped in the grainery by the hay loft.”
“The only remodeling done to begin dairy farming was a new corn crib and a new spring house by the barn to cool the milk immediately, which is necessary for bacteria count, which is how much you got paid for your milk. The cleaner and cooler, the lower the count, the higher the pay….Our water supply was a natural spring coming from Kriegs’ woods. We had an easement on his woods in order to guarantee our water supply. Years before, dad piped the water down the hill to the house into a deep well so it was just outside the front porch. For the spring house he ran another pipe down the hill into a trough that we put 10 gallon milk cans in to cool. To start dairy farming, dad and Raymond Waltz went to the auction where they went to get pigs every year, and dad bought 8 or 9 cows. A dairy tank truck came every morning, 7 days a week, and picked up the cooled cans and returned our empty clean cans. The milk had to be filtered and bacteria counted . I did know how once but have totally forgotten the procedure.”
“We always had 3 or 5 barn cats (never in the house). The only thing they were fed was milk at milking time, so they were forced to keep the mice out of the barn to eat. We always had outside dogs. The only dog allowed in the house ever was Lou’s old hound dog…Lou still hits on me for using a broom on his dog for tracking up the kitchen floor I had just scrubbed.”
“We had some weird animals on the farm. We had a horse that was better than a watchdog. Mae had obviously been badly abused by a man. Mom could do anything with her, but she always tried to pin dad to the stall. Mom had to harness, clean, and take care of her. Helen and Mary’s boyfriends had a hell of a time, she’d never let them in the gate. They always had to wait to be rescued. One night Helen and Abel came home from a date very late. Mae wouldn’t let them out of the car. They had to blow the horn to awaken mom….Then later after Mae, they had a pet rooster that also thought he was a dog. Any stranger going into the barnyard was instantly attacked. We raised geese, and nothing was allowed into the yard, which was all fenced, but someone let the gate open and goose, gander, and goslings got into mom’s flower bed. I was about 5 or so, and mom told me to chase them out. The gander had other ideas. He flew on top of my head and started to flap his wings, and I’m screaming like I’m dying and can’t get the damned thing off my head. Mom had to come help me.” The geese were raised for both meat and feathers. “The down was put in sacks for pillows. The feather with the rib was stripped after chores during winter months to make feather comforters. When I lived on Blair, mom made me 4 pillows from feathers from the farm,” which she had saved for thirty-five years.
“We never raised pigs until we started to dairy farm. When dad bought the extra cows, he also bought pigs to raise. He raised a boar and a sow, and any babies were sold except for one for butchering. Mom always bought about 100 peeps a year—when first born, they were kept behind the kitchen stove to be warm, until they could get out of the box, then they went outside. We had no brooder, or even a place to put one. We usually had quite a few chickens, because we ate chicken almost every Sunday and sold eggs….We never had a bull till dairy farming. Dad always led the cow with a rope to Kriegs for breeding. Mom and dad raised their own for breeding when I was in high school. A monster. Huge, mean, and I was scared to death of it.”
“I always was home on Saturday doing all the cleaning, which mom hated, my weekly chore. We had an old Victrola with a huge stack of 78’s that I always put on. We always had a battery radio (room size)….The radios were not to be used constantly, mainly for news, but I always played them while cleaning house, and when my cousin Wanda came every summer for summer vacation we’d dance to the records. Mom in the nursing home said, ‘You and Wanda wore out my living room rugs dancing on the farm.’”
“I was cleaning house one Saturday and as usual had my music on and I was dancing around dusting and singing when I kept hearing a weird hissing noise keeping time with my music. I glanced down at the upstairs stairway and there was a small crack where the steps joined the floor and in that crack was a small snake hissing at me. I ran out the door, left it wide open, and didn’t stop till I got to dad in the field. By the time he got back there was no snake. I probably scared it as much as it scared me. After that I was always cautious.”
“When dad worked at Reeves mine he bought mom a gasoline-powered Maytag washer….Don’t know how mom washed before the Maytag, but I’m sure all the mine clothes were boiled. She always boiled all her whites before washing. They were hung on lines in the yard, and in winter time hung around all heating units on chairs, etc. to dry. Even when it was freezing cold, she’d hang clothes on lines outside to drip dry and they would freeze stiff before she’d bring them in.”
“Eating to a farmer is a big ‘must.’ The work is hard and long and you must eat well to do it. In the early morning mom and day always got up first—when dad worked at the mines, he got up at 4 a.m. and ate while mom packed his lunch, and left early because he walked over the hills to and from work. Then we’d get up….Then, while dairy farming, they still got up first, and dad went to the barn immediately, cleaned the stalls, and fed the animals while mom cooked breakfast. Then I’d get up and eat and when we dairy farmed I helped milk 2 cows…We each had 2 or 3 cows to milk so it was done, ready and cooled for the truck by 7 a.m. and my school bus at 7 a.m. For lunch during the summer we usually didn’t stop long enough for a big meal. On a farm, you work when the sun was shining….At night we’d do our chores, milk, and bring in coal and wood and fill the stove with water, my chores, feed the livestock. I fed the dogs and pigs usually, and went to get the mail before dark. Then after dark we’d have time to make a meal….During the winter dad did all the barn work and mom stayed in and sewed, altered my clothes from Wanda, made tea towels and aprons from sacks, and made feather tickings (comforters—6 times thicker) and feather pillows, etc. That’s when she did all her Polish cooking. She made a lot of cabbage that she seasoned with her homemade catsup , and mashed and boiled potatoes, which is what she was raised on in Poland, grandma’s type of cooking. She didn’t make too many cabbage rolls, but stuff like kluski, dough (my favorites—I like dough) served with milk coup or with scrambled eggs—it’s a dumpling. On Friday meatless days she always made 2 big pots of something—her potato soup made with browned flour, milk rice, macaroni soup, or macaroni with scrambled eggs, besides on other times fried fish. She would make a big batch of ponchki, Polish doughnuts and we’d make a meal of them. As soon as the potatoes were dug in the fall, dad would start with new potatoes to make potato pancakes, his favorite Polish dish….My favorites also. Mom always had to bake for lunches for dad in the mine. It was apple pie almost always (our apples)….She made a lot of stuff using milk, butter, and eggs which we had an abundance of. She constantly made bread custard to use up old bread and also milk and eggs. Pierogi, my favorite, using cottage cheese that we made every week….She’d make homemade bread as a change from bakery bread. We had a large enameled pot for coffee and we all drank coffee, but we always used more milk than coffee.”
“We had many good times on the farm. My earliest recollection was when I still slept in a crib in mom and dad’s bedroom downstairs. I could watch Johnnie and Mildred Jones, Reeves mine superintendent and his nephew Jim Owens and at that time girlfriend Dorothy Ackerman dancing in the dining room. The living room had rug, but the dining room had linoleum, so they danced where I could watch them. There were there almost every Saturday night while dad worked at Reeves. After Reeves, they didn’t come every Saturday night, but did come. By that time Helen and Mary were working at the Belmont and living with grandpa, but almost every weekend they came home with a truckload (literally). They had wiener roasts at night behind the barn by the pond, they had parties in the 2-room house constantly….All their friends from Belmont, including the DeMattios from Midvale…..During long nights in the winter, first we stripped those damned feathers, they we played cards—21 was the game….Mom played solitaire and her “fortune” cards from the farm till she went to the nursing home.”
The farm was sold in 1951, the year I was born. The property was later strip mined, and I’m sure the house and other buildings have been torn down, or else become one more of the ruins of time. But I did get to see it at least once. My mother once took us there, when I was about ten and my brother about five. We couldn’t go in the house because, I think, there were people living there, but we walked the property and the fields. To me, the farm has always been mythic, and that afternoon remains one of the magical memories of my childhood.