Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch
By Liz Taylor
April 9, 1980
Mouse River Farmers Press
While going through some old things the other day, (and I have a lot of “old things!”) I came across a birthday book wherein my mother had recorded some of the profound happenings of my early years. She only made three or four entries in the book, so apparently not too much happened.
When I was in the winter of my third year, she wrote “Elizabeth really talks a lot now. Mostly she says, ‘Shut the door, it’s cold in here!’” There is nothing so great about this remark except that I said it often, and that was in the winter of 1935-36, North Dakota’s coldest winter.
I suppose I was playing on the floor most of the time near one of our three wood and coal burning stoves in our four room house. If I wasn’t playing on the floor, I was at least “short” enough to feel those close-to-the-floor drafts when the door was opened to the severe winter outside. I do not have official records at hand, but do recall from conversations of others in recent years, that the winter of ’35-36 broke all records with temperatures not climbing above the zero mark for several weeks in January and February. A low of 60 degrees below zero was recorded in more than one North Dakota hamlet that winter.
Being only three years old, I probably was not too concerned about the weather…unless the door was open! However, I wonder now how difficult it must have been for my mother and father and other farmers and ranchers at that time with large families, little money, and poorly insulated homes. And without electricity, indoor plumbing, good roads and few automobiles in which to escape winter’s isolation of the farm!
On the plus side, very few country dwellers had tractors. Consequently, you didn’t have to struggle with starting a tractor to feed the cattle and haul wood! You just harnessed and hooked up the team of horses and pitched the hay on the rack…after going to the meadow for it…and then came home and pitched it off for the cattle, saving some for the barn animals, milk cows, working team, and maybe some calves. Come to think of it, if we still fed cattle this way, there would be a lot less people keeping cattle.
On the minus side, it must have been a real struggle to keep wood on hand for the hungry stoves, to cut down and haul in trees, to saw them on the buzz saw if you had a tractor to run it, or a buck-saw if you didn’t and then to split the chunks into stove size. Very few could afford any amount of coal, and the price was around $1.50 per ton! And there were those who did not have a good stand of trees to cut from, so they had to buy wood from others, or lease woodlots to cut from, or burn dried manure, corn cobs, twisted bundles of straw, or whatever they could find. I believe wood sold for $4 a cord and that made coal a better buy.
I remember the friendly crackling sound of burning wood, the fascination of watching the red and yellow glow of the fire through the isinglass on the door of the parlor stove, and the homey smell of wood smoke as we approached the farm, walking across the pasture from school. Unfortunately, I also remember how cold the floors were and indeed, all of the house in the morning when the fires were almost out and we had to get up and get dressed for school. And how often the ash pans were full and the wood box was empty. There was also the ever present ash dust in the air when you “shook” down the stoves, or carried out the ashes.
Weather has never been a laughing matter to country people in North Dakota. It seems that TV weathermen (and women) feel obligated to joke about the weather, or fill part of the time allotted for weather information with inane patter and opinions. For example, “Another nice weekend coming up folks, with no rain to dampen the spirits of you campers, fishermen, and golfers!” We’ve all heard this type of forecast during a drought, with crops burning up and pastures thirsting for a grass-saving shower.
I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a farmer sincerely complain about getting too much rain. Maybe during a fall harvest when the weather settles in for a month long drizzle and fog, they feel pretty bad about not getting their crops off the field. Still they will try to find something good to say, that the rain will be good for fall grazing, or that it will be better next spring if we have adequate rain before freeze-up, and so on.
The reason for this is that we seldom have too much rain in the Midwest. We sometimes have too much sun, or too much wind, and sometimes the rain falls at the wrong time, but too much rain is unusual.
I found a clipping from the Mouse River Farmers Press giving the precipitation averages from 1896 to 1958, with the exception of the years 1901 and 1906, which were not available. These averages were compiled by the late August B. Rieder of Towner, who was the local weather observer for many years.
In this record, 1899 and 1900 were the wettest years, with 28.65 and 28.35 inches respectively. The only other years there were more than 20 inches, were 1916, 1927, 1937, 1941, and 1954.
To give you an idea of the fluctuations of moisture in our area, 1916 had a total precipitation of 21.25 inches, and the following year, 1917, only had 8.22 inches! No wonder farmers have such a gamble! Another similar variance was 18.6 inches in 1935, which was preceded by 1934 with 8.41 inches. This same clipping also stated that 1954 had the wettest June, with 9.37 inches recorded. Keep in mind that we had more moisture in that one month than in the entire year of 1917 and 1934.
In 1954, my sister, Sigrid, and I started out for California on the morning of July 10 to attend the funeral of our Aunt Cora (Oium) Cushnaghan. We were driving, and I recall an incident somewhere in Wyoming when we stopped for gas. We had encountered a shower or two in North Dakota, and there was mud on our car. The filling station attendant said, “Gee, where did you get that mud?” We told him we had had over 9 inches of rain in June, still had occasional showers in July.
Later, we drove into the yard of a rancher living near the highway to stop and rest and lunch for a time under the cottonwood tree in his driveway. It was the only shady spot we had seen for a long time and the temperature was 105 degrees above. The brown grass crackled underfoot when we got out of the car and we talked about the weather for a time with the rancher’s wife. She said, “Gosh but it’s been hot and dry! We haven’t had moisture in any form for seven months now!” We did not tell her how wet and green the Towner area was when we left. Apparently, weather, rain, wind, and snow, is never divided equally.
Thought for the week, “By the time a man has money to burn, the fire is out!”
Next week, “Potpourri.”