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Anna Caldwell Stiefvater

October 1964


Anna was born and reared in Chicago where she had never had so much as a back yard in which to play. Her only contact with farm life came when she was twelve years old. Their church sent her and her sister to a farm in Decatur, Illinois for a two-week vacation. It was then and there that she decided that some day she would like to live on a farm where she could have all the fresh milk, cream and eggs she wanted.

She worked in the sweatshops of Chicago: forty-eight hours for $1.16 - two-and-a-half cents per hour. After five months, when she asked for a raise, she was paid $1.25. Then the child labor law came into effect and all this was abolished. She worked on the twenty-first floor of the building with 500 employees on every floor. She figures that after she came to Montana she didn't see 500 people in the twenty-one years she lived on the ranch.

After walking seven miles a day to and from work for ten years, walking after a breaking plow* was a pleasure to her. Just to be out in the fresh air and sunshine was heavenly. And to have an eight-room house just for herself and her husband after living in a tenement building that housed twenty-three families was more than she ever hoped to have. Little wonder, she says, that she was known as the singing farmer from Chicago.

Mrs. Stiefvater feels, as she recalls her introduction to Montana, that the experiences of the 'green' farmers when they come to a large city are dwarfed by the misadventures of the city green horn that comes to the farm. When she came, she knew nothing about cooking or about building a fire in a cook stove. She couldn't even keep a fire going after her husband started it for her. She surmises that if he hadn't known how to cook, they'd have both starved to death. But cooking for as many as twenty-four men at a time when he ran the cook car for a threshing crew had given him plenty of experience so they didn't starve.

Since they lived forty-five miles from Glendive and had to make the trip in a lumber wagon, they came in only two or three times a year. Buying 1,000 pounds of flour, 200 pounds of sugar, twenty pounds of coffee, and a barrel of kerosene at one time was quite different from her Chicago shopping habits where she bought perhaps five cents worth of butter (at thirty-five cents a pound), three cents worth of sweet cream, two eggs, one bar of laundry soap, one pound of sugar, and ten cents worth of soup meat.

She had never made nor even seen a garden and didn't know radishes from cucumbers. When her neighbor was having threshers and asked Anna to dig some potatoes, she couldn't find any. She looked high and low, pulled up a beet and a turnip, looked in the plum trees and in the gooseberry bushes but still no potatoes. She went back to the house and told the neighbor there were no potatoes left. "Why," exclaimed the neighbor, "we have a whole acre of potatoes." Back to the garden they went together and the neighbor, seizing a hoe, began chopping off the tops (Anna thought she was angry with her for not bringing the potatoes so she was chopping down the pretty flowers). Then she took a spade, dug down, turned the ground over and lo and behold, there were the potatoes. Anna told her, "No wonder I couldn't find them way down deep in the ground like that!"

When her husband took a load of grain to town after her garden was growing, he told her that if she got lonesome while he was gone, she could go down to the garden and do a little hoeing. After he was gone, she went down to hoe. She'd raise the hoe high over her head, then come down with all her might and main, chopping and whacking at everything. A neighbor happened by and stopped to watch. Finally he asked what she was doing and when she told him she was hoeing, he burst out laughing. He said he thought she was killing gophers. He then showed her how to hoe and also pointed out that she was chopping out the cucumbers that were coming up. She demanded that he show her a cucumber and when he pointed to a little plant she told him she thought he was crazy. She thought the cucumbers came up out of the ground and were ready to slice and eat right away. He explained that they had to vine first and then blossom before the cucumbers started to form. By then she was sure he was crazy and he thought she was.

The first time she tried to wash clothes, the water would not suds and she was dismayed to see how yellow the clothes were. When she related her woes to a neighbor, Mrs. Hubing pointed out that she had to break the hard water. Anna had never heard of breaking water so she concluded this neighbor was crazy too, and let it go at that.

While out riding in July, she saw some fields of shocked grain and asked a man what farmers raised that grew in bunches like that. When he replied, "Lady, that's what you make your bread with," she thought, "Another crazy man!"

Her husband had only a few hens so she decided to raise a lot of chickens and have fried chicken every day. Another neighbor asked her if she had ever set a hen and when she answered that all she knew about chickens was that you bought them at the butchers, he decided to have some fun at her expense. He told her that she had to have a cluck to set. She didn't know what that was so he explained that it's a hen that wants to set: "She makes a clucking noise; you give her a batch of eggs, put a rock on her back, and that was all there was to it."

Hardly had he got the gate closed when she started for the Schmidt boys' place to get all the eggs they could spare - fifteen dozen. She waited impatiently for dark so the hens would go to roost and she could get those clucks to set them.

When the hens were finally on the roosts, she hurried to the chicken house and gave each hen a poke. If she made a noise, she was a cluck. Of course, they all made a noise so she got busy gathering boxes and baskets, set all fifteen dozen eggs, put a rock on each hen's back (their place had a lot of shale rock), and eagerly waited for morning. She thought those eggs would hatch overnight so at four o'clock in the morning she was out of bed and down to the chicken house. As soon as she opened the door, out came all the hens. The rocks had slipped off and mashed all the eggs so all she could do was stand and cry. When her neighbor came over later in the day, she would hardly speak to him. Finally she told him what she thought of him and showed him the mashed eggs, but he thought it was a joke. He told her the hens had to cover the eggs and keep them warm for twenty-one days before they'd hatch, then went off to tell the other neighbors what a joke he had played on her.

An old bachelor heard about her experience setting hens and felt sorry for her so he brought her a hen with thirteen little chicks. She recalls that she was tickled with the present but not for long. She walked after that old hen and her chicks all day in the hot sun. When a chick would get caught in a weed or something, she'd try to pick it up to free it and the old hen would fly at her and she'd throw a stick at the hen and so it went all day. She explains that she didn't have enough sense to give them water. The poor things were so hungry they yipped and made such a racket that she gathered them up in the evening and gave them back, explaining that she couldn't walk after them all day in the hot sun. She chuckles that "he couldn't believe anyone could be so dumb." He advised her to take the chicks home, put them in the hen house overnight, next morning give them a pan of water and some wheat, then go in the house and stay there! So began the chicken raising. But she was willing to learn and bound to show that 'where there's a will, there's a way'.

 

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