Our farmhouse was built around 1900; Pa didn’t know the exact year. He said it could have been a year earlier, the year he was born. He said it didn’t matter what year the house was built, but it would last a long time if we took care of it, keep the roof in good repair, and painted it once in a while.
It was a big house, two bedrooms downstairs and three upstairs, plus a big kitchen, dining room and parlor. Today we’d call the parlor a living room. My brothers and I were not allowed in the parlor. Ma kept that room neat and tidy, her words, so that the city relatives would be appropriately impressed and the church ladies aid women wouldn’t find anything to complain about. From October to April, the parlor was closed off — the double doors leading to the room closed, and the door leading to the outdoors blocked from opening.
Only two rooms in the house were heated, the kitchen, which had a wood-burning cookstove, and the dining room, which was heated with a Round Oak wood-burning heater.
To look at the house, you couldn’t help but be impressed with its size and its prominent place on the top of a little rise that led to the country road that trailed past the farm. But looks can be deceiving. In winter, outside of the two rooms that were heated, the house was cold as a block of ice and in summer it was hotter than a pistol, as Pa sometimes described the heat.
As a kid, growing up in that big old house, I have many pleasant and not so pleasant memories. Rats and mice in the house were a continuing problem, especially in the fall and winter. Pa tried his best to trap them, but some always escaped. We mostly learned to live with these pesky critters.
Pa was deathly afraid of fire. He knew that if the house ever caught on fire, it would burn to the ground, as there were no firetrucks that drove into the country. With wood-burning stoves plus kerosene lamps with open flames, he had good cause to worry. If a lighted lamp tipped on the floor, a fire would surely start. If a stovepipe somehow became dislodged, a fire could result. If improperly dried wood was burned in the stove, a chimney fire could occur, resulting in a house burning.
So I, along with everyone else in the house, worried about a fire. Especially in the winter. Sometimes I would wake up in the night in our cold second-story bedroom that I shared with my twin brothers and hear crackling sounds and wonder if a fire had started. I tried to smell smoke. It was easy to detect a bit of smoke smell when a house was heated with woodstoves, but was the smell more intense than usual?
The following morning, when I would report to Pa that I had heard a crackling sound in the house walls, he would smile and say, it was probably a mouse or a rat crawling in the walls. Upon hearing my report he would set another rat trap or two in the cellar to see if he could solve the problem, but he never quite did.
On the plus side, the old house had many pleasant memories, for here is where I learned to appreciate homemade bread, apple pie, chocolate cake, sugar cookies and sweet rolls — all Ma baked in our wood-burning cookstove. It was here that I learned to eat what was put in front of me and to eat all of it as well. Whether it happened to be a fried squirrel that Pa had shot that afternoon, or peas that Ma had gathered from the garden that morning. “I don’t like that,” was never an appropriate response. If such a comment happened to slip out on occasion, the response was, especially during the Depression years, “be lucky that you have something to eat.”
The smell of wood smoke brings back many memories. I remember the big Round Oak wood-burning heater in the dining room on a cold, dark night in winter, with the wind rattling the windows. Pa would say, “Storm coming,” when the wind sent a puff of oak smoke down the chimney and into the cozy room. He was usually right in his prediction. But it was comfortable sitting around the dining room table as my brothers and I did our homework by the light of a kerosene lamp.
As cozy as the dining room was in the early evening, it was equally miserably cold the following morning, as the old woodstove would go out about midnight. The kitchen cookstove would also die in the night, and the entire house was colder than the inside of an icehouse come morning. So my memories are mixed — the good with the bad. Like life itself.
Excerpted from “Simple Things: Lessons From the Family Farm,” Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2018. Go to http://www.jerryapps.com for more about Jerry’s writing and TV work.