Life on Small Farm Was Worth It

Life was rough on the small farm in the 1930s

Red Barn

Leonard Rue shares stories of growing up on a run-down farm in the 1930s.

Photo Courtesy iStock Images

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When my family moved from Paterson, N.J., and all the conveniences there, to the farm at Manunka Chunk, N.J., where we had no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing, it was an adventure to me but a real shock to my mom and two older sisters. I have to give Mom credit, and I do, that she was willing to give up the life she had always known to live on the farm, but it was just another expression of her constant love for Dad.

Dad had always wanted a farm of his own. However, he didn’t live on the farm; we did. Dad was chief engineer on ships, hauling petroleum products around New York Harbor. He was either away for five days and home on weekends, or gone for two weeks and home for one week.

Far from prime

The farm was run-down from neglect when we bought it in November 1935. If it hadn’t been, we probably couldn’t have afforded it. Everything of value had been removed; everything that could be broken was. The fields lay fallow and the only livestock on the place was a small flock of sheep.

Only 56 acres of the 106-acre farm were tillable; the rest were in pasture or woodlands. You had to be careful that you didn’t fall off some of the 56 acres because the hills were so steep. I won’t say we had shorter legs on one side of our bodies but it definitely would have helped. The farm was not prime farming country by any stretch of the imagination. That could have been a factor in it being neglected for so long; someone a long time ago had already starved to death trying to make a living off that land. But I understood exactly how Dad felt: Despite the farm’s drawbacks, and there were many, it was our land.

There was a livable farmhouse, although nothing was level or square; water spilled in any room ran to one corner or the other, and the pitch was different in every room. There was a wraparound porch on two sides of the house but the railing had been burned long before we got there, probably consigned to the stove as kindling. There was an outhouse with the requisite crescent cut into the door and a well-worn path leading to it.

An apple a day

Water for the house was hauled from a hand-dug well lined with stones and covered with a huge square slab of slate. Water was hand-pumped from a pitcher pump that had to be primed with water from a full pail that sat alongside the pump in warm weather or had to be carried out from the house in winter. Woe be to him (or her) who forgot to keep the priming pail full. If there was no priming water in the pail and none in the house, the priming pail had to be filled from a springhouse down in the pasture.

A substantial bank barn had been built into the side of one of the unending hills, to facilitate driving onto the second floor level. Like everything else, it was in need of paint. It had stanchions and drops enough for 12 cows, a box stall and three stalls for horses on the first floor. The second floor on up to the roof held haymows. A large wagon shed had corncribs on either side; we used the second floor as a laying coop for our chickens. A 12-foot-by-12-foot hog shed was out behind the barn.

Adjoining the barn was an 8-acre orchard and pasture. A small shed had been built over the ever-flowing spring, which gave water for the livestock and kept our food cool, as without electricity or ice cakes we had no refrigeration. The 28 apple trees were old and badly in need of pruning, a job we never caught up with. The trees bore enough fruit for our own needs and some to sell. There were King, Baldwin, Grimes Golden, Rhode Island Greenings, York and Sheepnose trees, types of apples all but forgotten today.

We kept apples year ’round in our unheated cellar along with carrots, beets, turnips and potatoes from our garden. Mom made applesauce and baked a batch of apples almost every day. We ate them out of the hand, we made cider and vinegar out of them, and fed the peelings to the pigs. Perhaps an apple a day does keep the doctor away: We were all pretty healthy back then.

Sawing with the ‘misery whip’

The house was heated with wood that we cut from our woodland and overgrown brush rows. Trees grew much faster in the rows than in the woodlands because they got light from both sides. At one time, there had been barbed wire fences in the brush rows separating the fields. When we started cleaning up the fencerows, we never found any of the fences until we tripped over old rusted wire hidden in the grass and brush.

If two of us were working together, we felled the trees with a two-man crosscut saw, often called a “misery whip” for all the misery it caused. If I was working alone, I chopped the trees with an axe. The long sections of tree trunks were then loaded on the wagon and hauled to the barnyard where we cut them to stove lengths with a circular bench saw with a 30-inch blade. The saw was powered at first with a stationary 2-cycle Le Roi engine and later, when we got one, with the pulley on a tractor. When that saw was under full power the big blade whistled with an ominous, threatening hiss and cut through logs like a hot knife through butter. Sure beat cutting those logs through with a misery whip.

Heating with wood

We heated the house with three wood stoves. In the kitchen we had a big six-lidded cookstove with a built-in oven. The stove did not have a water jacket on one end, as many stoves did, so we always had three or four kettles of water sitting on top of the stove.

Mom had brought her natural gas stove up from the city and converted it so we could use propane gas. That stove was used when it got too warm to keep the kitchen wood stove going. It got a real workout when Mom and my sisters canned vegetables from our garden.

The living room was heated by a sheet metal stove from Sears, Roebuck & Co. On windy days the draft pulled so much air through the stove that it turned cherry red: It’s a wonder it didn’t burn the place down. The in-between room was heated by a pot-bellied Oakland stove. There were no stoves upstairs, but vents cut in the ceiling and the open stairwell allowed some heat to go up. The grate covering the ceiling vents did not do much for heat passage but it did allow us kids to eavesdrop on conversations going on downstairs.

Candles and kerosene lamps provided our lighting. On weekends when Dad was home, he would light the big white gasoline lamp. We never had the courage to light it without him. Lighting that monster was a pyrotechnic display worthy of the Fourth of July, as the flame would shoot to the ceiling. The only folks who think that candlelight is romantic are the ones who don’t have to use it. It did foster togetherness because anyone sitting three or four feet from the light couldn’t see to read. We used three kerosene lanterns in the barn. They were never set on the floor where they could be knocked over; they were hung from ceiling hooks.

Made us stronger

The lane linking our farm to Upper Serepta Road was 0.6 of a mile long. It was a morass of mud in the spring, gave off choking clouds of dust in the summer and was impassable during the winter months. There was a very steep hill in the lane. Over the years everyone who had to use the lane had attempted to make the hill less steep by cutting down through the slate on top. This made the roadbed considerably lower than the surrounding fields. In winter, the constant wind blew all the snow off the fields and piled it in the lane to a depth of 6 to 8 feet.

Why would anyone put up with such difficulties? All of our neighbors lived that way too, although many of those farms had been kept in better shape than ours. We made the farm pay and the farm made all of us stronger, more self-reliant adults. I would not change anything about my early days on the farm.

Called “Fairview Farm,” the farm was well-named. From its elevated location, we had a fabulous view of the countryside spread out below us. Peace and solitude were guaranteed by having neither neighbors nor traffic within a half mile. The only sound other than that of our livestock and nature was the wailing of steam locomotives at distant crossings. Those we didn’t mind; they too are gone now. FC 

Leonard Lee Rue III is an acclaimed wildlife photographer and author of some 30 books, including The Deer of North America and The Encyclopedia of Deer.