Getting a Dairy Farm Through Drought and the Great Depression

A northern Illinois dairy farm survives all that Mother Nature and a shattered economy could throw at it.

| July 2015

As a 9-year-old, I saw it first. An ominous looking orange-brown wall cloud filled the western horizon. As usual, my sister and I were spending the summer on our grandfather’s farm near Capron, Illinois. I ran into the house to alert the adults of the approaching apparition.

My grandfather said it was a dust storm and that we should all get into the house and help close the windows. In those pre-air conditioning days, that big rambling farmhouse had a lot of windows to close. As soon as we finished, we were enagulfed by a thick cloud of dust. Though we were far from the Dust Bowl, that cloud had made its way to northern Illinois. Even with the windows shut, much dust found its way inside, coating everything with a fine powder.

Desperation move fails

The season started off fairly normal with the plowing and planting complete. And then, to paraphrase Louis Bromfield, “The rains quit.” I can still see my Aunt Stell looking longingly into an overcast sky, but only a few drops of rain fell.

There was not much hay to put up that year. Grandpa decided that a field of alfalfa was not worth cutting. Instead, he let the dairy cattle use it as a pasture. Since the field was not fenced for that purpose, we had to watch the cows. With all of that good grazing, not much watching was required!

A short time later at the milk-processing factory, my grandfather’s cans came down the return conveyor. Instead of being empty and hot from steam sterilization, they were full and cold. Tags were affixed noting, “Rejected for bad odor.” The last can had a note saying the milk had an alfalfa odor and no further deliveries would be accepted until fresh alfalfa feeding had stopped and cleared from the cows’ systems. For a while the farm’s hogs had a real feast on all that fresh milk. They did not mind the alfalfa odor!

Settling for slough hay

Prior to July 4, my parents arrived for a short visit. The decision was made that there would be no fireworks that year, with all the tinder-like grass. My dad bought me a couple of packages of firecrackers and we took them to the creek bed, which was still moist. While I enjoyed setting off the firecrackers, I missed the skyrockets, Roman candles and sparklers of past years.