The other day I stopped at the local Burger King for lunch. While eating, I watched a gaggle of little boys and girls playing and screaming and having a great time in the indoor play area. They could climb steps and ladders, crawl through hollow blocks, and slide down a curved, plastic tube – great fun!
As I watched them, my first thought was: "We didn't have neat places like that to play when I was little." That took me back to how we did play while growing up on the farm during the 1940s. This quickly led me to the conclusion that we had it made compared to today's kids with their plastic cubes and tubes and a solicitous mama hovering over them.
We had three hundred acres of hills and valleys, woods and fields, orchards and berry patches on our own two farms (which were actually owned by my grandfather, who we called "Nandad"), and we had no qualms about crossing property lines and exploring neighboring fields and woods as well.
Of particular fascination was the area we called "The Hollow." Consisting of probably seventy five acres, The Hollow divided Nandad's two farms and was fenced in to provide pasture for the dairy cows. Although part of the hollow was meadow land, a mile long deep gulley ran through the center, with a creek through the center of that. The sides of the gully were dotted with hemlock and hardwood trees and the creek was full of frogs, minnows and crawfish for us to catch.
Three or four more or less abandoned coal mines were located along the sides of the hollow and their horizontal tunnels led into the cool, damp and mysterious darkness. The best one of these had a track and a coal car, as well as a large wooden tipple. There was even an early 1930s automobile that had been turned into a stationary power unit to pull the loaded coal cars up the sloping ramp to the tipple.
This mine furnished us with endless opportunities for play. We pushed the empty coal car into the mine, which sloped upwards, and then rode it back out into daylight. I "drove" that old Chrysler car for many a mile, and we clambered all over the tipple. It didn't take long for us to find where the miner had hidden the key to his shanty, and we rummaged through the carbide, dynamite and other supplies he had stored in there – it's a wonder we didn't kill ourselves.
We had two large barns, along with assorted corn cribs, chicken coops, granaries and miscellaneous sheds to explore and to play in.
The older barn (on the farm where my family lived) was of log crib construction. The two large, square haymows were built of logs, hewn flat on two sides, with the ends notched so they interlocked at the corners. Openings were cut at three different levels on the sides facing the barn floor so hay could be pitched into and out of the mows. The logs had four or five inch spaces between them and served as a handy ladder for us to climb to the top of the mows. We could then make death-defying leaps into the hay below (if we were brave enough).
A newer barn was on the farm where my cousins lived and was the dairy barn. In this barn the beams were hewn square, and we could imagine we were the "Great Blondin" walking a tightrope across Niagara Falls as we tip-toed across the high beams above the hay mows. Also in this barn was a track and a hayfork with a rope to swing on or to slide down.
The main granary was located between two large chicken houses on my dad's half of the operation. We'd climb into the full bins of wheat and oats and crawl around in there digging ourselves into the grain. We didn't worry about getting trapped and smothered under the grain, and apparently our parents didn't either, although Mom wasn't happy when we carried pockets and cuffs full of grain into the house.
My cousin and I would sometimes chase the little pigs around the pig pen, tackle them and wrestle them, kicking and squealing, to the ground, with never a thought as to what the mama sow's reaction might be. I don't think Dad knew about this little game of ours.
When my sister and I were probably around eight or ten, my uncle "hired" us, at a quarter apiece per week, to go into the hollow each afternoon, find the milk cows, and start them toward the barn for the evening milking. Usually this wasn't too difficult, as the cows were ready to be milked, but occasionally one or two wouldn't want to go and we'd have to round up and herd them in.
We climbed trees and cobbled together "tree houses" with an old board or two over a couple of limbs. We rode on loads of hay and grain, and on the rear fenders of the tractors. We roamed the woods and fields with Dad's old single shot rifle and a box of .22 short ammunition and plinked away at any target that struck our fancy. Again, it's a wonder we didn't kill ourselves.
We'd be gone for hours at a time without Mom having the slightest idea where we were. I suspect Dad didn't worry much about us because he'd roamed the same farm and played in the same barn when he was little, but I've often wondered what my town-raised mother thought.
In today's environment, Dad and Mom would have probably been cited for child neglect, if not child endangerment. Back then, no one thought much about it and we were lucky and survived. It was a great childhood – today's kids, who are seldom out of their parent's sight, are the deprived ones.