Farm Collector

Drat Them Hens: Scenes from Life in the Early 1900s

Reader Contribution by Sam Moore

I was looking through a stack of old Country Gentleman magazines and these tidbits were in one from 1912 (that’s 100 years ago, folks).

An Ohio farmer purchased, eight years ago, a secondhand two-horsepower gasoline engine to use for pumping water. So well did it work that he bought line shafts, pulleys and belts, and employed the engine to run a cream separator, churn, washing machine, feed-grinder, corn-sheller, grindstone and buzz saw.

To make his wife’s job easier the farmer installed a soft-water tank in the attic of his house, connected with the range, which supplied hot and cold running water with the assistance of the engine. Not including his own labor the homemade “power plant” cost him about fifteen dollars, and has run eight years with only three dollars in repairs.

There are those who would call this the forerunner of mechanical power on the farm. We prefer to label it the application of brain power.

I wonder – does anyone call their kitchen stove a range anymore? And why were they called ranges in the first place?

The moving-picture machine has proved to be a great educator; but this sputtering pedagogue is not infallible, as it frequently demonstrates by the incongruities which it flashes upon the screen. The other day while enjoying all the sensations of a trip through the West of yesterday, the spectators at the nickelodeon, or at least a few of them, were amused to see the faultlessly attired “cowpunchers” driving up the canyon a herd of – not wild-eyed Longhorns or even Whitefaces but – meek-eyed Jerseys and deep-uddered Holsteins.

Another bit of unintentional comedy was a haying scene. A six-animal team was hitched to a diminutive load of hay. The wheel team was oxen, the swing team were mules and the leaders were well-bred Percherons. The driver of that horse-mule-ox team deserves much credit.

Why wouldn’t it be a good plan for the “movie” magnates to employ agricultural experts and thus avoid such unintentional humor?

Then, this little ditty:

Well, drat them hens! When eggs is cheap they lay the hull place ankle-deep.

Just keeps me lame a-stoopin’ round a-pickin’ eggs up off the ground,

A-tryin’ to clean some corner out an’ give the crops a chance to sprout.

Just keeps me poor a-hirin’ hands to haul them eggs from off my lands.

They overflow the barns and sheds, the kitchen sink an’ family beds.

Don’t get no chance to eat or sleep, the way it is when eggs is cheap.

But drat them hens! When eggs is dear they sit around for half a year

Eatin’ my wallet to its marrow, with no more conscience than a sparrow;

Indulgin’ in a conversation on every subjec’ since Creation

Exceptin’ “eggs an’ how to lay ’em.” Makes me so mad I want to slay ’em.

Here’s eggs a-sellin’ by the carat and every darned hen is a parrot!

Just ornamentin’ this here sphere is all they do when eggs is dear.

But ‘pears to me, aside from jokes, that hens is purty much like folks.

Not carin’ what’s the worst or best, they want to do just like the rest.

By grab! Us folks is worse than hens; hens can’t lay eggs exceptin’ when’s

The layin’-time, but people could do different, often, if they would.

An’ we insist on doin’ what the rest is doin’, right or not.

No use to drive, no use to coax – so drat them hens! An’ drat us folks!

On the editorial page was this assessment of “Mr. Average Farmer.”

Beginning with Secretary Wilson’s (James Wilson of Iowa – Secretary of Agriculture from 1897 to 1913) grand total of $9,532,000,000 as the farm wealth production for 1912, we have an interesting problem. Divided among the 6,361,502 farms of the country this would be $1498 per farm. Our average farm, with its 138 acres, of which 75 are improved, is therefore producing $10.85 an acre. To produce this total, Mr. Average Farmer has $4476 invested in land, $994 in buildings, $199 in machinery and $774 in livestock, a total of $6443. If he charges himself five percent interest on this investment he must deduct $332.15 as an annual carrying charge. His remaining income, $1165, must pay all running expenses and the owner’s salary.

This margin offers scant support to the assertion that farmers are rolling in easily acquired wealth and are chiefly responsible for the increasing cost of living.

Wow! $199 invested in machinery? Even in 2010 dollars that would be just $4437.67 – a farmer today couldn’t buy even a good used tractor for that amount.

Finally this bit of advice to farmers:

You may be proud of your farm, but it isn’t necessary to tote it in on your wife’s new carpet.

My Grandfather Moore (Nandad) was farming during this period and I wonder if he, his wife and three young children got along on $1165 per year. Of course the figures quoted above were averages, so some farmers obviously were better off, while some made less. I think Nandad was probably in the upper range. 

  • Published on Feb 16, 2012
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