Life on Small Farm Was Worth It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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