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Rural Life Series | Historical Books | Other Country Life Books



When Chores Were Done (Amherst Press, 1999. Voyageur Press, 2006)

The Midwest in the 1930s, '40s and '50s was a place where parents and children worked side by side to eke a living from the land, and neighbors stuck by each other through good times and disaster. In this affectionate, insightful memoir, Jerry Apps takes us to that world. Here we meet Frank, Pinky, and Harry, three farmers whose love of music could transform an entire community; Morty, the odd loner whom only a few wild animals could understand; and Fanny, the extraordinary collie whose role on the farm was as important as that of any human. Apps shows us the toughness of farm life--plowing the soil with horses, milking cows by hand, putting in long days with heavy, dangerous machinery. He shows us the lighter side too, as he peddles his father's massive rutabaga harvest and gets to know the neighbor boys--and their personal dictionary of cusswords. Throughout it all, we see just how warm, loving, and supremely educational, growing up on a farm could be, for it is here that a young boy learns not only how to take a head off a chicken and drive a tractor like a grown-up, but to deal with illness, disability, and death.

Jerry Apps is a master storyteller who writes through the eyes of a child and with the wisdom of a man. Resonating with poignancy and humor, When Chores Were Done is a book you will want to read over and over again. Photography by Steve Apps, staff photographer for Wisconsin State Journal.

Photographs throughout
4-color laminated softcover
200 pages
10 x 7 inches
ISBN 0-942495-84-5


  Book Sample:

Party Line

a story by Wisconsin author Jerry Apps
from his book "When Chores Were Done"

  The wooden telephone, with a black receiver hanging on its side and a black and silver mouthpiece sticking out its front, hung on the east wall of the dining room, at a height comfortable for Pa but too high for Ma, who had to stand on her tiptoes to speak into it. Six of our neighbors were also on our line. You knew when someone was calling by the number and length of the rings. Our ring was a long ring and three short rings. The Milton’s ring was three short rings. Coswells, who lived across from the Miltons, could be reached with a long and two shorts.
  It didn’t matter whether the call was for you or not; whenever the phone rang you ran for the telephone to listen in. It was one way for farm people to find out what was going on in the community. If Ma was in the house, which was most of the time, she answered the telephone when it rang our ring or listened in when someone else called. Occasionally we got a long-distance call, usually from a relative. We could always tell when it was long distance because Ma would whisper “long distance,” and she would then begin yelling into the telephone mouthpiece. The farther away the caller lived, the louder Ma figured she had to yell in order to be heard.
  My brothers and I were not to use the telephone, not to answer it, not to call from it, and, above all, never to listen in on other people’s calls.
  Mrs. Coswell was fun to listen in on, which my brothers and I did when Ma was outside and we happened to be in the house when the phone rang. Mrs. Coswell called Mrs. Handrich when the Miltons did something she didn’t approve of. This occurred every day, sometimes more than once a day, for there was little that the Miltons did that Mrs. Coswell thought worthy of overlooking.
  The Miltons, besides being masters of profanity, had other quirks that added spice to the neighborhood. Tom and Winny Milton didn’t get along all that well, and Mrs. Coswell was often witness to loud yelling and threats that the Miltons made to each other.
  One day in December we heard Handrich’s ring, and Ma trotted off to listen in. Soon she began smiling and then laughing aloud. As she laughed, she tried to keep her right hand planted firmly over the mouthpiece, so no one would know she was listening. She might as well have kept her right hand in her apron pocket, for everyone on the party line listened and everyone knew that they did.
  Later Ma told us—she had trouble repeating the story she was laughing so hard—that Tom and Winny had gotten into a terrible fight. In the middle of the altercation, Winny picked up a huge piece of stove wood and heaved it straight at Tom’s head. He ducked and the block of wood busted through their dining-room window and landed in a snowbank outside their house.
  “Now I don’t know how Mrs. Coswell found all this out, but you know Mrs. Coswell, she is about as nosy as they come, and if there is something to find out, she’d find it,” Ma said.
Ma offered that one of the Milton kids probably told Mrs. Coswell, complete with the words that each combatant spoke and at what point the block of wood was taken up and heaved.
Ma, laughing so that now there were tears in her eyes, continued to share the tale.
  “Mrs. Coswell said that after the block of wood sailed through the dining room window, the fighting came to an abrupt halt. I suspect when that blast of cold air shot into the dining room they both cooled off.” Ma sat down before she could continue. “Before you could say ‘A block of wood just smashed through the dining room window,’ old Tom was outside with a pillow off their bed, stuffing it in the hole to keep out the cold.
  “I wonder what’ll be next,” Ma said, as she took a deep breath and wiped the tears away with her handkerchief.
  Another time, when we were eating supper, the phone rang Handrich’s ring and Ma pushed back her chair and hurried into the dining room to listen in.
  Pa, my brothers, and I kept on eating, listening to Ma giggle occasionally as she took in another tale of the life of the Miltons and their continued antagonism of straightlaced Mrs. Coswell, who spent most waking hours gazing across the road. This time, Ma related when she returned to the table, the littlest Milton boy had been running up and down the gravel road in front of the Coswell house without a stitch of clothing on his back. He was wearing his shoes though, because the road had been freshly graveled and there were some sharp stones.
  “Mrs. Coswell thinks that old lady Milton put the kid up to the trick,” Ma said.
  “I think she’s got it right,” Pa offered as we continued eating supper, with our thoughts, for a moment at least, away from low-priced milk, a sick cow, and rain that seemed never to come.



Rural Life Series | Historical Books | Other Country Life Books


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