Every Farm Tells a Story: A Tale of Family Farm Values (March, 2005)
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Running a Wisconsin dairy farm in the days before electricity or
indoor plumbing, Jerry’s family used kerosene lanterns, gasoline
engines, a team of draft horses, and a homemade tractor converted
from a truck. During Jerry’s growing-up years, he witnessed the
second great revolution in farming—the arrival of electric lines to
rural areas, running water in barns, and new farm machines like
tractors, balers, and combines.
Illustrated with 50 vintage advertisements from catalogs and farm
journals, "Every Farm Tells a Story" traces that revolution by way
of costs for everything from the family’s first Sears, Roebuck and
Co. milking machine to the used telephone pole that supported their
first electric yard light.
Before World War II, farmers had few of
the conveniences that were common in cities. Many farmers continued
to milk cows by hand, pump water with windmills or gasoline engines,
light their way with kerosene lamps and lanterns, heat with
woodstoves, and plant and harvest with horses. And many had no
After war’s end in 1945, change on the farm came rapidly.
Electricity replaced lamps, lanterns, and gasoline engines. New
tractors replaced horses. Hay balers made loose hay a memory. Grain
combines replaced threshing machines.
Not only was farm work transformed from 1945 to 1955, but so was
life on farms and in rural communities. Threshing, silo filling, and
corn shredding bees, where farmers gathered to help each other,
became memories. Card games and neighborly visits were replaced by
television. Young people left the land because mechanization
required less labor. Large farms crowded out family farms.
"Every Farm Tells a Story" is a first-person account of a small
Wisconsin farm during and after World War II. This “living history”
is a collection of true tales inspired by entries in Jerry Apps’s
mother’s farm account books. The values recorded in the account
books prompt recollections of his childhood and the traditional
family farm values and ethics instilled in him by Ma and Pa.
“. . . destined to become the book everyone points to . . .to
extol the virtues of rural living. . . fun to read, personal, warm.”
Washington State Grange News, October 2005.
If you grew up on the farm, read "Every Farm Tells a Story"
by Dave Wood
Jerry Apps writes lots of books about life in the Upper Midwest,
but his latest is my favorite.
He grew up on a farm in central Wisconsin in the late thirties
and early forties. Years later he discovered a meticulous account
book kept by his mother during those years and EUREKA! An idea for
In “Every Farm Tells A Story” (Voyageur Press, $16.95), Apps uses
his mother’s account entries as memory joggers. He quotes the entry,
then tells the story around it as he and his siblings remember it.
Chapter 1 begins with her meticulous handwriting: “Fork
handle--$.65/Mash for chickens--$7.15/One milk pail--$1.15/Horse
collar and pad--$8.15/Gloves for Herm--$.52”
From there, Apps segues into his essay on farm chores, how the
youngest kids fill the woodbox and do other menial tasks, like
picking stones every spring. As they grow older they graduate to
milking cows, driving a team pulling a fine-tooth drag. It’s a tour
de force chapter on the farm kids rite of passage and awakened
memories of this reviewer about the year my father let me drive a
team on the hay fork.
A marvelous chapter is entitled “Funny Papers,” which begins with
an entry stating “Six dozen eggs--$2.10,” Then segues to his
father’s prudence: “Pa didn’t subscribe to the Sunday paper. He
figured the daily Milwaukee Sentinel provided us with more news than
we needed, even though it came to our mailbox a day late and what we
read was history rather than up-to-date material. My brothers and I
didn’t know about Sunday comics. . .” Not until Ma started mailing
eggs to Chicago, where the recipient would mail the emptied crate
back to her, stuffed with Sunday comics from the Chicago Tribune--in
COLOR!” Apps and his brothers pore over these fairy tales about “The
Phantom” (I’d forgotten about him), “Dick Tracy” and “Joe Palooka.”
But this book is more than charming nostalgia, for Apps, a former
professor of agriculture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is
interested in the sociology of farm life as it changed from his
childhood to the day he graduated from high school. Milking machines
replaced fist power at the milk stool, tractors replaced horses and
before anyone knew it the old fashioned farm was a thing of the
past. One of the most touching scenes finds Apps describing his Pa’s
reaction to his earning a scholarship to college and to the sale of
his milk cows when he got too old to put on the milkers.
It’s a fine book for oldtimers like me, punctuated by
reproductions of advertisements from old time farm magazines and
also for young farmers who, despite their $100,000 tractors face new
and more sophisticated challenges.
Shifting gears to a really sophisticated challenge, we have
“American Prometheus,” by Kai Bird and Martin Sherman (Knopf, $35).
It’s the first definitive biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the
father of the atomic bomb.
The title gives away the thrust of the book and so does the
frontispiece in which the authors quote Appolodorus: “Prometheus
stole fire and gave it to men. But when Zeus learned of it, he
ordered Hephaestus to nail his body to Mount Caucasus. On it
Prometheus was nailed and kept bound for many years. Every day an
eagle swooped on him and devoured the lobes of his liver, which grew
This is essentially what happened to Oppenheimer the genius who
gave the world atomic power, pleaded for its peaceful use, then came
afoul of the goons who almost destroyed America during the McCarthy
Era. It’s a fascinating story of a brilliant and sensitive man, his
family and events of twentieth century history that swirled around
Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book
Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star
Tribune. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org .