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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 indoor plumbing.

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 another book.

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. Example:

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 by night.”

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 them.

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 .


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