Kerosene lamps delay the night for farmers seeking to add more life to each day
Chickens and animals still hit the sack at dusk like all countrymen used to
First, the old hens call it a day and begin clucking towards yonder chicken house with the two roosters in tow. The sun settles gently behind the cedar and cottonwood shelterbelt which blocks the wintry winds but provides a picturesque backdrop for sunsets. Then we farmers, when we can’t see who we’re talking to, it’s also time for us to hit the sack.
That’s pretty much how it went on Hamilton County homesteads for 70 years before electricity arrived at our rural doorsteps in the late 1940s.
The chickens would be on the roost way before dusk, but come the first rays of the sun peeking over the flat Nebraskan horizon, they’d be out scratching a living. The roosters would be busy telling everybody within earshot — including the hens — that it was time to rise and shine. The crowing rooster was a comforting part of the concert of animal voices in surround sound that lived on the farm with us. Something I’ve always wondered: Why doesn’t the rooster crow when it’s time to roost?
I’m not sure if we young farmers learned this "early to bed and early to rise" from the chickens, or was it the other way around? It was about 200 years ago that Ben Franklin crowed that little jingle about early down and early up making a man "healthy, wealthy, and wise." He was right about the fresh air and contact with the great Nebraska soil keeping a farmer healthy and maybe wiser each year that he ages, but "wealthy" was a horse of a different color. As a kid, I know that my brother Steve, who shared my bed, and me would share our wise knowledge until we fell asleep. Often we would hear a parent holler out "Don’t make me come in there." That was the signal for us to talk very softly.
The eternal challenge: Extending the light of the day to extend the life of the farmer in the long winter nights. Ever since Hamilton County was homesteaded, the dugouts, log cabins, and frame houses all had something in common: candles, kerosene lamps, or white-gas lanterns attempting to brighten the night.
My great grandfather, Alexander Franklin "Sandie" Salmon, came for Scotland via Wisconsin to claim a homestead 4 miles west of Stockham, where many Scots settled. He arrived in 1869 at age 29 and within a year he’s chopped down enough trees along the Blue River and built his log cabin. He returned to Verona in Madison County, Wis., and married his boss’ daughter Jean Rutherford in February 1870. Previously, he’d cleared land for her father, cutting tree after tree to extend the John Rutherford farming land.
In Hamilton County, he employed his skill with the axe to build a home for his bride near running water. No dugout for him like his cousins John and Alex lived in a mile east. Sandie and Jean honeymooned in an ox-drawn covered wagon with a milk cow in tow, traveling in winter cold on their three-week journey.
Without the moon, it used to be that night on the farm was dark, dark, dark. You knew which direction to reach the barn from the back-door porch, but knowing how close you were to the barn was a matter of counting your steps — or running into the barn or corral gate. So, when it got dark, it was best to just go to bed. It’s difficult to get lost in bed, so it was a positive place to meditate until Mr. Sandman came along. It also may have something to do with families of 8 to 15 children, because your entertainment was what you found at home. Mr. and Mrs. American Farmer grew their own workers along with the crops. Many hands from many babies eventually make work light. Just like growing a crop, you have to tend mightily to the young in feeding, weeding, watering, and prep work. Patience finally brings rewards when the older care of the younger . . . in children anyway.
By "entertainment," I’m also talking about pie socials, salmagundis, homemade ice cream socials, weddings, shivarees, and even funerals. Yes, funerals were sad times, but they were also a form of entertainment. Families and neighbors got together to lean on each other in times of sorrow. Often it took a death before all would take time to gather, where they would recall good times with "old Uncle Ed." Funerals were a real part of life and a welcomed break in the routine of solitary family living. It was nice to have someone else to talk to, even in a sad occasion.
In my family, I remember as our Hamilton County homesteading pioneers died off, I’d hear the same comment: "We’ve got to get together more often and not wait for a funeral." There was my grandfather Tom, who was born in 1871 in a log cabin that his father built by the Blue River about 5 miles west of Stockham. Then it came time for more gatherings and meals when his four brothers — Bill, John, Jim, and Jesse — and his two sisters — Jane and Annie — left us. Each time I’d hear "We’ve got to get together more often . . ." It never seems to have happened.
I mentioned "shivaree" a few graphs back. Now a shivaree is something foreign to young people of today. I attended many as a kid and enjoyed them because it was a fun time, with lots of good desserts. A shivaree was a surprise party, usually for returning honeymooners, or for 30th, 40th and 50th wedding anniversaries. When newly weds returned to the farm, word got around to the neighbors and they’d make plans to take food for a party. But here’s the fun: The neighbors would not arrive until they were sure that the newly weds were in bed. With their pots and pans at the ready, a signal was given to start beating them with big spoons and start hollering "Get up and Come out." The house was surrounded so in the quiet of the night, it must have been a frightening sound.
Usually within 10 minutes, a lamp would be lighted and the couple appeared at the door and invited all inside. I never knew anyone to get mad for being shivareed. It was an initiation into farm life for the newly weds, who knew they were loved and accepted by their neighbors. Some brought them gifts if they weren’t at the wedding. An hour later the neighbors had finished the coffee and dessert they brought and headed back home in their Model A’s.
Down on the farm, entertainment also included radio if you could afford the price and the batteries to run it. There was a choice of a small table radio or a furniture radio that stood over 3 feet tall. The radio shows brought much joy to the farm at night. There were programs like "Henry Aldrich," "One Man’s Family," "Fibber McGee & Molly," and the famous "Amos and Andy." These few pop into my brain right now, but there were more. Oh, yes, "Inner Sactum," "Green Hornet," "Sam Spade," "Duffy’s Tavern," "One Man’s Family," "My Fiend Irma," "Our Miss Brooks," "Will Rogers," and "You Bet Your Life." And it seems my mother also listened to "Ma Perkins."
With horses, farmers had real horsepower to draw the one-bottom plow, harrow, cycle mower, lister, or drill. But still, 60 acres was a lot of ground to cover several times each season. Hand power was also very important, so the more hands the faster the job. "More hands make quick work" was a working model — as I referred to earlier with more babies for future workers. Corn was picked by hand with a bangboard and some farmers even shelled wagon-loads of eared corn by hand. In the early 1940s, if we got 25 bushels an acre, we thought we were really producing.
I remember picking corn with dad and my brother Steve when I was 7. Dad started his two favorite horses — Dolly and Mike -- down a row. He yelled "Whoa" and pulled the reins to stop and then he tied the reins to the corner post of the wagon. We’d get out and start husking corn and tossing the ears into the wagon. We weren’t as good as basketball players with our aim, so we had a bangboard on the far side of the wagon. The bangboard was constructed with rows of 1-inch boards the height again of the wagon body and it ran the full length. Come to think of it, basketball players also need the backboard to corral the ball — so it wasn’t much different for us cornpickers down on the farm.
As we picked the ears, we’d get ahead of the horses. Dad would make a clicking sound with his mouth and the horses would pull the wagon ahead until he hollered "Whoa" again. When the horses reached the end of the row, which was usually the neighbor’s property, Dad would grab onto the bit of a horse and lead the team in turning the wagon around and heading back. The horses never got to grab a bite of corn because they walked in empty rows. Dolly and Mike would munch on dried leaves and tassels though. I made up to the horses and by shelling an ear and holding my hand up for each to get a snack. I figured a four-legged worker was also worth his labor. The muzzle of a horse is so soft and they’d pick up each kernel in my small hands -- very gently. Their eyes couldn’t see my hand, so their lips did the walking in the yellow kernels.
OK, Rex, back to the house at night. We had kerosene lamps that smelled up the house and added an even layer of soot within 10 feet of the dull glow. That’s about as far as the flickering flame cast light so we wouldn’t stumble over the dog. Old Penny was always hoping we’d forget him and he could spend the night in, but if someone accidently stepped on a paw, the "cat was let out of the bag" so to speak. Penny, an English Shepherd mix and a great cattle dog, gave his presence away by yelping. "Put that dog out," my dad would automatically say. The kid who "got the look" would put the dog outside. Sometimes it was too dark to see who "got the look," and dad would repeat his imperative statement "Put that dog out" one octave louder. Then it was a matter of whose conscience gave in first. That volunteer candidate would pat Penny lovingly, and tell him he’s sorry for having to do it.
As I recall, those kerosene lamps with glass chimneys seemed to cast more shadows than light. One lamp in the middle of the table at night means that when I dropped my spoon, I had to bow my head and squint my eyes to concentrate while looking for my fallen object. Usually I found it by Braille.
One flickering lamp in the center of the kitchen table made it very difficult to see what was in the areas cast into shadows, like beneath the table. It was pitch black there and a good place to play hide-and-go-seek when the dishes were rid up. My Grandma Lizzie Detamore Salmon used to tell us to "rid up" the dishes, probably something she heard from her grandma. Kerosene lamps had a bad habit of running out of fuel and of smoking up the chimneys. The dirtier the chimney, the less the light escaped and the shadows got spookier.
Speaking of spooky, carrying a lantern to the barn and back sure hyped up the imagination. As the lantern would swing, my legs would cast moving shadows across the barn yard and I was sure a boogieman was about to pounce on me. Even walking past a fence post made the post seem like it was circling me. As a lad of 5, I could only carry a lantern when my dad — A F "Shorty" Salmon — was there. They weren’t the safest thing to have in a barn with straw, especially if I were to stumble. Burning the barn down is another story that only took matches. Keep your non-safety matches handy, I’ll be getting to that.
Filling lamps was one of the first chores a young lad was given to earn his keep on the farm, at least by age 8. The chimneys stayed inside where Mom or an older sib would clean it with soap, and then rinse it dry. I remember taking the lamps outdoors to the shop where a 55-gallon metal barrel was stored on it side. I unscrewed the wick assembly with the chimney holder, put a funnel in the lamp, and then opened a little valve at bottom side of the barrel to fill the lamp. I was warned not to spill any, so I had to pay careful attention. This process was repeated several times a week.
We didn’t have enough lamps for every room, so it got darker across the house as you moved away from the lamp. Usually, the room with the most people had the lamp, whether it was the kitchen, living room, or the parlor. We had candles also — if you could afford them -- plus my Grandpa Joe Delano had a white-gas pressure lamp with double mantles.
Touching a mantle (fiber-gauze tied to gas pipe) once it had been lighted and cooled was a no-no because it would destroy the mantle. Just ask Farmer boy Rex after being chewed out by his Grandpa Joe Delano. Sometime a lad can get away with touching paint when the sign reads "Wet Paint," but with mantles, there’s no second chance.
Why was I tempted to touch a mantle? Well, the mantle had a mysterious look to it after being burned. Webster described the mantle as a "lacy hood or sheath of some refractory material that gives light by incandescence when placed over a flame." Even if you’ve never seen one, doesn’t Daniel W. make the mantle sound mysterious?
The number of lamps per household rose with the amount of coins in the family purse. The coins could only stretch so far in putting clothes on the backs of the kids and in buying chicken mash for the laying hens. But there was a benefit in buying the special mash, and the flour in cloth bags. They came printed with colorful designs and flowers. Mom would buy a bag of flour each month with the same design until she had enough material to sew herself a dress, or matching shirts for the boys, or dresses for the girls. It was a bonus that way with food coming in "ready-to-use material." Just rip out the seams, wash, iron, and Mom would be ready to pin on a pattern. Sometimes, she even had a new pattern, but usually it’d be a paper copy of friend’s pattern that she paid real money for.
As it is today, income on the farm normally comes in when the crops come in. But in the drought years of the 30s and early 40s, the crop didn’t come in. I remember Dad telling about planting corn by a team of horses using his one-row lister and hoping that he’d get a crop, finally, after years of nothing growing. Nothing came up except sunflowers and Russian thistles. He said he gathered the green thistles to feed the milk cows, but they wouldn’t eat it. He bought some molasses to mix with the thistles and the cows ate it, but no, that didn’t provide any nutrition. He said the thistles came out the other end faster than the cows could chew them.
Weekly income for the farmer came on Saturday night when they’d take their week’s worth of eggs and the jug of cream skimmed off the milk to a produce station in Aurora. They may only get 6 cents a dozen for eggs, but with a dollar or so in cash, they felt rich. A "rich" farmer was one who didn’t have to depend upon cash from weekly sale of eggs and cream to a produce station. Aurora had two that I knew: the Shaneyfelt Produce on 12th by the Wagon Wheel Hotel and the Ray Douglas’ Produce just west of Safeway on M Street. I remember weighing myself on Lyle Shaneyfelt’s produce scale and it hit 66 pounds. Boy, I was growing up. I don’t know the year, but I’m surprised sometimes by little facts that stick in my craw.
I didn’t know much about being rich or poor when I was a young Nebraska farm boy. In fact at Christmas in 1949, Prairie Gem Church was taking a collection of canned goods and cash for some poor unfortunate people. I remember Mom and Dad taking some cans of food to church. When a couple of big boxes with food and other items were delivered to our house, I was puzzled, because I recognized the men as being from church. I said to Mom, "Why did we get the food? I thought the food was going to be given to poor people, no?" I don’t remember that she answered but she was probably thanking the Lord for the blessing. The house had a large walk-in pantry and all the food really made the shelves look like a little grocery store. But with 8 mouths to feed, it wouldn’t take long to look like Mother Hubbard’s cupboard.
Back to the lights, Rex, you’re talking about lights on the farm. Oh, yeah, I remember. Some "rich" farmers did have push-button lights in their homes, but their barns were lighted by lanterns, also, for a few years more. Farmers needed lanterns while walking around the barn and taking care of the animals. Remember the Great Chicago Fire of 1871? No, you probably don’t, but you’ve heard of it being caused by a cow kicking over a lantern. When Dad milked cows, his lantern was hung onto a wire hanging from the rafters of the haymow. Lanterns were not very efficient, light-wise, but they kept the farmer from running into a support beam in the barn, or tripping over a pitchfork. Lanterns cast about as many shadows as they did beams of lights because of the way they were constructed. Crossed wires protected the glass and handles were connected to poles about an inch thick on either side.
Lamps in the house had cloth wicks and glass chimneys. Each night, Mom turned the wick up a bit because the wick would burn a little each night. When the flame turned wild, she would trim the wick with scissors to make it nice and even again. It would stop flickering, also.
I mentioned earlier about "being dark in the shadows." One kerosene glass lamp would be in the center of the table and underneath it was dark. We kids did play hide-and-seek under there. I remember when I was 5, Steve and I even got Mom to give us a big blanket to throw over the table. Boy, then it was dark and like a tent — a special treat at the end of the day. Mom and Dad would be in the livingroom listening to a radio program — that is if they had a new battery for the radio at the time — and if the wire antenna stretching to the tree across the driveway could bring in the signal. The earliest radio program that I can recall is hearing a woman’s voice hollering out, "Henry, Henry Aldrich, where are you?" She would drag his name out, as in Hen-reeeeeeeeeeeee! Hen-ree Al-drich!"
OK, it’s time for confession — or as much as I can remember. Our barn burned down on a Sunday afternoon in the spring of 1943 as a result of some kids playing with matches in the haymow. I remember being in my room crying and looking out at the burning barn. And I remember why I was crying; my bottom tingled from a spanking. Steve and I were supposedly playing in the straw and lighting matches. Steve, who was a year, a month, and a day older than I, said my match burned the barn down. I was 5 then and it’s all fuzzy to me now. I always thought Steve could talk faster. He should have known better and we shouldn’t have been in the barn.
Well, we shouldn’t have been striking matches anyway. Dad and June Smith, a farmer north of us who lived next to Franklin Dist. 12 School, were in the field when June noticed smoke pouring out of the our barn. They unhitched the horses and raced to the barn, but there were nothing they could do except put out little fires started by flying embers. Dad said June grabbed a tub of wash water in the wash house that Mom had filled getting ready for the traditional Monday wash day. June climbed up the side the corn crib and threw water on the roof. Later, June couldn’t figure out how he climbed the slatted wall with one hand while holding the tub against his chest. Dad lost two horses and some cows in the fire and it was devastating to the farm income because it was also a time of drought.
Dad never said another word to me, or to Steve as far as I know, about the fire that put him off his father’s farm. Dad was born in the house that his father built in about 1900, in fact Dad was born in the same bedroom that I was 23 years later. The house is still standing today and it’s the home of Gary Jensen. His parents, Eddie and Naomi Jeffers Jensen, bought the farm, so for the last 108 years, there have been only Salmons and Jensens living there.
Finally, a BIG improvement in house light: Our neighbor had a Delco system of batteries to provide electrical lights to 3 or 4 rooms in his house. A single bulb dangled on wire from the ceiling in the middle of the rooms. There was no such thing as plug-ins because there was nothing to plug in. The Delco system created electricity when wind turned a three-foot fan — called a charger -- and the resulting current was stored in two rows of batteries in the shed below. The more wind, the more electricity to use. But, no wind also meant no electricity.
I remember Richard and Mary Ormand to the south of us on the Blue River and Bill Springer to the north had hanging lightbulbs in their homes. It was a marvel to behold for this young lad. It was magical to be on a farm and have lights glow just like in town. These electrical bulbs — probably about 35 watts -- lighted the room better than a kerosene lamp because of their height, but it was still very difficult to read a magazine sitting on a davenport at the edge of the room.
These memories of a young farm lad more or less tell the life of the farmer before REA (Rural Electrification Act) started marching across the county in the Mid-1940s. We got the wired juice in 1950 at the DeRoy Wilson farm southeast of Giltner
After the gentlemen famers joined the 20th Century with dangling lightbulbs in every room, inventors came up with labor-saving devices which needed something called plug-ins. There were toasters, roasters, floor lamps, mixers, beaters, and plenty more to make the farmer’s wife want it. Inventors even came up with electric stoves, water heaters — not to mention high-test pressure gasoline cooking stoves. The water heaters would be installed right in the kitchen by the sink, because the prized possession was a fashion statement to make visitors jealous. These new-fangled gadgets meant that everything was getting up-to-date in Hamilton County.
I would say the biggest invention which really changed farm life was the electric ice box. I know it’s a refrigerator, but my Dad called it an ice box his whole life. A refrigerator in the house meant that Mom didn’t have to make several long trips a week to an ice plant in Giltner or Aurora to keep food fresh in her ice box. And son Rex didn’t have to keep the pan under it emptied as the ice melted.
When General Electric made its first coolers, they were called a Refrigerating Machine. We got our first cooling box — a Leonard -- in 1950 when Dad worked for DeRoy Wilson. The Leonard became a gauge to measure my growth. I couldn’t see the top of it when I was 12, but by the time I was 15, I could look down on it to see if it were time to dust it. It usually was. My Grandpa Joe also had a Leonard and Grandma Grace finally sold it in the mid-1970s when she moved into Crossroads Court. They’d bought it in Omaha about 30 years before . . . and it was still on the job.
OK, electricity is the IN thing today and kerosene lamps (also called hurricane lamps) are not used except for mood setting in a Victorian-looking room. Somehow, they’re looked upon as romantic, and of course, when electricity takes a vacation, they come in handy on a dark and stormy night.
Oh, yes, today there are still flickering lamps that need no wicks nor kerosene because they have an electric cord. That’s progress, I guess, but for someone who had to fill them, clean them, and live with them, it’s like driving backwards up a hill in your Model T Ford. The T had no fuel pump, so it was necessary, but for me it’s beyond the call of duty to mess with kerosene lamps today. I guess they don’t use just kerosene today, but some nice smelling lilac or rose or lemon scented fuel. At least, that’s progress. And since happiness is our most important product, whatever lights your flame should brighten your life.
©: Rex L. Salmon 2008