For today’s Sunday Dinner, I invited Lynn Owen, my mother-in-law. Lynn grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm and is here to tell us all about it. Dairy farms take center stage in A Strike to the Heart since it’s set during the Wisconsin dairy strikes of 1933.
Sunday Dinner is a traditional (noon) meal served after church on Sundays. Whole families, including extended family, would gather over a large meal to celebrate a day of rest. Multiple cultures enjoy this Sunday Dinner tradition. In my experience, I know it from both my Midwestern farm family as well as my Italian-American family. Now, I’d like to bring Sunday Dinner virtually to you. So, pull up a chair as we invite various guests to join us each week!
Without further ado … Lynn, please introduce yourself. What’s something interesting readers would enjoy learning about you?
My name is Lynn Owen. I loved growing up on a farm – I didn’t always like the fact that we couldn’t leave the farm like other families (who lived in the city) could – because the cattle had to be milked morning and night – and the other animals needed to be cared for and fed. But most of our family friends were also farmers, so we all understood each other – knowing we had to leave early from events, to do the milking, etc.
I understand you grew up on a dairy farm … can you give us a little of your background?
I grew up in a family of three generations; my father’s parents lived with us my entire life. I had two brothers and two sisters.
How many cows did your family’s farm have? What breed were they?
We had 42 stantions in the home barn – thus, we had 42 milking cows – all Holsteins. We also had four box stalls in the home barn where we kept new calves until they were ready to wean off of mother’s milk and/or formula. We all loved feeding the new calves!
We had a Heifer Barn ½ mile away, where we kept heifers until they were either ready to be bred or sold. So, we had around 100 head of cattle at any given time. All of these cattle had to be fed – a lot . . . . Hay, grain, silage, water, etc.
Was it an independently owned farm?
Yes. It was in our family for over 100 years.
What responsibilities did you have on the farm?
I went out to milk the cows with Dad one evening a week, giving my brothers an evening off from those chores. More often, I threw hay down the chute for the cows and fed it to them, helped to feed the baby calves and collected eggs from the chickens with my brothers. In the summer, I drove the tractor on the fields, crimping the cut hay. My brothers and Dad did all of the other tractor work. They plowed the fields, then tilled the fields getting them ready to plant. I rode on the back behind the planter, making sure all of the seeds were coming down from each row. Sometimes a small stone would get stuck in the tube which distributed the seed. I would wave to Dad on the tractor; he would stop and unclog the tube, and we’d be on our way again. I did the yard work with Mom.
What did a day in the life of a farmer’s kid look like?
It wasn’t easy – especially for my brothers; they worked very hard. We not only had cattle to feed and care for on the farm, we also had pigs, chickens, a horse, and rabbits to feed and care for.
One job none of us enjoyed was picking rocks from the fields. All five of us would walk the fields after they had been plowed, picking the upturned rocks and removing them to the sidelines. (If the rocks were not removed, they could cause machinery to break, which sidelined the machinery, delaying the job, and costing money! So, picking rocks was important!) We also had to do a similar task in the hay fields. When the hay started coming up in the spring, mustard plants would also start rearing their heads, which Dad did not want in the hay. So, once again, the five of us walked the fields, pulling the mustard plants. We had to be sure to pull them from the roots – or they would continue to spread.
We enjoyed our pets and had a lot of them – many, many cats, as well as a dog and rabbits. We also had fun – especially taking farm animals to the fair (and getting them ready to take to the fair). My two brothers took the most animals to the fair. I only took rabbits, but I also took sewing and baking items to the fair.
The Manitowoc River flowed directly behind a woods to the rear of our farm. My brothers loved building rafts to take on the river. We also did a lot of fishing – bringing most of the fish home for all of our farm cats – they LOVED them!
My oldest brother definitely worked the hardest! He was very intelligent, loved animals, brought every stray animal he found, home to take care of them, and used any money he earned, to buy more animals – sheep were his favorite, but he also bought geese, specialty chickens and roosters, and rabbits. He later went on to become a Large Animal Veterinarian – one of the best in our state! He worked 365 days a year as a Large Animal Vet!
How old were you when you left the farm?
I left the farm upon graduating from High School and leaving for college.
What lesson has stuck with you since leaving?
This hard work ethic stuck with all five of us, all of our lives! We really never complained about the work we had to do on the farm. Did we always like it? No, definitely not! But we did it! We all worked hard, stuck to it, and were proud of the work we did. There is a reason the Midwest has the reputation of a hard working ethic. This is exactly why! The farms are at the heart of that reputation.
The afternoon is slipping away, so we have to draw the stories to an end for today. However, Lynn has more to share, so she’ll be back next week to tell some of the challenges they faced on the farm as well as some of her favorite memories.
In the meantime, discover some of the hardships dairy farmers faced during the 1930s in To Stand in the Breach, the prequel to A Strike to the Heart. You can find purchase links to both the paperback and e-book here.
See you at Sunday Dinner next week!