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Yesteryear Stories

By George E. Sawyer

July 14, 2000

I grew up on a small farm in 1940's and 50's and when I tell some people how life was then they seem interested so I thought I would put some of my life stories down in black and white. Here goes!

I was the middle child of ten children born to Jennings and Ruth Sawyer. My mother bore all of her children at home. Therefore I was born in the house where I was raised. The house was in a small valley called Squab Hollow in the town of Troupsburg, in Southwestern Steuben County, New York.


We had a small farm of about 2-3 acres and we had one and sometimes two cows. The milking was done by hand and when I got old enough it was my job to go to the barn and milk the cows by hand every morning before school and every evening. My mother used the milk to make cottage cheese and butter as well as give it to her children to drink. That was one thing we always had plenty of, fresh milk. When we made butter we used a large glass jug with a special top that screwed onto the top and it had two wooden paddles inside that were turned by a handle. We all had to take turns cranking the handle to make the butter. You also had to do it rather briskly or it would not work. My mother told me more that once that I had to turn the handle faster or we would never get any butter. After the butter was made mother would pour out the buttermilk and save that and put the butter in a dish in the refrigerator. When we had two cows milking we would send some of the extra milk to the Woodhull cheese factory. When I was about 10 years old I would get up early and go out front and wait for the milk truck to come pick up our milk. I would ask Mr. Faye Eddy, the driver, if I could go with him and help him. He said yes most of the time but my mother would only let me do it a few times. We did not get rich selling the milk from two cows but it helped.


My mother had a large garden every year to feed her large family. We planted things like corn, string beans, peas, tomatoes, onions, carrots, cucumbers, squash and such. My mother was always canning something. Mother would have everyone help pick the vegetables and she would start preparing the kitchen to do the canning. She also pickled the cucumbers by placing them in a large clay pot or crock in the cellar. She would leave the cucumbers in the crock filled with what she called pickle brine for a week or two to make the pickles. It was the children's job to help weed the garden. I did not like that but when the peas started getting ripe I would pick and eat some of them while I was weeding. I also pulled a carrot or two, wiped off the dirt and ate it. Those were the rewards for hard job. At least I thought it was hard work at eight years old. If I only knew what lay ahead of me.



We also had a large strawberry patch in later years but for years mother and the neighbor ladies, Mrs. Gertrude Harrington, and Mrs. Harriet Coon would walk about half a mile or better up the hills and pick wild strawberries to make strawberry jam. The children usually went with them to help but we ate more than we put in the pail. The wild strawberries were about half the size of the tip of your little finger. It took a lot of these small berries to make jam or strawberry shortcake. Mother would go off with at least two five-gallon pails and would not return until they were full. It took several hours of hunting and picking to fill those pails. Later in the year the same ladies would go off into the woods and hills and pick wild black berries and red raspberries to use for making more jams and jellies.


I may have been the middle child but I was the youngest boy. The summer I was 13 years old (1956) Mr. Brutsman came knocking on my mother's door. When mother answered the door he asked if any of the boys needed a job for the summer. She responded by saying that all the older boys already had jobs and the only one left was only 13. He said, "Bring him out and let me see what he looks like." Upon seeing me he said, " He looks like a nice big strong boy. I'll give him $15.00 a week and room and board if you let him come work for me for the summer." I was not to sure I wanted to go so my mother took me in the house and told me that it would be a great opportunity for me to earn money for school clothes and that the remaining money would be mine to do with as I pleased. I asked to be able to come home on Saturday evening and return Sunday afternoon and it was agreed and off I went.


I spent the summer working on his dairy farm. When I first got there I was having trouble tossing the bales of hay onto the wagon but after a couple of weeks it got easier and by the time the summer was over I could toss them over the wagon and onto the ground on the other side. Mr. Brutsman not only gathered hay using a bailer he used the old fashion method of putting in loose hay. To do this he used a hay rake to gather the hay in rows and a hay loader to put the hay onto the wagon. The hay loader was a tall piece of machinery that was about 12 feet tall. It picked up the hay by using long rods made of spring steel. It then moved the hay up the flat face of it by using more metal rods attached to wooden rails that alternated going up and down and in and out. If the ground was to steep we would pick up the hay by using pitchforks to load the wagon by hand. The hay loader was too tall and would tip over on a steep hill. We then used a huge iron fork on ropes and pulleys to put the hay up into the hay barn. This was an extremely hard, hot, dusty job. I had to tie a large red bandana over my face to help me breath and keep some of the hay chaff out of my lungs. They did not have modern dust masks for me to wear. Mr. Brutsman also had an old iron wheeled tractor. It must have been about a 1920 model. It was rather loud but it was quite the workhorse.


My typical day started at 5:00 A.M. when Mr. Brutsman woke me up to go help do the milking. He did most of the actual milking. It was my job to get the cows in the barn and feed them ground up grain called cow feed. I then took the milk into the milk house and poured the milk from the milk pail into a large milk can. The five-gallon pail contained about 3-4 gallons of milk and the can contained about 25 gallons of milk. When the cans got full I would put them into a large cement tank full of water. The cement tank was sunken down in the milk house and water from a spring ran though it constantly keeping the milk cold. Every day or two a man with a large flat bed truck would come to the farm and pick up the cans of milk. He would transport them to the cheese factory in Woodhull, NY where they would be unloaded, weighted, emptied and the cans washed and brought back to the farm on the next trip to that farm. Each farm had their own milk cans marked with a specific number so the milk hauler would know whom to give the cans back to and the cheese factory would give proper credit to the farmer for his milk.

After we got the milking done and the barn cleaned up we would go into the house about 8:00 A.M. where Mrs. Brutsman had made a large breakfast for us. Breakfast was usually a couple of eggs, toast, and hotcakes with syrup and homefries. Of course I had all the milk I wanted to drink. Usually I was ready for breakfast.

Then we would go out and cultivate corn or start getting in hay or later in the year we would gather the corn by chopping it down and putting it into the silo to feed the cows during the winter. This was done by using a corn cutter that was pulled behind the tractor. It cut the corn and put it into bundles and tied a string around each bundle. We then picked up the bundles of corn and put them on a wagon and took them to the silo. There we feed the corn stalks into another machine that chopped up the corn and blew it up a large pipe and deposited it inside the silo. When you did this you had to be careful not to get caught in the strings and not to get your hands to close to the choppers or you may be in the silo in small bits too.

We also gathered oats the old fashioned way. We used a grain cutter called a combine. It had a cutting bar that cut the stalks of grain. There were large paddles like on a water mill wheel that moved and tipped the grain over onto the flat surface. When the grain fell onto the flat bed with a moving canvas it gathered the grain to one side. When there was a certain amount it would tie a string around the grain and tie a knot and kick the bundle of grain out onto the ground. It was my job to put the shocks of grain into groups of 4-6 and stand them in bunches to dry. About 3-5 days later we would gather the grain using pitch forks and pile them onto a wagon and take them back to the barn and run it through a thrashing machine. To do this we needed added help and several neighbors came over and helped do the thrashing. In return we went to that farm and helped them do their thrashing. The thrashing machine was a very large machine that was run by the motor of the tractor and a 30-foot long belt. It was very dusty and noisy. One person had to feed the grain stalks into one end and another had to attach and unattach large feed bags from the other end when they filled up with the grain. Straw would also come out the back and be blown into a huge pile to be used as bedding for the cattle during winter. One person was responsible to see that the straw did not clog up the large pipe it was coming out of. Usually there were three or four other men out in fields gathering more grain to be run through the trashing machine while these three or four men ran the thrashing machine.

The day did not end until the cows were milked again about 5:30 P.M. and we ate supper just before that. I was always willing to go to bed about 8:00 P.M. even if it was still daylight out. We did not have time to watch any television. In fact I do not remember them having a TV.


I saved my money that summer and went to Hornell with my mother and bought and paid for all my own school clothes, which consisted of three pairs of pants and three shirts along with socks and sneakers. I even had enough money to buy a new jacket. Try to do that today on $15.00 a week. It was not hard to save most of my money. A bottle of orange soda cost me .15 cents and a candy bar was a nickel. My mother or father would stop in town on the way home Saturday evening so I could buy a couple bottles of soda and a couple candy bars. I guess they thought I deserved them after working all week.

When I went back to school that fall I was a different person physically. I started the summer at 150 pounds and sort of chubby and ended the summer at 155 pounds of muscle. I definitely was a young man of stature and was noticed by the young ladies in school. Who says hard work doesn't pay rewards. That was the year I grew up and became a young man. My childhood full of hours of summertime play was over.

For the rest of my teenage years I continued to work for various dairy farmers around Troupsburg. When I entered high school I began working full time on the dairy farms and going to school from the farmers place where I lived and worked. I never earned more than $35.00 per week plus room and board while working on the farms. Today the law does not allow farmers to employ young boys to work for them unless they are family members. One year I worked on a sheep farm for Mr. Weeks and he not only employed me but also hired my brother, Dean. It was different working for him. He owned a boat and stored it near Keuka Lake and we went to the Lake a few times during the summer. We went boating and swimming and had some fun. The Mrs. didn't think he should take his hired help on such outings but he did anyway.


Another year when my brother, Dean was a senior in high school he worked for a Mr. Austin and Deans' senior class was going on a trip to Washington, D.C. Mr. Austin needed help while Dean was gone and I had no job at the time so I went up to fill in for him. While I was there I did the normal chores of helping feed and milk the cows. As it was in the springtime Mr. Austin was doing the spring planting and he wanted to get some of the large stones off the field before he planted it. I was told on Monday to go pick stone on a rather large field and off I went. I picked rocks off that field all day long. The next day he told me to do the same thing so off I went. On the third day he still wanted me to pick rocks off the field. By this time I was getting sick and tired of picking rocks and by noon that day when he came to get me for lunch I had worked myself into a frenzy about that stupid job and commenced to tell him what I thought about picking rocks. He was rather shocked that I would express my extreme displeasure with the job he choose for me to do but that afternoon he had me do something else and I never picked another rock all the time my brother was gone.


Now here is story that is hard to believe. In Troupsburg we did not get dial telephones until about 1967. When I grew up we used the old fashioned crank phone. They are the ones where you had to turn a handle on the side of the phone to ring a bell. We picked up a receiver and put it to our ear and talked into a mouthpiece attached to the front of the phone box, which hung on the wall. The telephone was about 18 inches long and 8 inches wide and four to six inches thick. We had what was called a party line. There were about 15 families all using the same phone line. Each household had a distinctive ring combination so they would know when some one wanted them. Our ring was two long rings. The neighbors ring was two long and two short. There were many combinations so that each family had their own number. There was a telephone operator in Troupsburg that could connect you to the outside world. She called and an operator in Hornell who did her thing from there. My mother and father moved to Troupsburg in 1964 and mother was the telephone operator for about three years before they moved back to the farm. Someone had to physically be within earshot of the main telephone terminal called a switchboard at all times. Mother got awakened many nights to make connections for the residents. Most people were considerate and never called past 11:00 P.M. unless there was an emergency of some kind. Of course when one phone rang they all rang so people knew something was going on and there were many phone calls that were listened to by others that never said a word during the conversation but they knew all the gossip in town.

These old phones worked with battery power located in each house. The telephone lines were two wires strung on poles attached to glass insulators. The two lines had to be kept separate and when they touched the phones did not work. When the wind blew hard sometimes tree limbs would touch the wires and they would not work either. I walked these telephone lines many times with my father or mother or brother to get the wires apart so everyone could have telephone service. We would carry a long pole and when we found the spot where the wires were tangled we used the pole to untangle them. It did not matter if it was snowing and blowing and 10 below zero or hot and humid and about 95 degrees in the burning sun. It was the responsibility of each family to take care of the lines nearest their house. We had the bad luck of being the last house on the line before it went over the hill and through the woods to Troupsburg. It has been said that Troupsburg, New York was the last place in whole United States to get modern telephone dial service. From what I have heard it more than likely is true.


When I was young we did not have a television. I used to walk up to Ralph and Grace Eddy's farm, which was about a quarter mile away. I went up there every Saturday morning to watch all of the Westerns. There was "The Lone Ranger", "Gene Autry", Roy Rodgers and Dale Evans just to mention a few. The Eddy's had a son, Vernon who was several years older than I was but I also had older brothers who liked to watch these shows and it was not unusual to have five boys lined up on the floor of the Eddy's living room watching Westerns all Saturday morning.

About 1952 my parents decided it was time to get our own television. As there were only two TV stations close enough to receive their signal we did not have much choice. My father had Mr. Erway who lived in the village of Troupsburg come to our place one Saturday with some sort of device that would tell him if there was a strong enough signal to get good television. They put the device on a wagon with the TV antenna attached and drove all over the hills around our house and could not find a place that got good reception. At the end of the day my father went out back and stuck the antenna in the ground and pointed it east. He then went in the house and connected up the wire from the antenna to the back of the TV and turned it on. Much to his surprise they got a picture and after turning the antenna a little got a picture good enough to see what was going on. This was the TV station located in Binghamton, NY. That night we all stayed up until the TV station signed off the air at about midnight. That was the latest I had ever been allowed to stay up. The television was black and white but it was television and we were all overjoyed to finally have our own TV.

Before this we had just a radio. A rather large one, in fact that was about the size of a cabinet TV today. I used to listen to the Lone Ranger on the old radio and thought it was great until TV came along.