Tuesday, December 30, 2014

First 30 Years of My Dad's 90-Year-Old Life

Dad turned 90-years-old on Christmas Eve. He is healthy, independent, and lives in the house in which he was born.

I was surprised he did not want to dispense advice, but like many of his age group, The Greatest Generation as fellow South Dakotan Tom Brokaw has dubbed them, Dad chose to reminisce.

What follows are some of the technological changes a farm boy from east central South Dakota experienced from 1924 to 2014. 

Part I: The First 30 Years 

Waldo ~ in his tweens

Farmers' Line: 1924-1934, Decade #1 
Primitive Living

In the 1930s, farmers formed groups and installed telephone lines. A household would agree to be a switchboard. My Uncle Johnny's parents and Mom's cousin Mary G's family were switchboard centers. If someone called outside the group, the switchboard would make the connection to the other group and could also listen in. That's how the community got news.

Dad told the story of a young girl telephoning that she couldn't find anymore cow chips. The woman on the other end of the line responded in German saying, "Dear girl, nothing to eat. Nothing to poop." It was the Dirty 30s, and cow chips were burned for heat. 

Eventually, those phone lines deteriorated, and the farmers didn't have the money to maintain or repair them. It would not be until 1957 that the rural landline telephone system was installed.

a teenage Waldo

Farming with Machines: 1934-1944, Decade #2
Rabbit Hunting when Pearl Harbor Attacked in 1941

After most of the horses died of sleeping sickness, Dad's father did not have enough horses left to pull the binder. So he traded all but two horses in and spent $200 to purchase an F-12 Farmall tractor with steel wheels that could only go four mph back in 1935. This tractor could pull an eight-foot disc and a two bottom plow. Grandpa used the remaining team of horses to make hay.

Six years later, Grandpa Pete traded in that tractor for a rubber-tired H-Farmall vehicle that could travel 15 mph and pull a three bottom plow. To finance this $900 tractor, he made payments along with the trade-in.

Also in 1941, Grandpa purchased a five-foot Allis Chalmers combine. This revolutionized the family farm, for now they could harvest without a thrashing crew. Stories about harvest work before the combine belong in another post.

Speaking of thrashing crews, seems Uncle Johnny and neighbor Elmer Wipf hopped on a train to Minnesota. They didn’t buy a ticket or sit in seats. They rode hanging onto the outside of the train or maybe even on top of it. After they arrived, they earned a dollar a day shocking bundles on a thrashing crew. This happened in '33 or '34, according to Dad, who heard it from Uncle Johnny—who was, by the way, a story teller.

high school graduation picture

Humbling Beginnings: 1944-1954, Decade #3
Young Adulthood 

Rural areas were still without electricity; however, they knew it was coming some time, so to prepare, the farm was wired and a light plant was placed in the garage in 1947. A little motor with a gas engine made the electricity. They had lights, but not much use for appliances until that year or the next when Aunt Mary and Uncle Jr. went to Chicago to purchase a truck and came home with a gift. A toaster. 

Mom & Dad

Before indoor plumbing, they did have a bathtub that was supplied with hot water from the cook stove that was heated with wood, cobs, cow patties, or whatever they could find.

"There was always a supply of warm water on the side of the stove," Dad said. "Just reach in with the dipper." 

Indoor plumbing didn't exist in the home yet because they couldn’t get water pressure until a pump was installed, and that required electricity. Once that convenience came to fruition, they went to Sears to pick out a plumbing package of a toilet, sink, and tub. Dad's recollection of this event was funny.

"Sears then sent out two old codgers," he said. "They took two suitcases down into the cellar, then went back out and returned with the cast iron pipes to install. I couldn't figure out what they had in those suitcases." After some snooping around, Dad found beer inside.

With indoor plumbing came the need for a septic tank and sewer tiles. Young people from the church helped. One such youngster was Dad’s cousin's son, Roger Wollman. He later became a South Dakota Supreme Court Justice and now sits on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. He too, had a humble beginning.

Dad & Mom with Elliott & Priscilla

Writer's Note: Part II, years 40 through 60, coming in the next post.

Any similarities between my dad's stories and your ancestor's? What was their first household appliance? Where were they when Pearl Harbor was attacked?



  1. My mother ran the telephone switchboard in the early 1950's in our small town. The switchboard was in our home and my sisters and I operated it too. The town used us for relaying their messages too. Once I had to run down to the local lodge hall to tell someone of a death in their family. I was only 12. The following Christmas they sent me a huge box of assorted candy bars for my service.

    1. I bet you had fun listening to that switchboard, Mom. What an honor for that family to remember you were the one to bring important news. Tough job for a 12-year-old. Thanks for sharing this important memory.

  2. Melodie, I love hearing stories about the Great Depression. There is something about the spirit of resilience, support and survival of that generation that is inspiring. Please continue to write about your family history! I will be watching your blog to follow the next installments! Liz S.

    1. Some of Dad’s stories I have heard for years, but one of my older sisters admitted she is learning a lot about Dad’s life that she never knew, so I like that. A woman I grew up next to, a generation older than I am, commented on Facebook that it brought back a lot of memories of her parents, and another person messaged me that she loves hearing stories like this from her grandpa. Thanks, Liz, for following my blog and for commenting too!