I got to thinking after my last post on the kind of sort of subsistence farming my parents and just about all our neighbors engaged in back in the early 1950s that one my relatives was a lot deeper into the subsistence thing than we ever were.
Uncle Charlie was one of those ‘uncles’ of my childhood who was an actual uncle, by marriage, unlike several other ‘uncles’ who were not at all related.
My grandmother’s sister married Uncle Charlie, and he was a kind soul though often coming up short on the ambition scale. He and Aunt Edith had six sons, of which five lived to adulthood. Aunt Edith died a few days after giving birth to their last child—their sixth son—who my grandmother promised Edith on her deathbed to raise as her own, which she did.
Of the other brothers, Clarence died when he was a year old, the rest living on to become adults. Among them was Ed, called Tiger Ed by friends and enemies alike. Tiger Ed was a reckless youngster whose emotional development seemed to plateau around age 14 or so.
A Tiger Ed story to elucidate: During the Depression (the great one, not this last pale echo) dairy farmers were organizing to get higher prices for their milk from the big dairy companies that were mercilessly squeezing them, and the result was the Pure Milk Association, a union in everything but name. Pure Milk activists conducted all sorts of protests, some violent, to persuade and if necessary force dairy farmers into joining.
An item from the Jan. 10, 1934 Kendall County Record illustrates some of their tactics:
As Norman Colby drove a truckload of cream for the Beatrice Creamery Company in Yorkville to Naperville on Route 18 [U.S. Route 34], he was stopped between Oswego and Naperville by two carloads of men and the $275 worth of cream he was carrying was dumped into the ditch. Colby said he thought he could get by with his load because it consisted of cream and not milk. He did not recognize the men, and they took his writing materials so he was unable to get license numbers. After the cream was dumped, the men volunteered to help Colby load the empty cans back into his truck, but he angrily refused their help.
Wading in cream three inches deep over the pavement, Colby loaded up the empty cans and returned to Yorkville. It is thought that the insurance carried on the truck will cover the loss.
Pure Milk activists were reportedly not beyond burning down stubborn farmers’ dairy barns if they refused to join. The fire that destroyed my great-uncle’s diary barn, with most of his herd inside, was chalked up to the Pure Milk Association, for instance.
So with that backdrop, the folks out in our farm neighborhood were tipped off one day that plans were afoot to burn a dairy barn. So a bunch of them decided to camp out in the milk house adjacent to the barn on the night it was all supposed to go burn. The dairy barn was a beautiful one; my best friend in first grade lived on the farm and I spent quite a bit of time in it as a youngster. Its milk house was state-of-the-art for the 1930s—it was poured concrete, walls, floor and ceiling, all whitewashed inside and out, making it simple to keep clean (notice I didn’t say easy; keeping a milk house clean is not easy) and the milk pure.
That evening, the farmers gathered in the milk house to await developments and among them was a young Tiger Ed, who brought his revolver although most of the other men were armed with shotguns. Ed, being in his late teens at the time, was exuberant and eager for action, boasting what he planned to do. At which point he pulled the revolver from his waistband and began twirling it around his trigger finger like he’d seen cowboys do in the Saturday movie serials. At which point someone yelled at him to just put the damned gun away before he shot somebody, whereupon Ed angrily shoved it back into his waistband, causing the revolver to fire.
One of the people present said that when the pistol went off, the bullet ricocheted around the concrete interior of the milk house packed with terrified farmers for what seemed to be hours before it came to rest—in Tiger Ed’s rear end. The incident deflated the posse’s ardor and they all went home–except for Ed, who went to the doctor–but forever after, especially when he was working as a bartender, Tiger Ed would show you his wound if you asked nicely.
But I’m trying to get at subsistence farming here and for that we need to consider Tiger Ed’s older brother Harry. When Harry was a youngster, my father asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, and after some thought Harry said he figured he wanted to be a tramp.
And to be truthful, he did have a somewhat checkered career. In the early 1950s he somehow got hired as a motorcycle police officer. Back in the day, relatives on both sides of my mother’s family started a social group called the Can’t Be Beat Club that would have summer picnics and holiday parties. And at one of those picnics on a hot summer day at Aurora’s Phillips Park, Harry stopped by, in uniform, with his motorcycle and proceeded to ride it back and forth while doing tricks on it—standing on the seat, riding backwards, doing a handstand—it was thrilling for us little kids and, I assume, appalling for the adults.
Eventually Harry became a true genius at welding and that’s how he made his living the rest of his life. And for a good part of that late life, he moved his family up into the wilds of northern Wisconsin where they lived on a hardscrabble farm in the middle of the Chequamegon National Forest. Harry would farm and raise kids until the family was out of money, at which time he’d leave the northwoods to do welding jobs until he’d accumulated enough cash and then head back home before the cycle repeated.
Harry’s wife was a formidable redhead named Juanita. Harry and Juanita were, for the early 1960s, an unconventional couple. Along with their natural children, they (because they were the kindest folks you’d ever meet) also raised a tribe of foster children. I was a teenager when my folks took me to visit them at their farm in the woods, which strongly reminded me of the set for a Ma and Pa Kettle movie. The doors and windows were all open and chickens were wandering in and out of the house, along with numerous children, dogs, and cats. Having been raised in an extremely structured environment, it was truly a revelation to me, an initial point of reference as I lived through the years of hippies and communes.
Juanita gave us the complete tour of her house, including the cellar, which was lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves groaning under hundreds of glass jars of every sort of fruit and vegetable that grew on their property. As she proudly waved her arms describing the results of the family’s labor to subsist on their own land, she also pointed to the meat they’d canned, pork, beef, chicken, “And there,” she pointed, “is the bear.”
Bear? my mother wondered with an odd catch in her voice. Yes, bear.
Turned out that a few weeks before, Juanita had sent the kids out to pick raspberries. They hadn’t been gone lone before they all came pelting back scared witless, screaming that a bear was in the berry patch. I believe I mentioned that Juanita was a formidable woman, and when something threatened her brood of natural and foster kids, she turned into a real tiger. Loading Harry’s shotgun, she hopped on their old Farmall tractor, and set off to the berry patch shouting at the kids to stay inside and that’s she’d “take care of that damned bear.”
Which she did. Killed it dead with three rounds from Harry’s Remington 12 gauge pump shotgun. Then she wrapped a log chain around the bear’s back legs and dragged behind the tractor it back to the house, where she skinned it and butchered it, and then she and the kids canned it for Sunday dinners during the winter.
Most of the rest of my family were pretty conventional farm folks, with a thick leavening of city folks mixed in, and none of them made living quite the adventure some of Uncle Charlie’s family did. But when it comes time for a good story, it’s hard to beat their adventures that have the added cachet of actually being the truth. At least pretty much, anyway.