Every summer in the 50’s and 60’s my parents, my two brothers and I would make a trip from Renton, where we lived, to western Montana to visit my father’s parents who lived on their farm near the town of Ronan lived. My grandparents lived in a different world than me.
My grandfather, Herbert Elfers, never graduated from high school. His father, George Elfers, a German immigrant, came to America with his older brother as a young boy in the late 1800s. They first settled near Wenatchee. When Herbert was thirteen, his father kicked him out of the house. I never found out why. That was the end of my grandfather’s formal education.
About 1912, my grandfather left Wenatchee and came by train to Dixon in western Montana with his wife and their one-year-old son Paul, my father. From there, they drove the 23 miles to Ronan in a snowstorm in a horse-drawn cart. My grandmother didn’t have a coat, so my grandfather gave her his. He got pneumonia and almost died.
They farmed 320 acres west of Ronan granted to them by the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 and raised cattle on most of their allotted acreage. My grandfather grew crops like wheat and barley and also hay. I remember as a kid my grandfather would let my middle brother John ride the horse drawn cultivator with the seat at least 8 feet off the ground. I remember being jealous.
My grandmother had a large vegetable garden on the property, as well as a flower garden that still exists today. After my father, three girls and one more brother were born.
There were many chickens running around the house and a chicken house where my grandmother used to collect eggs. She let me do it, but I didn’t like being pecked by the chickens. Occasionally my grandfather or father would catch a chicken, put its neck over a piece of wood and hack off its head. I watched in fascination as the decapitated chicken kept walking, blood spurting from its severed neck. This chicken would be our dinner that night.
Being a farmer/rancher was hard work! Post holes for barbed wire fences had to be dug by hand with a post hole excavator. Imagine doing that for 320 acres! Part of the fence near the barn was electrified and I remember being shocked a couple of times.
Grandfather milked some of the family cows in the barn every morning and evening. I remember learning to pull the teats just right to squirt the warm milk into the bucket. Sometimes the cow would kick over the bucket and spill the milk for the cats to lick. The cow’s tail caught me in the head and back as I leaned forward to milk her while sitting on a three-legged milking stool, resting my cheek against her stinking flank. Once I got the hang of it, I shot a jet of milk into the mouth of one of the numerous barn cats.
Grandfather and his servants filled the barn with loose hay. We children were allowed to jump from the upper level of the barn onto the soft hay below.
When we visited one summer, grandfather and some neighbors branded and castrated calves. They heated the branding iron in a wood fire and then branded the cattle. They used a knife to castrate the male calves. The dogs took the severed testicles and played with them like a chew toy. I have this curved branding iron as a reminder of that experience. The brand was lazy P/H for my father Paul and his younger brother Herbert Jr.
In a room by the back door was a milk separator. The family sold the milk and cream they didn’t need themselves. Grandmother cooked and baked delicious meals on a large wood stove. The house was heated with a coal stove in the living room. Grandfather had placed a large bucket next to his chair, in which he chewed and spat tobacco. I thought it was disgusting, but nobody commented on it.
My grandparents didn’t have plumbing or electricity until the early 1950s, when my father and some of his brothers-in-law connected the pipes and cables to the farmhouse.
My father went to college to be an electrical engineer. Due to family poverty during the Great Depression, it took him eight years to get his electrical engineering license. Every summer my father would come home from college and find work to pay for his next year of college.
There are many more stories from my childhood, but the purpose of this account is to help us all understand how far we’ve come since my grandparents’ time. Sometimes reflection gives us a glimpse of what we take for granted today.