It’s early summer in the Willamette Valley now. I’m finding cleaned-off cherry pits on the deck railing every day--a sure sign that the cherries are ready for picking, by both birds and humans. June’s rains are gone and the huge water “guns” provide a lovely water show every afternoon as they arc over the lush green berry fields just beyond our deck. When the sun is at the right angle, iridescent rainbows appear in those arcs of water. Some might think it strange that we find our deck view so satisfying--there is no blue lake to gaze upon, or ocean breakers. But what could be more beautiful than this rich, verdant land--especially in the late afternoon when the low rays of the sun make the green fields glow. We are looking at some of the most fertile land on earth--an irreplaceable treasure.
After spending most of our married lives in the suburbs of large cities it was a very special “coming home” to return to this lovely valley and once again feel at least somewhat connected to that most basic of human activity--producing food. Today, we were more connected than usual--we spent a few hours in a raspberry patch, lifting up long vines to find those extra-large, ruby red berries, carefully pulling the berries loose without bruising them, then hearing that satisfactory soft “plop” as a few more berries dropped into our buckets. As the sun warmed the vines, the scent of those ripe berries wafted up to us--not all earth smells are so inviting, but who could resist the scent of fresh raspberries?
As the berries were plopping into my bucket, I began to think of earlier times in my life when summers brought me a multitude of opportunities to share in the harvest and farm life. All around the Willamette Valley in the 1940’s children enjoyed an unwritten “equal opportunity” law--we were an integral part of the harvest. School didn’t linger until mid-June then because the strawberries would be ripe by late May and without little hands and flexible backs and knees, they wouldn’t be harvested. If you lived as I did, in the “truck garden” belt around Portland, you might even get special dispensation to leave school in time to pull rhubarb which was ready a couple weeks before the strawberries.
While I lived close enough to the strawberry farms to pedal there on my bike, not even the urban children of Portland escaped the call to duty. Old school buses made the rounds of the city, almost before daylight, gathering up the children and taking them out to Gresham or Hillsboro for the day’s picking. Supervising 10 to 15 year-olds in a berry patch, educating them on how to “top” their baskets by saving out the prime berries, and arranging them, top-down, so their deep red points would show, stopping the berry fights before they eroded the day’s profits--not an easy job! I can’t recall a cheerful field boss--they all seemed grumpy and old--probably they were at least twenty-five! But, in the patches where I picked, it was a short day--and sometimes the picking got rained out, so we were hardly overworked.
June was strawberries; early July was raspberries--no one ever complained about the raspberry picking. After all, instead of crawling on your hands and knees, you could stand almost straight up; their thorns were relatively mild; the June rains had ceased and there was still time to get to the chilly Clackamas River for an afternoon swim after your labors. There was a break in the field work in late July and about then, I would be invited to stay with the real farmers in my family--Aunt Mary and Uncle Bess who lived in St. Paul and Aunt Kathryn and Uncle Camille in north Salem. Lots of duplication in these two families: both aunts were my father’s older sisters and they had married brothers. Both were primarily dairy farmers, but augmented that with cherry and prune orchards, corn, berries, and onions. Both had one son and several daughters.
While I lived twenty miles southeast of Portland and our home was surrounded by those truck gardens, basically, I was a “city kid.” My dad commuted to a Portland office each day and the major chore for my brother and me was to keep a very large lawn mowed and trimmed. But, when I arrived for my two weeks in St. Paul or Salem, I was suddenly in the midst of serious farming. I don’t believe my aunts actively helped farm, they “only” had to raise five or six children, keep the kitchen and flower gardens, tend the chickens, can and freeze the produce, clean the house and put on three huge meals a day. But after the age of eleven, my cousins--like their parents--were full participants in farming. No rooster ever got to wake up these dairy farmers--they were well along in the morning milking before the rooster got his eyes open. Even in summer’s long days, their mornings started long before sunrise.
As the visitor, I got some special dispensations--like sleeping a half hour longer. I don’t know who brought the cows into the milking barn--by the time I got there, they were always all locked into their stanchions, calmly lapping up the grain as one of the younger cousins used a huge push broom to keep the feed within easy reach of each cow. These were Jersey cows, with soft tan hides and beautiful dark faces--a rare breed now, when butterfat in milk is a nutritional no-no. These cows didn’t produce the volume of today’s Holsteins, but they were the “elite” of the dairy world then--the creameries were eager to turn their rich milk into butter, cream and ice cream--that was where the money was. The Salem family had upgraded to milking machines by 1939; the St. Paul relatives still hand-milked their smaller herd. Twice a day, the milk barn was a hubbub of activity, as the older cousins and my uncle moved quickly from one cow to another, carefully cleaning the cow’s udder, then either hand-milking (in St. Paul) or (in Salem) putting on the milking tubes, and later, “hand-stripping” the teats after the machine was removed. I can still hear that quiet pumping sound that would come from all over the barn. Soft radio music played in the background--apparently music brought contentment to the cows; and contented cows gave more milk. Just outside the barn was the milk room--and in there other cousins carefully monitored the still-warm milk as it came surging out of the hoses leading up from the barn and they guided the hose into five-gallon cans. As each heavy can was filled, a cousin lifted it high over her head so the milk would pour down over water-cooled coils. Finally, the chilled milk entered huge galvanized milk cans that would soon be taken off to the creamery. These young ladies never had to pay an athletic club to keep their muscles strong!
After a couple of hours of working at top speed, everyone retired to the house for the huge breakfast that Aunt Kathryn or Aunt Mary had been preparing--oversize bowls full of oatmeal followed by bacon and eggs and all the trimmings. Then--the rest of the farm work would get underway until the entire milking scenario was repeated in late afternoon. I’ve always stood in awe of farmers and their hard labor, but those family-run dairies with few hired hands to relieve the unending workload surely must have been exceptional. Three hundred and sixty-five days a year, morning and afternoon--those cows had to be milked. You could observe the Sabbath by staying out of the fields, but not out of the milking barn! My cousins knew a discipline I could barely comprehend.
I’m grateful for two things: that I had the chance to experience what it was like to be part of a farm family; and that after two weeks I could return to my suburban way of life!
Epilogue: Uncle Camille’s cows had a sad fate: “Bang’s Disease,” or Brucellosis invaded the animals and in 1948 all were destroyed.
In 1962, the former cow pastures bordering Highway 99E were “planted” with mobile home parks. By now, the only son, George, was managing the family farm. Mobile home parks certainly provided an easier and probably a more certain living. The huge white dairy barn still sits next to my aunt and uncle’s handsome, square farmhouse. A third and fourth generation of my cousins occupy the house and the barn is a storehouse for the mobile home parks. Painted on the side of the barn are the words: “Stupfel, 1921.”
On July 4, 2000 my cousin, George Stupfel, died at the age of 82--never having lost the discipline and the strength that living close to the land can bring.
On December 29, 2008, George's younger sister, Carole, succumbed to pneumonia at age 85, after a long and full life. She provided me with many of the details of life on a dairy farm, for my memoir, "Farming in Oregon, My Remembrances."
Barbara Halliday, July 10, 2000
Unless otherwise noted, text and photos are the property of Glenn and Barbara Halliday, © 2007