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Growing up in Nebraska

Growing up in Nebraska
by Joe Lea


My grandfather came to the United States in 1879 from England. I know very little about him and know nothing about his parents. I even tried to at least learn how to go about getting genealogical information through the British Embassy; they said the only practical way was to go to England and work from there. Since my grandfather passed away when I was 4 years old, all I have learned came from my father, that is very little.

Grandfather was born in Shropshire and must have been destined to come to America as he was christened Washington M. Lea. When he was 21, he sailed from Liverpool, landed in New York City, and went west by train to Kearney, Nebraska, in Buffalo County. Kearney was established near the site of Fort Kearney, along the Platte River, a military post whose soldiers duties included protecting the pioneers on the Oregon Trail. The Trail followed the Platte River for several hundred miles, as now does a major railroad, the Union Pacific, the first transcontinental highway, US 30, and now a major interstate, I-80. There are several places along the Platte River where the land is just as it was 150 years ago and the ruts made by the wagons on the Oregon Trail are still visible.

Note: my grandfather did not pass through Ellis Island, as it was not opened as an immigration center until 1892. Nebraska was granted statehood in 1867 and the transcontinental railroad was completed about the same time.

Grandfather must have know precisely where to go, but I have never known how or where he got his information. Upon arriving in Kearney by train, he walked with his few possessions to a point some 20 miles northwest, where he staked out his homestead claim, 160 acres of prairie. With winter approaching, he dug a cave and lived in it through the winter of 1879-1880. In the spring, he bought two horses and a plow and began turning over some of the prairie sod. This began the process of farming this land.

He also began to construct a dwelling - a sod house. In a land of few trees, it was only natural to use the sod, of which there were countless acres. I doubt that even one tree existed on his 160 acres. To this day the only trees are those which grow along the two rivers and those which have been planted around the farm houses and buildings to protect them from the ever-present wind.

In 1883 my grandfather took a bride, Miss Emma Wohlebe, the daughter of German homesteaders who lived nearby. Their first child was a daughter born in 1885, the second and last child was my father, born on the fourth of July 1889. Both were born in that sod house on the homestead.

Some of these sod houses still exist and are in everyday use; there is one there in Buffalo County with which I am quite familiar. With a modern roof, modern windows and doors, it still has the original walls of sod approximately two feet thick. These thick walls make it relatively warm in winter and cool in summer.

My father had very little formal education; he probably went no further than the 3rd grade and maybe even not that far. He grew up on the homestead, married, and remained a farmer. He married Ada Campbell, my mother. Two sisters preceded me; all of us were born in a farmhouse on a windswept knoll in northwest Buffalo County. The nearest city was Kearney, the county seat, about 28 miles away. There was a much smaller town, population less than 200, 8 or 9 miles away. Though small, this town had a drug store, 2 grocery stores, 2 gas stations, a creamery, and a restaurant. Everyone went to town on Saturday night to take their cream and eggs, buy a few groceries, and generally fellowship with their neighbors.

Of the farm where I was born, nothing is left now but the land, the buildings having been torn down. A neighboring farmer bought it and removed the buildings (it reduced the taxes).

According to my birth certificate, there was a doctor in attendance at my birth, Dr. A. L. Randall. I grew up to know Dr. Randall and his family. Their two sons were grown and had left home by the time I entered my teens. They had a pool table in their basement, and the boys gone, Mrs. Randall wanted to get rid of it. She offered it to some of us young people and of course we could not turn this down. The table was full-size, heavy as a bulldozer, slate bed and all that. We disassembled it, hauled it out piece by piece and reassembled it in Dave Hunter's barn, dirt floor and all. We enjoyed that table for a good while; I don't know whatever became of it, for all I know it might still be there.

The Story

Chapter 1

The weather in Nebraska can be rather pleasant, but it can also be quite ugly. Winter often produced extreme cold. We had a big round thermometer out in the corral and I well remember one morning when I was up atop a haystack pitching hay down to the cattle when my father announced that it was 36 below zero. Winter was long. The first frost usually would be in late September, spring thaw in late March. The wind seemed always to be blowing in winter from the north or northwest. Summer was hot, often exceeding 100 degrees with the never-ending wind, only now it came in from the desert southwest. Humidity was extremely low, often less than 10 percent. Old timers used to say that one day the wind stopped blowing and everyone who was out walking fell down. No one needed a weather vane; if you wanted to know which way the wind was blowing, you just looked out to see which way the barn was leaning.

During the early thirties, the drought was so severe that crops amounted to little or nothing. In addition, 1934 saw the infamous dust storms, clouds of dust so thick that it turned dark in mid-afternoon. This dust was said to be Oklahoma's top soil blowing in.

These were hard times. Many farmers lost their land, everyone suffered in some way. Money was unbelievably scarce. Farmers who did manage to hang on to their land had to sell down most of their livestock, including breeding stock, for lack of feed for the animals. Pastures were dried up, crops shriveled up.

Boys on the farm started helping with chores at a very young age, doing little and probably inconsequential things at about the age of 8, progressing each year to more and more things. In 1934 my father designated a certain calf as MY calf. I was 12 years old, had been helping for probably 4 years and this was the first time that a critter was called MINE. I took very special care of that calf, even went all up and down the roads pulling weeds for it to eat, since the pasture was nearly all dried up. By late fall, he was a nice 900 pound steer, and it was off to market (the Omaha stockyards). The steer of course went in a truck with other cattle. The trucker got a small fee, the stockyards got a small fee, and I got a check for 19 dollars and change. Today, you can carry $19 worth of beef in one hand. I remember buying a 12-gauge shotgun for 3 dollars, a pair of shoes and some clothes and my money was about gone.

You have all heard at least one song about the "tumblin' tumbleweeds." These things are very real. A plant of the thistle family, they grow 12 to 16 inches in diameter, depending on whether it rained once or twice during that summer. They were almost perfectly round, but with a single stem of course. Frost killed the plant, it soon dried out, the stem broke off at ground level. With never a lack of wind, they went rolling along. They were very prickly, not something you wanted to handle. Sometimes they piled up at fences until the wind changed directions, and then they continued to roll around until they disintegrated.

Chapter 2

I have very little recollection of the farm where I was born. I do have a few snapshots, one of my sisters and myself with a two-wheeled home-made cart and a goat hitched up to it. When I was four we moved to a small farm on the South Loup River. I have many good memories of this river. It would sometimes get low during dry periods, but it has never run dry to the best of my knowledge. The bottom was pure sand and many a load was shoveled off of sandbars for use in making concrete.

My maternal grandmother taught me how to fish when I was about 5 years old; she was born during the civil war, so she must have been about 70 at this time. With its sand bottom, the river was clean, and the channel catfish taken from it were absolutely delicious. These fish were an important part of our summer and autumn diet. With no refrigeration it was not possible to keep fresh meat in warm weather. That left chicken and fish --- and I do not care much for chicken to this day.

Having been taught by my grandmother, it was easy to catch a lot of fish, much more than we could use right away. But in the corral we had a large (10 to 12 feet in diameter) watering tank, and this is where I put the excess fish, alive of course, for later use. The cattle ignored the fish, and having the fish in the tank was very convenient if my mother suddenly directed me to get some for supper.

The river, while generally quite shallow, offered a few deep holes for swimming and this is where I learned to swim. Furthermore, it often served as a bathtub after a day of working the fields in dry, dusty weather.

Our pasture was bisected by the river, the cattle were free to graze either side. At an early age, my job was to get the milk cows in from the pasture to the milking barn at milking time. If the cows were across the river, my shoes and most of my clothes came off and I waded across to drive the cows home. In winter the milk cows were penned up with no access to the river.

Chapter 3

The telephone system for the nearest small town and the nearby farms was privately owned by a local family. I will not identify the town at this time, as some of this family still lives around those parts. The head of this family was in his 80's by the time I entered the Army and left Nebraska for good and he was still climbing poles. In fact, he was THE lineman. As mentioned before, the town was small, a population less than 200, and the surrounding farms fairly large, hence the phone system covered a lot of miles but with not a great number of customers. Businesses, residences, farms --- they were all on one directory, one piece of heavy paper (or perhaps light cardboard), probably no more than 50 subscribers.

As an economy measure, Mr. Owner seldom installed a new pole; instead when a pole rotted off just below ground level, he dug a new hole beside the original and lowered what was left of the pole into the new hole. As a result, some of the lines out in the countryside were not very high off the ground.

All the phones were the old hand-cranked, hang-on-the-wall type; one good crank got you in touch with the central office and a voice said "number please," plugged you in to the proper line, gave it a ring. The voice, male or female, was simply known as "Central", and things were quite informal. With so few subscribers, Central and most callers, knew everyone's number. When "Central" said "number please" the caller often simply said "get me Jake Smith, please."

The "Central" who worked at night had sleeping facilities, as there had to be someone there in case an emergency existed. I doubt that his/her sleep was very often interrupted.

Now before you get the idea that our phone system was primitive, well, we even had such modern conveniences as call forwarding before most of you ever heard of such a thing. It worked this way: my father might ring Central and say "ring Jake Smith, please." Now Central was on the second floor of one of the towns two grocery stores and he or she could see the entire block which passed for a business section. Central might say "Jake isn't home because I saw him go into the drug store just now; I'll ring there." That was our version of CALL FORWARDING.

On another occasion, two people might be having a phone conversation of trivial chit-chat when Central would break in saying that "so-and-so wants to talk to you and they say its important." Now I would say that was CALL WAITING.

Chapter 4

WORK (note that this is a four-letter word) was just about the sum and substance of life on the farm back in the 1930's. No one took a vacation, no one had any money to be able to afford a vacation. Moreover, livestock required daily and often twice-daily attention. We always had six to eight milk cows and they absolutely had to be milked twice daily. This was done by hand, no milking machines back then.

Livestock required less attention in summer, but then there was all the work to be done planting, cultivating, and harvesting the crops. But winter, though requiring little or no field work, made up for it in other work, and the worse the weather the more work. Pumps had to have special care to prevent freeze up and ice had to be chopped from the watering tanks twice a day so the livestock could drink.

But it wasn't all work. In the warm months we often got together on Sunday afternoon to play baseball. We played in a pasture, often with the cows in the outfield, to say nothing of cow by-products (as in "watch out, don't step in that"). Later on, our small town built a lighted softball field, with a few interesting twists which I'll cover later. Summertime saw the free outdoor movie every Wednesday night, sponsored and paid for by the merchants in our little town. A large screen was erected on a vacant lot, people brought chairs, or just stood. The movie was usually an ancient western. It drew farm families to town in mid-week in addition to the time-honored Saturday night trip to town.

The 4th of July was a day that almost everyone honored. If you said to a Nebraskan "the fourth," it absolutely meant the fourth of July, not January 4th, not October 4th. Usually on this patriotic holiday we had a baseball game, a picnic in a grove by the river, and all the children had some of their own personal fireworks for evening. Home-made ice cream was a MUST at the picnic.

Chapter 5

The years 1933/1934 saw the WPA in action in Buffalo County; in case you do not remember, this program was created by FDR, to make jobs during the depression. Today we would call it work/welfare. But enough of politics. The South Loup River had quite a radical semi-circular bend about three-quarters of a mile upstream from the bridge over highway 10, which led from our little town to Kearney, 18 miles south on this graveled road.

During the summer and fall of 1933, the WPA men worked about 6 months digging a direct route channel to reroute the river and eliminate this bend. This was done with shovels and wheelbarrows --- one really big job. After digging a trench (ditch??) about 1000 feet in length and 15 to 20 feet wide, many attempts were made to induce the river to enter its new channel. Day by day, wheelbarrow load after load of dirt was dumped in such a way as to make a dam. Of course this dirt was almost immediately washed away by the flowing current. Not one drop of water entered the new channel, except perhaps the perspiration of the workers.

Winter came and the project was abandoned. The WPA went into the outhouse business. I am not making this up; anyone who requested it would have a nice 2-holer built on a concrete base at some suitable location on their property. I have first hand knowledge of this --- we had one built out near the barns and we used it.

But back to the river and its proposed new path. The winter of 1933-34 passed and with spring came the rains. The river rose, barely staying within its banks, water shot down the new channel, widened it a great bit, and with the current diminishing on the old channel, it began to fill itself with sand. In two days, the new channel was formed.

But there was a down side to this. The new channel directed the main force of all this high water precisely to the north side of the bridge down stream. In a matter of hours, it washed out the north approach, the bridge, still anchored on the south side, it made a neat 90 degree shift and was pointing down stream. It took them four months to build a new bridge.


In its effort to bring the U.S. economy out of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress created, for workers still unemployed, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to provide them with work relief to stem the erosion of their skills and self-respect. The WPA employed an average of 2,100,000 workers and by the end of 1935 was bringing a marked measure of recovery to the economy by pouring billions of dollars back into the U.S. economy. It ceased to exist in 1943.


Chapter 6

As mentioned before, highway #10 which led to the county seat of Kearney was a graveled road. All the rest of the roads in our part of the county were just plain dirt --- no hard surface of any kind. The nearest town, the one where we shopped for groceries, had a few sidewalks, but no paved streets. We had to travel many miles to see any pavement. No wonder we never learned to roller skate.

We did ice skate, mostly on the river, and often at night. Late November usually was cold enough to make skating ice as winter came early. By late winter, ice on the river was 18 to 24 inches thick. We would build a fire right on the ice to provide a bit of warmth plus a little light. Often we skated under bright moonlight. The fire did not melt through the ice, far from it, melting down maybe an inch.

Boys began hunting in their early teens; ringed neck pheasants and ducks both had an autumn season and were fairly plentiful. At an early age, I bought a used 12 gauge shotgun at the local hardware for $3.00. The gentleman who ran the hardware sold 3 shotgun shells for 10 cents and that was usually all I could afford, so I had to make them count.

Chapter 7

Farmers throughout Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas raised considerable wheat. Nowadays it is all harvested by a combine. The machine was relatively new in the 1930's and very few farmers could afford to scrap their old equipment and by a combine. Instead the wheat was cut with a binder which tied it into bundles. These bundles were then stacked into what was called a shock, 15 to 20 bundles in each. A week or so in the hot sun and the wheat was dry and ready to be threshed. One person in the area had a large tractor and a threshing machine; he charged a reasonable fee for the use of this equipment. 8 to 10 farmers then banded together and helped each other during the threshing process.

The wheat bundles were pitched from the shocks into a hayrack pulled by a team of horses; when loaded the hayracks were pulled up to the threshing machine, usually one on each side, where the bundles were pitchforked into the machine. The machine was in a fixed position, usually in a corner of the same field. The wheat grain came down a spout into a wagon, the straw came blowing out of a large pipe into a pile. This pile became very large. The straw was used for bedding in barns and livestock sheds, and for mulch in the family garden. The rest of it decayed and was plowed back into the soil. Livestock eat hay, not straw; even a starving critter would be reluctant to eat wheat straw.

Chapter 8

In the 1930's farm hands were paid $1.00 per day plus room and board for general farm work, planting, cultivating, fixing fence, milking cows, etc. The wage went up to $2.00 per day during threshing and silo filling --- these were long days of hot, dirty, hard work. I hired out any time that I wasn't needed at home, and perhaps at times when I should have been working at home. Money was so scarce that it was difficult to pass up an opportunity to earn a few dollars.

The "big" money was in shucking corn. (We did not husk it, we shucked it). Pay was by the bushel, estimated of course, 4 cents per bushel. A full wagon was considered to be 35 bushels, therefore if one could get nearly 3 loads a day, he could earn $4. Believe me, you earned it. The corn was shucked in late fall, after a good freeze, and on into the winter, often with snow on the ground. The day light was short, so naturally work began and ended in total darkness. It was up by 5:00 am, locate the horses, put them in the barn and feed them, harness them, then go eat breakfast. To the field at first light, fill the wagon, come in, unload, back to the field, same thing and back for the 3rd load.

At some point, most likely while traveling to or from the field, you ate a bag lunch which the farmer's wife fixed for you. It was in at dark with the last load, unload it, take care of the horses, and eat supper. By this time, sleep was the only thing on your mind.

Chapter 9

The small town near where we lived was served by the Union Pacific railroad; this is certainly not unusual, for most towns had railroad service. The unique thing was that the train came into town every morning except Sunday, stayed around a few hours, then turned around and went back to its point of origin. The town, population less than 200, had two grain elevators and a stockyard. Considerable grain, livestock, and freight were shipped from there in the earlier years.

A long siding served both elevators and the stockyards. If the train brought grain or livestock cars to be dropped off, it simply carried them onto the siding, the engine then continuing on to the other end of the siding and once again onto the main track. It then backed up to the "Y," turned around and was headed in the opposite direction. (Any questions --- I'll draw a diagram).

Grain was shipped to Omaha, to the flour mills, and the livestock to the huge stockyards, in South Omaha, where the critters were purchased by representatives from the meat packing industry. Armour, Swift, and Cudahy were packers who did business in Omaha.

Of course, the railroad also handled freight and even an occasional passenger.

By the late 1930's, and even more so after the war, more and more of the freight, grain and livestock were being moved by trucks and the railroad's business rapidly declined. There was speculation that Union Pacific might close this line. Mother nature settled the mater in the spring of 1946 when the flooding South Loup River washed out the railroad bridge about 15 miles downstream from our town. At this time the line was discontinued for all time.

Chapter 10

Almost every town, no mater how small, had a grade school and a high school. The one I entered for my freshman year was a 2-story brick building with a coal furnace in the basement. Next to it was a square wooden building which housed grades 1 thru 8. (No kindergarten in those days).

Each high school fielded sports teams, baseball, basketball, track, and beginning in 1937, 6-man football. The latter was introduced to the Midwest because so many schools were very small. Naturally, we had a basketball team, but we had no gym; our games were played in the town's dance hall, low ceiling and all.

But things did get better, much better. In 1936, a new school was built, complete with a nice high-ceiling gym. This one building was for grades 1 thru 12. I really do not know how many students were in these 12 grades, but my class, which graduated in 1939, was at the time the largest class to graduate from that school. There were 22 of us.

Naturally our sports opponents were the other small schools in the area, and I still have box scores of numerous games in my scrap book. Among these are ones from basketball games against Amherst High, and on that school's roster was one Hubert Horacek, whom you all know better as Herb. He came to work in our Communications Center shortly after I did --- we recognized each other immediately.

Graduation from high school for me was in the spring of 1939; war was imminent in Europe, and we were all uncertain of our future. I entered college that fall, hung on for two years, but had to leave for lack of funds, and went back to the farm. In December of that year Pearl Harbor brought the war closer to us. I could easily have gotten an agricultural deferment, but decided I couldn't live with myself if I did so.

In the summer of 1942 came my 20th birthday, registered for the draft, I decided I had better help my father through the end of the year. The Buffalo County draft board agreed, so I entered the Army on January 6, 1943 and was assigned to the U.S. Army Air Corps.

Some of the young men took advantage of the agricultural deferment and, ironically, most if not all were drafted shortly after the end of the war. Far more of us went ahead and did our service during wartime; our little community suffered three killed and several wounded during the course of the war.

Chapter 11

Plumbing, or the lack thereof. The indoor bathroom existed only in the cities of Nebraska back in the 1930's. As noted previously, outhouses were the usual, and a large galvanized wash tub was commonly used for bathing. I took many a bath in one of these.

The typical kitchen range had a water reservoir in the right side which held several gallons of water. The water kept moderately hot when there was a good fire in the range. Thus in winter we had a source of hot water and it happened to be in the only room in the house that was reasonably warm. Guess where we bathed.

In summer it was basically a cold water bath, as cooking was done, at least in our house, on a kerosene stove. We surely didn't need the heat of the kitchen range during the summer. As noted before, my usual summertime bathtub was the river.

The water came from a well and pump out in the yard; it was pumped by hand into buckets and carrier to the point of use.

On the porch which one entered on the way into the kitchen was the washstand. It held a bucket of water, a dipper, and a wash basin. The dipper was used as a common drinking vessel and as a ladle to transfer water from the bucket into the wash basin. Sanitary??? Hardly, by today's standards--but we lived with it.

Chapter 12

Keeping warm in winter was not easy, as mentioned before, winter was c o l d. Those old farm houses were not insulated and the never-ending wind seemed to come in as it pleased.

At some point, probably in September, between silo filling and corn shucking, it was time to cut some firewood. Trees were not abundant, but cottonwoods grew in the river valley and a few were harvested each fall. This is a soft-wood tree which grows rapidly. The trees were cut by hand and sawed into firewood lengths using a hand-made mechanized crosscut saw. The wood was used sparingly, mostly in the kitchen range, some in the stove in the living room. Mostly, though, the only heat in the house was from the kitchen range. We did install a coal burning stove in the living room in the late 1930's and that was an improvement.

Outdoors, tending the livestock, we needed multiple layers of clothing--long underwear, two pair of trousers, a flannel shirt, a medium jacket and a heavy jacket. Two pair of sox, work shoes and overshoes for the feet; for the hands, a pair of jersey gloves, then cotton gloves, covered by cotton mittens. Even the pitchfork handle was cold. For the head, a heavy hunting type cap with ear flaps was needed.

Chapter 13

In my youth, a handshake between two people was often the only agreement, nothing on paper, nothing to be signed and notarized. A person's word was always good.

People helped one another when it was needed. There were fires --- the farm houses, barns, and other outbuildings were often made of wood. Interior lighting of the house was by oil lamps and caution was absolutely necessary. But out around the barns with a kerosene lantern in the midst of hay and straw, even extreme caution sometimes was not enough.

If a barn caught fire, it simply burned to the ground; no way to get enough water there quickly. When this happened, neighbors got together, provided most of the funds and the labor necessary to get a new building erected, usually in less than a week.

No one had any fire insurance on the house or outbuildings; this was an expense we chose to do without.

Juvenile delinquency was so rare that it wasn't known by that name. We gave the teachers few problems, not so much because we were afraid of the teachers, but because were afraid of our fathers.

One particular thing stands out in my memory: In our river valley pasture, marijuana grew wild, quite a bit of it. We teenagers all knew what it was, what it was supposed to do, how it was said to affect a person. I never, ever, knew of, or hear of, anyone trying this stuff.

Final Chapter

Teaching a 3-day-old calf to drink milk out of a bucket is quite an experience.

When a beef cow gave birth, we left mother and calf together until they wilfully had nothing more to do with one another, usually when the calf was about 3 months old. The cow had enough milk for the calf, but no more. She had milk for just about that same 3 months.

With the dairy cow it was different; she had several times more milk than the calf could possibly use. She needed to be milked on schedule, twice a day, not nursing her calf. So after 3 days, cow and calf were separated, the calf penned up and the cow free to go to pasture or whatever. This generated a lot of bawling by both mother and calf, but they got over it. Meanwhile, the calf had to be fed and it had to be fed milk. I watched Dad take care of this when I was young, but soon it became my turn.

The calf knows from nothing about drinking, but it knows how to suck. So you put some warm fresh milk in a bucket, straddle the calf's neck and hold the bucket under his nose. Dip a couple of fingers in the milk and offer the fingers for the calf to suck. The calf has smelled the milk and you have 75 or so pounds of calf who is gung ho, jumping and bucking, without the slightest idea of what is going on, except that he wants that milk.

After the calf sucks the milk off your fingers a few times comes the next step. While he is excitedly gumming your fingers you slowly push his head down into the bucket until his nose and mouth are submerged in milk. This usually results in the calf giving a big snort, milk flies everywhere, but you continue. Maybe after three or four snorting episodes, he catches on and actually begins to drink; and then again maybe not. But by the next feeding time this is one hungry baby and without fail will be drinking on his own. I never remember one going hungry through two feedings.

As soon as the calf has learned to drink, vitamins and other supplements were added to the milk and continued until the calf was weaned from milk in, what else, about 3 months.

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