Last Updated:  29 May 2003

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Old Woman Reading

Reprinted with permission from Marvin C. Hoffer



By Marvin C. Hoffer

Copyrighted © by

Marvin C. Hoffer

January 7, 1994

Lewistown, Mont.

Wednesday and Saturday nights brought about every South Dakota farmer and his family who could get an old pickup or Model A running into Java. It was necessity to a large degree, but it was more a prairie ritual, a gathering, a kinship. Living in isolated farms, working hard every day from before sunrise to well into dark, created a need to mix with your own kind now and then. So off to town we paraded. Mom usually had the kids shined-up, more or less, hair pasted down with Watkins Rose or Lilac Hair Dressing, which looked like green axle grease, and smelled as good, bib overalls (Osh-By-Gosh mostly) washed, and most of the hog manure kicked off leather shoes worn through on the soles by the previous owner.

Dad stropped his razor that he inherited from his Dad, pulled it through the bristle field so that his face took on a younger appearance according to Mom, including some nicks here and there which he doctored with bits of cigarette paper. Dad tried to soften his calloused hands with udder balm. It smelled good and eased weather-cracked hands. Mom had a fine print dress ironed, sturdy black shoes, and a brown hat with pheasant feathers dabbed on here and there to round out the "going to town" attire. Mothers always helped everyone else get ready, yet got into the car looking pretty fancy, always on time.

Dad had one, sometimes two, eight-gallon cream cans setting in the trunk of the Model A, lids hammered down tight. This was the makings of 18 milk cows chewing cud and swatting flies for a week. It was collected every morning and night from the De Laval cream separator sitting in the milk shed at the east end of the red cow barn. Usually younger kids hand cranked the separator while Mom and the older set washed it, then slopped hogs and thirteen cats with skim milk. It took a bit of hustle to crank the separator fast enough to make the bell ring before opening the spigot. Most cats pussy-footed around long enough to get a warm bowl of milk twice a day. Every drop of cream was poured into cans which were kept cool down in the storm cellar, that underground, earthen dugout just south of the house. Lots of butterfat in that cream. Mom used some sweet cream for baking and cooking, and making butter. Two quarts sweet cream, a clean metal gallon syrup can with a tight lid, about 45 minutes hard shaking between your knees, pour off the butter milk, add a bit of salt and Watkins Dandelion coloring and you had about two pounds of fresh, delicious butter. Fresh bread and butter!! Smell and taste it now?

Mom was the lady in charge of the chicken house with its commotion, feisty old hens, cocky roosters, and squabbling layers. These hens cut loose with their best voice at least once a day when they dropped that white or brown cackle berry into the yellow straw nest. It was an important event in their lives, and they wanted the world to know it. It was up to the kids to collect eggs every day and stack them in crates down in the root cellar. Sometimes a few hens took to laying eggs in a secret clutch for days, weeks, somewhere in the hay loft, hay stacks, or under a building. These were their primitive attempts to start a brood of chicks, but they were generally found before they hatched. Some nests held two-three dozen cackle berries, some near hatching. If you candled them in front of a light, every little chick was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed encased in a heavy brown shell.

The trip into town was at a snappy pace, depending on time of year. Snow on the trail, spring mud and ruts, or dry and rocky, all required different speeds and care. Some folks drove over an hour on roads that were never "oiled", just plain gravel, if lucky. On occasion they met neighbors heading for Java in their chariot, whatever the make and model. A dusty convoy of two or three growling machines rambled into town, bout 7 pm, or earlier if winter was on the scene. They came from the four corners of the prairie. It was time to refuel one's soul with friendship, and stuff a person's mind with chatter and a bit of gossip to make it through the week. "Did ya hear...?"

Dad tried to pull up on Main Street as close to the Creamery and the Red Owl Store as he could so that he didn't have to haul the heavy cream cans too far. The oldest kid in the clan hauled the egg crates into the Red Owl Store, where I usually met them and carried those crates into "the back". This was part of the store's inner sanctum, no public allowed. That is where I performed my magic. Cackle berries to cash.

As a gangly high school teenager I worked to generate some spending money, and learned skills I would never use again. Elmer Biel owned the Red Owl and gave me a job of "Handy Man", 3rd Class. The work was a varied as your mind could crank-up. The big city buyers of eggs didn't like those little chicks in the shipment, so I had to dig out each cackle berry from the farmers crates, hand candle it, and tally up the final count and convert to cash value. The egg crate dividers tore all the hide around my finger nails till they bled on the eggs. I never figured-out a way to lift each egg out without that pain. The egg value in cash I gave to the clerk up front who credited each farmer's wife for the groceries she had purchased. It was an effective barter system. Cackle berries for cash. To that she added the cream check and often paid for food and had a bit of change coming. Cackle berries and cream. Kept a lot of folks in bread and beans during many lean years. There were plenty of those.

The Red Owl did custom butchering of hogs and beef. I can't recall a single mutton or goat going through the butcher shop. The Germanic community of Java wasn't noted for its consumption of sheep or goat meat, and there wasn't a synagogue in sight so none of the neighboring communities ate it either. A top hand in the butchering business was Marv Gross, a tall, lean, Germanic fellow with roots in the Eureka country. He was one of the best baseball pitchers in the country, and one who could handle a meat saw or a trim knife with grace. Marv and I processed, that is a finer term for the business, many critters through the shop. Those were the days when farmers prided in raising big hogs, 3-400 lbs. and more. I recall that they rendered pure white lard by the bucket. No lean hogs to be seen. "If you couldn't raise-em big, you got outta the business."

Had a cast iron scalding cauldron out back into which we lowered a hog carcass to begin ridding it of hair and bristle. After a lot of grunting, by us, not the hog, it came out shiny and ready for the butcher shop tables. We cut, trimmed, and packaged tons of meat. We ground meat into burger, real "ham burger", trimmed bacon sides and hung them in the smoke house. Sheep or hog intestines were washed and filled with spicy, ground meat to make those famous German sausages sold around the region. Hams were brined and hung among sausage and bacon for days of slow smoking. It was a work of art, a marvel of motion and grace, more or less, to see us working. Most towns folks and area farmers had their livestock butchered at the Red Owl, and we ran a lot of critters through that place. It was top quality meat, and top quality butchering. Head cheese, German sausage, bacon, hams, burger, liver sausage, blood sausage, all hand-made into the lip-smackin food for the masses. WasnÕt an Englishman or women in the bunch, and Finnlanders were scarcer still.

With all that butchering and processing there was a lot of cleaning to do. That was my job. That is why I was hired as Handy Man, 3rd Class. High-temperature, high-pressure water hoses gave me the leverage to swab down the walls, floor, tables and equipment. Grease, blood, and waste was sloshed down the drain into some unknown pit where it ultimately returned to the earth, from which it came. The hot, steamy, somewhat aromatic, shop was transformed into a shiny operation after a long day of butchering. Took some horsepower for me to get it right after lugging beef and hog quarters, hams, and sausages all day.

The most satisfying part of working at Elmer's Red Owl was after the last lady with her brood left the premises, well after midnight, and all the crew gathered up front to lunch. Yep, lunch at 1 am, Sunday morning. Elmer and his wife were generous folks. We hauled out cold cuts, milk, juice, bread, sausage, brined black olives from the 30-gallon wooden barrel, whole pickles, mayonnaise, milk and coffee from which we made healthy-sized sandwiches and washed them down with our favorite drink. Heck, I was often so darn tired that I don't recall what I ate, but it sure was good. Then home in the dark for a rather abbreviated snooze before church. It was a profitable life for me, I learned some trades, earned some cash, made some friends, and worked through part of my high school years in preparation for the future beyond Java. Yep, cackle berries and sweet cream are two foods I remember well.


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