For a little humor, a lot of grit and some real life homesteading stories, be sure to pick up Little Heathens, Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Depression, by Mildred Armstrong Kalish. Ah, how I love books like this!
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The Beginning of the Little Heathens
During the narrative of Little Heathens, Mildred takes you through her younger years, when she was one of the Little Kids, not to be confused with the Big Kids. She grew up on an Iowa farm during the years of the Depression. Kalish talks about family, religion, building character and working hard. She also talks about the practicalities of their every days on the farm: picking veggies for dinner, wash day, gathering nuts, going to school, cooking on a wood stove and so, so much more.
Life Without Luxuries
I read with interest about how the haying was done without today’s heavy equipment. So much manual labor each year in the heat. But the Little Heathens did it together.
I was so grateful for my heater as I read how in the winter it got so cold in their upstairs rooms that the grown ups allowed it to be a one dog night. As in, the dog got to sleep with them to keep them warm. If it was particularly cold, it became a two dog night and both dogs were allowed on the bed.
In the days before the cursed TV, these kids decided to actually dig a hole to China in some of their precious spare time. It was going well until their uncle found the hole by falling into it in the dark while chasing a runaway pig.
My kids balk at being sent to their rooms. But the Little Heathens knew what a punishment was and it involved a great deal of stinging backsides!
Homemade Toys and Trappings
Mildred writes about the children doctoring their one baseball for years and years. They sewed it back up every time it busted a seam, until it finally couldn’t be fixed anymore. After that, its inner core did duty as a golf ball. I was amazed at how much ingenuity even the smallest child exhibited in re-purposing everything from tin cans to meat drippings.
Her grandmother, with whom Mildred and her family lived, would makeover socks that had holes in the toes. She’d clip off the wounded sections and sew them back up at the toe to become a new pair of socks for the next size down foot. Once those socks finally wore out or the heel went, Grandma would re-purpose those, too. She’d cut off the leg of the socks and line the cuffs of winter coat sleeves with them to further insulate them against the snow. Ever gotten a nice blast of snow down your sleeve?
The Obligatory Outhouse Story
I laughed as I read this about the amenities in the outhouse:
“There were minimal amenities in the outhouse – the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogues, possibly some corn cobs, and a large covered pail of lime. One of the more sagacious tricks we learned form our elders was to select a Bible-paper-thin page from the back of one of the catalogues, and scrunch and crumple it over and over again until it became as soft as tissue paper. This was its last and most important service.”
I remember when I lived in Russia and visited with naturally frugal families there, we used wallpaper and old Soviet money as toilet paper. Hey, man, waste not, want not.
Some Salty Parts
There’s a whole section on how the Little Kids learned about cussing around the farm and it got a little too salty for my taste. I skipped it. There were a few sections that made my ears burn a bit but I’m quite a prude, FYI.
Otherwise, I loved reading about all that work.
What they were expected to do every day tired me out just reading about it!! I sucked down that information like water because I really want to know how to do it all. Planting, cooking, washing, doctoring, making, creating, learning!
Little Heathens for Kids
The importance of children was one lesson that was really brought home to me as I read this book. Kalish pointed out how necessary and vital children were to the success of their family. Each child, down to the youngest, was expected to do their chores. It was important that the work got done for the good of the family.
If you didn’t bring the wood in for the morning cook stove fire the night before, you were rousted out of bed early to get it done. Joel Salatin makes a similar point in his fine book, Folks this ain’t normal. He points out that these days children are considered a liability instead of an asset. Mostly because there’s nothing useful for them to do in our sanitized, modern lifestyles full of relative ease.
Mildred paints a picture of a life of hard work. It was a rough and tumble life to be sure, but it was a life of meaning and purpose for children. She talks about how their characters and work ethics were built through all those expectations. Sometimes the pressure to be good little children was pretty intense, but overall her tone is a happy one.
She was full of gratitude to her family for all they taught her. They taught me quite a bit, too.