Bread and Meat
by Barbara Levorsen (Volume 22: Page 178)
MRS. LEVORSEN, who spent her childhood
in Wells County, North Dakota, has written a fascinating autobiographical
account to which she has given the title "The Quiet Conquest."
One chapter of this unpublished work, "Early Years in Dakota,"
appeared in volume 21 of Norwegian-American Studies.
K. O. B.
DURING the early years, bachelor homesteaders in Dakota had
to endure the monotony of their own cooking and housekeeping.
Living at least a day’s journey from town, they seldom tasted
fresh meat, fruit, or vegetables. They have told me that the
craving for meat was the hardest to bear. No wonder we heard
stories about bachelors trying to cook even badger meat —
and being unable to eat it. One man said he made a big kettle
of oatmeal in the morning; he ate some then, more at midday,
and the rest in the evening. Some became fair breadmakers
and I knew one who could make very good lefse. Whatever I
heard, after the turn of the century, about their culinary
difficulties is almost forgotten. Often, when Mama was washing
dishes, one of these neighbors would tell her that she should
follow his system. After  he had finished a meal he would
turn the plate upside down over the knife and fork, place
the cup, bottom up, alongside them, and — presto — the dishes
were ready for the next meal.
Housekeeping in a soddy with dirt walls and floor would seem
impossible today. This was certainly the time and the place
where the saying applied, "What cannot be cured must
be endured." This enduring was perhaps one of the reasons
why bachelors were said to drown their sorrows in whisky.
They did not lose their sense of humor; or perhaps I should
say that they made light of their problems, as the following
story shows: Anton went to see his neighbor, Karl, arriving
just as Karl was eating. Now, Anton was a dedicated tobacco
chewer. (I well remember the stream of juice that he could
eject at any moment.) Karl was quite aware of this habit and
when he asked Anton to sit down, he warned him that the pail
on the floor contained salted herring; Anton just couldn’t
spit in it! On the table was a large wedge of cheese; the
men were cutting slices from it when a mouse came out of a
hole in the sod wall and ran across the table toward the cheese.
Karl put out his knife to keep the mouse away from the food,
at which it sat up on its hind feet and showed fight. It was
a tame mouse; this was its home, and it would eat, too.
At our house, menus varied little over the years. I suppose
they were about the same in 1899 as in 1909. I would say that
we ate remarkably well; after all, we were at the source of
supply, just as the distant village store was, in another
way. We had all the milk, cream, and eggs we could use. We
had fresh homemade butter to eat and sell. If we had lived
nearer town, we might have sold milk and cream also. I think
back with real longing to the heavy, rich cream that Mama
skimmed from the top of the milk crocks.
In summer, people started work at daybreak and it was customary,
even necessary, for them to eat five meals a day. At breakfast,
at morning lunch and afternoon lunch — if these were eaten
in the house — there was always a bowl of cream on the table.
We would spoon the cream generously over  slices of Mama’s
light homemade bread, add dark syrup, and eat our fill.
Next day there was more fresh cream. What was left from yesterday’s
skimming had gone into the tall earthenware churn. Every day
Mama would keep adding to the cream in the churn until there
was enough to make butter. From the time when I was able to
force the dasher up and down, I helped with this task. Mama
had a large, wide wooden bowl into which she heaped the newly
churned butter. There she kneaded it and worked it over with
her hands or a wooden paddle, stopping every few minutes to
pour the buttermilk back into the churn. The secret of good
buttermaking, she said, was to remove all the liquid. Finally
she would bring cold water directly from the well to rinse
out the last of the buttermilk. Then she added salt, and again
she kneaded it thoroughly. When she had finished, she had
pounds of rich yellow butter.
The buttermilk was good to drink. It was useful for baking,
especially for "fry cakes," as we called doughnuts.
What we could not use in the house was carried to the pigs
and chickens. Not a drop went to waste. It was the same with
the skimmed milk. Mama had large earthenware milk crocks.
Often when these were carried up from the cellar, the milk
had soured and was as thick as pudding. Mama used her wooden
twirler or beater (turn) to whirl the milk about in the crock
until it was smooth again. We drank it this way, cool from
the cellar, and thought it very good. Some of the skimmed
milk was used in making cottage cheese. Without refrigeration
it could not remain cottage cheese very long, so it became
gamrnelost (aged cheese). Mama added caraway seed for flavoring
and kept it in a container with a tight cover. The older it
became, the stronger the taste and odor. Mama and I did not
care for it, but Papa and other men seemed to like the vile-smelling
stuff very much.
Mama and other pioneer women did not have egg beaters in
the early years. They used homemade wooden twirlers 
when cooking mush and for beating other foods. These twirlers
were well known among older people from northern Europe. They
were made from the tops of young pine trees. These trees often
put out four or five branches in a circle about the main stem.
The young tree was cut so that the branches were less than
an inch from the top; the branches were cut back to about
one and a half inches. The handle was made any desired length,
the bark was removed, and the piece whittled and rubbed into
smoothness. The cook rolled the handle back and forth between
her hands and the twirler worked beautifully. Egg whites were
beaten with a table fork in a plate or shallow dish.
Mama’s small flock of hens provided us with fresh eggs. Sometimes
she served them scrambled over fried salt pork, but mostly
she boiled them. An egg with Mama’s homemade wheat bread and
butter was a treat indeed. The coarse flour she used was ground
at Uncle Ole’s mill. It was real cracked wheat; nothing was
taken from or added to it.
Mama always had a small garden where she raised carrots,
onions, beets for pickling, and a few heads of cabbage. We
grew a lot of potatoes. There had to be enough for our table
for a whole year and for next year’s seed as well. I detested
potato raising. First the potatoes were cut up for seed; we
all took turns at this. Then came the day of planting. With
two horses on the walking plow, Papa turned the furrows. Mama
and I followed with the seed in pails and set the potatoes
a certain distance apart in the furrow. Always I had to see
to it that I pressed the cut side of the potato down against
the soil. Soon my back began to ache from the stooped position
in which we worked, and from carrying the heavy pail. After
the plants came up, they had to be hoed and tended all summer
long. Fortunately the potato bugs had not found their way
out there yet. All too soon it was time to start digging.
This was backbreaking work, too, but somehow I did not mind
it so much as the planting.
When I complained of being tired and "backachy,"
Mama  reminded me how well I liked lefse and that without
plenty of potatoes there could be none. Lefse is a bread that
is well known wherever people of Scandinavian ancestry live.
It is made from mashed potatoes, a little cream or shortening,
salt, and enough flour to roll out the dough like piecrust,
only much thinner. This dough is then baked right on top of
the stove — or was, in those days, on the old-fashioned cookstoves
or ranges. How were these big round pieces handled? We had
(and I still have) very long, thin, wooden sticks over which
the lefse was rolled, lifted onto the stove, and unrolled.
Good bakers would make the piece eighteen to twenty-four inches
across. When it had cooled—if we could wait that long—it was
eaten with butter and meat. Some like it with sugar and jam.
There is no better food than rib steak, sylte (head cheese),
or home-ground meat made into meat balls, rolled up in the
In summer we seldom had fresh meat. After a trip to town
we might have bologna for supper and enough meat for a meal
or two later. This Mama would fry as soon as it came into
the house. The trip from town took two hours, a long time
for a meat package to lie in a wagon box, warmed by the summer
sun. After the experience of some neighbors, Mama was doubly
cautious. The elderly couple came home from town in the early
evening. They were hungry, but the cows had to be milked,
eggs gathered, and other chores performed before dark. It
was dusk when they finally sat down to bread, butter, and
a ring of bologna they had brought from town. They ate heartily
and drank cold coffee left from breakfast. Then they went
to bed and slept well. The next day, the woman took out the
remaining bologna and opened the wrapper. There were maggots
in the package. They knew that they had eaten some of them
the evening before, when their food had tasted so good!
Salt pork was our usual summer meat. We bought salt herring
in pails of brine. Supper was often herring, cold boiled potatoes,
with cream and bread or with prune sauce, and cold  milk
to drink. Mama often put in a full day in the field, and when
she came home she had the milking and other chores to do,
indoors and out.
We buried cured hams deep in the oat bin. This probably was
to keep the flies from the meat. If there was some other supposed
advantage in storing it there, I have forgotten what it was.
Threshing came much later in the fall than it did in after
years — in September and October, I think. There had to be
plenty of fresh meat for the men. The neighbors often arranged
that one would butcher a beef and another a hog, and then
they divided the meat for the threshing season. Later, when
cold weather came, others would butcher and pay back the meat
they had borrowed.
The kitchen became a busy place when threshing time drew
near. A girl came to help Mama, and this in itself was a diversion
to a child like me who was alone so much. No doubt I watched
her every move — and corrected her if she did the work differently
When the threshers came, there would be about twenty men
to feed five times a day. How long they remained would depend
upon how heavy the grain was, and also upon the weather. They
might finish in a day and a half, or remain for two weeks
if there were showers. Grain in shock was far more exposed
to rain damage than stacked grain; thus shock runs had to
be threshed first. Papa always stacked his grain because this
method required fewer men and teams with the machine. The
farmers had to hire men to haul their grain from the threshing
machine, and Papa exchanged work with them.
Whenever last year’s grain was sold or used for seed or feed,
the boards on one side of the bins were taken down. Now the
bins were cleaned and the boards replaced. In the gable ends
of the building were two windows with a strong platform before
each. The granary man would stand there and, as the hauler
lifted the sacks up to him, he poured the  grain in through
the window opening. We had the same granary man year after
year. He was very nice to me, and he always brought his big
yellow dog, "Ring," who could fetch sticks — for
his master, not for me — and do other tricks.
Mama dug a sack of potatoes with my help. When the meat for
the threshers arrived, or when it was butchered right there
on the place, the big grinder was brought down from upstairs.
It was not used often. It was bolted to a board long enough
to extend from one chair to another, with room between for
a big dishpan underneath to catch the meat. Both beef and
pork were used for meat balls. Good meat — no heart, liver,
or kidneys — was ground twice. It was a job for two people,
one turning the grinder and the other putting in the small
pieces of meat. Turning was heavy work, so the two workers
sometimes changed jobs. Occasionally I had to stuff in the
meat, and then there was a steady stream of teasing and admonition
lest I put in my fingers and they be added to the meat balls!
Spiced and fried, sometimes served in rich brown gravy, they
were delicious, and not to be compared to those made of butchershop
The table was lengthened so that it stretched across the
end of the room, leaving only enough space in back for the
men to get to the places set at the far side. The "thresher
cloth" — a roll of oilcloth four yards or more long —
was carried down from upstairs and spread out.
Dishes long unused were brought out. The baking began. Pans
of bread — brown bread and white bread —came out of the oven.
Their crisp, brown crusts were rubbed with melted butter and
they were set away to cool. Later the loaves were carried
down to the cellar and stored in large earthenware jars used
for curing pork. Molasses cookies, sour cream cookies, and
batches of golden-brown doughnuts were made. Meanwhile beets
for pickles were boiling in Mama’s biggest kettle, and a huge
cast-iron skillet gave forth the enticing odor of frying meat
balls. Mama and the girl were beating and stirring so happily
that I suddenly felt I had to make something, too. From the
table I took a cup with some coffee grounds in it,  added
a teaspoon of milk, and took a pinch of flour and added that.
Then, cup and teaspoon in hand, I crawled underneath the table,
sat down, and stirred as hard as I could. It was an oddly
satisfying moment until the others heard me and I was forced
to come out and show them just what I had dragged underneath
When, at last, the threshing rig was on its way to our place,
I was so excited I could hardly wait. I was hiding in the
trees near by when the steam engine emitted a shrill whistle
and came chugging toward me. It was free of the machine now,
and the "chuka, chuka" was terrifying as it came
nearer. Living the year around in the prairie quiet, I found
the noise deafening and ran to the house for safety.
Papa came racing home to do the last-minute jobs. He and
the threshers had already decided which setting they would
work on first. There was always a setting of four or six stacks
right outside the pasture fence near the farm buildings, and
the wind had to be from the northwest so that it would blow
straw into the pasture. When the workers were starting at
this spot, Papa had to have the barbed-wire fence ready to
be laid down while the cumbersome rig went into the pasture
and turned. Then the separator and steam engine could be put
into position between the stacks, with the blower pointing
into the pasture.
Toward Christmas, as cold weather set in, came butchering
day. If a pig was to be slaughtered, it meant a busy morning
for Mama. As early as possible she put the wash boiler and
kettles full of water on the stove to heat. Someplace out
in the yard, Papa would dig a hole deep enough to hold a large
barrel set aslant against the stoneboat or some such flat
surface. The big knives would be sharpened and ready when
the neighbor who did the butchering arrived. But first he
and Papa must sit down and have some hot coffee and lunch
before they went to their cold work. If the water on the stove
was near to boiling, they went over and killed the pig and
dragged it to the dressing place. Hot water was poured into
the barrel and then they pushed the pig in.  Holding
onto its front feet and ears, they pushed it up and down in
the barrel while the water sloshed around it. After this they
put the pig on the clean platform, and with their sharp knives
proceeded to scrape off the bristles until the skin was smooth
I do not remember if it was blood from pigs or from beef
animals that we used for making blodklub (blood dumplings),
but I remember being told to keep stirring the glowing red
liquid as it ran into a pail. The others added clean snow
to it while I stirred. Mama made the dumplings large and boiled
them. Then, whenever she wanted to use some, she put milk
and cream into a skillet, cut the dumplings into small pieces,
then let them come to a boil in the rich liquid. I thought
them wonderfully good then, but I never want anything made
from blood again.
The last butchering chore of the day was Papa’s. In the evening
he would sit beside the stove to watch over the pig’s feet.
One by one he stuck them, toes first, in under the stove lid
so that the horny parts would get hot and he could shuck them
off. He then scraped and cleaned the feet, to be boiled later
with the pig’s head for pickling.
The head was boiled with added lean pieces of pork and all
of it then cut up small; this, with spices added, was placed
in a strong white cloth. Mama pulled the cloth as tight as
possible around the meat and tied it with cord. It was then
put away in brine with a weight over it so that it would become
solid enough to slice nicely. This pressed meat was called
sylte and, eaten with lefse, it was a Christmas delicacy.
The sylte did not have much in common with the head cheese
sold in markets today. We had the best pork obtainable. Besides
corn, the pigs were fed skimmed milk, table scraps, oats,
and barley. The pork ribs were cut so that there was plenty
of meat on the bones. Browned and roasted in the oven, they
were far too good to have any strong, spicy sauce poured over
We butchered our own young beef also. A small building back
of the house, sometimes used as a summer kitchen,  served
for storing meat in winter. This had been the flaxseed granary
in early years.
Once every winter Papa and some of the neighbors would send
to Duluth for hundred-pound sacks of fresh-frozen Lake Superior
herring, as advertised in the Norwegian newspaper Decorah-Posten.
These fish, browned in heavy cream, preferably sour cream,
as Mama could do it, were very good. Papa kept them in a hole
in the deepest snowdrift. I know why he put a heavy cover
and stone on top of this storage place, but I do not know
why the fish were not kept in the shanty with the meat!
Every year, long before Christmas, we bought another kind
of fish — the dry, hard lutefisk. It had to be soaked again
and again in water to soften it and remove the lye used in
preserving it. Before putting it to soak, Mama cut off several
strips of the skin. She cut them into three-quarter-inch squares
and threaded them on a string, which she hung in the pantry.
To clear boiled coffee, she would drop a few pieces of the
fish skin into the pot. No one ever used eggs to clear the
coffee in those days. Good lutefisk should be white and quivering
after it is cooked. Served with boiled potatoes and lots of
melted butter for both, it was very good, and was considered
indispensable for celebrating Christmas properly.
In winter Mama had more time for baking, so she made both
lefse and flatbrød (flat bread) often. Flat bread was
a crisp, simple wafer made from flour, salt, and shortening,
with corn meal sometimes added. It was rolled out very thin,
baked on top of the stove for a bit, and then finished in
the oven. With pieces of meat or cheese between the thin pieces,
it was tasty indeed.
Before Christmas Mama made several batches of cookies called
fattigmand (poor man’s cake). The dough was rolled thin and
cut in diamond-shaped pieces, then fried in deep fat, as doughnuts
are, and sprinkled with sugar. Papa served a hot alcoholic
drink when people came during the holidays, and these fragile
cookies accompanied the punch.
Cake, as we think of it, was unknown in Norway in Mama’s
 youth, and she never liked making layer cakes or frosting.
Her "fry cakes" were famous. Many asked for her
recipe; she would reply that she took "a little of this
and a little of that." This was an unsatisfactory answer,
and the women thought that Mama did not want to share the
recipe, but I know she was telling them exactly what she did.
Some good cooks are still doing just that — taking "a
little of this and a pinch or two of that."
She used cream, sweet or sour, for making molasses cookies
or white cookies, and they were of a generous size. She made
molasses and "everyday" white loaf cakes. The only
pie she baked in the earlier years had a custard filling that
I did not like. It was too rich, or maybe just tasteless.
The stove was fed soft coal, and the only oven thermometer
was the baker’s hand. Mama learned to judge the heat of her
oven and to keep the temperature even. Big pans of bread and
of soft white biscuits with golden-brown crusts came out of
the oven to send their wonderful fragrance through the house
and yard. I never saw a measuring cup or measuring spoon so
long as we lived there, at our house or anywhere else. Every
cook learned by trial and error how to handle the oven and
what size spoons and cups were best suited to her needs. So
when bread, layer cakes, and all manner of other baking came
out of the ovens done to a T, as the saying goes, it was a
tribute to the skill of the baker.
Company who came on Sundays had to get home in time to do
chores, and this might mean driving several miles with team
and wagon; so they needed a substantial lunch before starting
out. Mama would boil some eggs and open a tin or two of red
salmon. She would place the salmon on a platter and the hard-boiled
eggs, cut in half, around it. Unless she had enough dried-apple
or prune sauce on hand, she would open a can of sliced peaches.
A plate was heaped high with yesterday’s bread. A bowl full
of cream, and butter and cookies, were also set out, and there
was coffee for all.
A queer custom of the age was for the men to eat first, then
 the women and infants. (I have seen many a mother chew
food and put it into her baby’s mouth.) Children had to wait
until last, watching hungrily while the goodies disappeared.
Then, most of them having been sternly lectured at home, they
had to seem to hesitate and need coaxing to go to the table,
even though they were already devouring the food with their
eyes. I knew one little boy who was so shy that he would not
go inside anyone else’s house. The hostess would put some
food on a plate and take it outdoors. He would not take the
plate from her, but if she set it down he might come near
and eat, after she had gone in. Thinking back, I find it strange
that the child’s mother made no effort to help him.
If we children piled more food on our plates than we could
finish, we had to put away the plates until the next meal.
Then they had to be emptied before we could partake of the
freshly prepared food. After this happened once or twice,
we learned our lesson.
We often had milk mush (grøt) for supper. We ate it
like pudding with sugar and cinnamon over the top and cream
or milk added. Cream mush (fløtegrøt) was a
delicious dish but one Mama seldom made.
Lutefisk with melted butter, meat balls with brown gravy,
roasted rib steak, lefse and flat bread, fattigmand cookies,
and mush were all dishes Mama had learned to make in Norway.
We had very few vegetables during the winter, just an occasional
can of corn or peas from town. As we had few cows, we were
probably out of butter sometimes; I recall with what relish
I ate bread with a mixture of dark syrup and pure white hog
fat spread on it. We had chicken soup with dumplings but never
a roast chicken. Mama boiled all the chicken in the soup kettle
and browned some of the pieces with cream afterward. We seldom
had jelly, jam, or fruits.
A trip to town was planned for days ahead. It took most of
a day with team and wagon. If a load of grain was to be hauled
in, we filled the grain sacks the day before. I would hold
them for Papa while he filled them with a pail. I learned
 just how to tie the twine around the top of the sack
so it would not come open and spill the grain. Usually there
were butter and eggs to sell, too.
I was very happy that Papa wanted me with him on these long
trips, and climbed up the wagon wheel and into the spring
seat with alacrity. Nor do I recall ever being bored as we
rattled slowly along over the prairie trail. Sometimes we
stopped at "Farbror’s" (Papa’s uncle’s place) to
ask if we could do some errand for the family while we were
in town. Beyond there, we rode a lonely trail between meadows
and fields for many miles. Then suddenly we were on the ridge
above the "Jim" (James) River. Then we dipped steeply
down to the river while Papa tugged at the lines and shouted,
"Whoa, whoa!" as the horses strained to hold the
wagon in check. Rocks were everywhere down near the water,
but the horses splashed noisily through and pulled us slowly
up onto the bench above the south side of the river.
We were on the flat prairie again. Only now it was one vast
wheat field as far as the eye could see. If it was early summer,
the wheat springing from the rich virgin soil was a glowing,
living green. Later, as the stems grew taller, the wind began
to stroke them back and forth in waves. As we saw them from
the wagon seat, far across the fields and near at hand, the
stems dipped and rose, dipped and rose, now gray, now green,
green and gray-green in the stillness. Perhaps a meadowlark
offered his liquid melody, or a prairie bird cheeped; otherwise
there was no sound save an occasional jingle of harness, or
a thump as the wagon wheels struck a stone in the narrow trail.
Soon now we could see the roofs of the grain elevators that
rose above the town. Slowly we passed down one side of a cemetery,
turned a corner, and continued down another side. This cemetery
was the loneliest place I knew. The woven-wire fence, against
which the Russian thistle and the tumbleweed had flung themselves,
was fast disappearing under the winddriven sand. Wind from
another direction would send the thistles wheeling away again,
but enough remained to catch  the drifting sand. Beyond
the cemetery we soon came to a road with telegraph lines running
along it. I listened curiously to the loud hum of the wind
in the wires and wondered if it could be possible that words
could travel along them, as I had been told.
Flocks of sparrows flitted about the wires and down into
the road for the grain that had fallen there. Up and down
they went in a continuous flutter of wings. Sometimes we saw
the train speeding westward — the engine, a passenger coach
or two, and freight cars. I could not tell one from the other
then, but I was fascinated with the speed of the train and
with the billows of smoke that poured from the smokestack
and hung for a time against the clean blue sky.
Here was Hunt’s pasture, usually full of cattle, for Hunt
was the butcher. Here was the row of cottonwoods behind the
barns, and once past them we turned the corner and were soon
before the lovely Hunt house, with its bay window full of
flowering plants. An ornamental fence and gate separated the
little yard from the street, a sidewalk led up to the front
porch, and stiff lace curtains hung at the windows. We passed
more houses and swung into Main Street, and here the wooden
sidewalks began. In some places they were two feet or more
above the ground. In summer they were lined with luxuriant
growths of pigweed, gray, dusty, and bedraggled if there had
been dry weather, but green and vigorous after rains. Country
children loved the long board sidewalks. Before the stores
were iron rings, so customers could hitch their horses there,
but Papa took our team to a vacant lot, and tied them back
of the wagon. There they could eat the hay he had brought
along for them.
Much has been written about the country store, and ours were
no doubt very much like any others, but fascinating to a child
who seldom saw one. If Mama was along, she first sold her
butter and eggs. There seemed to be a hard and fast rule that
the butter and egg money should pay for all grocery purchases
except hundred-pound sacks of flour. Eggs were down 
to 10 cents a dozen and butter to 10 cents a pound — even
less at times — so they could not have bought many groceries.
People living in town were dependent on the surrounding farms
for butter and eggs. Sometimes a family had a cow or some
chickens of its own. Thora, our nearest neighbor, and Mama
made fine butter and had special customers. Mama gave good
measure. I remember how carefully she rounded off the butter
on top of the jar. Then she dipped a piece of cloth in water
and placed it on top before covering the jar with several
layers of wrapping paper; next she tied the paper securely,
and last of all she took the scissors and trimmed the edges
She had a special pail for bringing eggs to town, a wide
tin one. In it she first put about three inches of oats; then
she set the eggs on end in the oats. When the bottom layer
was finished, she added more oats for another layer, and so
on, until the pail was full. On this bed the eggs rode safely,
even though the wagon wheels bumped over stones, ruts, and
Mama made few trips to town, but she had to go in to buy
winter clothing. I had a painful time while I was wearing
shoes at least two sizes too big for me. They had to be large
enough so that I would grow into them for some time! There
were long, heavy, fleece-lined union suits to keep me warm
on the way to and from school. Mama would buy outing flannel
for winter petticoats, calico for everyday dresses and aprons,
and cotton batting and prints for quilts. Since she tied the
quilts with bright-colored wool yarn, she had to have a stock
of thread, buttons, and needles on hand all the time. Our
towels were of coarse, tan linen; we had a few huck towels
for special guests. Turkish towels and washcloths we never
saw. We used real sea sponges for washcloths; these could
be bought at the store in many sizes. How I enjoyed squeezing
water through them!
The first coffee I remember was Arbuckle’s; it came in heavy
one-pound paper bags, rose and white striped. Along 
one side was a premium slip that had to be cut out and saved.
Later we bought Palace Brand coffee beans in five-pound pails.
Some of the pails were blue, some red. Coffee beans were ground
fresh for every brewing. I still have the little coffee mill
that Mama used all those years.
Coffee was a luxury, albeit a necessary one. At home it was
cooked in a big tin coffee boiler and drained off into a coffee
pot. The boiler was set aside until it was needed again, when
freshly ground coffee was added to what remained, and all
of it was boiled once more. Then Mama took the boiler outdoors,
emptied and washed it well, and started all over. I suppose
this was to make sure of getting all the flavor out of the
expensive coffee grounds.
We used a lot of oatmeal — Mother’s Oats, I think it was.
Few breakfasts failed to include oatmeal. When Mama opened
a new package, I waited eagerly to see what she would find
as she thrust her hand in to bring out the premium hidden
there. Usually it was a cup and saucer, a cereal dish, or
a sauce dish. Mama welcomed the new dish and I admired its
softly colored flower design. I still have a number of these
We bought dark syrup in gallon pails, molasses in half gallons,
and wedges of cheese from the great round wheel that sat on
the store counter under a glass dome; also dry yeast, salt
and spices, and yellow soap for washing clothes. The soap
wrappers had coupons that had to be cut out and saved, too.
We bought dried apples and prunes in bulk. Both came to the
store in barrels, I believe. Crackers were packed in boxes
resembling orange crates and were bought by the pound. I still
have glasses with handles; mustard came in these. Once in
a while we bought jelly, but it was mediocre, even to a child’s
taste. There were few cookies for sale and these were far
from good, except for one kind that looked like a heavy, five-petaled
cream-colored rose! I have never seen them except at this
one store. 
Once, late in the fall, Papa and Uncle Ole bought a whole
barrel of apples. My cousin Anne and I were jubilant about
the apples we would be able to eat all winter. However, when
it came time to divide them and the barrel was opened, many
were badly bruised and had to be used promptly. Apparently
they were not the kind of apples that could stand being jounced
around on a long, rough ride.
In the fall, when Papa hauled grain to town, he brought home
staples for winter use, perhaps three or four one-hundred-pound
sacks of flour. Often it was Occident Flour. The lettering
on the sacks seemingly was put on with indelible ink, as neither
soakings nor scrubbings ever took the markings out. They had
to wear out with the cloth.
Papa would bring at least one hundred-pound sack of sugar
and a big bag of cut loaf sugar. The loaf sugar was one luxury
that we could not do without. A man would pour part of his
coffee into a saucer and hold it balanced on his fingertips
while he dipped the sugar lump into the coffee with the other
hand and sucked it appreciatively. Drinking hot coffee from
the saucer was considered proper. Even when lunch was carried
out to the fields it had to include a lump of sugar for the
last sips of coffee.
Papa had a wooden box of cut plug tobacco set away upstairs.
It held many pounds. He had smoking tobacco put away too.
When winter set in, no one knew when he could get to town,
and what could be worse than being confined to the house in
bad weather without tobacco? Cartons of matches, five-gallon
cans of kerosene, and many other things were stored for winter
Nothing went to waste at home. If Papa and Mama had one outstanding
trait, it was thrift. The wooden boxes in which the groceries
were brought home were used in the cellar or upstairs to keep
things in or on, or for kindling, as there was no wood to
be picked up in Dakota.
When the big pails were emptied of coffee beans, their usefulness
had just begun. Now they would be used for storing flour,
sugar, cookies, or doughnuts in the pantry.  Half-gallon
pails carried Papa’s coffee out to the field. If the cover
was pressed down tightly while the coffee was too hot, there
would suddenly be a small explosion and the cover would come
flying up against my hand. A similar pail held his lunch and
a coffee cup. Most of us carried our school lunches in such
tin pails. I took milk in a bluing bottle for some time. I
guess it fitted into the pail.
The flour sacks, when emptied and bleached, were hemmed for
everyday pillow cases, or ripped apart and used for dish towels.
The little vests we girls buttoned our underpants onto and
fastened our garters to were made from this strong material,
and in many cases so were the panties.
There were many uses for the gunny sacking that covered the
sugar sacks, but not in the house. The inner bag was cut into
squares to be used in the milk strainer, for covering the
butter when it was sold, and so on. All packages came tied
with cord; it was carefully wound into balls and kept ready
for various uses.
Mama made scouring powder from a brick. With a knife she
scraped off a fine powder that worked very well for scrubbing
pots and pans, steel knives and forks, etc. In every household,
even out there, some good dishes, linen tablecloths, and silverware
were kept only for company use. So it was at home.
A few patent medicines were kept on hand. There were big
bottles of a common liniment that was advertised as "good
for man or beast." There was carbolic acid, plainly marked
"Poison." Mustard plasters were used. I know nothing
about their curative value, but I heard a lot about the soreness
and pain they caused! Mama burned sulphur powder on top of
the stove in winter — to purify the air, she said — especially
if someone was ill at home or some stranger had sat around
for awhile. We kept large bottles of peroxide on hand in later
years, and boxes of a dark healing salve which was used for
the horses and cattle when they had barbed-wire cuts. Such
things as aspirin, tooth paste, and tooth brushes were utterly
In those days the store clerks had a nice custom of putting
 a little bag of candy in a grocery box. Did they remember
us country children when they did this, or was it just a gesture
of good will toward the customer? At Christmas time some of
the stores gave out plates with their names and the year printed
in gold. It was a wonderful practice. I still treasure several
of these plates.
Few trees grew naturally in our part of Dakota, but there
were thickets of three- to five-foot silver-leaved poplar
in tangled clumps. This was no doubt where the coyotes had
their dens and where the badgers retreated as they left the
fields and pastures. Here and there on the prairie another
shrub grew in dark patches. The stems and branches were exceedingly
tough and stiff. In spring, pale pink flowers appeared among
the neat little leaves and were followed by whitish berries.
Near us only one small thicket remained. Mama made good use
of these shrubs. She cut stem and all and tied them firmly
to an old broom handle and had a fine broom for sweeping the
barn. She tied smaller branches to a long pole and Papa used
it for sweeping out the chimney. Several times a year Papa
had to go up on the roof to loosen the soot in the chimney.
It was an all-round dirty job, but necessary. Dried chicken
wings were used for sweeping coal particles from the top of
the stove, for brushing things into the dustpan, and for other
As we have seen, Mama carried pails of milk into the house
and carried skimmed milk back to the hog pen, to the chicken
feeder, and to the calves. She hoisted water from the well
in old wooden buckets and brought it in by the pailful. She
carried coal for the stove. These were everyday chores. The
water carrying trebled on washdays, at butchering season,
and at other times. She made all the butter, baked all the
bread, prepared five meals a day, knitted our stockings, sewed
her own and my everyday clothes, and often helped Papa in
What did Papa do while Mama worked so hard? Well, he turned
the prairie into field, he dug the wells, he laid up sod 
for the stable, and he tilled the fields diligently so the
crops would bring in money for all the things that had to
be bought. He tended six to eight horses every day, and hauled
hay and straw for them and for the cattle in winter. He cleaned
the barn every day — no small job in itself. He fanned all
the seed. He made all the trips to town. Oh, there was plenty
for them both to do, and it was small wonder that they, like
other parents, looked for all the help that a child could
It was early to bed and early to rise at our house. We could
not put out the cat, as no cat ever set foot in our house;
but when Mama reached for the butcher knife and started cutting
kindling for the morning’s fire, I knew bedtime was near.
Then she wound the clock, the day’s last chore. When morning
came, Mama was the first one up, and she started the fire.
She was seldom or ever ill through those years, and I doubt
that Papa could have started the kitchen stove and gotten
the coal to burning quickly so that coffee and oatmeal would
be ready in a short time. Such was women’s work