By Matt Reese
Have you ever wondered if you could make it on the earliest days of some of Ohio’s historic family farms? I love the chance to look into Ohio’s past that accompanies every visit to an Ohio Century Farm, or in the case of this issue, a Bicentennial Farm. Every time I get to hear new stories about old Ohio farm days, I can’t help but wonder if I could have survived and thrived as they did.
This summer I had the chance to speak at a couple of events and my topic was, “A Century Farm perspective.” In my presentation I shared some of my very favorite Ohio Century Farm stories and the details of the lives of great toil lived by our forefathers seeking to make a better life for themselves and their descendants. We are the incredibly fortunate beneficiaries of those efforts and I believe these stories of yesteryear really can help to shape our modern perspective and help us to move forward with a bit more gratitude, humility and grace towards others.
Just think about how many resources on a farm 150 years ago went towards simply producing and procuring the food, energy and water necessary just to survive. Today, in Ohio by comparison, we have the easiest, lowest cost and most convenient food, energy and water supply of any point in human history. Think about how much spare time this affords us. Such abundant leisure time was not a common luxury on an Ohio farm 150 years ago.
As I take a hard look at my modern self, I’m not sure I could make it living on a farm back then. Sure, I could handle the hard work, long hours, and details from planting to butchering with some degree of competence. I also would welcome the task of endless cutting and splitting firewood (I actually really enjoy that) for heat in the winter months. I’m not so keen on getting up at sunrise every day to milk, but I feel like I could adapt to that. And I love the idea of staying close to home and working side-by-side with family and neighbors to take care of each other as a community. No air conditioning would be rough, but I think I could manage as long as there was a convenient and cool swimming hole on those hot summer days. Cold winter nights in the glow of a wood fire are just fine with me.
The one thing I am not sure I could tolerate, though, on an Ohio farm 150 years ago, is the bathing situation. In what seemed to be a fairly standard practice for at least of fair portion of Ohio farm society in the not-so-distant past, people took a bath once a week. On this point, my modern lifestyle and this traditional practice very widely diverge.
I am a guy who takes a shower every day, often multiple daily showers on hot summer days spent with 4-H pigs. If I go more than a day without a shower, I get pretty uncomfortable to the point where I can’t even sleep well. One bath a week is hard to fathom for me.
And, in that situation on farms before the advent of running water in the house, I would have been in the most desirable position. Typically, water for the bath was heated on the wood stove (a laborious effort) and poured into a tub where the man of the house would typically bathe first, followed by his wife and then all of the children of descending ages — all sharing the same once-heated water. This to me is abhorrent and unthinkable. Even if I did go first, the thought of my wife and children having to use my dirty bath water makes me a bit queasy.
Hard as it may be to believe, I have heard numerous first-hand accounts confirming the reality of this tradition. This is further supported by the saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” And, based on the stories I have heard, at the end of bath night for a large family, that water was definitely murky enough to lose a little one.
After one of my talks this summer in Sandusky County I had a gentleman come up to me and tell me the family bath thing was a gross reality for him as a child, a memory he was quite pleased was in the distant past. When I spoke in Crawford County, one of the more senior men in the crowd sitting at one of the tables nearest to where I stood commented that he worked on the threshing crew in his youth and he really enjoyed the hard work. Over the microphone, I asked him if he had to do the once-a-week bath thing. Before he could respond, his wife leaned over from the chair behind him and said, “I was the baby!”
Despite the harsh realities they faced (bath time included), every elderly farmer I have had the privilege to talk with about life growing up on the farm all those years ago is able to conjure up very fond memories. Life was definitely not easy, but the lifestyle was treasured. If I could go back in time, but still take a shower every day, I’m pretty sure I’d treasure it too.