To my Grandchildren and Great Grandchildren:
Life in the Early 1900’s
By Dorothy Mae (Poss) Fitzgerald
I have often wished that my parents or grandparents had written about their lives in the 1800’s. That is why I am writing this. You may not be interested in this now, but someday you will wonder about the early 1900’s.
I was born in 1907 in the small town of Franklin in Minnesota. I was the youngest of seven children; four girls and three boys. I knew the 500 people in the town and where each one lived. I was in most of the homes at some time during my life. The town was just four blocks long. We had two general merchandise stores which sold groceries, yard goods, underwear, shoes and gift items. We had a blacksmith, harness maker, post office, two banks, livery stable, two saloons, a produce store, which was chiefly eggs and live chickens, and two hardware stores, one of which my father owned, a pharmacy and one office for the doctor, a general practitioner. We had many Scandinavians and Irish, a few Finnish and the remainder were English and Scotch. I never saw an oriental or black person until I went away to college. They usually settled in cities where they could get work.
There were three churches in the town: Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist. The people were hard working in those days, lived harmoniously and enjoyed going to the church suppers and bazaars and patronizing each other’s money-raising projects.
My father had a lumber, hardware and farm machinery store. He was a thrifty German who worked hard to send the seven of us to college. His father died when he was a young boy, so the family had to support themselves, so he had little education, but he did manage to go to Minneapolis for a short business course before he started his own business.
My mother worked in a tailor and millinery shop before she was married. She was a beautiful sewer. She had a woman come in for a week in the spring and the fall to help her make our clothes. In those days, one had to sew all the clothes, even underwear, because there was very little in the stores in small towns, and there were no cars to get to a larger town. Women and children wore hats for most occasions. MY mother would dye straw, line the hats and trim them with ribbon, lace and flowers. She often made a spring coat or cape to go with the hat. In the fall, she made winter coats for us out of coats not in use any more, and she trimmed them with fur. In the fall, my Uncle Pat Brown often took me down to the millinery shop to buy a velvet bonnet for the winter for me. What a thrill! He and my grandmother moved into town when I was very young, 1911 or 1912, so, we saw a lot of them. They always came to our house for Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners and went with us to Diamond Lake in the summer for two weeks. The trips to the lake were something we looked forward to from one year to the next. That is where I learned to swim, by trial and error, and fish. Another family, Aunt Mae and Uncle Eddie Brown and their children, also went with us and usually a friend of John’s so he had someone to fish and play with, also a dentist went with us, a maiden lady, and a woman to “help with cooking and dishes.”
It was really lots of fun even on rainy days. We made our own fun. When we weren’t fishing or swimming, my brother John and a friend of his taught me how to catch frogs with a net, kill them, skin the legs and fry them in butter. I’ve never tasted any as good since.
There were no swimming pools then, so we either went to the river on hot days or went under the hose. We climbed trees and played many outdoor games. In the fall, we climbed the apple trees and picked apples, wrapped each apple in paper and packed them in barrels. Usually, three to five barrels were filled, depending on the size of the crop that year… They were stored in the cold cellar. It was part of the basement, walled off, and without a cement floor. It was really cold for the storage of fruit and vegetables.
We all had our chores to do as we had a huge garden. My father planted it in the spring, but we had to help him weed and cultivate it. We also helped him with the lawn each week, raking and carrying the grass away and clipping around the trees. My father was a great one at making a family project of any work and it wasn’t bad and didn’t last long with so many hands. We also had to pick raspberries when in season, three times a week. That was a tedious job as we used gallon pails and it seemed like it took hours to get that pail filled. Later the berries were made into preserves.
All children worked in those days, even families with just two or three children. There was very little organized activity; no soccer, baseball nor tennis. Those things, and skating, we did in the evening and on our own with the neighbors. In the winter, it was sledding, skating and skiing.
On Saturday afternoons in the winter, when our work at home was done, we hitched rides on the farmer’s sleighs. When the farmers would be through getting their weekly supplies and headed for home, we jumped on the runners of their sleighs and hung on to the top of the sleigh bar. We would ride out two or three miles, or until we would see a farmer coming into town. We’d get off and run for the other sleigh going into town. The farmers loved teasing us by going faster so we couldn’t catch on. Then they would slow down so we could get on or they might go fast a couple times before we’d get on. It was a game with them and a great sport for us. Sometimes, we wouldn’t see a sleigh coming in and we would have to walk two or three miles. It kept us trim, though.
To get back to the vegetables, my mother canned 300 or more quarts of vegetables, fruit, pickles, jellies and relishes in the summer. In the fall the root vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips, turnips, were packed in sand in large wooden boxes in the cold cellar. They stayed crisp if packed well, so that air didn’t dry them out.
My father made five to ten gallons of sauerkraut in the fall. I usually helped, or I thought I did, as the older children were studying in the evening: We did it in the cold room. He had a large wooden shredder for the cabbage. He used a thick layer of shredded cabbage, then coarse salt, then cabbage, salt, etc., until the crock was filled. He put a plate on top with a large scrubbed rock on top of that. In about six weeks, the kraut was ready. We removed the rock and plate, took out as much kraut as we wanted for a meal, rinsed off some of the salt and it was ready to be cooked. We would return the plate and rock and it was pressed more, until we wanted another meal of kraut.
Several pigs were butchered during the winter. The hog would be hung up next to the barn, given a hard blow to the head and then its throat would be slit to bleed it. Then, the hog was immersed in boiling water, skinned and cut into roasts, hams, chops, etc. My father soaked the hams and bacon in brine and then took them to a farmer to be smoked. Most of the farmers had a smoke house, as they butchered and smoked their own hams and bacon. My father cut the remainder into roasts and chops and ground some into sausage and seasoned it.
The fall preparation of food and summer canning took care of most of our food for the winter. The stores had no freezers (no electricity, yet), so, in the winter the only fresh vegetables and fruits in the grocery stores were apples, bananas, oranges and iceberg lettuce. I remember the first year that grapefruits were brought to the Midwest. They told us it was a cross pollination of a lemon and orange, but I have never heard that explanation since.
There was a long low table in the attic where my father stored 20-100 lb of flour and 10-100 pound bags of sugar. My mother baked 9-10 loaves of bread twice a week. In those days, there were no bakeries in small towns. Later, the bread was trucked out from Minneapolis.
We always kept chickens, not only to eat, but for the eggs they laid. We had an incubator and in the spring, I went to the basement every evening with my mother and she turned each egg in the incubator. When a mother hen is hatching eggs, she turns the eggs with her feet. After three weeks, my mother started peeling some of the shell away to help the unborn chicks come out. When they were hatched, mother kept them in a box near the cook stove in the kitchen until they were strong enough to take the weather.
We usually had two cows so that when one cow started to dry up before the birth of a new calf, we had milk from the other cow. There was no such thing as pasteurized milk, so we had to be very careful sterilizing pans and pails. If we had too much milk, it was separated by a hand separator (centrifugal force). The cream or butter fat was separated, leaving skimmed milk. The excess milk went to the animals. If there was too much cream, we churned it into butter, beating it to separate the fat from the rest, which was the buttermilk. People who didn’t have a cow depended on those of us who had a cow for their milk. There were no creameries then.
There were no laundries or dry cleaning plants in a little town, so we had a woman come in twice a week to do the laundry for nine of us. The wash machines were not electric. Most people pumped or rotated them by hand, but my father connected a gasoline engine to make the machine rotate. We used a hand wringer, then hung them out to dry with clothes pins on a clothes line. In cold weather in winter, we hung clothes in the attic to dry. In the summer, two people ironed for two days. There were no synthetic fabrics. Even the panties and petticoats with insertions and lace were all cotton and had to be ironed, as did the sheets, pillow cases and table linen. There were no electric irons, so we used flat irons with detachable wood handles. The irons were heated on the stove –always a couple irons were heating while two of them were in use.
The cleaning was so different without electric vacuums. We used carpet sweepers and then in spring and fall, all the rugs were taken out on the lawn and beaten with wire beaters to get the dust out of them.
I remember, about 1912, our home was wired for electricity. Before, we had a huge ‘refrigerator, we called it an ice box. The top part was for huge blocks of ice and the bottom part for food. In below zero weather, the huge blocks of ice were cut from a lake nearby when it was frozen solid. The blocks of ice were packed in sawdust as a non-conductor in sheds. The shed was only opened once a week when everyone bought their ice. The butcher shops had their own ice shed.
Electricity made a major, when it came to Franklin. You can imagine the difference to people who had used primitive means to light, wash, clean and cook before. We then had electric lights, toasters, vacuums, refrigerators, irons, fans, wash machines, but no dryers though, or automatic washers for many years. Before electricity, my father lit a lamp in them upstairs and downstairs halls and bathrooms. They were on a pull chain and were out of reach of the children. In the 20’s, we finally bought an electric stove. Before that, we used a kerosene stove to cook on in summer. In the winter, a wood and coal stove was used. I remember my brother John filling that box by the stove with wood every morning and evening.
We were very fortunate. Most of the homes did not have indoor toilets, nor bathtubs and electric heating. Our home was built in 1904, so we had indoor plumbing and central heating (radiators). Others must have heated water on top of the stove as they did not have hot running water and they used wash tubs to bathe in. I’m sure you have seen some old movies of people bathing in wash tubs. That was common then. There were just three or four homes in town with indoor plumbing and hot water, so that meant that the teachers stayed at those homes. We usually had a teacher living in our home during the school year.
Those who did not “have central heating had a register or grill in the floor to get heat from their furnace. Registers in the ceiling allowed heat to go through to the second floor. Before that, there was usually a stove in the living room for heat and one for cooking in the kitchen. The bedrooms were always cold and just used for sleeping.
Some of the fun things I forgot to mention included our sleigh rides on Sunday. The whole family, my grandmother, bachelor uncle and some of the teachers went to the next town for mass. We had no priest living in the town, so two Sundays a month we went to a nearby town. The sleigh was a big box on sleigh runners. It could easily seat twenty. Lots of hay was put in the bottom for warmth and we used robes and blankets to cover us. We made a day of it and went to an aunt’s afterward. My! What fun.
We started ice skating in Minnesota by Thanksgiving and the ponds were frozen often through March. We skated almost every day after school, and on Friday and Saturday evenings. That was our social life and it was a good chance for the boys and girls to see each other outside of school. We also tobogganed, but usually on weekends because the hill was a couple of miles from home.
In the summer, we picked choke cherries for jelly. In the early fall, we all went down near the Minnesota River and picked wild grapes. My father and brothers climbed up to pull the vines down and then we all picked grapes, which were made into jelly and juice later. Then we would have a picnic supper. Our main meal was at noon and a light supper in the evening.
Most every evening in the winter, my father made a huge pan of popcorn. He popped the corn in the furnace in a wire popper with a long handle. The hard coal fire, which didn’t smoke when red, was a nice hot even temperature for popping corn. Then we would bring up a bowl of apples from the cold cellar. If we didn’t popcorn some evenings during the winter, we would make fudge or taffy. The taffy was syrup that we boiled until it was firm. When it cooled slightly, we would pull it back and forth until it was hard. Then we’d cut it into pieces. It was like a caramel. If it wasn’t boiled enough, we’d try to jump rope with it. Silly fun for Sundays or rainy days – wasn’t it?
The occasions when all of us did something together were great. Occasionally in the summer, on a Sunday, after we had cars, we would drive up to a town (North Redwood) for dinners. There were usually seven to nine of us at home, so Dad made reservations. Two maiden ladies had a rooming house there. They served meals to the railroad men during the week, but they had a few customers over weekends so they liked the extra money. I’m sure my mother loved those outings. Imagine cooking for so many three times a day. We were rarely without help, but my mother did most all the cooking until we grew up one by one. Our paternal grandmother lived with us for a few years before she died, and later, a widowed aunt who had no children, besides a teacher who lived in during the winter.
I want to explain some of the shops in town. The harness shop was where they made and repaired harnesses, leather upholstered buggies and also sold new leather merchandise, such as saddles, reins and whips, mostly for the farmers. The shoe shop repaired shoes, also sold new ones; and sold and repaired jewelry, such as watches and clocks.
The blacksmith shop was where they put new shoes on the horses. That was fun to watch. The farmers brought the horses in to get re-shod while they were in town getting groceries. The blacksmith had a real hot bed of coals which melted the iron and the blacksmith would pound the shoe on to fit the hoof.
The livery stable was an old barn on the same side of the street as the blacksmith. The owner rented buggies and horses and also provided a taxi service (by horse and buggy).
After World War I, about 1918, many people lost their farms and they had auctions. If you ever get a chance to go to one in the country, do so. They auctioned everything, 5 cents and up, from kitchen utensils to plows and horses. I mean everything!
The merchants in town depended on the farmers and were not paid until fall, when the farmers sold their crops. Rarely anyone paid by cash. Everything was charged. When the farmers paid, then the people in town paid their bills.
When cars came in, I believe we were one of the first in town to get one, around 1911. It was an open car, no door for the front seat. When it rained, we put up the top and put on canvas side curtains. I think the cars went about 25 miles per hour. I know that the lake we went to in the summer was 60-70 miles away and it took most of the morning to get there.
We didn’t have a creamery until the 20’s. The butter they made was called “Land of Lakes”—the best and the highest in butterfat. From then on we could buy our milk, cream cheese, butter milk and cream. We made our own ice cream, occasionally, a gallon at a time. That was a tedious job – turning that handle by hand. The ice cream mixture was poured into a gallon container with a dasher in it that rotated. That was packed in ice and salt to lower the freezing point. When the contents became so hard and frozen we couldn’t turn the handle, we knew it was done. It took about 45 minutes until it became hard.
The telephone operator was in a room on the second floor of the general merchandise store. She took all our calls. They called her “Central.” The central, at night, had a cot so she could sleep there, because there were very few calls at night except for a doctor. There was no automation or dialing in those days. The operator knew everyone and often started a conversation. She’d tell my mother if anyone was sick or died or give other bits of news. Sometimes, she would call just to get news.
We had one school for eight grades and high school. Each teacher taught two grades, with about 30 students to a grade. The second floor of the school was for high school. There were two classrooms, a very small library, physics and chemistry laboratories and a home economics room. We had no gymnasium. The basketball games and practice was done in the town hall across the street.
We lived a block from the main business, and four blocks from school. All the children walked to school. Very few had bicycles those days, and those belonged to the older boys. Later, I used my brother’s bicycle when he wasn’t using it. We often roller skated to school if we were in a hurry. In the evening, in the fall and spring, the boys and girls could get together roller skating evenings. The town was four blocks long, so we skated up one side and down the other.
We had basketball games in the winter on Friday nights. Then we danced afterwards. The player piano was our music, unless someone would play or we would sometimes use a Victrola or phonograph. We had basket socials to raise money for the library or for programs for educational purposes. The ladies decorated a basket and filled it with many delicacies. It was for a late supper in the evening. The highest bidder, usually a man, was joined with the lady who prepared that particular basket for a supper and dancing. Some of the married folks loved to get the bachelors and maiden ladies together that way.
Our church always had a St. Patrick’s Day Dance and everyone went, even the children. I can remember my father was so light on his feet and danced the old German polkas. I was embarrassed to dance with him because he didn’t dance the waltz and fox trot. Have you ever heard of these?
We often had tramps, beggars and gypsies come to town. My father called my mother as soon as he heard they were in town so we were sent to the attic to play until they left town. We were told they kidnapped children. The tramps or beggars came in the summer. They usually came in the freight trains and slept in empty box cars. Some were looking for work on the farms and some were just beggars, but mother gave them food only if they did some-thing. Usually, they mowed or cultivated. She always said if they refused to work they didn’t deserve a free meal.
In the summer, a Chautauqua came to town. That’s a traveling summer adult education assembly started in Chautauqua Lake, NY in 1874. The traveling actors put up a tent as it was too hot to use the town hall, and put on a play. It usually ran for a week. I remember seeing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” one of those summers. In the winter the town signed up a group to entertain us each month on a Saturday evening. It was usually a hypnotist, magician, vocalist, xylophone musical, etc., or a lecture and discussion on different world problems. Every-one went to them, including the children.
My older brothers and sisters took music lessons from the sisters in the next town. They rode down on the freight train in the morning, sitting in the caboose, and returned at noon on the passenger train. Now and then, I was allowed to go because I wanted to ride up where the brakeman sat. It was in the top of the caboose, with windows on all sides, so they could see what was happening on the tracks. My parents believed in music education. One took clarinet, another violin, another mandolin, saxophone, horn, piano, etc. On Sundays, when we had guests, we all had to perform on some instrument and my mother always had my brother Ed sing some of the old Irish songs, “Mother Macree” and “Irish Eyes are Smiling.” My parents surely tried to give us the advantages a smaller town could provide and they kept us busy.
If the children today were kept as busy around the home as the children of the early 1900’s, there would be a lot less trouble in the world. I’m not speaking of you, my grandchildren, but keep busy, read and study; not just to get good marks but to absorb and use your knowledge to amount to someone you and your parents will be so proud of someday.
Remember God daily, particularly by giving of yourself and materially to the poor and unfortunate, as some day you will have to answer to Him.