It was about 1931; if so, I would have been nine. Our family of five and Grandpa and Aunt Freda were going to Aunt Carrie (Dad’s sister) and her husband Clyde’s for Sunday dinner. They lived on a farm in Gage County, Nebraska just 25 miles away from our home in Marysville, Kansas.
We rode in Grandpa’s 1926 Nash Touring Car. It was such a nice day that Grandpa had taken the side curtains off. It was going to be a breezy ride on a beautiful day. I sat up front between the two men; Dad drove. My sisters sat in the back, Jeanette on the outside of Mom and Janiece on the outside of Aunt Freda, where they could see the magical world go by.
We made this trip several times each summer when the weather was nice. That July Sunday the weather was wonderful as was the drive, and we anticipated the great meal that awaited us: fried spring chicken, freshly picked early field corn still tender and sugary, tomatoes and vegetables from Aunt Carrie’s garden.
Dad didn’t take the state highway but chose a “country” route, on good improved gravel roads so we could get a closeup view of the countryside and the crops, mostly corn, along the way. Though Grandpa had lost his farm in those early-Depression years, he and Dad both understood and liked farming. At one spot just past the state line Dad suddenly slowed the car and pulled off the road alongside an especially grandstand of corn. He and Grandpa got out of the car and walked into the field; I tagged along. This corn was magnificent. It was over my head and nearly over theirs — far above “knee high by the fourth of July.” I am sure, now, that he had spotted one of the University of Nebraska’s test plots for the still relatively unknown hybrid corn which the school was helping develop. The university’s plots were common in that area.
Just a few more miles and we reached the farm. As we drove up the lane we could see Uncle Clyde’s corn in the field beyond the corral standing straight and green and almost as tall as the corn in the field where we had stopped. Dad drove the car across the farmyard slowly to avoid the fleeing chickens scurrying to get out of the way and eased the car into the shade near the peach trees. Getting out of the car we could see that the peach trees were loaded with ripe peaches that were ready to pick.
Aunt Carrie and Uncle Clyde came out of the house to greet us — Aunt Carrie waving her apron as she always did. First thing, everyone exclaimed to Uncle Clyde how wonderful the corn looked. Not to be outdone Aunt Carrie proudly took us directly to her garden, and what a sight it was — row after straight row of colorful vegetables: lettuce, onions, radishes; tomatoes, and potato plants. It looked like an advertisement for a seed catalog.
We finished our tour and walked to the house. Uncle Clyde held the gate open for us, but he was looking at the sky: He said to Dad: “Looks like we may have a storm a-comin.’”
We were barely seated at the dinner table when it got darker and darker, inside and outside the house. Uncle Clyde went to look out the dining room window. It was raining heavily already, the wind was blowing, and marble-sized hailstones were bouncing on the ground.
Uncle Clyde announced, “We’re going to the Cave. Carrie, help the kids.” He meant their storm cellar which was a few yards from the house; we had always called it “the Cave” because it was in the ground and smelled musty like we thought a cave must smell. Aunt Carrie dashed into the parlor and their bedroom and grabbed pillows from their bed and every cushion she could find. We filed through the hallway to the back porch everyone with a pillow on their head, and then we ran single-file to the Cave. I could feel the cold rain and the hail but my big pillow sheltered me.
Their storm cellar was a simple hole in the ground with timbers above covered by a mound of dirt, maybe four by eight feet inside. The far end had a bench that could seat two; the side walls were shelves where Aunt Carrie stored the jars of fruit, vegetables and meat she had canned. It was cooler there than in her pantry.
Mom and Aunt Freda sat on the bench, and the girls stood close to them. It was a little small for six adults and three kids, and the men had to stoop a bit, but we were safe there. Uncle Clyde stood at the entrance with an ax in his grasp ready should anything, including the wooden windmill, fall onto the slanted door above the steps we would exit.
The wooden door had space between its slats that let in a little light which didn’t reach very far. I peered through the slats and watched the tree branches whipping back and forth above our “cave.” But I felt safe standing close to Uncle Clyde.
The wind finally eased, the sky lightened a bit, and the rain became a light sprinkle. Uncle Clyde threw the cellar door open and without a word led us out to a chaotic scene.
The farm had been ravaged by the hail.
We immediately heard the poor cows that had come into the corral where they stood bawling their heads off in pain — calling to Uncle Clyde to come help them. Where there had been a wall of tall corn stalks there now stood nothing but short stubs in a field bare as far as one could see. The peach trees which had been lush with green leaves and loaded with peaches now looked as gaunt as if it were January. Aunt Carrie’s poor garden was a sodden, indistinguishable pottage. June had turned into January except the frozen white stuff was not snow but hailstones.
Uncle Clyde was a dirt farmer; that is, he farmed without help. He had just seen a big portion of that year’s crops destroyed, but there was absolutely nothing he could do about that. What he did do was to get a shovel and a couple of pails and go down to the lane and scoop up hail from the ditch. He brought two pails of hail up to the house. Aunt Carrie stirred together eggs and milk and cream, sugar and a little vanilla; we took turns cranking the crank, and we soon had ice cream! It was very good.
And that’s the spirit it took to be a farmer in those days — nearly a century ago.