The years that were: Life on the farm in the 1940s

The years that were: Life on the farm in the 1940s                

by Barbara Brown Traill

I am a grandmother and great grandmother now, but my memories of my girlhood remain very special to me. I was brought up on a farm during the mid 1930s and 40s in the Laurentians, Quebec, and life on the farm in Christieville seems as real to me today as it was then. There are times I wish I could take my grandchildren on a journey with me through those years.

As children, we had great freedom to romp the fields and meadows, chasing butterflies, grasshoppers, and bringing bouquets of wild flowers home to our Mother.  She spent precious hours over a hot wood stove, making bread or a special meal for Sunday dinner of either fresh chicken or pork raised on the farm, fresh vegetables from our garden and fresh fruit and gorgeous apple pies right out of the oven for dessert. Yummy!

In those days there was no electricity or phone service and water came from a hand-dug well. We had no fridge as we know it today--only an ice box which kept the dairy food and perishables cool summer and winter. Blocks of ice were cut by chain saw from the nearest lake in the winter and stored in sawdust by the barn lean-to area. We learned to read by candlelight or later with a Coleman lamp filled with coal oil and a lit wick.  It gave a very bright light and we always had one hung over the kitchen table at dinnertime. Lanterns were used in the barn and chicken coop in the evenings for mucking the stable, feeding the hens and for milking the cows. The body heat from the animals was usually enough to keep them warm during the winter months. The cows and horses were bedded down in their stalls but during the summer months all were out on pasture eating fresh green grass.

Washing our clothing was a ritual every Monday morning. Water was heated in a boiler on the top of the kitchen wood stove. The clothes were washed in a large metal tub rigged with rubber rollers for wringing out the clothing. Until electricity arrived later, clothes were scrubbed by hand on a glass scrub board. The clothes were then dried on a clothesline outside, and they were later ironed with a flat iron heated on the top of the stove. It was a long tedious job in the summer heat, but it was comedy hour in the winter when we brought the frozen pajamas, underwear, slacks, and bed sheets off the line to thaw out before pressing. They would stand on a corner table like mannequins waiting for their turn to get attention.

Summer months were always busy on the farm.  Our Dad, Joe Brown, was a curious man who created an experimental farm and researched useful methods of rotating crops, raising chickens for poultry and eggs and helping the land produce in a fruitful way. His knowledge was through farming manuals purchased from McGill University and the St. Anne de Bellevue experimental farm. Lo and behold, he did most of the work himself as there was only my sister Anne and I and no brothers to take on the chores.

Until we were old enough to feed the chickens and undertake small chores like mucking out stalls and milking the cows, our mother served as the extra hand.  Some time later, I remember there was a strange hired man named Ned. He was illiterate but my parents gave him food and a bed in the barn. No one ever knew where he hailed from.

The Brown farm consisted of more than ninety acres, almost seventy per cent in forest and the rest in segregated fields where hay and corn was grown and harvested. It included vegetable gardens, mostly for market locally or shipped to Montreal. The land in those hills was mostly rock and poor earth and had to be shifted from one area to another to grow crops. The supply of manure from the cattle was used to fertilize the crop areas. This was done by driving a horse behind a manure spreader, after the land had been ploughed and turned over. Then the man and horse would hook up to a disk harrow. This would mix earth and manure, and level the surface to make it ready for seeding. Most of the fences between the fields were made of the rocks from clearing the land. Eventually they were replaced with barbed wire or wooden fencing.

Haying time in the summer

Mixed farming took a lot of work. There were cattle, horses, chickens, pigs and dear knows what else to feed and clean. Then crops to seed and hay to cut and load into the barn. You guessed it, it required 16 to 18 hours some days, especially if the weather turned to thunderstorms. Then there was great haste to muster the hay into the barn before the rain hit and the hay could be ruined. This was exciting to my sister and I, as we loved to ride the hay wagon and jump on the hay during loading in order to pack it down.

This was done to get as much hay on the wagon as possible and to make the load stable and balanced.  Of course once the hay was in the loft (often called a mow), we would also enjoy jumping on it and spreading it over the loft to make ready for the next load. In those days the hay was cut with a mower drawn by a team of horses, then raked into columns and let dry in the field. We used pitchforks to put it into stacks ready to load onto the wagon.  The nicest part of the day was after we’d finished haying; we would hurry and grab a towel and swim suits and head for the swimming hole in the nearby Simon River. Mom always had a wonderful dinner ready when we got home.

Daylight hours were longer during the summer, which meant that the evening was time for relaxation and fun. We often invited school friends from the village of Morin Heights for a corn roast and games. We would play hide and seek while riding the horses bareback out in the outer pastures. During one such event, I sighted my sister screaming out of a bush on her bucking horse. When she fell off, to my horror, she was covered in wasps, stinging her on the legs under her jodhpur riding pants.  Off came the pants in a hurry. Again, our nurse mother took charge, bathing her in cold mud in the nearby creek. Needless to say, we were very careful about where we played hide and go seek from then on.

During the summer, we would go with Mother to pick wild strawberries in the back fields. The days often got very warm so we went early in the day and filled our buckets with the tiny sweet berries to have as dessert after dinner. If any were left, we would add them to next day’s pickings and Mom would make wonderful jam. Some days we ate more than we picked, which did not exactly please Mom. One of our pleasures when the vegetables were ready to be picked was to pull a carrot, radish or lettuce, wash it and eat it raw. Of course apples off the trees were plentiful, and in season there was fresh corn to be boiled for dinner. What a life! Chicken was a mainstay as Dad raised poultry for market, so Mom discovered multiple recipes for chicken dinners.

One of the most interesting chores on the farm was fetching the eggs each morning from the chicken coop, washing them and preparing them for market by a process known as candling, which meant identifying rejects and sizing all the eggs as small, medium, large or extra large. We kept the rejects in the pantry for our own use. Dad would prepare the crates of eggs for market as well as vegetables in boxes and take them to be loaded onto the train every Friday for the week-end market in Montreal.

Many events on the farm seemed like endless work, but as children we never worked that hard. We always looked forward to occasions such as making butter with the butter churn and especially making real ice cream. Special containers and utensils were used for both preparations. We also looked forward to visits from our grandmother, uncles, aunts and cousins. We would have corn roasts, picnics, swim parties and games so that everyone had a great time. Sometimes my sis and I would think the city cousins were pretty much unaware of how things are done on a farm. We saw their great fear of animals and other activities, things which of course came normal to us. Mom and Dad encouraged my sister and I to show them how things were done in a reasonable manner, but we often led our cousins astray just as a joke. Sometimes this resulted in a penalty, such as no dinner that day! All in all they would return to the city happy and laden with fresh eggs and vegetables, which was special for them as these items were expensive in the city and were never as fresh as farm produce.

Harvest time activities

Autumn was the time of harvest. Crops were sent to market and our supply of vegetables for the winter went into a root house. This root house was dug into a hill behind the barn and resembled the wee Hobbit caves that we read about in “Lord of the Rings” during Bilbo’s days. The root house was fortified with broad timbers and many shelves were built inside to hold veggies, apples etc. In the fall, the produce fields were ploughed under and made ready for the spring seeding of crops. A rotation took place so that each section grew a different crop each year. Fertilizing was mainly provided from the manure pile where there was always plenty of supply.

Picking black currents and raspberries was the usual activity at this time of year and Mom would whip up wonderful jams and jellies. Pickling veggies and fruit was another must for winter storage and Mom never had a spare moment for herself, as she always was willing to show us how this was done. Time seemed too short on the farm when there was never a lack of something to do. When the hours of daylight were getting shorter, we were looking forward to many preparations before Christmas and hunkering down for the long winter days.

Church and school were central

Church attendance was always important in our family and we attended the Morin Heights United Church faithfully every Sunday and on special occasions such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. Dad was very active in organizing Sunday school and Mom sang in the choir as often as possible. Our christenings took place there as well. The farmers from the surrounding areas were faithful to their church and many activities took place in the Anglican Trinity Church and the Catholic Church as well as our own.

Thanksgiving dinners, bazaars and cooking sales were a plenty, and one would come home with lots of goodies and crafts.

Education in those days took place in a wonderful two-story schoolhouse at the entrance to the main village of Morin Heights. Children from the outlying areas of Christieville, Mille Isles, Montfort and Côte Saint-Gabriel were brought to school by horse and sleigh in the winter. In spring and fall, some would walk and the more fortunate would ride their bicycle. Our farm was just about a mile away so my sis and I walked and/or skied to school in the winter. There were no buses in those days but there was St. Denis Bombardier taxi service when needed.

In the winter we often organized ourselves to use their snowmobile to take us to ski meets in local towns of St. Sauveur, Ste. Adele, Ste. Agathe and Mt. Tremblant. This snowmobile could transport up to ten people. It was great fun and sometimes we would ski jour behind the vehicle holding onto ropes. This also kept our legs warmed up before the ski meet.

Winters were sometimes long and severe. There were times when the amount of snow prevented farmers from opening the roads with horse and sleigh. That’s when snowshoes and skis were options for getting extra food supplies at the store in either Christieville or Morin Heights. Our farm was located close by the CNR railway. As a result it was the logical route to follow after the train snowplow passed through. On one of those occasions Dad had his first heart attack on his return with groceries from the village. Mom went to rescue him when she realized that it was almost dark and there was no sign of him. She found him crawling on his hands and knees while dragging the sack of groceries behind him. Needless to say the family doctor was called and he made his way by horse and sleigh to our house. Heart medication and hired help for several months finally put our Dad back onto his feet.

Winter was a time to relax a bit and enjoy more indoor activities during evenings and weekends. There were always good books to read, plus we loved playing cards and listening to gramophone records. On other winter occasions we were taught how to knit and Mom had great patience when teaching us how to bake cookies too.

Christmastime was the best. We had the good fortune to be able to go with Dad into the bush and choose our Christmas tree and bring it home to decorate.  A lot of decorations were hand made from school and Mom had a collection of candleholders that attached to the tree branches. We lit the candles on Christmas morning for a very short time after giving thanks for all the goodness of the past year. These days, one would never light a candle on a tree for safety reasons, but we were careful and enjoyed having this delight for a half hour each evening. After breakfast Santa always visited us from the attic with a sack full of goodies. How exciting! Our Dad, dressed in a Santa suit made by Mom, was the best Santa ever.

The winters were long and very cold those days. Dad always had plenty of firewood stored in the back shed to keep the home fires burning. But winter was also the season when Dad benefitted from his keen ability to use the forest as a source of income to purchase seeds for his crop the following summer. He loved planning which trees to cut. Carefully he would mark all the trees ready for harvest and then cut and haul out selected timber by horse to the local saw mill in Christieville. Logging for him was a one-man job and at times he found it very tiring. It was also dangerous when trees had fallen at dangerous angles. Even though he suffered several injuries, he never tired of the bush. Through careful planning, he created the first tree farm in the county and was well recognized by the community and featured in local newspapers.

We loved to ski

The great sport of skiing was a major activity during weekends. Our Morin Heights Ski Club coach, George (Bunny) Basler organized most events together with club management. Each weekend there was a meet either at home or various ski centres in the Laurentians. We were also invited to race against a couple of Montreal schools as well.  Really exciting! With constant practice, we often brought home trophies that were kept at the club and eventually at the local school. Skis were made of wood with steel edges and most harness used was Kandahar. These had metal toe supports with a spring-like cable around the ski boot and a lever to tighten to the desired tension. They were fastened to metal clips on each side of the boot and fastened to the ski as a tie down.  When racing, we used a leather lanyard that wound around the boot then fastened to the ski, in order to eliminate side movement when cutting turns. It worked very well in those days in most cases. There was no auto release so there were occasional fractured legs or badly twisted knees.  This was all part of the sport but it wasn’t nearly as dangerous as today, what with such high-speed equipment. Kids in those days remained healthy and fit, needless to say.

Gradually the heavy winter storms eased off during the month of March and we looked forward to lambing time and milder weather. The sheep were cozy and warm in the barn but for the newborn it was still very chilly. We often brought the lambs into the house and kept them near the kitchen stove for warmth during the first few nights, until they gained enough strength for the mother to keep them adequately fed. Sis and I loved the lambs that became like family pets to us.

Spring meltdown brought warmer temperatures. Oh, how the warm sun felt so good to the heart, giving us renewed strength.  The forest took on new strength as well, which meant that the many tapped maple trees were able to share their wonderful new sap. Dad drilled an opening into each tree trunk and inserted a rounded spigot with an open lip. The sap would then drip into a metal bucket hooked just below the spigot.  When the sap started to really flow they would have to be emptied daily and brought to the sugar shack and boiled down to syrup.  Believe it or not, it took forty gallons of sap to boil down to become one gallon of syrup. A lot of work, but the results were fantastic.  Mom made maple sugar candy and baked with syrup as well. Maple syrup was a natural and healthy sweetener for many foods and beverages.

In April the land thawed and soon after, the crops would be sown and soon we could see the seedlings growing out of the earth. When they were big enough, the plants needed a lot of weeding and watering. The productive earth that the good spirit left for us to use was again giving back the food of life. This is what every child should experience.

Barbara Brown Traill is a former president of the Morin Heights Historical Association. The farm where she grew up, now owned by Peter MacLaurin, is situated at the corner of Christieville Road and Highway 364. The land was acquired by Thomas Westgate in 1879, and was sold to E. Durocher, who built the current farmhouse in 1890. The Brown family purchased the property in 1913.