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Iowa's Radio Homemakers: Interview with Tom Morain, Part 1

posted on February 26, 2010 at 11:29 AM

In this interview, Tom Morain, Iowa historian and professor at Graceland University, enlightens us on the nuances of Iowa rural life in the 1950s and the role radio homemakers played in the lives of farm wives. This interview was recorded on June 3, 2009 at Graceland University in Iowa.

Debra Herbold: What were Iowa small towns like at end of WWII?

Tom Morain: They were more self-sufficient. The diversity of retail operations was much greater. They had clothing stores. They had implement dealers.They had drug stores. They provided much of their own entertainment. So, in terms of self-sufficiency, you could stay in town longer and a trip to the city was a major event. I grew up in Jefferson, about 60 miles from Des Moines, and when we went to Des Moines it was a major event. This hopping in the car and driving was not standard operation. Before the interstate, travel took longer and we were in a mentality that said save money when you can and shop locally.

Debra Herbold: Describe Saturday nights in town in rural Iowa in 1950s?

Tom Morain: In the early 1950s the tradition of Saturday night in town was still very strong throughout most of Iowa and farm families would come in early Saturday -- or early Saturday evening when the chores were done and they would often stay till midnight. Store owners were expected to stay open if farmers had left their shopping or wherever. Now sometimes children went to sleep in store windows and the store owners watched them but it was a community event on Saturday night. Early 1950s as television started to come in Saturday night, the Saturday night traditions, started to die off. I remember one clothing retailer in Jefferson recalling going out about a quarter of nine on Saturday night and seeing bumper to bumper farm families heading back to the farm because they needed to get back for their show. And their show was Saturday night wrestling. Saturday night wrestling was so popular. It came on at nine o'clock and in many cases that just closed down the in town tradition of Saturday night shopping.

Debra Herbold: Describe how life changed for those returning from WW II.

Tom Morain: I remembered in several interviews with men who had come back from WWII, and came back to Iowa farms. They had been free from chores, farm chores, for two or three years. Now they didn't have any picnic while they were in WWII, I'm not suggesting that, but they weren't tied to that early in the morning -- got to bed as soon as the sun goes down schedule that they had been on a farm. Many of them found out the restrictions of the routine of farm life to be more than they wanted to get into. Many of them gave up their milking operations because they didn't want to be involved in the process of milking in the way that they had been before and they found that by administering and managing their farm time better it was a better use of their time to do other things and then buy their milk like everyone else rather than own their own cows.

Now that extended to farm women too who found that they could get jobs somewhere else or they could buy their vegetables. They could freeze their meat rather than canning it and not have to do the intensive labor that that self-sufficient had been doing up until WWII.

Debra Herbold: Describe how different the1950s farm was from the farm in 1920

Tom Morain: Right after WWII Wayne Rasmussen, a agriculture historian, describes that period as the second American Revolution in agriculture. What's coming on now is chemicals added to farming - pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, new farming practices, use of hybrids, new farm equipment and stresses on marketing and accounting and business practices as well. All those specialties were coming in and it was hard to integrate all of those into one operation. What one farmer was expected to know was much greater than it had been in the past. Also, many of the soldiers who were returning to the farms were going to Iowa State on the GI Bill and they were learning scientific farming was that their parents had not known and they're coming back and wanting to get those processes established on the farms so they are eager for new information and that required adaptations and working out with dad on how are we going to do new things and it was a great period of transition on the agriculture side.

Debra Herbold: Is that when women became more a part of the farm?

Tom Morain: Yes. The specialties worked into the farming operation, including marketing and record keeping, and things that hadn't been as important on the farms before now were. To make that farm economically viable it became more of a family operation. You couldn't say dad does these things and mom does these things because it took integration of all those specialties into an integral farm operation and so farm families had to learn how to manage all of these specialties into one common operation. So, the division between men's work and women's work began to break down. Some farm women, not a lot yet, began taking on jobs when they could and that income gives them a certain independence and gives them a certain voice in farm economics and family decisions that hadn't been there before.

Debra Herbold: Describe the differences between rural families and town families in the early 50s.

Tom Morain: I think the two greatest changes for farm families during the 20th century were the introduction of the automobile and electrification of the farm. When you got the automobile you were no longer physically isolated on the farm. You could go to town much more easily than you could. A wife could go to the town without her husband having to take her. Kids could drive into school and be in and back where they don't have to -- they can participate in school events and come home on their own and still be on the farm. My grandmother in the early 20th century lived on a farm and came into town through the whole week to live there and then went back on the weekend because a ten mile commute was too far for her to do on a daily basis. But with the automobile you can now integrate farm and town life in a way that was not possible before.

Electrification had a dark side though because town homes were electrified in some cases forty or fifty years before farm homes. Farm home was without electricity, carried their own water, they had outdoor plumbing, they did not have indoor furnaces or electric furnaces, they lacked the appliances. So, to a certain extent they were second class homes in comparison with cities. And farm families were very aware of that disparity between farm and town, probably more so than town homes. But with the coming of electrification now the integration and the similarity between the farm home and the town home grows more and more. And farm families do not feel that discrimination that they felt before.

Debra Herbold: Did that disparity between town and farm affect women more or less than others?

Tom Morain: The fact that farm families and often farm women felt at a disadvantage to town women in terms like styles, in terms of keeping current with things and the feeling that they were being looked down on was an important factor and it was an unfortunate factor in Iowa life. This disparity between town and farm.

We have examples from the 1930s when home economists from Iowa State would do fashion programs for farm women teaching them how to sew at home in the latest styles. The classes would be packed and it was not just because farm women wanted to be stylish but they wanted not to be out of style in comparison with town women – again, that disparity. They wanted their kids to be accepted. They wanted their family in the norm and not below it so that emphasis on becoming as good as or as one woman put it as spiffy as town women was not a trivial factor. It may sound humorous but it was a very important distinction between farm and home.

Debra Herbold: Do you have any other stories that might illustrate how rural electrification changed people's lives?

Tom Morain: One of my favorite stories that I think illustrated the disparity between farm and town was the story of the family that was all wired for electricity. As soon as the rural lines came through the refrigerator was going to go on. Their light bulbs were going to go on and they were looking forward to that and on a morning that the lines came through the mother and daughter were ready. And as soon as the refrigerator started humming so that it could cool things down, they hopped in the car and went to town to the grocery store and they bought something they had never been able to have before and that was jello.

Town homes with electric refrigerators could have jello but farm homes didn't have the way to cool it down, so only town families could have jello. For this woman who was a child of the 1930s the new deal meant we can have jello too. And again that may sound humorous but it is so reflective of that distinction between farm and town.

Debra Herbold: Describe the lockers that some folks kept in town and why they needed those?

Tom Morain: As the farm home began to get electricity and they began to get appliances the farm routines began to change. One of the things that changed was that they access to freezers. Either home freezers or freezers in town and lockers -- commercial lockers, frozen lockers would open up in town way before women spent days canning beef or putting beef down in lard or preserving it in some way. Now they could freeze it, take it to the locker or have a cow butchered commercially and put it in your locker and go to town and get beef rather than having to can it or preserve it on the farm. Once again it's a sign that we are moving from those old traditions of self-sufficiency and growing your own food and producing on the farm itself and you are entering into a commercial operation which looks very much like what town homes had -- the transition town homes had made earlier so that disparity between the farm wife being a domestic food producer and the town wife being a domestic food consumer is changing. And farm life is looking more like town life.

Debra Herbold: So farm women didn't have to spend as much time in the kitchen because of electrification?

Tom Morain: Yes.

Debra Herbold: What do they spend their time doing then?

Tom Morain: With these new routines the role of the farm wife was changing and that was reflected in several ways. One of the things that was happening was that the farm operation was becoming more of a family oriented operation than a men's job and a women's job. This was reflected in the programs of the Iowa State Extension Service where they were now teaching families how to work together and how to jointly make plans for what the families would by and with their priorities and what they were working for and sometimes the new operations in accounting and marketing and finance became functions of the farm wife where before the decision to purchase a new tractor or paint the barn had been the farm males prerogative and it was a new world for the farm family. One of the problems here was that the young farm couple who is trying to make all these things happen can't look to their parents and say mom and dad, how did you do it? Because in the pre-WWII era things were different. So they were looking for that authority. Who could provide the information that we need to be modern farm families? They were making it up as they went along. So, who was going to provide that information?

Debra Herbold: How did the radio homemaker play into this changing world?

Tom Morain: When your parents can't tell you how to do it or you can't look to your parents to say, how did you do it? Because they're in different circumstances. You're now looking for new sources of information. The extension service had traditionally been for the farm family and it continued to be in the 1950s in part because they changed their emphasis and began addressing the new problems that young farm families had. Another source of information would be the media, television. The farm family is now hearing -- watching the same shows as the as the as the town family, marketing programs that were coming on television particularly WOI in Central Iowa for those families that could get it or through the extension service but radio shows would have the authority and be a reliable and friendly source of information that they -- in some ways-- just couldn't get somewhere else as a reliable authenticated voice of authority.

And so they were very important for the farm family.

What you heard on the media or what you heard from an extension agent carried more weight -- carried an authenticity that your neighbor couldn't provide - sometimes even your mother couldn't provide. Your mother was still your mother and there were a lot of things that she was the sole source of information but she might not know how to navigate the streets of Des Moines. She might not know how to get the right blouse for your daughter for a high school date or prom dress or something. Where do you go for that information when farm families hadn't dealt with that before? Here comes the radio show -- the talk show, a knowledgeable authority who is your friend and dealing with the problems that you're facing is going to be a very welcomed visitor in your home.

Debra Herbold: Any other stories to illustrate the influence of rural electrification?

Tom Morain: One story I think that says a lot about rural electrification and what it meant was an interview I did with a woman now -- then in her sixties or seventies who remembers being a small girl on the farm when her family first got electricity. The line got hooked up late in the afternoon and it was early evening by the time they could turn on the lights, and the family went out into the farm yard in the early dusk. And her older brother went in and turned on the lights and it was the first time the family had ever seen their house lit up in the evening. And the daughter remembers looking over to her mother and her mother was crying. And the daughter thought at the time it's because she now has a refrigerator, she has an iron, she has these things that will make her life easier and isn't that great. But as the daughter grew up she looked back and interpreted that in a different way. She said I think my mother was crying because as the farm home became electrified and became the equivalent of the town home my mother could want me to stay on the farm in a way that before it was going to be a sacrifice and she was going to think I was going to have a life of toil the way she had. Now she could say you can be on the farm and you can still have the advantages that a town family would have. And that daughter remembers thinking that's why my mother was crying and not for herself, it was for me.

Debra Herbold: Is it appropriate to talk about the education level of radio homemakers – they were almost all college educated-- is that rare?

Tom Morain: When we talk about education and particularly education for women there's a trap that you can get into and one is that you can be highly educated but perhaps it is in a narrow field. Many women remember their career options graduating from high school were teaching or nursing or homemaking or clerical and those things. In the 1950's we really have not moved beyond seeing woman in those particular roles but we might now be educating them for a particular role. So, more woman may be going to college but they are going to college to be teachers. More woman are going to college but they are taking home economic courses. Not that we are saying the world is your oyster and what do you want to do, but we're saying raising a family now requires an education in a way that it did not before. So, when you look at rising numbers in education for women, don't mistake that for saying there are no longer boundaries or they are no longer targets for which we are pushing woman into. So, there was a growing number of women who went to Iowa State University in home economics. Yes, we are educating them. But we are educating them within that narrow definition of what woman should be aiming for and that wouldn't break down until the 70's or 80's when we get in to what we think of as the woman's liberation movement.

Debra Herbold: Was it rare for women to be in broadcasting in the 50's?

Tom Morain: Women in journalism whether it's radio or newspaper or whatever most frequently were in traditional woman's area. You had a society page. You had women's issues on the radio. So, again you can see a rise in the occupation in the number of woman who were in journalism or in newspaper work but they were most often assigned to traditional women's areas.

Debra Herbold: Can you please describe the sense of community that may have existed in rural Iowa in the 1950s?

Tom Morain: I think in the 1950s you still had some very strong community traditions. Church was strong, the attachment to school was strong, and we were beginning to see more integration of farm families into some of those activities in town that tied town together - sports for example. But it's a continuum. You don't say it started at one particular time but as children could get to and from the farm more easily they could participate in extra-circular activities. Likewise as a number of chores diminished on the farm livestock operations or you no longer having to get up or get home in terms of dairy operations and then the farm boys could participate in after school sports or music events or so forth and they didn't have to be home. And when your kids are at the football game and you're going to the football game and you're sitting in the bleachers with parents of both town and farm, there is an integration there through your children that might not have been there before. It's not that it started in the 1950s, but with that growing integration of town and rural life, the distinction between farm activities and town activities begins to blur.

Now there were still some very strong farm traditions. 4-H was a strong tradition among farm children and of course farm parents were the 4-H leaders. Scouts tended to be a town activity, but churches were becoming more integrated as the small rural churches closed, as the country schools closed. And the kids came in earlier and developed friends earlier and no longer was that transition into the town school such a traumatic thing. Friendships formed more easily because the interactions were just more -- just more frequent.

Debra Herbold: What about country social clubs for women?

Tom Morain: Extension activities - there were some certain farm activities continued as farm activities. Farm Bureau for example, the other farm organizations were primarily rural and they were they were farm activities. Now, if a farm wife retires or the couple retires, gives the farm to their children and they move into town, all their friendship networks may still be in the rural area and they may go out for Sunday dinner. They may continue to have participation but because of the ease of transportation you can do that and you don't have to say if I'm in town I can only do town things, but if I'm in the country I can only do country things.

Debra Herbold: What about family holidays?

Tom Morain: Getting away from the farm, the family vacation, that is a tradition for many families was often more difficult on the farm if you had livestock, if you had chores that had to be done. We knew one family outside of Jefferson. He came back from WWII and only twice for the rest of his life did he ever spend the night off the farm. And both of those times were when he and his wife attended a reunion of his military unit in Des Moines. They went to Des Moines. Other than that they were on the farm. That was where their life was. Now that is a very unusual situation, but I think it's the end of a spectrum where when you have livestock, when you have animals that needed to tended to, the ability to get away for a family vacation or a-- or a holiday was going to be harder -- harder to do.

Also, after WWII with college educated children, with a greater mobility, families tended to live farther apart. The growth of the cities and the migration of the young families into the cities meant they're going to drive back to the farm from Des Moines or Chicago or Minneapolis for Thanksgiving but they aren't going to come from across the street or down the road. The family has separated and we will see that continuing today. Very rarely do you see children moving into the traditional family home because they've got jobs a long way away - but they keep in touch every 15 minutes via their cell phone or their Twitter.

Debra Herbold: Locally owned small town cafes-- describe what that was like.

Tom Morain: Eating out in the 1950s was an occasion. You didn't say oh, I don't want to cook let's-- let's go out. The expectation was that you would have three meals a day at home and meal time was family time. Families ate together. We lived two blocks from the high school when I was growing up. There were five children in my family. For lunch, the noon meal, we all came home. Mom cooked dinner (lunch) for us. And we didn't eat until dad got home from the newspaper and said the blessing and then the food started to pass. We were unusual in that way because many, many children ate hot lunch at the school when the hot lunch program started. We try to tell our kids when your mom and I were growing up American families had this tradition they would call meals. Kids sat down with their parents and they talked to them during the eating of food and many families had these. They were called "meals" and it was sort of an American tradition that I think you ought to be aware of. Eating out was an occasion and you had a reason to go out. It wasn't just I don't want to cook at home.

Debra Herbold: So, is it safe to say that the café was the place to socialize in addition to eat?

Tom Morain: I read an article in a book called "Take this Exit" which is wonderful because it is essays about small town life and there's an essay that talks about why specialty coffees cappuccino and lattes don't do well in small towns. And I think it is right on. When you get a group of people drinking coffee in a small town cafe, your coffee cup is your ticket into the conversation. If you're drinking coffee and the server comes around and says would you like another -- can I fill that up? Can I warm up your coffee? If you say "yes" it doesn't necessarily mean you want more coffee, it means I'm still in the conversation. I want to be here. If you have a latte or a cappuccino when you're done, you're done, and there's no reason for you to continue to sit there when you're coffee cup is empty. But if you watch a small town cafe, you watch the people gathered with their coffee cups, that coffee cup is your indication that they are still part of this conversation and as long as they continue to take coffee and as long as someone can come around and fill it up even if it's just --- oh just warm it up a little -- it means they're not ready to leave yet. And I think that is so true. It was one of these little observations about a cultural distinction that is right on.

My dad was in a coffee group and he died a couple years ago at age 94 but until he was 82-85 he continued to go out with this group of men, some of whom he had known for over 80 years. Best friends from college, I mean, and let me clue you this was not a -- this was not a place for the thin of skin. A you'd go in there and it was like fresh meat. You wouldn't know if they were pulling your leg or whatever and they'd ask you questions and just wouldn't want to give an answer at all. But they knew everything there was to know about everybody and they liked him anyway.

Debra Herbold: Iowa is known as the place where neighbors help neighbors. How did that apply to the 1950s?

Tom Morain: The neighbors helping neighbors tradition isn't just altruism in a farming area. It's an insurance policy - that you know, if you have trouble, your neighbors are going to come in and they're going to help out. The cost of that is being available to help when your neighbors want to be there. Now that puts it in a rather stark unappealing terms and I don't think that's the way it's perceived because they are your friends and you want to help, but you couldn't buy that kind of insurance that would say on a moments notice we will hire people to come in and help us. Because when you need help often your neighbor needs help. But it is a social insurance program that operates in the rural community. I think a great deal of it is out of altruism but also out of -- out of self interest.

Debra Herbold: Describe what traditionally happens on March 1 in rural Iowa?

Tom Morain: Carl Hamilton in his book "In No Time at All" has a wonderful description of moving day an account of that -- it is such a practical custom when everybody moves on the same day. So, if you're moving out of your house you have a place to move into on the -- on the same day and you don't get this well, I can't get out because I don't have any place to go. But he remembers his his mother dreading moving day and feeling sorry for the people who were going to have move on moving day because you you take your furniture and it may not fit and what you've got doesn't go in the right cabinets and your rugs aren't aren't going to be there, but in terms of a practical solution to the fact that many farm families would would move on March 1st it is a good idea. Also the fact that it's on March 1st means that your planting you're beginning of field work you'll be in your new location when it's time to get that done. So, in terms of the best time to do it I think that's a -- that's a good -- that's a good date.

Tags: history interviews Iowa radio rural