Famed radio homemaker and author Evelyn Birkby talks about her experiences living in rural Iowa in the 1950s and gives an entertaining history about Shenandoah, Iowa's radio homemakers.This interview was recordedin in July, 2009 at KMA Radio Studio in Shenandoah, Iowa.
Debra Herbold: In your book, you talk about the Beef Club. Tell me about that.
Evelyn Birkby: One of the things I enjoyed very much about living on the farm was the Beef Club. We joined because we had the opportunity to get fresh beef every week. The Beef Club was developed because the farmers liked to have their own beef butchered for them so that they could eat it fresh. But the problem in those days was that refrigerating and freezing was a problem. People didn't have home freezers then. You could take food into the town lockers. A locker is like a cupboard or a drawer in a grocery store that was kept below zero. You could put meats and chickens and things of that kind into it and have fresh meat whenever you wanted it. That was the way you kept your frozen foods. So, the farmers would go together, maybe eight or ten, and each week one of them would pick out their very best steer, maturing cow. They would take it one at a time. The butcher would come to a farm in the neighborhood that had water out in the barn, a drainage system, and a setup so that they could butcher the cattle. Of course, in the olden days, farmers butchered their own. So, this was not unusual. This is kind of the progression that happened. People did a lot of butchering on their own farm and then eventually, it became somebody else's job. In fact many of the grocers who had the lockers would do butchering for farmers if they wanted them to. That was one of the jobs that they did. So, early on a Thursday morning, Robert would take a big dish pan with a clean tea towel over to the place where they did the butchering for the beef club. We had a half membership. So, we only got a half amount because we were a small family and besides, we didn't have cattle so we just kind of bought in, put in with a friend when it was our turn. You can't really put in half a cow or half a steer you know. You have to somehow work that out. So, that's the way he worked that out. He would come home with his portion that we would grind into hamburger, the portion of steaks, the portions of soup bones which I liked very much. You got some of the real fine cuts and then you got some of the things that you ground up and used in other ways.
I always fixed a nice little steak for breakfast because that fresh meat - it had just been butchered the night before - was so fresh and it was so good. So, we would have steak and eggs for breakfast with the beef club. It went out of style, of course, when farmers could have their own freezers. They could have their own things butchered and didn't have to share. It was probably something that would not pass inspection of any kind today. But back in the olden days, farmers did their own thing and many of them raised all of their food and did all of their meats and then processed them. But I loved that fresh meat.
Debra Herbold: What were the Country Social Clubs all about?
Evelyn Birkby: When I moved to the farm, I realized how lonely it was for many people. I was fortunate because I lived just two miles from my sister and her husband and little boy. I lived just ten miles from my mother. And we lived ten miles the other direction from Robert's parents. So, we had relatives and people that we knew when we moved into that neighborhood. But I did not know the neighbors. So it was very nice, right at the very beginning, when I got invited to the neighborhood social club. At that time most of them were named after the country schools. The Centennial School was the one that was in our particular area. So, it was called the Centennial Club. I think we met once a month. Some of them met twice a month. But it was about the only time that the women had a chance to sit and visit and catch up on the news from their neighbors and to share what was going on in their own lives, including their troubles. This was a good place to take your troubles. People would take their little pre-school children and they would play around the living room. If it was nice, they could play outdoors and have a great time together. The school children would not be included because it was during school hours. It was during the afternoon, the time that was best for farm women to get together. There were not coffee clutches. People didn't go to town and have coffee. Getting together was a very special time and they made it a very special time.
I see pictures of the ladies in those days with their house dresses and their very sensible flat shoes and they're very straight strict hairdos and I say, "I knew those ladies. They were part of my social club." They were always so helpful. If there was sickness, if there was trouble, they were there. We also did good things. We would fix boxes for the orphanages. We would always do things at Christmas time special for some group that was needy. So the social clubs were a very important part of the countryside. When fewer and fewer farm families existed, when the farmers sold their farms to other farmers and moved to town, and there were fewer farm women to join the clubs, they begin to fail. Some of these clubs get together for reunions every once in awhile and it's good to have those memories. I remember one time they were having the social club and it rained. And we lived up this long lane and it was not graveled. So when it rained, it was muddy and Robert had to take me down the lane on the tractor. He would park the pickup out on the road so that when he took me down to the road, then I could get in the pickup and drive to the country club. I didn't want to miss that even if it rained.
Debra Herbold: Did you eat food there?
Evelyn Birkby: Oh, there were always wonderful refreshments served. I got good recipes from them and put them in my newspaper column and in my books. I still make some of those recipes that were so good. They tried to make their very best foods for their club days.
Debra Herbold: Ever harbor any resentment about your hard work in the kitchen while others relaxed?
Evelyn Birkby: It's very interesting when I think back on living on the farm. I had come from Chicago. I had come from some very exciting years, the student years when I had gone to the university and finished my degree. Things were always very lively and exciting. And here I was a farm wife. There were things where I really did have difficulty adjusting. I'm not sure I knew at the time because they were just things I had to do. When you have a family and you have a husband, there are things you just do. You feed your husband three meals a day. On the farm, that also includes taking food out to the fields if they were working out there.In the middle of the morning, you took something to drink and lunch. And in the middle of the afternoon you took something. They had to keep the farmer going. Robert had 11 cows to milk. So when he came in, then he also had to milk 11 cows. I'm sure by the time he came in for supper he was tired. He would eat supper and then he would go in and read the paper. This was a hard thing for me because I had worked hard all day too. I had taken care of the kids, I had canned food. I had prepared things for him. I had done the laundry - all the things that a homemaker and mother does.
So, I'd be out in the kitchen doing the dishes and he'd be in there relaxing and reading the paper. And I kept trying to think, now, he's the bread winner, he is the most important person in this family. I've got to be patient. The other thing that I found very hard and I never did adjust to this was living in a house without a bathroom. Our little house at Cottonwood Farm had a sink in the kitchen and there was water that came from a cistern up on the hill. We had a windmill just south of the house and it pumped the water up the hill into the cistern. Then when I turned the faucet on in the kitchen, it ran out into the sink. Now that was a wonderful big sink. I washed babies in it. I used it to rinse out clothes that needed rinsing, I used it for all the cooking purposes. But we didn't have a bathroom. We had an outhouse-- a "necessity" they called it at that time. It was great in the summer. We lived back far enough from the road. The outhouse faced away from the road. So in the summer you could leave the door open and it was very pleasant. You could listen to the birds and you could watch them fly by or see the wind in the trees and it was -- it was ok. Not so bad. In the winter, it was a different matter. Oh, it was hard to go out in the winter. Maybe it made us strong. Maybe it made us hearty, I don't know. But it was just one of those things that you tolerated.
The thing that really probably hurt me the most was after we left Cottonwood Farm, the person we had rented the farm from couldn't find anyone to be a renter unless he had a bathroom. So, he put in a bathroom. I thought, "You know, we lived there over four years. We should have insisted we weren't going to rent his farm if we don't have a bathroom." But I suppose we didn't even think about it. It was just part of the package. And maybe it was good for us. It's like having lived the first two or three weeks without electricity when we moved to the farm. Then the REA came through. So we didn't have very long without electricity, but I can say I lived without electricity. I can say I used kerosene lamps at night and I can say I lived without a bathroom.
Debra Herbold: What were your kids lives like while on the farm?
Evelyn Birkby: I think they were very, very happy. We were simple. We had very little money but we had a lot of love and activity and family things that we were doing together. We had a woodshed out behind the house. So, Robert cleaned that all out and made a playhouse out of it. We put in orange crates, you know orange crates which were at that time very easy to come by at the grocery store, because the fruit came in it and you could make them into doll houses. You could make them into seats. You could make them into tables. You could use orange crates for all kinds of things in a playhouse. Most everything in there, of course, was homemade. We put in school desks so they could play school. They loved to do that. We had animals and oh what fun little animals are. We had many baby animals. We had little chickens, which are real cute when they're little. And we had little pigs, which are also real cute when they are little. We had kittens, lots of kittens and little puppies. So the children had a great time with little animals. I really feel sorry for children who are raised without animals. Our grandchildren just this last year finally got a dog. I think they just begged so long and they found a dog their mother wasn't allergic to, and one that was recommended for city life. It is a cute little dog and everybody loves it. So, now they have a dog. So, I'm very happy for that. But our children just had a plethora of animals.