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 recorded on June 29, 2009 at her home in Sidney, Iowa.
Debra Herbold: Tell me about a farmer who wrote the recipe on the grill of the tractor.
Evelyn Birkby: Every radio homemaker has funny stories and I have several that I have told frequently that I really, really treasure. One of them is a farmer friend who always listened on his tractor radio while I was on the air. This particular day I was giving a recipe that he thought sounded great so he stopped the tractor, jumped off the seat and dug in his pocket for a pencil and paper and he didn't have any. So he quickly went to the front of the tractor and wrote the ingredients as I gave them with his finger on the dust that was on the hood. Then he hopped on the tractor, went quickly up to the farmhouse, ran in and told his wife she should go out and copy that recipe off the hood because it sounded real good and he had written it down for her.
Evelyn Birkby: Another of my favorite stories was the lady who was driving down the country road. I began giving a recipe for a Jell-O salad that she thought sounded like it might be good. So she dug in her purse and got out a pencil and paper, kept on driving and began writing it down. She rolled back and forth a little bit on the road as she was writing the recipe down and a patrolman came along behind her and pulled her over. He said, "Lady, do you know you were driving erratically? Have you been drinking?" "Oh, no", she said, "I wasn't drinking. I was writing down this good recipe Evelyn Birkby was giving on the radio for a Jell-O salad and I'll make a copy for your wife. Do you think she would like to make a Jell-O salad?" He started to laugh. "Oh," he said, "I'd like to have a Jell-O salad and I'll just give you a warning. But don't write recipes down when you're driving!"
Debra Herbold: In general, describe your life in the 1950s.
Evelyn Birkby: In the 1950s Robert and I were living on Cottonwood Farm just south of the little town of Farragut. And Farragut was very active. The country schools were being closed. A number of them were closing so the schools were growing with the country folks coming in. There were churches. There were trains that came through Farragut. There were all kinds of stores. You could get everything from hardware to furniture to a fine drugstore where you could get your medicine and stop at the soda fountain, and a little restaurant. There were two grocery stores and a produce store where you took your cream and your eggs and your chickens. So, it was, in many ways it was a golden age for small towns in Iowa, for rural small towns. They were close enough to country folks and there were still a lot of farmers. They had not yet begun to consolidate the big farms.
There was a sense of optimism. The war was over, people were going back to school because the GI bill was wonderful, one of the best things I think our government ever did. And our family certainly profited because Robert did some college work at Ames and then he did some studying after we moved on the farm. All of these things were very helpful to us and our neighbors felt that same sense.
Debra Herbold: Can you talk about the role of farm women in the 1950s? How did you view it from your perspective? change?
Evelyn Birkby: Having lived in the 50s and having watched farm women as they evolved from people who helped their husbands, who raised their children and who played the role of a farm wife, I was very, very well aware of how life was changing for women on the farm. Part of this, I've been told, is due to the GI bill because the men became more specialized in some ways and so the women took more of their roles perhaps, maybe they even did more driving of the tractor. I drove the tractor on the farm when we put up hay so I was not averse to being on the machinery. I can't remember doing anything else very active but I didn't really want to. If somebody had suggested that that would be my role in life I would have said, "no, I don't think so". I think there are other roles out there. Again, television was coming in. Communication was expanding. It wasn't just radio anymore. Transportation was expanding. So the lives of everybody were broader than it had been before the 50s, before the war years. In the Depression years people were simply trying to survive, to get the food, to get enough clothing that their children could grow up. Then the war came along. We had that to cope with and every day, again, was a struggle during the war years. And now that was over and it was just like a new broad horizon. It was an exciting time to live.
People were able now to go to college. More women were able to do much, much more and have more choices. In some respects women were given more respect, but not always. I remember my dear neighbor, Myrtle Brooks, who would not give me her cake recipe because she thought if she did that, she'd have nothing that was important for her. In other words, her cake recipe was the only important thing that she had to make her an individual. She ran the farm. Her husband had died. She raised three children alone. She was a very remarkable lady. But she did not have that self-confidence, which did begin to come with young women in the 50s, very, very definitely.
And the women decided they were going to keep track of how many chickens they raised and sold. They decided to keep track of how many eggs they sold. They wanted to be better bookkeepers on the farm so they could say to their husbands, "I made this amount of profit this last month. How much did you make?"
Women began to realize their potential, which is something they needed so much to do. And I was there to help them if I could and encourage them along the way. I had the advantage of a husband who was very supportive of me in everything I did. He got me into it to start with by encouraging me to try to write and then through the years as I kept it up and have written books now, he has kept encouraging me. So, I had the right kind of husband. I chose well.
Debra Herbold: Tell me what you remember about Saturday nights in town.
Evelyn Birkby: Saturday nights, when they went to town, was an important event in many families lives. They would go to trade. And "trade" was the term because they would take in the chickens and the eggs and the cream to the produce house. They would get the money there for them, or some kind of a script, and go to the grocery store and trade their eggs and the poultry and the cream for their groceries for the week. The children would run up and down the street playing with the other children. The high school children, young people, would have a great time flirting with the other high school youth or stopping in the drugstore at the soda fountain to get the latest of the ice cream sodas or enjoying visiting with each other. I know in Farragut there would often be a movie, a free movie. In Farragut they put up some kind of a screen, maybe it was even a sheet between two buildings in an empty lot. And then they showed the movie on this sheet or screen or whatever it was and the people would sit. They would just put planks over something, maybe cement blocks, to make the seating. And people would come and sit there and they would have a great time visiting.
There was, in Farragut, the two grocery stores and then there was a store that had overalls and house dresses and shoes. Herriman's was the name of it and they had a grocery store in one side and then mercantile, is that a familiar word anymore, on the other side. And so people would do their weekly shopping and their visiting there. The restaurants would often stay open as long as people would come and the barber shop would be busy, busy, busy. The barber shops in those days even had bathtubs because sometimes that's the only place people could go and take a bath - especially people who were hired hands and didn't really have a house or a building that had all the accoutrements that people would like to have.
Debra Herbold: Tell me about the Anchor Inn in Farragut, Iowa.
Evelyn Birkby: The Anchor Inn was owned and run by Emmy Bengtson. Her sister helped. And she has relatives all over the county that would come and help at various times. She made wonderful pies, great big cinnamon rolls, and had a reputation for chicken and noodles. I like liver and onions and she always made it just right. It didn't get too hard and it was always tender and tasty.
Anyway, she built quite a reputation as a cook and people would come for lunch, farmers if they were putting up hay. Now, here's where things can change because in the olden days when the hay hand people came to help put up hay it was the farm wife who cooked the big dinner. After Emmy opened her cafe the farmer would bring in the hay hands and they would eat at the cafe. So, it was always open long hours. And they worked very hard and made excellent food. It was a good place to neighbor. It was a good place to go for coffee in the morning, just a good friendly, neighborly place and real fun.
Every small town has some place where people gather to find out what's going on in the community and to be friends, to share, to be a community. It's still going on. There are still places in every small town where the men gather in the morning. There are places where the women gather in the morning and then sometimes in the middle of the afternoon. And they visit and share and know exactly what's going on in town. There's very little that happens in a small town that everybody doesn't know about within a day. There are very few secrets and it's probably okay. Most people lead good, honest lives and so it's okay.
Debra Herbold: If you had to tell one of the most memorable moments living on Cottonwood Farm what would it be?
Evelyn Birkby: Well, there are just so many. It's very hard for me to choose one moment on Cottonwood Farm that was so special because we had special times. We had Thanksgiving with our big fat hens. We never had turkey for Thanksgiving because I always saved a couple of chickens and fattened them up for our Thanksgiving.
One memorable Thanksgiving I fixed dinner for all the relatives and then we had an ice storm and nobody got there and we ate Thanksgiving dinner for two weeks. It was a memorable moment.
Probably one of the ones I do remember was when Robert was working out in the field. I would fix the noon lunch and then Dulcie Jean and little Bobbie and I would go out in the field and we'd spread out a blanket and we'd have a picnic with daddy along the creek. It was a lovely, lovely place. The fields were green. The creek was so bright and shiny and had tadpoles in it. The children enjoyed going wading in the pool. They played with their dad. We've got pictures of them all piled up in a monkey pile I guess you call it, with kids and their dad. He loved it and we loved it. We did so many family things. We did lots of picnics when we were on the farm.
Every Sunday after church we would come home, change our clothes, pick up lunch and go on a picnic whenever the weather was okay. We'd go down to Wabaunsee State Park. We'd go out to the Loess Hills to climb the hills that Robert knew so well when he was a little boy. But we always did something together on Sundays except once. One Sunday the hay was down and most years, most people we know, if they had had down on a Sunday they wouldn't go to church.
Well, that particular Sunday Robert said, the hay is down I guess I'll stay home and put up the hay. So, he stayed home and put up the hay. When the children and I got home from church Robert said to me, "I'll never do that again. My conscience has hurt me all day. If it rained and it got on the hay, I'd just have to wait until it dried off". And he never did. And even to this day, we'll do things together or he'll go visit at the nursing home or do something like that. But that was very interesting. I knew then that I had a really good man. We went to the little country church just two miles from where we lived. It was called Madison Church and was just like so many, many of the little country churches that sprouted up through the countryside in the 1800s, middle 1800s, lovely community, fellowship of friends.
Debra Herbold: Describe what Cottonwood Farm looked like when you lived there.
Evelyn Birkby: When you came over the hill to the north and looked down you could see the long lane that went back off of the road up to Cottonwood Farm. There were trees. There was a little square white house. There was a wood shed behind the house and then probably a machine shed behind that, a big barn, a cistern at the top of the hill which was the water system, a windmill at the bottom which pumped the water up to the cistern. There were trees along Mill Creek which was at the bottom of the hill so if we're at the top of the hill looking down, here's Cottonwood Farm and Mill Creek is in the little valley at our feet. It really wasn't much of a creek, just a little creek but it was water. And in the winter it would freeze over and we could slide on the ice. In the summer it wasn't very deep, we could wade in it and catch pollywogs.
The hills are undulating. I like that word because they surrounded Cottonwood Farm, undulating hills. And they were planted to crops. Later, after we left and eventually when the land was sold to a neighbor, he took down all the buildings and he took down the trees and put it to crops. Mill Creek is still there winding its way along where Cottonwood Farm used to be.
Debra Herbold: Weather - sometimes you had tornadoes, etc. Talk about how folks kind of rallied around when there was awful weather.
Evelyn Birkby: Iowa is in the midst of tornado alley. If you live here you know that. You have to be prepared. You have to have a cellar, a basement, a cave, some place where you can go where you'll be safe. When you live out in the country on the farm sometimes you can see them coming and we have had, in my lifetime, tornados all around us, some that we could sit on our back porch and see go by about two miles away. One June day, when we lived on Cottonwood Farm, I remember little Bobbie had been to bible school at church and had just gotten home when the radio said there were tornado warnings south of Farragut. Well, Cottonwood Farm was south of Farragut. I had a little baby at the time and so I was a little nervous about tornados or anything else. I got out the picnic basket and I put in food and water and baby bottles and then I got out the hatchet because I heard if you're in a cave, which is where I was headed, you need something to get out in case a tree falls over the door or something. Well, Robert came in about this time and he looked at me and he started to laugh. He said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm taking the children down to the cave". Caves are the best place to keep fruits and vegetables and to get away from tornados.
So, he said, "oh you don't need to do that. Get supper out here on the table". So, I got supper out on the table and pretty soon we heard this loud noise and we saw the wind going and about one mile south of us, there was a tornado. I never let Robert forget that. The same thing happens these days in our household. When there's a tornado coming, Robert will go out in the yard and look for it and I'll go to the basement.
Debra Herbold: Tell me about some fun things that have happened to you in regards to your audience.
Evelyn Birkby: One of the funniest things that happened to me was one time when I was doing a book signing in Council Bluffs at a bookstore. A lovely woman came and visited with me and she turned to go and then all of a sudden she said, "I have something to tell you. My mother copied down every recipe you ever gave on the radio". "Oh", I said, "that's very flattering". She said, "she copied it on the kid's school papers. She copied it on old grocery sacks, any piece of paper she had. Then she had a drawer, a special drawer, that she put her recipes in. When she filled up one drawer, she started another one". She started to leave again and then she turned back and she said, "I've got to tell you. My mother never cooked one".
I thought about that afterwards. And I thought her connection with me was in writing it down. She didn't have to go cook it. She didn't have to make it or do anything active. Somehow it was important to her to get that written down and in her drawer and that made us kin.