My Story by Bob Martens (Part 1)



I was born on October 18, 1928 on a farm five miles northwest of Shelby, Iowa. I didn’t have a birth certificate until I was fourteen years old. Dad took me to Harlan, Iowa to get my driver’s license and I was asked to show my birth certificate, but I didn’t have one, because the doctor hadn’t filled one out. Dad had to sign an affidavit before the county clerk to verify that he was present at my birth.

I don’t remember much before I started to school on September 3rd, 1934 at the Shelby Consolidated School. The bus that we rode to school had wooden planks along each side – no padding. That winter we had a lot of snow that drifted on the roads from fence to fence. One day the bus could not get any farther than the corner one-quarter mile south of our place. My two older sisters, a cousin and I had to walk home, but I didn’t make it. I passed out from walking in the deep snow. One of my sisters went home to get Dad and he carried me home. I woke up that evening in bed, totally exhausted.

We always had a big garden, which meant a lot of weeds to pull and potato bugs to pick off the vines and put in a can of kerosene. We got one cent for every 100 bugs!


In September, Dad would plow out the potatoes, so my younger brother and I could pick them up after school. Sometimes there would be a 50-bushel wagon full, and they had to be carried down into the cave for storage. Shelves would be full of glass jars of canned vegetables, fruit and meat. Carrots were packed in crocks with layers of carrots and layers of sand alternating. There were crocks of pork in salt brine, also.

Summers in the 30’s were hot and dry. We would herd the cows onto the roads to eat the grass and thus, save the grass in the pasture. There was very little traffic in those days.

We always had a beef and a hog to butcher. Water would be heated in a big black iron kettle over a fire, and then carried in a bucket to a barrel that was slanted up to a raised platform that the hog was carried up on. A hook would be put in the lower jaw so you could slide the hog up and down in the barrel of hot water to loosen the hair. When the hair was loosened, it was scraped off with a big butcher knife or scraper. The hog was then hung up in the alley of the corncrib and gutted. The hog’s throat was slit for bleeding, to start the process. It was then taken to the summer kitchen to be cut up. Sausages were made and hung in the smokehouse to be smoked, as were the hams and bacon. The lard was rendered on the cookstove fired by corn cobs. A steer would be hit on the forehead with a sledge hammer or shot with a .22 rifle, then the throat slit.

The beef would be hung in the corncrib, skinned and gutted, then quartered and taken to the summer kitchen to be cut up.

If calves died, I would skin them and sell the hides in Omaha, Nebraska, when we went to visit relatives.

The carcasses of livestock would be pulled into the hog lot and burned. The ashes of the bones were a good source of minerals for hogs.

The 1930’s saw many farmers lose their livestock and machinery and some their farms as well, because they had no money to pay the mortgages or taxes. A neighbor one mile north of our farm was being sold out by the bank. In those situations the neighbors would get together and agree to bid one cent per item and then give it back to the neighbor after the sale. The bank must have anticipated trouble, so they had a judge from Harlan at the sale. He tried to stop the penny bidding, so that farmer and some others threw the judge into the water tank. The neighbor spent some time in jail over that deal, but it saved his farm, machinery and livestock!

During the 30’s there was an invasion of chinch bugs that were eating the crops. We dug trenches around the fields by hand, then rolled out tar paper and put it in the trenches about a foot high, then poured creosote in the trenches to stop them. This saved the crops, but was back-breaking work and the creosote burned your hands and arms, if you got it on you.

Grasshoppers were also bad. They would devour everything in their path. You couldn’t leave the canvas on the binder even over the noon hour or they would eat holes in it. Poison bran was spread along the fence rows to kill them. A neighbor’s landlord found sacks of bran hanging in the corncrib several years after this and scattered it out along the fence row. The neighbor’s cattle ate it and several died.

Dad rented some pasture about a mile east of our farm one year. There was no well, so we dug a hole until we hit water. We put a fence around it and took a tank over there. We fastened a snap on a stick to snap onto the handle of a bucket to dip into the hole and empty it into the tank. The hole was six or seven feet deep. I had to walk across the fields every day to water the cattle. When the weather got cold, the walls of the hole would be covered with ice. We had left a sort of shelf of dirt in one end above the water level. One day the water bucket came loose from the snap and was down in the water. Without thinking, I jumped down on the shelf and retrieved the bucket, but then I couldn’t climb out because of the icy walls. I knew nobody would come looking for me for hours, because I always took my 12-gauge shotgun with me to go hunting! At least it was fairly warm down in that hole! I finally figured out that by bracing my feet on one side and my back on the opposite side, I could work my way up, and rolled out onto the ground. I wired the snap to the handle next time, so it couldn’t come off.

The main well on our farm was going dry. We would put four steel 55-gallon barrels in a wagon pulled by a team of horses and go a quarter of a mile south and a quarter of a mile east to a neighbor’s slough, where there was a well with a hand pump. We would pump water into a bucket, dump it into the barrels to fill them, drive back home, back up to the tank and dump the water in. We would do this several times each day.

We had a large hen house for 300 laying hens. In the winter, we had to dump ice out of water pans several times a day and refill them with fresh water. Sometimes we would carry hot water from the house. The eggs had to be gathered several times a day or they would freeze.

Dirt would gradually work away from the water tank and buildings. We would take a team and wagon and go east from our place to where there was a high bank along the road. With a spade, we would throw the dirt on the wagon and then shovel it off around where it was needed.

Our stock tank was seven feet in diameter. Planks were placed across the middle of it to keep the water cooler, with a space left on each side for livestock to drink out of. We had a big goldfish in the tank. One day, when I was quite small, I was trying to catch a fish in the tank. I lost my balance and went into the water head first, ending up under the planks with my feet sticking out over the edge of the tank. The buoyancy of the water pinned me under the planks and I couldn’t get out. My cousin, who was living with us, happened to see me and saved my life or I would have surely drowned!

In the late 1930’s my dad dug a well by hand. He borrowed a short-handled spade from a neighbor, so he could work inside a three-foot cement casing. The first casing had a sharp beveled edge on the bottom. Once he had the hole started, we set the casing in the hole. Then he dug inside the casing and the weight of it would press it down as more casings were added to it, being sure to keep it level. The dirt was hauled up in a bucket by a tripod set up over the well. The dirt was dumped around the well. When he got to the 24-feet level, the water started coming in so fast that we had to haul him up in the bucket! There were always 20 feet of water in the well. We put a hand pump on it to pump the water to a tank beside the well.

We never had button weeds on the farm until the next spring when lots of them came up around the well from the dirt that came up from the bottom of the well! When we got electricity in 1939, we set poles and ran wires down in the field to the well and put a pump jack with an electric motor on it. We put the switch on the windmill by the hog house so it could be turned on and off without going to the well. It was far enough down the hill that we could see when the tank was full.

Usually, on July 4th, we would get the binder out of the machine shed and get it ready to cut the grain. Two horses pulled the binder. The first trip around the field cut the grain next to the fence, which put the bundles into the uncut grain. We boys would follow the binder, carry those bundles, and put them next to the fence. Then, the binder could travel counterclockwise, and the bundles would be dropped in the cut portion of the field. The next job would be to shock these bundles. Four to six bundles would be set up against each other so the grain could cure. If a lot of rain was forecast, a bundle was spread on top of the shock to cap it and shed the rain water. Sometimes, it was too hot to shock during the day, so we would get up at 2 or 3 a.m. and work by moonlight. The threshing machine was owned by the neighborhood and was kept in our machine shed. What a thrill for a young boy, when the neighbor who owned a big tractor came to pull the machine out of the shed and get it ready for the threshing season. The rear tractor wheels were steel and had lugs on them, so it really tore up the dirt road and our yard. It really made it rough to ride our bicycles for awhile, until it got packed down again.

Because it was a co-op, the threshing would begin on one end of the neighborhood one year and the other end the next year. We were always in the middle. On threshing day, the machine was set either by a barn or where they wanted the straw stack. Neighbors came with their horse-drawn hayracks to haul bundles from the field to be pitched into the machine. The threshing machine was powered by a fifty-foot long belt from the machine to the tractor’s belt pulley.

My first job on the threshing crew was to keep the five-gallon cream can filled with fresh drinking water for the men. My second job was to sit on the tractor and be ready to push in the clutch if a belt came off or broke, or any other part broke. Sometimes I would get a cup of water poured on my back by one of the men. It felt good if it was a hot day!

We had one neighbor that I guess was too old to work, at least I never saw him do any work. One time at our place he was standing in the corncrib driveway when a load of oats was being pulled in to be scooped into the granary. He always had a long curved pipe in his mouth. I guess he was standing too close. He took the pipe out of his mouth and in a slow drawl said, “Would you mind pulling ahead? You stopped on my foot.”

The host farmer furnished two wagons to catch the grain, which was usually scooped into the granary. Two wagons were needed, so one could be at the machine while the other was being unloaded.

The women of the neighborhood would help each other prepare and serve the lunches and the big noon meal, as there were a lot of men to feed. One neighbor lady was not a very good housekeeper. When the day came that she was to have the dinner, Dad had Mom call there and say the hogs got out or some reason, so he would have to go home and not eat dinner there. My sister got sick one time when she saw the lady put the chicken feet in a skillet to fry for dinner.