The Early Years

The Early Years

by Neil

When I was young, our family’s once a year trips to my grandparents’ Washington state dairy farm were very special. The Harms Farms dairy in Ethel, WA was a magical place where the adventures of the day made getting up at the crack of dawn an easy task. Work never seemed like work. The days went fast and were never long enough. Leaving the farm was never easy. Tears were always part of that process.

My grandpa had plowed his land with horses, cleared stumps with dynamite, and milked cows by hand in the hopes that all the hard work would lead to selling enough milk to make a living. Legend has it that he ran to the barn in the early morning, whistling, because he was excited to get to work. “This is not a job, it’s a lifestyle,” my grandfather used to tell me. “It’s my work and my play.”

Living off the land was not a choice, but essential for survival. Except for a cattle dog and stray cats, all the animals on the farm were raised for food. A huge garden dominated the area between the farmhouse and barns. Vegetables, berry vines, and fruit and nut trees provided the side dishes for the bountiful meat supply of beef, pork and chicken. If it was not eaten in season, it was canned, dried or frozen. Food on the farm was always plentiful. Milk was a main food source. It was always in abundance, and the fresh, cold liquid was always a main attraction at the dinner table.

The farm visits always included lots of discovery. Walking toward the milk house in the dark of early morning, the cold, damp air meshed with the smells of cow manure and grass silage. I could hear the machinery humming, creating the pulsating vacuum that pulled the milk from the cows and sent it to the milk tank. The din of moos echoed from anxious cows in the holding pen waiting to be relieved of their milk. As my busy grandfather greeted me, I went looking for the green frog that lived behind the water heater. Rarely was the frog absent from that location. I watched the milking process, given permission to take one of the three milking machines off a cow, always weary of a flailing hoof or dropping manure. The job of feeding calves was a favorite. I took a bottle of fresh mother cow’s milk and would hold it as a hungry calf would slurp and chug on the rubber nipple. With the milking finished, I washed down the milk house while my grandpa fed the cows hay and scraped manure from the slab into the pit. The final job before breakfast was to pitch silage from the silo down the chute onto a turning auger. I would help if the silage was not too high up in the silo. Cows chomping noisily on hay and silage made me hungry.

Breakfast came at mid-morning, and hard work made for a good appetite. Washing and grooming was essential to my grandpa before he would enter the kitchen. I followed suit. We then crowded around the breakfast table and my grandpa said grace. Cold cereal was the first course, followed by bacon, ham and eggs. Toast and homemade jam rounded out the meal. Orange juice and milk were the preferred beverages. We all pitched in clearing the table and filling the dish washer. Following breakfast, my grandpa read the five-page local paper while I watched something boring on the television with my grandma. The channel choices were limited due to a rotating antenna that was more for looks than function.

Choices after breakfast included shooting the 22-caliber rifle at a target, throwing the ax at a tree stump, checking out the pigs or getting eggs from the chickens. At least once during my visit I was allowed to drive a tractor and sometimes actually do some good by disking a field. Disking was fun for a while, but it quickly became very boring driving round the same field over and over. But I felt I was helping, and my grandpa seemed proud of me. Other activities were usually family related. Hiking to a distant spring that seemed like miles away from the farm. When we would reach the spring, it never seemed as big as described by my dad.

We all went to church on Sunday in the small town of Salkum. My grandpa was a deacon and Sunday school teacher. He also sang in the choir. Small church means you might have multiple tasks. After church we would visit the cemetery which was adjacent to the church. We would check out all the Harms and Brooks clan, making sure we did not step on a grave. My grandpa thought that was disrespectful. After the cemetery we made the weekly stop at Aunt Pearl’s house to check on her. She lived alone and really appreciated our annual visit. Her house always smelled of liniment and rancid butter. Short and sweet visits were preferred.