Life in Rural America in the 1920s

Mama had Rhode Island Red chickens. She always cared for them well and sold eggs to a hatchery every year in the springtime. She also had a large incubator and hatched out baby chicks for herself each year. We always had lots of fried chicken during the summer months and baked, stewed and fricasseed chicken during the winter months. I loved chicken and noodles and chicken and dumplings. Mama also raised bronze turkeys. She always Leona and George Ricesold them at Thanksgiving and at Christmas time. They were sold both dressed and alive. We always had turkey on these holidays. She used to dress two turkeys at both Christmas and Thanksgiving on a day or two before the holiday and take them to the depot at evening train time. She always hoped for cold weather so they would freeze before she packed them to send. She would express them through to my grandparents and were picked up by one of my uncles. As years went by, my uncles who worked at Bennetts Creamery in Ottawa were able to rent freezer space at the creamery, so she could send them awhile before the holiday. We had no electricity in our homes (there were no electric lines any place outside city limits.) Even those who lived in town rarely even had a refrigerator. We really didn’t miss them, as we had never had them.

Gradually, people who lived in town did start getting refrigerators and electrically powered washing machines. The ones in the country started getting washing machines powered with gasoline motors. I can remember when we got our Maytag washer. We still heated the water for it on a wood cook stove in an oval shaped copper boiler and then, winter and summer, we hung our clothes outdoors on long clothes lines to dry. I can remember when the clothes froze dry on the lines and were hard to loosen from the clothes line wires. When it was real cold, we’d heat the clothes pins in the oven so our fingers wouldn’t get so cold when we hung the wet clothes on the lines---but a washer really made life a little easier. Washing on the board was never an easy job. I know our grandchildren cannot even imagine how to go about it and probably have never seen a washboard except in a museum, if there.

Some people had a Delco Electric System for lights. It was a system of batteries. Aunt Almira and Uncle George had one in their new home they built near Warden, Kansas. Other people put in a propane gas system that produced light and could operate a refrigerator. The Kelvinator refrigerator was run on either this gas or on kerosene oil. But for the most part people either used iceboxes in which chunks of ice were kept, put foods down on a rope into their wells, or carefully cooked foods and purchased food as needed so it wouldn’t spoil. The adage "Waste not, Want not" was a by-word in most households. Our home had a "dumb waiter" in the large pantry off the kitchen. A platform by pulleys could be lowered into a basement pantry. We could keep butter, eggs, and etc. cooler in this basement pantry. It also served as a way to get our canned fruits and vegetables stored. We could put the "day’s canning" on the dumb waiter, lower it to the basement, run down the basement steps, and store the jars of fruit and vegetables on the basement shelves.

We usually butchered a "beef" (one large calf) and a "pork" (a pig) each year. Some times a neighbor would bring a hog or two to butcher the same day. The weather had to be cold enough to "cool out the carcass". My folks usually cooled out the beef. If it was below freezing for a period, they would keep it hanging on the screened back porch and "cut off it"—if it was warmer than freezing, my mother would can it by processing it in jars in our big copper boiler that we heated water for clothes in. It would hold 14-qt jars or 28 pts (my Dad had made a wood rack to make two tiers of jars in the boiler at a time for the pints. The hogs were killed and then scalded in a scalding vat. Then lifted by a pulley into a tree, where they were scraped with knives to remove the hair then they were gutted. The liver, heart and tongue were saved to be used right away. We always had fried liver and onion and Mama always made pickled tongue and heart. Sometimes she would make headcheese from the head and sometimes she made "souse". The souse was "vinegary" and I loved it. I also liked the sweet sour taste of the pickled tongue. The pigs feet were also pickled. Mama always fried the brain and mountain oysters for our Dad. No one else would eat them. The sausage was always "put down" in lard after it was fried. The sides (bacon), hams and shoulders were mostly sugar cured. Some people cleaned the guts and filled them with sausage, but we never did. Frying out the lard, grinding the sausage and curing the meat was hard manual labor. My Dad always helped by sawing up the hog into pieces, overseeing the hand grinding of the sausage, and chunking the fat to make lard. We kids did a lot of the grinding and cutting up the fat. The sausage and fat required proper handling to make the best quality food. Mama could seem to make a near perfect lard—cooked enough to get all the fat out without having it turn dark and enough that it would keep. Proper cooking and seasoning was all-important. Sometimes we coarsely ground the lard fat, sometimes it was diced up. It was "greasy" work, too, and required a lot of cleaning up later.

Wheat harvest with mules.  Shows the wheat header.
When I was about four years old, my Dad bought a new black Model T truck. It wasn’t much bigger than today’s small sized pick-ups are. It had sideboards that allowed him to haul good-sized loads of grain. He hauled lots of wheat at the harvest season both for himself and neighbors. At the time he bought the truck most wheat was either cut with a header or a binder or then threshed, but in a few years combines were becoming a common means of cutting the wheat. Combines came sooner to the western half of Kansas than to Eastern Kansas because the volume of wheat grown was much greater in the west than in the eastern half of the state. Most wheat fields were too damp in the early hours of day, so cutting wasn’t started much before 10 am and then last through until dark and dampness set in. In the peak of the season, this meant long lines at the elevator until late at night. While waiting to weigh and sell the men in line would get out of their trucks and visit. One night I went with my Dad on that last load (I had asked to go and usually George or I could go if we wanted to). I decided to stay in the truck, but we were parked where it wasn’t lighted and I got afraid. I got down on the floor of the truck and waited. It seemed like forever. My Dad found me there asleep. I never asked to go again if I thought it would get dark and I'd be left by myself.

As I said my mother’s chickens were well cared for, but I remember one time when she lost a good many small chickens from a hail storm. When we saw the storm coming, we were in a field a half mile or so from the house. Mama and Daddy each had a cultivator working in the young corn. As soon as she saw it coming, Mama hitched her team to a small wagon (where us kids played around while the folks were in the field) and George and I and Mama headed for the house leaving my Dad to come in when he completed his row. He’d ride one of the horses or could have. Mama needed to get home because she had left her young chickens out in a holding yard next to the brooder house. The storm with rain and hail got there before we did. We had chickens all over the place. The ones in the holding yard were nearly all dead. Older (but young) chickens from the other houses were laying down—some of them died. We brought them in the house, dried them with towels, let them further warm and dry back of a "fence" set up by the kitchen wood range. My Dad had taken shelter in some trees during the worst of the storm, but he helped as soon as he got home. Most of the older chickens survived. I can still feel how cold I was gathering up chickens in the rain after the hailed had stopped. We gathered eggs three times a day in the months we sold to the hatchery. One day when I was 10 years old (or about that), I was gathering eggs, finished gathering them, looked back and I was ready to shut the door—and then I discovered a snake coiled up beneath the nesting boxes asleep. Apparently, I hadn’t alarmed it as I got the eggs from the nests above it. I ran to the house. My mother came with a hoe and killed the snake. It had swallowed several whole eggs. After I was married and had my own chickens, I heard a commotion in the chicken coop. A black snake was eating whole baby chickens. I can't remember what kind of snake was eating eggs, but I think it was a bull snake.

I always had a fear of snakes. I used to have to go after the milk cows in the evening. I hated to wear shoes (and still do), so even though Mama wanted one to wear shoes I just didn’t do it. I'd follow a path until I came to the cows, the dog would go out around the cows and head them home and so I'd never have to leave the path. That evening I started back to the house along the path, I felt something beneath my barefoot, looked back, and saw a small snake half way out of the ground. I had apparently stepped on it. I really ran for the house; the dog with the cows came behind me. After that, no one needed to tell me to put on my shoes.

George and I learned to milk at the same time. Automatic milkers were almost unheard of at that time, even large numbers of cows were milked by hand by families. Nearly everyone learned how to milk. George and I learned on a gently old cow. George sat on one side and I sat on another. I expect we were about 4 ½ and 7 or there about. The cow was in a stanchion and my folks could watch us as we milked as they were in the barn milking, too. I remember we got to feed most of our milk to the cats at first. I soon discovered I'd rather go to the house and turn the separator. It Grandma & grandpa Rice with George & Momwas a Delaval cream separator and separated the cream (milk fat) from the rest of the milk. I think it was separated by centrifugal force. The other kinds of separators were water separators. Washing the separator was a chore and had to be done morning and night. Firs cold water was run through the separator, then it was taken apart, each piece washed in hot soapy water, then in clear hot water. At the evening washing, it was put back together again after wiping it dry, so it would be ready for the morning use. At the morning washing, it was laid out so each piece was thoroughly aired before it was put together to separate the evening milking. When I was older we quit using the separator at the same periods of time and sold to a cheese plant at Larned, Kansas. A milk hauler who, part of the time, was my sister’s husband, Joe Merwin, picked it up. Selling to a cheese plant had its drawbacks as we didn’t have skim milk to feed the pigs—although we did get whey for a while from the cheese plant on the haulers return trap. My Dad never felt whey was a good substitute for the skim milk, though. The cheese plant was a "Kraft Cheese" plant. There was also an ice plant in Larned. Through the summer my brother-in-law took milk to the cheese plant and on his return trip he delivered ice to the farmers for their ice-boxes. He spent probably the first ten or twelve years of their married life doing this. They lived in the Lewis and Belpre areas and Joe didn’t haul our milk very much.

We lived about ¼ miles from the Arkansas River. It bordered our farm on the north. Enough water ran beneath our farm around our farmstead that in some places water would spring up as my father dug fence postholes. I never knew that in some places there was a shortage of water until I was ten or twelve and heard about it. A tall windmill in the barn lot pumped water into four large stock tanks. The water came out clear and cold. In the first tank we always kept gold fish and it was there we stored the 10-gallon cans of mild overnight when we sold to the cheese plant, so it would stay sweet. In the second tank we kids could usually "swim". In the third the horses drank and in the fourth, the cows from the pasture drank. Sometimes the milk cows and calves drank from the third tank and the horses drank from the second. The horses did not like drinking after cattle. At times we kids would walk to the river and use the water there, but we were always warned of the quick sand. Most of the time the Arkansas where we lived ran fairly shallow and clear---so different from the Marais Des Cynes in the Ottawa area, which is far from, clear. My Dad maintained three other windmills in the pastures. He always checked and oiled them each week. Of course we had a little more than 500 acres of pasture and about 200 acres of house, barns, hay meadow, and cropland and timberland. One time my Dad’s cousin’s grandson. Feye Duncan, and I, in our playing, climbed the tall windmill in the barnlot and were afraid to come down. (Neither of us had started to school yet so we weren’t very old). Our folks helped us down. Miraculously, the wind didn’t change and shift the fan and knock us off the small platform. Another time we filled all the grease cups of my Dad's horse-drawn machinery with sand (just playing, honest), but it was days and days before my Dad got all those little grease cups cleaned, so he could use the machinery. I really felt bad about it. No, I didn’t get spanked—just told how bad it was and then witnessed my Dad cleaning them out and had to hear it told to others. (Which was probably the worst punishment).

We didn’t have indoor plumbing. Our baths were taken on the back porch (in the summer) in the big wash tub. The same tub was pulled in front of the kitchen cook stove in the wintertime. The outhouse was "out" down by the hen houses. At one time we had a fighting rooster (no, not a game rooster as it was a prize Rhode Island Red, but it would jump on humans as they came past). I was afraid of it, so Mama said to carry a stick and shake it at the rooster. It was one Mama had paid a big price for because she sold eggs to the hatchery. Well, I carried the stick and shook it at the rooster and it kept coming—so I whacked it a good big whack—that the rooster fell and began flopping about. I knew it was going to die. In fear, I again ran calling "Mama". By the time Mama and I had got back, the rooster had got up and after a few minutes seemed to be okay. He lived, healthy and happy it would seem. But he never ever tried to flog me or any one else again. He was a smart rooster, I guess. He had learned, even if it was the hard way.

I had curly thick hair (still do). It was black (now it is white) and I wore it in ringlets most of the time. Fern or Mama would wrap it around their fingers each morning before I went to school and it would fall in ringlets. When I graduated from grade school I had it cut and never did wear ringlets again. Fern was eleven years old when I was born and sometimes she was more like a mother to me than a sister. I sometimes resented this "motherliness" and its accompanying bossiness, but I know she was really a good helper for my mother who worked so hard to keep us kids well fed and clothed. At an early age Fern sewed well and she helped make my clothing from the time I could remember. She died five years ago from a massive stroke. She would have been 85 years old this September. My brother, John, and brother, George had preceded her in death in the 1970’s. They both died from a heart attack as did my mother when she was nearly 69 years old in 1959. My father died in xxxxxxx,xx after several years of Alzheimer’s disease.


  1. Leona and George Rice
  2. Harvest crew near Larned or Kinsley, Kansas, in the 1920s.
  3. Left to right:  George Rice, Jesse Rice (father), Cathrine Rice (mother), and Leona Rice.