I realize many of my readers are not farmers or have any inclination to even spade or hoe a vegetable garden.

    Note to readers: The success of last week’s 2014 Crookston All-School Reunion and the amount of activity and local history bantered about at the Carnegie Building has spurred local historian and author Kristina Gray to take on another series of historical articles. She’s envisioning this latest series to be published once a week in the Times on this page through August.

    I realize many of my readers are not farmers or have any inclination to even spade or hoe a vegetable garden.     

    However, we all have parents or grandparents who came to this area of the Midwest as farmers. Crookston is undeniably an agricultural town, to try to deny that is like telling a fish he doesn’t need water.  I believe we should embrace the fact that we will always be a farming town with the added bonus of having a branch of the University of Minnesota in our sphere.        

    Also, we can learn from old time farmers like Sheldon Roningen who has seen many changes over the course of his 80 years of farming.    

    He is living history.

    Sheldon wrote in his ten pages of single spaced, typed biography the following which everyone already knows. “The family farm of 160 to 240 acres lasted for quite some time, but became economically obsolete. It was too highly diversified for any economies of scale, and dependent on cheap labor.        

    As of 1940, farm size in the area varied from 18 to some 900 acres. Virtually all farms had horses, tractors were fairly common, a four bottom plow was about as large as I remember seeing. Plowing speed was about 2.5 mph. Most farms were 160 to 240 acres and livestock was standard. Also chickens, some had pigs, but sheep were not common.”   

    The key word in Sheldon’s last paragraph was the word “diversified” because earlier when the railroad was building paths through the Red River Valley there were large swathes of wheat land tilled and harvested by bonanza farmers.  The owners (sometimes from the East Coast or even England) were not able to make it successful because they had to pay the hired help and it was seasonal work.     

    After bonanza farms failed, the emphasis was to have MANY farmers and have them diversify so if there was a bad crop, then they could fall back on their livestock.  Also, having the family pitch in to help made for cheap “child labor.”

    I do remember sheep as a little girl on our farm land, but they were wiped out by a pack of dogs that ran them to death. That was probably in the late 1950s.  Sheldon wrote: “Some Montana outfit had a herd of sheep in the area about 1944 or 1945. We bought several when they were loaded out that fall.        

    They were known as Westerns or Montanas locally. Known for less wool on the heads (no “wool blindness”) and a finer grade of wool (white faces). The herds were brought in for only about two years.”   

    Sheldon went on to explain more about the sheep on his family’s farm: “My two younger sisters had a flock of sheep, income was to put them through nurses training. These were mostly Shropshire, with some purchases of sheep from this Montana outfit that had a good-sized herd here during the late summer and fall for a few years. They were kept on a small farm Dad bought in 1943. The barn and sheep were moved to the home place in 1947. I can remember carrying hay to them up and down hill across the coulee. That field had been planted to corn for the few years previous, hoed by my youngest sister and me. It was hot on bare feet. We would walk it out looking for any problems when the pigs were picking the corn.  We lost both pigs and sheep to stray dogs. We spent about a week or ten days searching the woods across the river for sheep one year. Never found any.”   

    When I was growing up, I don’t recall seeing so much corn in the Crookston area, not like in Iowa or Nebraska where the corn seems to be the standard crop.     

    Sheldon added: “The first machinery purchases after WWII were a cultivating tractor and corn picker.  A corn planter was next.  One year of finishing hand picking corn in June was enough.  I do not remember picking potatoes, but I do remember loading and unloading potatoes on a wagon into the root cellar the original house basement was made into. I didn’t weigh much more than the 60 pound sack. That was soon followed by carrying water for the pigs. Carried a fair distance, never measured it.  Must have been in excess of 100 yards. Soon up to two five gallon pails at a time. Many years of this. I was in on several years of butchering pigs.  Most likely seven or eight pigs a year. Soon at the point where scalding, scraping and splitting took 15 minutes. After about a nine year lay-off, it took two hours and the pig wasn’t quite up to the old standard. Dad had a unique means of checking the water temperature. Stick a hand in the kettle. The last four or five years of hog raising used farm raised barley and supplements, ground pelleted in Crookston.  The pigs were up to market weight over a month earlier. Then Crookston Milling Company burned.  The last year of hog raising was some 4 or 5 years earlier.”   

    Of course, when you raise livestock one important thing to have are the gates to keep the animals within your farm boundaries.  Here is what Sheldon wrote: “Gates. Hay moving, barn cleaning and cattle necessitated fences and gates. For some reason, I seemed to get in a lot of running to open the gate, let the implement through and run to catch up. The gates were 3 or 4 strand barbed wire with loops. Exercise.”   

    Sheldon seemed to do a lot of walking and running but also carrying of heavy objects.  The following is what he wrote: “Silage was chopped loose when frozen with a pickaxe, and carried in a 1.5 bushel steel basket to the cows in the big barn, a manger in a smaller barn and two outside feed bunks. It was somewhat unhandy when the spring mud got deep. The same basket was used when the lawn was raked in the spring. A fairly large lawn, it was mowed with a reel type mower that was quite well worn when my youngest sister and I inherited the job.”   

    Raising cows on the farm was also part of the diversification plan and Sheldon and his family were a part of that interest.    

    “With a dairy herd, the cows had to be milked twice a day. I often had the evening shift on bringing the herd home. The extreme ends of the pasture were well over ½ mile apart. If the cows were moving away from the yard, you had to get in front of them to turn the herd. If it was raining, they always seemed to be in the same spot, just a few hundred feet from as far from the yard as they could get.”   

    “The milk cows were hand milked. The milk ran through the cream separator (hand powered for many years) the cream stored in the cooling tank and skim milk fed to calves, pigs and chickens. The separator was moved to the house in the winters.  When the original well rusted out, the cream was stored and cooled in the cattle tank. Original well had a windmill, it was supplanted by a pump jack when a two or three week windless spell created hardship. The milk house was also used as smokehouse for hams and bacon from home butchered pigs. My mother used a mixture of mostly corncobs and oak for the smoking. She preferred a wood stove to anything else. A first rate cook, she seldom looked at a recipe or had to measure anything.”   

    Sheldon had some melancholy thoughts that would be typical of an 80 or 90 year old person who is living history himself. “Much less hand labor used now than in the past. No livestock in the township as far as I know, except for possibly a few horses. No draft horses as far as I know. The last team left many years ago. Sheep must have left over fifty years ago. Much has changed. Farm size has increased drastically. Many more rural residences. Township road mileage has decreased, county roads have been reconstructed and paved.  Almost all the neighbors I knew, visited and worked for are gone. I have met very few of the new neighbors.”   

    Sheldon ended his musings with: “It is extremely unlikely that the 160-240 acre family farm will ever return except if there is an overwhelming natural disaster or revolution…There is an organization west of Waseca, Minnesota which has several reconstructed period farmsteads on one quarter or half section. They are functional. I do not know how many there are or the span of time covered.  There are also many renaissance festivals and fur trade rendezvous in the course of a year. Sort of a living history.”   

    Maybe that is what Crookston needs, a living history event where pioneers come “back to life” to recreate scenarios in downtown Crookston of what early life used to be like.  Very easily and quickly we can forget the buildings that served a purpose for many early settlers especially after the building is torn down due to water damage because a good roof was lacking.  Sheldon wrote, “A building was demolished on the main street in Fisher some 12-14 years ago. I had a fairly long time local resident ask me what had been there a month later. Some small towns have disappeared completely.”     

    To sum up, I believe that repurposing old churches or buildings for the needs of the current community shows good stewardship.  What was created by our forefathers was meant to last for future generations.  Living history is something that Crookston could capitalize on because we have plenty of memories about the past and we still have beautiful, century old buildings to show for it.