A different kind of Greene County

Son Matt was back in Jefferson from Raleigh, North Carolina, for six days over Christmas. We were rummaging through the many stashes of documents in the third floor storage compartments, looking for something. We didn’t find it, but boy, did we find other stuff.

One item that particularly intrigued us was my dad’s (his granddad’s) “Cogitations of an Old Codger” column from the May 6, 1980, Jefferson Bee. 

Dad had been visiting with his mother, Myrtle Morain (my grandmother, Matt’s great-grandmother), about her years of growing up on the farm in Kendrick Twp. near the Horseshoe Bend area.

Grandma was almost 90 years old at the time of that conversation. 

She was born in 1890 on the 160-acre farm, one of 10 children of the John Dillavous, six girls and four boys. There was a 19-year span from the oldest to the youngest. 

Grandma would have been 128 years old this past July 6.

Life was different back then.

The kids all slept upstairs, the girls in two bedrooms and the boys in a third. In the winter, feather ticks kept them warm, along with whatever heat came up through a ceiling register from the coal and wood stove downstairs. 

The family usually rose before dawn and started work around the place after the breakfast dishes were cleared.

My great-grandmother (Matt’s great-great-grandmother) handled the chickens, the garden and the orchard. Grandma and the other daughters handled the housework, and the boys worked the farmyard chores with their dad and then harnessed the teams for field work.

The orchard yielded cherries, plums and many varieties of apples. Most of the fruit went into jars, stored in the basement and the cave, but the whitney apples were highly desirable throughout the neighborhood and served as a small cash crop for the family.

The country school was only about a quarter-mile away. About two dozen youngsters attended, some in each of the eight grades for which the one teacher was responsible. Each grade level went “down front” in its turn when it came time to recite, mostly on the “Three R’s.”

Spelling bees were special events, both in the schoolroom and sometimes in homes for both adults and students. Grandma told Dad she often won (and she retained her skills in that department when she worked at the Bee and Herald several decades later).

On Sunday, it was church, and also a welcome break from the farm work. 

Their country church was two miles from their home, and horses and buggies filled the churchyard for Sunday school and worship in the morning and again in the evening for the Sunday night service. 

Grandma started serving as church organist about the age of 12. She taught herself to play on the little family pump organ at home, always by ear, and could transpose well-known hymns into several keys. Sixty years later she and I would play hymn duets on the piano.

Saturday afternoons brought trips into Scranton, about five miles away. 

The trips were not leisurely — they had to get home for evening chores. Their ponies Frank and Fanny provided transportation in a two-seater family surrey.

Threshing day required an early morning trip into town to buy supplies for dinner for the threshers. Fresh food purchases were delayed as long as possible because of a lack of refrigeration. Long tables in the dining room were loaded down with favorite dishes, each family trying to outdo the others in quantity and quality. The goal was to keep the threshers happy through their long hours of back-breaking, dusty work.

Christmastime was shared between the home and the church. 

Stockings were hung behind the wood stove, usually with candy down in the toe and an orange if it had been a profitable year. The rule was one main present for each child, like a doll or a toy.

The Fourth of July was always a fun celebration in town, with races and contests of all kinds, a patriotic speech and fireworks. Everyone from miles around attended, and there was much socializing.

When she was attending high school, Grandma, as was somewhat customary for farm girls, lived with a family in town to pay for her board and room.

Grandma married my grandfather, Perce Morain, in 1909 in her family’s parlor and they moved into a home in Jefferson. She remained a Jefferson resident until her death in 1983 at the age of 92. Her parents gave up farming a number of years after Grandma’s marriage and moved into Scranton. 

She worked in the front office of the Bee and Herald for a number of years, and periodically would remind Dad that she and he were not the first members of the family to be employed by the paper. 

Her dad was the Kendrick Twp. correspondent for the Bee while she was growing up, writing the “Kendrick News” in longhand and dropping it in the mailbox in front of the house where the mail carrier picked it up in his horse and buggy.

Grandma’s childhood was a classic example of Greene County farm life at the close of the 19th century. 

Her memories were precious to her, but also recalled the challenges of weather extremes, of loneliness and of tiring chores. 

Technological advances make today’s living for county residents almost unrecognizable from those years.

Contact Us

Jefferson Bee & Herald
Address: 200 N. Wilson St.
Jefferson, IA 50129

Phone:(515) 386-4161