Remembering farm Christmas

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Daily chores for a farm kid growing up during the Depression included milking cows, feeding the animals and shoveling a path through the snow to the outhouse. When Christmas drew near, perusing the magical Montgomery Wards and Sears Roebuck catalogues helped to shorten the long winter days. 


St. Anthony resident Dale Gunderson, who grew up with six siblings on a North Dakota farm, said he wanted to preserve those kinds of memories for future generations. Five years ago, he spearheaded a family project to capture their childhood memories in a book. All seven of them wrote parts of the 190-page history, which chronicles their life from the 1930s to the 1950s, and is packed with black and white photos of family, farm, neighbors and animals (including Housey the house cat and a beloved dog named Shep).


Four siblings, Joyce, Dale, Allen and Karen, compiled the “Christmas on the Farm” chapter. It includes a scrawny “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree photo from 1948, which typified what their father bought every year. “My dad was kind of cheap; he didn’t have much money, and what he had, he didn’t like to spend,” Dale Gunderson said. “He’d go into town looking for a tree, and usually come home with something that looked like it was from the scrap heap.” According to the book, “He would come home with one that he hoped would look better after it thawed and spread out, but it usually didn’t improve much.”


Before they got electricity, they put candles on the tree, which was dangerous, and had to be watched closely. With electricity came bubble lights, some with metal reflectors around them so that the tree wouldn’t catch fire.


In contrast to today’s cornucopia of presents under the tree, the Gundersons each got one present from Santa—sometimes a group gift, such as a sled—and clothes that their mother sewed for them. Allen, the oldest and a lawyer in Billings, Mont., supplied a bittersweet memory of one Christmas Eve, when a coal truck driver from Lisbon got caught in a snowstorm and had to stay overnight.


“I had been sleeping but woke up and slipped partway down the stairs, checking to see if Santa had come yet. I looked into the living room and there was Dad and this truck driver playing with a marble game that was going to be my present from Santa Claus. I guess that’s when I stopped believing in Santa.”


He also remembers getting an apple, orange—and maybe some candy or nuts—in his stocking on Christmas morning.


Holiday food, of course, was memorable, but for the Gunderson children at Christmas Eve, it was something else: yucky. Their father’s favorite holiday delicacy was oyster stew. The kids, less enamored of the fare, loaded his plate with their oysters and settled for the soupy broth and lots of crackers. Afterwards, a treat: a glass of homemade chokecherry wine for everybody, served in Mother’s tiny wine glasses.


The Gunderson Seven (as they call themselves in the book) were born between 1927 and 1945. All are still alive; the oldest is 82 and the youngest is 64. All except Joyce, recently widowed, are married; all have remained with their original spouses. The seven still own their family farm in southeastern South Dakota.


It lies between Lisbon and Enderlein, 50 miles from both the Minnesota and South Dakota borders. Nobody has lived in the 100 year old farmhouse, which still has its original furnishings, for 20 years.


Youngest sister Diane lives nearby and watches over it, and keeps it heated in the winter. She and her husband farm the Gundersons’ 240 acres, in addition to their own 700-plus acres. The siblings gather yearly for a family reunion, Gunderson said, and some bring motor homes. “We spend a couple of days repairing things. For instance, we painted the hog house, just to keep it up. It hasn’t had a hog in it for 50 years.”


None of the boys ended up as farmers. Allen is a lawyer in Billings, Montana; Charles taught school in Baraboo, Wisc.; Dale worked for Honeywell in Minneapolis; and Richard (who did farm briefly) worked for the Department of Agriculture in Osceola, Iowa. All three girls, Joyce, Diane and Karen, married farmers.


The farm itself is still working, with cash crops such as sunflowers, and making money for the Gunderson Seven partnership. Gunderson said it has greatly changed from the days when they raised 10 cows, horses, pigs, sheep and chickens. “We used most of the land to grow oats and corn as feed for the animals. About 40 acres were set aside for a cash crop like wheat.”


Some of their childhood memories include adventures with the farm animals. Gunderson remembers sneaking up behind his brother with a rubber gun (made from the end of a peach crate, a piece of inner tube and a clothespin) while the sheep buck was sneaking up behind him. “He butted me and sent me flying.”


The outhouse, which had a large hole for adults and a small hole for children, was memorable because the kids could use it for a hideout. “If there was some job coming up that we didn’t want to do, we could go to the outhouse and shut the door. Maybe somebody else would get the job if you stayed there long enough.”


Allen tried smoking in it, rolling a cigarette from coffee and a catalog page. That didn’t work, so he sneaked some tobacco and cigarette papers. “Unfortunately, the smoke from the cigarette filtered out through those little holes in the upper portion of the outhouse and he was caught.”


The boys cleaned the cow and horse barns, fed the animals, fixed the fences, hunted for eggs, churned butter, collected firewood, planted and weeded the garden, planted potatoes, herded the cattle, milked the cows and painted. Sometimes the boys fell asleep leaning against the cows during the early morning milking. That was disastrous if they fell off the one-legged stools and spilled the milk.


The girls took care of the youngest children, washed dishes, cleaned house—including the Herculean event, spring cleaning—and washed out the cream separator.


For fun, they listened to the radio, shows such as Jack Armstrong, All American Boy, and Captain Midnight. They also snared the state’s most notorious pests, gophers, for bounty money, earning two cents apiece for flickertails and 10 cents for pocket gophers. They sledded and skated in the winter, with clamp on skates, and participated in school and church activities.


Are they all going home for Christmas this year, to relive the nostalgia of a North Dakota winter? Nope. They still remember the March 15-16, 1941 blizzard, in which 75 people died and others lost arms or legs, and the Easter, 1947 blizzard that separated the family. Both parents and two children, Charles and Joyce, were stranded near town. Allen got stranded at a friends’ house. The other four children (including five year old Karen and one year old Diane) were home alone, with 14-year old Dale and 10-year old Richard in charge. Luckily, a neighbor restarted the house’s oil heater, which had gone out in the night, and helped the boys with the milking.


Charles, who was with his parents and sister Joyce, tells the tale of trying to get home. “There was lots of snow on the gravel road and visibility was about zero. We were the only car on the road, and we got stuck about two miles south of Nome. We had heard of all the people who died in the March 15, 1941 blizzard, and I thought we were going to die. Dad walked until he found a mailbox and then came back and got us.


“We weren’t dressed for it, but we managed to walk through the heavy snow and get to a farm, which was about a half mile away. An older couple lived there and they dried us off, gave us wool stockings, since ours were wet, and found beds for all of us. They even served us breakfast in the morning, which was Easter Sunday. The storm was over and I believe the snowplow had gone by. The farmer pulled us out of the ditch and we were on our way.”


Gunderson said the family is looking forward to gathering at the farmstead next June, when the city of Lisbon will hold an all-class school reunion. “It’s the ideal thing for us, since we’re not all from the same class. We’ll be on the farm. Everything works and we can cook. There is plenty of room to eat and we’ll probably grill outside. We always have a bonfire. We’ll clean up the box elder trees behind the house, and burn the brush.”


He said that although the book project wasn’t always easy, and some wanted to do it more than others, they are all happy with the results. “One of the reasons I wanted to do this is because we’d been doing genealogy work, which doesn’t give you much more than names and dates. I wanted to create something that told people who we were and how we lived. To me, this is a gem. I wish that something like it had been available to us, so we could have learned more about our own history.”