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Recalling the good, but hard, days on the plains

By Richard CritchfieldSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 3, 1983

Fessenden, N.D.

In the museum of this little North Dakota prairie town, there is an old silent film that wonderfully records what rural life here was like in 1922. Fessenden, with about 700 inhabitants, is, so somebody said, 59 miles from the geographical center of North America. It sits out on a vast, empty, rolling, wheat-green, nearly treeless prairie, a stark landscape of fiercely intense light and a sky that seems too big to be true.

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The climate is extreme, with record temperatures in 1912 of 124 degrees F. above and 52 below zero. In winter there are blizzards and northern lights, in spring mirages, migrating wild ducks and geese, sloughs alive with fireflies and croaking frogs. Summer crashes in with tornadoes and thunderstorms and howling winds that can roll the tumbleweed faster than a horse can run.

In the black-and-white film, taken in summer, you see men in soft caps or straw hats and women in narrow, tight skirts moving with speeded-up jerkiness about leafy streets with white frame houses. Little boys in sailor suits and girls in white dresses play in a schoolyard, holding hands. Horse-drawn farm wagons and Model T Fords pass by, raising clouds of dust. Dusty threshers in bib overalls pitch bundles with forks. The speed and power of farming is set by the three-mile-per-hour gait of the horse.

By 1940, as highly mechanized, highly capitalized farming took over, this way of life became a nostalgic memory. Since 1940, at the height of the shift from horses to tractors when the irreversible commitment to mechanized, industrialized farming was made, the number of Americans who farm has dropped from about 30 percent to less than 2.3 percent.

Some say this may be the most fundamental change for American society in modern times. Today scarcely 1 American in 10 can possibly remember what the old days were like. To the 50 percent of Americans under 30, those times must seem as remote as tales of the Civil War did to an earlier generation. In an interview in Fessenden, Chester Zumpf, a retired farmer in his 60s, recalled an average day on his father's farm north of town in 1922. It was 360 acres, bigger than the average American farm in 1922 (148 acres) but typical for the northern Great Plains. Wheat, oats, barley, rye, and alfalfa were the main field crops, and cows grazed in a 60-acre pasture. About 25 pigs rooted and squealed in their lot, and chickens clucked everywhere. To anybody passing on the dirt road, the farm and its white frame eight-room house looked like they would be there forever.

Mr. Zumpf recalled: ''Dad got up by 5 a.m. and he'd wake us kids up. He'd head for the barn and Mother took a corncob soaked in kerosene to start the wood-burning stove. We headed out to the pasture, walking through the grass wet with dew, to get eight or 10 milk cows. Dad haltered and tied the horses in their stalls; we usually had 12 and at least two colts a year. After they were fed, we milked. Then Mother separated the cream.

''We all helped. The separator had a hand crank that did 60 revolutions a minute. A bell would ring when it was ready. Cream, like eggs, was an important source of cash; Mother also needed it to churn butter once a week. We fed the skim milk to the calves and hogs, who also got a few bushels of ear corn. While Father and a couple of my older brothers curried and harnessed the horses, the rest of us fed and watered the chickens.''

Breakfast for the Zumpf family, with six sons and a daughter, at 7 a.m. or after two hours' hard work, was hearty: eggs, ham or bacon, fried potatoes, homemade bread and jam.

Zumpf went on: ''After breakfast we'd hitch four horses to one plow and three to another and head for the fields. We had a four-horse unit for discing and a five-horse one for dragging. You'd go back and forth across the field. On a hot day you'd rest the horses every other mile and do 10 miles in the morning and 10 miles in the afternoon. If it was cool you could do three-four miles without resting the horses. Twenty miles with a gang plow was a big day; it meant you'd plowed five acres.''

At noon the horses were unhitched, watered, and fed before the family ate. At night, it was the same. On schooldays, when the Zumpf children came home at 4:30 , they'd help with the chores - milking, separating, feeding horses, cows, hogs, and chickens - until supper at 7 p.m. By 9:30, after a final trip ''out back,'' one was ready for bed.