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The Farm at Holstein Dip: An Iowa Boyhood

The Farm at Holstein Dip: An Iowa Boyhood

by Carroll Engelhardt

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Carroll Engelhardt’s parents grew up in homes without electricity on farms without tractors and began farming in the same way. As a farm boy in northeastern Iowa, he thought that history happened only to important people in earlier times and more exotic places. After decades of teaching, he at last perceived that history happens to us all, and he began writing


Carroll Engelhardt’s parents grew up in homes without electricity on farms without tractors and began farming in the same way. As a farm boy in northeastern Iowa, he thought that history happened only to important people in earlier times and more exotic places. After decades of teaching, he at last perceived that history happens to us all, and he began writing this book. Set within the thoughtfully presented contexts of the technological revolution in American agriculture, the Second World War, the Cold War, and the emerging culture of affluence, The Farm at Holstein Dip is both a loving coming-of-age memoir and an educational glimpse into rural and small-town life of the 1940s and 1950s.   Engelhardt writes about growing up in a spacious farmhouse where life was centered in the kitchen and frugality dictated that every purchase be weighed carefully. His chores grew up with him: he fed chickens and gathered eggs at age six, rode a horse on the hayfork at nine or ten, milked cows by hand at eleven, and hired out to other farmers to load bales in the field and work in the haymow at fifteen. The simple pleasures and predictable routines of a Saturday night at the movies in nearby Elkader, Pioneer Days on the 4th of July, Confirmation Sunday, class picnics, and baseball and basketball games play out against a background of rural decline, alternating economic uncertainty and prosperity, and Cold War anxiety—next to polio, he most feared Communist subversion and atomic blasts. The values and contradictions imparted by this evolving mix of international, national, and local cultures shaped his coming of age.  

Engelhardt brings us into the world of his fourth-generation farm family, who lived by the family- and faith-based work ethic and concern for respectability they had inherited from their German and Norwegian ancestors. His writing has a particularly Iowa flavor, a style that needs no definition to those who live in the state. Readers will discover the appeal of his wry, humorous, and kind observations and appreciate his well-informed perspective on these transformative American decades. 

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A farm boy turned history professor, Carroll Engelhardt brings authenticity and meticulous detail to his descriptions of 1940s and 50s rural Iowa. His stories, from swimming in the creek to the politics of school reorganization to Saturday nights in town to adolescents at church camp, will charm anyone with memories of—or curiosity about—that era. And we share his lament that ‘a world has vanished in my lifetime.’”—Larry A. Stone, author, Gladys Black: The Legacy of Iowa’s Bird Lady 

“This fascinating account of Iowa small-town and farm life merges the traditional memoir with sociological fact-finding. Engelhardt’s study spans over one hundred years, from the mid nineteenth century to the mid twentieth. He often explores minutia that is easily overlooked as unimportant but that is revealing and memorable. This book is solid Americana and an important contribution to understanding the Midwest’s large role in forming our nation.”—Curtis Harnack, author, We Have All Gone Away and The Attic 

Product Details

University of Iowa Press
Publication date:
Bur Oak Book
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
4 MB

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By Carroll Engelhardt


Copyright © 2012 Carroll Engelhardt
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60938-117-2

Chapter One


ON MONDAY, September 15, 1941, Mother's labor began as she helped neighbor Elsie Felker serve the noon meal to silo fillers. She came home and summoned Dr. P. V. Hommel from Elkader just one mile away. Don, my brother-to-be, found an excited household when he returned from kindergarten. Sent to bed after supper without having his questions answered, he crept down the front stairs, entered the parlor, and peeped through the keyhole of the closed bedroom door. Unable to see anything, he went back to his room. At breakfast, he learned that his years as an only child had ended with my birth at 9:45 the previous evening.

Pat Keleher, a boyhood friend, once asked in exasperation: "How many years must you live in Minnesota before you stop calling Elkader home?" I could not answer his question. Joseph Amato has since informed me what home means: "It is the source of first feelings and impressions ... memories, and ... passions.... [It is] the house into which one is born.... It embraces the environment, the historical era, and the temporal goods that fill it.... Home ... prepares people for their encounter with the world." My home encompassed a relatively new ideal of childhood, an emerging consumer society, and a rural neighborhood.

At that time, popular culture and public policy promoted childhood as a life stage devoted to play and devoid of adult tasks. Laws mandated compulsory school attendance, restricted child labor, and set a higher minimum age for marriage. All under age eighteen were now called "children" and "teenager" became a common term. After the Second World War, white middle-class suburban families adopted more relaxed child-rearing practices popularized by Dr. Benjamin Spock's best-selling Baby and Child Care. In the countryside my parents' generation still demanded obedience, courtesy, and diligence from their children. They also instilled habits of careful saving and smart spending. Yet even frugal folk embraced consumerism. They prepared their offspring for wise consumption by giving weekly allowances. They stepped out to dances and movies, and purchased brand name foods, furniture, radios, clothing, automobiles, and cigarettes.

The cars men drove and the brands they smoked identified them. Ford or Chevy men like my father constituted a majority. Buicks or Chryslers denoted an acceptable symbol of success in our small town whereas driving a Cadillac or Lincoln seemed ostentatious. Males mostly bought unfiltered Camel, Lucky Strike, Chesterfield, or Pall Mall cigarettes. As these irritated Father's throat, he smoked Kool cigarettes, a menthol brand marketed to "sophisticated men," which he was not. He eventually turned to chain-smoking small Roi-Tan cigars known for "a hole in their head." Each came with a short plastic holder, enabling him to keep it in his mouth while working. Mother and most females did not smoke because it violated standards of respectability.

We were one among eight families with seventeen sons and daughters that lived along a two-mile stretch of the Old Volga Road. Carl Ehrhardt owned the land he farmed while my father and Charles Felker rented theirs. Other neighbors toiled at the local dairy and hardware store or as a livestock/land dealer, butcher, and church custodian/gravedigger. As the youngest child but one, I learned early on about life's possibilities by observing the others graduate high school, take jobs locally or in a larger city, enter military service, attend college, and marry.

OUR SPACIOUS, white farmhouse had been erected sometime in the 1880s and enlarged later. Like many rural Iowa homes, it did not have indoor plumbing, electricity, or a furnace that worked. All guests entered through a kitchen doorway from the screened-in porch. Mother locked this door at night and unlocked it the next day. She kept the porch entrance to the dining room bolted, opening it only when serving meals to threshing or haying crews. She did not secure the kitchen door that gave access to the back porch because the key had been lost. The family used this entry as we came and went for daily chores. The summertime sun warmed the screened porch mornings and trees shaded it afternoons, making it a pleasant place to play and read as a child.

Household life centered in the kitchen where we sat down to three meals daily. It had a table, chairs, cook stove, wood box, cupboards, and sink. A hand pump drew rainwater from a cistern in all seasons, but a drain to the septic field could be used only in frost-free months. At other times, Mother put a slop bucket under the enclosed sink and emptied it daily. White enameled wainscoting, curtains, wallpaper, and linoleum on the uneven floor brightened the room. Besides two entrances, four doorways opened to the rest of the house. One led to a pantry where a trapdoor covered the steep cellar stairway and a white porcelain pail for drinking water brought from the spring-fed outside well stood on a table. By the back entry, a door closed on the stairway landing where Father hung his work clothes.

Hooks for visitors' wraps and a telephone occupied walls on each side of the screened porch entry. An Aladdin Lamp by the dining room doorway gave some light to the adjoining space while illuminating the kitchen. Extra Aladdin Lamps, used only when hosting company, burned cleaner and brighter than the kerosene ones we had in our bedrooms. A battery-powered flashlight guided us through dark hallways to our beds.

Mother decorated the dining room with wallpaper, curtains, and linoleum. She kept its cherry woodwork shining and put a fern and other plants in front of a bay window lighted by the rising sun. She mended clothes or embroidered here while listening to afternoon soap operas on the consol radio. Other furnishings included a couch, an easy chair, and an oak dining room table with six chairs, one with arms in which Father always sat during holiday meals. Mother kept her silverware and best dishes in the matching buffet, a built-in china closet, and a freestanding cabinet with a curved glass door. An oil stove, erected here each winter, heated the house until 1948.

A doorway led to the bedroom where I was born. Mother, Father, and I slept here during my preschool years. Despite our close proximity, I did not get the mumps when they did. The room had a window and an outside door with a decorative, frosted glass panel in which the red face of the boogeyman appeared in one of my vivid dreams. He resembled Mr. Pain of the Ben-Gay advertisements placed in the colored comic section of the Sunday newspaper. Remodeling subsequently closed this entry.

Another door accessed the parlor, part of an addition to the original house. Kept for company, this room had a carpet, comfortable furniture, and two curtained windows looking out onto the well-kept lawn. Double sliding doors revealed the hallway between the dining room and an unused front entrance. It had a hardwood floor, cherry woodwork, and a closet, holding coats, Father's accordion that he never learned to play, and Mother's ineffectively hidden Christmas presents. A pastel-colored print of an idealized classical garden beside a mountain lake hung on the lower landing of an open stairway. "Where is that place?" I often wondered.

At the head of the stairs stood a foyer, bordered by a railing and well lighted by two windows. Mother used her pedal-powered Singer sewing machine in this space. It adjoined an attractive guest bedroom with two windows, hardwood floor, and cherry woodwork. Furnishings consisted of a double bed, dresser with mirror, cedar chest, and a small stand on which Mother put a chamber pot, pitcher, bowl, towels, and washcloths. A closet held additional clothing. Don stayed here when he returned from the army as I did for the summer after my college graduation. In this way Mother marked our passage to manhood.

An L-shaped hallway ran through the original house from the front to the back stairway going down to the kitchen. From this passage doorways opened into two bedrooms, a closet, an attic, a playroom, and a storeroom. Don slept in a bedroom heated through a floor vent by the oil stove below. I joined him once I started school. Our parents relocated here after putting in a new furnace, and we moved to the smaller room over the kitchen. The storeroom held sacks of seed grain, crocks, jars, and kettles; a closet for seldom-used garments such as Father's sheepskin coat; and laundry baskets for our soiled clothes. The rafters and crannies of the dimly lighted attic containing unused or damaged goods never permitted total exploration by a curious child.

Three small windows admitted inadequate light to the dirt-floored, clammy basement. Opposite the potato bin beneath the stairway stood the hand-cranked cream separator. Adjoining the original cellar, the excavated area for the two-story addition held crocks of lard; myriad jars of home-canned vegetables, fruit, and meat; the furnace; and, with the coming of winter, piles of coal and wood. Mother dried frozen work clothes in this "dirty" place on frigid winter washdays and chilled food here before we acquired a refrigerator.

Two essential outbuildings sat near the back porch. A decrepit storage shed housed a kerosene barrel for fueling lanterns, lamps, and heater; a gasoline-engine-powered washing machine and washtubs; stacks of old newspapers; and barrels for collecting cans, jars, and other garbage. Rats resided under the rotting floor. Poison and Don's accuracy with a .22 caliber rifle controlled their numbers. We burned perishable waste by two rocks on the nearby creek bank, a chore I liked, having a youthful fascination with fire. We dumped the slop bucket and food scraps outside the yard fence and periodically hauled the remaining waste to the town dump.

Mother used a crude table attached to the outside shed wall for butchering roosters she raised from each year's batch of hatchery-bought chicks. She captured them with a long piece of heavy gauge wire that slipped over a bird's leg. She carried her victim to a sawed-off, blood-stained tree stump, laid its neck over the block, and sliced off its head with a corn knife. The decapitated chicken's death dance enthralled Don and me. Once its spasms ended, Mother dipped it in scalding water, plucked its feathers, and cleaned it.

A grape arbor screened from the road the weather-beaten privy located behind the shed. Like all others its door opened inward for ventilation and the privacy of users. Unlike others, it always contained real toilet paper. We did not discomfort our bottoms with corncobs or catalog pages. Flies in summer, stench in every season, and frost-covered holes on winter days made it an unpleasant place. Hence my brother and I used it only for defecation; he even tried to time his bowel movements for school hours. Otherwise, like all farm boys, we peed behind bushes, trees, or any inanimate object. Beside these buildings stood the clothesline made of three heavy gauge wires strung on crossbars attached to four posts set firmly in the ground.

A large yard, enclosed by a woven wire fence to fend off livestock, surrounded the house. Mother loved flowers; she planted peonies, lilacs, and other flowering shrubs on the lawn and put a wild rose bush, irises, and other varieties in beds by the house and front gate. Three pines stood next to the county road; a bur oak, two elms, and three more pines shaded the house on the south and west. A huge, bountiful garden occupied the rest of the yard. Untended apple trees here and the nearby hillside yielded only stunted, wormy fruit.

Higher wartime income improved our material condition. Father and Grandpa Engelhardt built new steps to the screened porch and laid a cement walk from it to the farmyard and to the well. They constructed a new wooden back porch and a brick walkway to the shed and privy. The hard-surfaced walks diminished the tracking of mud into the kitchen, pleasing Mother, a fastidious housekeeper. Father eventually replaced decaying structures with a solidly built privy and a shed purchased at farm auctions. The white-painted outhouse better kept out wind, but its holes still gathered frost in winter.

Our parents restored central heating with a new furnace installed in 1948; they still did not heat the upstairs and only warmed the parlor for guests. A propane gas range replaced the old wood stove and box, making it easier for Mother to cook and keep the kitchen clean. Father tried several kerosene-powered refrigerators before obtaining a reliable model. After buying the farm, they got electricity. To save, many farmers limited electrical usage and kept older appliances until these wore out. They did without electric clocks, coffee makers, and other urban luxuries. Instead of buying new, Father rewired the battery-powered radio and substituted an electric motor for the gasoline one on Mother's washing machine. He built an electric fan but noise and vibration rendered it unusable. Like most rural wives, Mother preferred a gas to an electric range that cost more to buy and operate. Yet she bought an electric steam iron, refrigerator, mixer, and vacuum cleaner as quickly as her budget and tightfisted husband allowed.

Despite the expense, many rural households installed indoor plumbing after the war. Fixtures, water heater, pump, and house renovations might cost over six hundred dollars. Father feared additional fees for drilling a new well and excavating through limestone to install the septic system. This seemed so daunting that he refused to act. Living in the house for nearly four decades without running water, a water heater, and a modern bathroom inconvenienced Mother more than it did him.

From our house and yard, we heard typical farm sounds. Thunder signaled imminent storms. Wind rustled the trees, carrying the drone of tractors working in fields and the hum of highway traffic less than one mile away. Dogs barked when cars arrived. Chickens clucked and roosters crowed as they scratched in the farmyard. Outside the barn, newly fresh cows bellowed for their calves. Pigs snorted in eager expectation as Father called them from the hog pasture: "Sooouu ... eeeeeee.... Soooouu ... eeeeeeeee. Here ... pig-pig-pig-pig-pigggy." Birds chirped from their nests in trees or outbuildings. Pigeons flapped into the loft window of the barn while below swallows flitted in and out doorways to feed their young. A woodpecker beat a morning tattoo on the tin chimney flashing until Father killed it with a 12-gauge shotgun blast. When Mother objected he said, "Damn damage to the roof! That damn bird kept waking me up!"

Poor insulation, drafty doors, lack of screens and storm windows for the second story, and no central heating rendered our house vulnerable to extremes of the midwestern continental climate. Iowa's average temperatures are moderate, but range from highs of one hundred in July and August to lows of minus forty in January. Weather ruled our conversations and lives. High temperatures and high humidity that produced hot, sultry days and uncomfortably warm evenings also grew bumper corn crops. Clayton County annually averaged thirty-some inches of precipitation; 70 percent fell from April through September typically during short-lived thunderstorms accompanied by strong winds and sometimes by hail and tornadoes. Iowa had dry years, but few widespread droughts. It had subfreezing winter temperatures yet infrequent extreme cold and blizzards.

Thunderstorms frightened me as a child and sent some of our dogs cowering under the front porch. After a tornado destroyed buildings and livestock on eight farms north of Elkader, we drove to view the damage, elevating my anxiety about being swept away. A few years later, a tornado hit our farm without warning; it exploded the brooder house, ripped the roof from both the machine shed and old corncrib, and broke house windows. Father, having just walked from the barn, crouched behind our car in the garage. The same storm did $150,000 damage to Elkader's South Main business block, but did not kill or injure anyone.

Heavy rains caused floods, affording us another tourist attraction and additional anxiety for me. Father monitored the nearby creek, having learned how quickly it came up while caught fixing fence during a sudden thunderstorm. The rapidly rising water reached hub-high on the tall wheels of his old wagon by the time he drove out of the streambed. The creek never overran our farmstead, but the Volga River swamped the villages of Volga, Littleport, Elkport, and Garber in June 1947. In 1951, the worst Mississippi River flood in seventy years inundated Marquette, McGregor, and Guttenberg.

Even though heat waves and blizzards caused discomfort and inconvenience, they usually did not destroy lives or property. Ninety-degree temperatures might last a week or more, and at times the thermometer topped one hundred for as many as five days. When we could not sleep in our stifling second-story bedrooms, Mother opened all doors and windows and put our mattress on the floor of the living room or the front porch. We sometimes cooled down with a quart of ice cream purchased in town, eating it at the kitchen table with chocolate sauce and saltine crackers that Father preferred.


Excerpted from THE FARM AT HOLSTEIN DIP by Carroll Engelhardt Copyright © 2012 by Carroll Engelhardt. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Professor of history emeritus at Concordia College, in Moorhead, Minnesota, Carroll Engelhardt is the author of Gateway to the Northern Plains: Railroads and the Birth of Fargo and Moorhead and “On Firm Foundation Grounded”: The First Century of Concordia College (1891–1991)

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