The Dairy Farm beside the Reservation by E. Ayers

milkcan smallHi, everyone, and a big thank-you to Cynthia for inviting me to her blog. I always enjoy visiting with everyone here because you’re all are such a fun, talkative group! Since I started writing Western Historic Romance, I find it impossible to ignore our American Indians. As we settled into the west, they were trying to protect what they had. Today, instead of telling you about my next book, I’m bringing you some real history, a true story, but from east of the Mississippi.

Julia was my dear friend’s mother, one of those people who enter our lives for a short time and yet fill it with so much color. This wonderful woman lived until almost her hundredth birthday. I have things in my house that once belonged to her and the stories that go with them. I’d like to share a little of Julia’s story.

Julia was born shortly before the turn of the twenty-century to a fishing family in Massachusetts. But she never thought of herself as poor because everyone around her lived in poverty, except for those who could afford summer homes there. Actually she considered herself to be very lucky because her mom was a cook in the home of a very wealthy, famous family. That job provided Julia’s parents with a little extra income, which bought shoes and other things that the family needed. Julia was the only girl in that large family, and all the normal “female” chores fell on her, including some of the cooking. As a teen, she often went with her mom and helped in the kitchen of that summer home.

Julia considered herself to be extremely fortunate because a suitable husband was found for her. He didn’t do much courting, and she only saw him a few times, but they did write several letters. Julia was flattered with the attention from this much older, handsome male who was quite different from her rambunctious brothers. After a rather short courtship, she married. Seems her husband didn’t dally when it came to marriage because he was widowed and in need of someone to care for his daughter.

Julia left her home with all her rowdy male siblings, eleven of them, and moved inland to her husband’s dairy farm. Her husband, Ben, wasn’t poor, but he was financially far removed from those affluent families that Julia had known. As the oldest son, he lived with his aging parents. He was one of many working-class Americans.

Fortunately Ben really loved her and she loved him. She was very tall, almost six foot, and skinny, but tough as nails from growing up with eleven brothers. Ben thought she was beautiful and never let a day go by without telling her how pretty she was and how much he loved her. (In her old age, she’d laugh and say that was because she was as strong as an ox, and he’d do anything to make certain he didn’t lose her. But under her joking was a woman who truly loved the man she married.)

She had lots to learn about living on a farm, and they were quite self-sufficient. It didn’t take her long to discover that farm life was different from growing up in a small cove town on the coast. With the help of Ben’s mom, Julia learned to make cheese and churn butter. She also helped her husband by keeping the dairy’s books. As a dairy farmer, he delivered milk to the families in the area. Each morning after milking the cows, he’d load his big metal milk cans into his cart and start his rounds. He’d pour whatever amount a family needed into their containers, charge them accordingly, and return home before noon.

It didn’t take much for Julia to realize he wasn’t being paid for one large can. Day after day, what he took out in milk and what he brought home in money, didn’t match. She asked him about it.

Ben was a young boy, at the turn of the twentieth century, when his father started the dairy business. Ben’s father bought the land cheaply because it backed up to an American Indian reservation. Ben’s father quickly discovered why the land was so cheap. No one wanted to live near the reservation.

Ben’s father had sunk everything he had into his small dairy operation. To have a cow and then several chickens vanish were major financial losses. He was upset. So he began to watch to see who was stealing from him. One night, he discovered the thieves. The next morning he went to the reservation and talked with the chief.

Poverty back then was a matter of degrees, but what Ben’s dad saw on that reservation made him sick. These families were starving. He vowed he’d do whatever he could to help them. Thus started the delivery of milk. Each morning, he’d reserve a can of milk just for the reservation. He drop a full can and pick up the empty from the previous day. When his wife churned butter, she’d make some for them. When she made cheese, she’d made extra for them. When she’d make jelly, she always made extra jars for them. Thus began a tradition that Ben and Julia continued until they sold the farm in the early 1960’s.

Julia had hoped to have a large family but that never happened. She raised Ben’s daughter and loved her. The young girl, who had lost her mother, very quickly bonded with Julia who wasn’t that much older.

Julia had long given up on the idea that she’d have a child of her own. After Ben’s daughter had married and moved away is when Julia discovered she was pregnant. She had a son and then many years after his birth, when most women assume their childbearing years are over, she became pregnant again. Her second child was a girl.

Ben’s dream of passing the farm onto his son ended when his son was killed in the Korean War. Ben crossed his fingers and hoped his daughter might marry a man who would want the farm, but that didn’t happen. She married a man in the military and eventually landed here in Virginia as my neighbor.

When the day came for Ben to tell the tribe that he was selling the farm, Julia went with him. Ben was looking to retire in his old age. The dairy was no longer profitable, new standards for the dairy business meant he’d have to buy all new equipment, and the land by that time was worth a small fortune.

There were tears all around that day. The tribe wasn’t just losing a source of milk, they were losing a family they could trust. Over the years, the friendship between the tribe, and Ben and Julia was strong. If Ben needed help with something, he knew where he could go, even if it was help painting the barn. And the tribe would turn to him for all sorts of things.

My friend, Julia’s daughter, grew up wearing fancy beaded moccasins, but she was never allowed any further than the porch in them and she always had to be careful to keep them clean. She never questioned where her mom got the slippers for she had never lacked for anything. She had no idea the neighbors were American Indians. They were just neighbors. She was almost a teen when she discovered her father provided free milk to the community that backed up to the farm. She never gave that any thought for she knew that area was poor and her father had always been a generous man. She had grown up milking cows and washing down the dairy barn. It was life on a farm.

But when she did discover that her neighbors were actually on a reservation and were indeed American Indians, she was surprised. She thought American Indians lived west of the Mississippi and wore buckskins and loincloths. Her neighbors were average people. She was in college when she heard that the children on the reservation were going to be integrated into the schools that she had once attended. My friend had only seen a small schoolhouse on that reservation, but had no idea these children weren’t getting the same education or that they weren’t allowed to attend the same schools as the other neighbors in the area.

It wasn’t until Julia reminisced about her life that her daughter even knew what had once happened to her grandparents, how poor the neighbors were, or what the tribe had been through. The only thing my friend had seen was a community of families in small homes. She had no idea that these people had once stolen from her grandparents or that her grandparents forgave and understood that these people were desperate.

Julia, also, talked about the Great Depression. Being on a farm that didn’t have a mortgage had protected them, and they survived better than most. Some families couldn’t pay for milk, but Ben made certain the children each got a cup. Month after month, he never made a profit, but he never turned his back on his customers or his neighbors.

No one had money, but if the men helped on the farm, they could count on a meal and some extra food to carry home with them. The men would often bring their wives and children with them, knowing they would be fed. For the women, it became a group effort and they all pitched in doing whatever. Julia would grind her own wheat, bake her own bread, and make cheese and butter for the dairy. That meant they ate a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches, but when the rest of the country was uncertain about the next meal, they had food and enough to share.

Julia said it was World War II that was the game changer for the men on the reservation. Many joined the military and many more went to work in local factories. Quite a few of the men had skills from working at the dairy. They had repaired tractors and welded things. This allowed them to obtain real jobs.

But it wasn’t until Ben died that Julia realized how loved her husband was. They had long since moved from the farm, but word of his death had spread to the reservation. Many of the families from the reservation traveled over two hours to attend his funeral.

Ben’s parents never looked at their neighbors as anything other than human beings. They were people who had families consisting of elderly parents, and small children. All they wanted to do was survive and provide for their own. Ben’s parents could have turned those men over to the law for theft, but instead they gave those people a helping hand. The tribe never stole from him again. If they needed something, they asked. And each kindness was returned.

How many people helped their friends on the reservations? We’ll never know for these accounts are not the recorded incidents that go into the history books. Instead, they are the stories from an old woman who would drink her coffee with her daughter and her daughter’s friend, while reminiscing about farm life, hard times, past friendships, and the man she loved dearly.

E. Ayers loves to write tales of the old west while maintaining the historical accuracy of events, attitudes, and daily life. She is currently working on another historical western to be released in February.

3 thoughts on “The Dairy Farm beside the Reservation by E. Ayers

  1. Hello, everyone! I’m just a day late. Actually there’s a very good reason for that and you’ll discover it next month when I return with my newest book! I promise Cynthia and I have been VERY busy with an exciting new project. Shhh! (looking around) It’s a big secret, but you cowboy lovers are going to love it!

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