Book review: ‘The Crops Look Good: News from a Midwestern Farm’ by Sara DeLuca

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

Prologue

We have a nephew, now retired, whose whole teaching career was in Milltown, Wis., the setting of this book.

The author, Sara DeLuca, discovered a treasure trove of family letters while helping her Aunt Margaret downsize. The letters, written by various family members between 1923 and 1955, chronicled family life during that period in middle America, specifically Milltown, Wis., and the surrounding area. The author adds national and international happenings to provide context. To some older readers, the book will revive memories. For other readers, the letters provide a picture of rural life during the time period.

Review

William and Olava Williamson raised their nine children on a farm outside Milltown. Margaret, the eldest daughter, attended business school and took employment in the Twin Cities. She then moved to California. Many of the letters were family member communications to her during the time mentioned above and offer insight into their daily lives “on a Midwestern farm.”

The letters tell of a family dealing with the Depression, with farm life, with the growth and marriages of the children, with the marriages themselves, and with the effect of increased mechanization on rural life. For those of us who lived much of it, it is a well-written look at the fact and emotion of a rural farm family in the first half of the 20th century. Born in 1943, I remember our move from horses to a tractor and the elation of moving to a house with indoor plumbing. The farm with the horses also had no electricity; electrification was slow to get to rural areas, something also pointed out in “The Crops Look Good.”

DeLuca does a good job of tying together the letters with facts from the era discussed. Here are quotes that illustrate a few of the differences between then and now.

• Mid-1920s: “Rural multi party service can be purchased for four dollars per quarter. … instruct subscribers to reach central with one short ring and give the three- or four-digit number of the party being called … no one is to listen to their neighbor’s conversation.”

• “But a radio? … A radio in the house would only make it harder to keep kids on task with housework, field work, and barn chores.”

• 1950s, regarding black and white TV: “One writer warns, ‘By the dawn of the twenty-first century our people will be squint-eyed, hunchbacked and fond of the dark.’”

• Regarding women: “In the popular Coronet magazine we read, ‘The smart woman will downplay her abilities and focus on keeping herself desirable.’”

Finally, the weather is ever important to the farmer and, not surprisingly, is often discussed in the letters. Noted especially was the severe cold of northern Wisconsin winters. Fifty-something below in 1950 seemed to be the record. While we don’t need 50 below, a winter like we have had so far (as this is written) doesn’t do Wisconsin’s reputation as a winter playground any good.

The day after this was written, winter reclaimed Wisconsin with a vengeance.

 

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