main ad larger image margaret johnson email
main ad two


Always Plenty To Do: Growing up on a Farm in the Long Ago

by Pamela Riney-Kehrberg

Texas Tech University Press | 144 pages | 2011

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

Although this slim volume is for young readers, I was drawn to it for many reasons, one of which was because I had personally lived some of what Professor Pamela Riney-Kehrberg describes in her book (You can find my account at Neworld Review, No. 5, Chapter One of my memoir, And Mistakes Made Along the Way “The Morton’s of Virginia”).

I was familiar first hand with slopping the hogs, outhouses, pulling weeds, milking cows, drawing water from the well, wringing the head off a chicken, chopping wood, and gathering whatever food we could through fishing, hunting and poaching, if the case called for it. We had great food, took baths in a big round tin tub in the kitchen next to the large, wood burning stove on Saturdays nights, and were surrounded day and night by a small army of brothers, cousins, uncles and aunts, as well as closeted white relatives we only whispered about.  


Her book had me pondering about our brave new world of machines that now do the chores that we once did, and I recalled a quote from a historian that said, “The Agrarian Age was the most grim, brutish, barbaric period in human history.” and wondered how in the future, a similar historian will characterize our plugged in world of the early 21st Century.

In Always Plenty to Do, there is little wonder there was plenty to do, because this was a world of ceaseless labor, with only a 50/50 chance that locusts, drought, or more rain that one needed, would render ones efforts meaningless. This is what most humans experienced before the age of machines, and profound, life changing innovations like electricity.

In this world, young people, as Professor Riney-Kehrberg points out, almost as soon as they were able to walk, played just as important a role in the survival of the family as anyone.

“If you stepped back in time and visited a farm in 1900,” she writes, “you would see a very different world from the one you live in. The food didn’t come from a box or a can but from the garden or the henhouse. Most of the clothes people wore were home made too, and the houses were small and cramped. All around you, boys, girls, mothers, and fathers worked, doing the day’s chores and making their home a good place to live.”

Schooling for young people often meant a one room schoolhouse, which just as often, “require a two-mile hike across fields, through the woods, and over a stream…farm children worked outside in every kind of weather, from the blazing hot summer sun to the freezing cold winter wind. The children worked more than they played or studied, and they often sacrificed time from school and play to tend to the needs of their parents’ farms” she writes.

Professor Riney-Kehrberg indicated that this time lasted to the end of World War 1. By this time, we started seeing the slow impact of the world of machines coming into play: tractors, combines, school buses, electricity, indoor plumping and central heating, etc. However, this march of progress took considerable time to spread to the world that we know of today.

For example, my Grandfather’s large farm in Northern Virginia, at the time I lived there in the late 40’s, was still a place of horse-drawn transportation, outhouses, large cast iron stoves that relied on wood; and all of us on the farm were very aware of the fact that we created most of what we consumed by our efforts, including a small tot like me.

But we did have electricity!

One final personal note about life on the farm for a young person, not even in the second grade: I often chuckle to myself when I hear people talking about how we must shelter young minds from being exposed to sex at too early an age. What a laugh! On the farm, the whole damn thing was about sex. Without sex, the more the better, there wouldn’t be a farm, or food to eat, or clothes to wear.

Chickens were screwing chickens, pigs were screwing pigs, cows were screwing cows, goats were screwing goats and Grandpa and Grandma were busy producing 14 children!

Just walking out of our big white house in the morning was like walking into one big porno movie.

If you didn’t know about the birds and bees, and where babies came from by the time you were five, you were a dullard indeed, and hadn’t yet opened your eyes.

     Professor Riney-Kehrberg has produced an insightful book for young people to give them some idea of what life on the farm was really like, and help ground them in early Americana; and, in the unintended consequence, for the more thoughtful of young readers of her book, a deep insight into why slavery existed for so long, and why so many young farm boys everywhere in the world eagerly volunteered to join whatever army offered them escape, despite the many dangers, and why so many fled that harsh life as soon as they could, and why cities held such allure.

Return to home page