A look at
Minonk's past

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By Barth Weistart

Back during the war years, food was in short supply because some farmers had joined the army, food was being sent abroad to help our allies, and of the people left in this country, many had jobs directed toward the war effort. President Roosevelt told the country no one should go hungry. He asked the citizens to grow Victory Gardens and raise a pig in their back yards. Our folks took this request seriously. We had a garden that covered over 1/4 of our property plus an area of equal size next to the Santa Fe switching tracks. AND, you guessed it, a pig in our back yard. In theory, this sounds great. Raise a pig, feed it, butcher it, and it will sustain you for the next year. There's one major problem. The smell!! This led to constantly complaining neighbors. They apparently were not as patriotic as the Weistarts because they extracted a promise that this would be the last and only pig raised in our yard. As a postscript to history, President Roosevelt never again suggested that people raise a pig in their back yards.

Our gardens were a different story. We raised ample crops; i.e., tomatoes, onions, beans, peppers, corn, potatoes, carrots, lettuce, radishes, asparagus, rhubarb, horseradish, rutabaga, beets, and spinach.

Most things were canned. Mom would say, "I canned 100 quarts of tomatoes today," or "We put up 65 quarts of beans". Canning was what sustained us much of our early lives. Each spring was the time to hand spade both gardens. It became a contest for each of the brothers in his time. Each younger brother wanted to show that he could do as much or better than his older brother, and the race was on. Tomatoes were sold from our vegetable cart, a red flyer wagon. We would pull the wagon around and knock on doors. A sack of 6 to 8 tomatoes was sold for 25 cents. Not everyone would buy, but we got to know who would, and they became our customers.

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A dirt pit was dug under our house for storage of vegetables. A layer of potatoes would be covered with dirt. Then a layer of carrots. The process was repeated until the pit was full. All winter we would be sent to the basement to dig up what was needed for a meal. Those were healthful nutritional times because we couldn't afford to eat meals from more convenient cans. It's also the type of food nutritionist are now telling us we need for good health.

Cliff Tyson, one of Minonk's barbers during the 1940's and 50's, lived next door. Cliff had his own garden and was allowed to extend it onto our property. In exchange, a bowl was placed on each of our heads ( at least Jerry, my brother, and I felt that's what happened) and we received free haircuts.

Cliff finally moved. I'm not sure if it was because of the smell of the pig or because our family was growing and he thought it would be more lucrative to cut our hair for profit. There were three cherry trees, an apple, and a peach tree in our yard. The cherries were the best. At least, the birds thought so. To keep them away, pieces of cloth were tied to the limbs. The theory was that the wind would blow, the cloth would move, and the birds would become frightened and fly away. Well, the wind generally didn't blow, nothing moved, and the birds used the cloth as a napkins to wipe their beaks when they were through. Aluminum foil wasn't yet invented or we would have had more of the fruit.

The cherries were picked and canned for use in hot cherry pies, cherry jams, cherry cobblers with cream and just plain eating.

Those cherries were smackin' lip sour and not like the over sweetened canned pie cherries we buy today. Sugar was available, but it was rationed by the government. We used what was needed and what we kids could get away with. However, none of us wanted to answer a parent's question, "Who emptied the sugar bowl".

Even though one grandfather was German and enjoyed his schnaps at supper and the other enjoyed fermented _________ (fill in the blank) any time, our mother would not allow alcohol to be drunk in our house. Juice from the concord grapes grown in our backyard was canned and not allowed to ferment as each brother dreamed, upon his reaching the age of understanding. Home made grape juice is good and is one thing for which I have never found an adequate substitute.

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Liberi Golli, who we all called "Golly" was an italian who lived on the corner of Tenth Street and Lincoln. Each fall he would push his cart out near the mine and load up willow switches which were quite flexible. He would trim back the grape vines to a point an uninformed observer would think the vines would surely die. The remaining stubs were tied to the arbor with the willow switches. Next year, the crop would be abundant. He was an expert grape grower who had come to America to make a new life and ended up, as so many others, in the coal fields.

Other food "rediscovered" during the war years was dandelion greens. These greens were not new to many tables. During the depression and prior, dandelions were common fare. They were readily available and the price was right. The dictionary calls them a herb. To supplement a well rounded diet, dandelions were dug from the yard and eaten as a salad. I always considered them to be weeds. In prior times, we would dig dandelions from the yard in order to eradicate them. If you or your neighbor had a dog, special care had to be taken not to pick dandelions with yellow stains. I ate them at first, but then skipped salad if they were included. My brother David was particularly fond of dandelion greens. Of course, he probably liked endive, too. Meat came from mother's family who had remained farmers or from the one pig raised in our back yard. Milk was delivered to the front door. Many families were mostly self sufficient. Since most stores wanted cash for merchandise only minimal items were purchased. Bread, baloney and soap comprised most of the store bought items, but only when bread was not baked and lye soap made on the farm was used up. Ivory and Swan were some of the first store bought soaps--and they would float. The one exception to the "cash for merchandise" requirement was the company store. They would sell anything they had at prices higher than any store in town. All sales were on credit which was deducted from your paycheck. Miners didn't have to buy from the company store unless they wanted to keep their jobs.

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During the war, my mother was a Red Cross volunteer assigned to oversee the nutrition program for the people of Minonk. Because no one in our family was ever underfed, she had excellent qualifications for the job. Just how well she handled the job was made clear to me by Miss Quinn, my sixth grade teacher. We were taught the seven basic food groups from the third grade on. Each year we were tested on the food types. We cut pictures of foods out of magazines, made posters, took tests on the groups, and had charts hanging around the school rooms.

In sixth grade, I revolted. I told Miss Quinn all we had been through. I explained that enough was enough. My teacher said that of all the kids in the class, I was the last one who had a right to complain, and did I know that my mother had set up the program for the school? I had not previously assimilated this bit of information. After eating humble pie, I took my seat and again learned the seven food groups.

These are some of my recollections of "just living" during a time when our country was at war. Many people had similar experiences. Our times won't be repeated. The city has resolutions against raising pigs in town.

Canning now means frozen, dandelions are sprayed, and nutrition comes from a wrapper before you pop the pizza into an oven. There are new experiences out there that a future generation will be interested in hearing about. Let's hope there are also individuals who will keep notes of these times; so that, they can tell the future generations what "just living" was like at the turn of the century.