Fieldnotes – On the Farm

What a pleasure it was to meet Leona Barta and Nina Hage recently in Lewistown, Montana. I had come to Lewistown to take part in a two-day workshop put on by the Montana Preservation Alliance, as part of their innovative Touchstone Project. (More on that below.) After the workshop, I stayed an extra day to visit with Nina, and almost got stranded because of the flooding. I ended up getting out of Lewistown by heading north out of town for a few miles, then taking the road that goes northwest across the Judith River and toward Danvers, then veering off on the Kolin Road, which took me back to Moccasin and the highway. I mention the specifics of my itinerary, because it took me through the same area Leona and Nina grew up in. Even though the Judith was overflowing, and the countryside was soggy, I was still reminded of how much I love this landscape of rolling wheat and cattle country between the Judith Mountains, the Moccasins and the Snowy Mountains. The day before, Leona’s daughter Peggy had taken me to see the family farm where she grew up, and where Leona came to live after she was married. Looking at it, I imagined it was probably not too different from the nearby farms where Leona and Nina both lived as girls. At that time (in the 1920’s), this part of central Montana was extremely remote. Nina told me her father didn’t make the trip to Lewistown for supplies more often than once every few weeks.

After I got home, I listened to the interviews with Leona and Nina, and I was struck by the parallels in their stories. For one thing, both women were born in 1920. They both grew up on farms not far from each other, and told almost identical stories of getting up early, milking cows, and riding horses to school. When I asked them what they had learned from growing up that way, they both answered: “Community. Everybody helped each other.” When I asked what they did for entertainment, both of them mentioned weekly dances, in Nina’s case at the local school.

“They’d clear the desks out of the way, the kids would sleep on top of them, someone would get a fiddle and away we’d go.”

Both of them talked of the limited opportunities for rural women at that time. Leona said: “I guess I kind of dreamed of being a nurse. But farm families in those days…the boys would grow up and be farmers, and the girls would grow up and marry the next door farmer.”

Both Leona and Nina, when they talk about their childhoods, are almost radiant. When I asked them for a favorite childhood memory, they both said the same thing, almost verbatim: “We made ice-cream with our own cream, then we got to lick the paddle.”

Still, it must have been a pretty hard life, in a lot of ways, yet both women seem to have thrived.

“We learned a lot of stamina,” Leona told me. “We didn’t feel deprived, and feel that it was a hard life…because that’s what it was. We didn’t know anything about school buses, and cars driving you to school. I think it made us tougher, and more able to handle difficulties as we grew older.”

ABOUT THE MONTANA PRESERVATION ALLIANCE’S TOUCHSTONE PROJECT

The Touchstone Project is dedicated to saving Montana’s small town heritage by preserving and digitizing irreplaceable historic resources, keeping copies of these materials in a stabilized historic building, and sharing the treasures of the past through the world-wide web.

Through the project, MPA brings a team of traveling professionals to work on-site with small towns and set them up to preserve the historical materials that reflect the legacy of their unique rural community. The workshops are led by MPA staff members, as well as staff of the Montana Historical Society, and the Montana State Library. Participants learn proper methods for handling and preserving historic materials, as well as oral history interview techniques, and photo scanning instruction and standards. To learn more about the Montana Preservation Alliance and The Touchstone Project, go to http://www.preservemontana.org/