HOFFSTEDT: A big city kid on a Minnesota farm

Growing up in a huge city like Chicago leaves young people with no direct knowledge of farming. Our teachers showed us pictures and that was it.
Jul 9, 2013


During World War II, my folks had a small plot of ground in a vacant lot close to our house. These were allocated to local residents to grow food (not flowers) to help the war effort. They were referred to as Victory Gardens.

My dad showed me how to weed and water. That was my first taste of “farming.” 

When summer vacation started in June 1950, my dad decided to send me up to Minnesota, where he had first cousins that owned farms. I was to stay with one of them who was nicknamed “Plug.” He would be my mentor. 

I thought, OK, there were second cousins my age, and we’d have a great time, swimming fishing and playing some softball. Wrong!

Plug had other ideas. I was there to work, not play. 

Then my real farming education began. He and his wife were childless and needed all the help they could get from a 15-year-old kid, even though I didn’t know a cow from a bull, and did not yet have a driver’s license. No matter.

My first chore was to learn to drive a tractor (no license necessary). I almost tipped it over on my first try. All he said was, “Watch out for those rocks.” 

Then it was time for feeding the hogs and the chickens. Piece of cake, right? Except I forgot to put on the boots he gave me, and the hogs gave my Keds a baptism that never left them.

Plug also gave me a brief lesson in how to milk a cow. Ugh! It was fun to watch him once in a while shoot a squirt of milk directly at one of the many cats hanging around the barn. They loved it.

Now came the best job of all: sweeping out the trough that ran the length of the barn right behind the cow’s rear end. At the end of the barn, I had to shovel out those sweet remains into a pile that was to be used later for fertilizer.

I was learning fast. This was no Victory Garden.

As July approached, so did the threshing season. Those were the days when those small, 80-acre farmers didn’t have the huge combines prevalent today. They each had a small tractor and a small pull-behind threshing machine. They pooled their resources and went from farm to farm within a small rectangle of farmers that all knew each other. 

The hay was piled on open-bed trailers, hauled to each farmer’s barn and pitchforked by hand up into the haymow. My job was to be up in the mow and spread the hay evenly across the floor. I also had to pitch hay down chutes that filled the feeding troughs for the cows. 

I was becoming tanned and strong — not like the kid in June. We ate bountiful meals every day at noon, but I never gained a pound. 

One of my last assignments was to help re-string some broken barbed-wire fences. One end was nailed to the first post and the other was fastened to the tractor. I was to drive close to the posts and pull the barbed wire taught while Plug nailed the wire to each post. With my newly learned skill of driving a tractor, I pulled it too tight and it snapped and sprung toward Plug like a bull whip. He heard it snap and, by reflex, he leaped up and it just cleared the bottom of his boots. 

His comment? “Pulled ‘er a little too tight, eh?” How trusting he was.

I came home a different person, and was grateful to Plug for giving me, a city kid, an experience I would never forget.

— By Richard Hoffstedt, Tribune community columnist


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