I've always been amazed at the resiliency of farm families. Drought, flood, wind, and weevils may plague them, but most manage to hang on until it rains or quits raining, calms down and gets too cold for insects to survive.
I probably shouldn't be surprised. My grandfather was a tenant farmer, a blacksmith and a passable good square dance fiddler, and he managed to keep his family fed and clothed through the Great Depression. Just before he died, more than 35 years ago, he told me a story of just how tight things got back in the 1930s when my mother was just a small child, six or seven. The story is basically true, although Pop was apt to embellish a bit to add interest. I may have inherited that trait.
It was almost Christmas in one of his worst crop years ever. Boll weevils got the cotton; drought took care of most of the corn and wheat. Hay was short, cattle were thin, and there were few scraps to fatten hogs. Pop was hard pressed to find enough grain and grazing to feed the matched pair of red workhorses he used to do most of the farm work.
He faced the dire prospect of having to sell his livestock because he couldn't feed them.
And one cold December morning my grandmother told him that she had used the last cup of flour. Other staples were also nearly gone. And Pop had 17 cents in his pocket and none in the bank. Most of the little cash he'd gotten from the meager crops had already paid off the fertilizer and seed bills.
Christmas in those hard times was Spartan, even when crops were normal — an orange, some hard candy, perhaps a new shirt, homemade out of the colorful flour sacks that were common back then. If Pop had time, he might have whittled a wooden toy or made one on his forge, or grandmother might have made a rag doll from quilting scraps.
But this Christmas promised to be depressing. And they knew that my mom had her heart set on a porcelain doll, not a pricey one, but well out of reach in those hard times.
Pop determined the only option was to sell one of the horses and maybe get enough cash to buy feed for the rest of the animals and get them through until the winter wheat could come in or he could find off-farm work, also not a promising prospect with folks out of work all over the country.
He went to the horse barn to decide which of the animals he'd have to sell. He noticed that the smaller horse, Tony, had flung a shoe and knew he'd have to replace it before he could take him to the sale barn. He fired up his forge, heated a new shoe red hot, and held it with iron tongs on an anvil, which sat atop a massive oak stump, about four feet high and a yard across. He pounded the shoe into shape with a four-pound hammer and the ring of steel on steel echoed for miles in the cold winter air.
As he finished with the shoe, one of his neighbors drove up in a battered old pickup with a bottom plow in the back. He'd heard the ring of the anvil from his farm, all the way across a valley, about three miles distant, as the crow flies. He asked if Pop could sharpen the plow and mend a broken brace attaching the large implement to the wooden handles.
Pop put the shoe aside and started working on the plow. Before he finished, another neighbor, who also heard the ping of hammer on anvil, brought in a wagon wheel with a busted rim.
Another led in a pair of horses that needed to be shod. Others brought plows, tools and wheels that needed a blacksmith's attention.
Pop told me that folks came in all day needing things fixed. And they all had a little money to pay for the work.
By the end of the day, the question of deciding which horse to sell was no longer an issue. He'd collected enough money that day to buy grain, flour, staples and one porcelain doll.
“Miracles do happen at Christmas,” he said.