1889 Face It: A Short Story

Read aloud at: https://youtu.be/Yj8DGFdiZHM

Written by: Pam Backlund  

          Due to his strict Catholic upbringing, he had tithed his entire life. 

          Anna, his wife said, “We can’t afford to give to the church right now.  Our income is so low we can barely make ends meet.”

          John replied, “You must exhale in order to inhale.  God will provide to those who give cheerfully.”

          They were analyzing their budget at the kitchen table in their humble dairy home.  Mason jars with their milk earnings were sorted into categories of their expenses.  The ‘church’ jar had coins in it that Anna thought they needed elsewhere. 

          Laura, their five year old was by the cast iron stove playing with her doll.  Some would say that John and Anna were having a ‘healthy discussion’ of their finances.  Others might say they were arguing.

          Times were actually booming for most commerce in San Angelo.  The year was 1889 and this county seat of Texas was bustling with a new railroad station, multitudes of businesses and an ice factory.  It was the availability of ice that had brought John and Anna to the West Texas town in the first place.  If you want to sell something that could be refrigerated, you want customers with access to ice for their milk products.  But they weren’t the only people who wanted to capitalize on dairy products in the city.  There was a lot of competition.

          John, Anna and Laura worked hard at their six-cow dairy on ‘Donkey Flats.’

          Prior to the 1880’s most families used their OWN cow’s daily milk for butter, cheese and children.  (Not necessarily in that order.)   Ice cream was unknown in the Concho Valley unless there was a hail storm.  Butter was made with a churn.  Milk for cheese was curdled with acid and rennin.  The rennin for cheese making was derived from the fourth stomach of unwanted, veal, male younglings who obviously couldn’t produce milk. Without refrigeration, milk was allowed to clabber for a different tasting product.  Families with a cow could get adequate dairy products without buying them.

          But commercial dairies were becoming more prevalent when Texas urbanization occurred in the prairie.  John and Anna were trying to have a profitable dairy of their own.

           Dairies only need one male for the herd to be successful.  The more precious feed going to the females, the more the milk revenue.  And milk cows require lots of water and should have good genetics.

          “If you can buy a Jersey male, your new cows born of his seed will produce more butterfat,” she’d read days prior. 

          “Oh, I don’t think there’s a market for country butter anymore.  Oleomargarine is beginning to be used more often because of its convenience,” he countered.  “Maybe we should sell off our herd and buy milk from other dairies for cheese making.  We could be exclusively cheese mongers.”  That didn’t sit well with Anna.

          They just couldn’t agree.  But they mostly didn’t compromise on the 10% offering to the church.  They just discussed their options further every few weeks.

          There was a problem.  The community had attracted several small dairies at about the same time that John and Anna had arrived.  With the supply for milk greater than the demand, John and Anna were struggling. 

          Their small tract of land near Kirby’s place on the north side of town was ideal for their size dairy.  It also had all the amenities that Anna wanted for the large family she was hoping for.   

          But the low prices for the milk products did not erase the great expenses of good quality supplements; feed for the non-lactating females/bull, and of course, the water well.  Mr. Titus had drilled for water and found it at ninety feet.  He placed a windmill over the underground pump there and sent John the bill. 

          If you think no one cares if you’re dead or alive, try missing a few payments.  Mr. Titus knows where John lives, to be sure.  Hopefully, John would have that loan paid off in a few months.  

          Besides consumable expenses, capital improvements and land payments, there would always be taxes.  So another jar at the kitchen table was for the taxes that must be paid to Tom Green County.  “We should strangle anyone who thinks that the county tax rate is fair,” says Anna frequently.  Somehow they’ve managed to cough up the currency when the sheriff came to call.  But it was hard.

          One way that John cut family costs was to boycott any establishment that sells items he cannot afford.  Consequently he shopped at only a few of the stores in town. 

          He and Anna were frugal.  They cut each other’s hair.  Anna made their clothing and bedding.  John troubleshooted any household difficulty, thriftily.  Presents from family in East Texas always seemed to come at the most dire time in the money cycle.

          John and Anna sometimes wondered if they should just pack up and head back to the homefolks in Moravia.  But there were difficulties, at hand there, as well.

          One way Anna tried to make ends meet was by creating different flavors of cheese to sell.  She also was combining different herbs and spices together in a separate, secret project; a scheme that only she and Laura knew about.

          For the cheeses and milk, John rigged up an evaporative cooling room with the well water.  He used some old drapes and a rejected steam pump that he brought back to life with new gaskets and rings.  The ‘spring house room’ was adequate for the aging cheeses and to cool the milk they’d bring into town to sell.  The girls were very proud of him because without cooling they would have had to let the milk clabber.  There was less money brought in for clabbered milk versus fresh sweet milk.

          After John got the cooling system going, his next mission was to cull the small herd into a fantastic gene pool.  He agreed with Anna that a Jersey bull would be a great asset to the operation.  But they just didn’t have the money for one yet. 

          Meanwhile, Laura had gotten attached to a male calf that needed to be slaughtered.  She wanted “Star” (named so because of the head’s fur disfigurement) to be the next family bull.  But Leroy (the family’s current bull) was still doing his job of impregnating the females, just fine. 

          Star was a cutie…following Laura around.  Laura had been Star’s ‘mother’ with the bottle feeding since Star was three days old.  John had a difficult time convincing Laura that Star should become veal and his stomach should provide rennin for Anna’s cheeses.  She cried when she learned of Star’s destiny. 

          “Oh, put your tears on simmer,” John had said as he lovingly consoled her.  He didn’t know how he was going to explain ‘how Star was going to disappear from their lives’, soon.

          “Oh, why couldn’t Laura have been a boy?” he regularly thought.  The midwife had come into the kitchen holding a girl the day that Anna went into labor five years ago.  That day had been something of a disappointment to John; happy and yet sad.

          Ironically, when John helped his cows give birth; he’d be so very delighted when the calf arrived female.  He’d whistle a unique song, knowing that he wouldn’t have to cull this calf from the herd.

          “If I can’t have a boy, at least I could have a tomboy,” he thought.  Laura was not a tomboy as John had reportedly wished.  Laura played with girl toys.  Laura liked to read.  Yes, Laura had learned to read already, due to her mother’s obsessive desire to read newspapers, books and even labels. 

          From East Texas (one Christmas) a book of jokes that Anna and Laura were compelled to try on John, arrived.  Laura memorized the book.  It was then that John realized elephants and children never forget.  And they like to repeat and repeat and repeat.

          Two jokes from the book:  A farmer is asked how long cows should be milked.  The farmer replies, “The same as short ones.”  John thought it was hilarious when Laura pulled that one on him the first time.

          Anna countered the joke with another:  “A farmer’s wife was asked: ‘Is it easy to milk a cow?’”  Anna replied, “Sure.  Any jerk can do it!”

          But being in agriculture wasn’t all fun and games.  A dairy man had a lot of decisions to make for his herd and his family.  If the rain was sufficient, then the herd could feed on the acreage without too much supplemental ‘bought’ food.  But the milk would have to be weekly analyzed for the quality and quantity of cream that floated to the top.  Butter from cream was a ‘better seller’ compared to the more perishable milk.  Healthier food for the cows cost money he didn’t necessarily have.  Lesser quality food meant slighter-valued milk and cream. It was an endless progression.

          And sometimes the cows became stressed from either the weather or wolf threats.  These could cause them to produce less milk.   He had his cows on a schedule of:  when they were impregnated, when they would give birth, when they would give milk and when the cycle would start all over again.  He tried to have a constant quantity of milk 24/7.  There was a lot of planning and luck when it came to managing a herd for milk.

          Feeding animals that couldn’t bring a profit was something he always thought about when he and Anna would stare at the distribution Mason jars on the table.

          There was always tension between John and Anna when they discussed finances.  But there was also an unspoken clash between them. 

          “Why hasn’t Anna gotten pregnant again?” John thought to himself.  They had planned on having a big family as their ancestors had.  Infant mortality was still horribly high during this decade, but Anna had only gotten pregnant one time in six years!  That was ridiculous in John’s mind.  It wasn’t his fault, he knew.  “What is the problem?” he’d ask himself.

          John was always thinking like a farmer.  He’d hint to Anna, “Are you eating enough?  Are you staying stress-free?   Are you over-worked?”

          Anna was of course wondering herself if she was sterile.  She’d be disappointed each month when her period signaled yet another mismatch of sperm and egg.  Her sisters and friends in Moravia were having children galore.  Sometimes she wondered if loneliness was the cause of the problem.  No doubt, she missed her parents and siblings in East Texas.  She had written many a time for others to come to San Angelo for a visit or for residence.  The words had fallen on deaf ears, it seemed.

          So Anna bought spices and herbs to satisfy her unease.  These were costs that John thought un-necessary. 

          “You can’t buy happiness, but it sure makes misery easier to live with,” alleged Anna one night months later, when they were again looking at the jars. 

          Agriculture is the only occupation where all the risk lies with the farmer.  But he only gets a small piece of the pie!  Then that ‘one piece’ has to pay for all of their expenses. 

          Uncertainty of income was their biggest concern because of competing dairies. 

          Uncertainty of everything (except God’s love) could creep into their thoughts if they let them.  Fortunately they had a church to go to every Sunday.   Even though the Mass was in Latin, and there was mostly the priest’s backend to look at, the sermons in English seemed to give direction for them.  Their Bible at home also gave them comfort when they read the New Testament daily before bedtime. 

          Anna asked John where in the Bible ‘tithing’ is mentioned as she did not want to do it.  John scrambled to find it, but quoted “In the book of Numbers, Chapter 18.”  These verses did not remedy her curiosity or trust. 

          Every night they brought out the Bible.  Every night, the book’s center pages reminded her of their marriage date, Laura’s birth and baptism dates and the blank lines for additional children.  The children she seemed incapable of having. 

          Twice weekly, they made love.  “Why on earth aren’t I pregnant?” she thought. 

          To divert her attention on children, she would shop when she went to town.  The tithing hadn’t brought them more children so the tithing portion of their earnings she would spend on spices, occasionally.  Sometimes John rebuked her.  She claimed, “They were bargains!”

          He explained while massaging her shoulders, “A bargain is something you don’t need at a price you can’t resist!”

          One Saturday he pointed to an ad in the San Angelo Standard Times.  “Anna, did you notice that the paprika you bought last week went on sale today?”  She fumed in response.  “Isn’t that how it always is?”

          But John loved Anna and Laura as evidenced by all of his hard work for them.  He milked the cows twice a day.  He cleaned the milk buckets and the cans with ashes afterword.  He delivered the skim milk to the few clients that he had.  He also sold butter, eggs, cream and cheese to people in town.  He fed the calves bottles (except for Star) until they were ready to be either slaughtered or weaned.  He tinkered with the windmill and his ‘used steam pump’ to make them more efficient.  And he kept the cows out of the garden where Ann’s vegetables, herbs and flowers gave her so much comfort.

          Yes, John and Anna were like two peas in a pod…in love with similar goals.  Laura was the pea plant’s tendril grasping at the universe.  What more would the family require?

          “Anna, all you really need is food, shelter and compliments,” teased John every day.  He provided all, the best that he could.

          But he had another longing (besides the large family of sons he’d dreamt about.)  You see, John’s Dad’s dying wish was that he would remain working with cows as his ancestors had. This haunted John.  John liked working with cattle, but the perishable milk products were in-harmonious with his psyche.  He had always wanted to work with cows.  But he longed to be a butcher.  He should have been more specific with God all these years of praying, it seems.  The idea of being a dairyman had been imprinted in his brain; as this is what the Gloutz family had always done.  How could he be different?

          “I thought I wanted a dairy.  Turns out I just wanted cows and the money they make.  I like butchering cows when they are past their prime of making milk.”  He continued to tell Laura how much he enjoyed making sausage out of the less desirable meat scraps.  She loved eating the links straight out of the smokehouse.  He was good at what he did.

          “Let’s get out of the dairy business gradually,” Anna heard John say one evening as he was placing coins in the Mason jars.  She was shocked but intrigued at the notion.

          “What would we do?  Stay here or move back to the hill country?” she inquired.

          “Anna, what do you think of selling the land and the dairy; and moving into San Angelo?  You make a terrific barbeque rub for beef and chicken with your blends of spices and herbs,” he replied.

          “You like my blends?” she was surprised as she wasn’t aware that he even knew about them.

          “You have a real talent!” he said as he pulled her up from the chair to dance.  “We can start a meat business instead of the milk trade.”

          “You are insane!” she replied smilingly, as he twirled her around the kitchen.

          Laura thought they were both foolish, but was glad they were so happy.

          “I’ve tasted your secret stashes in jars throughout the kitchen.”  Each jar had a recipe strung to it.  No one at this point in history knew the best way to season a brisket.   “Anna, you’ve mastered seasoning beef.”

          “We could cater weddings and funerals!  We could start a butcher club in town and spice the meat for them at a reasonable price.  They won’t be able to resist,” Anna responded.

          Laura chimed in, “And Star could be my pet bull.”

          The gayety liquidated to silence.  John thought and thought.

          “I tell you what, Laura.  If he turns out to be an even-tempered bull with good descendants, we’ll barter him out as a servicing stud,” he said as he picked her up to dance as a trio.

          “Let’s have barbeque for breakfast,” Anna said gleefully!

          And two days later, they did!

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Historical relevance information for this story.

2 thoughts on “1889 Face It: A Short Story”

  1. So interesting! The need to live in a place that had ice for dairy products never would have occurred to me! And I love happy endings. Bring on the BBQ!

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