This story is read aloud at: https://youtu.be/Yj8DGFdiZHM

Synopsis: A dairy family guiltily struggles with supply and demand.

Historical relevance

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 for 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 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.

But they weren’t the only people who wanted to capitalize on dairy products in the city; there was a lot of competition.

The family worked hard at their six-cow dairy on Donkey Flats.

Prior to the 1880s, 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 hailstorm. 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,” Anna had read.

“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 ten percent 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 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 meet the great expenses of good-quality supplements, feed, and the water well.

Mr. Titus had drilled for water and found it at ninety feet. He placed a windmill over the underground pump 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 will 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 all household difficulties. Presents from family in East Texas always seemed to come at the direst time in the money cycle. John and Anna sometimes wondered if they should just pack up and head back to the home folks 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.

That 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 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—bottle feeding him since he 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 that 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.

But having human girls in the family was different.

If I can’t have a boy, at least I can have a tomboy, he thought.

Laura was not a tomboy, as John had repeatedly wished. Laura played with girl toys. Laura liked to read. 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 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 have. Lesser-quality food meant slighter-valued milk and cream.

And sometimes the cows became stressed from the weather or wolf threats. These could cause them to produce less milk. He had his cows on a schedule: 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 each day. 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 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 wondered. 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 overworked?”

Anna would 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.

She missed her parents and siblings in East Texas. She had written many a time for them to come to San Angelo for a visit, or to settle. 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 unnecessary.

“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 producer, but he only gets a small piece of the pie. Then that 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 it. Fortunately they had a church to go to every Sunday. Even though the Mass was in Latin, and there was mostly the priest’s backside 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 eighteen.”

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 she seemed incapable of having.

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

To divert her attention from 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 once, “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 afterward. He delivered the skim milk to the few clients 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 continue working with cows, as his ancestors had.

This haunted John. John liked working with cattle, but the perishable milk products were inharmonious 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. “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 festivities came to a standstill.

“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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  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!