Jim Allen recalls childhood in pre-war Byron
(Editor’s note: Jim Allen grew up in Byron and graduated as valedictorian of the Byron High School Class of 1953. He went on to earn his medical degree and practiced as a neurologist and was also a clinical professor of neurology at the University of Minnesota. This is Part 1 of his story that recalls growing up in Byron in the years immediately before the start of World War II.)
James Allen was born at home south of Byron and about eight miles from Rochester. Another baby was due at the same time so Dr. Affeldt, from Kasson, shuffled between the two farm places with a team of horses hitched to a sleigh. That baby girl was a classmate of Jim’s for 12 years at Byron schools.
The Allen’s lived on a 240-acre farm with modern conveniences, but it was lost during the depression so the family moved to an 80-acre farm while Jim was growing up. (This farm was located just across the road from the present Somerby Golf Course.)
Jim’s father had gone to country school, but when his family moved to Rochester, he was in the ninth grade. He was instructed to get up and recite, but he told his teacher, “No I won’t do that.” The teacher told him if he did not, he would have to leave school, and he got up, walked out and never returned.
He knew his parents would be upset when they heard about it so he took the money he had saved up, went to the railroad station, and asked for a ticket to go as far as the money would take him. It turned out it was somewhere in Iowa. When he got there, he got off the train and asked if someone was looking for help on their farm. He was large for his age, and he did have experience working on a farm. Someone told him about an older couple, and he walked to their farm and he worked for his board and wages. When the couple eventually realized that he was much younger than he told them, they contacted his parents and arranged for him to go back home.
After he returned home, he refused to go back to his Rochester school, so his parents sent him to the Agricultural School at the University of Minnesota where he excelled. He also got into ROTC and rose to the rank of captain and was able to drill his men on the parade grounds. He went into the Army at the end of WWI, but decided he did not want to stay in the Army, and returned home and went into farming.
Jim’s mother was from a family of 12 children, four of whom died at a young age of infectious diseases since there were no vaccines then. Her father had been a schoolteacher, and then became a farmer. It was unusual for girls to go on to higher education at this time. She graduated valedictorian of her eighth-grade class, and her parents told her, “Anna, you can come home to the farm now.” She had to drop out of school and work on the farm until she married Jim’s father.
When the Methodist Church in Byron built a new facility, his grandfather had purchased the old church building. During the winter he and some neighbors cut some logs to use as skids, hitched their horses onto the skids, and dragged the church cross-country over the snow, cutting and repairing fences as they went through. They set it on a foundation, and they were one of few families that had a stained-glass window in their “living room,” and a frosted glass window in their “dining room” in which they did not dine.
The building had no insulation so upstairs where the boys slept would be very hot in the summer, and extremely cold in the winter. When there was a strong wind, the wind would pass through the cracks around the windows and cause the curtains to stand out from the walls! When it snowed, they would often wake up in the morning with several inches of snow piled on the quilts they used to keep warm.
His mother was always the first one up in the morning, and she would start both stoves and then wake the rest of the family to get dressed and go to the barn to do chores. If it was really cold, they might grab their clothes, run to the kitchen and open the oven door and dress in front of the warm oven.
One of Jim’s first memories is the Armistice Day Blizzard on Nov. 11, 1940, when nearly 50 people died in the storm in Minnesota, especially duck hunters caught in the sudden change of weather. His father and his older brothers tied ropes from the house to the barn so they would not get lost when taking care of the animals. Since they did not have enough fuel for the house to stay warm, they brought a sawhorse into the house kitchen and cut up a large pine log to provide heat.
The three-hole outhouse was located about 20 yards behind the house. In the early years they could not afford toilet paper, so the Montgomery Wards or Sears Roebuck catalogs had to suffice! In the summer months the glossier pages were not very absorbent, and then there were the flies, spiders, etc. In the winter months, the snow would drift between the pages, and you needed to break off several pages of the frozen catalog and allow it to melt where you were out there, Jim recalled.
Their clothing consisted mostly of hand-me-downs, especially for Jim since he was the youngest of four boys. Jim never owned a sweater until he was given a somewhat tattered one. It was one of his few warm items of clothing, and he would wear it in the Christmas pageants in grade school.
Their new clothing consisted of going to the Penney’s store in Rochester before school started in the fall. They would each get one new pair of high-topped work shoes to wear to school, and the old pair would then be worn around the barn and other farm activities. They would also be given a new pair of bib overalls, and possibly a new shirt if it had been a reasonably good year on the farm.
His mother used a lot of flour, baking bread and other food items. They would buy flour in 50-pound sacks, and in the summertime she would make “house dresses” for herself from the Robin Hood or Gold Medal flour sacks. The flour companies knew that their sacks were used for making clothing so they would sometimes offer a floral pattern to the sacks. The pattern did not matter much to his mother because it was the comfort and lack of cost that counted!
X-rays were relatively new at that time and various uses were being explored. The shoe salesman at Penney’s delighted in having the boys stand on a platform. When the fluoroscope machine was turned on, they could see the bones in their feet wriggle on the screen with the shoes around their feet. Jim said the salesman used this like a toy for the children, but he wonders if some salesmen died from radiation exposure as a result, but it was quite fascinating to see.
A windmill provided their water supply, and they would turn it on when the wind blew and fill a cistern with water. They had a hand pump at the top of the cistern which they used to fill buckets with water to carry by hand about 75 yards to the house. All the water used for drinking, cooking, washing clothes or washing themselves was brought that way. Sometimes they would use his coaster wagon to carry a ten-gallon milk can. It was on a side hill all the way, and the milk can would often tip over and spill the water and they would have to start over again.
When his brother, Dick went to college and saw how other people lived, he came up with the idea of putting in running water. They dug a six-foot trench through the gravel and rock from the windmill to the house. They laid the copper tubing so that they had running water for the last years that Jim was home.
Their food supply was a bit of hit and miss since there was not the refrigeration and transportation that we have today. They would grow carrots, radishes, lettuce, and rhubarb and get excess from neighbors who had planted more than they could use, such as tomatoes, string beans and cucumbers. They canned hundreds of quarts of beans, tomatoes, pickles, peaches, pears, and apples that were kept in the cellar on shelves.
Their mother made very good homemade bread, pastries and doughnuts, Jim said. At Christmas time, she would make one batch of chocolate fudge, brown sugar candy and divinity candy. She would put those on platters in the unheated room of the house. The boys would sneak in and enjoy a piece of this from time to time.
Jim said he can still experience the smells of peanut butter cookies, gingersnaps, bread, and doughnuts when he thinks about those!
Jim remembers standing in the kitchen with his parents and brother one summer when a windstorm swept through. They were so fascinated that they didn’t seek shelter in the cellar. He remembers seeing the old machine shed being lifted up and carried away and debris flying in all directions. They never did replace that building but just parked the machinery in the grove of trees instead.
Both of his parents taught him many things growing up, but his father was the one who had more to do with teaching them endurance. Jim and his three older brothers developed a motto: “Allen boys never give up.”
Corn would grow until after a heavy frost, and then the decision became as to when the ears could be picked from the stalks. Jim would be perched up on the wagon seat driving the horses, and his brothers would come home from school and go right to the field to help their father pick corn by hand. Since it was late in the fall and the daylight was short, they brought along a lighted kerosene lantern on the wagon to see the rows so they could finish that night. They hauled the corn up to the crib, shoveled it out and then did the chores of feeding and milking the cows and caring for the other animals.
One vivid memory for Jim, at about five or six years old, is that of standing by the corn crib, holding the lantern, and being yelled at by his father to hold it so that they could see better. As Jim stood there he began to cry and told his father that he wanted to go to the house to get warmed up. His father said loudly, “No you can’t. We all have a job to do now. Yours is to hold the lantern. When we are done, we’ll all go to the house.” The lesson Jim learned: You don’t quit until the job is finished. You may be tired, hungry, cold or in pain, but you keep going until you’re done!”
(In Part 2, Jim recalls World War II and his high school years.)