It’s our first Mother’s Day without Grandma Kathy. It feels odd knowing I can’t pick up the phone and hear her loving voice. And when I think of the caring person she was, I want to keep everything about her close. She mattered. And I want people to know about her.
So, I found some letters she’d sent when I was young. She knew I liked to write stories. She thought that if I ever wrote about farms or the past, then these stories might be useful. So far, they haven’t helped with any writing projects. Unless you count this one.
Who Was Grandma Kathy?
Grandma Kathy was born in 1939 as Kathleen “Susy” Tax, the youngest of ten kids. She grew up on a farm at Medicine Lake, Montana.
She had 5 kids with my grandpa. My mom is one of them.
Grandma loved family, nature, and God. She would often tell me about the birds and flowers in her yard. Daisies were her favorite flowers. She also loved butterflies and long walks.
Grandma supported me no matter what. She showed me love and acceptance when I found out I’m neurodivergent. She loved my art and writing. In her eyes, everything I did was amazing. I wish everyone had a grandparent like her.
Grandma Kathy’s “Susy Stories”
When Grandma Kathy was born, her dad said, “Kathleen is too big of a name for such a small thing. She looks like a Susy.”
So, everyone called her Susy when she was a kid. In fact, her mom once had to pick her up early from school when she realized she didn’t recall her legal name. She didn’t think they’d let her pick her up if she didn’t know. Pacing, she tried to remember. Finally, she showed up late, declaring, “I’m here for Kathleen Tax!” And her teacher said, “Oh, you mean Susy? She’s over there.”
The nickname “Kathy” came when Grandma Kathy was an adult. But as a kid, she was always “Susy.” That’s why she titled her typed-up notes “Susy Stories.”
I edited Grandma Kathy’s stories for readability. She showed signs of dyslexia and she tended to open parentheses without closing them. She also switched between describing herself in first and third person in the stories. I tried to make it easier to read by breaking up long paragraphs and sentences, simplifying wording in a few places, and adding subheadings.
But the stories are all hers.
Story 1: Morning and Evening Chores
This is what Grandma Kathy called the story. But it’s mostly about milking cows.
I grew up on a farm in Northeastern Montana. When I was eight years old it was only 1947 and things were done differently then. My mom Agnes, dad Carl, brothers Stan and Charles, my 7 sisters (Marion, Dora, Vera, Carol, Pat, Loyce, Janice, and I, Susy) did a lot of work but we also had a lot of fun. Most farm work was done by hand or by fairly simple machines.
Every morning and evening Dad and two brothers or sisters would go to the barn to milk the cows. We didn’t have a milking machine and we had about 15 cows. It took an hour or more for 3 people to milk them by hand.
Dad would already have fed the cows some hay and hooked them in their stanchions. (A stanchion is an oval collar-like contraption that kept the cow from walking around in the barn while they were milked.) Their individual feed was right under their heads so they were glad to go to their place. Dad and “the kids” would walk to the barn with empty milk pails. I would go too in nice weather.
I could play with the cats and kittens, and fill their bowl with fresh frothy milk. Dad almost always gave the kittens some of the first milk from the cows. It was fun to watch the kittens and cats come running when they were called… “kitty, kitty, here kitty!”
They all came… the white kitten with one green and one blue eye, the orange-brown kitten with tiger-like stripes, even the littlest gray kitten would come running over, last again! The big, white, long-haired Momma cat would give a soft mew, sort of like saying “thank you.” They would spread themselves around the milk dish – shoulder to shoulder – to drink all the milk they wanted. It didn’t take them long to finish eating either!
After eating, the kittens would move away to a safe, quiet spot in the barn to lick their faces, paws, and bodies clean. Sometimes, the fluffy mother cat would help the kittens clean themselves. Sometimes she would nudge them away with her head, letting them know they could go play.
By the time the kittens had eaten and “washed themselves,” the milking was done. The cows were let out of the barn to move around or drink fresh water. Dad and the kids who had helped do the milking would come from the barn to the house carrying huge pails of clean, warm milk.
Separating Milk and Cream
The next step was exciting to me! Dad would pour the warm milk into the top of the black and silver “separator.” The job of the separator was to separate the cream from the milk. To make that happen, someone had to turn the crank from the first splash of milk until the last bit of milk had gone through. It made a fun “whir, whir” noise as the warm cream and milk came out of separate spouts.
The cream went into big metal cans (about as big as the biggest containers of coffee you see in grocery stores now). The cans held a gallon of cream and each can was stainless steel with three indentations around their sides. Cream is slippery and the rings helped to hold the cans securely as you moved them to the refrigerator.
The milk we didn’t refrigerate for us to drink was fed to calves, pigs, and our working pet, the farm dog.
Selling the Cream
Those cans of cream provided money for us. It was part of what farmers call “a cash crop.” The cream would go in huge 8-gallon or 10-gallon cream cans. Every 2 or 3 days we would ship three or four cream cans. Those cream cans would travel by train to Minnesota. They were sold for whipping cream, coffee cream, butter, or cheese after further processing in a factory.
In a few days, we would get a check in the mail from the dairy to pay for our cream. The cream cans would come back empty on the train. They sat at the train depot waiting for us to pick them up, take them home, wash them, and fill them with cream again.
The cream we didn’t send to Minnesota on the train, we ate as butter, whipped cream, or baking and cooking supplies. My mom (Agnes Tax) made cakes, cheese, salad dressings, frostings, and even cocoa with fresh cream and milk! Sometimes she made potato salad with it, or creamed chicken and dumplings, hotcakes (we called them pancakes), creamed peas, or fried potatoes in cream and onions. Mmmmmm!
It was fun to come into the house on a cold snowy day after sledding down the hills to have a cup of cocoa and warm up by the fire!
I bet you would enjoy that too! I did!
Story 2: Canning the Garden
Farm Life in Sheridan County, Montana in the 1940s
I loved fall on the farm. The garden would have produced a lot of food – carrots, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, green and yellow beans, peas, cabbage, and sometimes corn, squash, and pumpkins. It didn’t need weeding anymore; it needed to be “harvested.”
My sisters and I would be sent out to the garden to pick the vegetables and bring them to the house. We would carry big five-gallon pails and huge basins to put things in as we picked them.
We canned in glass jars. These were frequently called Mason jars because the Mason company made most of them. We didn’t have tin cans with metal lids.
The Canning Process
Mom (Agnes) and the older girls would clean, peel, cook, and place the vegetables we had grown into quart jars. Then they would put the jars into the big metal canner where the food would be cooked by the water boiling around the jars.
Special lids with a rubber ring around the exterior covered the tops of the jars. A thin metal circle called a “ring” fit on top of the lid. The hot water and steam would melt the rubber so the jar would seal tightly. Then no dirt or germs could affect the food.
This process not only cooked the food but also preserved it. It was a lot of work and somewhat dangerous. The jars could explode if they were weak, cracked, or cooked too long.
The hot boiling water and steam were dangerous too. The whole farmhouse kitchen was like a beehive with my mom and sisters all buzzing around doing different jobs.
We had a special tool to get the jars out of the boiling water. Everyone was very careful because we could get burned taking the finished jars out of the boiling water to cool on the counter.
It was exciting to me to watch all of the activity in the kitchen.
Storing the Cans
After the quart jars of newly canned food had cooled to room temperature, they would go down to our basement and put on shelves. That was my job. It was fun to see all the food in the glass jars. It made the basement cheery and the full shelves looked a little like a store.
Mom and my sisters would can 40 quarts of pickles, 46 cans of rhubarb sauce, and 40 quarts each of carrots, peas, meatball stew, green beans, and tomatoes from the garden. One year we canned gallons and gallons of sauerkraut!
After all the freshly canned quarts of food were placed on shelves downstairs, I would come down and play store.
Mom (Agnes Tax) bought fresh pears, peaches, apricots, and plums home in big wooden boxes called “lugs.” Mother would decide if they were ripe enough to can, and the whole process would start over.
Wash the fruit. Blanch the fruit with hot water. Skin the fruit. Not with a knife, but by putting it in hot boiling water for three minutes or so, dipping it out, and putting it in cold water. Then while it was still warm, the skin could easily be rubbed off.
Cut up the fruit to the proper size, put the fruit in the quart jars, then the canner, then time it and complete the job.
The canner only held 6-8 quart jars at a time, so it would be filled, timed, emptied, and refilled over and over. My mom and sisters would can 40 or more quart jars of each kind of fruit. We ate them in the winter when fresh fruit was not available in the small town of Medicine Lake.
Since I was too little to can, it was my job to fetch the glass jars and lids from the basement. Then we’d wash them and I would help dry them. Our basement had dirt walls. The jars were really dirty. When I brought them up from the basement, they looked like they were black! When they were ready to use, they were shiny.
The whole house smelled wonderful with the aroma of whatever we were cooking. When evening came, everyone was glad to relax and rest after all the water hauling, water heating, jar washing, food preparation, and canning. When all the jars full of food were lined up on the counter, we were tired but pleased with what we had accomplished.
After the garden was cooked and canned, we “dug the potatoes.” Potatoes didn’t need canning. They would be dug out of the garden. We rubbed off the dirt, and the potatoes would be stored in huge cardboard boxes in the basement. The cool basement kept them firm and fresh all winter.
We had lots of mashed potatoes, raw fried potatoes, potatoes in sour cream and onion, boiled small potatoes, baked potatoes, scalloped potatoes, and au gratin (cheesy) potatoes – even potato soup. We always had some sort of potato dish with the evening meal. It seemed like everyone was most hungry then.
Potatoes were an important part of our daily diet. Since there were so many of us (10 kids + 2 parents), it took a lot of food for each meal. We were delighted to have our home-grown fresh vegetables, canned fruits, pickles, jellies, sauerkraut, and our home-grown meat, milk, and eggs to eat.
However many people were home at one time would always eat together. Meals were an important part of our family life. If my brothers had been out working in the fields, they would not have had a chance to talk to my sisters and my mom. If my sisters had been busy in the garden or hoeing the trees they would not have seen my dad or my brothers.
So, mealtime always started with a prayer for grace, immediately followed by a lot of chatter. We were all glad to see each other and have a chance to exchange news of our day.
Story 3: Our Cows
My dad, Carl Tax, always kept from eight to twelve milk cows. We milked them every morning before breakfast and after supper. We milked by hand. There were no “milking machines” at that time. It usually took three or four people to do the milking each time.
Cows provided us with our meat (veal), milk, butter, and cream for whipping, baking, and selling. The cream was a “cash crop.”
Every day when we finished milking the cows by hand, we would carry the 6 or 7 pails of milk to the house. The smallest pails were for 3 ½ gallons. The larger pails held five gallons. Most of the time, each cow produced enough milk to fill a pail.
In our porch, we would pour the milk into a huge bowl on top of a machine called a separator. That is what it did. It sent the milk into a bunch of funnel-shaped disks that spun around, separating the cream from the milk.
The Cream Checks
Each week, we would bring several cream cans to the railroad station. The cans were filled with either five or eight gallons of cream. The train picked them up and took them to St. Paul, Minnesota.
A dairy named “Land O’Lakes” in St. Paul tested the cream and measured the amount of butterfat and quantity. Then they sent a “cream check” to Carl in the mail.
The “cream check” was a source of cash for the food we couldn’t raise that we bought from the grocery store. “Cream checks” also paid for winter coats, shoes, other clothes, and heating oil to run our family’s furnace. The cream from the cows was important. It provided many needs.
Each cow had its own name. Bessy, Stubby, Brownie, and Jersey were a few. They each had their own personalities too. Stubby was a spotted blonde and brown cow who liked to run. She frequently was the cow that brought the others home at night. Bessy had a light brown coat with white and dark brown spots. Bessy’s milk always filled a five-gallon pail. Brownie was young and frisky with a light tan coat. There were lots of others too.
When the weather was bitter cold (like 32 or 42 below zero, as it sometimes is in Northeastern Montana), Dad would keep the cows in the barn to protect them from the bone-chilling cold. Most of the winter they spent in the pasture and their strong hides and short thick hair would keep them warm.
In the evening, some of the cows would start walking toward home. The rest would follow behind in an orderly row.
The cows made paths that they followed. They were not always straight but went in the general direction of the water tank and the barn. I asked my father, Carl Tax, why the cows made paths. The paths would be about an inch deep and one foot wide, filled with soft dust, and sometimes wound around hills or water holes which we called “slews.”)
He said the cows just picked the most comfortable spaces for them to walk. They didn’t care if the paths were winding or straight. They walked where the ground felt the very best to their feet.
Walking with Cows
In the morning, it was my job to take the cows to the pasture. After they had all been milked and had a good drink of water, I would start one cow going toward the pasture and then walk around the others to encourage them to follow. They would get in their “conga line” and meander out to the pasture.
Most of the time, our dog, Rover, would scoot around the cows’ heels to get them going too. Rover would go with me and stay with the cows until they got to the pasture. Then he would run home ahead of me! I’d find Rover at home lying down when I got back. He was fast!
When the weather was nice, I really liked this job. As the cows strolled slowly along, I could enjoy the birds, feel the warm sun on my skin, and watch the big fluffy cumulus clouds make shadows rolling up and down the hills. It was lots of fun to walk out to the pasture.
Enjoying the Walk
I did A LOT OF SINGING both on the way out and back. I could sing really loud if I wanted. The cows were the only things around and they paid no attention at all. Mostly, I sang the popular songs that I had learned from listening to the radio or songs I’d learned at school.
I sang in the church choir from third grade on, and when I reached high school, I sang in the Medicine Lake High School Chorus. All of the “Tax girls” liked to sing and provided lots of music for the church and chorus.
Lots of times, I prayed to God too as I took the cows out. It was so quiet. I was surrounded by space, air, and sun. I prayed about a lot of things.
When I was a senior in high school, I remember praying to God to let me earn a scholarship to college. I knew I wouldn’t be able to go to college unless I won a scholarship. My parents didn’t have enough money to send me to college without help. (That was not unusual at the time. Lots of people couldn’t afford to go to college.)
God felt so close in the sun and wide open hills of the pasture. I felt I would surely win a scholarship and I did! Thank you, God!
Remembering Grandma Kathy
I like how Grandma Kathy’s writing hints at her sweet, sunny personality. I know sharing a few letters can’t show you just how special she was to all of us. Katie, the rest of the family, and I all miss her. It’s something too big for words.
But I hope her stories offered you a window into a different life. The world has changed so much and it’s good to know where we came from.
Grandma Kathy found beauty in the simplest of things. And if her story helps you do so too, then a piece of her lives on with you.