Thoughts of days gone by

I help coach our county’s 4-H Dairy Project Bowl Team. If you’re not familiar, project bowl is very similar to knowledge bowl, but instead of general knowledge, 4-Hers are quizzed on their knowledge of all things dairy.
At practice last week, we were reviewing the history of the dairy industry. We studied developments such as the invention of the cream separator by Dr. Gustaf de Laval in 1878 and the passage of the Capper-Volstead Act in 1922, which exempts agricultural cooperatives from anti-trust laws. Another invention in 1922, that of the Surge Bucket Milker, by Herbert McCornack, prompted me to offer a personal connection.
I explained that when I was very young, we milked cows with those same Surge buckets. First the strap was draped over the cow’s loin and adjusted for her height and the depth of her udder; then, the bucket was hung and the milker attached. Once the cow was milked out, the bucket was carried to the bulk tank. Or, if you were lucky, your farm might have a step saver to pour the milk into.
The kids on the team commented that milking with buckets seemed like it would be really hard. But, in perspective, we explained, buckets were way easier than milking by hand.
This Surge Bucket moment is just one of a greater collection of moments I’ve been having recently. Moments when thoughts of days gone by are examined in comparison to today. And how, through our insatiable quest for efficiency and convenience, there are experiences our kids will likely never have and skills they might never need. Such as:

1. How to water livestock with hoses in the winter.
My kids have never known the joy of frozen hoses. Growing up, and during our first couple years on this farm, there was always at least one group of heifers that didn’t have an automatic, all-weather waterer. Which meant that someone had to both water the heifers and then carefully drain the hose afterwards. Grandpa always drained the hoses twice; it didn’t take me long to follow his example. One improperly drained section, no matter how small, meant the hose had to be coiled and hauled into the milk house to thaw out.

2. How to open a sack of feed the hard way.
When I was little, feed still came in gunny sacks. Woven polypropylene bags soon replaced them, then paper. But the stitching used to close the bags stayed the same for a long time. And that stitching required very deft undoing on the correct end of the stitch in order to open the bag. One miscalculated pull on that fine string meant a horrible knot instead of a quickly opened bag. Today’s feed bags all have easy pull strips that take the guesswork out of opening.

3. How to grate cheese.
The whisked eggs were already in the pan for the first before-school omelet before I realized that there was no shredded co-jack cheese in the cheese drawer. But there was a block of co-jack, so I grabbed the grater and the omelets were saved. So, thankfully, my kids do know how to grate cheese, but I wonder if their future kitchens will be equipped with a grater.

4. How to open a tin can.
We were checking out at the grocery store and one of the girls was helping me place the items on the belt. She saw the cans of tuna I was purchasing and asked, “How are we going to open those cans? They don’t have tabs.”
The clerk, a lady with a little more life experience than I have, chuckled quietly. I told my daughter that we’d used a can opener to open the cans. And when we got home, I proceeded to show her the can opener and how it worked.
We certainly eat – and cook with – fewer canned goods than we did 30 years ago. Will can openers remain relevant?

5. How to spell.
One of our kids asked me to review their Chapter FFA Officer application, which was typed up in a document on their Chromebook. I was offering suggestions and they were typing when I noticed a misspelled word. I started to offer the correct spelling for the word, but my assistance was unneeded. All they had to do was hover over the incorrect word, which was already underlined with a red squiggle, and the word processing app offered the correct spelling.

6. How to write.
I have yet to try it out – and I don’t think my kids have either – but between radio and news coverage, I’ve heard plenty about ChatGPT, the new digital tool that uses artificial intelligence to generate written content. The tool can do everything from write an essay to compose an email reply. As a writer and editor and general lover of words, this one breaks my heart.

7. How to find a hymn.
In church last weekend, I found myself pondering transformations in our weekly services. There are no longer little placards bearing the numbers of this week’s hymns. The hymnals themselves are gone, too. Which meant no gentle rustling of pages while congregants flipped to the proper hymn. The hymns, the creeds, and the responses are instead shared on the screens in the front of the church.
My parents and grandparents have similar lists that make this one pale in comparison. I was lucky enough to hear many stories of their days gone by while milking with Dad or sitting with Grandpa. I appreciate those stories now, more than ever. And I believe we tell them not out of disdain for today but out of nostalgia. And as a reminder to appreciate the conveniences our forefathers and foremothers labored for us to attain.
    Sadie and her husband, Glen, milk 100 cows near Melrose, Minnesota. They have three children – Dan, Monika, and Daphne. Sadie also writes a blog at She can be reached at


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here