Pass the Potatoes

Matt and Barbara Clemens “Pa and Ma”

At the dinner table, Ma–my grandmother Barbara Clemens–put only one item on her plate at a time, which was an enormous bother. When the rest of the family raised their forks to take a bite, it would be time to please pass her the platter of meat… the plate of potatoes… the basket of bread. It took a while to finish a meal. Pa, my grandfather Mathew Clemens, Jr., was the easygoing one. He sprinkled spoonsful of sugar over everything, including his beer. When he wasn’t eating, he had a pipe in his mouth. Other than Pa and Grandpa Clemens, Sr., nobody in the Clemens house smoked.

Everyone had his or her place at the table, and everyone had good table manners. As she was left-handed, Cecelia sat on the end next to my father, Carl. She was his pet; he called her Chub and he got all her desserts. “Now Chub, if you don’t want your ice cream, I’ll eat it.” She thought he was pretty grand. When Carl left home, she stepped into his shoes with the chores and the milking. Carl was strong, healthy, and happy—the most happy-go-lucky child of the family. He could also be a little rascal, getting in trouble at school for jumping from desk to desk, making all the kids laugh. He thought he was kind of cute, and so did everyone else. Carl enjoyed life. He made everybody feel good, never picked on the other kids, and never complained, except about farming. He was sick only a couple of times when he was small, and remembers them as the only times his mother loved and comforted him.

The Clemens family did well, never going without, but they had little money for anything past the necessities. They leased out part of their 640 acres for pasture. They sold the male calves for veal and peddled eggs in town. They sold milk to the creamery, delivering it every other day in ten-gallon milk cans cooled in cisterns of cold water. They raised pigs (there were five 200-pound brood sows and 25 to 35 piglets), turkeys, 200 chickens, and two roosters. The eggs were kept in incubators for three weeks until they hatched; it was the kids’ job to turn them every morning. With two hundred chickens laying a hundred eggs a day, and eggs getting sixty cents a dozen, the eggs alone paid the grocery bills for flour, salt, sugar, coffee, and tea, the only outside provisions they bought. They had summer Sunday and family birthday chicken dinners. Pa, my grandfather, caught four leghorns, carried them flapping and squawking down to the tree stump. In his free hand he held down dinner one at a time across the stump. The birds stretched their necks trying to see, making it easy for the boys to behead them with the ax. Then the chickens all ran around with their heads cut off.

The soil was rich. The family grew wheat, barley, hay, flax, oats, and corn; the crops rotated yearly. At times, before the dairy farm was developed, sections of land were used for cattle, sheep and horse pastures. There were 35 acres of corn that they husked until the annual freeze, 35 acres of oats, and 40 acres of hay that they used to feed the cattle, pigs, and chickens. The cow yard was below the orchard; the pigpen was south of cow yard, and the row of mulberry trees were south of the pigpen. The fifty acres south of the mulberries were used for pasture, and portions of the property were left as natural woods.

Pa made wine cider from the fruits of the apple orchard, plum trees, and grapevines. There was a crabapple tree that produced enough apples for Ma to make one pie a year. They had two acres of garden flourishing with sweet corn and cabbages, beets and broccoli, asparagus and onions, parsley and peas, rutabagas, radishes and rhubarb, and an acre of potatoes. Ma was a good cook, and the family lived off the garden and her old-fashioned German fare: meat and potatoes, meat and potatoes, meat and potatoes.

Mathew Sylvester Clemens and Barbara Nigon, wed April 19, 1898, MN

Clemens clan on the family farm, 1912

Clemens’ Minnesota homestead on the outskirts of Rochester

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  1. Evelyn Pope says:

    My husbands family were all farmers—a lot of these stories were theirs too! Lots of hard work, a little play—good people, the salt of the earth.

  2. Wow, what a huge amount of work to run that farm! I’ll bet the kids did most of it. Such a different world than ours… sounds a lot healthier.

  3. You always make me feel like I’m right there experiencing these things with you and a part of your family.

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