Shelli Mader: Road to Ranching 6-27-11 |

Shelli Mader: Road to Ranching 6-27-11

Shelli Mader
Hays, Kan.

I always love it when I get my grandpa, known around here as Papa, in one of his talkative moods. His stories about jumping on horses from trees, riding calves in the feedlot and breaking plow horses to ride are good for hours of entertainment. Agriculture has always been a huge part of Papa’s life and as long as I’ve known him he has been a farmer. But in reality, Papa struggled to get his start farming and ranching just like so many people nowadays do. In fact, Papa didn’t get his chance to farm for himself until he was 41-years-old.

During the 1930s and 1940s Papa grew up on a small, rented farm in the hills and trees of Northwestern Missouri. Like many country people of the day, he, his parents and his six brothers and sisters physically worked hard for every bite they ate. They grew a big garden, milked cows and raised pigs and chickens. Flour, sugar and salt were the only things they purchased from the grocery store. They never had electricity and did all of their farming with horse or mule teams.

Papa spent his childhood summers barefoot, feeding livestock, gathering eggs and pulling weeds in the garden. On Saturdays, when his folks went to town to sell milk and cream, Papa got his first off-the-farm job.

“We never got an allowance or anything like that, so us kids got our first spending money by going down the road to the neighbor’s houses and cleaning their chicken houses,” he said. “We earned $1.25 or $1.75, which was a lot of money to a kid back then.”

During his teen years Papa spent time farming with horses, hauling water to threshing crews and doing road construction work. By the time Papa was 17 though decent-paying jobs were hard to find in Missouri. In 1948, when Papa heard about job openings at a sugar beet factory in Colorado he knew he should try to get one.

“I left with just the clothes on my back,” Papa said. “My friend Harold came too. We drove his 41 Chevy car out to Colorado.”

When the men got to the factory in Brighton, Colo., they didn’t have any job openings. Fortunately, Harold knew a man named John who lived south of Strasburg, Colo. John needed some short-term help hauling wheat, so the boys took the opportunity.

After wheat harvest John kept Papa on as a farmhand. Papa lived in the one room bunkhouse just a few feet from the main house. He became jack-of-all trades around the place – feeding and calving John’s cows, running the tractors (John was a more modern farmer than Papa’s dad had been and got rid of his last horse team the year after Papa came) and doing whatever else needed to be done around the place.

John and Papa never had a written contract, but John was respected as a man of his word. “He expected me to work a lot – no vacations or anything like that, but he never hollered about anything that I broke, he just expected me to fix it,” Papa said.

By 1951 Papa had given up on his plans to move back to Missouri – his parents’ farm was rented and not big enough to support him anyway – and he wanted to marry Donna, also known as Granny. After the couple married they moved into John’s basement for a few months and then lived in the one room bunkhouse. They had two daughters over the next couple of years and worked hard to make a living off the meager salary of a farmhand.

“We had electricity, but no indoor plumbing,” Granny remembers. “I had an apartment-sized stove that I put in that one room to cook on. It was a hard start. I patched underwear, darned socks, made flour-sack dresses for the girls and split and re-sewed sheets together to get them to wear longer.”

Papa continued to work for John as a farmhand until 1954 when drought forced him to look for another job. He found carpentry work in Denver, Colo., so he moved the family north of Bennett. Life there was a little easier for Granny – Papa was making more money, so finances weren’t nearly so tight. But in 1959, when John called Papa to see if he would come back to help on the farm, Papa agreed. The chance to be part of a farm again was more important to him than a better salary.

The family moved to a house about a mile from John’s in November of 1959, just a few months before my dad was born. This time, Papa continued to work as a farmhand, but he received a share of the crops too – a little better deal. Times were still hard for the family though, and they milked cows and raised pigs, chickens and calves to supplement their income.

It wasn’t until 1972 – when Papa was 41-years-old – that he finally got the opportunity to farm and ranch for himself. John retired and leased the crop and pastureland to Papa.

Papa continued to farm until 1996 when my dad took the lease over. Today my grandparents still live in the same spot as they did back in 1959. Papa still helps my dad farm some too.

Though much of their life was riddled with hardship – premature babies, huge hospital bills, illness, injury and financial stress – Granny and Papa weren’t afraid to work hard, be generous and trust God. Those traits also marked my parents’ rocky road to farming and ranching, a story I look forward to sharing next time.

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