Udderly Syllabub

Cow being milked in front of a crows
“Doris Dougan, ” set and ready–able and willing– and the expert milker on the job
I’ve been cruising through an old cookbook and found this recipe for you dairy and brewery fans. This cookbook is too recent for Eunice to have used, not that she would have served anything with alcohol anyway! But I bet it would’ve amused Ron to bring Vera’s elegant houseguests out to the barn for this “treat.”

Beer Syllabub
from The Gold Cookbook, by Master Chef Louis P. DeGuy,
Galahad Books, 1947
“This is a great drink to prepare for summer country house guests. Making it is great fun for the crowd.
Get ready a handful of dried currants which have been washed and allowed to swell up nice and plump in boiling water, then seed them. Into a large punch bowl, put 1 pint bottle of beer and the same quantity of hard cider—using light beer and good bottled cider. Sweeten to taste and add a dash or so of nutmeg. Now have your cow set and ready—able and willing—and the expert milker on the job. Hold the bowl a safe and convenient distance from the cow and milk directly into the bowl about three pints of milk. Milk infused in this way is creamy and frothy and the syllabub is a picturesque drink.”

p.s. …but what are we supposed to do with that handful of currants?

Talking to Daddy Dougan


Do kids still make flip books? Before GIFs, we did the same thing by making a series of tiny drawings in the pages of a textbook, and passing it to a friend fan through the pages and see the picture move. Kids with better drawing skills could make two faces come together in a kiss; a less ambitious project was making a smiling face into a frowning one.

I wonder what they were thinking when they took these photos in the 40’s? There are only four; not enough for a flip book, and they certainly couldn’t have imagined how they could be displayed online, 70 years later!

Poor as they are, they are the only existing pictures we have of anyone talking to my grandfather using the hand alphabet. It’s my Uncle Trever, and since he’s talking to Daddy Dougan, it’s surely not a four-letter word!

In the 1910’s, Grampa and Grama went together to day classes at the Wisconsin School for the Deaf, in Delavan, Wisconsin –so that Gramp could learn the “hand alphabet,” and Gram could learn how to communicate with him. He wasn’t taught our modern American Sign Language– which communicates whole words or concepts –when he was losing his hearing.

All us grandkids learned the hand alphabet as soon as we could spell. Even before that, for we’d imitate Daddy or Grama, waggling our hand, and Grampa would pretend to understand us. It was a handy language to know in school, too –you could spell secrets to your friend across the classroom.

My mother never learned alphabet spelling. Grampa asked his daughter-in-law not to. “I want to look at your face,” he said, “and try to read your lips.” Concentrating on flashing fingers didn’t allow for seeing the expression on a speakers face, and Grampa knew how much he missed.

Today’s ASL has evolved to include facial expression and whole body gesture to allow the deaf to encompass the whole range of human expression. I wish it had been this way for him, for all of us. It would have made our interchanges so much more satisfactory.

*Full disclosure: It’s true that some of the stories in my books are only known because of Grampa’s written conversations!

The Golden Hearted Farmer

Grampa in the donated overcoat.
Grampa in the donated overcoat.

When my grandfather died in 1949, he left a legacy that went far beyond the bounds of the farm. Here is an example that occurred after his death. He had a beautiful heavy overcoat worn only one season and just on special occasions. My parents gave that overcoat to Turtle Township good friends Carl and Susan Welty, Quakers, who were sending clothing and other necessities to Europe, still in poverty from World War II. The Weltys sent Grampa’s overcoat to an address in Hungary. Here is the thank-you they received and passed on to us, along with photos. I have not corrected Dr. Darnay Belaf’s syntax or spelling.

Keszthely, Hungary
12th November 1949

Dear Mistress WELTY,
We were very pleased to your amiable letter from 25 the September, we received it on the 3rd of October so more quickly than the others! The contents of this fourt box are so rich and valuable that I cannot express my heartily thanks as I would. God bless you and the golden hearted farmer, your neighbour for your infinite kindness.  Instead of the mentioned clothing it contents such a wonderful green overcoat which I never saw and never possessed in my life. And now by the aid of your noble heart I possess a magnificent overcoat from excellent quality in best condition. I were never able to buy such one. It arrived just in due time, for after the sunny and warm October days, winter is coming also here. It is not yet freesing but it was already snowing. It will be for me easy to bear the winter in your splendid present.

The letter continues with lengthy and poetic descriptions of the countryside, especially the bird population, for the writer knows that Carl Welty is a well known ornithologist. He describes a local museum, then includes this paragraph:

My family name DARNAY /abusive: DORNYAY/ is several centuries old and has also no connection the the name of this museum; whose director I was from 1940, till 1948.The war destroyed our beautiful and valuable collection particularly our hungarian etnografic materials, textiles etc. They are not to replace for already in the time of their collection they were unique objects. If we had money, we could collect many objects.

The long letter ends with thanks again for the very special overcoat. I know that Grampa would have been gratefully glad that his coat was keeping warm this fine man who lost so much personally, and whose country lost so much, in the war. And reading this at this moment—July, 2015—I am in the state of Illinois where our new billionaire governor has made it his first point of power to cut funds for the poor, infirm, elderly, children’s lunches, AND close down our entire splendid museum system. The deed may be consummated by the time you read this—though the public, every state in the union, and 29 foreign countries are protesting. Mr Belaf’s voice rings in my ears: “They are not to replace for already in the time of their collection they were unique objects.”

Dr. Belaf sent these pictures of himself and his property.
Dr. Belaf sent these pictures of himself and his property.

The World Needs More Nellies

In the first volume of the Round Barn saga I talked about Nellie Needham, my grandfather’s second cousin, who loaned money for the building of the barn after Grampa’s brother-in-law, the esteemed president of a Methodist seminary, spent the money he’d promised Grampa —spent it and lost it on a pecan grove, hah! In Volume Three, my editor had a blank page at the end, and put in the “Nellie” poem I wrote for Illinois Times, where I have a weekly spot. We didn’t have a photo then —but I have since found one, among the heaps of material I brought from the farm. Here she is, in her 90s, turning over the first spadeful of dirt for a new Methodist church in Watertown, Wisconsin —she donated her land for the edifice! I met her at about that time —perhaps 1943. I was a kid, she was old, wrinkled, spry.

nellie poem #1

nellie needham a spinster schoolteacher
my grampa’s second cousin loaned him
money in 1911 to build the round barn it
was paid back very slowly over the years
during the depression she lowered the
interest to match the federal land bank
wouldn’t take no for an answer my dad
inherited the debt told nellie he’d pay
interest and some principle every due
date but only if she first wrote to him
she did but never mentioned money a
lively correspondence ensued over many
years I met her once in watertown I was
fifteen she was over ninety tiny wrinkled
spry bright eyed she said the chariot had
missed her door if it didn’t swing low
soon she and her friends were going to
charter a bus she also said every day
she raised her kitchen shade if it stayed
down her neighbors would know she was
in trouble when my father paid the last
installment she returned it wrote that of
all the family she’d lent money to he and
his father were the only ones who ever
paid it back I have the file of mutual
letters it is sweet reading she says old
age has been kind to her with health
home friends what more can she need?
nothing, but the world needs more nellies

cowcount poem #1100

cow poses for camera

mitch you’re totally wrong
when you say why do I need
1100 cows on my computer my
reply is if you need 11 cows it is
good to have 1100 to choose from
we have the singing cow the
suspicious cow the bellicose cow
the contemplative cow we have
cows in parades cows reluctant
to go in the barn cows coming
from pasture eager to be milked
cows that are beauties a cow
really ugly with crumpled horn
spavined hips whose name is
actually beauty we have cows
surrounded with schoolkids
cows being milked in the barn
daisy being milked in a milking
contest at a college field day
we have two farmhands sitting
on a cow fields of contented cows
and we haven’t even got to bulls
and calves yet no 1100 is not too
many mitch when you dive to photo
fish in a coral reef do you want just
11 fish no you want 1100

Every Day is Mother’s Day


“The cow is a mother. Treat her as such!”
–Governor Hoard, of Hoards Dairyman magazine

“Why don’t we have a ‘Children’s Day’?” we have all known kids to whine. Our inevitable reply is, “Every day is Children’s Day!”

On the Dougan farm, every day was Mother’s Day. In her actual motherhood, the cow was carefully tended during her pregnancy, and when she “dropped” her calf, someone was there to help if she needed help. If she had real trouble, the doctor —the vet —saw her through her birthing. Her natural process was to lick her newborn clean, help the calf totter to its feet, then nudge it to the udder where it knew by instinct how to suck. It stayed with its mother several days. When it was separated and went to live in the calf barn, the herdsman, for several weeks, still carried it a bucket of its own mother’s milk —this was for the natural protection offered by its own mother.

Sometimes, in the summer, a cow gave birth in a field. Then she stayed with her babe, fending off the other cows —always curious –until the herdsman came and brought them both to the barn and a special stall. Once a befuddled cow returned on her own, without her new baby. No one knew where the calf was. The call went out, and everyone searched the pastures till a tiny bleat was heard, and there was the babe close to the fence, hidden in the grass. Mother and child were happy to be reunited.

In 1926 my grandfather wrote, “I confess I have a tender feeling toward Motherhood. I am almost nutty on the subject. I cannot harm a mother mouse, I save the homes of mother birds, not because I want their young rascals to strip my corn and steal my berries, but because I respect the mother spirit. And, with the domestic animals, I take great delight in observing the mother pig, getting her confidence and helping her in caring for her litter. Especially does the baby heifer going though her first experience of motherhood appeal to me; and I try to heed Mr. Hoard’s injunction, ‘The cow is a mother, treat her as such.’ When it comes to the motherhood of humans, my thought and respect is only deepened and intensified. The pregnant mother is beautiful to me. This prudishness would not be, if men and women could revere motherhood.”

Happy Mothers Day!

“Wash on Monday…”

Farm women hanging laundry in 1917
Hilda (left) and another hired woman hanging laundry in the Big House yard, with Bob, the dog, for company. Circa 1917.

Now that good weather is finally here, I should be hanging my laundry outside, to get that fresh and sunny scent, save on energy, and get the exercise. But recent improvements to my house have placed a washer-drier conveniently in the kitchen, and it’s too easy just to throw all the wet stuff in the drier and push a button. Before, the only danger to outside drying was in mulberry season —then I was lucky not to get a big purple splash on a favorite blouse.
When I grew up on the farm my mom, in the Little House, used an old Maytag in the cellar, bluing and everything; and on wet days the wash was strung all over the downstairs and slapped you in the face as you threaded your way among all the hanging sheets and towels and underslips and the various quaint clothing of the thirties. All the windows were steamy and we drew pictures on them with our fingers.
Washday over at the Big House was spectacular —water heated on the stove, the big washing machine and wringer, the scrub boards now seen only in museums, loads of huge copper rinse tubs, and overalls, long johns, white coats for barn and milkhouse, sheets for all the hired men, work towels and rags —a much more formidable wash than ours. A spectacle, but Grama said we were no help, to “get out of the way!” Winter days the farm wash hung in the basement where the fat furnace with octopus tentacles provided billowy heat, all other seasons it was hung outside to dry in the Wisconsin air.
I’m glad I live in a modest economic section of Springfield where there is no law against laundry display. Homeowner’s associations with such prohibitions seem unnecessary —who cares that your scanties are on view, if other families’ are, too? And hanging up clothes can make for friendly talk across the fence with your neighbor hanging theirs –although we can’t count on Mondays anymore.

Letter to Grampa

Dear Grampa,

Remember back in 1943, when I was fifteen, I told you about my big inspiration? I wrote it down: I was going to write a book especially for you, and call it “The Round Barn.” You studied my note, laughed and nodded, and agreed that, “yes, the round barn would have a lot to say.” But then you died, just five years later, and amidst my grief was regret that I hadn’t written your book. I was glad that I had brought you my painting when you were in the hospital, even though my professor hadn’t liked the brown sky. You sat in your bed, admired the mother cow and her nursing calf, and didn’t criticize any of my color choices. Somehow that picture didn’t survive the hospital visit either, though I still have the preliminary sketch.

I’m older now than you were when you died, and well –I’m just now finishing your book. I know what you meant about life getting in the way! As it turns out, it’s got more stories than it ever could have had while you were alive –four fat volumes, from the path that led to your becoming a farmer, to daddy selling the dairy in 1972, and beyond. How I wish I’d asked you for your stories when I first thought of it! I’m missing so much, like the stories of our best herdsman, Bernard Kassilke; and I want to know what it was that the employee who lived out on Shopiere road refused to tell me –although your side of it would undoubtedly be different from his!

I suppose there are chapters that perhaps it’s just as well you never got the chance to read. You’d not like the intrusion into your personal life –and of course you wouldn’t have known of those conversations between Grama and Mrs. Smith, overheard by her little pitcher, Eloise Smith. You’d want to set me straight on some other details as well, agree or disagree on my interpretations of your private papers –which changed depending on where you were in life! –although you’d sternly tell me they were intended for God’s eyes alone.

I think you’d recognize, in the pages of “The Round Barn,” the legacy you left, and be pleased.

But then you’d urge me not to write any more, and advise me to get back to living my life; that now it was the book getting in the way –you were always good at giving thoughtful advice. And you’d like to know how everything turned out after you were gone. Of course, perhaps you already do, up there in heaven. Or perhaps you’re too busy planting seeds in the clouds. For even Heaven needs plants, and water, and surely some lime in the soil. And a cow and nursing calf. Otherwise it’s not Heaven, isn’t that right?

Love, Jackie

in media res


For the addenda of my Volume 4, I’m putting in some stuff that people have asked about. One is, “why did it take you so long to write this book when you started when you were 15?” Well I did start then, actually even earlier. And then over the years, kept finding more and more material, and knowing I’d told Grampa I was going to write a book, but never finding a way to start it—and the material kept rolling in! I’ve written about my various “starts” — and this might be of interest to writers and even nonwriters — the obvious way was to start at the beginning and just keep going. That’s what I’d done in my younger writing. Why did that not work? I couldn’t really tell where the beginning was. The same problem was starting at the end and then going back and picking up everything else, but I didn’t even know where the end was yet. There is always in media res, but where was the middle? I thought of making a three-tiered pancake. I had a lot of material on my dad’s growing up from his saving the drunk and the silo to the little girl who pulled down her pants to show him what she had (and he was too upset to reciprocate), and I had a lot on my and my sibs’ childhoods, from destroying the corn shocks in the interest of beauty and design to my bad time at the 4-H fair. The third pancake should be the grandkids’ experiences on the farm—but the only grandkids nearby had (so far) pretty limited experiences: we now have only a two-tiered pancake, which wasn’t enough pancakes when you consider there were lots more stories than childhood experiences. I tried using the five aims of the farm that were written on the silo, discovered I knew plenty about a couple of them, very little about “a stable market,” for instance, and was realizing that the last, “Life as well as a living,” was really the theme of the whole book and couldn’t be contained in one section. I finally stumbled on a solution: I won’t go into how, but it was to start yes, in media res, not in time but geography. Start with all the stories that primarily are gathered around the round barn, and then move out in concentric circles to the rest of the farm, the neighbors, the town, the county, and eventually the world. The theme of the book also made itself clear: the farm’s effect on the world and the world’s effect on the farm. Voila!

On CAFOs — chickens and pigs

Pigs enjoying their lives in the barnyard.
Pigs enjoying their lives in the barnyard.

I was ahead of my time back in the mid-60s writing a book about a chicken CAFO called Chicken 10,000 — she escapes and discovers “life as well as a living,” not that she had much of a living in the CAFO. Anyway, the town of Petersburg near us, which boasts Lincoln’s New Salem, is fighting a 3,500-pig CAFO. I understand the locals don’t want it because of traffic, smell, and particularly tourism, and the other side wants it for profit, jobs – although how many jobs are supplied when 3,500 pigs can be fed by computer? I’ve been following this controversy and even wrote a letter to the editor, which they didn’t print, saying the only thing that is not being taken into consideration is the PIG. Pigs are smart. Given space, they defecate in the same place in their pens. Real farmers give them play toys, balls, things to keep their busy minds occupied while they fatten up for market or for breeding. Their little trotters are on the ground and their shovel noses are rooting into the ground. They are happy. I’ve never had a chance to question a CAFO pig, but it leaves its mom, who it never gets to know, and is shipped to a large building with slatted floors, and there, with a crowd of its peers, eats from an ever-full trough until it’s sent to market, almost certainly with hormones and antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease. I had numerous pet pigs, usually runt pigs raised on a bottle. They even knew how to open the back door screen and see if there was anything for them inside. What a life for a modern pig! I hope the Petersburg folk prevail.