Wash Day on the Farm

Monday actually was always washday on the farm, just like the children’s rhyme indicates it ought to be. All of the clothes would be stacked in rather great heaps in the basement. My remembered washday experiences all anchor in the days after we had electricity. The running water came a little later. So the water (pre-plumbing) would be heated on the stove and carried to the washing machine, which was the standard double-roller wringer on the top, with a rinse tub to the side.

The loads would be sorted in a very predictable (and rigid) formula: the total whites, the creamy whites and sheets, the light and pastel colors, the brighter colors and, finally, the dark colors.

Each load was washed for 15-20 minutes, then the agitator was stopped. Then one would stand by the washer and feed each garment through the wringers, one at a time, into the rinse tub which was filled with warm water. Woe be to the impatient child who might try to double or triple the garments being passed through the wringer to make the process go faster. Speed was not considered important. The final result of utterly sparkling, brilliant clean fabric was the only important thing.

After the rinse is done, the same process through the wringers happens again, now the clothes being dropped into a basket which is filled to the top, carried up out of the basement and taken to the clothes line about 50 feet from the house where the clothes are hung up: taut between the clothes pins without stretching the clothes. None of this saggy-clothes-on-the-line business in our yard~~that’s a sign of a sloppy homemaker. There are two reasons the bright white sheets are hung on the front line. That solid line of big white sheets becomes the fence, the visual block to anyone driving in the yard and up to the house, preventing them from seeing the drying unmentionables and possibly tattered jeans (which would hang on the farthest line). And that first line of sheets announces by 8:30 am on a Monday morning that this household is on schedule–thank you very much–and the clothes will all be hung out to dry by noon. We also used those “jeans-stretchy frame things” to dry the jeans so that they would have a really great crease. That was important in the late 50’s, particularly for high school boys like my brother.

Montana actually has about ten seasons, not the four experienced by most areas. Of those ten possible seasons, three or four of them can strike in any given month of the year, and two or three on any given day. There are specific solutions for Mondays that turn into a disaster due to the unexpected arrival of an out-of-turn season or two.

Pouring rain when you’re halfway through hanging the clothes? Just keep going. Any housewife worth her salt knows that rain is the nearest thing to soft water these clothes will ever see, so thank God for the added rinse cycle and just know the clothes will be dry by Wednesday morning. Probably.

Thunder storm and hail? Well, it depends. You might actually be killed if you stay out there since you’re working right under the wire lines. So, if you must, go ahead and duck into the old wash house (now mostly used for storage and odd, dusty things next to the deep underground vegetable cave). Wait until the front passes. When the hail has quit and when the lightning is a little less frequent, finish the job.

December, the sun is shining, but the temperature is about 10 degrees and dropping? Well, be thankful the sun is shining. Bundle up with scarves, coats, overshoes, mittens and one more scarf around your head, and just hang those clothes as fast as you can. It is to be expected that they will all be frozen stiff as a board, literally, within 30 minutes or so. Then, as with the sudden summer rain shower mentioned earlier, if there is halfway decent sunshine or a bit of a wind for the next couple of days, the moisture will magically have been removed from the clothing by Wednesday. You’ll know they’re dry when they stop making noise from hitting against each other and start flapping in the wind the way they’re supposed to.

There was a blizzard on Sunday, a blizzard on Monday and the forecast is for a blizzard on Tuesday? The clothes will be dried on wooden racks that sit all over the basement, the kitchen and the dining room, and they won’t smell like sunshine and lilacs afterwards.

It’s June and the sun is shining so very bright and it’s really, really, really hot? Wear sunglasses. Why? Because those white whites (and then those whiter whites) will like to give you sunstroke if you don’t do something about the glare. Now you might wonder, “What child in the 1950’s would have had sunglasses out on the farm?” And I would answer, “No child I knew.”

So I didn’t have any sunglasses that hot June day. By the time I was halfway through hanging the second bright white load, I had an amazingly painful headache and couldn’t see so good. But being a healthy 13 year old I figured excruciating and unexpected head pain was probably going to be considered a personal problem, so I pressed on. But then I began to feel so very ill. Reported to my Mom and told her I had a headache which was a first for me. She took one look, believed me and sent me up to bed. That was impressive. Being sent to bed at 9 o’clock on a Monday morning in the summer time when the job wasn’t done either meant I was a really good liar or I was going to die before supper. I never had a headache so I was quite impressed that it mattered that much.

I stayed in my upstairs bedroom all of that day. And the next day. I couldn’t see too good. Every time I was somewhat awake, all I knew was that I was so terribly, terribly cold. I just couldn’t get warmed up. It was in the 80’s outside, and the warm air was flooding through my bedroom window, but a couple of days later, the blanket count was up to 13 and I was still shivering. By the end of the second day, I wondered why I was covered with pancakes. Lots and lots of pancakes all over the bed and I was under them. Big pancakes. Heavy pancakes. And they were actually blue~~blue pancakes. And my head hurt soooo bad.

The morning after the pancakes arrived, I heard footsteps coming up the stairs about noon. Both Dad and Mom walked into the room and just stood there and looked at me, without saying anything for a long time. Finally, Dad said, “Well, if she’s not better by tomorrow, we’ll take her to the doctor.”

I was better by the next day. It only seemed right.


From that day to this, my internal thermostat has some very inflexible limits beyond which it will not be pushed.

They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That’s not always true.

But what they say about the smell of clothes dried outside on the line? That’s true.

The sunshine puts the scent of the lilacs into the clothes as they dry. That’s how that happens.

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