Still at it at age 90
There’s no rocking chair in the future for Clarence Bertram, of rural Spring Hill. The soon-to-be 90 year old has been farming since he was a young boy, and he plans to continue to do so.
The farming was done with the big draft horses, not the large tractors and equipment of today. Things may have taken a lot longer to get done back then, and the work was backbreaking with long days, many lasting into the wee hours of the morning.
Clarence, who will be 90 on Feb. 12, has seen a lot of changes in his lifetime, from farming with horses, to using a 20-horse tractor, to the 400-horse tractor he farms with today. “Farming has been my whole life. I had no choice. Once you’re in it you have to stay with it.” He farmed with his family and in June of 1948, started on his own, the next block over from the home farm on which he was raised. Bertram said he raised a variety of crops, plus they had dairy cattle until 1971 when he sold them.
He went on to talk about his farming career and how, when he got married, the custom was to give animals as a wedding present. He said they were given a certain number of pigs, sheep and cattle as wedding presents. “We’ve still got sheep….sheep is something I always had.”
Clarence said when he started farming it was a smaller, family operation. “Now it’s more or less corporate. It’s getting big, where one person can’t handle it no more. When I started farming, I started with small machinery, which was enough for us, but today I don’t think they’d survive in that kind of operation.”
Today Clarence still has the 20-horse Allis-Chalmers, C Series he started with. “A lot of times people wanted to buy it, but of course, we won’t sell it. And this year we had a four wheel drive John Deere tractor, 400 horsepower, pulling the machinery. You take this little tractor, which is only 20 horsepower, and then take this 400 horsepower machine…”
He said their neighbor down the road farms 6,500 acres, so what’s happening is, the older people are retiring and either renting or selling their farms. “Spring Hill used to be 100 families in this parish, now they’re in their senior years.”
In looking back it was pretty cold when you were out working in the field, either with the horses or the older tractor. You were out in the elements, he said, but you had to get the job done no matter what the weather or how cold it was, plus he worked at night, when it was even colder.
When the heat-housers came out, Clarence purchased one immediately. He was tired of being cold when he was out there working the fields. He did get the first tractor with a cab, a 706 from the implement dealer. The implement dealer had never put a cab on before so he put it on for free. “Dad was the first one to buy a tractor with a cab with a heater,” said his son, Joe.
Clarence said he “loved it” when he finally got heat. “The dealer I bought the tractor and cab from said ‘you don’t need that cab,’ I said ‘I froze enough. I want to stay warm too.’” In the fall it was always colder at night, he said, and getting that cab on the tractor was a big improvement.
Clarence did most of his field work at night when he first started.” During the day his father was there helping him prepare buildings. After supper he would leave, then Clarence, his wife and kids did the milking, after which he went out in the field. “I was out in the field sometimes till three or four o’clock in the morning. I saw the northern lights so often. After 12 midnight there were no lights anymore, no yard lights, no street lights. And Spring Hill did not have lights. It was dark out there. And the 45 Allis only had those little lights.”
He also recalled years ago when the neighbors came to the fence line where he was working, and he stopped so they could talk. “Today, the equipment is so big they never get to the fence line because they turn around half way in the field,” said Joe. And years ago, everybody knew everybody, he said, and they helped each other.
Clarence said whenever anyone built a barn or shed he went and helped. Nobody charged to help, it was free labor. “When I needed something they came back and helped – that’s what people did years ago. Farmers helped each other.” And, Joe said, the women made the meals. At 10 the workers were given something to eat, and then it was lunch at noon, and something to eat again at 3 in the afternoon. It was a big thing, he said, a much more working together and helping relationship.
Joe went on to say about five, six years ago there was a fire, but they weren’t home. A neighbor saw the fire as he was fueling his tractor. He called the fire department and beat them to the fire. “They were able to save all the other buildings. All the neighbors were here helping – that’s the way it used to be years ago.” Today, Clarence said, farms get sold, and you don’t know who your neighbor is, and you don’t get to meet them.
Joe also pointed out that years back the farmers would hear the church bells ring and they’d stop the horses at a fence post and pray. “They rang that bell at six in the morning, at noon and at six in the evening, three times a day.”
Clarence said he started his farming career with two Belgian work horses, Dan and Prince. “It was pretty hard to farm with horses,;it was too slow, and then I got a WD 45 when I got married.” Then when in Belgrade one day, he found a C tractor which he purchased for $1,000, fully equipped. “It was hydraulic and had a pulley. That was quite a deal at that time, but it was only a 20-horse tractor, but it was big enough to pull the grain drill instead of using the horses.”
Before the new-fangled equipment they have today, Clarence had to haul manure with the manure spreader every day, Joe said. “He had to load it by hand, then go out in the field in this type of weather and unload it by hand. Then when he came back he had to go to the straw pile and fill it with straw to bring back into the barn.” It was all outside work, he said, and now today they have a heated shed that runs just like the house. It would have been nice if he would have had the option of taking the tractor and spreader and put it in the heated shed back then, he said. Today’s heated shed has both a bathroom and office in it. “In those days they had to back it (the manure spreader) in the barn behind the cows to keep it warm, otherwise it would freeze up.”
Clarence milked 50 cows at one time. Years ago every town had a creamery, and they took just the cream, and every farmer was basically a self-contained unit. They had chickens and eggs. “When the chickens were old, they got new chickens and used the others for eating. They had hogs and that’s who got the milk. There was no purchasing of feed, everything was a self-contained unit so if one year the hogs weren’t doing well they had the cows, if the cows weren’t doing well the hogs were, so that’s why they had chickens, sheep, cattle, everything.” He said they would haul their milk to the local creamery and stop at the store. “It was just like your old country/western movies, same type of thing.” The creamery at one time had two milk trucks, and they took care of this whole area, but things have changed over the years.
Today Clarence and his sons have a huge John Deere combine, and Clarence easily figured out how to operate it. “He had to fill up fuel this year. I said ‘just wait. As soon as I’m done unloading I’ll back it up.’ Dad got in there and backed right up to the tank. I was scared he was going to back right into the tank, but he was probably better than I was.”
They just purchased a new John Deere tractor. “You have to continue to upgrade, and everything is much more expensive. Years ago you didn’t have to worry about fertilizer because you hauled manure, today you’ve got to prepay fertilizer. We’re not even done harvesting and the seed salesman calls. Years ago they didn’t have to do that. They purchased it in the spring and didn’t have to prepay it. Clarence said all you needed was a handshake; there was no paper to sign, just a handshake.
Clarence said there were 10 kids in his family. The cows were all milked by hand. “You milked seven to eight cows, which was all you could do. My hands got stiff, and I couldn’t do anymore.”
Clarence said as you get older, you get cold easier, but he doesn’t let that keep him in the house. They had to load the beef cattle and the door happened to be on the southwest side so it was very cold. Clarence was right there, opening the gates for his son so he could back in. Clarence even went to his nephew’s 40th wedding anniversary celebration. “He (his nephew) gave me credit for coming in this cold weather. He meant a lot to me, and that’s why I went for a little while.” And, Joe said, the next day the nephew took off to Arizona, and his dad stayed here.
Clarence remembered how they ate home-canned food all the time when he was growing up. “It was all from the garden, all home grown. We couldn’t go into the store and buy a can of soup. Years ago that was all home canned.” He said he didn’t think they ever had breakfast without potatoes. “They were plentiful, and we always had to work hard, but we ate good too.”
There are a number of incidents over the years that Clarence remembers, among them threshing grain when it was 100 degrees in the shade. “We threshed regardless, then the first combine came out, and we bought one, my brother and I together.”
Hay baling was always hard too, he said, especially when it was windy. “When the hay baler come out we bought the first hay-baler that they made. If I had to give up one of those two I would have gave up the combine before I gave up the hay baler. The hay baler was really a life saver.”
At Christmas they would have supper, go out to the barn and milk and when they got back into the house, Santa Claus had been there. They then had to go to sleep and wake up for midnight mass, which was two hours long. Then they’d play for half an hour, and then it was off to bed until five when they’d have to get up and do chores. “And all the kids had to work,” said Joe. “Everything that we did was extremely hard work.” He added, “If I ever found the guy who made the round baler I would give him a big hug and buy him a big drink because it saved so much time.”
Everything is so different today, Joe said. His son is at the farm now, plus he’s working. Their time is limited, he said, so when he comes to the farm he wants bigger equipment so the crop can be harvested quickly.
Years ago there were no soybeans, a little bit of corn and a little bit of grain, and everything they raised went to the cattle. Today they have beef cattle, but when they had dairy, everything went to them. “He knows what it’s like to throw silage down by hand,” said Joe about his dad. “When he came down, his hands were so cold he had to hold them on a cow to warm them up.” Clarence said sometimes he went down three times to warm his hands before he had thrown down enough silage.
They also had another barn for the young stock. “To make it easy we put a fence up and put square bales of straw in there. Prior to that we would drive up with the spreader, put the straw in the spreader and drive up on top and turn around and unload.” His dad got stuck in his yard many times, and it took them all day to get that tractor and spreader out. Then they started putting the spreader inside.
Clarence also recalled there were gypsies who would come down the road and go to farmers and ask to buy food. “With those gypsies, we always said ‘watch out they steal from you.’” They’d stop the horse and let him eat, he said, and they’d tell them they didn’t have anything. “They wanted to see the smokehouse, and then they walked to the neighbor and asked if they could get some food. We were warned we shouldn’t deal with them.”
The neighbors also had a stretch of road that made them some money. It was a gravel road that got pretty muddy in the springtime, and you’d have to pull people out of the mud. “They made some pretty good money pulling them out,” said Joe.
Joe said his mom was a big part of the farm as well. “In those days the ladies did the cooking. They did everything, and they were also outside working.” Clarence said it was hard for the women too. “We worked hard but we ate good too.” Joe said he remembers his dad saying during the tough times they had all these hired men who worked hard and were hungry. “The women would put only so much on the table, and when the food was all gone, the hired men would leave, and you would come back inside and eat.”
Joe said he remembers how his mom had a big garden. “I remember that because us kids had to hoe it.” They also had lettuce, he said. His mom had what they called a hot bed on the south side of the building. “She would plant lettuce and other things and put a glass over it and the sun would make it so warm it would actually grow. Everything was self-contained so they didn’t have to go buy anything.” Joe said mom helped dad every day and even helped pick potatoes, which took an entire day. They tried to preserve the food as much as they could.
Years ago there was no furnace in the house, Joe said. “When we kids would wake up, we’d hear mom starting the furnace. We had coal or wood to heat the house with.”
The home Clarence lives in is the original farm house. The place was abandoned so when they came to the farm nobody had lived there for a couple of years. “They had to fix this whole place up. The only thing that is left from that time is the barn, one shed and the house. All the other buildings are gone.” Joe said they even preserved the outdoor toilet.
Clarence, who was born in 1924, remembers the dust storms. “We could write our name on the table, and they had just cleaned the table and set it when we came home. But when we came in, it was all dusty already.” They had a new house, he said, but the dust still came in. He said they’d be working in the field and they had to go home because it got so dark that they couldn’t see because of the dust. “It was dry, and the sand looked just like a snowbank.”
He also remembers an experience with the big barn door. Years ago they hooked bales up to a pulley system, they backed the tractor up, and the bales hit the track and were pulled inside. Someone inside the barn would yell “dump” and you pulled the rope and the bales went down. Clarence said they pulled the door shut with the rope. One night two guys came out to measure the rope so they could put a new one in. “They crawled up on the door and unhooked the rope, thinking the track would come back. When I unhooked the track, the carrier walked away, and I was pushing against the door, and door flew open, and there was a rope on the door.”
Clarence said he remembers he was wearing new overalls with cuffs. “I just wanted to let loose, and I got loose, then I walked on my hands with the track to the middle of the barn.” There was nothing in the barn, he said, his wife was in the garden and didn’t know he was in trouble, then two guys came, saw Clarence walking with his hands, and started throwing down whatever loose hay they could find. Clarence told them to get the ladder so they went to the granary to get it. Then Clarence remembered his brother had taken it because he had a yard light out. “I said throw some hay down and I’ll drop myself, but they couldn’t find the door to get in the hay barn.” He finally got down by sliding on the rope.
Joe said his dad could have sold the farm and not worried about anything, but he’s not going to do that. “He said grandpa worked hard here, and we think it’s hard work but really it isn’t today. I kid my friends, ‘you’re in a power seat and you have to adjust it. You have to set the air conditioner, tune the radio, it can get confusing at times.’”
Clarence said even though they didn’t have a decent crop some years, he stuck with farming because they were self-contained. He said he has a wish and that is that one day he would be 30 years old again and have the equipment they have today.
Clarence plans to keep farming. He will turn 90 on Feb. 12. “They say I look good. I say you don’t know how I am on the inside. I feel good, but I can feel that I’m getting older.” He has 16 grandkids and nine great-grandkids and they keep him young.
A party is planned for Clarence on Saturday, Feb. 1, from 1-5 p.m. at the Extra Innings Bar & Grill in Spring Hill. He invites you to come and celebrate with him.