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Sunday, September 27, 2015

On What Would Be

My father would be celebrating his 100th birthday today. Of course that has me thinking about time and life.

My Grampa & Gramma Gerbstadt would be 115 this year. Gramma Ada would be 130.

Wrap your mind around that. Born the year after war broke out with Germany; a year and a half old when the United States entered the battle; three years old when the fighting ended and 6 when the treaties were all signed.

Dad was named for Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President. I don't remember now what his folks thought was so great about him. But I can guess. Wilson became President in 1913. Considered a Progressive Era president right behind Teddy Roosevelt, his politics helped those troubled by economic panics in the early 1900s. In modern terms we might call it bailouts. In those terms it was social reform. Wilson had done his very best to keep America out of the European conflict following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. For one very good reason this may have been all there was to liking the man and naming the coming child, my father, for him. My father's mother was a German immigrant.

America had a burgeoning immigrant class with German enclaves being as populated as the Irish and Italian. American culture has been heavily influenced by the three cultures and by some accounts, nearly wiped out the influence of the "Old Money" families and their British ancestry. Almost all the beer in America was commercially produced by families of German descent after Prohibition. With Great Gramma Crocker being German and living in Northern Michigan among so many French and Welsh settlers, the European conflict must have been terrifying. The backlash that individuals received at the hands of friends and neighbors can only be imagined in this era of comparative wantonness. So the fact that Wilson was able to keep America out of the War and won his re-election campaign on such a platform must have made him something of a family hero.

When the Lusitania was sunk so was any hope of staying out of the foreign conflict. The Melting Pot was going to boil over and it was the German Immigrants who were scalded. The scars of hatred and abuse must run deep in many families. I was born when Dad was 54, fifty two years after the conflict ended and all I knew about the German that I come by so honestly was that Dad had "some" in his family. Norwegian, Welsh, English and French Canadian is how he identified himself when I had to do the genealogy homework. But there was more than a smidgen and no one talked about it. In the course of the second World War life was going to be a lot  worse for the German descended families in America so it is little wonder that the information just kept being under reported.

Besides being born in War time, Dad was born into an era of Progressive politics and social reform. If the socialist movement was going to come ashore in America this would have been a good time for it. Philanthropy, political reform, Anti-Trust Laws, Prohibition, Women's Rights, and the adoption of the scientific method in all areas of life blossomed in this age. Public health and education regulations compelled farm kids to be schooled and also may have hurt farms in the long run with mandates that would eventually lead to the dissolution of many generational farms of varying operational sizes. This was a mixed blessing for Dad since he was a farm kid.

Baseball was essentially adopted as a full fledged sport in 1900. By the time Dad was in school it was a past time and he was part of a small league just after high school.  Compulsory education took him off the farm and put him on an exploratory path. Economics being what they were however, he set his feet to making money downstate in one of the factories which the Progressive movement had improved. Efficiency, standardized work hours and safe environments made for attractive prospects. But the mechanization took jobs away from men in favor of machines which made competition a frenzied struggle.

Dad was born into a Era of mixed blessings with the ends of the spectrum weighted like a see-saw. He had a very persistent opinion that you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. On the one hand families needed help to recover from some of the fiscal shocks of the time which is good. But the tendency toward dependence on that assistance weakens the collective economy. Progressive Era politics developed the Food and Drug Acts to regulate quality to prevent abuses of public trust (snake oil salesmen and dairy skimmers) which is wonderful. But those same regulations could also hurt independent farmers. My Dad's favorite example is the homogenization of milk.

Cow's milk gets a head of foamy cream when it is harvested. The healthier the better the pasture the healthier the cow. The healthier the cow the thicker the cream. Farmers that used fertilizer and pesticides damaged the cream quality and production and so they would skim. All milk that came from the dairy would separate and the cream would float to the top. The skimmers would take the cream, cut it with water and shake it real well then add that back into the regular milk to bottle. One farmer has 100% whole milk with cream and sold it at that price and another one would sell 50-60% whole milk at the 100% whole milk price. Customers would complain and no one would get in trouble because they could blame the cow. When science finally caught up with the skimmers the solution was then to employ the homogenization process and grade milk half%, 2%, whole and.... surprise! Skim. This regulatory process also required all milk to have the cream removed and all dairy to be pasteurized. Both a blessing and a curse. If you truly had the better milk because your cows were happier you were punished for the other farmer's lazy practices. And raw milk, forget about it. Sell to your friends? Forget about it.

This is what dad was born into. In one hundred years he saw a lot of changes in the world. Women's voting rights, a second world war, a booming airline industry, Chuck Yaeger breaking the sound barrier, desegregation, wars all over the world, the space age, computer advancement and other technological advances that had he not seen them as they came along would have looked like magic to a kid from the early 1900s.

This is where dad was born. Like all of his siblings, he was delivered at home in the sick room just off the kitchen. When Gramma Lucy was done having kids it would become the pantry. He slept in blankets in the drawer of a dresser in that room for the first few months of his life. Nothing has much changed on the farm in 100 years. Since the 1950s the only thing that has been added to the farm is that white barn in the foreground and the paddock. Everything else is the same.

One hundred years ago someone figured out how to make money helping the average homeowner preserve their own hard work. The Ball Canning Company began to teach citizens about the canning process so that those home canners would not kill themselves with a poor product. And the mass production of their glass jars made them money hand over fist. 100 years ago, when my dad was born, his mother spent almost all of her Summer canning the goods that came from the family orchard and the huge kitchen garden which encompassed that paddock in the foreground. Dad grew up canning. He taught us how to can with the classic, clear jars. But one hundred years ago mason jars were colored.

For their anniversary Ball has released the original colors. I bought a set today. I don't can like dad did. I don't preserve like he taught me. I should say I haven't. But this year things are changing for me, Life is stabilizing again. And I can think on these things to make my life easier and money last longer. One thing that has not changed in 100 years, no matter what anyone promises you from a campaign platform, is that:

  • You have to make things last
  • You have to take care of yourself and have skills to survive the rough patches.
  • You can't count on your government to give you independence when it offers help. 
  • You can't count on others to help you when they are looking to you as the wise one, even if you are not that wise.
  • You really can't count on others period. 
  • Your money is always going to be worth less and less to you no matter how much you make. 
Making things last is what Ball's mason jars are all about. The not counting on others is probably not something that they would endorse. But when I look back at the jars and jars and jars of products we filled the basement with, Self Reliance and Preservation are the lessons that I learned from Canning Season. And they are things that I learned from Dad. I spent a long time trying to deny that. And I spent a long time waiting for the help that, in the end, I didn't need.

In Dad's 90 years he taught all of us kids the things that we needed to survive in this world. He saw a lot. And it has taken me the last 10 years since he has been gone to see that I have everything that I need to survive because he spent the time to teach. The kind of self reliance that canning provides is a kind of symbol not just to those farm kids who had to do everything they could to survive a hard Winter. But who had to survive a hard life. Canning has become something of a hobby industry. Victory Gardens are being legislated out of existence on the state level and on the local level by homeowners associations. But I still see these things as a symbol of self reliance, of making things last. 

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