One of the first books I was introduced to when I moved to the country many years ago was “The Old Farmer’s Almanac”. First published in 1792, it is still published today. This paperbacked book of facts for each month of the year and the accompanying planning guides was, and still is a wealth of information, especially for those of us who make our living from the land. Years ago most of the Farmer’s Almanacs were handouts at feed stores, general stores and local grain elevators, but now they can be found on newsstands, book stores and online.


by Paula Vogelgesang

Paula Vogelgesang is the author of the monthly column "Pennywise", and is a monthly contributor to the Farm And Livestock Directory. Email her at pennywise@goldenwest.net.  Please be sure to mention the "Farm And Livestock Directory" when you respond.

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My grandparents and most of my older neighbors planted their crops and gardens by the ‘moon signs’ of the Almanac, which are fairly well-known, at least around here, for predicting the weather for the coming year. I’ve always been surprised at how accurate the predictions turn out to be. Sometimes the predictions are a week or so off, but that’s nature for you.

One of the earliest signs of spring where I live is the migration of Canadian Geese flying north to their nesting grounds close to the Arctic Circle. Flocks of them have been sighted here since the end of January, and more and were seen mid-February–a little earlier than the old folks like to see them–but, they are beautiful to watch and to hear. I marvel at how they occasionally change leaders and never miss a wing beat. On rare occasions, they rest overnight on a nearby dam and take off at sunrise, honking as they rise into the air and head north once again.

I wonder if the geese know what is coming? I’ve been hearing stories of widespread drought this coming summer and for the next few years. I sure hope not–dry weather is hard on everything and everyone, and makes raising your own food more challenging. Our animals also suffer from the lack of green grass and plentiful water, and the hot wind can be unbearable as well.

I remember the dry years we’ve had in the past with hordes of grasshoppers eating everything in sight. One year an aerial sprayer flew right over our house. We had big elm trees in our yard and they literally ‘rained grasshoppers’ for more than five hours. The grasshoppers piled up in drifts around our buildings–I won’t even attempt to describe the smell. It made for some tough times for years to come.

My grandparents lost their farm in Colorado in the ‘Dirty Thirties’, and then moved to the city of Denver when they were in their late 50’s to work and live.  In the 30-plus years they lived there, they did not own a car and rented a small apartment. Grandpa still had a garden in the back yard (planted according to the Almanac, even when in the city).  He spaded up a spot one shovel-full at a time, and chopped up the soil with his hoe, even getting down on hands and knees to put in the seeds and plants and watered them by carrying the water in a bucket from the kitchen sink. Weeds were hoed or pulled by hand–no such thing as a tiller there. They ate as much fresh food as they possibly could from the garden, and Grandma canned a few things, and any extra produce was shared with their neighbors.

Shortly after moving to the city, my Grandfather discovered that they could live in the apartment ‘rent-free’ if he did the janitorial and maintenance work for the building. It was an old house, converted into three floors of apartments–two on each floor, and a full basement with little storage cages made of wooden board for each tenant to use.  There was also a huge coal fired furnace that had to be kept ‘fed’ at certain intervals all winter long from a monster-sized coal bin next door. A big dump truck full of coal would back up to the chute door and dump several tons of coal at a time. Of course, the door didn’t seal very well and the basement would be full of coal dust until Grandpa could get it swept up again!

My grandparents cleaned, mopped and dusted hallways and staircases–beautiful ones made of wooden spindles and hardwood treads. They also cleaned and painted apartments between tenants. Grandpa also shoveled the snow from the steps and the sidewalks along the front and side of the building in winter, and mowed the lawn with a push mower (one with metal blades–no motor). He trimmed the trees and bushes, picked up the junk people on the street people tossed onto the front yard and hauled trash from the apartments to the dustbin and fixed whatever needed fixing, from plumbing to windowpanes or anything else. He did all of this to pay the rent on a one-bedroom apartment.

Since they had to eat year-round and pay for medicine, taxes, clothing and other things, Grandpa took a job as a night watchman/stocker in a grocery store that was 15 blocks from home. He rode the bus to work every evening until he was in his late 80’s, after being the janitor/repairman at the apartment house all day long.

Grandma, until well in to her 80’s, rode the bus to a major downtown Denver department store five days a week where she worked as a seamstress. Her special talent was making line-for-line copies of designer dresses imported from Paris, France. These were custom made for the wealthy ladies of the city from fabric imported for this purpose. She made her own patterns for each garment from old newspapers by measuring the lady in specific areas, and then hand-drawing the patterns for each dress and size ordered. After her death, my grandfather gave me a small box of beautiful Austrian crystal beads that were left from a dress that she had hand-beaded for one of the wealthy customers.

Grandma also made all of her own clothing and shirts for my Grandfather in the evenings. On rode the bus on their rare visits to family in South Dakota. She would bring her portable sewing machine along with fabric and notions she had purchased on sale to make shirts and dresses for the grandchildren.

They cooked their simple meals from ‘scratch’ and dessert was a rare treat–certainly not for the ‘every day’! Their furniture was modest, but served its intended purpose. They had a bed and a dresser in the one bedroom, a couch, two chairs and a small desk in the living room. In the kitchen was a cook stove, small refrigerator and limited counter and cupboard space. Their small bathroom was about five feet wide by six feet long. It contained a single sink hanging on the wall, a toilet and a bathtub. (I think their bathroom had once been a storage closet before the advent of indoor plumbing!)

In today’s world, they would probably be called ‘minimalists’. They used what they had and wasted absolutely nothing. They were recycling for as long as my mother and her sisters could remember. Considered ‘poor’ by modern standards, they had high ideals and much pride.  They saved every penny that could be saved so they would not ‘be a burden’ to their children as they aged.

Although my grandparents made the transition very late in life and endured much hardship along the way, they taught us by example that it is possible to make a good life–a truly frugal one–even late in life, and that by ‘making do’ with what you have, you can achieve your goals.

Hopefully, their lessons can be passed along to future generations:

  • Pride in a job well done, no matter what that job is. Not everyone can be a rocket scientist, and the world will always need plumbers!
  • Careful use of the earth’s resources. Recycling and re-using, re-purposing whenever possible!
  • Pay CASH or do without. Debt of any kind is NOT a good thing!
  • Be satisfied with what you have. Don’t wish for something you cannot pay for!

Till next time,
Paula