When the ‘dog days of summer’ are upon us, my sweet childhood memories of growing up in a small tourist town on the Dakota plains come flooding back.

The ‘dog days of summer’ are those days when you don’t want to be outside from mid-morning until early evening, because it’s just too darn hot! There were many days when the temperature was over 100°, with no relief but the wind blowing over the dried up prairie grasses.

We lived in a two-story house with a cement floor in the basement–which thankfully, stayed cool the most of the day.  The neighboring kids and my siblings would do our outside work, such as mowing weeds with a bladed push mower and walking several blocks uptown to fetch endless bags of groceries (no bicycles, just foot power). We would hang countless loads of clothes on clotheslines during the early morning hours of the day before it got scorching hot outside. There was no such thing as a clothes dryer back then. 

To entertain themselves, the smaller kids would make roads in the dirt hillside for their little metal cars and trucks. They would also build houses out of pieces of odd boards, rocks and whatever else they could find, and sometimes they’d make mud pies if someone took them some water. Naturally, they made a general mess like small ones do. When the temperature gauge went sky-high, it was basement time. We would put out old blankets on the cool floor, find a book to read, take a nap, or play cards with a sibling or a friend. We drew a lot of pictures. The ‘little ones’ colored in coloring books when we had them. Occasionally, the dogs came in and found a cool corner to lie in and nap along with the little ones. We didn’t have fans; just a magazine to wave around to make a bit of a breeze.

There was only one telephone in the house and that was for adults–children were not allowed to ‘hog the phone’.  Television was non-existent until after I turned 12. We listened to the radio, which was mostly static until evening. Electronic games and devices were far, far off into the future. The only board game we had was checkers, and sometimes there were several taking turns using it.
The ladies who raised gardens would ‘follow the shade’ around the house with their chairs, moving against the sun as they snapped green beans, hulled peas, shucked corn or cleaned other garden vegetables for the canners. I wasn’t old enough to realize how horribly hot that job must have been; hoeing and weeding a garden in the cooler times of the day, and taking care of the produce in the heat of the day, plus canning on a wood stove (no wonder they had ‘summer kitchens’) to provide food for the winter months.

When it finally began to cool off around 5 o’clock or so, we would go to the neighborhood baseball field for a friendly game of baseball. Girls and boys alike played and age didn’t matter much either. When you were big enough to swing the bat and run to base, that was good enough. Eventually, you would learn how to catch that fly ball and toss it back.

Sometimes we would go fishing in a stock dam about a quarter of a mile from the house. We’d dig up some worms on the shady side of the old shed, take our bamboo poles with the yellow line and a big hook and bobber tied on and off we would go. Big ones and little ones, boys and girls alike.  My sisters and youngest brother were fishing by the age of three.  The older kids would bait the hook and toss it in the water, and if the little ones caught anything, they would run up the hill until the fish came out of the water so big brother could put it on the stringer.  Some of the littlest kids chased toads and little frogs, and squished the mud along the edges of the dam between their bare toes. Now that was good clean fun!

We had no adults supervising, and nobody ever fell in, and nobody got hurt. We were just a bunch of kids ’gone fishing’.  The older ones were responsible for the younger ones, and that was that. When we walked back home, the bigger kids cleaned the fish, which were taken to the respective houses to be cooked for a meal in a day or two.

Our mothers were busy doing their jobs. Church and community activities, babies under two or three, and trying to stretch what little money was available for the necessities of life. They didn’t worry much about the older children watching the younger ones. We were taught responsibility from an early age, as thousands of tourists from all over the country drove through the middle of town every single day during the summer. We were taught to walk on the far side of the road ditches and if someone stopped to ask a question, we could answer, but if the door opened, we were instructed to run! To my knowledge, no child was ever taken by any of the thousands of strangers we saw passing through.

Because of this, a good share of us had paying jobs at the age of 10 or 11, some even earlier. We washed dishes, cleared tables, peeled potatoes, scrubbed floors and did other jobs in the local cafes. Some mowed lawns, cleaned homes and garages, worked hauling bales and picking up bundles on ranches and farms in the area. Kids were driving tractors before the age of 8 on some farms.   Some of the other kids worked as babysitters for mothers who went to work 5 days a week. We got paid 25 cents an hour and were held responsible for every dime we earned.

School started after Labor Day–they didn’t have air conditioning or fans.  About mid-August, our mothers would have us get out our ‘school clothes’ to see if they still fit or were ready to be passed on to another sibling or neighbor kid.  Clothes were not fancy; girls had to wear dresses, and we usually had three. Two for school, and one for Sunday church, all paid for by your own hard work! Boys wore jeans and shirts and probably had just a couple of each. No extensive or expensive wardrobes. If you were lucky, your mother or an aunt sewed on a treadle sewing machine and you had a few extra items of clothing.

Shopping for school shoes and supplies was done when the money for such was ‘saved up for’ and things were on sale. Most items were purchased by mail order catalog; malls did not exist. School supplies were simple: tablets, pencils, rulers, colors (for the younger ones), erasers and not much else unless you got a zip-up notebook that held school books as well as the paper and pencils (again, paid for by money earned by the child).

There was no such thing as a school bus.  Every kid in town walked to school–some lived almost a mile away.  There were a few country kids that rode in on horseback and kept their animals in a barn behind our house, which was across from the schoolhouse. Kids who lived ‘further out’ sometimes boarded in town during the week, some of them working in hotels to pay for their keep. I don’t really recall too many kids packing on any extra pounds with all that exercise. Personally, I have a problem with the ‘powers that be’ who have decided that kids can’t work until they are 16 or 17 years old, unless you are a farm/ranch kid and then ‘all bets are off’. They get up early and work late!

Today, so many children go to school almost year ‘round and are bussed or driven to school by their parents. They couldn’t work at any job, even mowing lawns. It’s a pity! Off my soap box now…

Until Next Month,

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 [email protected].  Please be sure to mention the "Farm And Livestock Directory" when you respond.

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