Interview: Growing up on a Midwestern ‘sugar plantation’

A newspaper clipping from 1939 shows the Gerber family operating their horse-powered sorghum mill near Vera Cruz, Ind., that converted sugar cane into sorghum molasses.

Leona Schwartz grew up on the Midwestern equivalent of a sugar
plantation, with a labor force of 14 kids.

“Acres and acres” of cane and sugar beets provided cash to help
buy two struggling relatives’ farms during the Great Depression, along
with sweetener for pies and apple butter.

Leona, Annie-Bananie's younger sister, will turn 96 in June

In those days, says Leona, Annie-Bananie’s sister and a member of the 90 Club* who turns 96 in June, the Gerber family worked hard for every spoonful of sugar.

“The boys would go along first with the hoes,” she said. “Then we girls would come along behind,” crawling on homemade knee pads, leaving nothing but one healthy sugar beet shoot every 14 inches.

The beets were hauled to Decatur to be processed and sold. The horse and buggy returned with several 100-pound bags of sugar for the family’s use that were stored in a metal bin on the farm to protect it from bugs and rodents.

“Oh, it was a great big round thing, because we used a lot of sugar,” Leona said, noting that the girls made 15 pies every weekend to feed the family and any guests who happened to be visiting.

The cane, which grew in stalks like corn, was cut and fed in segments into a horse-powered mill that pressed out a liquid that would then be boiled down into sorghum molasses.

“The horse** would go round and round, and the juice would come out,” Leona said, remembering. “We did it for other people, too. They’d bring their cane on their horse and buggy. They’d even come from Ohio.”

The Gerber cane mill produced 2,000 gallons of sorghum molasses a year, according to a newspaper clipping in an old family scrapbook. What they didn’t sell went into the basement, along with other home-produced provisions such as canned meat, vegetables and applesauce.

“We spread molasses on bread, like apple butter.” Leona said. “In those days, we didn’t make jelly.”

Leona started milking cows at age 6, rising at 5 for chores before breakfast,  then walking to school. She’s not one of those old timers who feels compelled to exaggerate the distance.

“It was a mile and a half by the roads, but we walked across the fields to get there,” she says. “The fields were wet, so we wore boots and carried our shoes.”

Afterward, there were more chores: Water and wood to be carried in, elderly grandparents and younger siblings to care for, meals to cook.

“You know, they worked hard, but they were a happy family,” says Leona’s daughter Susie, who came by to mow her yard when Colleen and my parents and I stopped in to see her last week.

Colleen listened in horror as Leona described her job come butchering time: scraping hog intestines with a table knife to help prepare them for cleaning as sausage casings.

“Didn’t that gross you out?” I’m not sure who asked the question, me or the 9-year-old vegetarian or one of her grandparents. Certainly we were all thinking it.

Leona shrugged. “We didn’t know any different.”

That’s her version of my grandma Annie-Bananie’s stock phrase, “That’s just the way it was.” Leona said it often as we talked, explaining why they didn’t mind working so hard, or not having any toys to play with.

“We played with clothes pins,” she said. They pretended they were guns or animals or whatever it was they desired.

At the time, it never occurred to her to wish, for example, that she didn‘t have to scrape out hog intestines. They loved their sausage, maybe more so because they’d worked so hard to make it.

When the day came that it was possible to actually buy sausage casings, “that was a big relief,”  she admits. But like so many consumer products that later came into their lives — everything from electric stoves to rubber liners for their canning lids — it’s a need she couldn’t have imagined beforehand.

Their needs were met. They had plenty to eat. They had fun, listening to their father play the fiddle in the evenings and eating popcorn raised in their fields.

“You should’ve seen our basement, all the cans,” she said. “And we had three big bins of potatoes, each the size of that davenport there.”

Leona started telling my parents about the typhoid fever that came along and killed three of her father’s sisters and a brother before he got married. But I’ll have to hear the rest of that story later. It was time for Colleen and I to go pick up Ben and Cassie. Though we live only a mile from their school, it’s against the rules for students to walk — a bureaucratic complexity arising from insurance issues and the lack of sidewalks.

Yet another development that couldn’t have been imagined when Leona and the rest of the 90 Club were kids.

*The 90 Club arose from a newspaper photo a few years back of my grandma and five siblings who were all in their 90s. Since then a couple of members have died, but other siblings have entered their 90s to replace them. Currently my Grandma Annie-Bananie, at 99, is the oldest of five members.

*They also sometimes used a mule. They had a pair of mules, Jack and Perry, and when we asked if they were stubborn as a mule, Leona said, “No, they were good. Gaius (her older brother and a legendary member of the 90 Club who died at age 94 in a motorcycle accident) was so proud of them. He’d go out after supper and polish their harnesses.”

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