Friday, July 11, 2014

Maurie's Diary

Cousin Jan Cruise and her sister-in-law, Teresita McCarty have been working on the diaries of Jan's father, Maurice Matzen that she painstakingly transcribed. They have added explanatory information and documentation, much of it from the local St. Edward, Nebraska paper along with some family pictures making it into even more of a "treasure" as Terri calls it.

References from another source, an "Oral History" created from Maurie's recollections in May 2005 (age 96), were also added and one of them really caught my eye--Making the Ice House.

The Icehouse 

We built forms for cement walls and it had a lumber roof.  My dad was enough of a carpenter to make the rafters.  At least 8 feet of it was underground and there was about 5 feet above ground – so we could walk in.  We put about 8 inches of straw between the walls and the ice and on top of the ice.  We’d come to St Edward in the winter to get ice (1½ miles).  It would take a couple of days to fill the icehouse.  The man with the ice would fill his own icehouse first and then he’d cut for the rest of those who wanted ice.  First they would mark the ice and then the circular saw would cut to a depth of 12 to 14 inches.  A bar would be used to crack the rest of the way.  We were charged so much a load. 

An Oral History: Maurice Theodore Matzen, May 2005

The Peterson ice house was filled this week with extra good quality ice 10½ inches thick. Cutting for the farmers will probably start the last of this week.

St. Edward Advance, December 22, 1932

Farmers of the surrounding territory are hauling their summer’s supply of ice from the Peterson pond this week. The ice is the finest in years, it being more than 10 inches thick and clear as crystal.

St. Edward Advance, December 29, 1932

The "Peterson" named here is not a known relative of ours.

Lack of refrigeration is so foreign to anyone alive today. We expect to have ice cream, fresh peaches and healthy meats and seafood made possible by refrigeration in the processing industries and transportation. But to arrive at our current condition, a lot of things had to happen or we would still be cracking ice with a bar from a lake and trying to store it during the summer.


I vaguely remember the power lines being built to our farm in 1949. Maybe I just remember the stories since I was only four at the time, but it seems real. The REA (Rural Electrification Administration) came to Nance county and lots of things changed.

One of the first changes was that Mom got a freezer. We already had a refrigerator, but I was too young to fully comprehend the technical issues--was it a 32-volt system due to a Delco battery-generator? I just don't know. A microcosm of the Tesla-Edison battle.

Probably more significant was the acquisition of milking machines and a water-bath cooling system that held the cans of milk as they cooled for transportation. The grade-A dairy probably allowed our family to survive the 1950's on the farm when others sold out and moved to California.


Prior to the REA, Freon, Charles Kettering, George Norris, TVA and Frigidaire, food was kept cool with ice stored the previous winter. But that cooling resource was scarce and carefully parsed. Not everything went into the "ice box" and you certainly did not stand at the open door and stare without receiving a scolding.

Every spring, around Easter, we would get flats of chicks, put them in the brooder house, then into bigger pens as they grew. "Free Range" was not encouraged as they would then be easy prey for the opportunistic predators of the neighborhood, like mink, weasel and coyote. They were the food supply for the summer--fried chicken, chicken and dumplings and all kinds of meals that could be strutting around the pen in the morning and on the table at noon and evening.

In his diary, Maurie talks about butchering a hog from time to time, but I don't recall entries detailing the chicken raising--maybe just too mundane, and it often fell to the housewife to be in charge of much of the chicken harvest. In my experience, the men would snag the chickens with a hook that caught a leg, chop off the head and bleed them out and dip them in boiling water. Most of the family then participated in plucking, a smelly and messy process, and then the bird was turned over to my mother for singeing off the pin feathers (another distinctive smell that I have not experienced in 50 years) and "dressing" the chicken. Everything was eaten or recycled as more food for the other chickens.

When you visited another farm for operations that involved crews, you were most likely going to get chicken in one form or another, although the skill of the cooks varied greatly. It might be a meal centered around canned beef or canned pork, but not usually. It wasn't until it froze and the flies were controlled before you could get a decent meal of fresh beef or pork although some folks utilized the locker plants in town to keep some frozen meats.

Vegetables were seasonal, based on what the garden was then producing. My mother planted and produced a huge supply of cantaloupe one year, and we ate so much that I still can't stand the stuff. You took care to establish the asparagus bed on the south side of a wall or hill so that it started early in the spring when air temps were still cool and would not bolt until you had enjoyed it for several weeks. Now I complain if the stalks are a bit too big in the store.

I mentioned neighbors--I distinctly remember earning a small wage at age 12 working for a neighbor hauling hay bales. Ray was a bachelor, and not one you would recruit for the modern TV show of the same name as he was so dirty that when he came to our house to see my dad, they would either stay on the porch or go outside. He lived with his mother, Nettie, in a house that had electricity, but all the cooking was on a stove heated with corn cobs and the lighting was generally only with kerosene lamps. When I get a whiff of kerosene exhaust at the airport, it takes me back to that kitchen. I wonder if I am the only one whose memories are often connected with odors?

He told me that he had owned only one new car in his life, a 1949 Chevrolet that he drove for years and years, as long as he lived. Again with the odors--he had gone to town to pick up some 2-4-D that was apparently packaged in glass, it broke and the smell never left that car.


These were the days of my parents, during the Depression, before WWII, before the nuclear age and before so many other things. Something we consider so routine and essential, refrigeration, was a luxury, difficult to obtain at that time. We had to wait for Freon, standardization of voltages, inexpensive (relatively) home refrigerators and freezers and the REA to deliver the power before it would be common in rural areas.

Amazing to me, it was just a few years before I was born. Of course, it continues to amaze me that people are dying that are my age or just a few years older, too, and not from freak accidents--from "old age." Ah, yes, the way it was.

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