Of Cows and Football

One reason why early reveille didn’t bother me

During the summer of 1957 I was sitting on a tractor pulling a three bottom plow through the wheat stubble that we had harvested some weeks before about a mile outside my hometown of Claflin, Kansas. I had been in the field for most of the day and was covered with dirt from head to toe. I was asking myself, do I want to spend the rest of my life doing this, or would I rather join an organization where someone will be trying to kill me from time to time? I think I’ll go where they are trying to kill me…and I ended up a U.S. Marine. I love being a Marine. I would not have loved being a farmer. I am glad I was born and raised on a farm because of the experiences and the guidance given by my parents, grandparents and aunt and uncle that also lived on our farmstead. All of that truly helped build my character and prepared me to embark on a military career. Farming is as much a vocation as is being a Marine. To be a success, farming must be in your blood. It just wasn’t for me. My blood was the color of the red stripe on the trousers of the Marine dress blue uniform.

One of the many experiences was milking the cows. We raised beef cattle on occasion and we also kept three or four dairy cows to provide the three families that lived on our farmstead with milk, cream and other dairy products made at home. When my brother Mark and I became of age, the task of milking became our responsibility. I think that was when I was 11 or 12 years old. I started first by helping my dad and uncle. My brother was three years younger so when he caught up, he and I did it all. Dad and Uncle Kenny dropped out of the picture except when Mark or I couldn’t make it for some reason.

Holstein Dairy Cattle

For cows to produce milk they must be bred and have calves. They can then produce milk for nine or ten months a year, and then must be dried up and bred again. As I recall, our cows generally produced milk during the school year from early fall through late spring, then were dried up over the summer. When producing they had to be milked twice a day. We milked in the early mornings and early evenings.

The routine went something like this. Mark and I would awaken around 5:00 in the morning and milk the cows. There were three cows so one of us had to milk two of them. There was often a battle between us to decide who did the extra cow, but most of the time we just rotated. From the time we arrived at the barn until we completed the job was around an hour. This included getting the animals into the barn and into the stalls, milking them, separating the cream from the milk, storing the whole milk, cleaning up the milk buckets and containers and feeding the pigs the skim milk left over after cream separation.

The cream separator very similar to ours is pictured below. Whole milk was poured into the bowl on top of the machine. It could either be cranked or run by an electric motor and it used centrifugal force to separate the cream from the whole milk. The picture shows skim milk pouring from the machine into the larger milk can, and cream going into the smaller container.

Cream Separator in Action

The separator was in a milk house beside the windmill that pumped ice cold Kansas water from the well into a holding tank in the house. When the tank was full it overflowed through a pipe in the wall of the milk house to the outside. Whenever wind was blowing, which was most of the time in Kansas, water was pumped into the tank thus keeping it cold. There was a rack in the tank that held stainless steel cans of about four gallon capacities. That was where we stored the whole milk. The cream was taken into the houses on the farm, and, as mentioned before, the left over skim milk was returned to the barnyard to feed the pigs.

After all this was done Mark and I went home and jumped into the shower, dressed for school, ate breakfast and caught the school bus at the end of our gravel driveway that met up with the gravel county road. You had to take a shower after milking or you smelled like cows or worse all day. This was a pain in the ass as far as we were concerned because we had to get up so early every morning. But it was even worse in the evenings because we both played all the sports available at Claflin High School back then…football, basketball, baseball and track. It was especially hard after football practice because that drill lasted longer than all other sports practices. It took more time to get into pads, walk the five or six blocks to the football field, beat the shit out of each other for a couple of hours, walk back to school, undress, shower and then make our way home. The school bus had long departed by the time practice was over and we were on our own, which for Mark and me meant a mile and a half hike to the farm unless we could catch a ride with someone.

Why had the school busses long departed? The Claflin schools, from first grade to senior in high school were all housed in the same building; a two story brick edifice. There were around 200 kids in that building who were students. About half of them lived in town and the rest on the farms or oil company property that surrounded the town of around 900. There were two school busses…one for north of town and one for south of town. The busses departed right after school was out and the athletes had to find their own way home after practices. That was one price you paid to be a football hero in Claflin, Kansas in the 1950s.

I live in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. The parking lots outside the local schools are filled with hundreds of school busses. When I compare this with my own school experience it boggles my mind. I can barely imagine what it is like to go to any local high school around here that has a student population greater than the number of folks who lived in my home town. If there were twenty kids in your high school graduating class you can possibly understand why.

But I digress. School busses are only indirectly related to milking cows, and then only in places like Claflin, Kansas. By the time we got home from football practice it was around 6:30 in the evening, we were tired and sore, and the last thing we wanted to do was chase down the cows and repeat the same routine from the morning. But it was our responsibility, so we trudged to the barn yard and did our duty. We kept this routine even on the Friday nights when we had home games. For away games Dad and Uncle Kenny filled in for us. Our most distant league opponent, Marquette, was about 40 miles from Claflin, but most were closer...twenty miles or less. We had one non-league game with Victoria about 60 miles distant, but that is as far as we ever traveled. In any case, we couldn’t milk the cows and catch the bus for away contests.

Life was a little easier during basketball season because the time demand wasn’t as great, but the days were shorter in the middle of winter and we always milked in the dark, freezing our asses off most of the time. As spring approached the cows were starting to dry up and soon the milking season was over for the Praeger boys. But it started up again in September and the cycle repeated itself. When I went away to Kansas State University, and then to the Naval Academy, the chore fell on Mark, but by then our cousin Kent…Uncle Kenny’s son and six years younger than me, was coming of age so he got the job.

This was just one chore among a myriad of others that farm kids were saddled with, but for me one of the most memorable, and I will forever associate milking cows with football.

So now you have another tale from my wayward youth. Being a farm kid wasn’t bad in retrospect.

Semper Fi

Dirck Praeger sends