Life Was Harder Then Than It Is Now

RYAN, Iowa — On a spring morning many decades ago, four children walked down the road to the neighbors’ house to be there while their mother gave birth to the family’s fifth child.

The neighbors in this part of Hazel Green township are far apart. Between the houses are fields yielding such crops as corn, beans, and oats.

By the time the children got to the neighbors’ house, they could turn around and go home, because their new sister had just arrived. Margaret Chrystal was named for one of her grandmothers, who was named for one of her grandmothers.

Life in general was harder then than now.

The family lived on the farm that the paternal grandparents had established. In those years, the telephone number was five longs. The operator used five long rings, as opposed to short ones, to signal to everyone on the party line that an incoming call was for the Chrystals.

Their house was the only one of those nearby that had electricity. They generated it themselves. One of Margaret’s childhood jobs was to keep containers in the basement filled with rainwater so the family could keep the lights on.

At age 5, she began attending a one-room schoolhouse for grades 1 to 6. Schoolchildren were glad when the new school year began, because summer work on the farm was hard. Youngsters weren’t exempt from doing what they could.

They didn’t sit inside at the computer. The entertainment largely included books and the family’s radio.

Margaret’s mother was happier working outside than inside. She tended to her big garden.

The strawberries sold for 25 cents per quart if the family was lucky. Proceeds went toward the family’s first electric refrigerator.

Elsewhere on the farm, the lambs were the animals Margaret regarded as her pets.

She describes herself as always getting into something. Such as the time she — eager to be involved with her three elder brothers — stood just a little too close behind one of them when they were playing horseshoes.

In those years, Sunday mornings — after the cows were milked — were spent at Golden Prairie Congregational Church, on a hill two miles east of the farm. There her mother taught Sunday School, and her sister, Lois, played piano.

The evening meal on Sunday was popcorn. Noontime dinner on Sunday was the main meal, as it was every day. Margaret recalls there was hardly ever a time when dinner included fewer than 10 people.

For starters, there were seven in the immediate family. Then there were what the family called a hired man, who worked outside in the barns and in the fields, and a hired girl, a schoolgirl from a neighboring family, who worked inside. And there was often an older relative living with the family.

Margaret’s dad took pride in the farm, both in what it produced and in its appearance. It was a disappointment, to put it mildly, when war called the three boys — Harold, Harlan, and Milan, strapping young men all — into service.

Unlike many, they all returned home safely, yet without their labor during the war, the family couldn’t maintain the big Ryan farm, so the Chrystals moved to a smaller one up the road in Manchester. With her older brothers away, the task of driving the tractor eventually was Margaret’s.

It had a standard transmission, no cab, and no power steering.

Under her dad’s watchful eye, when she didn’t get a row straight, she did it over. So high standards were set early.

This spring the girl from Ryan and Manchester is celebrating a special birthday.

The early celebration was at her son and daughter-in-law’s wedding reception on the fourth day of Christmas. After the bride and the groom cut the wedding cake, there was a birthday cake.

Yes, the groom explained: She’s finally turning 30.

The former Margaret Chrystal is Randy Elf’s mother.


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