First Christmas on the home farm was a festive affair

Jan Shepel
Our first Christmas on the home farm was a festive affair, with my whole family – Mom, Dad, sisters Kathy and Laurie along with their husbands (this was before kids) and my brother Dave all cramming into the old farmhouse.

I didn’t grow up on a farm. I often wondered where my feelings for agriculture sprang from. I did have one aunt (my father’s sister) who told me that when she was younger she and her husband milked a small herd of cows (probably by hand) in their small, northern Minnesota town and delivered fresh milk to customers each day.

But that adventure in dairy farming was a distant memory by the time I was born and certainly by the time I met and married my husband Jim. He had grown up milking cows, driving tractor and baling hay on the farm in northern Dane County that his parents bought in 1948 and where we now live.

When we got married, Jim and I rented a nearby farmstead because his parents still lived on the farm. But a few years later they decided to build a new house in town and retire there. We moved to the farm and took over the day-to-day operations of the farm – me working at the farm newspaper as a regional editor and feeding calves, Jim milking cows and doing everything else.

To my family – a brother and two sisters – it was a romantic and unusual way of life. Though we did get some holidays and special days off – like our anniversary – thanks to Jim’s family taking over the chores, most often we were at the farm for Christmas.

Our first Christmas on the home farm was a festive affair, with my whole family – Mom, Dad, sisters Kathy and Laurie along with their husbands (this was before kids) and my brother Dave all cramming into the old farmhouse. We had a couple extra rooms for company but for all those guests we even ended up throwing sleeping bags on the floors to fit everybody in.

The old farmhouse was drafty and cold, but we didn’t mind with that much family around. We cranked up the old oil-burning furnace and kept the Martha Washington oven going in the kitchen to keep things cozy. (Years later we undertook a massive remodeling of the house that included a new foundation, insulation and windows which made it much more comfortable! But for 15 years we lived in the house in its natural state.)

I think for Jim’s family, the farm was “been-there and done-that” and probably had lost any romantic allure it might have had. But my siblings were enthralled. Even my parents didn’t mind hiking up the exceptionally steep stairway to the second floor guest bedroom.

Jan's niece, Rose Mish, waves during a sledding run one Christmas many years ago on the back 40 at the farm in Dane County. The hill was perfect for sledding and a snowmobile was pressed into service to bring the sledding party back to the top of the hill for another run.

Always an early riser, my brother-in-law Joe, a music teacher, would go down to the barn and help Jim milk while my sisters and I fed the cows. That was before we adopted free-stall housing so back then the cows were still housed in their individual stalls in the barn where you knew where each cow always was.  Each cow had her spot and her distinct personality that you got to know each feeding and each milking.

Over the manger we had installed clothespins on a wire to indicate the differing amounts of protein, mineral and ground corn each cow got to match her production. We used carts to move the silage from the old upright silo (which is now long gone) and threw hay down from the haymow to feed each cow her proper ration of baled hay. Because the cows were housed in stalls in the barn, we also threw down straw to bed them all.

Once the chores were done, for fun, Jim dragged out the frame of an old feed mill that had been turned into a skid steer trailer and put bales on it. My family all piled on for a good old-fashioned hayride as he pulled it around the farm to give my family a closer look at the farmstead. They loved it.

In later years, my parents had moved from my home town of Birnamwood to Waunakee, just a few miles from the farm. Once they were down here in their own house, often my family stayed there with them. (They had cable television!) After there were grandchildren – my sisters both have two kids – one of the fun Christmas vacation events on the farm was to drag sleds and toboggans to the back forty. There is a prairie remnant hill that was never farmed because it is too steep and rocky. It was just perfect for sledding!

Several Christmas-tides when there was lots of snow, we made the pilgrimage to the back forty to sled and spend time together in the outdoors. But as fun as those days were, it is still hard to match that first Christmas on the farm, when we all crammed into the farmhouse, milked cows together and did hayrides around the acreage.