Saturday, December 16, 2023

Our Frugal Ancestors

I am not a totally frugal person.  I like my conveniences, little luxuries and the occasional cheeseburger that someone else cooks.  But what if those things were no longer available and we had to live without, like my Dad's family back near the turn of the century.

When you can't just run to the corner store or the supermarket for groceries, you figure out how to get what you need in other ways.  My ancestors did get some items they couldn't produce themselves, but those items were usually obtained through barter.  

For instance, the family had a few milk cows.  After each milking, fresh milk was run through the cream separator that stood in the lean-to by the back door of the house.

My uncle Kenneth did the milking.  He would carry pails of milk from the barn up to the house and pour milk into the large bowl on top.  Then he would work the crank.  I have no clue how it worked, but the cream flowed from one of the spouts and the milk - minus the cream, flowed from the other.  Grandma made butter from most of the cream and that was used to trade for flour, salt, etc.  The milk didn't last long with a family of nine kids.

There was a bucket in the kitchen, set in an out of the way corner, that held food scraps.  If Grandma shelled peas for supper, the shells went into the bucket.  Scraps like onion skins or corn cobs went into the bucket.  Cooking scraps went into the bucket.  And when the bucket was nearly full, it was dumped into the pig trough.  The pigs acted like they had just been served a fine, restaurant meal!

The family grew rutabagas.  Some were for human consumption, but most were stored in the root cellar and cut into smaller pieces for an addition to the regular animal feed.  

My Dad was the youngest of the nine children.  From maybe 9 or 10 years old, he had a tendency to get himself into a bit of trouble.  Nothing serious.  Just enough to annoy his parents.  He told me about his mother's form of discipline when he acted up.  She handed him a kitchen knife and pointed toward the root cellar, where he spent a considerable amount of time cutting up rutabagas.  :)

The family used every method at their disposal to save.  They were cash poor, but rich in their love of one another.  And in my opinion, that kind of rich is worth more than anything else.


  1. Your family sounds like hubby's family. They had a small dairy farm, pigs and chickens.
    We had intended something similar when we retired, but hubby had the traveling bug and you can't have animals and travel.

    Nice read, Vicki. You be safe and God bless.

  2. Thanks, LindaG...Sometimes I just need to be reminded that those before me did just fine with far less. Take care and God bless.

  3. Hrrrrmmmmmm... I'd be willing to bet that machine cost a fortune in old dollars when it was bought...? They probably still are... I watched a fella who restores these old machines (they are actually meant to be rebuilt, not thrown away) - and I'd bet his time and materials were easily worth a couple hundred bucks. You'd probably have to churn a lot of cream before the machine paid for itself... but in those days capital equipment costs were a lot more secure than they are today...

    1. Glen...I have no idea how my grandparents became the owners of a cream separator, but an educated guess is that something or other was traded for it. They simply didn't have the cash to pay for high end items.

      I looked up cream separators looking for a photo and found that the ones like my grandparents had now sells for between $275. and nearly $600. That's a lot of money even in early 1900 dollars. Which supports my guess that barter was used to acquire it.

  4. Vicki, don't count yourself not frugal just because you have no trouble eating a cheeseburger that someone else cooked! Most of our age group spent our LIVES being frugal! How many things did we repurpose after they were empty or no longer useful for their original purposes? How many pennies did we pinch? How many coupons did we cut? "Kids these days" say that us Baby Boomers ruined the world. They do so in their phones and computers which will be obsolete in a year or so, while drinking energy drinks from non-returnable bottles. Compare that to us changing tubes in radios and TV's until they just.wouldn', while drinking our milk and sodas from returnable bottles! 'Remember using paper grocery bags to make book covers for your school textbooks? Yeah, that was us. Behind my barn is a collection of these and those that don't run anymore, or are scraps from this job or that. They are there to either be used to get a like machine running again or to be used as materials for something else entirely. Some people would call it a junk pile. I call it beautiful!

    That separator machine used centrifugal force to separate the milk and cream, Vicki. The heavier milk "spun higher" in the bowl and went out the upper spout. The cream, which was lighter, stayed toward the bottom center of the bowl, and would flow out the bottom spout. I actually had an opportunity to buy one of these things but didn't, having no real use for it, having no milk cows...

    We don't have pigs but we do have chickens. We too have the "kitchen compost" pail. Whatever goes in the pail ends up at the foot of the compost heap behind the barn. The chickens, which I refer to as "pigs with wings," take what they want, which is usually most of it. Then Pancho the tortoise has a go at it. Whatever's left becomes one with the compost heap and ultimately feeds the veggie garden.

    1. Thanks, Pete, for explaining the workings of a cream separator. I never knew how it worked. I just knew that as a little girl, I loved watching my uncle working the machine. Especially the part where the cream hitting the bowl produced a foam that my uncle let me skim off with a spoon. Delicious!

      It was my Dad who showed me by example how to be frugal. I remember watching him glue the soles of his boots back on rather than buy a new pair. The man could fix anything, even though repair work had nothing to do with his job.

      I once had a car that would sputter and wheeze. Three different mechanics couldn't fix it. Took it to my Dad. In 15 minutes he had it purring like a kitten. He was amazing!

      I find it rather sad that most kids, aside from some of those growing up in a rural setting, are clueless about fixing things. They just toss and buy new. One has to wonder what they will do if things continue to slide into the abyss as they seem to be doing.

      Oh...yeah...chickens are pigs with wings. I remember well. :)

  5. A hidden side of the cream separator was the wife's work (Hubbie cranked it, or it was driven by an electric motor). After every use, the bowl on top, the dispensing arms, about a dozen cone-shaped "spinning cups, and everything else had to be scrupulously washed before the next use. Still remember my folks bringing a can to the "Cream Station" to sell.