Dairy Farming at Monte Vista Farm During the Great Depression

by David Battey

My niece asked me how difficult it was for my mother and her parents and her siblings during the Great Depression. Here is my answer:

The Ralph and Hazel Swenson family did quite well on Monte Vista (means mountain view in Spanish) farm during the Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 until WWII (1941).  There was certainly no danger of not having enough food – which was a problem for some families.  Their farm was located directly above the big Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Company mill (became Weyerhaeuser in 1948).

Painting of Monte Vista Farm
Turkeys raised by Hazel in the 1920s.
Betsy, one of the dairy’s cows.

The Great Depression hit the Snoqualmie Valley and the big Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Company mill (where my father, George Franklin Battey worked), cut pay and number of work days per week, but did not close down.

However, times were not EASY on the farm, especially a dairy farm.  Lots of work and you had to feed the cows and milk them twice a day and you could not fail at this – ever.  So no vacations.  There were nine family mouths to feed and often a family visitor – making it ten mouths – three meals a day.  There were generally fifteen cows being milked and the younger cows and the steers (for beef) made the stocking of hay, grain and feed quite expensive.  There was no tractor on the farm until after the Great Depression.  Your had trucks, but no tractor.  Fancy clothing was not a priority for every-day on the farm and my mom (Grace Swenson Battey) talked about sewing cloth sacks that flour came in for clothing during the Great Depression.  Mending clothing was continuous.

RJ Swenson in vegetable garden on Monte Vista Farm.
Bob Swenson washing milk bottles.

There was a very clear line between men’s work of caring for the cattle, woodcutting, land clearing and most of the dairy work and the woman’s work of providing three meals a day, continual baking, the vegetable garden, canning fruit and vegetables, taking care of the younger siblings and taking care of the chickens and gathering eggs, etc.  Before automatic milk bottlers came to the farm, the women sometimes helped in the dairy by filling each of the tall, thin-necked milk bottles by pouring them full from an aluminum pitcher.  They would then pop a 56mm milk bottle cap on top.

There was no pasteurization and no homogenization back then, so cream always rose to the top of the raw milk in those long-necked bottles.

Uncle Stewart, the oldest of the Swenson children and Uncle George, the youngest, both shared with me that Grandfather and his four boys played an ongoing game – trying to figure out more efficient and less expensive ways of doing their daily chores:)

Winters could be difficult.  It got colder back then and sometimes the (non-electric) water-driven hydraulic ram pump at the creek would freeze and stop pumping and you had to have water for all of those cows to drink and to wash all of the milk processing equipment…  You had to milk the cows by hand – in the COLD.  Seven days a week – no Sunday time off 🙂  There were no heaters in the barn and if there were, you could not afford the electricity to run them.  Surge brand milking machines came to the farm about 1935, meaning that they were milking by hand for about half of the Great Depression.

And cows standing in the barn being milked, let fly with their poop…which had to be cleaned up twice a day.

The Swenson family.
Back Row:  Ralph Elliott, Grace, Stewart, Hazel, Ralph Johan, Irene. Front Row:  Robert, Trudy & George.  c 1930, when electricity first came to the farm.

Plus, grandfather was selling milk, which was considered critical to normal nutrition – especially for babies. Some people in the community owed grandfather money for milk and ‘worked it off’ by doing work for grandfather. One of the huge fir trees blew over and I know grandfather had folks who owed him money cut the monster fir up and split it into firewood for use on the farm (wooden furnace and fireplace in the farmhouse and wood-fired boiler in the milk house). Fortunately, Grandmother got an electric kitchen stove in 1930 when electricity first came to the farm. I have heard stories about grandfather making certain that some babies had milk whether their parents could afford it or not. There were no home freezers yet, but in Snoqualmie there were large walk-in freezers and you could rent a locked space for the food you needed frozen. Not very convenient though, when you had to take a trip to town to get something out of the freezer. Grandfather butchered beef as needed and also raised hogs and lots of chickens for eating and eggs. For a while they raised turkeys.

Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Co mill, c 1920.
Apron made out of flour sack from Snoqualmie Valley Museum collection.

You would never ‘waste’ money by buying bread. You baked almost every day and we have grandmother Swenson’s famous bread recipe in her own handwriting. You canned both fruit and vegetables in glass jars for the winter. You did not buy shampoo for your hair. You saved all of the ends of all of the bars of soap that a big family consumed, put them in a jar with some water and stirred them up to make a slithery good-smelling concoction that you used (sparingly) to wash your hair…The girls cut each other’s hair.

You churned your own butter, and we still have the glass butter churn. They also sold butter, eggs and apples from the farm on the dairy route and since the income was very important, sometimes the family did not have enough butter or eggs or apples for their own use because it was important to provide for customers. This did not mean the family went hungry, it just meant that things they could sell might be unavailable to them sometimes. Milk was delivered six days a week. Never on Sunday. Gasoline was a big expense for a business that drove down literally every street in Snoqualmie, Snoqualmie Falls (the mill town) and the little town of Meadowbrook in order to deliver the milk to customer’s homes.

Swenson Brother: George, Ralph & Bob
Former Monte Vista Farm residents Carl, Sophia, Frederica and Max Winter milking cows before Swenson family purchased farm. 1910s. A Haug photo.