“Life is made up of small pleasures. Happiness is made up of those tiny successes. The big ones come too infrequently. And if you don’t collect all these tiny successes, the big ones don’t really mean anything.” –Norman Lear
At Living History Farms, we often find ourselves contemplating the pace of rural life in the past. Without electronic devices filling every waking hour or cars whizzing by, were Iowans in the past living a simpler, happier life? Did they have more moments to sigh contentedly and say “wow” in appreciation? We demonstrate many historic processes at the museum that are enjoyable to us from our modern perspective—spinning, baking, working with horses, gardening. These things allow us to focus our thoughts and reach out with our senses, providing a sense of connection to the past. These activities are simple pleasures to us, even though they are technically chores. Yet we do wonder if these tasks were ever pleasurable for our ancestors, as well. What would they have considered the simple pleasures in their lives? In 2018, our museum year is dedicated to the exploration of simple pleasures here and now—as well as then. We intend to relish the small activities, both work and play, which allow a person to engage their senses in positive, enjoyable experiences.
Winter has a unique set of simple pleasures at the museum. At this cold, snowy time of the year, most of our interpretive staff—those folks you meet wearing period clothing—are working with the historic foodways programs held at our 1900 Farm house and 1875 Tangen House. The tasks associated with this program may not at first seem entirely pleasurable. Chopping vegetables, doing a LOT of dishes, cleaning the house, and harnessing horses on cold nights are all a fair amount of work.
But cooks often tell me how much they value the ten minutes spent kneading the Knittle Bread recipe we use at our Historic Dinners program. It’s a time to unplug and relish the feel of sticky dough and yeasty smells.
Frosting cakes allows them to indulge in creative knife swirls and powdered sugar designs. The rest of us know we shouldn’t bother a cook while she’s busy frosting her cake. It’s her time. It’s no small wonder that many staff develop an active appreciation of antique cake plates.
Dinner hosts have their own zen moments to enjoy while setting dinner tables “just so”. It’s amazing how engrossed they become in shifting glasses and lining up forks and knives. After the table is prepared, they take pleasure in tending the fire in the parlor stove and fireplace.
The house is quiet before dinner and hosts enjoy the crackle of the flames as tinder catches, knowing guests will feel welcomed by the cheerful glow when they arrive. Outside, horse teamsters relish one on one time with cattle and horses as they do morning or evening chores. The cold is bracing and snow crunchy underfoot. The hay smells are tangy and sweet in the barn.
Cattle, sheep and hogs offer up a running grunting commentary as corn and hay is dispensed into troughs.
Horses snuffle appreciatively as they munch oats. And that cold, tangy, snuffled world is shared between farm hand and animals alone.
These programs also require interpreters to come in for early morning work shifts to feed animals and begin cooking meals. They are often here at the museum late into the night, finishing up dishes and unhitching horses. Being here in the quiet of the morning or evening provides interpreters with private views of the historic areas others don’t often get to see.
The lingering sunrise and sunsets over the tree lines, the odd juxtaposition of historic buildings with the greater Des Moines skyline lights, and the sounds of wind in the pine trees cause many staffers to pause and just drink it in.
One of my own favorite memories of hosting and cooking at the 1900 Farm is of carrying dishpans outside to dump over the fence and taking a second to appreciate the coldest, clearest Iowa night sky and all the stars that go along with it. I still prefer the winter constellations and “Orion” is my best winter friend. We can thank the Hubble Space telescope for this photo.
These simple pleasures bring us out of our modern world for a moment as we work, but what about 100 years ago? Did the 1900 farmer relish a good snowfall or the winter sky? Winter wasn’t everyone’s favorite, just as now, but we do find some indication that there were moments to savor even then. Historian William Peterson quoted early Iowa settler James Newhall as saying that he, “considered winter time in Iowa as ‘decidedly more cheerful than dreary’.” Abbie Bright, a young Kansas woman wrote of her view of the winter prairie sky in 1871, “After breakfast we started for Lanes. John had brought the team wagon up last night. It was real cold, but we had a lot of blankets and comforters to wrap around us, and we did not find the cold. The three miles to Lanes was truly grand. The sun was not up, and the gaily colored clouds were the most gorgeous I ever saw. Long after the other stars had disappeared. Venus that star of love, kept her place, and seemed to defy the rising sun. Reached Lanes at sunrise.”
Elisabeth Koren, a Norwegian transplant to Iowa, wrote of her view from a tiny cabin in Decorah, on Dec 28, 1853. “It was so lovely out this morning that I remained wholly lost in contemplation when I went outdoors …. The sun had just risen; its beams made the frosted hazel brush gleam as if covered with diamonds and gave the woods the golden appearance of beautiful autumn day.” So, I guess, we are indeed the descendants of good winter company.
With spring still weeks away, we will continue our winter tasks, enjoying the still, calm moments that the season brings. Want to see the winter moments the way that staff do? There are still a handful of open opportunities to join us for a Flynn Mansion dinner in March or a Victorian Tea program in April. Historic Skills Classes continue in March and April, which are also a great chance to see the museum with a smaller group in an intimate setting. Join us, if you can, but at the very least, take a moment out to stand on your own front door stoop on a winter evening and just take in the stars.