Farming and Sheepherding during the Great Depression: A Reminiscence by Milan DeRuwe

  • By Milan DeRuwe
  • Posted 7/01/2008
  • Essay 8626
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This reminiscence by Milan DeRuwe (1917-2006) describes his life growing up on a family farm near Colville, Washington, the hardships of the Great Depression, the process of losing the farm and going then into "range sheep business" as distinct from the ranch sheep business, in which the herd is enclosed. It also relates the story of a young sheepherder's struggle to go to college and become the first in his family to receive a college education. It is excerpted from "Gone Forever: The Sheepherding Life of the 1930s," by Milan DeRuwe, which appeared in The Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 46, No. 2 (October 2002). It is reprinted by kind permission.

Sheepherding Versus Education

During the Great Depression, we lived near Colville, Washington, on one of the larger farms in the valley. As part of our job, my brother Dale and I were expected to do such things as milking cows, feeding animals, pitching hay, chopping wood, and anything else that needed to be done -- all this without having to be told more than once. Of course the bulk of our time was spent in grade school, including time riding the school bus. But after school, we were to get our chores done, do our homework, and be ready to take on new assignments. Our weekends were similarly scheduled. There was no time for play until your jobs were done, which was seldom. 

Our mother also did her part. Besides keeping house and us well fed, she also grew a big garden, raised chickens and turkeys and did much canning of both vegetables and meats, preparing for winter use. Dad was also a hard worker and expected no less from the rest of us. All this resulted in a healthy "work ethic" for Dale and me early in our lives. The family farm involved horses (for work, not just for riding) cows, pigs, tractors, trucks, chickens, turkeys, dogs, cats, hay, pasture land, and, of course, a small band of sheep. All this was needed to make the farm a viable business. My brother and I learned much about farming early in our lives. When we bought a tractor, I learned to drive it before I could drive a car.

Even with this background of family work, it became a sad story to find out in 1931 that our farm did not generate enough income to make a success of the venture. I well remember the day that Dad came home from town to tell us the banker had advised him that we were broke, that we owed more money to the bank than all the land and animals were worth. This revelation came as a shock to us as we had not realized how farm values had changed. Property and animals were now worth much less than we thought, with most of the changes coming in the last year. Such was the Depression in 1931 and 1932.

There were families worse off than ours; we at least had enough to eat, while many didn't. There were men and families who walked about the country looking for jobs of any kind. Many hooked rides on freight trains to get to the next town. We often had people, mostly men, come to our farm wanting to do anything just to get a meal. Mother would put them to work chopping wood while she went to prepare big sandwiches, milk and an apple while the men finished their jobs. They would sit on the steps of the back porch eating their meal. Most of these people were good looking, young, and never gave us a problem -- always very polite as they made their way down the road looking for a job -- any job. Many towns set up soup kitchens in an attempt to feed these homeless people.

The crisis for us came in 1932 when it became necessary to turn the farm back to the bank. this also required disposition of all our animals and equipment by an auction sale and those discounted prices in order to pay the bills we did have. Few people had spare cash to buy anything. This auction sale was our low point resulting in many tears as we saw our life's collection being carried away by strangers. We had to sell horses for five dollars a head. The crowning blow came when Dad sold 100 tons of hay for $100.

Dad thought hard about how to work out something to get started again. I can remember Dad saying, "All I have to show for the first 48 years of life is a wife, two kids and an old Hupmobile car." Of course he also had much experience that could be of some use to someone. But the best thing he had was a good reputation that included no unpaid bills.

About this time the government, under President Roosevelt, began working out ways to end the Depression. One of the many programs instituted under the New Deal, the National Recovery Administration, included a program to help under-financed farmers with good backgrounds to get them started again. Dad had experience and a good reputation so he applied for a government loan aimed at getting the family back into the range sheep business, an occupation he knew well. The application and the loan were eventually approved.

It was early March of 1933 when we took possession of 1,200 head of breeding ewes at Benton City, Washington. I had left high school after the first semester of my sophomore year to help Dad and Mother with the sheep. My younger brother Dale continued with school by living with good friends of ours near Colville. My parents, along with two sheep dogs, trailed those sheep 100 miles north to a lambing range Dad knew he could use, almost for free, near Coulee City. Those were hectic, hardworking days for all of us, especially Mother, who moved our camping gear in the old Hupmobile, keeping up with the sheep, that traveled about ten miles each day. Our family had no hired help except at lambing time, when we did have to hire herders to assist us.

After lambing that spring, we trailed the sheep and their lambs to Colville to a summer range on Gillette Mountain. Dad was the herder. I was the camp tender. Later that fall we set up a home at Wilbur, where Dale and I could continue with schooling. Mother and Dad continued to operate the sheep business at Coulee City with the aid of a limited amount of herd help. Dale and I helped with the sheep on weekends and worked as camp tenders with the sheep during summer months.

I graduated from Wilbur High School in 1935. Since I had stayed out of school that one semester, I worked hard and graduated in the three and a half years of high school. By that time we had taken possession of a larger winter range in southeastern Washington near Dayton. It was my job that fall to trail sheep from Colville to Dayton with one herder, two dogs, and camping equipment, a distance of over 200 miles. At the Dayton winter range, Dale continued with school. Meanwhile, I was completely involved with the business and would be for the next five years. At that time, Dad installed me as a partner with a one quarter interest in the business.

During those five years I became unhappy with the sheep business, which required attention 24 hours a day, including weekends and holidays. Sheep must be fed and watered every day regardless. I was not a big husky man, and the heavy lifting that the hay, grain, and water routine dictated gave me constant back troubles. But an even greater problem was that I had inherited from my mother hay fever and asthma, and I was suffering while on the ranch. Since my job was primarily driving truck, I could not get away from the heavy lifting of hay and grain, and I was miserable much of the time with allergies. Now that I was older and a partner in the business, I was given more and more responsibility, carried a checkbook, and hired and fired ranch help.

During those five years after high school, from 1935 to 1940, when Dale graduated, I kept thinking there must be a better life for me. One of the problems of being in the sheep business was the necessity of always being on the go, summer time in the mountains, fall breeding time in the stubble fields of the Palouse area, and winter time back on the lambing range, always trailing sheep somewhere or hauling feed from someplace to the sheep. In those five years I had accumulated no friends, especially girlfriends. From the age of 18 to 21, I had not had a date or a significant vacation. I could see my future as being not much better. Dad, and especially Mother, recognized the problem but could not, or did not, offer a solution. Sheep ranges are always far from town; you were never in an area more than a few months at a time, and anyway, after a hard day's work, who wanted to drive 30 miles to the nearest town to generate a social life? The ranch hands and sheepherders were not always the higher form of life. I could not generate a meaningful conversation with these people. In time, I felt my language and my activities were being degraded to their level; not that I was so high and mighty, but I was a young man with dreams of better things for my future.

All this came to a crisis during the summer of 1940. By then, Dale had graduated from high school, which got me thinking of leaving the business and, if possible, going on to college; something better than what the past five, sterile years had shown me. I talked over my desire for college with the folks. Mother was for me on this, but Dad, being an immigrant from Belgium, would not accept the plan.  He was raised in a society in which the oldest son always took over his father's business when it was time to retire, and he had scheduled me for the position. I explained to Dad that I was not leaving him in the lurch, that he now had Dale out of school and Dale could assume my place. This sounded very workable to me, but not to Dad. He wanted me, the oldest son, and was planning that when he would retire from work, he would have a trained person to take over the business. My father, Felix DeRuwe, had immigrated to the United States in 1904 at age twenty. Because he was not the oldest son, he could not take over the family farm at Westcappella, Belgium. There was no other option for him to make a living in Belgium, so he left.

The more I talked to Dad the more convinced I became that now was the time for me to go to college, and the more convinced he became that I should forget the idea. Nevertheless, I made plans to go. A short while later I stopped at Pullman and registered to attend Washington State College. I even made arrangement for housing in the old Ferry Hall and food at the Commons. I told Dad what I had done and that I would be leaving, September 16, 1940. Dad still refused to accept the idea that I meant it.

When the big day arrived, I packed my suitcase, took it into the living room where Dad was sitting and said that Mother would take me to Dodge Station to catch the bus to Pullman. Dad flew into a rage, went to his desk, pulled out the contract for my quarter interest in the business and tore it into small pieces. He then said, "I didn't think you would do this to me, son; you have now made your bed in another place. You'll have to lie there alone." He left the house without saying goodbye. Mother and I were both crying, all the way to the bus station. My next stop was Washington State College.

I had made arrangements through Mother that I could continue to write checks to cover my college expenses as compensation for the quarter interest I was giving up in the business. At that time we settled on $1,000 per year for college expenses for the next four years, adequate in 1940, and that I would return home to work in the mountain range during the summers.

When I returned home at Thanksgiving, I was worried about what Dad would say or do. I had been writing to Mother each week, telling of my adventures in college, and she had written that Dad may have cooled off; that Dale was indeed taking my place in the business. Dad was cool toward me but we did not argue. Instead I told my parents how happy I was and of the challenge to keep up with the schoolwork I had forgotten in the five years since high school.

At Christmas time, I brought home a college friend, Walt Messing, who could not make it for Christmas to his home town of Detroit. I could not determine how friendly Dad really was; there were just polite conversations. During that vacation, Walt and i went down to Starbuck to see my double cousin, Mervin DeRuwe, the oldest son of Dad's brother Remie, who had stayed with his father in the sheep business. While there, Mervin told me the following story. "Have you heard about your Dad, with the thumbs in his vest, bragging around Dayton that 'I have a son in college, the first DeRuwe to make it?'" After that, I felt better. Later on, I was proud to see Dad come visit me in the fraternity house and to attend the WSC football game on the next Dad's Day in Pullman.

That spring, Dad gave me the highest compliment I could ask for. Mother had written, "Your dad asks that you come home some weekend and count the bands of sheep before we start for the mountain range. [He says] 'I can't be sure of my counting anymore. Dale has not had the experience in counting, and I'm not sure the herders will tell me the truth. Milan is the only one who can do it. I trust Milan and his count.'"

In the preceding account, you have learned how this country bumpkin metamorphosed from an unhappy sheepherder into a "college Joe" and the strained relationship he had left at home. The euphoria of leaving home to start a long-dreamed-of college education lasted one whole day.

The second day of college brought a hazard to cloud my future: the need to take the college entrance examinations. There were three tests: English, spelling and mathematics. This came as a shock to me as I knew I could be deficient in those subjects, especially since I had been five years out of high school without experiencing mental challenges or being with people of my own age. For me on the ranch those five years my daily contacts were older ranch hands and sheepherders, some who could not read or write the English language and none educated beyond the eighth grade level. In due time I too developed their rough often obscene language without realizing I had slipped into their level of conversation.

This lack of sophistication even extended into my family, where my dad, as a 20-year-old Belgian immigrant, had to learn English as he could, without any formal lessons. He picked up English as he encountered it from daily contacts, sometimes used it in conjunction with his native Flemish and French languages. My mother had some high school education, but was raised in a mountain atmosphere where German often crept into the conversation. Such was my background as I entered into those three college entrance examinations.

The tests were all given on the same day. I was apprehensive about my chances of passing, but I tried to do my best, knowing that if I flunked any one of the tests I would have to take a special class, without credit, until I could meet the basic requirements. In the spelling test I thought I had done well, but the next day when the results were posted in College Hall, I found my name below the requirement line which meant I would have to take the dumbbell spelling without credit. I felt bad about that.

When the results of the English test were posted, I again found my name below the requirement meaning I would have to take bonehead English. I remember making my way back to the dorm crying. Maybe I really wasn't college material. Maybe I had made a serious mistake in leaving the folks and the sheep business. I went through a period of hell thinking of what a mess I had made of my life.

On the day the mathematics grades were posted, I was one was one sick, worried 23-year-old kid. I was scared as I made my way to College Hall to find my name on the list, but with no grade, only a notation after my name saying, "Please see Dr. Guthrie in his office." Sure this was another setback, I reluctantly trudged to the office. He was polite and asked me to sit down. He then rummaged through a stack of papers and brought out the test paper I had submitted. He proceeded to go through the test questions one at a time. Each time he would make a comment as to what I had done. Once he found I had made a simple addition mistake, otherwise it was okay. Another question brought the comment, "You've got the right answer but let me show you how to get the same answer in a shorter procedure." One answer brought out the comment, "I don't know how you did it but you got the right answer." Another time he said, "You showed imagination in this one, not the normal way of thinking but the answer is right."

At this point I was anxious to know if I had passed the test. He understood my concern and made the following statement: "There were 192 entering freshmen who took this test. You came in second. I was interested in your thought processes so I asked you to come in." I was walking on air as I made my way back to the dorm. Maybe, just maybe, I was college material!

In due time, I studied and passed the dumbbell spelling class. The bonehead English class was much more difficult, but eventually I did pass. I worked harder in those first months than I had ever worked on the ranch; such long assignments, my lack of background in the subjects and my normal slow pace of reading all left me without enough hours in the day. I found myself working long weekends and far into the night on weekdays trying to keep up. At the end of the semester I did manage to eke out passing grades and I felt better about myself. It was about this time that I received an invitation to join the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity, which I did. A whole new world was opening up before me, and I was liking it!

Because of an interlude in the military, I did not finish college until 1947. I graduated with honors, with a BA in economics. It had taken me eleven and a half years from high school to college, but it was more than worth it.

Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, vidoes, and curriculum.

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