A 1950's Farm Girl

By
Cynthia Dobrowolski Stengel is my grandmother. Growing up in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, she has lived through some of the hardest times in American history, but has found that her difficult childhood helped her grow into the amazing mother and grandmother she is today.

A: Who were your most influential people during your childhood?

CS: My grandmother, I think, because I didn’t have any brothers or sisters when I was little, and I lived on a farm where there were no kid neighbors at all. So, my grandma was very close and very special to me. There was a lady who lived across the road from us, and she was around my grandma’s age. I used to go over to her house, because it was boring at my house, and we used to plant things. She loved to keep her garden, and so she showed me how to plant all types of plants.
And, of course, my parents were very influential. My father only had an eighth grade education, but he was self-educated. He would read all the time, so I got my reading habits from him, and I thought that was very influential over the years.

A: Who were your friends growing up?

CS: Well, I went to a one-room country school, and there were only four kids in my class. I lived almost two miles away from the school and had to walk. And I was the only one who lived in my direction. One of my classmates was Charlette, and she lived less then a mile away. Then there was Genie and Helen, and they lived in a different direction. And they were cousins to each other.
There were maybe 18 or 19 kids in my school, grades one through eight, and so it was limited in the number of friends you could have. Since I wasn’t related to anyone, and since I was the oldest child, I had no real close friends because the kids would gang together with their siblings and cousins and such. So I related more to adults than to kids at that age.

A: Did you have middle school where you lived?

CS: No. We had one room that all the kids went to, from grades one through eight. The room was set up with long rows, and on one side were the little kids, and when you went down the room the higher grades would continue, and so you would get to the oldest kids on the other side of the room. And at the front of the room, there was what’s called the recitation bench. It was a long bench and the teacher faced the bench, and behind her were the blackboards. And so they’d call, say, first and second grade up, and the kids would all sit on the bench and the teacher would teach while the rest of the kids would sit in their seats and do homework or whatever. And when she was done, she’d send them back and call the next two higher grades until every kid got to sit on the bench and get taught.
One of the good things about it was that when you were the little kid, you heard all of the older kids’ lessons, and so you kind of grew into it. My fist and second grade teacher was actually my fathers teacher when he went to grade school! She remembered him from years and years before, so I was always treated a little better.

A: Who was your favorite teacher?

CS: Well, I’d say my first and second grade teacher. She understood that I had no siblings and didn’t know anyone, and she, being my father’s teacher before hand, was really friendly to me. She was a good teacher, and she made it comfortable for me and I enjoyed her. When I was in high school, I had some great teachers also. The only teacher I didn’t like was my Algebra teacher, because she was strict and just not a very good people person.

A: What did you do without phones and computers? How did you communicate with each other?

CS: How did we communicate? Well, we talked when we saw each other at school! Now, the telephones were much different than now. When I was little, we had what was called a party line and there was a telephone operator who had an office in town. And you would pick up the phone and she would answer and you would say that you wanted to talk to so and so. She had a board in front of her, and each hole on the board would connect to a different house, and then she’d plug in yours to the other one, and that’s how you would be able to talk to each other.
Then, it got a little more advanced and there were, like, six different houses on our same line. There were short rings and long rings, and so your number was a combination of short and long rings, and so your number was a combination of short and long rings. Now, our phone number was 26-R-4. So 26 was the group, I guess, and the R was for short rings. So it would short ring four times, and It would ring in all those six houses.
Of course, people liked to listen in on other people’s conversations! So they could pick it up and listen to you talk! And so sometimes you could hear someone else that wasn’t supposed to answer the phone, so you’d always have to be careful what you said to each other. But kids didn’t talk on the phones. It was adult conversations usually only for important messages. So you only called for important things, not just to keep in touch. And when you left to go to school, for example, there was no communication from home. Our school didn’t even have a telephone.

A: What kind of phones did you have at home?

CS: Our first phone was what you’d call a candlestick phone. It had a round base and it had a little horn for you to talk into and the receiver was shaped like a bell and it hung on a hook. At first, we had to tell the operator to connect us, but it eventually got a little more advanced and it had a dial, so you could dial other phones.

A: Where were you raised?

CS: Okay. I was born in Chicago, and my mother was from Chicago and my father was from Wisconsin. And so, when it was time for the war, they needed farmers to grow food and so my father went back to Wisconsin to keep his farm and I grew up on the farm.
It was very hard times for my dad because he didn’t have anybody to help him with the work, and my mother was from the city so she didn’t know how to do anything on the farm. My dad drove a tractor that had a wagon on it that you could ride in. So when I was five, one day, my dad said to me, “Cynthia! Fallow me.” And so I followed him and he said, “Hop on the wagon,” and so I did and we drove to his field where he cut hay. And so he picked my up and put me on the tractor and he said, “Steer this straight ahead.” And so there was a row of hay, and I steered down this road. When I got to a corner, he would help me turn the wheels and we’d keep on down that direction. And from then on I started helping him with the hay cutting.

A: Where did you go to high school?

CS: The high school was in town, about seven and a half miles away. And there was a bus, so I’d get on the bus really early and get to and from school on the bus. In those times, there were a lot of country schools, so when I went to high school there were A LOT of kids that we had never seen before, because there were so many tiny schools that had maybe two kids or maybe six kids in a class, so there was a big variety of kids. Some kids were town kids, so they and been going to school with each other all their lives. It made it pretty hard to find real friends.

A: How hard was high school back then?

You know, when I was little, in that one-room class, we had little shelves with books on them. By the time we had graduated eighth grade, we had read every book there was in the school, so many of us were a little brighter going into the high school than other country school students.
I don’t think there was as much pressure back then as your generation feels now in your school. There wasn’t as much competition, and I guess it forced the select few competitors to really excel. T.V. was kind of new, and it was not geared toward kids. So kids didn’t really have that outside influence of how you should look and how you should dress as kids now do. All the drama was focused around adults. I mean kids had fights and stuff, but there was not as much need for becoming the prettiest or anything. So I think high school was a little less stressful as it is now.

A: How did kids handle makeup?

CS: Makeup was not a big thing. A lot of times, parents didn’t want their kids to where makeup and it really wasn’t a big thing. Of course, some people wore lipstick, but it wasn’t nearly as caked on as it is now. Eye shadow was one of the first big experiments with girls, I guess. I put eye shadow on once and my dad said, “You look like you’re spoiling around the eyes!” But my mother was from the city, so she wore makeup all the time. So I was used to having makeup around. I wore that foundation stuff sometimes to cover acne, but it wasn’t nearly as much as I see some girls now wear. Some girls experimented a little bit, but it was more of a natural look in those times.

A: What were some rebellious things that kids did?

Oh, hiding a smoke was by far the most popular. Saying, “Let’s go to ‘the store’,” was really just a way of saying, “Let’s go pop a smoke.” That was definitely the most rebellious thing that teens did back then. Language wasn’t nearly used as much as it is now. Adults really didn’t use bad language as much as they do now, and so kids didn’t really use bad language. High academic kids never swore, because they had bigger vocabularies, and so they didn’t resort to that kind of language because you could express frustration or excitement or whatever with more sophisticated words.

A: What did you do after high school?

CS: I graduated as salutatorian in high school in 1961, and then I came to Chicago and lived with my aunt. I got my first job there. It was a store across Golf Mill and it was called Shoppers’ World. It was like a department store like Walmart, but not as many departments. Mainly clothes and shoes, but it was a fairly big store. My job was in the men’s department, which I knew nothing about, so I had to learn how to fold men’s clothes and clean messes that shoppers’ made.
I went to a college that was about 60 miles away in River Falls. I came home occasionally, but I didn’t want to go home a lot because of the farm work that I tried to get away from. College wasn’t nearly as stressed as it is now. I mean now-a-days parents are striving to send their kids to Ivy League schools and to get into the best of the best, but back then it really wasn’t like that.


Cynthia is now working as an office manager at her daughter’s banquet hall. She now has two children and eight grandchildren. She loves to travel the world and spend time with her family.





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