ERNA: Heartache In The Heartland


Heartache In The Heartland


If you took a bet when I was born it wouldn’t have been for success.

Erna Morgan McReynolds, raised in Gilbertsville, is retired managing director/financial adviser at Morgan Stanley’s Oneonta Office, and an inductee in the Barron’s magazine National Adviser Hall of Fame.  She lives in Franklin.

My parents had moved to Upstate New York five years before I was born so my Dad could follow his dream. He wanted a farm like the one he left in Northern Ireland as teenager fleeing “the troubles” in 1926. A farm of green fields with horses pulling plows. Living in a little lane with all of those other McReynolds, I think. He dragged my Brooklyn born Mom to what she saw as a primitive world.

My parents carried me home to a farmhouse with no running hot water, leaks in the roof, cracks in the plaster walls, no central heating. Our barn didn’t have any modern touches either. Exposed pipes that froze every time the temperature dropped, no automatic milking machines, no gutter cleaner, no hay baler. No burly sons to share the work. Worse yet — no capital to modernize.

We lived on a hillside farm where crop fields brimmed with rocks. Each spring Dad towed a drag (sort of a raft) to pile on the leftovers the last glacier dropped. After that he got out a grinder which spread seeds for crops. And I trudged up the hillside at noontime each day with his lunch while he slumped under a tree.

Four miles away was a tiny village with a creamery which took our hundred-weight milk cans. Made butter there and put the rest on a train to be bottled or made into cottage cheese and cheese. As a little kid I learned how to get into those cans to scrape the cream off the top — not knowing that Dad’s milk check depended on how much fat the milk had.

He had no capital, three young girls, the wrong dream and no sons to help him. While he milked by hand, others used machines. He piled hay on a wagon while prosperous farmers used hay balers.

Clinging to the wrong dream. No capital to modernize. Bad luck when cows died screaming with rabies. His own injuries. The good deed helping a neighbor landed him in bed for weeks with a back injury. Then blood poisoning and final felled by emphysema.

He lost three farms. He lost pride. Failed to support his wife. She had to go to work in those Ozzie and Harriet days when women were supposed to stay home cooking and cleaning with a clean, freshly ironed apron tied around her trim waist.

A good job was a union one at a local factory. But with men home from the war — Rosie the Riveter was out of work. Sometimes the factory needed more workers — they hired women. But women didn’t stay long. Bosses said women worked for pocket money — men supported families.

What about that young girl tackling the world? Afraid but doing it anyway. In the country, joining 4-H was a big deal. Hard to do if you didn’t have money because you had to pay dues. I can’t remember how I did it — but I got into 4-H. Girls learned to cook and sew. We were only going to be wives, secretaries or maybe teachers or nurses.

I needed to sew anyway — we couldn’t afford store-bought clothes. If you sewed well you could go to the county fair where farmers and their wives showed off their skills and livestock.

If you were a young girl you wore your creation. Judges inspected everything. Now that was scary. You know I am a perfectionist. I wanted a blue ribbon. My first year I sported an apron and carried potholders stuffed with milk filters. By the time I was 10 it got even scarier. I still wanted a blue ribbon. But I was awkward wearing my hot pink chubby size 16. Judges lifting my skirt, showing my legs to inspect my hem. How could I do this right?

Fortunately I could read and I had a library card. I trekked the mile to the village to take out a book to teach me how to stand and walk. I did everything the book said — I even balanced books on my head got a blue ribbon! Terrified but I had what counted — a blue ribbon.

Today even with fewer farms dotting our hills and valleys, farmers go to county and state fairs to show off their produce, their pies, pickles, quilting and especially their livestock. Want to see a small piece of what upstate NY was 50 years ago? Go to a county fair. Walk around. See remnants of a way of life mainly gone.

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