Hello, again History Lovers,
Today’s post is an introduction to a new series I will call Cottage Industry. Through my research, I have come to realize that farm women from a century ago and beyond needed ways to supplement their farm income. Frequently they raised a flock of chickens and sold the eggs or they would use the cream from their milk cows to make butter–both of which they would sell either to individuals or to local markets. Other women used their particular sewing, baking, canning, or gardening skills as a way of bringing in additional income. I am inspired by the industry and creativity of these rural farm women and will share their Cottage Industry stories as they come along.
Today’s story tells of a young widow who used an available grindstone to keep her kitchen knives sharp. Beginning by happenstance, her sharpening skills grew into a thriving business that enabled her to afford to put her sons through college. While growing up, her sons had helped her with the business venture and appreciated the educational opportunity it afforded them.
I would love to know where that grindstone is today. Enjoy!
Educated By A Grindstone
“I’ll be fifty-seven tomorrow,” smiled Mrs. Plaegar, rocking on the veranda of her white and green farmhouse, “and it seems as though it were only a few years ago when the boys were small.”
She sighed again.
“Those were the years when it was hard pulling. My husband died when the children were very young. The farm was heavily mortgaged and we had to stretch the pennies until they fairly squealed. My friends told me I ought to work in my spare time and besides, what could I have done? I could not sew. My fingers had become too clumsy with farm work to handle a needle delicately and work of other kinds would demand that I leave the farm which I could not do.
“Well, things went on for a while. I continued to do the manual work to which I was accustomed. I had always liked a man’s work better than a woman’s and I had quite a knack for handling tools.
“One tool I liked especially was an old grindstone in the barnyard on which I sharpened my knives. One day a neighbor, viewing with envy my shining and keen steel knives said, ‘I wonder if you would be willing to sharpen my knives? You do such splendid work and I would gladly pay you.’
“I consented and that was the beginning of a little business. Other women brought me their knives and scissors and I charged according to the size of the utensils. I used to send the boys to gather them in for me and sometimes they would bring home three or four dozen which they had labeled with the names of the owners. The next day they would return them, bright and sharp. And how farm women need keen tools!
“As my somewhat unique business increased, I bought a polishing machine and I soon received more orders than ever. One order which pleased me especially was from a hotel. They told me their employees were most deficient at polishing steel knives and if I did good work, they would be willing to give all their work to me. With housewives, too, this task is a dreaded one and my bank account began to increase accordingly. I followed up every opportunity and, of course, business brought more business.
“My business never forced me to neglect my farm duties. I always did the work on my own premises where I could oversee the work of the farmhands.
“The boys say they owe their college education to the old grindstone and that is perhaps the reason we never parted with it. To us, it shall always be a much loved and honored member of the family.” –I.R. Hegel