A look back at a century of Father’s Day

It’s Father’s Day weekend, which reminded me a bit of a century of change in the life of a typical American dad. It’s a good story to tell through the life of my grandfather and that of my wife. These four men were born before Father’s Day is typically celebrated in the United States, and their experiences are surprisingly representative of early 20th-century fatherhood in the rural Midwest. The condition of their lives also offers a shocking contrast to American life today.

These four men were born in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, all within 50 miles of each other. All were born on farms in southern Indiana set up a century earlier by War of Independence veterans, part of a large Scottish-Irish migration with the names Thomas, Hicks, Dye and Monroe. They came from farming families, soldiers, and vagabonds who arrived in Indiana with nothing more than a mule could carry.

In total, they had 11 children between 1921 and 1939. One raised four other young children like his after marrying a young widow. All remained married to the same women until their death. Only one of these men has completed high school. The other three only advanced to eighth grade, the only school available at the time within walking distance. This story is remarkably similar to the national average at the time.

Interestingly, three of the wives graduated from high school and one spent some time at a secretary’s school. A fourth was allowed to attend eighth grade twice. This difference in the educational attainment of men and women was unusual for the time. I think this can be explained by a modest age difference between spouses at a time when high school attendance was increasing almost exponentially.

All of these men were farming with horses and mules, and with few major technical innovations around 1700. Unfortunately, motor threshers, tractors, and turbulent world events have definitely pulled two off the farm. They became carpenters, lumberjacks, soldiers and factory workers. One of them sold insurance after WWII until he retired in the mid-1970s. The luck of their date of birth meant that only one of those four men went to war. However, all nine of their sons did military service, eight in wartime. One was killed in action and two others died of service-related causes.

By the standards of the day, these men ranged from a solidly middle-class dairy farmer to a tough farmer. By today’s American standards, they all spent the interwar years in desperate poverty. Two of these men never went on vacation, and a third took only one pleasure trip of more than a day. Only one flew on an airplane or traveled outside of the United States in peacetime. Only one lived in an air-conditioned house. Of the four, one has never lived in a house with indoor plumbing, natural gas, electricity or central heating. All of their children were born at home, at least two of whom entered this world in log cabins.

As far as we can remember, only two of these fathers received hospital treatment before their final illness, and one of them was treating war wounds. Of these four, only two died of natural causes. One died of war wounds and the other died in an agricultural accident. Again, this is not unusual. Two of them had siblings killed or seriously injured on farms or while hunting.

I tell this story because the lives of these men are so representative of the early and mid-20th century. For these men, educational opportunities were exhausted at age 14. Professional life involved professional flexibility, difficult manual labor and seasonal work. They were supported by family, and a strength and resilience that few of us need to muster. They risked injury or death on the job or in war in a way that is profoundly different from modern experience. And they have sent sons to war many times over the past century.

These four men were blessed in other ways. They had 24 granddaughters and 12 grandsons, nine of whom are celebrating Father’s Day this year. Our life experience differs so dramatically that it hardly bears comparison. We all finished high school and half of us finished college. It’s a little better than the national average, but that’s not an unusual story. There is no noticeable difference in the level of education between the men and women of our generation.

None of us cultivated, and in fact none of our fathers cultivated full time. There has never been such a dramatic change in the professions over two generations, anywhere and at any time. When my oldest grandfather was born, more than one in three Americans and maybe half of Hoosiers worked on farms. Today it is perhaps one in 200 Americans and about one in 75 Hoosiers work on farms. The farm he worked was so bad that it is now in the Hoosier National Forest.

We were all born in hospitals and received comprehensive antenatal care. We have all had access to antibiotics, vaccines, medical and dental care. We all live in houses with electricity, heating and air conditioning. We have all been on vacation and are able to retire.

Half a dozen of us fought in the war and others served. Our time was full of conflict, but none of us died in combat. The youngest among us are now in our fifties and have therefore already exceeded the average life expectancy of men of our grandfathers’ generation. Like other Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers, we can now expect to live well into our 80s.

Comparisons with the recent past often dwell on the technological marvels of the time. Television, cell phones, Internet and air transport. These things enrich our lives in ways our grandfathers could not imagine, although like any change they are not without problems. However, I think it misses the great enrichment of the last century.

These four men of my grandfathers’ generation were born into a world that would have been easily recognized by their great-great-grandfathers. There was no electricity, no roar of engines, no magic drugs to distract them. Perhaps the only differences between all the solid farms of 1900 and 1700 was that there was a school within walking distance for children between the ages of six and 14, and these farms were in the United States.

On this Father’s Day, I will be grateful to the fathers and grandfathers who worked so tirelessly to provide us with the abundant world we enjoy today. I will do so with the hope that my grandchildren will look to us and be happy with the progress being made on their behalf.


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