All work and no play doesn't work, even on the farm

Play, in the form of makeshift sports or cardboard boxes, was a vital part of farm life, as were getaways for fishing or root beer.

Work was important on the farm, but so was playing and imagination, says Mychal Wilmes. (Pixabay photo)

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’’

The proverb, which first appeared in English and Italian in the 17 th century, was a common refrain among us when the farmhouse was filled with youthful energy.

Dad broke away from work for a semi-annual summer Canadian fishing trip and in winter went with his buddies to ice and spear fish in nearby lakes and streams. Card games — during which nickels and dimes were lost or won in the local café — broke winter’s routine. He left with loud begging from his children that he come back with pop or ice cream treats.

He almost never did, aided by our mother who thought such things were luxuries that the family could ill afford. We could make our own ice cream, and soda pop was a wasteful expense that added nothing good.

Our parents relented on Sunday summer afternoons before chores started and crowded us into the sedan for a short trip to a root beer stand. One scoop cost a nickel and two, a dime. Other than that, we were left to our own devices, which included cardboard boxes that were rarely available.


With imagination and pocketknife, the boxes could be transformed into forts and barns complete with doors. Plastic farm animals — hard earned for good behavior — populated the barnyard and were fed with lawn grass. Mother left us to our own devices after receiving a promise that we would clean up the resulting mess.

The creek, the source of bullhead fishing and inner tube races in summer, was transformed into an ice-skating rink. Five-buckle boots were skates and a baseball, a puck. One quickly learned to avoid getting hit, but hard licks were cheered until someone took an elbow to the face powerful enough to loosen a tooth. A basketball hoop in the hay loft was only a little safer, as were makeshift boxing matches staged in the alley between the rows of stanchioned cows.

Dad — when play threatened to get out of hand — ordered real work to be done. Trees needed to be felled in the pasture to fuel the furnace for the following winter. He was a veteran at it, going back to the days when he operated a crosscut saw with his brother. It took real teamwork for two men to fell a tree. Mother helped with bread swathed in lard so that sandwiches would not freeze.

The chainsaw, which Dad disliked operating, worked well in winter. We did not bring lard sandwiches to the woods, but he kept a pint of schnapps handy to ward off the cold. Schnapps, a fruity alcohol of German origin, warms a person from head to toe. Despite Dad’s insistence, it did not work for me. It was learned much later that alcohol in any form does a body harm in the cold because it slows circulation.

Before disease took its toll, the pasture contained several tall elms, hard and soft maples, butternut and oaks. Dad never cut a butternut, because he harvested its fruit for winter cracking. It seemed to me that the loss of maples and elms would eventually deforest the entire pasture.

We argued about that, but Dad insisted that the pasture would never run out of trees.

I had not been in the pasture for more than 30 years until receiving permission from its current owner.

The creek changed course only a little; the bones of a dead elm or two were seen; so too was the tall maple that provided shade for a tired farm boy who had been sent to check on the cows.


I thanked the owner for the opportunity to see what is and what used to be. Dad would be disappointed that most of the butternuts are gone now. I think he would be happy knowing that his boy remembers the importance the trees and pasture played both in fun and work.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.

What To Read Next
Get Local