Longing for a barefoot summer on the farm

Shoes were rarely worn in summer on the farm, much to the chagrin of Mother, who worried her son might step on a nail or glass and come down with lockjaw.

Going barefoot on the farm could be dangerous, but the longing to forego shoes remains nonetheless. (Pixabay photo)

Shoes were rarely worn in summer on the farm, much to the chagrin of Mother, who worried her son might step on a nail or glass and come down with lockjaw.

By doing so, I followed in Abraham Lincoln’s footsteps. The cover of the book “Barefoot Abe’’ depicted the future president splitting a log without shoes. Honest Abe later would don a fancier outfit when as a lawyer he defended John Manny in a lawsuit involving Cyrus McCormick concerning reaper patents. Manny won the case, and Lincoln was paid $1,500, some of which was spent on a new suit and shoes.

Being barefoot was a rite of summer, although doing so while milking cows and walking through the livestock yard was foolish. A pitchfork or nail that pierced a foot was more than painful. The strychnine-like bacteria that causes tetanus originates in the soil.

After injury, Mother and I watched for lockjaw’s telltale symptoms, which include difficulty in opening the mouth and swallowing.

Mother’s fears, I felt, were overblown. She wanted to protect me from other dangers as well.


She insisted that the stock tank was off limits because the clash between overheating and cold water might cause pneumonia. Her teenage cousin who helped thresh on a hot August day had dunked himself in a stock tank and caught pneumonia and died two weeks later.

A summer spent without shoes toughened my feet enough so that walking in grain and alfalfa stubble was tolerable. As summer waned and a new school year approached, Mother said she and I must shop for new shoes. The trip was something that I dreaded, because the salesman’s attention was unwanted.

The store, which was 40 minutes away, seemed mighty distant because we seldom if ever, traveled that far. It was necessary to go to the store because it was one of the few that specialized in shoes for people with flat feet.

Mother’s doctor had recommended it after examining my feet, which he said were among the worst flat feet he’s ever seen. He told Mother after the examination that in all probability her son would have extreme difficulty walking when he reached manhood. I was crestfallen, but Mother who remained optimistic in the darkest times, said the store would solve the problem with specially built lifts. The expensive shoes (which were purchased from egg money that was scarce in summer) were too good to be worn for chores.

The doctor’s dire prediction did not come true, an occurrence that I credited to Mother’s prayers. However, an MRI recently taken revealed severe to moderate arthritis in both hips and the back. He recommended an exercise program, a diet and a good pair of shoes.

I hadn’t been back to the same store since Mother took me there 60 years ago. The building was the same, but the saleswoman was new. She explained that she specialized in troubled feet, a category that mine easily fit.

The new lifts are as uncomfortable as the old but not cause for complaint. The odds, as given by the doctor long ago, have been beaten. The ability to farm, which was a gift from the heavens, was realized until fate and circumstance intervened.

Mother’s prayers certainly helped in that regard. I heard her voice relating to the current situation. It’s all up to you, her voice said. Eat less, exercise and do so with a positive attitude. I’ll try my best.


In a recent pre-dawn morning, I went outside in bare feet to walk around the lawn. The wet grass felt good between the toes just as manure and mud did so many years before.

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

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