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Reflections: Don Mitchell

Kenji Hobbs

04 May 2022

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Reflections: Don Mitchell

Chateau Retirement’s “Reflections” series highlights the rich life experiences of our residents. This month, Don Mitchell recalls his childhood growing up in rugged, majestic Southeast Idaho.

 

To the east, the sun was rising over the distant Teton peaks, the air was crisp and clear as usual in the high desert country of Southeastern Idaho, making the surrounding mountains clearly visible. The snowpack in these mountains slowly melts during the warm summer months replenishing the aquifer, providing abundant water for human and livestock needs as well as the irrigation of crops.

 

To the south, a desert plain as far as the eye can see, broken only by three buttes with rather unimaginative names —Twin Buttes, two almost identical in size and shape and Big Butte, much larger than the other two.  These buttes, having popped up out of the desert floor during the time of very active volcanic action, are located between the Craters of the Moon National Park and the gigantic cauldron that makes up Yellowstone National Park.  It was into this setting, early on the morning of September 3, 1930, I was born in a small 3 room house to Bessie and Thomas Mitchell in a farming area known as Mud Lake.

 

Along with 3 brothers, I grew up in a modest farmhouse, about 15’ X 30’ divided into two rooms—a bedroom/living area and a kitchen with a wood cook stove to supply heat for the house as well as cooking. Since the house was small, it was in the kitchen where everyone gathered for meals, to visit, read or listen to the radio. Mom darned socks, patched overalls or did other handiwork all the while sharing the light from a kerosene or a gas pressurized lamp; it was the center of our family life and provided a sense of closeness.

 

Mom had a treadle sewing machine used for making her clothes and the boys’ shirts often using print broadcloth from flour or feed sacks.  Laundry was an all-day job, carrying water from the well, heating it on the stove and using a Maytag wringer washing machine to wash the clothes.  The laundry hung on the clothesline to dry.  Everything was ironed; sheets, pillowcases, shirts, dish towels, even Dad’s boxer shorts, with irons that were heated on the wood stove.

 

Bathing occurred in a laundry tub on the kitchen floor near the stove. The outhouse or privy was a small wooden hut located some distance from the house and during the winter a trip to the outhouse was a task only undertaken out of necessity.

 

 

Life on the farm was harsh especially before electricity came into our area about 1940. Though we lacked many modern amenities, and our clothes were homemade or hand-me-downs, we were never without food. In a monetary sense we were dirt poor, but so were all our neighbors and friends.  When extra help was needed to harvest crops or round up cattle for branding, dehorning and vaccination we could count on their help and they on us.  We all shared a comradery that made us a community.

 

Mom had a wonderful flock of Buff Orpington chickens that were her pride and joy. This flock of chickens not only provided fryers and stewing hens, but big brown eggs sold to a local grocer in exchange for flour, sugar and other staples. Tending the chickens became my job as soon as I was big enough to carry water and feed. This early experience of working with my mother in caring for her big buff hens, no doubt, influenced my later 4-H projects and the decision to major in poultry husbandry at the University of Idaho

 

Raising a garden was an important part of our existence made more challenging by the 90-day growing season. The planting was followed by canning. A root cellar dug deep into the ground provided frost free storage for the canned goods as well as potatoes and other root crops, that could be stored well into the winter. As the seasonable weather cooled and night-time temperatures fell into the freezing zone, it was slaughtering time. The meat was shared with family and friends.

 

My brother Lyle, a year younger was a special playmate. We spent a lot of time together playing in the sandhill next to the house.  The sage brush was about six feet tall so provided shade as we played with homemade tractors and dozers building our imaginary farm.  We even had livestock—the horned toads and lizards were harnessed to pull tiny carts and sleds—until they got away!

 

Electricity became a part of our lives when I was about ten. What a magic moment it was when we could pull the string switch on the single porcelain light fixture and the bulb in the center of the room would brilliantly light up the whole house! That string was pulled many times to test the miracle of light.  A General Electric refrigerator with a huge coil on the top made ice available on demand. An electric motor, replacing the gas engine on the washing machine made Mom’s wash days more peaceful. Perhaps the greatest benefit of electricity was a constant source of power to pump irrigation water.

 

By the time I graduated from the 8th grade, I was comfortable in the classroom and enjoyed learning. Since there was no high school locally, I lived with my aunt in Idaho Falls while attending junior high and high school. It was a 50-mile trip and when I could find a ride, I went home to help with farm work on weekends.  Farm chores precluded participation in many high school activities, thus I became increasingly interested in 4-H club activities that became a major part of my life extending well into adulthood.

 

In June 1945, I was one of the 4-H club members from Jefferson County selected to go to the Idaho State 4-H Congress at the University of Idaho in Moscow. It was a big deal to a kid from Mud Lake who had barely been out of his community, to visit the State Capital in Boise and pass through the corners of Oregon and Washington enroute to Moscow in the northern panhandle of Idaho.

 

We stayed in dorm rooms, ate in the dorm cafeteria and learned from the university faculty and state extension staff about research projects underway, visit laboratories and get an introduction to subjects taught in various departments. It opened my eyes to the opportunities beyond farming in Mud Lake.

 

The calendar year 1948 was an emotional roller coaster for me:

 

Early in the year, it was announced that I was the recipient of a Carl Raymond Gray (Union Pacific) scholarship of $100 to attend the University of Idaho.

 

In early April, I was notified that I was selected to be one of 4 (2 girls and 2 boys) 4-H Club members from Idaho to attend the National 4-H Camp in Washington, D.C.

 

In May I graduated from the Idaho Falls Senior High School.

 

In June I had the privilege and pleasure of the trip to Washington, D. C.

 

On August 23, 1948, my brother Lyle passed away in an accident.

 

In mid-September, I reluctantly enrolled as a Freshman at the University of Idaho.

 

It was June and we were headed to Washington D.C. for the National 4-H Camp. The trip across country was truly a memorable experience. This was my first travel experience on a train, and we had a pullman birth for the two-day trip.  For this farm boy, eating in the dining car was an eye-opening experience.  White linen tablecloths and napkins, sterling silverware, crystal goblets, fine china and formal printed menus I had only seen in movies, took a little getting used to!

 

The skyline with many recognizable monuments left us a little awe struck as we arrived at Union Station in downtown Washington D.C. and were met by organizers of the National Camp. We spent the week interacting with delegations from the 48 states as well as the territories, touring historical monuments and meeting with prominent leaders in agriculture.

 

The experience of attending conferences, left those of us from rural communities, with incredible memories of traveling longer distances than we could have ever imagined, of buildings gigantic in size and large auditoriums that left us wondering how much hay the room would hold.

 

Attending this National 4-H Camp were the first International Farm Youth Exchange delegates leaving for their assignments in Europe for about 4 months where they were to live and work with farm families in their host countries.  Little did I know that I would be participating in this program 2 years later, living and working with farm families in The Netherlands for 6 months.

 

It was felt by many there was no better way to promote peace than by people from different countries living, working and playing together. Thus, a program for American farm youth to go to other countries to live with farm families and share in their farm work and family lives; likewise, young people from these same countries came to live and work with American families. People who work and sweat together develop a long-lasting bond of friendship.

 

And so, my career trajectory which began at a young age on a farm in Mud Lake, Idaho was only the beginning of what would be an odyssey of international travel, working in agriculture and living in many parts of the world.

 

Chateau Retirement Communities are based in the Seattle, WA area. Chateau Retirement offers Independent Living, Assisted Living and Memory Care living options. Contact us today to learn more about our family owned and operated communities, or schedule a tour.

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