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Not so long ago, the Rock Island Railroad was a household name, the Great Depression was a recent memory, and family farms dotted the landscape. Today, the great railroads have nearly disappeared, the Depression is a chapter in history books, and family farms are hard to come by. Yet this time is not forgotten. In Central Standard: A Time, a Place, a Family, Patrick Irelan vividly recaptures a remarkable era in midwestern history in twenty-four beautifully crafted and often witty essays. Beginning with his parents’ marriage in 1932 and continuing into the present, Irelan relates the many wonderful stories and experiences of his Davis County, Iowa, family. In “Country Living,” he describes his parents’ disheartening life as farmers during the worst years of the Depression. “The CB&Q” then relates the happiest years of his family’s life when his parents lived and worked in the Burlington Railroad depots of rural Nebraska. Irelan’s tales of hard times and harder work, family meals and talkative relatives, depots and farmsteads paint a brilliant yet deceptively simple portrait of one rural, working-class family. At its heart, Central Standard carries a greater message: it reminds us of the enduring strength of the American family.
Now back in print with a new essay, this classic of Iowa history focuses on the Old Order Amish Mennonites, the state’s most distinctive religious minority. Sociologist Elmer Schwieder and historian Dorothy Schwieder began their research with the largest group of Old Order Amish in the state, the community near Kalona in Johnson and Washington counties, in April 1970; they extended their studies and friendships in later years to other Old Order settlements as well as the slightly less conservative Beachy Amish. A Peculiar People explores the origin and growth of the Old Order Amish in Iowa, their religious practices, economic organization, family life, the formation of new communities, and the vital issue of education. Included also are appendixes giving the 1967 “Act Relating to Compulsory School Attendance and Educational Standards”; a sample “Church Organization Financial Agreement,” demonstrating the group’s unusual but advantageous mutual financial system; and the 1632 Dortrecht Confession of Faith, whose eighteen articles cover all the basic religious tenets of the Old Order Amish. Thomas Morain’s new essay describes external and internal issues for the Iowa Amish from the 1970s to today. The growth of utopian Amish communities across the nation, changes in occupation (although The Amish Directory still lists buggy shop operators, wheelwrights, and one lone horse dentist), the current state of education and health care, and the conscious balance between modern and traditional ways are reflected in an essay that describes how the Old Order dedication to Gelassenheit—the yielding of self to the interests of the larger community—has served its members well into the twenty-first century.
Gardening in Iowa’s Amana Colonies is the culmination of techniques that stretch back several centuries to central Europe, when adherents to a new faith called the Community of True Inspiration formed their own self-reliant communities. As a child of parents who were part of the communal life of the Amana Society, Larry Rettig pays homage to the Amana gardening tradition and extends it into the twenty-first century. Each of the seven villages in Amana relied on the food prepared in its communal kitchens, and each kitchen depended on its communal garden for most of the dishes served (the kitchens in Rettig’s hometown produced more than four hundred gallons of sauerkraut in 1900). Rettig begins by describing the evolution of communal gardening in old Amana, focusing especially on planting, harvesting, and storing vegetables from asparagus to egg lettuce to turnips. With the passing of the old order in 1932, the number of the society’s large vegetable gardens and orchards dwindled, but Larry Rettig and his wife, Wilma, still grow some of the colonies’ heirloom varieties in their fourth-generation South Amana vegetable garden. In 1980 they founded a seed bank to preserve them for future generations. Rettig’s chapters on modern vegetable and flower gardening in today’s Amana Colonies showcase his Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, now listed with the Smithsonian in its Archives of American Gardens. Old intermingles with new across his gardens: heirloom lettuce keeps company with the latest cucumber variety, a hundred-year-old rose arches over the newest daylilies and heucheras, and ancient grapevines intertwine with newly planted wisteria, all adding up to a rich array of colorful plantings. Rettig extends his gardening advice into the kitchen and workroom. He shares family recipes for any number of traditional dishes, including radish salad, dumpling soup, Amana pickled ham, apple bread, eleven-minute meat loaf, and strawberry rhubarb pie. Moving into the workroom, he shows us how to make hammered botanical prints, Della Robbia centerpieces, holiday wreaths, a gnome home, and a waterless fountain. Touring his gardens, with their historic and unusual plants, will make gardeners everywhere want to reproduce the groupings and varieties that surround Larry and Wilma Rettig’s 1900 red brick house.
Carroll Engelhardt’s parents grew up in homes without electricity on farms without tractors and began farming in the same way. As a farm boy in northeastern Iowa, he thought that history happened only to important people in earlier times and more exotic places. After decades of teaching, he at last perceived that history happens to us all, and he began writing this book. Set within the thoughtfully presented contexts of the technological revolution in American agriculture, the Second World War, the Cold War, and the emerging culture of affluence, The Farm at Holstein Dip is both a loving coming-of-age memoir and an educational glimpse into rural and small-town life of the 1940s and 1950s. Engelhardt writes about growing up in a spacious farmhouse where life was centered in the kitchen and frugality dictated that every purchase be weighed carefully. His chores grew up with him: he fed chickens and gathered eggs at age six, rode a horse on the hayfork at nine or ten, milked cows by hand at eleven, and hired out to other farmers to load bales in the field and work in the haymow at fifteen. The simple pleasures and predictable routines of a Saturday night at the movies in nearby Elkader, Pioneer Days on the 4th of July, Confirmation Sunday, class picnics, and baseball and basketball games play out against a background of rural decline, alternating economic uncertainty and prosperity, and Cold War anxiety—next to polio, he most feared Communist subversion and atomic blasts. The values and contradictions imparted by this evolving mix of international, national, and local cultures shaped his coming of age. Engelhardt brings us into the world of his fourth-generation farm family, who lived by the family- and faith-based work ethic and concern for respectability they had inherited from their German and Norwegian ancestors. His writing has a particularly Iowa flavor, a style that needs no definition to those who live in the state. Readers will discover the appeal of his wry, humorous, and kind observations and appreciate his well-informed perspective on these transformative American decades.
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