WWII Snapshots by Sharita G. Lacey - 2008

The Home Front - Agriculture

They didnít wear a specific uniform. They werenít engaged in direct combat. But they were fighting a battle all their own.

They were farming.

From the years 1941-1945, farmers in Kansas found themselves in the midst of a war they never imagined. Much like the servicemen and women overseas, these people kept long hours, struggled to make do with limited supplies, and provided for themselves and their communities. Farming during the Second World War was a challenge. From the challenges came memories, and from memories came stories.

By simply looking at Ernest "Ernie" and Irene May (Dunn) Sharp, one might never know the influence agriculture during World War II had on their lives. Although this enthusiastic Clay Center, Kan. couple no longer lives on their farm, those memories haven't faded from their minds.

The wooden sign by their front door with an image of a combine and their name "The Sharps" signifies their ties to agriculture. Handmade wooden models of a windmill, a one-room schoolhouse and a horse-drawn wagon rest on their mantel. It is clear that their 62-year marriage has been influenced by agriculture. Perhaps one of their most remarkable experiences was fighting their own battle on the home front during the Second World War.

"The war came right after the Depression, so we were a little further behind than we should have been," Ernie Sharp said. "I had just graduated high school in 1941. We used horses at first, but then got a tractor to plow with. Dad did stuff the hard way. We had a thrasher to harvest wheat, and we shocked the wheat because Dad wanted straw piles. We finally talked Dad out of thrashing."

"I also remember filling silos. That was hard," he remarked. "We made bundles of corn eight to 10 feet long and used a cutter right by the silo. One year during the war, we filled 14 silos. We didnít really ever get paid for [our work] unless we got out of the community. If we did get paid, it was day by day. And the 'day' wasn't particular hours; the day wasn't over until the job was done."

In addition to working with machinery and various crops, the Sharps made their way by baling hay, picking corn by hand walking behind a high board wagon, and raising hogs, cattle and milk cows.

Rural communities in the 1940s typically didn't have electricity and got their news from battery-operated radios. It was through this medium that the farmers got word about Japan bombing Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. They all knew their lives would change from that moment forward.

"I was at home when I heard the news," Sharp said. "I remember the next morning the town of Riley was paralyzed. We were scared. We didn't have news like we have now. I didn't know what type of power the Japanese had. We were scared because we were uninformed. We thought we might be taken over by another country."

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the question surfaced: Who would have to go overseas? Sharp discussed the three different types of classifications: 1A's were able to be deployed, 2C were the farmers, and 4F were individuals who couldn't serve because of a lack of physical qualifications or the presence of physical handicap.

"My high school principal told us we would be in a war," Sharp said. "I was a 2C, not a 1A, because I was a farm boy. Because I was a 2C, I didn't have to leave. But because I was home, other parents who had boys over there said I was a draft dodger."

The Sharps weren't unique in some of their World War II agricultural experiences. Ralph Suther of Westmoreland, Kan. grew up in agriculture during World War II as well. Both families had diversified operations, witnessed a change in technology and found ways to sell their products to survive.

"I was 11 yrs old when the Second World War started," Suther said. "We lived on a farm northwest of Frankfort, Kan. My dad was an immigrant from Germany. We started out farming with horses, but in 1938 he bought an F-12 Farmall IHC tractor. We converted some machinery from horse to tractor."

"We drove a team of horses to cultivate corn or sorghum. I shucked corn by hand and tried to go to school as well," Suther said. "We milked cows by hand, brought milk into the house and separated milk from the cream. We also had chickens. We took cream and eggs to town, and that is how we bought our groceries."

Living through World War II in agriculture was an experience all itself. However, the historical perspective of agriculture during World War II is also important, Tim Watts, subject librarian for history at Kansas State University, said. Although Watts was born post-World War II, his parents farmed during the era and shared many stories with him as he grew up on their family farm east of Chanute, Kan.

"My parents, Ned and Ruth Watts, had a small family farm with no electricity when I was growing up," Watts said. "We had chickens, horses and a little red Farmall tractor that was my dad's pride and joy. My parents had three kids during the war and three kids after the war."

"I know in that area it was small farms," he said. "Dad had 240 acres. He sold what they didn't need; they weren't a real big operation. They would save corn for the chickens and pigs. Mom talked about taking the eggs to town and selling them."

Although the Sharp, Suther and Watts families didn't leave home to serve in the war, the world-wide conflict affected their everyday lives to a great extent. For each of the families, rationing was a major issue.

"We had to have stickers on our windshields to get gas," Suther said. "Farmers got a B sticker, which meant we could get more gas than others. Mail carriers got the most gas, and they also got new tires. We couldnít buy new tires. We had to make the old ones work."

The rationing of gas and tires not only affected the farm families' production practices, but it also had an impact on their personal lives.

"Irene and I met in 1942, got engaged, but because of the war, we didn't get married until 1945," Sharp said. "She moved back home, 35 miles away. We got extra gas because we were farmers, so I would drive to see her. The neighbors didn't approve."

The rationing of sugar affected canning techniques to preserve food. Coffee was also rationed. Fortunately for the farmers, they didn't experience the meat rationing that the urban residents dealt with.

"My parents raised their own meat and eggs, and so they used their meat/egg ration coupons for things that they couldn't raise, which was tremendously illegal," Watts said with a chuckle. Watts said it was illegal because citizens were allotted only a certain amount of stamps per month, and they were not allowed to trade stamps for other products they might need.

"Back then you lived off the garden and farmed as much as you could," Suther said. "People in cities had rooftop gardens because some had a hard time finding certain kinds of food."

Several other items were unavailable or rationed during the war, not just for farmers, but also for everyone.

"The ladies thought that getting a pair of nylon stockings was a real treasure," Suther said. "You had to have coupons for shoes. We couldn't always buy car batteries either. Some people would try to crank-start their cars and end up breaking their arms. For general car repair, we used 'shade tree' mechanics where anybody would open the hood and find something that would make it work."

Buying and selling war bonds, which people could only redeem after they matured, were one of these tools agriculturalists and citizens used to support the troops.

"War bonds were a way for the government to borrow money for the war," said Sharp. "We volunteered to help with war bond drives through WWII."

During the Second World War, there was a big push to conserve and contribute no matter on what scale or in what venue.

"We also did scrap metal drives where you would pick up any kind of iron, bring it in, and the money would go to different places. We would go to a band of farmsteads to pick up used, old iron," Suther said.

"Even kids would get in on the war effort," Sharp said. "They would collect the aluminum foil off of gum wrappers, collect toothpaste tubes and other little things that were important. It made people really war conscious."

Many challenges during World War II contributed to occasionally hindering Kansas farmers from doing their job as easily as they would have liked.

"The biggest challenge of farming during the war was the lack of stuff," Sharp replied. "We had to do it the hard way: find twine for binders, wire for balers, and other stationary repair. We still had talented blacksmiths."

The Second World War left a lasting impact on most Americans' lives when it officially ended in 1945.

"In January of 1945, I was taken down to Leavenworth for my physical to get deployed," said Sharp. "We decided to get married before I left, but the war wore down and I didnít have to go."

"After the war, I remember life was changing really fast," he added. "We were anxious for it to change. People had a little more money. I remember we got electricity in 1948."

Watts agreed that prosperity followed the war. "I really believe that farmers benefited from the war, at least in the aftermath. Prices went up. Anything they grew they could sell at a good price. It helped them a lot."

"The war probably made us a lot more durable and able to withstand hardships. It helped us get through the hard times," Sharp said. "Now I see it as comical when listening to people talk about the current 'depression.' Some young people are upset about what they have to do without."

Suther agreed.

"We really don't have any shortages right now," Suther said. "Back then we had all kinds of shortages. The farmers were all much smaller operators; you got by with what you had. We didn't produce as much back then as we do today. Today we have modern equipment and modern genetics to make crops do better. Back then you just put in seeds with no fertilizer."

These farmers still embrace their roots more than six decades later.

The Sharps use their time to make wooden replicas of their past. Ernie hand crafts the barns, wagons, houses, and machinery to share and teach others. For a while, the couple even did presentations at local schools to help them learn about agricultural history from a Kansas perspective. They also use these replicas as playthings and story telling devices for their family, which includes five children, nine grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.

As for Suther, he was 15 years old when the war ended. As the oldest of six children, he continued going to school and working on the farm with his two brothers and four sisters. In 1951, Suther got married and served the subsequent two years in the service. Between his five children, he now has 17 grandchildren and six great grandchildren.

Although he is 78, he is still farming in a partnership operation with his two sons.

Watts is not directly engaged in production agriculture, but is proud of his Kansas farm background. His dad died in 1998 and his mom died in 2007, but he still thinks of his days on the farm. He currently lives with his wife and has twin 18-year-old daughters in Wamego, Kan.

"I will never forget my mother talking about President Franklin Roosevelt," Watts said with a laugh. "I think she had a crush on him. She always called him a 'big, good-looking man.'"

The Sharp family not only talks about their memories, but they show them. An entire room in the basement is dedicated to the replicas, artifacts, and times of long ago. On the wall, there is a picture of Ernie and Irene in front of a McCormick 460 Farmall Tractor. Although Irene taught school in a one-room schoolhouse starting at age 17, she still appreciated agriculture. Ernie encouraged her spirit.

"I surprised her with that tractor in 1980 or 1981," Ernie said as he looked at Irene. "I bought her that tractor because I believe in womenís rights. Every woman has a right to own a tractor."

Agriculture during the Second World War was a challenging time. Although these farmers weren't soldiers or didn't have to travel overseas, they served in their own way at home.

Ernie and Irene Sharp relive their World War II farming days through artifacts, toys and antiques, many of them hand-made. Photo by Sharita Lacey

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