D. E. Larsen, DVM
This short story comes from my family’s lore, and I write it now because it has implications for the current times. Today young mothers are having extreme difficulty in obtaining commercial baby formula to feed their infants. The medical profession and the social media “fact-checker” caution them not to resort to homemade recipes. So what are they supposed to feed a kid if there is no breast milk and no baby formula?
Annie Coats was born in January 1880. She was the oldest of a family of eight children. This story takes place on a small farm outside of Juliaetta, Idaho, a small town in the southern panhandle of western Idaho. It is the spring of 1891.
“Annie, we will be in town all day today as your father takes care of some banking business, and then we have to buy supplies for the spring planting,” Sarah Coats explained to her daughter. “You will be fine with the kids, and Mollie is old enough to help you out if there are any problems. After you kids help your father with the morning chores, you just keep everyone in the house. I will nurse Tommy before we leave, so he should be okay until we get home in the evening. You can mash some carrots for him at lunchtime.”
“Okay,” Annie said. “But what do I do if you don’t get home?”
“Nothing is going to happen,” her mother said. “We just can’t take all you kids with us on this trip.”
Annie, Mollie, who was almost nine, and Lewis, who was six, went with their father to the barn to do the morning chores while Sarah nursed Tommy and tended to the two younger girls. The final two family members would not arrive for another few years.
Thomas, Annie’s father, and Sarah crawled into the buckboard, and Thomas snapped the rains against Old Joe’s rump.
“Giddy up,” he commanded the team.
“We will see you kids this evening,” Sarah yelled back to the kids. “You mind your sister. She is the boss today.”
The kids stood at the cabin door and watched the wagon disappear as the trail to town turned into the trees.
“Okay, mom wanted us to stay inside today,” Annie said as she ushered the kids into the cabin. “Mom has a full basket of darning to get done, and it’s time you guys learned how to do some of the stuff around the house.”
The day wore on, and the little kids tried to be helpful, but Annie learned that sometimes it is easier to do things yourself than to have little hands helping.
At lunchtime, Annie boiled a carrot and a couple of potatoes. That was served to the kids along with some ham that she had trimmed off the new ham hanging in the smokehouse.
She smashed the carrot into a mush with some added butter. Tommy started to reject Annie’s attempts to spoon some of the carrot mush into his mouth, but he must have realized that it was all he would get.
As the afternoon turned into evening, Annie spent more and more time outside, watching for the wagon.
“Mom said they would be home this evening,” Mollie said. “Tommy is getting hungry, and I don’t think you can nurse him.”
In town, Thomas and Sarah were putting the last of the supplies into the wagon when Sarah heard a ‘snap.’
“What was that?” Sarah asked.
Thomas walked around the wagon, and there it was, a broken spoke in the right rear wheel.
“We can’t haul this load home without fixing that wheel,” Thomas said. “I guess I better go talk with Josh at the livery stable.”
“Tom, I can fix that wheel, but not until morning,” Josh said as he pumped the bellows to his forge. “I promised Mel I would get this job done tonight.”
“We have the kids home alone, and the baby will be starving if he doesn’t get to nurse his mother tonight,” Thomas said.
“Sorry, Tom,” Josh said. “It can’t be helped. You can pull the wagon over here and put your horses in a stall. I have a small room in the back that you and the missus can use. It ain’t much, but it is better than paying the hotel.”
“Okay, I guess the kids will survive,” Thomas said. “Annie is pretty smart, and she will figure something out for the baby.”
“We need to get the animals fed before dark,” Annie said. “Lewis, you and Sarah, come give me a hand. Mollie can stay and take care of Tommy and Lillie.”
Annie was rushing through the chores to get back in the house and figure out what she was going to feed Tommy. She thought she could try to mix up some flour and water. Their milk cow was getting ready to calve, and they wouldn’t have milk again for another couple of weeks.
When Annie got to the pigpen, she noticed the sow laid out on her side with eight little piglets nursing. She watched her for a moment, thinking.
“Sarah, you run to the house and have Mollie bring Tommy out here,” Annie said. “And have her bring an old blanket. And hurry!”
Little Sarah was off like a shot.
“Lewis, we need to spread some new straw down in this pigpen,” Annie said. “And we need to be careful not to disturb the old sow.”
When Mollie arrived with Tommy and the other kids, Annie and Lewis had just finished bedding down the pigpen. Annie was standing in the pen.
“Hand me Tommy and the blanket,” she instructed Mollie.
“What are you going to do?” Mollie asked.
“Tommy needs some milk, and this sow is the only girl on the place giving milk,” Annie said. “I will be careful, but Tommy is going to nurse this sow.”
Annie took Tommy to the middle of the line-up of piglets. She moved two piglets from the middle of the pack to the sides. She spread out the blanket and laid Tommy down beside the piglets in the middle of the group.
The old sow didn’t seem to mind as Annie stripped some milk from a teat into Tommy’s mouth. She pushed Tommy’s mouth against the teat, and he hooked on and started sucking.
Annie sat back and relaxed, watching the sow and Tommy. The piglets that had been moved to the side were starting to fight for a better position. The hind teats were not the most favorable. When one of the piglets pushed against Tommy, Annie began to intervene, but she didn’t have to do anything. Tommy pushed the piglet away. He wasn’t going to miss this meal.
When Annie felt Tommy was getting full, she picked him up and brushed him off before handing him back across the fence to Mollie.
“Now, what are we going to have for supper?” Little Sarah asked.
“We are going to have eggs and maybe a potato,” Annie said.
“Lewis doesn’t like eggs,” Mollie said.
“I will scramble them, and I have a little of the ham left from lunch that I and cut up and put in the eggs,” Annie said.
“But Lewis doesn’t like eggs,” Mollie said.
“Scrambled eggs and ham with some fried potatoes are what we are having for dinner,” Annie said. “If Lewis doesn’t want any, I guess he is just not hungry enough.”
The kids returned to the house and cleaned up Tommy. Annie fixed a supper of scrambled eggs and ham with some fried potatoes. Lewis had figured out that this was all there was, and he ate his dinner with the other kids.
Morning came, and Tommy was hungry. Annie made another trip to the pigpen with him, and he was an old pro this morning. Snuggling into the line-up of piglets and fighting for his teat.
With the wagon wheel fixed, Thomas and Sarah pointed Old Joe toward home.
“I am worried to death,” Sarah said. “Tommy will be starved by the time we get there. And I will feel better, getting some of this milk drained from my breasts.”
The kids were dancing outside the cabin door as the wagon came into view.
Sarah took Tommy from Annie and headed for her rocking chair with a towel.
“He will hardly nurse,” Sarah said. “What did you feed him when I was gone?”
“We just made do with what was available,” Annie answered.
Tommy survived his meals with pig milk and grew into adulthood with no significant problems. Annie showed her pioneer spirit and ingenuity by using the only milk available to her at the time.