On November 29, 2023

Looking Back: Life on the farm versus life in the city



By Mary Ellen Shaw


The Mountain Times forwarded to me a hand-written letter from a regular reader of my “Looking Back” column. Her name is Ellen Lee Jones. She shared with me what she remembers about her own life when she “looks back.” Ellen gave permission for me to use the details of her life in my column so let’s take a look back at her “country living” versus my “city living” back in yesteryear!

Just reading Ellen’s letter brought me back to the days when all of us communicated in longhand on a sheet of paper. Our letters were mailed in an envelope with a stamp attached. I haven’t received one of those for years. It was a step back in time to read cursive writing.

Although Ellen is only six years older than I am it seems like we lived our lives in different eras. Her life, which began in the late 1930s and my life, which began in the mid-’40s, were very different. She lived her early years on a 250-acre farm that was a world apart from the type of life I lived in the city…even if that city was little ol’ Rutland!

As I read the letter I learned that Ellen was the 15th of 16 children born at home on a farm in New York state. The babies were delivered by her father or grandmother. Compare that to my status as an only child who was delivered by a doctor in the Rutland Hospital. I had read only the first paragraph when I realized what a difference there was between country living and city living back in the day!

Ellen’s mother cooked on a wood burning stove and the kitchen had a water pump in it. My mother had an electric stove and city water that flowed through the faucet “on command.” I know my mother was very grateful for this type of kitchen as she liked life’s comforts.

Perhaps the biggest difference in our lives was the four-seater outdoor toilet that served Ellen’s large family. Our bathroom, located on the second floor of our house, came fully equipped with a toilet, large tub, shower and sink. Being a “city girl” was definitely the life for me!

When it came to education Ellen’s school days were spent in a one-room school house with a teacher who taught six classes. And as you might guess there were outdoor toilets at the school. I attended Christ the King School in Rutland City. There were eight grades with a teacher assigned to each of them. Our bathrooms had several toilets and sinks. I appreciated my city school experience more with each sentence I read. 

Country living certainly was more challenging and rugged — it would not have been for me!

But there is a whole lot of farmer in me when it comes to growing food. Ellen said that they grew all their food on the “good land” and didn’t need a grocery store. I grow as much as I can on our city lot but weekly trips to the grocery store are essential! I would have loved having space to grow lots of crops.

Ellen walked one mile to the school bus. Our school did not have buses but the distance from our house to school was about a mile and my friend, Elaine, and I often walked. However, on cold, snowy days a warm car was our mode of transportation.

Ellen went into the real estate business after her two children were in school full time. She helped over 500 people during what she refers to as “a wonderful career.” One of my best jobs was in the Rutland City Assessor’s Office. I was hired during a city wide reappraisal. I worked on the computer entering data that provided comparables in the real estate market to determine property values. One of the best jobs ever!

Ellen moved to Vermont in 2022 to be near her daughter, who coincidentally is also named Mary Ellen.

Although our early lives were very different it appears that we are both content to have lived the way we did. Life would be pretty boring if we all lived in the same manner. Living different lives is what makes us unique.

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