“Farmer Boy” Science, or “I Didn’t Know You Could Do That”

If the “Popcorn and Milk” post intrigued you, here are some more scientific opportunities from the pages of Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder:

  • Chapter 6: The Wilders fill the ice house with blocks of ice surrounded on all sides by three inches of sawdust. The ice house walls are made of wooden boards with spaces in between them, and the roof and floor are made of solid wood. We are told that the ice blocks will not melt, even during the hot summer months. Why not?
  • Chapter 7: Mother Wilder doesn’t make the newfangled round doughnuts that have a hole in the center, because she doesn’t have time to flip doughnuts over. She makes her doughnuts this way: she takes long strips of dough; rolls, doubles, and twists them; and drops them in hot fat. First, the dough in the fat swells up, and then it rolls over by itself. Why?
  • Chapter 10: The Wilders mix lime and water to make whitewash paint. I didn’t know you could do that. Here’s a link to a recipe: http://www.geocities.com/RainForest/Vines/4095/resources/recipes.htm#whitewash
  • Chapter 17: Almanzo grows a milk-fed pumpkin. I didn’t know you could do that, either! But here’s a link on “how to:” http://www.ehow.com/how_2081764_grow-milk-fed-pumpkin.html
  • Chapter 22: The Wilders butcher animals, saving the hide, the meat, and the fat. Then, they make candles, using tallow. We are told: “Beef fat doesn’t make lard; it melts into tallow.” Why is that so?
  • And Last But Not Least: In Chapter 10, Almanzo gathers wintergreen berries. Here’s what they look like:

Wintergreen Berries

And in Chapter 22, he eats beechnuts. Here’s what they look like:

Beechnuts and Burrs

(The nuts are pictured along with the split-open burrs from which they emerged.)

My point in showing these two natural, edible items is to ask: Am I the only person who thought of “wintergreen” as a breath mint flavor and never bothered to wonder whether there was actually anything in nature CALLED “wintergreen something?” Also, am I the only person who thought of “Beech-nut” as a brand name for gum or baby food and never considered that there might be an actual NUT called a beechnut? I think I knew there was a beech tree.

I feel very nature-deprived.



5 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    […] visit there – she’s mending her ways. And publicly. And educationally. Look at all the things she’s learning. (PS: Dennis? Are you reading? She’s got an ice-house question that I think you might be able […]

  2. 2

    Laura said,

    I laughed at your wondering how you never thought about whether beechnut was an actual nut… i do that too. I wonder sometimes why the right questions don’t think to surface. And then I have “Doh!” moments. 🙂

  3. 3

    Dennis D. Picard said,

    Okay, I’ve come over from “Only Laura” to address the question about the icehouse: first of all I’ve been harvesting ice in the traditional manner for museums and environmental education centers for ten years and have been writing about and studying the trade for at least that long. A segment I did for the BBC on the ice trade was just featured this past winter on PBS’s NOVA. The short answer is thermodynamics. The larger the mass of ice the longer it takes for the heat to “attack” the water in its frozen state and melt it. The Wilders did a bad thing when they packed each block with sawdust. This was done by some farmers who did not understand the nature of storage and was condemned by agricultural writers in the 19th century. As with any specialty there is a lot more that can be said but that is it in a nutshell – I’ve seen records of ice being kept for five or more years.

  4. 4

    […] Finally, as I thought, Dennis from western Massachusetts — gentleman and scholar that he is — helped out Susan with her ice-house questions. […]

  5. 5

    Nikki said,

    I loved reading all those bits as well! Definitely a lot of potential for learning goes on when we read historical books like this.

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