Michael Hicks: Looking back at a century of Father’s Days

It’s Father’s Day weekend, which caused me to think a bit about a century of change in the life of a typical American dad. This is a good story to tell through the lives of my and my wife’s grandfathers. These four men were born before Father’s Day was commonly celebrated in the U.S., and their experience is surprisingly representative of early 20th century fatherhood in the rural Midwest. The condition of their lives also offers shocking contrast with American life today.

These four men were born in the late 19th and early 20th century, all within a 50-mile radius of one another. All were born on southern Indiana farms settled a century earlier by Revolutionary War veterans, part of a broad Scotch-Irish migration with the names Thomas, Hicks, Dye and Monroe. They came from families of farmers, soldiers and wanderers who arrived in Indiana with nothing more than a mule could transport.

All told, they fathered 11 children between 1921 and 1939. One raised four other young children as his own after marrying a young widow. All remained married to the same women until their deaths. Only one of these men finished high school. The other three advanced only through eighth grade, the only school available at the time within travel distance. This story is remarkably similar to the national average of the time.

Interestingly, three of the wives completed high school, and one spent some time at a secretary’s school. A fourth was permitted to attend eighth grade twice. This difference in male-female educational attainment was unusual for the time. I think it can be explained by a modest age difference between spouses at a time when high school attendance was growing almost exponentially.

All these men farmed with horses and mules, and with few major technical innovations from circa 1700. Sadly, power threshers, tractors and turbulent world events took two of them from the farm permanently. They became carpenters, loggers, soldiers and factory workers. One sold insurance after World War II until his retirement in the mid 1970s. The luck of their birthdate meant that only one of these four men went to war. However, all nine of their sons saw military service, eight during wartime. One was killed in action and two others died of service-related causes.

By the standards of the time, these men ranged from a solidly middle-class dairy farmer to a hardscrabble farmer. By the standards of today’s America, they all spent the interwar years in desperate poverty. Two of these men never went on vacation and a third took only one pleasure trip lasting longer than a day. Only one flew in a plane or traveled outside the U.S. in peacetime. Only one ever lived in a house with air conditioning. Of the four, one never lived in a home with indoor plumbing, natural gas, electricity, or central heating. All their children were born at home, with at least two entering this world in log cabins.

As best as memory serves us, only two of these fathers received any hospital care prior to their final illness, and one of these was treating war wounds. Of these four, only two died of natural causes. One succumbed to war injuries and one died in a farming accident. Again, this is not unusual. Two of them had siblings either killed or grievously injured on farms, or while hunting.

I relate this history because the lives of these men are so representative of the early and mid-20th century. For these men, educational opportunities were exhausted by age 14. Work life meant occupational flexibility, tough manual labor and seasonal work. They were sustained by family, and a hardiness and resilience few of us need ever muster. They risked injury or death at work or war in ways that differ profoundly from modern experience. And they sent sons to war repeatedly in the last century.

These four men were blessed in other ways. They had 24 granddaughters and 12 grandsons, nine of whom celebrate Father’s Day this year. Our life experience differs in ways that are so extreme as to hardly bear comparison. All of us finished high school, and half of us completed college. These are a bit better than the national average, but not an unusual story. There’s no noticeable difference in educational attainment between the men and women of our generation.

None of us farmed, and indeed none of our fathers farmed full time. There has never been such a dramatic change in occupations over two generations anywhere at any time. When my oldest grandfather was born, more than one in three of Americans and maybe half of Hoosiers worked on farms. Today it is maybe one in 200 Americans and roughly one in 75 Hoosiers work on farms. The farm he worked was so bad it now lies within the Hoosier National Forest.

All of us were born in hospitals and enjoyed extensive prenatal care. We all had access to antibiotics, vaccines, medical and dental care. We all live in homes with electricity, heat and air conditioning. We’ve all been on vacations, and are able to retire.

A half dozen of us have been to war, and more have served. Our time was full of conflict, but none of us died in battle. The youngest of us are now in our early 50s, so already past the average lifespan of the men in our grandfathers’ generation. Like other Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers, we can now expect to live well into our 80s.

Comparisons with the recent past often dwell on the technological marvels of the age. Television, cell phones, internet, and air travel. These things enrich our lives in ways that our grandfathers could not imagine, although, like all change, they are not without problems. Still, I think this misses the point of the last century’s great enrichment.

These four men of my grandfathers’ generation were born into a world that would have been easily recognizable by their great-great grandfathers. There was no electricity, no roar of engines, no magic medicines to distract them. Perhaps the only differences between any hardscrabble farm of 1900 and 1700 was that there was a school within walking distance for kids aged six to 14, and that these farms were in the U.S.

On this Father’s Day I will be thankful for the fathers and grandfathers who toiled so tirelessly to give us the abundant world we enjoy today. I will do so with the hope that my grandchildren look back towards us, and are pleased with the progress made on their behalf.