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Pretty maids and spring days

Mar 17, 2014 - By Randy Tucker

There's a good reason the "farmer's daughter" became the feminine ideal.

The smell of spring is in the air, but it's the earthy, organic smell of early spring in Wyoming, not the aroma of blooming flowers on a warm day in late April or early May. The recent rise in the temperature and the accompanying thaw are among the most pleasant portends of things to come after a long winter.

The smell of our feedlot just north of the house reminded me of days gone by when the dairy industry was alive and well in Fremont County.

My parents' farm was a small dairy before we purchased it, and we were surrounded by operating dairies to the west, north and south.

On any given week at this time of year you could catch the aroma of the Brubaker, Stowe, Jeffries or the two Sterns dairies wafting in. Depending on the direction of the wind you could easily identify which one was on the air.

When it dried out a few weeks later you could hear the distant sound of a tractor and loader as well, with an exponential increase in smell coming from the cleaning of their feedlots after a long winter.

There aren't operating dairies anymore in Fremont County. All of our milk comes from Utah, Montana, Colorado, or even farther away.

If you've ever worked at the time-consuming, unending, scheduled labor that is dairy farming, you soon realize that glamor is one of the last things that comes to mind when feeding, moving, striping, milking and cleaning up after a hundred or so brown Swiss, Holstein or Jersey cows.

But it wasn't always like this.

An old English nursery rhyme titled "Where are you Going My Pretty Maid" tells a different story.

"Where are you going, my pretty maid? I'm going a milking, sir, she said. May I go with you, my pretty maid? You're kindly welcome, sir, she said. What is your father, my pretty maid? My father's a farmer, sir, she said. What is your fortune, my pretty maid? My face is my fortune, sir, she said."

Her face was her fortune. It didn't take the young men of the late renaissance and early colonial times to notice how beautiful the daughters of farmers were in comparison to other young women of more urban areas.

Pock marks from smallpox were a feature of nearly every person living in a European city, but farmers and their families rarely had the scars of this scourge of humanity. People living with cattle quickly gained immunity from smallpox by contracting a much less-virulent disease called cow pox.

Where smallpox killed millions of people, (some experts estimate 300,000,000 and name it as the worst disease to ever afflict mankind) cow pox was largely innocuous, producing a mild fever, a pox at the sight of infection, usually on a finger, and little else.

The wealthy eventually made the connection and began to infect themselves and their children with cow pox long before anyone had the slightest inkling of the value of vaccination.

Jump ahead a few centuries, and you see a strange adoration of another fatal disease. Victorian England was a world of suppressed desires, ridiculous etiquette, and amazingly complex social mores. In this world a person with the "wrong" disease was ridiculed and banished, but someone suffering from tuberculosis was considered to be avant garde.

Tuberculosis victims were said to be more creative, more attractive and much more desirable when suffering from the ravages of the disease.

A list of TB victims reads like a "Who's Who" of 19th and early 20th century society. Edgar Allan Poe, Anton Chekov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederic Chopin, Emily Bronte, D.H. Lawrence, Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Louis Stevenson and George Orwell are among the more famous victims of the disease.

Women with TB were regarded as breathtakingly beautiful. Gaunt, pale, with a natural redness to their cheeks and red lips from constantly coughing up blood, they were the morbid fashion idols of their day.

It seems strange, but, then again, anorexic models are a modern example of the same vain need for irrational standards of beauty over the health of women.

For every author, composer or artist with the ailment, there were hundreds of thousands of others suffering in anonymity. Most of those were children.

Milk was the primary conduit of disease, although society itself was partly to blame. The English practice of taxing homes based on the number of windows created dark, stagnant dwellings that harbored the disease.

Dairy cattle carried it in the squalid conditions they lived in prior to refrigeration. Dairies had to be close to urban areas to supply unspoiled milk, and the proximity to humans created a breeding ground for TB.

Canned milk and, later, pasteurization and refrigeration ended one of the great plagues of childhood and greatly improved the life of children in America and in cities around the world.

There is more to that cold glass of 2 percent than just the expiration date.

It's all in a spring day.

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Editor's note: Staff writer Randy Tucker is a retired educator. He farms north of Riverton.

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