Tarzier Memoirs

Part I   Old Latvia




In the waning days of serfdom in Russia and its possessions, the farmer became a renter, paying for the use of the land with two days’ work per week. Land officially belonged to the German barons. Karlis’ father, my grandfather, had tilled our farm under these conditions for decades after serfdom was officially abolished in 1861, under Tsar Alexander II. Eventually the rules were further loosened and it became possible for a farmer to buy the land he worked.

My father Karlis’ generation was the first to own the farm outright. It was part of the Predeli, a conglomerate of four farms of about 250 acres each, located in the Druviena Pagasts (Civil Parish), Latvia. It was located two kilometers west of the village of Druviena, on the river Tirza. Ours was the smallest of the four, approximately a kilometer on the side.

The Predeli
The Predeli, Druviena Pagasts

Despite wars and revolutions, the word that best described the old Predeli countryside was peace. One constable served our Pagasts of several thousand people. The only locks we had protected the granary and the farmhouse cabinets where we stored valuables such as fur coats for the Latvian winter. Those locks were memorable, one of the wonders of my childhood. They opened with large iron keys made to order by the local blacksmith.

Our square kilometer of real estate was the pride of the Tarziers. Every inch of the farm bore witness to our family’s sweaty dedication. In my grandfather’s day, only fifteen acres or so were arable, the rest was woodlands, full of boulders, rocks, and tree stumps. In between crops, we all worked to create more arable land. We felled trees and dug up the roots. We rolled and carted rocks to the edge of the forest, blasted boulders with dynamite and hauled away the shards.

In summer we would go out to pick mushrooms and berries— wild strawberries, raspberries and blackberries. We didn’t gather much—we first filled our bellies to bursting, then played around in the woods, and then put a few berries in the baskets. We did fill the baskets with mushrooms. Our parents had taught us the difference between edible and poisonous mushrooms, and we obviously never made a mistake. On occasion, we were sent to gather the poisonous ones to feed to the flies. Mother would cook them and leave them out for the flies to eat.

Peteris: The farm was a magic, fantastic place in the spring. Summer chores hadn’t started yet, so Robert and I roamed endlessly through wood and meadow. We had a lot of unofficial work to do when the snow began to melt. Water flowed out from under the ice, and we made sure two gullies remained open so it could run out to the meadow. Only when night fell would we head home for supper, trouser bottoms and sleeve cuffs stiff with ice.

Robert: To prevent the sin of idleness, one fine autumn day Father came up with an earth moving project. Over the centuries, low-lying land had filled in with rich black soil, while higher ground had become mostly clay and sand. When all summer crops were in, he hired a couple of local men to help, and all together we shoveled the black dirt from the marshes onto sleigh-like carts especially made for the purpose. We then hauled the dirt uphill, over to where the soil was rocky and thin. Aside from providing topsoil for the higher ground, by shovelfuls and cartfuls we ended up with two big ponds. The shallower pond became a place to ferment flax, and after we gave up on flax as a crop, for the pigs to wallow in. The deeper pond became our swimming hole, and on hot summer days we all dove in, even the dog. In the deepest part we could not reach bottom. This pond eventually acquired all sorts of life—frogs, dragonflies, even fish. Behind the barns ran a creek, where I spent many a happy afternoon building dams and a waterwheel.

Our threshing building was called the Rija, or kiln house. It was an old, dark building made of stone, the material of myths and legends. It had no windows, only two doors, a large one at the entrance and a smaller door to the Piedarbs, the threshing floor. When we lay on our backs on the fresh crop of flax, the ceiling stretched out to the sky. During harvest season, a stone kiln glowed like a dragon’s eye in the drying room. In the light flickering through the cracks in the kiln, flax draped over the beams looked like so many damned souls in hell. It was here that the Devil himself lived, we told the neighborhood kids. It was here that my brother Janis hid when the Cossacks passed through (see The Family).

Two trees stood in the middle of our farmyard, a maple and a wild cherry tree. The branches of the maple tree reached fifty feet into the sky. Robert used to climb up the cherry tree by first scrambling up the pine logs Father had piled high against its trunk. I was jealous of him. High up on the tree, he would call to everyone: “Look at me! I am climbing up to Heaven.” We loved the cherries, but soon the two trees were cut down to make room for a shingle splicing machine.

Approximately two kilometers from the farmhouse we had a hayfield that was Paradise to us. It was surrounded by forest land, with a small lake and a slow stream. In early spring we fished in the stream. The lake was called “Vellins,” or “Devil’s Lake,” and it was a treacherous swamp rather than a real lake. We stayed away from it, but we loved to play in the hayfield after it was mowed. We even slept on the fresh, dry hay stored in the barn that stood at the edge of the field. Fresh hay smelled good and made a comfortable bed.

Flax was part of our early history. It was the one crop that prospered in rocky soil, and that’s what we had. A slender annual with blue flowers, flax fiber is used to make linen, and the seed yields linseed oil and animal feed. In spring, its flowers covered the land with blue, weaving gently in the summer breeze as far as the eye could see. After the show came an unbelievable amount of work. We cut down the dry stalks, removed the seed pods, combed the stalks and tied them together. Then we submerged the bundles, weighted down with rocks, in the smaller pond. After the flax fermented in the water for a while, we lifted the soggy bundles with a pitchfork and spread the stalks on the ground to dry in the hot summer sun. This didn’t take long, and then we transported the whole thing to the hatch to separate fiber from stalks. I get tired even thinking about it. Nobody protested when Father gave up on this cash crop and only planted enough for the family. He changed over to crops such as turnips and potatoes that required less work and didn’t leach the soil as much as flax.

Peteris and I got to help at hay making about as soon as our stubby fingers could hold a pitchfork. We got up at dawn, which in July came soon after three in the morning. We hurried to the meadow with scythes over our shoulders, in cool twilight, our pants cuffs wet from dew. Around seven o’clock Mother would deliver breakfast to the workers. Hot food never tasted any better! The previous day’s mowing, which we had gathered into heaps on top of alder branches spread on the ground, now had to be dragged to higher ground next to the hay storage shed. We had three storage buildings besides the one next to the cattle stalls, because one barn was not enough for all the clover and hay. Actually, part of the hay was left in the meadows and brought in as needed, after the snows came. The barns were made of round pine logs, made to last forever. built long before Peteris and I arrived in the world of the farm.

To bring in the freshly mowed hay, we tied a rope around each bundle of hay and had the horse pull it to higher ground. We must do all this right after breakfast, because the heat of the day brought out the flies. The hay next to the building was then spread out to dry further. If the sky was clear, we could then take a nap. But if it looked like rain, we worked furiously to get all the hay into the barns. The meadows had to be mowed down in three or four weeks’ time, before the rye harvest. Rye did not wait—the ears lost ripe grain very fast. After rye came oats and barley, in quick succession, then winter rye and winter wheat.

In spring, we loaded onto carts all the manure accumulated in the stalls during the winter, then took it over to the fields to be scattered as fertilizer for the next crop. It was plowed under as the soil was tilled. This smelly work usually took a week. The men loaded manure onto the carts and we youngsters drove the carts out to the fields. The work was hard, but we liked it much better than tending cattle. We felt tall and grownup working along with the men.

Eventually we concentrated on cattle and pigs. We planted potatoes and turnips mostly to feed the cattle. At one point we owned ten hybrid cows and one angry bull. During the Latvian winter all domestic animals were kept in the stone building, a twelve-foot structure with meter-thick walls. Small windows on both sides let in the light. Our cat Mazers slept in the barn and kept it clean of rats. In those days, by regulation milk had to contain 4% fat. Cows that produced leaner milk went to the slaughterhouse. We also owned two good work horses and various pieces of farm machinery besides the steam thresher.

Decades later, I am still proud of Father’s progressive farming. Before the idea had become common knowledge, he put the soil, even pasture land, on a yearly rotating crop schedule. When I was still a child my father also built a horse-driven plow to aid in threshing. In 1907, Father took a huge financial risk with the purchase of a steam-powered thresher, the first such machine in our area. He ordered it from England, through a local farm machinery dealer, and its arrival was a major event in the village. A crowd gathered to see it emerge from the crate. The two of us boys, our bellies sticking out like balloons from drinking too much raw milk, stood around admiring our pride and glory. It cost over three thousand gold rubles, a sum beyond comprehension for us. Father mortgaged the farm, and us too, in a way, to buy the machine. The debt would be a major concern for our family for several years, until we sold it during World War I.


The Thresher
The Thresher, Karlis on left, young Robert leaning against the machine

This investment was not just for love of progressive farming; Father’s other agenda was to keep our brothers Janis and Osvalds on the farm, the thresher being, hopefully, enough incentive. He promoted them to official machinists, even though they initially didn’t have the faintest idea how to operate it. In the fall, the machine worked day and night, because Father rented it out to the neighboring farms. My brothers’ role was to watch the steam pressure and water level of the steam engine.

I wanted to grow up and do the same work. In my mind, the only thing comparable to machinery was music. When I became a teenager, I replaced my older brothers as machinist. Eventually, when Janis went to war and Osvalds left the farm to go to work in Russia, I got to move the thresher and steam engine from farm to farm during harvest season. We served thirty or forty farms during our best years, harvesting peas and grains. The neighboring farmers lined up to use it. There is a picture of me by the thresher, taken in 1915. I puffed up with pride when the local girls came to watch me tend the burner and monitor the steam pressure in the boiler. The thresher earned us a bunch of nicknames and the hostility of the local riffraff, who called Father “Grey Baron” and “Bible Stallion.” The young men who whiled away their days fishing on the Tirza would become cutthroat Bolsheviks and grow up to terrorize the rest of the population, working farmers like us.

When work with the steam engine began to interfere with my education, Father had second thoughts about owning it. As fate would have it, World War I broke out and soon engulfed Russia and Latvia. The government needed farm produce to feed the army, and they excused from military duty those people deemed essential to agricultural production. The Gruniers, our well-to-do relatives, had an only son, Karlis. To save him from becoming cannon fodder, they paid Father good money for the thresher.

The farm cost Osvalds his left eye. He was in charge of blasting the bigger rocks with dynamite, which was work he rather enjoyed. This work freed him from all other chores in a deal he and Father had made, in another attempt to keep him on the farm. Osvalds would order special hardened steel chisels at the local forge, a foot or more in length. He chiseled deep holes in the rocks, filled the hole with gunpowder he had mixed himself, pushed a plug into the hole, and inserted a fuse through the packing. He then lighted the fuse and ran as fast as he could. One time he hesitated, wondering if the fuse was deep enough into the gunpowder. It was. The charge exploded, blowing packing and gunpowder all over the right side of his face.

What saved Osvalds’ life was that the rock did not splinter. It split into four pieces and remained in place. If he had drilled the hole a little deeper as he had originally planned, the explosion would have smashed the rock right out of its dirt bed and blown his head off. The village doctor bandaged his eye, but infection set in. Antibiotics did not exist in those days, and I guess the eye itched a lot. Osvalds scratched his eye, so it was his fault that he lost it. But that also meant that, unlike Janis, he didn’t have to go to war, so that unfortunate accident allowed him to survive into his eighties.

Our family put all their hope on the farm. Karlis would tell us, “Boys, I have cleared the fields for plowing. Now you have to work on the meadows, and then you will have a profitable farm.” But it was not to be. World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, and a man called Vladimir Ilyich Lenin determined otherwise.

Man vs. Beast

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