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A Harvest of Farmhouse Memories

Freda Cohen of San Diego has retrieved from an old family trunk, along with beaded dresses and other mementoes, a document that brings back poignantly her childhood in the Depression on a Michigan farm.

It is a copy of a chattel mortgage securing a loan of $180 from the Personal Finance Co. of Flint, Mich., and it is signed by her grandparents, Max and Minnie Mosko.

In the 1930s Ms. Cohen lived with her grandparents on a farm in Fenton, a farm community near Flint. Those were hard times in the Middle West, but Ms. Cohen had no knowledge of the note, and no recollection that her grandparents had pledged all their worldly goods for only $180.

Evidently everything they owned was mortgaged. Each article of their furniture is entered on the form, which they signed, along with a good faith affidavit. Their wages, whatever they may have been, were also pledged as a guarantee of payment.

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The note was to be paid back at $6 a month at 2 1/2% interest. Hardly usurious.

One can envision the plain Mosko living room from the listed furniture. There was one walnut and cane straight chair, one buffet mirror with metal frame, one two-piece brown mohair living room set, one Woodward piano and one Victor Victrola.

The piano may seem like an extravagance, but in those days, before music became electronic, every household provided a piano so the girls in the family could learn to play and achieve social desirability. One of my first dates was a girl who invited me to her house, where we were chaperoned by her mother, which was hardly necessary considering my innocence, while she made taffy and then entertained me by playing the piano.

As for the Victrola, I would say that it was not as ubiquitous as television is today; it was a relatively expensive item; but any family who pretended to culture, especially European culture, had one. It was on our windup Victrola that I first became acquainted with Caruso and Galli-Curci, and heard that most thrilling of all vocal pieces, the quartet from “Rigoletto.” Many times in later life I was grateful for that exposure to classical music, as scratchy as it may have been.

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My wife’s family, frugal as they were, had a Victrola, too, and I have always suspected that our common introduction to opera on records accounted for our instant compatibility.

The Moskos also declared one blue Axminster rug, one Florence hot blast heater, one walnut buffet, six walnut chairs, one 9x12 lavender Axminster rug and one square walnut extension table with a two-leg pedestal base. Their dining room.

The list also includes an ice box-- ice box having gone out of the language. Ice boxes were what we had before refrigerators came along. The ice man came by in a truck and delivered 25 pounds of ice every day or two, and that was modern refrigeration.

The bedroom furnishings are similarly described in detail, and then we come to another item that no well-furnished house was without. One Singer sewing machine. It was undoubtedly a machine that was operated by foot pedals--the kind of machine my mother had and my wife learned to sew on, as a girl.

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The Moskos also pledged their animals. Three Guernsey reddish brown cows, one Guernsey and Jersey cow, one black mixed cow, two Jersey yearling cows, one sorrel gelding horse, 12 years old, named Top; one bay gelding horse named Ted, 14 years. (It is interesting to note that chattel and cattle were originally the same word, meaning property.)

As the saying goes, the Moskos had mortgaged the farm.

Since Ms. Cohen never knew of this loan, she does not know whether it was paid off, or whether the finance company foreclosed and took possession of all these belongings.

To me, the Moskos sound like very responsible people, and I believe that they managed to pay off their mortgage, at $6 a month, plus 2 1/2%, and that they remained in possession of their piano and the Victrola and their cows.

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From what I read in the paper, small farmers aren’t having it that good today, and the interest rates are higher.


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