VanHaren: Farm magazines were a part of learning to read

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Roger Van Haren

I started thinking the other day about what kind of stuff I read when I was a kid, because I saw an item on the internet about the value of having reading materials in the home if kids are to grow up reading.
Well, when I was a kid — I’ve said this before — we were basically “poor.” I’ve said this before, too; I didn’t really know we were poor at the time, but we were! We were like a lot of other farm families at the time. We kind of lived off the land. We never went hungry, but we didn’t have much money.
So, as far as I can remember, the stuff we had to read in our house, except for some Little Big Books, was basically farm magazines. And two in particular stick out in my memory — “The Farm Journal” and “The Country Gentleman.” We also got “The Wisconsin Agriculturist,” but I didn’t spend much time with that one because it was basically management information for farmers and had a lot of stuff about cattle diseases like mastitis, anthrax, tuberculosis and brucellosis. It also contained information about animal welfare, food safety and poultry, sheep and swine problems. My dad was always interested in becoming a well-informed, self-educated farmer, but I wasn’t.
“The Farm Journal” (and this may still be true) contained articles on farm and home economics, with subjects such as agriculture, livestock, gardening, needlework arts and dress. I wasn’t very interested in some of those topics either, but my mom and sister were. But “The Farm Journal” always had a humor page, and I was definitely interested in that. I could always enjoy a new joke, even though some of them were pretty corny. (I suppose that’s OK in a farm magazine, huh?)
But “The Country Gentleman” was different. Although I think it was originally intended to be a farming and rural magazine, it evolved into something more than that. It ran poetry and excerpts from novels. At some point, it was taken over by the same publishing company that produced the “Saturday Evening Post,” and it even looked a little like the SEP. It was the same size. It had great cover art — not Norman Rockwell, but good stuff. Fiction became a regular feature of the magazine.
“The Country Gentleman” was where I first read Zane Grey novels. Those great Western stories were serialized in the magazine, and I could hardly wait for the next month’s issue. My dad loved those Zane Grey stories, too, and we could talk about them as we went about our chores. And it also had a pretty decent humor page and good cartoons. It was a much more “sophisticated” farm magazine.
Then, sometime when I was in high school, “The Farm Journal” bought out “The Country Gentleman” and it became “Farm Journal and Country Gentleman” or “Better Farming” or something, and they changed the format and made it a smaller magazine — like the size of “Time” or “Newsweek,” and I never liked it as much after that. But by that time, I was reading other stuff — real literature from my classes in school…and “MAD Magazine”!
But those farm magazines – and Montgomery Ward catalogues – were the things that got me reading, and the habit stuck. I read almost every day of my life now. I sometimes have two books going at a time, one in the bathroom(!) and one in the living room.
I wonder if those magazines still exist and if farm kids cut their reading teeth on them like I did. I think I’ll go to the library and see if they have them, just for old time’s sake! I don’t want to read about mastitis and cattle grubs or mad cow disease, but I’d like to revisit Zane Grey and check the humor pages. Can always use a new joke!