WHEN 48-YEAR-OLD JOSEPHINE Yarr returned to the family dairy farm in Chimacum in mid-1952, a few months after her brother Ned’s death, she was faced with a number of responsibilities.
Josie’s oldest sister, Isabel, had been forced to retire from teaching that same year due to Parkinson’s disease and was living at the farm with a hired housekeeper.
Josie had not been inside the dairy barn for 50 years.
Ned’s health had been declining for 10 years due to heart disease.
He had eventually sold the herd of Holstein cows and had just a small herd of what he called “scrubs” that he was tending with the help of a hired man.
A Chimacum neighbor, concerned with the conditions at the farm called Josie in Port Orchard and suggested she should come back.
In her oral history, Josie reported, “Howard Eldridge, being very good, saw the difficulty up here with Isabel sick, [the hired man] drinking around at the taverns and everything. I came home and looked over the situation, tried to supervise the hired man and got in more cows.”
Her family and neighbors did not have much confidence that she would be able to run the farm.
A man she was urged to hire to manage the farm helped her purchase more cows.
“But this man didn’t know anything about feeding.”
When the volume of milk went down, “… to save money, he took the feed away from the cows, expensive feed. You know when your cows go down in milk, the best thing to do is to give them better and more food. He came in August, and this was November. I said, ‘Well, it doesn’t seem to pay.’ … He saw that, too, and just left.”
“I struggled on for a while. Then I got a man by the name of Mr. [Harold] Craig, who was excellent. … He had been on a farm and … he was an excellent milker. He only stayed here a year when one of my neighbors came in and hired him away from me.”
She then turned to Crawford’s employment office in Seattle to send milkers.
“He was always very good with this farm because he knew us so long.”
He didn’t send any milkers he didn’t know in case they were drinkers or a threat to a household with no men in the house.
“They were all just old milkers, kind of half-worn-out. I struggled through.”
Josephine stated: “The milker is the herd. It is just like running a school without a good teacher. They know how to get the milk out of a cow.
“You have to milk them clean. You’ve got to know when their dry period comes and let them have a rest. A good milker is one of the hardest jobs that you would have to fill.”
Then there came a time when the men didn’t want to come to work at the Yarr farm because there was no pipeline to carry the milk from the barn to the big refrigerator vat.
By that time, the money in her brother’s farm account was gone, so “I had to go into my own checking account to pay for that, and I did, because I wanted to take care of Isabel here. In one of the last talks I had had with Ned, he said, ‘Be sure and look after Isabel,’ because she was getting worse fast.”
Taught herself farming
When asked how she learned all the mechanics of farming, Josie replied, “Just from my own observation. I just reasoned it out. First of all, I got rid of local hay.”
Local hay did not provide the good nutrition that alfalfa hay purchased from Eastern Washington did.
At first, she just added the alfalfa to ensilage made from local hay and found that was successful in increasing milk production.
She remarked, “The cows milked fine on that, but it took an extra man [to make the ensilage and mix in the alfalfa] that we’d have to board here and look after. I thought to myself, ‘Why not get more cows and get [only] alfalfa hay from the other side?’ Then, of course, I was branded as crazy. Anything different, they didn’t like.”
Edward McMinn, the county agricultural agent, “always encouraged me and gave me good advice. We fed the cattle well, the cattle milked very well. We had the highest production per cow in the … Dairy Herd Improvement Association.”
The farm started to turn a profit.
Josephine said, “I said that to Bill [Bishop] one day. Bill was always against getting in so much hay and paying so many big bills on hay. I said, ‘Bill, since I have gotten in the alfalfa hay, I can take my checkbook out and pay all my bills without worrying a bit.’ ”
Then they began culling the cows that didn’t come up to production standards.
“I was experimenting because, as I always say, we were fighting for our lives.
“I was one of those brought up from the year one not to go in debt for anything and not to buy anything you didn’t think you could pay for. I didn’t buy a lot of fancy machinery because there was no one here to run it.”
She felt it was cheaper to pay people who owned the equipment to do the work.
The sceptics began changing their minds.
Josephine was invited to be on the board of the Dairy Herd Improvement Associatio,n and the Yarr farm won an award for record milk production. Peak years for the farm were 1961, 1964 and 1965.
Within a few years after that, as it became harder to hire qualified milkers, and as there were more and more government regulations about milk production, Josephine began to sell off the herd.
She sold 75 of the 100 milk-producing cows at a sale in Marysville in 1968, replacing them with young Holstein heifers from the cows in the herd that were sold.
Later, after again losing another good milker, she sold the rest of the dairy herd to a farmer in Skagit County who produced milk for Dairygold and was on that company’s board.
She also sold him the farm’s base: the amount of milk a farm can produce and get paid the highest price for.
At the time, her base was 1,400 pounds per day, though the herd was producing 3,300 pounds per day.
Hers was the highest base on the Peninsula at that time. She was paid 12 cents a pound for it.
By 1974, there were no more milk cows on the farm.
Josie then tried raising beef cattle for a while.
Eventually, the high overhead costs made that unprofitable, and the farm land was leased out to other area farmers as pastureland.
While running the farm, Josephine continued to teach second or fourth grades at the Chimacum school until she retired in 1971.
Her sister Isabel lived on the farm with her until her death in 1973 at the age of 71.
Grace, who married John Neudorfer in 1928, lived nearby in Center.
When Marian “Pinky” retired from teaching in the Highline School District, she also returned to live with Josie.
The sisters enjoyed traveling together.
Josie’s obituary later stated that they had visited their father’s family in Ireland and that Josie had held a koala in Australia, ridden a camel in Egypt and visited the Taj Mahal in India.
Grace died in 1996, when she was 93, and Pinky in 2002 when she was just a few weeks short of 92.
Josie continued to live on the farm for the rest of her life.
Jeanne McMillen, a member of the Yarr family who helped organize a 100th birthday party for Josie in 2004, remarked to a Port Townsend Leader reporter, “She knows just about everyone in the county, and her memory is remarkable.”
In an email commenting on last month’s “Back When” column, McMillen also mentioned, “I remember when I was talking to Josie and I asked her why she had never married. Josie told me that she would lose her teaching job if she married, as women had to be single in order to be a teacher. She was a beautiful woman, and I was surprised when she told me that.”
Josie died Dec. 10, 2007.
McMillen said, “When she was 103, in December of 2007, I was talking to her and she told me that she wouldn’t be here for Christmas.
“She said that her ‘Poppa’ came to her and told her that he was taking her home before Christmas.
“It was true. … She was such a lively lady and a treasure to have known.”
Linnea Patrick is a historian and retired Port Townsend Public Library director.
Her Jefferson County history column, Back When, appears on the third Sunday of each month, alternating with Alice Alexander’s Clallam County history column on the first Sunday of the month.
Patrick can be reached at [email protected]. Her next column will appear Feb. 19.