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Feed Dresses

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Once a month, a big truck arrived at the farm in Grundy County, Iowa, where writer Lawn Griffiths was growing up in the 1960s. It was from Big Gain Feeds from West Union. In his book, Batting Rocks Over the Barn: An Iowa Farm Boy’s Odyssey, Griffiths tells how important the specialized livestock feeds were for the hogs, cattle, and chickens on the farm. They provided the essential nutrients for better health of the farm animals.

The truck’s driver would back up to the granary and the driver—along with one of the Griffiths—carried the sacks from the truck to one of the three bins in that feed shed. The mineral to be mixed with chicken feed especially gave off its own pungent odor. The 50-pound bags were made of paper, with the top stitched like a bag of barbeque bricks to unravel if the right string was tugged to unzip the bag.

Sometime during the month, the Big Gain salesman stopped by their farm on his rounds to find out what their livestock feed needs were and to arrange for the order to be reported to the offices in West Union. He often brought freebies (boxes of matchbooks, 4″ x 7″ paper notebook pads, or thermometers)—all sporting the words “Big Gain Feeds,” the phone number, and the address, “West Union, Iowa 52175.” The Griffiths were so inundated with matches that they could never use them up.

When he was about five and living with his family on his uncle’s farm north of Des Moines, Griffiths recalled some livestock feeds came in patterned cloth. The back seat was removed from the Pontiac, and sacks of chicken feed were stacked there. The sack was made out of dress-print cotton cloth in all patterns and colors.

There had been a postwar shortage of clothing material, so feed companies saw an opportunity to promote sales of livestock feed by packaging them in eye-catching and reusable textiles. Lawn Griffiths’s mother, Doris, and his Aunt Lillian were eager to get the mash emptied and the sacks’ loose stitching removed so they could use the approximately one square yard of fabric to make something.

Aunt Lillian prided herself in turning every cloth feed sack into dresses, jumpers, and shirts. Doris created aprons and bed covers with the feed sacks that she was able to lay her hands on.

Feed companies actually began selling livestock feeds in design bags in the 1920s and recognized the demand. At first, sacks had to be soaked with a substance to bleach out company logos, but later only pasted-on logos were used to make it easier for removal.

Farmers sometimes had to take their wives and daughters to the feed store to pick out the sacks with patterns most desirable.

Lawn Griffiths’s book, Batting Rocks over the Barn, details more of his experiences in his youth. Connect with him on his accounts on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

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