No matter how small the task, farming is physically demanding and families rely heavily on producing sons to help with the work. In the absence of older boys, Ruby’s father recruited her to help with the fieldwork. She was short, strong, and had a mechanical bent. He called her his “Handy Andy” and “Grease Monkey.” The smells of grease, oil, gas, and diesel were familiar to her.

Ruby Leppke’s family farmhouse outside
Peabody, Kansas

In the blacksmith shop, she turned the forge wheels so the coals would heat and the plowshares would glow red-hot. Her father hammered the huge share until it was sharp, and could more easily cut through the prairie sod. If interviewed at that time in her life, she would have burst out bitterly, “I know more about pouring Babbitt, grinding valves, and working on radiators than making an apple pie.” 

Harvest time kept Ruby extra busy. Given her size, she could slip easily into spots where a grown man would have to squeeze. She could wiggle inside a threshing machine and hold rivets, while her father made repairs on the outside.

July temperatures easily hit 100ºF and the labor-intensive workdays extended twelve hours or more. Before the day was half through, Ruby was streaked with salty sweat, itching from bits of straw sticking to any damp skin, and uncomfortable with matted hair beneath a wide-brimmed straw hat.

Her arms, tanned from daily outdoor exposure, grew smooth and taut from pulling, climbing, and lifting. One spring, she plowed for six days straight on the orange Allis-Chalmers tractor. Her boyfriend didn’t understand the lack of attention he received, and informed her,  “My mother never does that kind of work.” The comment smacked on her already sunburnt face. She wiped her perspiring palms on her overalls and turned the tractor around.

Ruby on a tractor years later

Although Ruby resented toiling in the fields, she preferred to be outdoors than inside. She took pleasure in feeling the dirt between her fingers – and toes, driving a tractor with the rhythmic putt-putt-putt, and hearing and identifying the bird songs in the quiet of a golden wheat field. She read the sky for weather reports: stormy skies with lightening ripping across it, winds snorting, clouds swirling – or the sudden stillness where nary a tassel of corn swayed.

Even if Ruby was an outdoor girl, she longed to feel pretty and womanly. When she would go inside, covered with oil smears on her legs, she would see her sisters embroidering, crimping pastry edges, baking, and canning peaches. They were prepared to go out into the world. Ruby was not.

In that day, when girls turned age sixteen they were expected to find paying jobs outside the home, such as cleaning or cooking for wealthy people in the city, helping women who had just had a baby, and so on. When Ruby took on such jobs, she faced anxious and embarrassing moments. Her first pie was a disaster. The crust wouldn’t roll out. The meringue pooled instead of whipping into peaks.

As an adult, people would both tease and admire her ability to make or mend anything with baling wire or fishing line. Guests and family would describe her as an excellent cook, who adeptly, and without a hint of anxiety, served ten to fourteen people every Sunday noon after church. She would even cook outdoors under plastic tenting for children’s Bible camps in Alaska.

Ruby “farming” on the Gaede-80 (acre) homestead outside Soldotna, Alaska
Always a farm girl

The man she married loved the suntanned farm girl.

Farm boy, Elmer Gaede, farm girl, Ruby Leppke
Kansas farm girls make good Alaska homesteaders. Ruby followed her farm-boy-husband-turned-medical-doctor to Alaska, where she used all those childhood skills to their benefit.

To read more about the Suntanned Farm Girl, find “The Bush Doctor’s Wife,” on amazon or at http://www.prescriptionforadventure.com.