Sunday, January 25, 2009

Blizzard Memories

It began with a few flakes of snow striking the windows on the country school as my brothers and I and fellow schoolmates sat at our desks, trying to pay attention to schoolwork and waiting for noon and chance to play outside.

By eleven, the northwest wind had picked up and began rattling the windows and causing the rusty wood-burning stove in the back of the schoolroom to send an occasional puff of smoke into the building. Scattered snowflake had turned into a wall of snow, flying on the wind, and accumulating on the windows.

No playing outside today our teacher, Miss Thompson told us. After eating our lunches from our dinner pails, most of us gathered at the tall, snow covered windows and watched the storm growing in intensity and wondered about our walk home that afternoon.

By two o’clock, the first fathers began arriving to walk their children home, bursting into the school room with a shower of snow, pounding their hands together to warm them by the stove, before bundling up their offspring and disappearing into the storm.

One after the other they came, each following the same ritual, each with words about the storm and its fury. Pa finally arrived, and my two brothers and I set out behind him, walking up Miller’s hill on our way toward home, trying to step in his tracks, trying not to lose sight of him in the swirling snow. Past Miller’s farm, finally, with only a half-mile more to go, stumbling behind Pa, first me, then Darrel, then short-legged Donald trying to keep up in the rear. We stopped to rest on occasion, out of the wind behind huge snow banks piled up alongside the road from previous snowstorms, while the snow sifted over our heads.

Then it was back into the storm, into the worst of it, facing it head on, marching on toward home, one step at a time. Finally, when it seemed we were too tired to move another foot, we glimpsed our red barn through the snow, and then our house. We burst into the kitchen, snow flying everywhere as four snowmen emerged from the storm to the smell of vegetable soup steaming on the kitchen wood stove.

It was back to school the next day, even though the storm drifted shut the road. Our school never closed, not once in the eight years I attended.

THE OLD TIMER SAYS: Enjoy a bowl of homemade vegetable soup.


January 30, Viroqua Public Schools. One room-schools early farm life.

February 24, 4:30 p.m. Demeter Winter Event, West Madison Agriculture Research Facility. Farms, Barns, Your Stories and Mine.

March 2, Neenah Public Library, 2:00 p.m. Barns of Wisconsin

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Blue Shadows Farm

I learned last week that my newest book of historical fiction will be published by the University of Wisconsin Press in August of this year. It is my third novel in the Ames County Series, which so far includes THE TRAVELS OF INCREASE JOSEPH and IN A PICKLE. In these novels, I examine how history has influenced family farms and the direction for agriculture in the heartland of this country.

The new book is described this way:

BLUE SHADOWS FARM follows the intriguing family story of three generations on a Wisconsin farm. It begins as Silas Starkweather, a Civil War Veteran, is lured to Wisconsin and homesteads 160 acres in Ames County. Mysteriously, his first interest is not farming. He quickly becomes known as a peculiar man who is forever digging holes and putting up new fences.

Through years of hardship and tragedy, Silas discovers a respect for his community and a love of his land. His son Abe, an alcoholic, continues to live on the farm during Prohibition and the Depression. Abe doesn’t inherit his father’s love for their land, but continues farming out of economic necessity.

Abe’s daughter Emma, a contemporary character, has remained and cared for the land, fences and buildings. She shares her farm with school children and families who also appreciate and respect this place. Emma is faced with a difficult decision, she must sell the family farm, but to whom? A for-profit educational organization is interested in buying. Within a controversy that disrupts the entire community, Emma looks to her past to make decisions for the future of Blue Shadows Farm.

THE OLD TIMER SAYS: When you think you have gotten something about right, consider that as the starting place for making it much better.

January 19, 6:00 PM, Portage (Columbia County) Historical Society dinner, Old Farm featured. Call 608-742-1445 for further information.

January 30, Viroqua Public Schools.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Winter in 1915

Several people responded to my request for winter prose or poetry. I received the following from Jean Sweet of Madison, WI. Jean shared excerpts from letters her mother, Marian wrote in 1915 to her Arizona family. At the time Marian was a 4th grade teacher in Plymouth, Wisconsin and lived in a boarding house with other teachers. Otto Holzschuh and his parents lived a block from the school. He and his father operated a livery stable, which was next door to their home. As they said in those days, Otto was sweet on the school marm.

Jan 28, 1915: "I have promised to go sleighing with the Priscillas (a women's group) but think it is too cold now for sleighing. After supper:--We are not going sleighing. It is too cold and too many people have colds. I think I would have backed out it is so cold, to load up in a sleigh. A cutter would be bad enough."

Tues. Eve. Feb. 23: "I went to Sheboygan with Otto Sat. We left on the 4:58 car. (There was interurban service between Plymouth and Sheboygan.) Otto took a suit back that he had had made. It wrinkled a little in one place and he took it back to be fixed. He is a regular old maid when it comes to clothes. We went to the nicest restaurant in town. Had beef steak, rare, and onions, a movie, and then home on the 9:00 car."......We had a fine ride Sun. in the slush. Wish you could have been with us. The snow is going fast. It rained yesterday and today. You should have seen the rivers."

[On Nov. 2, 1915 Otto and Marian were married, and eventually had three children, Jean was the youngest born in 1925]

. "Dec 17, 1915 "Since I wrote you last we have had snow. It snowed all day last Sunday. Otto and I took our first cutter ride. (Black team & sleigh bells). Tues. PM I took one of the black teams and a yellow cutter and Mae Lowe and I rode around town until we were very nearly frozen. Then she came home with me and we sat in front of the coal stove and toasted and drank tea.......Otto is riding on a hearse this PM here in town. There is a funeral Sat., also Sun. They have a man figuring on an auto hearse now. They want to get one before someone else gets in ahead. They are going to get two Fords for the livery, too. More expense."

After reading what my brother wrote last week, several people wondered if Wild Rose in winter was to his liking. He may complain, but he tells me he enjoys all the seasons, winter included.

THE OLD TIMER SAYS: There is a difference between understanding and knowing. Understanding involves the mind; knowing requires the mind, plus the heart and the soul.


January 14, 9:00 AM, WTMJ 4 TV, Milwaukee. Old Farm featured.

January 19, 6:00 PM, Portage (Columbia County) Historical Society dinner, Old Farm featured. Call 608-742-1445 for further information.

January 30, Viroqua Public Schools.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Winter Willies

During these dark and dreary days of January in the north, people often take to wood carving, or painting, or quilting, or in some instances, writing.

My brother Darrel, a long time resident of New Jersey where he worked as a horticulturist and plant breeder returned to our home town of Wild Rose a year ago. Last week, in a brief moment between snowstorms he found a piece of paper and a pencil and scribbled the following (I include only a portion of his rendering). He gave me permission to include his words here

Ain’t Nobody Knows-Wild Rose
Darrel Apps

Do you think it is unkind to suppose
That our village was not meant for a rose
From December to April, frigid winds blow
Without fail tender plants succumb to the snow
Why anyone lives here ain’t nobody knows!

January and February in Wisconsin are no joke
It’s even colder than stories told by some old folk
Brutal cold spells slide cruelly from the north
As tales are told and retold back and forth
Why anyone lives here ain’t nobody knows!

Winter leaves late with the roar of a lion
While snow melts slowly no one is crying
Four months of winter is one long time
Even Easter can be less than sublime
Why anyone lives here ain’t nobody knows!

Anybody got a paragraph, or two about winter, or a short poem to share? Does not have to be a good poem (although there is some question these days about what is and what is not good poetry). Does not have to be a great piece of prose either, just something that is heartfelt, and will take away a little of the winter willies.

The Old Timer Says: Write it down, you will feel better.

Upcoming Events:

January 14, 9:00 AM, WTMJ 4 TV, Milwaukee. Old Farm featured.

January 19, 6:00 PM, Portage (Columbia County) Historical Society dinner, Old Farm featured. Call 608-742-1445 for further information.

January 30, Viroqua Public Schools.