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Memories of Growing Up on a Wisconsin Dairy Farm

In 2005, I wrote my life story which I entitled 
"RIGHT TIME ... RIGHT PLACE,  Memories of Growing Up on a Wisconsin Dairy Farm."  
It was intended for my family and siblings, as a collection of memoirs and life lessons learned. 
Some from my generation may find it interesting.  
At the present time, I have posted below eight chapters of general interest. 


Right Time…Right Place!

Memories of Growing Up on a Wisconsin Dairy Farm

by John Rivard



The world may be replete with people who feel that they have lived at just the right time and place in history. If so, count me among them.

I was born soon enough to witness many hardships, lucky enough to escape serving in military conflict, fortunate enough to benefit from the great economy of our nation, and late enough to be kept alive by modern medicine. I remember WWII and ration books. I witnessed the optimism and growth of the 1950’s, clouded by the concerns of the cold war. I was in the generation that discovered Elvis. I had the opportunity to work my way through college, and joined the workforce at the height of demand for engineering degrees. I fell in love, raised a family with my wife, and had a successful career. I have benefited from medical advances that correct plugged arteries and detect prostate cancer early enough to cure.

But it is my early life that makes me what I am.

This book is a collection of remembrances about being raised on a small and struggling dairy farm in post-WWII Wisconsin, on the shores of a beautiful lake. Each chapter is freestanding so that the collection can be read one article at a time or in its entirety. The stories portray events, customs or recollections that have been important to my life, gleaned with hindsight to understand why they were important.

Writing these memories has been a joy for me. Yet this collection suffers from at least two faults. First, it is egocentric, viewing the entire story only through my own eyes and experiences, to the exclusion of my siblings. They deserve better representation, but I can’t write their memories, only mine. Second, it is colored rosy-red by a selective memory that emphasizes the best, and minimizes the worst. I acknowledge both these faults. But I can’t correct the first, and don’t want to correct the second.

I hope that my family finds this collection of value. For those who shared the experiences, I hope you find them reasonably accurate.  For me, it was the right time…and the right place.

John Rivard,    April 2005



The entire contents of Right Time...Right Place are listed here.  Only selected chapters are currently posted.

Section 1:  The Farm

     1.  Founding the Farm

     2.  The Setting

     3.  The Chores

     4.  The Garden

     5.  Birds and Wildlife

     6.  Making Hay

     7.  What Are We Doing Today?

     8.  Clearing the Pasture

     9.  Hiring Out

     10. Watching the Clock

Section 2:  The Lake

     11.  Sunsets

     12.  The Sounds of the Setting
     13.  Sandy Point
     14.  Fishing
     15.  Lakeshore Pastimes and Other Stories
     16.  Summer Storms
     17.  Winter Fun
     18.  Changes in the Lake (changes in me)

Section 3:  Family Affairs

     19.  Daily Meals
     20.  Holiday Specials
     21.  The Toboggan
     22.  Faith in Our Family

 Section 4:  The Community

     23.  Horseshoe Lake School
     24.  Community Club
     25.  Threshing
     26.  The Party Line
     27.  4-H Club
     28.  Characters



Nowhere does the promise and glory of Christmas shine brighter than in the faces of children, performing for their parents and family in the traditional school Christmas pageant. A recent opportunity to watch our grandchildren proudly perform the story of Jesus’ birth took me back to my early childhood years in rural Wisconsin, during the war years of the 1940’s.

Our Christmas pageants played out in the one-room rural schoolhouse that was at once a model of learning efficiency and a community center for the hard-working dairy farming families struggling to improve their lives. It was in this setting that we experienced all the childhood excitement of Christmas, while learning music, acting, team effort, success, failure, and the importance of hard work. We learned by accomplishment, and through that accomplishment earned - yes, earned - self-respect. In looking back, there is no better example of a learning institution than the one-room country school, and no better way to tell its story than through the magic of the Christmas Program.

But first, to set the stage. It’s 1945 and the United States is just beginning to emerge from the horrible insecurity and deprivations of World War II. Many have lost family or friends in the struggle to survive as a nation. On the home front, deprivation and ration books have been a way of life. The farms are electrified, but many are still without an indoor bathroom or a bathtub. Heat for the cold Wisconsin winters comes from wood-burning stoves in the kitchen and perhaps one other room. Bedrooms are cold, and the kids dress standing next to the stove. Farm equipment is old, teams of horses still used by many, and new cars and tractors are still several years away for most. But the war has been won, and the nation is optimistic. Patriotism is in, built on a solid foundation of sacrifice. Families are strong, divorce is not an option, and doctors still make house calls. And Christ is still in Christmas.

But so is Santa Claus! And the Christmas Program at our one-room school will celebrate the birth of Christ and the secular Christmas. This was not an easy line to walk in a community of mixed Protestants and Catholics, where post-reformation religious animosities were still very strong and ecumenism was 15 years away. But with the common goal of educating their children, the farming families were pulled together into the center of their community - the one room schoolhouse.

The one-room schoolhouses that dotted the countryside created communities with the school itself acting as a unifying force and magnet. District boundaries usually extended several miles from the centrally-located school to equalize walking distances. (Yes, we walked the several miles to the school, except during Spring and Fall when we traded winter’s overshoes for second-hand bicycles that sprouted wings beneath our feet.) The school buildings varied in size and structure, but were large enough to accommodate a typical enrollment of about 15-30 pupils, spread out in two’s and three’s over the eight grades. Our School at Horseshoe Lake was a well-constructed masonry building, built high enough above ground to allow windows for natural lighting in the basement, where winter and rainy day recess was often held. The main floor, about six feet above grade, was accessed by the covered front steps, which were in turn flanked by the flagpole where the 48-star flag was raised and lowered daily. The main floor held the single classroom, the boys and girls cloakroom (for the heavy winter clothing, overshoes and lunch pails) and a very small supply room (which also held the wall-mounted, party-line, hand-crank telephone).

The classroom itself was a single, high ceiling room with eight (or was it ten?) overhead light "globes" hanging by chains over the six rows of desks, which were graduated by size. The 1st and 2nd grade desks were on the left side of the room, near the continuous row of very large two-paned windows that provided light from the east and north sides of the building. The larger desks for the 7th and 8th grade were on the right side of the room, with intermediate grades in between. The traditional pictures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln stood silent watch over the learning process, just as they had over earlier and mysterious generations of pupils. The desks bore many of their names, "engraved" by many hours of tracing into the hardwood cherry desktops. These "autographed" desks themselves became a history book, open to be read, but never telling enough, except that others had been there before us. While we recognized some of the names, for the most part we could only imagine who they were, where they were now, and wonder about their thoughts while sitting in the same desk. I didn’t realize it until much later, but these desks were our introduction to history.

In the front of the room was the teacher’s desk, angled into one corner to provide maximum space for the blackboards that spanned the south wall. The set of "rolled" Rand McNally maps occupied the center of the wall, mounted above the blackboard. Like a set of spring-mounted window shades, the maps could be pulled down for geography lessons, and then released to roll back up. The teacher’s pointer - equipped with a small hook at the blunt end - was used to reach the pull rings for the uppermost map rolls.

The teacher "held class" for the younger grades in the front of the room, in small chairs semi-circled near her desk. Older classes were held at a table in the back of the room. School began at 8:30 (allowing the boys to assist with the morning "chores" of milking and feeding the dairy cattle) and was done at 4 p.m. With two 15-minute recesses and lunch, this allowed about six hours for instruction. Four subjects - reading, arithmetic, social studies and science - were taught to each of the grades. Phonics reigned supreme (and still should). Reading became English and literature for the older grades. Music and art found their way into the curriculum, as appropriate for the grade level. Arithmetic ranged from telling time and counting through multiplication, long division, fractions and decimals. While one group was "in class," the other grades did assigned work, read library books, painted with water colors, made dinosaurs, snakes or pottery with modeling clay, browsed National Geographic magazines, or day-dreamed. Even allowing for doubling up some classes (two grades at once), class length was only about 20 minutes. Precious little time. And yet it worked!

Because the teacher made it work! Our teacher was Mrs. Levings, a middle-aged "outsider" (from 35 miles away!), who resided throughout the school year in a trailer house on the school grounds. Although governed by a three-member school board of local farmers and reporting to a county-wide Superintendent of Schools, the teacher in a one-room school was totally responsible and accountable for what we learned, being principal, teacher of all subjects, school nurse, playground supervisor, and janitor. Ours did her job well. One of the things she did best was the Christmas Program.

The Christmas Program, presented on the Friday night which marked the beginning of the two-week Christmas vacation, was a two-hour pageant of songs and short plays, involving each and every student, played to a full house of parents, family, and Horseshoe Lake faithful. It was the culmination of many weeks of preparation, rehearsal, decorating and excitement. It was - in a few words - wonder-filled!

Traditional Christmas music, performed by the entire student body (usually about 20 at Horseshoe Lake), was the mainstay, with smaller groups performing selected pieces. "Here Comes Santa Claus." "Up on the Housetop." "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." ("Rudolph" wasn’t born until 1947). "Away in a Manger." "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." "O Come All Ye Faithful." "O Little Town of Bethlehem." "Joy to the World." "Silent Night." All these, and many more, from the venerable and aging copies of "The Golden Song Book" which served as our music resource and text. Accompaniment was provided by Mrs. Levings (or by our Mom) on the aging upright piano, slightly out of tune. Some selections were done a cappella, particularly "Away In A Manger," sung by the youngest children.

In between the songs, short plays were presented, with a mixed cast of 1st to 8th grade students. Lines to be learned. Rehearsals. Stage fright! Entrances and exits.  And the excitement of "the stage." Up from the recesses of the basement storeroom came the stage platforms and the boxes of dark blue curtains that magically transformed the front of the classroom into our Carnegie Hall. The stage platform, of uncertain antiquity and origin (we just took it for granted, as children do), elevated the players about 18 inches, while the wire suspended curtains provided back and side drops, complete with painted stars. Off to the left of the stage we placed the 10-11 foot Christmas tree, fresh cut from nearby "woods" by older boys, and trimmed during school hours by the 7th and 8th graders. (As 8thgraders, my friend and 8-year classmate Jack and I would spend an unforgettable day trimming the tree with the help of Mrs. Levings’ attractive daughter Patty, then about 18 years old and wearing a blouse that provided a unique perspective on life and things to come when viewed from the stepladder!)

In the weeks before Christmas, each of the dozen or so windows were transformed into winter scenes by eager young artists using water-based paints directly on the lower window pane. Painted during daylight school hours with backlighting, we were always surprised by how different our creations looked at night.  In addition to practicing the songs, rehearsing our plays, painting winter scenes on the windows, and trimming the Christmas tree, preparations also included hanging the crepe paper streamers between the overhead light fixtures. This was definitely a job for the "big" 7th and 8th grade boys, involving the biggest stepladders. The double roll of twisted crepe paper streamers were suspended between the light fixture support chains, and then draped with tinsel icicles. In doing this, it was important to re-use the icicles from years past, placing them one-by-one over the twisted crepe paper streamer, replacing only a small portion of the icicle supply each year. (It strikes me now that recycling would not be necessary if we "used it up or wore it out" as we did in this earlier era.)

When all the preparations were finished, the effect on the classroom was wondrous to behold, at least in the eyes of a rural six year old as yet unspoiled by television. And what 3rd or 4th grader didn’t aspire to the roles of responsibility vested in the 7th and 8th graders, secretly yearning for the time when they could earn the right to help Mrs. Levings in all these preparations?

On the day before the Program, with all the pieces coming together, the excitement was almost too much to bear. The stage and curtains (temporarily suspending all math sessions at the blackboard)! The Christmas tree! The painted winter scenes on the windows! The decorated streamers connecting the lights! The rehearsals, with the frustrations of memorizing (and forgetting) lines and learning entrances and exits! The exhilaration of accomplishment, tempered by the inevitable tears from someone struggling with their lines! The careful balancing act as Mrs. Levings tried to protect the belief in Santa Claus, still intact in some of the 1st or 2nd grade students. And with all this activity, about half of the regular classes were still held, even during the last few days of preparation.

Finally, the day of the Program arrived, and school was dismissed several hours early. Mrs. Levings always said it was to allow the kids and their families to do the evening chores early, get cleaned up and be back in time for the Program. While that was part of it, I now realize that she also needed time to pull it all together, and make her own final preparations. After all, in addition to being producer, director, and M.C., Mrs. Levings was also "on show" to the community, although we were too young and too excited to think about such adult things.

On pins and needles through supper and evening chores, my sister Rose (one year older) and I simply couldn’t believe that it was finally here. The great day of the Christmas Program, now only hours away! And our family shared the excitement, with talk at the supper table about the program, the roles we had, and which adult would play Santa Claus this year? Finally, with chores done and our clothes changed, we bundled into our winter coats and overshoes, and got into the gray ’36 ford sedan (with its mechanical brakes, prone to "freezing up" in the Wisconsin winters) for the short, cold trip to the school. Dad driving, Mom holding baby brother Bill on her lap, sister Rose and I in the back, looking at each other with excitement and disbelief! Could this be it? Was the Christmas Program finally here? Would we remember our lines?

The tires made crunching sounds in the snow-covered gravel road. The stars in the clear cold sky shone with a brightness that promised great things, perhaps even as they had shone on the shepherds watching their flocks. Rose and I would look out the window, knowing that Santa Claus was not real, yet ever hopeful that we might see something in the sky, because the magic of Christmas makes anything possible!

And then we were in the school, outer garments heaped in piles in the boy’s and girls cloakrooms, adults wedged into small desks, or seated on the available chairs, or standing in the back. A full house, packed with excitement and anticipation.  The rest seems like a blur. The welcoming remarks by Mrs. Levings. The opening songs, with the "full choir" marching on and off the stage from the "wings" stage left. The stage fright during the first short play, with Mrs. Levings prompting forgotten lines from off stage, while reassuring each and every player before they entered the stage. The excitement of looking out into the sea of faces, and finding the approving faces of family. And the feeling of accomplishment - real, solid accomplishment! We were somebody!

When the program was over, it was time for Santa. Sure enough, not long after the final applause and closing remarks by Mrs. Levings, a commotion would begin outside, and Santa would appear, with a bag of gifts. The gifts were brown paper lunch sacks, each containing the mandatory orange and apple, brightly colored hard "ribbon" candy seen only during Christmas, some peanuts, and perhaps a walnut. As a child I never questioned who made up these sacks, and to this day it remains a mystery. The big question always was "who is playing Santa this year?" This was usually solved by looking around for the usual suspects, with the person not present being the likely candidate. Most often it was "Mibs" Hellje , local farmer and school board member.

Santa stayed only briefly (busy season, you know). After Santa left we would run outside to burst loose with excitement in the cold night air, while our parents were congratulating Mrs. Levings or discussing the Program. And then it was over! Except for the trip home, and the exhilaration of discussing it all with our parents. Who had done well? Who forgot their lines? How did we cover up the mistakes? Did they like it?

More than sixty years have passed since these events, but time has not diminished their importance. In this one-room country school we received our basic education. But we also learned acting, singing, art, success, failure and the importance of hard work, perhaps much better than these things are taught today. Through the Christmas Program we learned about team effort, with younger children emulating the older ones and older children helping the younger. We learned the great pride and satisfaction of accomplishment. We grew in self-respect. After all, we were somebody!  It was a Christmas present that keeps on giving.



Man is a social animal, and the need to gather always finds a way.  Churches, taverns and fraternal organizations serve such purposes.  A selection process is at work in these gathering places: all the same faith; the familiar faces at the tavern; the like-minded persons at the lodge.  In the rural Wisconsin community where I was raised, the common element was geography.  We were “neighbors” and the one-room country schoolhouses established these neighborhoods. 

Until their demise in the mid-50’s, the one-room elementary schools that dotted rural Wisconsin were a social center.  In a sense, the schoolhouses were the community “magnets.”  From September through May they were the Monday thru Friday learning place for 15-30 students from the surrounding farms, providing education for grades 1-8.  Governed by an elected school board of parent farmers, the schools also served as a surrogate “town hall” and polling place.  While nearby villages (in our case Turtle Lake) were the actual social centers with high schools, churches, taverns and stores, the rural schoolhouses helped identify the local community.  Ours was the “Horseshoe Lake” school.  It was also the setting for a unique social phenomenon known as “The Horseshoe Lake Community Club.”

I don’t know when or how the Horseshoe Lake Community Club was established, but it was operating when the Rivard family moved onto the farm in 1941.  At a time when gas was rationed, discretional spending unheard of, and TV not yet invented, the Community Club offered a local social activity that brought the community together. The Club met monthly at the Horseshoe Lake School during the school year, Friday evenings after “the chores,” from about 8:30-10:30 p.m.  It was the standing social event for the community.

The format was simple.  Families arrived at the schoolhouse at the appointed date and time, parking their late 30s or early 40s cars on the gravel and grass of the driveway and surrounding playground.  In winter months the heavy outer clothing was heaped in the girls and boys “cloak rooms” that flanked the entry door to the schoolroom, on either side of the small hallway that also held the rope leading to the bell tower.  Those on the Refreshments Committee brought in their offerings, setting them on a back table until it was time.  Greetings and small group conversation followed until it was time to begin the meeting. 

Yes, there was a business meeting, conducted by an elected officer.  These meetings were an introduction to parliamentary procedure, imperfectly followed.  I suppose there were by-laws, or perhaps the meetings were conducted as if there were bylaws[1].  In any event, there were officers (President, Secretary, Treasurer).  I suppose there were some nominal dues to cover miscellaneous costs (refreshments, get-well cards), because I remember listening to a Treasurer’s report (balance usually less than $5). 

The business meeting

The evening’s agenda included the business meeting, announcements, entertainment and refreshments.  The “business” of the Horseshoe Lake Community Club was limited, because its business was to hold a neighborhood gathering!  The business meeting usually lasted 15-20 minutes, consisting of reports by the President, the Secretary (minutes of previous meeting) and the Treasurer.  There was always a call for “old business” and then “new business.”  Announcements were invited and usually consisted of reminders of upcoming events of community interest, like elections and meetings of the Homemaker’s or the Horseshoe Lake Improvement Association.

Elections of officers occurred once per year.  This was always a semi-comical event, because of the difficulty of inducing people to serve.  As in any volunteer organization, it was a constant struggle to find new people to take these roles.  The whole process was punctuated with nervous laughter as people jockeyed to avoid being nominated.  In the end, group opinion would begin to zero in on a mix of experienced and new officers.  These individuals finally succumbed to a mix of peer pressure, cajoling, and sense of responsibility.  Someone always said something along the lines of, “O.K., I’ll agree to be President, but only if you help me out on parliamentary procedure.”  The actual voting was always perfunctory; those who agreed to serve were elected by acclamation! One could sense the collective sigh of relief as the process was completed for another year.  

While the Horseshoe Lake Community Club was social in nature, it was occasionally used as a forum for community improvement.  For example, guided by my mother and a neighboring friend, the Community Club was the launching pad about 1947 for starting “The Lucky Horseshoe 4-H Club” for the area youth.


The business gave way to the entertainment for the evening, arranged by persons who had agreed to serve on the Entertainment Committee.  The entertainment varied in nature, but included music, informative presentations, or games. 

Musical entertainment was performed by locals with varying degrees of talent.  M. B. Hellje on the banjo, with his trademark song, “Who stole the lock from the chicken house door?”  Violet Henck on the accordion.  The youthful Rivard children singing (under duress) accompanied by their mother on the piano [2].  Ray Rivard and Dan Andreas in a duet (tenor and bass), both with good voices.  An occasional guest singer from outside the community (a nephew or cousin from a nearby town) performing their favorite selections.  Group singing was done on occasion, passing out copies of the well-worn “Golden Song Book” from their resting spot in the piano bench. [3]  Brother Bill recalls Art Yousten of Almena bringing in his Boy Scout Indian Dancers and “Ole” Pederson (High School Vocational Agriculture teacher) and wife Bea with 35 mm slides of their trip to the Rose Bowl.  The informative programs could be lightweight, or substantial.  Some of the memorable programs included a presentation about 4-H Clubs in the County, a presentation about being a game warden by two actual game wardens (career day?), and appearances by the county law enforcement officer Merle Beedle.  Representatives from the County Extension office sometimes appeared to talk about the programs and services available through their office. The one game sometimes played was Bunco (a dice game played in two-person teams with winning teams moving up the tables and losers moving down).  Yes folks, actual winners and losers, openly displayed right there in public [4].  And fun because of it!  It was a great game for mixed ages and abilities, because success all hinged on the roll of the dice, not on skill.  Kids and the aging were equal to the sharpest adult. When the entertainment was complete, it was time for refreshments and more socializing.  The refreshments included something to drink, and light snacks like sandwiches.  Don’t forget the Jell-O!  Always Jell-O.  Usually plain, but sometimes with fruit cocktail in it.  We were living in tall corn if the Jell-O was topped with whipped cream!


Who attended the Horseshoe Lake Community Club?  First, it was a family affair, including kids up through 8thgrade.  The core constituency tended to be those families with students currently in the Horseshoe Lake School, although some such families did not attend.  A few bachelor farmers usually attended, as did some couples whose children had moved up and out of high school.  Typical attendance was about 25-40, with people jammed into the small desks, sitting at the two tables or on the black-enameled metal folding chairs brought out for the purpose, or standing in the back of the room.  The meeting provided an opportunity for the neighbors to meet each other.  For us kids, it was an opportunity to observe new people and adult social interactions.  We began to learn how “different” people really are, even though all were white, rural, and Christian (to varying degrees, some “not”).  It was a real melting pot, and a source of wonder and information about how things worked, how people got along, and how sometimes they didn’t! 

High Jinks

Students who had graduated from the Horseshoe Lake School and were now in high school were of course “too mature” to attend the meeting.  But that didn’t stop them from showing up in the fall and spring when outside weather was conducive.  After all, it was a great opportunity to gather outside and do things that young people have been doing forever.  Brother Bill recalls playing tag around the cars in the dark schoolyard.   The outside gathering of rural youth typically resulted in some “high jinks” before the night was over.  One common trick was to sneak into the front hallway during the business meeting, and ring the school bell, hastily exiting before being caught.  How daring!  A little more problematic was the ceremonial “wrapping of the swings,” which involved throwing the empty playground swings with such force that they wrapped around the supporting steel pipe.  This disabled the swing, and required correction the following week by a school board member with ladder.  Twisting up all the chains on the Maypole-like “Giant Strides” was also a favorite pastime.  Various other pranks would occur periodically, all part of the fabric of the Community Club. 


The Horseshoe Lake Community Club brought our little rural community together, at a time when other social outlets were not yet available or affordable for most. But things change.  The improving economy of the early 50s brought new cars, opening up travel to far away places like Cumberland (11 miles).  TV brought a world of outside entertainment into the homes.  And consolidation of the Horseshoe Lake school into the Turtle Lake School system shut down the beloved one-room school.  The “magnet” was gone. And so the Horseshoe Lake Community Club slipped into oblivion, I suppose in the mid-50s.  I was too busy in high school to notice.  Or to realize at the time how much it had offered.  To the community.  To me.


[1] I remember being struck by the curious nature of parliamentary procedure.  The formality of it was an eye opener, even though imperfectly practiced by farmer-officers unaccustomed to such things.  Why did it need to be done this way? Why not just “talk about things” like we did at home, or in school?  Who made up these “rules” and why?  Who was this guy “Robert?”  How did one go about learning “the rules?”  As I watched over a period of years, it became clear that such rules were necessary to maintain order, control conversation and get something done.  And the person who best knew the rules was in a position to best control the meeting.  How do today’s children learn this lesson?

[2] Such performances required hours of rehearsing at home.  I hated it at the time, but the performances were part of my education and formation.  My sister Rosemary and I did it numerous times.  I suspect younger siblings Bill, Colette and David may have been tapped in turn.

[3] The “Golden Song Book” was an exceptional musical tool and text used for teaching music (singing) to the grade school children.  About 3/8 inch thick, it contained several hundred songs, with words and music. It was named after the color of its thick paper cover.  Does it still exist?  I hope so!

[4]  Would today’s society condone such a system where kids were actually publicly exposed to failing (and succeeding)?


Chapter 25:  THRESHING

Threshing.  “To separate seed from a harvested plant, mechanically.”  So says Webster. But Webster doesn’t know it all!  No dictionary can understand the toil and tribulations involved with threshing the oat crop at rural Wisconsin dairy farms before the coming of combines.  No dictionary can understand what the coming of threshing day and the threshing machine meant to a young farm boy.  Nor can the dictionary understand the social implications of the shared-labor “threshing ring” on the entire community.  Heck, the dictionary doesn’t even know that it was pronounced “thrashing” instead of threshing!  So it’s a story that must be told.  Others have told their story of threshing, helping to preserve this piece of rural history.  This particular account is from the perspective of a boy growing up on a Wisconsin dairy farm in the 1940s and 50s, along the shores of Horseshoe Lake.

The Harvesting Process

Understanding threshing requires a little knowledge about the overall process of harvesting a grain crop, in our case oats.[1]  Decades earlier, the McCormack Reaper (“grain binder”) had made harvesting the ripened grain much easier, retiring the hand-held “cradle” to a quaint curiosity.  Tractors and improved plows, disks and grain drills made it possible to increase the acres that could be planted.  By the 1940s, the process had been greatly mechanized.  A typical dairy farmer around Horseshoe Lake would plant about 5-10 acres of oats, depending on the size of his farm. But one part of the process was not yet mechanized.  The grain binder left bundles of cut grain lying in the field.  These bundles were stored in the field, awaiting threshing day.  When that day arrived, the bundles were loaded on wagons and taken to the threshing machine where the grain would be separated from the stems, for storage in the granary (or oat bin).  The threshing machines were “set up” near the dairy barn so that the “straw” from the thrashed grain would be easily accessible as wintertime “bedding” for the dairy cattle. 

The harvesting process required handling the entire crop three separate times by manual labor. First, the bundles of ripe oats were stored in the field in a process called “shocking.”  Bundles were fashioned into a “pyramid-like” structure (the shock) comprising six bundles, with the butt of the bundles resting on the ground and the “heads” at top.  This shock of grain shed rain like a thatched roof, preserving the grain and the straw from mold and rot.  The six bundles provided enough stability to keep the shock from being blown over by wind, and still allow the grain to dry after a rain. [2]  The entire crop was handled a second time on threshing day, when the shocked bundles were loaded by hand (using a pitch fork) onto four-wheel farm wagons for transport to the threshing machine.  The third handling was unloading of the wagon into the thresh machine.[3]   

Threshing machines were large and complex pieces of machinery, requiring belt-driven power from a high horsepower tractor.  This meant that most farmers could not afford a threshing machine.  The system that evolved was for one farmer (usually from one of the larger, more prosperous farms) to own the threshing machine used by the entire community.  Other farmers in the community became part of the threshing ring.  The threshing machine would be moved from farm to farm, with the actual threshing usually requiring about a day at each.  The farmers in the ring would each lend their body, tractor and wagon to the process, loading, transporting and off-loading the grain into the threshing machine.  Typically there may be 8-10 farmers in this labor pool.  In this fashion, the threshing process continued until complete at each of the participating farms.  The entire process would typically take 2-4 weeks, depending upon rain interruptions.  Threshing completely occupied the summer calendar from mid-July (just after completing the first crop of hay) to mid-August.  Of course, the farmers also had to milk their own cows each morning and evening, and otherwise keep their own farm functioning.   

Threshing was a tough time, in the heat of summer.  Living it was hard.  Looking back is easy.  And enjoyable!

Cutting it

It seems likely that the basic McCormick Reaper (grain binder) changed little during the mid-1990s before being made obsolete by the combine, except of course for the transition from horse-drawn ground-driven to tractor-pulled with power drive.  All the binders in use around Horseshoe Lake seemed old (I never saw a new one).  Some were converted horse-drawn machines.  The grain binders were a one-purpose machine, and not owned by every farmer.  For most farmers (including Dad), this necessitated hiring the grain binder rig. The basic tasks of the binder were to cut the standing grain so that the tops all fell in the same direction, gather the cut grain into bundles about 10 inches in diameter, secure (“tie”) the bundles with “binder twine,” and discharge the bundles onto the field in small piles, ready to be shocked.  These operations had to done with minimum disturbance of the grain to avoid premature shelling (hence loss) of the ripe kernels. The cutting bar was a standard oscillating sickle bar, similar to that used in cutting hay.  The swath cut was about 5-6 feet, as I recall.  The forward motion of the machine (and cutting bar) encouraged the cut grain to fall “back” (e.g.; heads pointing towards the rear of the machine).  A rotating “pick-up reel” helped push the top end (heads) of the cut grain in the right direction (towards the rear) and pick up down grain (grain lodged over from heavy wind and rain) that was leaning forward.  The cut grain fell onto a moving canvas belt and was transported transversely to a receiver where the bundle was formed.  When the bundle was the right size, an automatic tie device thrust a loop of binder twine around the bundle, tied a knot, and cut the twine.  The completed bundles were kicked out onto a waiting carrier, which was dumped at intervals to create rows of bundles lying in the field.  My recollection is that operating the grain binder was a two-man operation, one on the tractor and another riding the binder to monitor the machine, adjust cutting and pick-up reel height to the conditions, and mind the tie mechanism and twine supply.  I never had the opportunity to ride, pull or maintain a grain binder, so the above description is based only on the observations of a young farm boy, watching the machine in use. 


The reason I never operated a grain binder was absolutely shocking!  That’s right.  I was always shocking the bundles of oats.  This task started immediately after the binder entered the field, and continued long after the field was completely cut.  One person shocking could not keep up with a binder.  My recollection is that it took about three good men to keep up.  Usually, one or two shockers would do their best and complete the field the next day. The hurry was to get the heads of the grain up off the ground, especially before any rain. Shocking grain was hard work, but done out in the open and rather enjoyable.  The challenge was to build a stable shock, resistant to wind. Two bundles were handled at a time, one under each arm, heads facing out.  The first two bundles were planted firmly on the stubble field, the tops of the bundles leaning against each other to form a pyramid.  Two bundles were then placed in similar fashion on either end, leaning these bundles slightly towards the center bundles to get the stability of an angle.  If properly built, the resulting six-bundle shock had a narrow top, a wide base, and would stand up to wind and shed rain.  A poor shock could be pushed over rather easily.  It became a matter of pride to build a good shock, time after time, until the golden brown field was covered with rows of golden shocks. There is a great deal of beauty in a field of shocked grain, particularly when viewed at the end of the day in the glow of slanting sunlight and the satisfaction of a job well done.  The golden shocks stood like sentinels against a setting sun, rising monument-like from the yellow-brown stubble of the field.  I always took time to gaze at the completed field of shocked grain, drinking in the scene.

From about 7th grade on up I often hired out for the day to neighbor farmers to shock their oats.  Typical pay was about 50 cents per hour.  Of course the morning and evening milking at our farm meant the workday was about 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. so I earned about $4 per day.  But it was part of the passage to manhood, and I loved it.  One day while hiring out to a neighbor, I found myself working as part of a three-man team.  Joe had hired me and a fellow farm boy (same age), plus Joe’s brother Sam from Minneapolis.  We set about the task of keeping up with the binder, operated by Joe.  Hard work, but John and I were challenged by the need to demonstrate our worth and manhood, and perhaps to compete with each other for best worker.  Sam was an adult and we learned from him that he was unattached, and had never completed high school.  Sam worked hard too, but took frequent breaks, which we noted but ignored.  During the day we talked with Sam about various things.  We learned that he had done many things in his life, and began to wonder why he was shocking oats on his brother’s farm.  Late in the afternoon Sam gave us a brief and serious lecture about the need for education and the need to apply ourselves and make something of our lives.  He concluded, “You don’t want to be like me.”  The day ended, and I never saw Sam again.  But I’ve thought about him a lot over the years. 

Threshing Day

As a boy still too young to help, threshing day on our farm was greatly anticipated and impatiently awaited.  On threshing day our farm became the center of activity for the entire community.  It was pure excitement and the highlight of the summer!  It usually began on the previous afternoon, with the arrival of the threshing machine from the neighboring farm where threshing had been completed that day.  Johnny R. owned the threshing machine used in the Horseshoe Lake ring.  The rig was pulled behind and powered by an old McCormick Dearing tractor, a 15-30 if I recall correctly (15 HP on the drawbar, 30 HP on the drive pulley).  The tractor was very slow (speeds were roughly “crawl” and “lumbering”) so the rig could be watched (and heard) making its way towards our farm on the gravel road.   

A threshing machine is a wondrous thing.  First, it was the largest machine encountered on a dairy farm at the time.  Second, it was an amazing collection of external belts and pulleys, with articulating parts (feeding apron, straw discharge pipe) that folded down for transport.  Third, it was all encased in galvanized sheet metal, hiding internal mechanisms of great mystery.  Fourth, the machine made a wondrous din when transported over a gravel road on its four steel wheels, the rattling of the sheet metal overpowering the bark of the old tractor itself.  As the rig turned into our yard, it became official.  It was our day to thresh!

On threshing day, the farmers in the ring would begin arriving with their tractors and four-wheel farm wagons about 9 a.m., after completing their morning milking and eating breakfast.  Such late starts were also necessary to let the sun dry the dew off the shocks in the waiting fields.  The wagons would get directions to the right field (“Where we gonna start today, Ray?”) and be off to begin loading. The farmer whose oats were being threshed was excused from hauling that day, being needed at the threshing site to take care of the details and problems encountered.  This would include making final arrangements for handling the grain, including setting up the grain elevator.  The stream of golden grain emerging from the thresh machine was “payday” for the farmer, and he was in charge of that part of the operation. 

In the early days, the grain was discharged directly into “gunny sacks” at the threshing machine, then transported by trailer or pick-up truck to the granary.  This was completely a manual operation requiring that the sacks be manhandled for dumping into the granary.  Later, this operation was mechanized.  Neighbor Nick, getting too old to load and unload a wagon, bought a used pickup equipped with a hand pumped hydraulic lift box.  Nick took on the job as grain hauler, transporting the grain in bulk from the thresh machine, eliminating the gunnysacks.  This was his part of the shared labor, allowing him to stay in the threshing ring.  An elevator was purchased (by the threshing ring, as community property) to offload the oats into the granary.  The younger boys on the farm often “helped” the kindly old gentlemen “Nick” in transporting the oats from thresher to elevator.  Nick was a bachelor, very even-tempered and gentle.[4]  He seemed to enjoy the company.

In the kitchen, preparations for feeding the crew were already well underway.  The wife of the host location had a huge job.  Feed a crew of perhaps 15 ravenous men in shifts around noontime, and then provide a late afternoon snack too.  It took days of planning and preparation, and many hours in a hot kitchen on the actual day.

About Threshing Machines

Since I never actually operated a threshing machine, those who have will find many flaws in my simplified descriptions.  My only defense is that these were the observations of a boy, blurred by the passage of time.  A threshing machine is designed to process the bundles of ripe grain, separating the kernels of grain from the stems (straw).  The separation is achieved by mechanically agitating and shaking the grain, dislodging the kernels from  the stems.  Bundles of grain are transported “heads first” into the machine via the feeder apron.  Oscillating knives cut the twine binding the bundles.  The sheaves move through a system of shakers that move up and down and front to rear, driven by eccentrics.  The separated grain falls onto screens below while the straw passes through the machine.  The collected grain is screened to remove fines, fanned free of hulls (chaff), measured by a dumping container (“How many bushels did you get, Ray?”), and disgorged into waiting sacks or a pick-up truck for transport to the granary.  The straw, chaff and dust are discharged from the machine via a blowpipe in a high velocity stream of air coming from an integral blower. The transmission of power throughout the machine is interesting, with all power derived from the master pulley.  Pulleys and belts, sprocket wheels and drive chains exist on both sides of the machine.  Each pulley is receiving power from a belt, rotating a shaft that performs its own function and driving another belt leading to an adjacent pulley to power that particular function.  In this fashion, power is transmitted from shaft to shaft, linking the entire machine together in coordinated action.  Each shaft turns at its design speed to perform its function, as governed by the relative sizes of the pulleys that provide and receive the power.   

The machine is large, noisy, complex and wondrous in the eyes of a boy.  The internal workings are shielded from observation by the heavy sheet metal skin enclosing the entire machine.  Rare peeks inside were glimpsed when the operator would open inspection doors for cleaning or adjusting screens. When operating, the rig makes a great noise.  The tractor itself is loud, operating at steady high throttle to meet the power demand of the machine.  The blower inside the machine makes a great deal of noise, like any very large air mover.  The collection of miscellaneous gears, belts pulleys, eccentrics, oscillating rods and drive chains add their groans and complaints to the din.  Finally, the entire machine has the rattle of sheet metal being pulled in differing directions many times per second.  It results in a unique cacophony.  It is a threshing machine, in action!

Setting up

Setting up the threshing machine was the responsibility of the operator, in our case Johnny R.  Setting up included determining with the farm owner the exact spot to station the machine so that the straw pile would be in the desired location proximate to the barn.[5]  The next step was to dig in the steel wheels of the machine, to anchor it and to level the machine.  Being level improved grain separation efficiency, as the vibrating shakers and screens would not become choked by straw shifting to one side or the other.  The towing bar would be removed, and the feeder apron deployed.  The feeder apron was a chute about two feet wide that articulated out from the front of the machine.  (Loaded wagons would be positioned on both sides of this chute, and the bundles of grain forked onto the apron, heads pointed towards the machine.  A moving belt or chain would carry the bundles up the chute, into the ravenous machine.)  A most critical part of the set up was aligning the tractor to power the machine via a flat drive belt driven by the tractor’s drive pulley.  This began by unrolling the long continuous drive belt, placing one end loop over the master pulley on the machine, and hand stretching the belt taut to determine the approximate position for the drive tractor.  The drive tractor was driven into position facing the machine, and the belt placed around the drive pulley.[6]  The belt was then tightened by moving the tractor in reverse in very small increments, paying particular attention to ensure that the entire pulley-belt-pulley drive assembly was absolutely parallel.  This was necessary so that the belt would run true.  This tricky operation might take several tries to accomplish.  When the operator was satisfied he would set the brakes on the tractor’s drive wheels, and run the machine up to speed to ensure that it was all in order. 

Another part of the set up was deploying the straw discharge blowpipe from which the straw and chaff were expelled from the thresh machine.  During transit, the blowpipe was carried in a resting position atop the machine. In use, this telescoping blowpipe could be extended about 20 feet and was about 10 inches in diameter, if memory serves.  Mounted on a swivel carriage from the top rear of the machine, the direction and elevation of the blowpipe could be adjusted by means of two hand-cranked worm gears.  The length of the telescoping pipe was rope adjusted, as was the “directional hood” that capped the outlet.  This combination of controls permitted the operator to direct the high velocity stream of air-blown straw and chaff to target locations as the pile of straw grew.   

Final preparations included greasing the dozens of rotating shafts and parts on the machine, adjusting belts, checking and cleaning vibrating screens, and fueling the tractor.  A final run-up of the machine would sometimes include “dressing the belt” (pouring on a thin stream of liquid dressing on the moving belt) to ensure proper grip of the belt as it passed around the shiny smooth surface of the drive pulley, which was polished to an incredible smoothness by the hours and days of driving the six-inch wide belt at high RPM.

Loading and Unloading

On threshing day, the farmers in the threshing ring would load the shocked grain onto four-wheel farm wagons pulled by their own tractors, pull the heavily loaded wagons into line at the threshing machine, and then unload the bundles into the machine.  The wagons, which were also used as hay wagons, were always equipped with front and rear racks.  Farmers usually added side racks about three feet high during threshing season.  Loading is done by a walking man, pitchfork in hand, spearing two bundles of grain from the shock and tossing them onto the wagon. Then repeat endlessly.  The wagon is pulled down the row of shocks by the farmer’s own tractor, requiring that he get on and off the tractor hundreds of times in a day.  Upon reaching the age of being able to drive the tractor, young boys often accompanied their fathers as tractor driver, moving the wagon ahead slowly as the farmer built the load.  It was an honor for a farm boy to reach this point of manhood.  He was actually needed and could help his Dad with threshing!  It also opened the door to the fraternity of the threshing ring, if only as a juvenile, insignificant observer.  I was elated to achieve this status.[7]  

Like any task, there is a “right” way to build a load of grain.  Initially, the bundles can be tossed onto the wagon indiscriminately.  However, once the load has topped the side racks, it was necessary to “build” the load.  This meant spearing one bundle at a time from the bottom, and building a vertical sidewall for the load by positioning the bundles butt out around the edge of the load.  When the sidewalls were built up a tier, the center could be filled in indiscriminately.  When the load was level again, it was time for another tier of sidewall.  And so it went, the load growing higher and higher. How high?  Well that depends.  On the condition of the tires on the wagon (weight restrictions).  On how bad the road (trail) is from the field back to the farm (a rocking or swaying load could slide off).  On how well the load is built.  By the limitation of being able to climb onto the load to begin offloading.  And on the pride, motivation, and counter-balancing common sense of the loader. Obviously, in the macho world of the threshing ring, there was potential for a friendly sort of competition to build large loads.  This was tempered by the risk of losing a load, for which there was no greater shame!  As a high school lad who had taken over Dad’s duties as part of the threshing ring, I took great pride in building big loads.  I don’t believe I ever built the largest load. But I did O.K., maybe just above average, and I was proud of my work. 

When the load was deemed complete, it was time to make the journey to the farm and the threshing machine.  This was a period of relative rest, except for keeping a sharp eye on the trail and load, and slowing down for the bumps and sways.  Upon arriving at the site, one pulled into line to unload, sometimes behind one or two loaded wagons waiting their turn.  This was a period of rest, perhaps 15-30 minutes.  When your side of the unloading apron was open, you pulled the wagon into position, with the side inches away from the feeding apron.  After climbing atop the load, the unloading commenced, one bundle at a time, tossed onto your half of the apron, heads toward the threshing machine.  The challenge was to keep the moving apron full of bundles (but not stacked or overlapped). The man on the opposite side wagon was doing the same thing, and it was important not to toss your bundle onto his side of the apron.  The objective was to keep the threshing machine fed constantly and evenly.  When the wagon opposite was empty, you attempted to double your pace and keep the feeding apron full, until the new wagon pulled into place and began pitching bundles.

Stacking up

The straw blown out of the threshing machine was blown into a pile.  While the machine operator could guide the growth of this pile to some extent (by adjusting the position of the blowpipe and the directional hood), the result was mostly a shapeless pile.  The problem was that this shapeless pile didn’t shed rain well.  Wet straw molds, and wet straw freezes solid in the winter.  Both are problems. One year about 1949 the straw pile was particularly bad. We worked hard every Saturday during the winter to extract the frozen straw needed for the coming week.  This involved use of straw cutters, swear words and backbreaking labor.  Dynamite would have been helpful.

The way to avoid this was to stack the straw on threshing day, building a stack with almost vertical sides that would resist rain.  The stack could be rounded off on the top, the straw serving as a natural thatch to shed the rain.  It was a great idea, and it worked, but it was only sometimes done.  The problem was that nobody was available to do the work of building the stack.  It was hot, extremely dirty work in the dust and blowing straw coming from the blowpipe.  It involved wading around in the straw pile, pitch fork in hand, moving the straw around to build the stack.  A person would sink to his waist in the loose straw, making movement extremely difficult and tiring.  Movement could be accomplished only by extracting one leg, placing it in a new position, shifting the weight to that leg and then extracting the other.  While doing this, the stacker was being pelted by straw from the blowpipe, and covered with dust that clogged the eyes and nostrils.  Goggles would help the eyes, if they were available.  A handkerchief tied over the nose and mouth helped as a makeshift respirator.  Another problem was that there were no breaks, as long as the thresh machine was running, and it ran all day except when the operator shut down for lunch.  So stacking frequently just wasn’t done.

But stacking was a macho job!  A real challenge!!  I just knew I could do it!!!  As threshing approached (following the year of the terrible straw), I asked Dad if I could stack the straw on thrashing day.  He eyed me with a steady gaze, and said, “It’s hard, dirty work.”  I suspected he was really mulling over whether or not I could handle it.  I was about 12 years old at the time.  I said I could do it, and Dad said O.K.  And so it came to pass.  On threshing day I took my place on the developing mound of straw and began to form the stack.  Hatless and shirtless, I toiled through the day, building the straw stack in the same way I had earlier learned to build a load of loose hay.  It was hot, and hard, and dirty, and choking.  Streams of sweat would wash down my dust-covered body, leaving mud tracks soon covered over with new dust.  But it was a challenge.  And it was real work.  It was work befitting a man!  At the end of the day, the last bundle was tossed, the blowpipe quit spitting straw, and the job was done.  I was perched atop a beautiful straw stack that I had created. Dad set the long ladder against the stack so I could get down.  From the ground, I looked back up at the stack.  It looked good.  I was satisfied.  So was Dad.  The stack did its job.  We had good straw that year.  I think I looked at the stack every day with pride.  It’s amazing how much self-confidence came from that one achievement!

On following years we baled the straw from the thresher (an even better solution), and then gave up threshing in favor of combining directly in the field.  So I never had to stack straw again.  And I didn’t really miss it.  But I wouldn’t have missed it that once for all the world!

Time to Eat

All the hard work of threshing wasn’t done outside.  A lot of it was done in the kitchen to feed the hungry crew.  To understand this challenge, think about putting hot food on the table for about 15 hungry men, eating in several shifts as limited by their availability and the seating capacity of the table.  Further, you are not sure until Wednesday night whether dinner at your place will be Thursday or Friday, because it depends on when they finish up threshing for the neighbors.   

It’s hot in the kitchen!  After all, it’s July and you are cooking all day to feed a large crew.  Picture an electric range giving off the heat of its oven and four burners into the kitchen, with only window ventilation plus the screen in the kitchen door to vent the heat.  Potatoes boiling on the stove, and steaming in the bowl, adding to the heat. The daughters are bending over the hot water in the kitchen sink, washing the endless stream of dishes.  Yes, it’s hot in the kitchen!  

And the menu!  What to serve?  Meat, probably beef and pork roasts, often chicken.  Mounds of mashed potatoes and bowl after bowl of gravy.  Fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and radishes from the garden.  Fresh homemade bread.  Coffee, brewed in the large enamel-covered pot sitting atop the stove.  Desserts were mandatory, and homemade pie was the favorite.  Apple, rhubarb, peach, raison and occasionally blackberry or raspberry.  Fresh cobbler or pineapple upside down cake would suffice in lieu of pie, but plain old cake just didn’t quite make it.  Pie was a man’s dessert!

The logistics are another problem.  Are there enough chairs, serving bowls, plates and silverware? 

Dinner started somewhere about midday.  The farm owner would check with his wife to make sure she was ready, and then direct those who just completed offloading to start dinner.  They would be joined by those waiting to unload who were not “next up.”  While the first shift was eating, the machine would continue to operate until the current wagons were unloaded.  Then the operator would shut down the machine for his dinner.  And so it went until everyone was fed.  

Washing up for dinner was a challenge.  One way was to set up a wash station outside, or in the old milk house, or other suitable location.  No matter how you did it, you ended up with a lot of dirty towels.

Dinner was always a jovial affair, a time of good-natured kidding, jests, stories and wise cracks.  The initial hard eating gave way to increased talk and banter, and a slightly lingering cup of coffee with the second piece of pie. The woman of the house was everywhere, refilling bowls and platters, warming up the coffee, trading jests with the men, and clearing off used place settings so that a new man could take a seat at the table.  The daughters of the house helped, and sometimes a neighboring lady too in return for like service. After dinner, the men would retire outside for a short respite in the shade, smoking a Camel, Lucky Strike or Old Gold.  A few still rolled their own. Some took a quick nap, lying prone on the green grass in the shade of a tree.  And then it was back to work.

Customs and Capers

It was customary for the host farmer to provide cold beer for the workers.  In the early days, the beer was always kept in the cool water of the milk-cooling tank.  The consumption of beer was reasonably self regulating.  Anyone who has worked in the heat knows that water quenches thirst, but alcohol dehydrates the body.  So most of the workers allowed themselves a beer sometime during the day, perhaps two.  But water was the drink of choice.[8]

The threshing ring was set up on the basis of shared labor.  Everyone in the ring was a hauler on threshing day at all the other farms.  This system worked well, but was not perfect.  The problem was the inequity of the shared labor between the small and large farms.  The small farmer would contribute as much as 2+ days of labor at a large farm, and get less than a day labor in return.  This inequity caused some unrest, but there was no good solution.  Everyone needed everybody else, so that was the way it was done.  It was part of being the community.

High jinks were also part of the camaraderie.  On one occasion while I was driving tractor, Dad asked to borrow a cigarette while sitting at the dinner table.  He explained that he had two other packs in the tractor.  Someone handed him a cigarette, and nothing else was said.  Of course, when he got to the tractor the cigarettes were gone. Everyone seemed to know about it but nobody would own up to the prank.  Dad was forced to bum cigarettes the rest of the afternoon, of course picking on those most suspect. Hank R's little John Deere tractor was started by spinning the flywheel by hand.  It wasn’t always easy to start.  It could be made more difficult to start by jamming an apple down on the exhaust pipe.  If Hank didn’t notice it, spinning the flywheel was tougher than usual, and the apple would pop off with a loud noise and fly into the air when the piston fired.  This was always good for a laugh, particularly because Hank’s vocabulary was very colorful.

Looking Back

In places, threshing lives on in the form of commemorative one-day threshing bees that attempt to relive again the glory and grit of this summertime ritual. The romance of threshing comes only with the passage of time, when the sweat and equipment breakdowns and frayed tempers and swear words are long gone.  Then all that remains in memory is the sense of achievement, the “fraternity” of the threshing ring with neighbor helping neighbor, and the satisfaction of “the harvest.”  It is then that threshing takes on the glow that is etched in my memory.   I have tried to capture that glow in this account.   

[1] Oats were raised for dairy cattle feed in our part of northwestern Wisconsin.  Oats were a successful crop in that area and served well as cattle feed when mixed with corn and high protein supplement (like soybean oil meal) and ground into a soft mix at the local “feed mill.”  Cows loved this mix of ground grains.  During the long winter months, it was added on top of their corn or hay silage roughage, just like frosting is added to cake.  Wheat and barley were rarely raised around our area, although wheat had been a large cash crop in southern Wisconsin in earlier decades before chinch bug infestations. 

[2] As far as I know, there is no credible evidence to support the theory that the six-bundle shock was the origination of the term “six pack.”  Regardless, a six-pack went very well with shocking on a hot afternoon during my high school years.

[3] Combines eliminated all three of these manual handling steps by harvesting and threshing the standing crop right in the field, greatly reducing the labor involved and eliminating the need for a “threshing ring.”  The resulting straw was discharged onto the filed, for baling.  Yes, these straw bales had to be transported to the barn and stacked for wintertime use.  But the overall labor saving was still immense. 

[4] In discussions with relative Helen in 2002, I learned that Nick had actually been married early in life but his wife died after a very short time.  He never remarried. 

[5] In later days, straw was baled directly from the thresh machine, rather than blown into a stack.  This approach gave more latitude to exactly where the threshing machine was set up.

[6] Drive belts were always “crossed,” which is to say twisted one-half turn.  A crossed belt would not undulate or flap while in use.  Of course, this meant that the drive pulley on the tractor and the master pulley on the machine were rotating in opposite directions, but this was built into the design of the machine. 

[7] I probably began this about 1947 at age 9.  Even then, the old Farmall F-14 tractor required modifications so that I could safely drive.  The clutch was positioned for an adult man, disengaging in a forward movement that extended beyond the reach of my legs.  To overcome this, Dad invented a mechanism that involved a strong spring and a lever.  The spring was hooked to the clutch so that the normal position of the clutch was disengaged (spring pulling the clutch pedal all the way forward).  The clutch was then engaged by pulling back on the special lever, allowing the clutch to return to its engaged position (by extending the special spring).  This allowed me to drive the tractor by keeping it in one gear, operating the clutch and the brake, and steering.  It was fail-safe in that the clutch disengaged if I let loose of the lever.

[8] I distinctly remember the last year we were in the threshing ring, when I was the designated representative for the Rivard farm.  I was in high school.  I liked beer.  I drank a beer after almost every load.  I’m glad I didn’t miss out on this custom.


Chapter 26:  THE PARTY LINE

The telephone helped take the isolation out of rural living.  It was a great productivity tool, made life easier, and served as a safety lifeline.  It was also a social instrument, linking the Horseshoe Lake community together in “the party line.” I don’t know when the telephone system came to Horseshoe Lake, but it was in place when we moved to the farm.  Owned and operated by local entrepreneur Bob Prosser [1], the phone system was a “party line” with up to 20 families on the same line.  Talk about time-sharing!  The party line brings back memories of frustrating waits for an open line, eavesdropping, listening subconsciously for your “ring” as the telephone “rang off the wall” during the day, and the infrequent “emergency rings” that were our own version of 911. 

The system

The Turtle Lake party line telephone system consisted of above ground phone lines strung on poles radiating out from Turtle Lake along every major County trunk road.  Shorter than the electricity (REA) lines they paralleled, each telephone pole had a horizontal cross arm, with the wire for each party line supported on glass insulators spaced along the cross arm.  The number of wires depended on the number of party lines necessary to serve the area.  If you lived towards the end of your line down a gravel road, the telephone line was down to one wire.  The system was operated out of a very small central office in Turtle Lake, where a paid operator was on duty 24/7 at a switchboard to connect you to people on other party lines of the Turtle Lake system, or to initiate a long distance call to an adjacent phone system or across the nation.  The phones themselves were wall-mounted units made of hardwood boxes about eight inches wide, 20 inches tall and six inches deep.  The boxes were well made with mitered joints, and natural wood grain finish, frequently tiger oak.  They were usually mounted high on the wall at the correct height for the “head” of the family.  This meant that short adults stood on their tiptoes to use the phone, and children needed chairs. 

The phone components included the mouthpiece, protruding from the box about six inches on a metal mount that swiveled up and down about four inches to adjust to the height of a standing adult.  The receiver was a hand-held cylindrical device of Bakelite plastic (I think) that was connected to the phone internals by a cord about 20 inches in length.  The resting position for the receiver was a spring loaded fork cradle on the left side of the phone box. When cradled, the weight of the receiver turned the phone off.  When the receiver was lifted, the spring-loaded cradle rose slightly, switching the phone on-line.  The “bell” comprised two metal flattened hemispheres mounted side by side above the mouthpiece.  A small hammer-device mounted directly between the two hemispheres vibrated when it received a ringing current, striking the two hemispheres alternatively to generate the “ring” of the phone. Below the mouthpiece was a wood shelf about four inches deep, angling down slightly to provide a convenient writing surface for a small note pad.  It had a ledge at the bottom lip to hold a note pad and pencil on the shelf.  The hand crank for generating a ring was on the right side of the box, opposite the receiver.  Turning the crank operated a simple magneto inside the box, generating an electrical current that went out over the line as a “ring” to every other phone on the line.  The longer you turned the crank, the longer the ring.  This was important to the “code” which was used to identify every member of the party line.   

Since there was only one phone per home, the location in the home was important.  It had to be convenient.  Many were mounted in the kitchens, which were typically the center of activity during the day.  But this meant that the phone was not very convenient during the evening.   Calls were made standing up, because the phones were usually mounted high on the wall. [2]  One would have thought that this discouraged long conversations or eavesdropping, but such was not necessarily the case.  The overall visual affect of the phone was that of a long rectangular “face.” The two bells were the eyes, the mouthpiece a combination nose/mouth, and the shelf a chin.  The receiver and crank were the asymmetric ears.  Because of this “face,” the phones seemed to be a “person” with whom you could talk.

The ringing code

The ringing code consisted of different combinations of long and short rings, generated by turning the hand crank. Rings were designated as long (L) or short (S).  Example rings were 3S, 3L, 1L-2S, 1L-1S-1L, 2S-1L, etc.  Our ring was 3S. [3]  Party line members could be called directly by dialing the right code, providing the line was not already in use.  Many of the farm wives knew most of the rings.  The phone book provided the code if you needed to look it up.  One long ring was a call to “central” to reach the operator.  This was the starting point for reaching anyone beyond the party line. [4]   The emergency ring was 6S, our very own version of 911!  Everyone on the party line was expected to pick up on an emergency call.  It meant someone was really in trouble and needed help.  We used it the night that our basement wall caved in.  Other events were serious accidents, fires, and occasionally important community announcements.  Every call made on (or coming into) the party line rang every phone on the line! [5] This meant the phone was “ringing off the wall.”  It also meant that the mind had to be trained to “tune out” the rings, except for your own. [6]  Of course, for the avocational eavesdropper, this was not a problem!

How the phones were used

The phones were used a lot!  Which meant the line was usually busy during the day.  The only way to check if the line was free was to lift the receiver; this also caused a “click” in the ear of the talking parties.  Adult males used the phone only for business calls.  Making arrangements for handling crops, calling the veterinarian or the cattle breeder, calling to order parts for broken machinery, or arrange delivery of bulk gasoline to refill the 100-gallon storage tank used to fuel cars and tractors.  The adult males were the most easily exasperated by a “busy” line, because it meant dead waiting time while outside work waited.  Dad would sometimes slam the receiver, and occasionally break in on a long winded “visit” to ask for the line. 

Farm wives used the phone for business too.  Calling in grocery lists to the local store so that their order could be “put up” in advance by the clerk for no-wait pick-up later (it took five decades to replace this free service with a “personal shopper”).  Other typical business calls included arrangements for the Homemakers’ meeting, 4H Club, or school events and appointments for doctors and dentists.  Another social phenomenon was the sporadic call from a writer at the local newspaper, The Turtle Lake Times, hunting for “news” for the next issue.  Such news usually consisted of houseguests that had visited, special occasions marked by celebrations, illnesses, or farm injuries and accidents.  Such news appeared in the “Horseshoe Lake Locals” column. 

Many used the party line to “visit,” just as they do today.  The problem was that a one-hour visit tied up the line for everyone!  This was the big frustration.  Such long-winded conversations resulted in numerous clicks in their ears as the receivers kept going up and down.  But many would keep right on talking, until someone had the “audacity” to ask for the line!  For some, the party line was used for eavesdropping.  It was a given that every conversation was public. [7] Someone would be listening in!  So if you didn’t want it to be common knowledge in the community, you didn’t say it on the party line!  Kids didn’t have a place on the party line phone, until high school years when it was used to make dates, or arrange for other social events.  In general, the “private talk” of adolescence was much too personal to share with everyone on the party line!  Maybe that was a good thing.  In any event, farm youth did not have the time to while away hours on the phone.  For years our phone was the end of the line down our township gravel road.  As our lakeshore lots were sold and began to sprout cottages for weekend dwellers, our phone became their only communication link.  We took a lot of messages for them, and had a lot of knocks at our door to “use the phone.” 


Sometime in the late 50’s the communication revolution reached Turtle Lake, and Bob Prosser began phasing out the party lines.  Private lines (buried cable) retired the party line and the phone boxes disappeared from the walls. We got real phone numbers instead of code. [8]  It was a great improvement. [9] [10]  But along with shutting down the Horseshoe Lake School, the loss of the party line eroded the identity of the Horseshoe Lake community.  Such was the price of progress. But the party line memories of “the way it was” still bring smiles.

[1] Bob later turned his pioneering phone business into big business by going into antique telephones, operating a world class operation in this niche market from tiny Turtle Lake.  Bob was from the Prosser family, an old family name around Turtle Lake, held in some disdain and “at a distance” because they were successful and Republican.

[2] This also kept them relatively kid-proof, an important factor because there was enough ringing going on without kids playing with the phone.

[3] Brother Bill remembers our number being 2308, where 23 was the party line and 08 the ringing code (3S).  This suggests there were at least 23 party lines. 

[4] It is not clear to me how the operator monitoring perhaps two dozen party lines (or more) could pick out the one L ring from all the party-line ringing going on.  Brother Bill suggests that calling the operator was done with the receiver still on the hook, which allowed it to ring on her central switchboard. 

[5]  I suppose that two things limited the number of phones on a party line.  First, the time-sharing limitations of up to 20 families sharing the same line.  Second, the amount of current necessary to ring up to 20 phones.  Modern phone systems typically do not work well with more than four phones ringing because of power draw. 

[6]  On one occasion we were eating a summertime meal at the dining room table, with a guest youth from Minneapolis sharing supper).  The phone rang.  We ignored it, because it was not our ring.  It rang again.  Our guest asked, “What’s that?”  “The phone,” was the quick reply.  We kept on eating.  It rang again.  He looked around and asked, “Isn’t anyone going to answer it?”  Dad broke out laughing, almost choking on his food!  We had to explain to this city slicker how the party line worked.

[7] Old Mrs. D was the recognized “professional” eavesdropper.  Her phone must have been mounted low on the wall, accessible while sitting, because she spent her day listening to every conversation.  This was common knowledge because she had a grandfather clock near the phone that could be heard ticking as she listened in, the receiver pressed to her ear.  Meanwhile, the separate mouthpiece would be picking up the ticking clock. 

[8] Ours was YUkon 6-2202.  I always thought the YUkon was appropriate for northern Wisconsin!

[9] According to brother Bill who worked for Prosser and the phone company for awhile while just out of high school, Bob had one of the first “independent” buried cable systems in Wisconsin, built with low interest money from the Rural Electrical Administration (REA).  It made everybody mad that Prosser got the low interest money, and they had to pay more for their phone service.  Never mind that the new service gave them their own personal phone line!

[10] Brother Bill recalls being hired by Prosser to go to North Dakota to pick up a load of old wooden wall phones. Here’s his account:  “We were to load and count the units carefully.  Any unit that did not have a mouthpiece, (very fragile bakelite, which we removed and wrapped in newspaper and placed inside the phone) was 25 cents.  Phones with good mouthpieces were 50 cents.  We loaded a 2 1/2 ton stake truck with phones and brought them back.  At the time Bob was selling them through a New York outlet at $12.00 each.  Only the Independent telcos would sell the phones.  The Bell system piled them up and burned them to salvage the metal. 


Chapter 27:  THE 4-H CLUB

“I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service and my health to better living for my club, my community, my country, and my world.”

 We didn’t have a Boy Scouts group around Horseshoe Lake, and farm boys didn’t have time for scouting things regardless.  But we did have the 4-H Club, and it was an important part of my life from age 10-17.  4-H is the youth branch of the Cooperative Extension Service, a program of the United States Department of Agriculture.[1]  The 4-H pledge, which we recited at the start of every monthly meeting (above), identifies the four H’s.  The Club’s logo is a green four-leaf clover, with a white H in each leaf.  Each H had a special meaning. Head - thinking critically and solving problems,  Heart - respecting self, others, and the environment [2], Hands - preparing for a career and serving others; Health - choosing healthy lifestyles.  I learned a lot through 4-H.  As I look back, it was mostly about “growing up.”

Getting started

Horseshoe Lake did not have a 4-H Club during our early years on the farm.  But our Mom was familiar with 4-H Clubs, having worked summers with them while teaching in her single years.  As we approached the eligible age of 10, Mom and several neighboring mothers started a movement to form a 4-H Club, working through the Horseshoe Lake Community Club.  I can still recall the presentation about the 4-H program, made by the County Extension Agent, and the discussions and enthusiasm about starting the Horseshoe Lake Club. [3]  Of course, adult leaders were needed, and these came from the interested parents.  I’m not sure when the “Lucky Horseshoe 4-H Club” was formed, but it was probably 1947, when sister Rose reached the eligible age of 10.  The Club was already functioning when I turned 10.


Each 4-H Club member must have a “project” for the year.  For boys, the projects could include raising a calf (or other farm animals such as sheep, chickens, hogs, etc.), crop-related projects, tractor maintenance, and soil conservation or forestry projects, just to name a few.  For girls, projects included cooking, canning, sewing, home decoration and the like.  Guidance on selecting projects was available from a list outlining model projects.  None of these sounded easy!  Selecting a project was always difficult, and the local leaders were supposed to help.  But it was usually a tough and agonizing time, because the projects always sounded too tough to tackle.  After all, we were only kids, and we didn’t know how to do any of that stuff!  The project had to be written up (planned), records maintained, and a final report written.  Part of that report included the dreaded “story” in which the member had to summarize the project in writing.  Agonizing over the story was common.  The leaders often had just as much trouble, trying to get members to complete their reports.  No report, no membership next year! Failure was not an option!

The Club met monthly, rotating location among the homes of members.  Of course there were officers, and a business meeting.  This meant elections, and learning how to conduct a meeting.  It was rudimentary, but an introduction nevertheless. Refreshments were provided at the conclusion of every meeting.  This was the work of the refreshment committee, named each month for the following month. Singing was a part of 4-H, sometimes being part of the program at a meeting.  I recall some words from a particular song:  “Sons of the soil are we, men of the coming years, (words I forget), brains beating brawn, living the life so free.  Sons of the soil are we.”  Of course, there were a number of other “standard” songs, most with an imbedded moral lesson.  The singalongs sometimes evolved around a campfire marshmallow roast. [4]

Learning to socialize was a big part of 4-H.  Of course “socializing” is a euphemism for the eternal adventure of youth, namely “boy meets girl.”  The formal socializing occurred during the meetings, the informal outside in the dark after the meetings.  Special events such as hayrides and campfires contributed to the process.  Many rural youths got their first real kiss at a 4-H event.  One of the favorite extracurricular activities was the 4-H softball team.  Clubs choosing to do so could form a team, and participate in inter-Club play with other Polk County Clubs.  The games were Sunday afternoons, during the summer.  Since many Clubs had only 10-15 members, teams were “co-ed” and not particularly good.  The older members (in high school) were the mainstays, with the younger members doing the best they could.  But it was a lot of fun. 

4-H Clubs were closely associated with the county fairs, which were also an important part of the rural culture. County fairs were places for rural America to show off their produce and skills, see the latest in farm machinery, take in the sights and lights of the “midway,” ride a tilt-a-whirl for the first time, and get a glimpse of the outside world. Many adults entered their canning, sewing, or other crafts into competition in the county fairs, competing for the blue ribbon that would declare their jar of pickles or home-sewn clothes the “best” in the county.  The more proactive farmers would bring their livestock to the fair.  The livestock barns would fill with dairy cattle of the five major breeds (Holstein, Guernsey, Jersey, Brown Swiss, and Ayrshire), beef cattle, hogs, sheep, poultry, and more. It was all very educational. 4-H Club members were encouraged to present their project at the county fair, entering in the youth division so as to not compete directly with adults.  I did this for three years, age 10-12, and I believe that sister Rose also entered a few years.  My project in those years was raising a calf.

Raising a Calf

Raising a calf as a 4-H project “personalized” the work that a farm lad did anyway, and forced some learning that might otherwise have been missed.  The basic idea was to select a calf from among the current crop, keep records of growth and weight, groom the animal, understand the vaccination process necessary for all such farm animals, and learn how to “show” the animal under halter.  Records had to be kept, and the entire project summarized in a report that included the dreaded “story.”  The project could also include showing the animal at the county fair. 

Selecting the calf was an important part of the project, because the idea was to select the best animal from among the young calves.  This involved learning the attributes of a model dairy animal, and then trying to assess those attributes in a calf.  Dad helped me some in this regard, using the Hoard’s Dairyman magazine cattle judging photos to help me learn what to look for. [5] But the truth is, it was pretty much a guessing game in a calf, plus looking at the maternal “line” of cows from which the calf came. Records of growth were done with a girth tape, which estimated the weight of an animal (for a particular breed) by measuring the girth, just behind the front shoulder. [6]   Care of the animal included dehorning at a very early age,[7] and vaccinations for Bang’s infection and other animal diseases.  I guess I never learned exactly what the vaccinations covered.  The veterinarian did the vaccinations, and each animal was given an identifying ear tag at the same time to permanently identify it and confirm vaccination. Of course, feeding was important.  But we fed all the young stock in the same way: silage, hay and water.  So this wasn’t a big deal. 

Grooming the calf involved just two tools in those days.  A currycomb and a brush.  Grooming the calf probably was more about building a bond with the animal than anything else.  Of course, a well-groomed animal was essential at the county fair, but mostly irrelevant at other times. [8]  Another aspect of grooming was trimming the animal’s hooves.  Hooves grow, just like fingernails, becoming too long and even encumbering walking.  When outside in the summer, the hooves tend to be self-grooming, wearing down and breaking off as they became too long.  Even during the winter, we rarely found it necessary to trim an animal’s hooves.  But “showing” an animal required that the hooves be trimmed short and neat.  This task was done with a chisel and mallet, and a lot of patience, placing the hoof on a wood block, and taking a whack.  The animal withdrew the hoof (i.e.; kicked) after each whack, even though there was no pain.  The trim job was supposed to be finished off with a rasp to make it all smooth.  There must be a better way to do it now.  

Training the calf to lead under halter and show well was the biggest challenge.  Cattle are not particularly smart. Unlike dogs and horses, they do not train well.  Their initial reaction to being led is that of a cat (dig in and resist), except that the cat is much smarter.  I would lead my calf around the farmyard for hours, starting, stopping, and achieving a proper stance once stopped.  Persistence pays, and gradually the calf would learn to lead, stop and start, and change leg positions in response to a tap, to get a good show stance.  While this was going on, bonding occurred.

The importance of being special

During the process of raising a particular calf, I learned an interesting life lesson, even if it took a while to soak in. The lesson is, “The importance of being special.”  First, it’s important to understand that cattle are not very smart. Unlike dogs and horses with whom human-animal bonding is well known and universal, cows are just animals. Although each was unique and actually could exhibit a personality, they are not at all capable of the same level of human interaction as dogs and horses. The lesson I learned is that even a cow can respond in amazing ways when treated as if it is special.  The corollary lesson is that to a great extent, high expectations can achieve remarkable results, even with a cow!  Here’s the story.  

It was my 3rd year of raising a calf, and I had become a little better at it.  I selected the calf from one of our better bloodlines, and named her Bonnie.  Bonnie was housed in the youngstock barn, a lean-to shed on the back of the barn, with the other calves born that winter and spring.  She was one of about 5-6 calves. I placed a leather halter permanently on her head, making it much easier to practice leading her in the evenings.  An unintended consequence was that she immediately was “different” than the other calves.  What also made her different was the personal attention that I gave her.  I would rub her forehead at feeding time.  I would come into the livestock barn, attach the leading strap, and take her outside for the training sessions.  I would groom her, and trim her hooves. None of the other animals received such attention.  Bonnie would come to me when I entered the youngstock barn, while the others shied away.  They would watch as I brushed Bonnie and lavished her with attention. 

And so Bonnie became special.  Special in her own eyes, and special to her peers. The result was that she became somewhat of an outsider among her group.  It was also clear that she didn’t care.  After all, she was special.  She developed a bond and trust with me that was unique among our animals. And it lasted.  Bonnie matured into a cow, as I moved up into high school.  But she remained special.  At feeding time she always sought out (and received) a rub of her forehead.  She always seemed more self-reliant than the other cows.  After all, she was special.  When I left the farm for college, Bonnie of course remained as part of the herd.  But Dad reported how she maintained her special attitude and behavior with humans.  When I would return to visit the farm, Bonnie seemed to remember me.  

All of this was pretty amazing, because cows are not very smart.  But I have pondered this through life.  Bonnie was different, because I treated her differently.  I treated her as special.  I expected more from her.  And it produced surprising results!  It seems likely there is a lesson here for us intelligent humans.

The County Fair

Taking a calf to a county fair is a big deal for a shy, rural 10 year old, who had rarely been off the farm except to go with parents into Turtle Lake.  I remember my first time quite vividly.  Exhibiting an animal at the county fair required two days (and nights) in residence at the fair, taking care of the animal that was housed in the livestock barn.  Since we didn’t have a truck for transport, a 4-H Leader volunteered to take me and my calf (fast becoming a heifer) down to the fair, held on the Polk County Fairgrounds near St. Croix Falls, a huge 25 miles away. I had to pack an overnight case, take hay for the calf, and take the few grooming tools that I needed.  I had no idea what I was doing.  

Being alone at the County Fair was unnerving.  I was not very worldly, to put it mildly.  I spent the first day mostly with my calf, wandering the midway a little, and looking at the farm machinery.  I made friends with another boy my age, who was about as shaken up as I.  I suspect we were a pitiful pair.  We spent the night at the county youth barracks nearby, which turned into quite an experience.  Most of the kids were older, more experienced.  It was a tough night for me, being away from home.   

The next day was “show time” in the ring, before the judges.  We won third prize, but there were only 6-7 entries. All the same, I was proud of the White Ribbon. [9]  Dad came to the fair Saturday night to visit me.  I suppose my parents were a little concerned about me, and probably knew the whole thing overwhelmed me.  We went to the midway, and took in a motorcycle-riding exhibit in a “silo-like structure,” where the two bikers use centrifugal force to ride the vertical walls.  A loud spectacle, I thought.  It was hard to believe people made their living that way.  We also went to a wrestling match, where the carnival “pro” takes on local amateur challengers from the crowd.  That was pretty interesting, although it looked almost like mortal combat to me. I believe I went to the county fair three years, winning a white, red and blue ribbon.  The blue was with Bonnie.  I “retired” from showing heifers at the top of my field!

Growing out

For the next several years, my project was “tractor maintenance,” a useful skill on the farm. I can’t quite recall how I phased out of 4-H.  It was sometime during my high school years, when football, a drivers license, and high school activities crowded out the adult-supervised 4-H activities.  I suppose I just “moved on” to other things, paying no attention to what I had left behind.  Until much later, when I began to realize how much 4-H had helped me grow.

[1] 4-H is still a very active organization.  You can find their web site.

[2] I suspect “environment” has been added since my Club years 1948-56.  I don’t recall it being in the mix of things.  Except that every farmer was an environmentalist.  Conserving the soil was a large part of the 4-H dogma.

[3] One of our most eligible bachelor farmers, then in his early 30’s, chimed in with, “What’s the maximum age?  I think I might want to join!”  He was kidding of course, but he later became an adult leader in the Club.  If I remember correctly, he later married a woman he met through 4-H work. 

[4] I recall one such occasion on our beach area on Horseshoe Lake, coordinated by the two sister, then in high school and very attractive).  I was about 12, and mesmerized!

[5] Hoard’s Dairyman was the trade journal for Wisconsin dairy farmers, published monthly from Ft. Atkinson in southern Wisconsin.  One of their regular features was a cattle judging challenge, using photos of four dairy cattle in each of the major breeds.  Farmers were encouraged to judge the cattle, and then compare their ratings with the written opinion of an expert.  Dad always did this exercise.  I was never very good at it. 

[6] Scales would have been better, but farmers didn’t have scales for weighing cattle. 

[7] Done by burning the emerging bump of horn with caustic, applied directly to the bump.  This hurt the calf for several hours while the caustic chemically burned the skin and underlying horn root.  The horn would die, never to return.  Overall, this was a lot less stress (on the animal and the humans) than physically sawing the horns off a more mature animal.  Care had to be taken to avoid getting caustic in the animal’s eyes, or on your own skin.

[8] In modern, more affluent times, grooming has become much more rigorous and professional, with hair driers and countless hours of washing and grooming the animal in preparation for show.  Even at the 1948 Polk County Fair, I was impressed by the effort that some of the adult exhibitors put into grooming. 

[9] Especially because my calf acted up in the show ring.  A short nature note is necessary here.  Cows that come “into heat” (ready to be mated) demonstrate their willingness by “riding” another cow, in the same fashion that a bull rides up on a cow during mating.  It’s a natural act, which on our farm we called “bulling.”  As it turned out, my heifer came of age while at the Polka County Fair, and got into the “bulling” thing right in the show ring!  This caused much amusement in the crowd, and much embarrassment for me, but didn’t seem to bother the heifer at all.  Although I understood the cattle mating act very well, the overall sexual overtones were clouded in mystery. So when I wrote my 4-H Project story, I included everything about the “bulling” incident, to the amusement of many of the Club leaders.  My story won a countywide prize.  Perhaps for naiveté?


Chapter 3:  THE CHORES

Life on a dairy farm is a life of structure.  Structure and a daily rhythm.  Everything – life itself - revolves around the care of the milking herd.  This daily structure is referred to simply as “the chores.” This term is known and understood not just by the farm families, but by all.  Teacher and student, storekeeper and salesman, mechanic and creamery worker.  Everybody in the community understands “the chores.” The chores are constant.  Morning and evening.  Unrelenting.  Necessary.  Demanding. Routine.  Tedious.  Boring.  They are the beginning of each new day, and the end of the day’s labor. Between the morning and evening chores, the other farm work varies with the seasons.  Preparing the land and planting the crops.  Harvesting the hay, oats and corn.  Mending fence.  Repairing machinery and maintaining the buildings.  Dealing with a Wisconsin winter.  Record keeping and income tax.  All important and all necessary.  But it’s the unglamorous chores that dominate life.

The chores sound simple.  Feed and milk the cattle in the morning before breakfast.  Feed and milk the cattle in the evening.  The chores vary between summer when the cows are in pasture, and winter when the cows are kept in stanchions inside the barn, requiring more care.  In our part of Wisconsin, the cows are kept inside from mid October (depending on weather and forage available in the pasture) until late May when the pasture has greened again to provide forage.   The basic structure is simple enough.  In our family the chores begin about 5:45 a.m. but never later than 6 a.m., depending upon when Dad actually responds to the spring-wound alarm clock.  Breakfast is after the morning milking, usually about 8 a.m.  Evening milking begins after supper and is done by 8 p.m.  Then the day is done, leaving about two hours to clean up, read, study or relax before a 10 p.m. bedtime.  When school is in session, it’s time to study.  In summer, it’s time to swim (and bathe) at Sandy Point or go bass fishing on the mirror calm lake. 

Morning Milking

In the summer the chores start with bringing the cows in from the pasture, a 15-30 minute sunrise job for me.  After the cows file into their appointed stanchions, they are fed high protein grain concentrate, each according to her proven ability and need as a producer of butterfat.  This is a task for Dad, who alone knows the methods by which he calculates the numbers of scoops that each cow gets.  Milking the herd of about 20 Guernseys takes about an hour with the two “Surge” milking machines attended by Dad.  I do the ancillary chores of washing the cow’s udders (to stimulate milk flow as well as to clean the teats for protection of the milk supply), straining the milk into the 10-gallon milk cans, and putting the filled cans into the cooling tank where the 100 degree milk was cooled by the 49 degree water from our deep well (a mechanical cooler later replaced the water cooling tank, and in turn was replaced by a refrigerated bulk tank that eliminated the milk cans altogether).  Other tasks include spraying the cows for protection from flies, releasing the cows that have been milked, cleaning up after the cows, and staring out the east barn door at the beautiful sunrise across the misty valley while waiting for Dad to determine that a cow was “dry.”  (Note:  In my time this was done by feeling the cows udder, as well as by pinching the rubber tube leading from each of the four “teatcups” to determine if milk was still flowing.  This art was well developed in a farm lad by the time of high school.  Improved technology now lets the milking machine itself determine when to terminate milking.  This clearly works better, and helps guard against a daydreaming farm lad leaving a milker on the cow too long.)   With milking done by 8 a.m. it’s breakfast time.  Breakfast, prepared by Mom (or sister Rose) as we come in the back door, is two eggs fried in butter, toast and cereal, washed down with rich milk from a selected cow.  Breakfast is ready by the time we have washed up.  With an appetite whetted by the two-hour’s work, it’s always delicious.  Hunger is the best sauce!

When school is not is session, the farm workday begins right after breakfast.  During the school year, breakfast is always rushed to begin the mile walk (or bike ride in season) to Horseshoe Lake School.  Once in high school, the watch for the yellow school bus that will transport us to Turtle Lake replaces the walk. In the winter when the cows are kept in the barn full time the chores include cleaning the barn after breakfast.  School provides relief from this daily chore for the farm boy.  It’s Dad’s job!  Summer eliminates this chore altogether, as the cows are returned to pasture immediately after milking.   In winter, the evening chores begin with feeding the cattle beginning about 5 p.m.  This usually allowed about 20 minutes “free time” to change clothes after getting home from school, search the refrigerator for a snack, greet the family dog and answer Mom’s questions about school. 

Winter Feeding

The wintertime feeding regimen was similar both morning and evening.  The menu began with silage (corn or hay, depending on the crop abundance for the year) from the adjacent 12-foot diameter “Madison Stave” silo.  The silage was topped off by high protein ground grain feed, which the cows relished like a farm lad eating the caramel frosting off home baked apple spice cake. The silage and grain main course was followed by hay from the large “haymow” overhead.  The hay would remain in front of the stanchioned cows as they alternately would eat and ruminate, endlessly “chewing their cuds” to further digest the roughage being processed in their system of four stomachs. The cows always totally consumed the silage and ground grain.  A cow that did not was “off her feed,” a euphemism meaning that she was probably sick and needed watching and perhaps a visit from the veterinarian if she did not improve. Cows were provided an ample amount of hay and did not always consume it all.  Remnants of hay were removed from the manger prior to the next feeding cycle 12 hours later, and fed to the young stock (heifers) kept in the lean-to structure on the north side of the barn.  Nothing was wasted. The feeding tasks also included cleaning out the water cups provided for each stanchioned cow.  These heavy metal bowls were anchored to the 1-1/2 inch pipe stanchion structure and supplied water by gravity from the water tank mounted overhead in the haymow.  The cows quickly learned to call for drinking water by pushing down on the muzzle-actuated flapper, opening a spring-loaded valve to allow water to flow into the drinking cup.  A cow could thus call for water on demand.  Milking cows consume a great deal of water and the overhead tank was refilled morning and night.  The water cups were remarkably trouble free, requiring only periodic cleaning to remove accumulated hay and crud to keep them operating smoothly.

Two of the most difficult tasks for a young farm lad were getting the silage out of the silo, and getting the hay from the haymow. Although automatic silo unloaders later eliminated the daily silage chore on more prosperous farms, the job of loosening 500-1000 pounds of silage was made difficult by the Wisconsin winter, which froze the silage to a depth of about 10-14 inches around the silo’s perimeter.  This meant freeing up the frozen silage with pick ax, a chore that could take as much as 30 minutes in the cold gloom of the silo.[1]  While the aluminum roof of the silo had two translucent panels that allowed some light, the silo was completely dark inside after the sun was down.  This occurred early (by 5 p.m. in December), so it always made sense to get the silage down as the first part of the evening chores.  I think Dad rigged a trouble light because working in the dark silo often happened. Getting hay from the mow was simple enough if the hay was baled, as in all later years.  It involved dragging 3-4 bales of hay over to the “hay chutes” for dropping down to the grade floor.  The bales were opened before the drop, so that the bales began to “break up” during the fall, making subsequent disbursement to the cattle a little easier.

However, in the early years (before baling) the hay was stored loose in the mow.  After compacting by the tons of hay above it, it became very difficult to extract.  This meant digging it out with a pitchfork, in pitifully small quantities that made this task arduous and challenging for a young boy working alone in a dimly lit haymow at temperatures as low as 20 below zero.  It’s amazing how cold a pitchfork handle can be, and how daunting the task to loosen enough hay for the entire herd! One night in particular stands out in stark memory.  It was very cold outside and just as cold in the haymow.  The wooden slats cracked loudly in cold protest as I climbed the ladder into the mow.  As the ladder followed the curve of the round roof, it increasingly slanted backward making access to a full mow a little disconcerting under the best of conditions.  For a nine-year-old boy climbing into the gloom, it was character building!  A single 100-watt bulb lighted the mow.  It was deadly still in the cold gloom, except for the sound of the wind whining around the barn.  It was lonely!  Dark shadows everywhere kindled the imagination. But the pitchfork was reality!  Cold realty.  Grasping it through leather mitts, the cold penetrated instantly and began to numb the fingers, even as I set about the task.  Tackle the mass of hay with the fork, attempting to pull free hay from the matted mess.  A few strands respond.  Try another place.  Keep looking for the key to the knotted puzzle – the place where the hay would pull out easier.  Bit by bit carry the free hay to the chute for its descent to barn below.  Five minutes pass, then ten, fifteen.  Perhaps 20 minutes with hands growing numb on the fork and ears burning with cold even with earflaps down.  Consider giving up but fear of failure overrides all.  Finally, enough hay had been garnered.  Down the ladder, before the beasts of the mow emerged from their shadowy disguise!  Hands hurting, inspection reveals frozen patches on my left hand that had been holding the metal shank of the fork handle.  My leather mitts liners had been wet!  To the house for a look by Mom, who warms the area slowly and declares I will be O.K.  Lesson learned without any serious damage done.Over the next several years, increasing size and strength made this job easier, but the haymow in winter was never one of my favorite places![2] 

The dusty ground-grain feed was a mixture of oats and corn raised on the farm, with high protein supplements (soybean or linseed oil meal) mixed in during the grinding process at the Turtle Lake feed mill.  The supply in the feed bin was replenished weekly by hauling a load of corn and oats into the feed mill in a trailer pulled behind the car (we didn’t yet have a pick-up truck).  After waiting in line behind other farmers, the corn and oats were shoveled into the grinding pit.  The ground grain was mixed thoroughly in a system of mechanized vessels, and then sacked into “gunny sacks” by a mill employee.  The 80-100 pound sacks of feed were transported home in the trailer, and emptied into the bulk feed bin.  One of the many skills learned on the farm was the use of a “millers knot” to seal the gathered top of a full gunnysack with a piece of “binder twine” using a few deft strokes of the hands.  The knot would hold tight but was also easily removed, allowing reuse of the twine.  Nothing was ever wasted on the farm!

Evening Milking

The evening milking was the last chore of the day.  In summer, the day’s work typically would be called to a halt by 5:30 p.m., leading directly to the family supper.  Milking started right after supper, although eating quickly could sometimes result in 5-10 minutes “free time” while Dad completed his meal.  This meant time to ride the bikes in the gravel driveway or play with the dog while sitting on the back porch looking at the lake that was beginning to go quiet for the evening.  Alternatively, it was time to bring the cows in from pasture if they were not already waiting in the barnyard.   The evening milking was different from morning only in that it marked the end of the workday, and the beautiful view was of the western sky as the sun began to set. This meant leaning idly against the west barn door every spare minute as the milkers did their thing.  Even Dad would take part in the absorbing the beauty of the sunset and the quiet of the rural evening.   In winter, the evening milking also followed supper, but the barn doors were closed against the cold and dark of the Wisconsin winter.  Summer or winter, the evening milking was done about 8 p.m.  It marked the end of the workday.   A common task year-round was to collect milk for our own use.  Dad would always identify the cow used as our source of milk, selecting one that would produce about the right amount of cream for use on cereal and in coffee.  (Note: home butter making had disappeared years before and our butter came from the local creamery, delivered weekly by the milk hauler on his daily rounds to pick-up our milk).  Our family consumed six quarts of milk daily, transported directly to the house in a six-quart kettle. In the early years, we drank the milk “raw” (unpasteurized).  In about 1946, this resulted in me coming down with undulant fever, the human result of Bang’s disease in cattle.  This was a rather serious disease in humans, resulting in undulating body temperatures from below normal to 104 degrees.  Fortunately, post-WWII era medical science had produced new antibiotics about this same time.  Aureomycin resulted in a gradual cure over a period of about six months, but I missed about 6-8 weeks of school during the worst part of the illness.   This experience resulted in identifying and culling the infected cattle, and in daily pasteurizing of our own-use milk supply.  I would carry the six-quart pan of milk into the kitchen; place it on the burner of the electric stove, and yell, “milks on.”  From then it was up to sister Rose to monitor the heating of the milk, bringing it to 180 degrees (not warmer or the milk would taste ‘burned”) to kill any bacteria or organisms.  After standing five minutes at this temperature, the milk was then cooled in the refrigerator overnight.  Enough cream for our table use was skimmed in the morning.  Even with a pint or so of cream removed, the Guernsey milk was still very rich.  I suppose I started clogging my arteries right from this early beginning!

Free Time

The end of the workday announced the only free time in the daily schedule.  The activities of the next two hours depended upon any remaining daylight or whether or not school was in session.   If we finished milking in the dark, the calendar also dictated that school was in session.  In younger years this meant to bed by 9 p.m. after cleaning up.  In teenage years it meant reading, watching TV or studying at the table before a 10 p.m. bedtime. There were no bedtime disputes in a farm family.  The day’s labor and completely full schedule made staying awake past the 10 p.m. news an unachievable event for farm kids.   

Summer was a different story!  The end of milking meant a quick change into swimming suits for the quarter-mile bike ride to Sandy Point, the best beach in the whole county!  Here we would join other farm folk also coming to bathe, swim and recreate at the end of the workday.  We had the advantage of living closer to Sandy Point than any other family and always considered it “ours” even though the lakeshore property was actually a part of the neighboring farm. But often the lure of the mirror calm lake called for fishing instead of swimming, particularly in the period from early June through mid-August.  This meant a 1-2 hour escape to the beautiful quiet of the lake, in a leaky old boat in pursuit of the largemouth bass.  Side catches included northern pike (usually small) and the occasional walleye pike.  The bass were the big prize because they were more plentiful, and the sight of a bass crashing into a “Mouse” or “Jitterbug” lure on the mirror smooth surface was tremendously exciting!  Dad was not a fishermen and I most often fished alone.  Occasionally I was honored to be accompanied by Nicky Cordes, five years my senior who lived on a farm at the far end of the lake near the school.  I learned how to fish from Nicky and we spent many evenings together on the quiet lake, watching the setting sun paint the clouds in glorious color, and then fishing into the early darkness. Lest I paint too rosy a picture, I also need to mention the mosquitoes.  Millions of mosquitoes!  And while the entire scene itself was incredibly quiet, the whine of mosquitoes attacking through the repellent was incessant.   But every great time also has its price, and with fishing it was the cleanup.  Clean the fish out behind the machine shed while fighting the mosquitoes.  Then wash up in the basement shower to remove the mixed aroma and residue of the day’s sweat, cows, mosquito repellent and fish.  Then to bed, to prepare for another day in the morning.

Getting the Cows

Bringing the cows in from pasture for the morning or evening milking was one of the standing chores from late May until mid October.  It was a task for the farm boy,[3] accompanied by the farm dog. Grazing cows are unpredictable.  The herd would sometimes choose to be waiting in the barnyard, having responded on the basis of their own clocks to the established routine. Other times they would be cooperatively grazing their way towards the barn.  On some occasions, they would be widely dispersed in the far end of the pasture, requiring perhaps 30-40 minutes to gather them and drive them to the barn.   Cows are also creatures of habit.  One of the most interesting habits is the development and use of “cowpaths.”  Cows returning to the barnyard tend to walk single file in a path whose exact route they determine.  Repetitive use of the same pathway leads to the establishment of a rut about 10 inches wide and several inches deep, in which no grass grows.  It is a cowpath, and it lasts from year to year. Every pasture was equipped with cowpaths!   In some places the main cowpath would split into two or more routes for several hundred yards, perhaps taking a high and low road through a particular part of the pasture.  Individual cows would choose their route, moved by whatever whim or circumstance prompts a cow to do anything.  Since all paths led to the barnyard, it mattered not to the farm boy walking behind with the faithful dog.   But not everything in cow culture is a matter of chance.  A herd of cows develops a hierarchy or pecking order.  Some lead.  Others follow.  Some are at or near the bottom.  It was always possible to identify the dominant individuals and those near the bottom, but difficult to be precise about the exact position of any individual in the pecking order.  It may be that the positions changed as a result of the not uncommon “head-butting” contests. As I recall, such contests usually involved the individuals down in pack.  The leaders seemed to only rarely be involved, yet somehow maintained their positions of authority.   It also wasn’t clear if there was a single “alpha” cow.  It always seemed to me that the leadership involved several dominant individuals, as apparently is the case in a pride of female lions or herd of elephants.  In any case, a dominant individual usually led the herd on the cowpaths back to the barnyard.   The cows would sometimes respond to being called by Dad.  This involved stepping out on the hillcrest overlooking the valley and calling in loudest possible voice.  “Come Boss, Come Boss, Come Boss,” repeated in triplets.  Aided by the prevailing westerly wind, the sound would carry across the valley and its effect on the herd could be observed.  They would stop grazing and listen.  On the second or third triplet call some cows would start moving.  Those who had been lying down would get to their feet.  Soon the whole herd would be moving towards the nearest cowpath in response to the call.  While this almost always worked, it was neither as reliable nor as efficient as “getting the cows” and thus was not the standard practice.  In one sense, this made it all the more remarkable that it worked when Dad invoked it.   Cows are not the only creatures with pecking orders.  Dad was the boss and the cow’s keeper, and the cattle knew it!  They tolerated kids, but knew that we were lower status and could be toyed with. Cows never responded to being called by kids, even when we tried our best to mimic our Dad’s call.

Getting the cows early on a summer morning was an interesting way to start the day.  The heavy dew meant being soaked completely to knee level within the first few steps off the cowpath.  The ankle top boot did a pretty good job of keeping the feet dry, especially if waterproofed frequently, but the standard summer issue tennis shoe was soaked through instantly.  This meant working wet the entire morning while the pants gradually dried.  The heavy dew was not pleasant, but it could be pretty.  Dew-laden spider webs glistened with diamonds in the raking morning sunlight.  Mists hovered in the low places, or even in patches on level ground.  The sunrise could be beautiful.   Getting the cows in the rain was never beautiful.  Raincoats helped, but the cows sometimes headed for the cover of the woods during rain.  This meant going into the woods to find them, not an easy task in the rain soaked brush.  The task could take up to 45 minutes and produced a chilled, totally soaked farm lad.   Cows that gave birth during the summer would also seek the seclusion of the woods.  This usually meant that the cow turned up missing.  After breakfast, it was then necessary to go find the secluded cow and new calf, and bring them to the barn.  This was done by carrying the 40-50 pound calf all the way to the barn.  The cow would follow the calf.   Kids are adaptable.  They adjust to the environment in which they are raised.  Getting the cows was just part of the farm environment – part of the chores.  For the most part, we just accepted the chores!

Keeping the Barn Clean

Dad took pride in keeping the barn clean.  The floor of the barn was completely concrete.  The stanchioned cows faced towards the outside wall on both sides of the barn (two rows, each facing out).  The area in front of the stanchioned cows comprised the feed manger and 3 foot walkway.  Because no animal waste reached this area, it remained clean and dry.  However, it was necessary before each feeding to sweep out the mangers to remove remnants of silage or hay.  This was done with a large stiff bristle push broom, one of the standard tools around the barn. The area under the cows was kept bedded with straw (byproduct of the oat crop) during the winter when cows were kept inside.  The bedding was for the comfort and cleanliness of the cows, who would lie down in place even while stanchioned.  The bedding had to be fluffed up and replenished daily as part of cleaning the barn.  This involved bring straw in from the outside straw stack (or baled straw in later years).  Getting straw from the outside straw stack was very similar to getting hay from the mow.  In years when water had penetrated the stack, getting the frozen straw free of the stack was a major challenge involving tools called strawcutters and hard work.  In the worst years, it became a hated Saturday afternoon task to free a week’s worth of straw from the frozen stack. The area behind the cows included the gutters for collection of the waste, and the main floor of the barn, about seven feet wide.  The gutters were about 16 inches wide and eight inches deep.  They required cleaning every day to remove the accumulated waste and used bedding straw that helped soak up the liquid.  Cleaning involved a shovel, a wheelbarrow and an outside wooden ramp to the waiting manure spreader.  Fill the wheelbarrow, get a running start to make it up the wooden ramp, and dump the load into the manure spreader.  The entire task took about an hour.

In winter, the loaded manure spreader required immediate attention to avoid freezing of the load.  This meant immediate spreading of the load over the frozen, snow-covered fields.  This of course was not only waste disposal but also fertilization of the farm land.  Snow and cold were the enemy.  Some winters it was possible to spread the manure daily throughout the whole winter.  The tractor was equipped with heavy chains on the two drive wheels and could negotiate several feet of snow, even while pulling the loaded spreader.  However, deepening snow meant getting stuck, always an emergency because a frozen load of manure became a significant problem!   But the incentive to continue spreading the manure daily was great.  When it was no longer possible, the alternative was to start an outside manure pile, which of course would freeze solid in hours.  Eliminating this frozen mass became a distasteful spring chore requiring two-10 days hard labor after the thawed ground had dried enough to support the tractor and spreader.  To avoid this, extra effort was given to fighting the snow and disposing the manure daily.   One incident during my early high school stands out in my memory.  I was cleaning the barn at night (after school, before feeding) during a period when Dad was laid up with a bad back.  The whole operation was my responsibility.  New snow had made access to the fields more difficult.  It was already after 5 p.m. and completely dark in the short winter days.  The banking snowdrifts already denied access to most of the fields.  But I had been successful in continuing to spread manure along pasture high ground. However, on this night I got stuck with a full load.  With a more modern power-driven spreader I could have unloaded the load in place.  However, our older spreader was “ground driven” from its own wheels, meaning the load could only be spread by getting unstuck and moving. I looked towards the lighted farm buildings, a half mile distant.  What would Dad do? It didn’t matter, because Dad wasn’t here and couldn’t help.  I had to solve the problem, and before the loaded spreader froze.  After weighing the options, I successfully unhooked the tractor from the spreader.  Freed from its load, the tractor was able to fight clear of the drifts.  Once clear I made a track for about fifty yards through the drifts.  Backing towards the spreader, I used the heavy logging chain always carried on the tractor to hook onto the stalled spreader and shoveled away the snow in front of the spreader’s support jack so that it could slide over the frozen ground.  It worked!  I was able to tow the spreader about 10 yards, reattach in normal fashion and then successfully spread the load. I was very proud!  I had encountered adversity, and triumphed, all on my own.  It wasn’t necessary to tell anyone of the success.  I knew, and that was enough.  I grew in confidence and self-respect.

After spreading the manure, the bedding under the cows was replenished and the barn floor cleaned.  White lime was used to dry and sanitize the floor, hand spread on the floor and then swept to disburse it.  After liming, the floor would be white and clean. Dad took pride in a clean barn.  This also included semi-annual “whitewashing” of the entire barn interior, producing a clean white interior.  The cleanliness not only made our barn clean and pleasant, it also resulted in high marks on the periodic “inspections” by the state health officials who awarded the “Grade A” status to our farm. 

Temperature Control

Cows produce a lot of heat.  In the summer, this is a comfort problem for anyone leaning against a cow during milking in a 90-degree barn in stifling humidity.  It’s hot work!   But in the winter, the cow’s heat is the source of comfort in the barn.  More than enough heat was generated by a herd of cows to keep the barn at a comfortable and optimum temperature of about 50-55 degrees.[4]  Even at 20 below zero outside with a full-inch of frost on the single pane barn windows, the barn had plenty of heat. In fact, it was necessary to continuously spill some heat and moisture out of the six manually controlled natural draft ventilator shafts to keep humidity and temperature at the optimum temperature.  (Note that the temperature was optimum for a herd of cows, even if on the cool side for the humans.)   The first task upon entering the barn every morning and evening was to check the temperature.  Dad was the master of the temperature control, skillfully adjusted the slide doors of the ventilator shaft by an inch or two to maintain the barn temperature within several degrees as the outside temperature varied as much as 20-40 degrees.  This was a skill that we learned by observation.

No Breaks

It was the unrelenting nature of the chores that caused some resentment.  Every day of our lives, twice per day, do the chores!  No relief.  No breaks.  No mercy!  You accept that which you cannot change.  But that doesn’t mean you always like it!   I resented doing the chores on holidays, when they interrupted the family celebration, forcing us to leave the rest of cousins, aunts and uncles behind.  If the Thanksgiving or Christmas or new Years were at our house, this meant leaving the warmth and fellowship of the house to do the evening chores.  While we did the chores, the rest (including my sisters and younger brothers!) could stay in the house and take part in the card games, singing songs around the piano or general hubbub of family celebration.  If Uncle John had movies to show, we missed them!  If there were funny stories told, we missed them!  If the celebration was at the home of an aunt or uncle, our entire family had to leave by 4:30 p.m. so that we could get home and do the chores.  This meant leaving early and missing everything that went on in the evening.  On these occasions I deeply resented doing the chores!  But they were just something that had to be done!


Yes, the chores were constant.  Morning and evening.  Unrelenting.  Necessary.  Demanding.  Routine.  Tedious.  Boring.   But they provided structure for life itself.  In doing so, they silently taught the value of structure.  Looking back, I am amazed at how much we accomplished in a day, because the day had structure.   More than that, we learned responsibility.  And as we matured to take on the full responsibility of the chores, we learned the feeling of self-worth that comes with accomplishment.  A farm boy felt superior to a village boy. We grew in self-esteem.  After all, each day we proved our worth and our value to the family by doing “the chores.”

[1]  Some farmers were too lazy to free the frozen silage, choosing instead to wait until spring thaws let the silage fall.  It was not uncommon for farmers to be killed in the spring by the falling silage.
[2] Brother Bill affirms the haymow was a most foreboding place in winter.  Quoting Bill, “I would throw down the hay at the side with the ladder then race to the dark back chute, throw down the bales and race back to the front.  There was always a hill of bales in the middle that blocked the light from reaching the rear.  I remember Dad saying one time that I could be down out of the mow before the last bale landed at the rear chute.  One time in the winter when it was very cold the warm moist air going up the chute frosted the ladder to the point where I slipped off the boards and came down most of the way slapping the boards, but not really catching them.
[3]  First me, then Bill, later Dave.
[4]  Cows are heat engines, with a normal temperature of about 101 degrees. 


Chapter 6:  MAKING HAY

Making hay!  The scourge of summer.  And the proving ground for a growing farm lad. Making hay was long hard days and short tempers.  Summer heat.  The hot dusty haymow.  Late afternoon thunderstorms ruining the hay left in the field. And as always, the chores before and after the sweltering day in the field and mow.  But making hay was also challenges to be overcome.  A family effort and a test of each individual.  But challenges met and overcome meant survival and growth for the farm and achievement for the farm family.

Why Make Hay

The only source of income for a dairy farm is the monthly milk check from the creamery.  Dairy cows make milk from roughage and grain.  In the summer, the roughage is grass.  In the winter, it’s hay (and silage, but we’re talking hay here). So it’s really quite simple.  If you live on a Wisconsin dairy farm you need to put up enough hay in the summer to feed the cows during the winter.  It’s called “making hay.”  Simple concept.  It gets hard in the details.

How It Was Done

Crop rotation on the cultivated fields keeps the land fertile and producing.  The cycle begins with one year of corn for any given field.  The next year’s crop is oats, with alfalfa and brome grass seeded along with the oats.  The perennial alfalfa and brome take over after the oats are harvested, establishing the field in hay.  The third year the field produces hay, with the nutritious waist-high alfalfa topped by the lavender-tinted heads of the waving brome grass.  The land is left in hay production for three years while the alfalfa does its special thing of replenishing nitrogen in the soil.  Then the cycle begins again, with the corn crop benefiting from the nitrogen-enriched soil.  But now, let’s cut to the hay!

The hay fields begin to green in early spring, almost as soon as the snow is gone and the frozen earth yields its ice crystals to the warming sun.  But the green comes creeping in slowly, without harbinger or notice, until one day in late May the field is “suddenly” noticed to be luscious and green, and growing towards a harvest day sometime in mid to late June.  Hay fields require little work in early spring.  This is good, because fixing fence, picking rock, preparing the other fields for planting oats and corn take all the available time, even as the school year is being completed.  In fact, hay fields take no work at all, until it’s time to “make hay.”

Making hay required three distinct operations (later reduced to two by improved technology).  The first two, mowing and raking, were one-man operations using the tractor, and actually very pleasant work.  The 1949 Ford tractor with 7-foot mower mounted directly behind the tractor made mowing a breeze.  It could be done in 3rd gear, cutting up to 3-4 acres per hour (although extremely heavy hay or “down” hay made the process much slower with frequent stops to clear a fouled sickle bar).  The smell of new mown hay is wonderful perfume.  The weather was usually not unbearably hot.  The mowing always flushed out an interesting variety of wildlife and birds, losing their habitat to the greater need (or power) of the farmer, prompting much musing about Robert Burns and “Of Mice and Men.”  Hawks hover overhead, eager to turn a field mouse’ misfortune into a tasty snack.  Other birds fly in to harvest the insects rising from the fallen hay.  Mowing hay is indeed a pleasant job, except when clearing a fouled cutter (sickle) bar.  “Never get off the tractor and leave the mower operating.  Never.  You’ll lose your fingers.”  The tone of this safety instruction, the look on Dad’s face, and the known examples of farmers with fewer fingers drive this lesson home.  It’s a rule that I never broke. 

The mown hay falls flat as it is cut, forming a carpet of wet, green hay 6-10 inches deep, resting on top the stubble.  Now it must dry.  This takes two-three days, even without rain.  Farmers always want rain.  Except after they have cut hay. When the hay is dry enough, the second step is to rake it into “windrows.”  This is done with tractor and “side-rake,” another one-man operation and another pleasant job.  It does get “dusty” as the dried hay gives off its pollen and dust, but a fast and pleasant job nevertheless.  And always the pleasant sweet smell of fresh hay! 

But then the work begins.  It’s time to bring the hay from the field to storage in the haymow of the dairy barn.  It’s hard work, hot, long, labor intensive, requiring a team effort from the entire family and more.  In the early years, the hay is brought in “loose” and in later years baled.  Either way, the hay is all handled by hand.  Three times.  First during loading on the hay wagon; again at the barn when “setting fork” for hoisting the hay into the barn; and finally the distribution in the haymow.  (The hay is not actually handled by hand when “setting fork” but it is a distinct handling operation.) 

Loose Hay

Loose hay is loaded in the field on a tractor-drawn four-wheel hay wagon to which is attached a trailing “hayloader.”  The ground-driven hayloader has whirling rakes that pick up the windrow of dried hay, and then transfer it up a smooth incline of sheet metal to disgorge the hay onto the rear of the hay wagon.  It’s a three person operation, a tractor driver, and two men on “the load” to distribute the hay on the wagon, forming a load perhaps 8-10 feet high on the wagon.  

The “break-in” position for the farm lad is driving the tractor-wagon-loader rig down the windrows, at the right speed, carefully watching the men on the weaving and bobbing load to not overwhelm them with hay.  Easy job on the straight-aways and level ground where you merely center the tractor directly over the windrow.  The problem was that we didn’t have much level ground or long straight-aways.  Corners were a problem, because the long rig (five axles total) “cuts short” on corners, making it very difficult to ensure that the hayloader stayed over the windrow around the corner. Misjudge the turn, and a section of windrow was left in the field.  This always brought strong reprimands from the sweating patriarch lurching on the constantly swaying load of hay, looking for any thing or anyone to bear the brunt of the day’s heat and frustration.  These reprimands were much feared.  They always impugned our ability to drive the tractor, our judgment, our failure to learn how to make the corners properly in spite of past instructions, and loud repeated instructions, all replete with choice three and four letter words (but never the F word).  The reprimands were suffered in silence.  Back talk didn’t exist on the Rivard farm. 

Hills presented challenges too.  Whether going up hill or down, it was sometimes necessary to down shift first.  Going up hill required more power.  Going down hill required using the tractor engine as the “brake” for the entire rig.  The cardinal rule was to never ever stop the rig partway up or partway down a steep hill with a large load.  Stopping while heading up could mean not having enough traction/power to start again.  Trying to stop while heading down a very steep hill could be dangerous as gravity overpowered the braking traction of the tractor drive wheels (a skidding tractor is out of control.) This was amply demonstrated one day when my cousin Mark breaking in on the tractor driver job made the mistake of disengaging the tractor drive train (i.e.; pushing in the clutch) when heading down a steep, short hill.  The rig, with tractor brakes locked and tires skidding, plowed out-of-control through the adjacent fence, scary moments for everyone involved.  The patriarch was able to extract the rig with some pretty fancy tractor manipulations, as we all watched.  The expected reprimand was much subdued.  The seriousness of the situation had spoken eloquently.  But he made the point, “This is why you never try to stop when going down a steep hill.”  We got it.

The maturing farm lad graduated from the tractor to the front end of the wagon, stacking the hay (making the load) with the hay pitched forward by the man at the rear of the wagon, who was working the hay being disgorged by the rattling hayloader.  The tool of this trade was the standard three-tine pitchfork, with both handle and tines worn smooth from years of use.  The objective was to build a load of hay that was straight (not lopsided) and that would not shift or slide off as the side hills were traversed.  This was done while working waste deep in the hay, covered with chaff and dust, while attempting to keep one’s balance as the wagon swayed over the uneven field.  Each “rocking” of the wagon bed was magnified as the load grew in height, so riding the load was akin to standing on the rolling deck of a ship.  This caused much “lurching” about, which was useful (necessary) in helping to pack down the hay while making the load.  The captain of the rig was the person at the rear of the wagon working the loader, in our case always the patriarch (although I recall working the loader several times as I grew older and Dad was somewhere else).  The loader man handled all the hay, pitching some forward for the front man and using the rest to make the load at the rear of the wagon.   It was always a challenge (quest?) to build the biggest possible load.  Factors that influenced when to call it quits included the condition of the wagon tires (overload), the terrain ahead (avoid sidehills with a high load), and good stopping position in the field (stop nearest to the barn to reduce the travel time).  When the load was deemed “finished” the loader called “Whoa,” the rig was stopped, the hayloader disconnected, and the ride to the barn commenced. 

Baled Hay:

Loose hay gave way to baled hay, because the bales were easier and more efficient to handle (overall) and more hay could be stored in the haymow of the barn.  We didn’t own our own baler, and therefore had to hire someone to do the baling. The standard “square” bale (about 24 inches wide, 20 inches deep and four feet long) was compacted to about 60-65 pounds and tied with two strands of baler twine, which also served as “handles” for the bale.  Wire tied bales were also available, and generally were compacted to a heavier weight (more hay per bale).  With heavy bales, a “hay hook” tool was used in the right hand to hook the bale in one end, while using the left arm around the other end of the bale.    The efficient way to bale hay was with two wagons and crews.  A wagon is hooked directly behind the baler so that the new bales are discharged directly onto the wagon.  One or two men carefully stack the bales in interlocking criss-cross patterns into a load four bales high.  When the wagon is fully loaded, the rig is stopped and the full wagon replaced with an empty. The baler operates continuously, and if the empty wagon does not return in time, the full wagon is unhooked and the new bales dropped in the field for later pick-up.   If there is not enough labor for a two-wagon approach, all the bales are dropped in the field.  It is then a three-man job to load the wagon.  Tractor driver, ground man and wagon man.  Loading from the field is more work, because all the hay is handled an extra time.

Riding the Load

Whether loose or baled, the full load of hay must be taken to the barn to be unloaded into the haymow.  This trip back to the barn was an interlude – a respite – for all the workers.  The length of the rest depended upon how far the field was from barn and the speed of the tractor.  In the early years, the old and slow F-14 Farmall made for a long trip.  In 1949, the new Ford tractor with its “road gear” cut down this time considerably.  Either way it was a welcome respite.  Riding a loose load of hay was a relatively pleasant experience, except for the dust and heat and scratchy hay.  It was at least comfortable sinking into the soft and swaying load, enveloped in the fragrance of the fresh hay.  One could watch the fluffy cumulous clouds drafting across the blue sky, driven by the prevailing westerly wind.  Or think about cooling off after the evening milking in the cool waters of the nearby beach, the locally-famous “Sandy Point.”  Or think about girls.   Riding a load of bales held no particular romance.  In fact, it was easier to “ride the drawbar” behind the tractor than to merely perch on the hard bales.


Transferring a load of hay into the barn was a three or four person job.  It was accomplished by using a grapple fork system to hoist the hay up into the barn, where it would travel on a “track” in the apex of the structure to any point along the length of the barn.  The fork would then be “tripped,” allowing the load to drop.  The clanging empty set of grapple forks would be pulled back to descend for another load, while the mow workers spread the hay around the mow.  With loose hay, it was another job for the pitchfork, working in the thigh deep hay.  With bales, this meant neatly stacking the bales, layer after layer.  The jobs involved with unloading were fork setter (the patriarch), two men (or boys) in the mow, and (in the early years) the person driving the separate power source for the grapple fork lift system.  The power source was a team of horses, or our ’36 Ford car.  One of my earliest recollections is of Mom driving the horses, and later the car, pulling the one-inch diameter hay rope which hoisted the hay into the barn through a system of pulleys.  Since this operation was done at the opposite end of the barn, signals to start and stop were all “shouts.”  Failure to follow the commands could bring a loud reprimand.  Even Mom was not exempt from the wrath of a hot summer hay day. Thankfully, the advent of the electric motor powered “hay hoist” in the very top rear of the barn replaced this job completely.   Why two men in the mow?  Because one man could not keep up with the unloading, especially with loose hay.  With bales, it was possible to almost keep up, but two men made the job a lot easier. 

The Haymow

The haymow was a mysterious place, access to which was by permanent ladder inside one end of the barn.  The large hay doors at the top west end were kept closed (except during haying season), which left the mow dark and gloomy, even on the brightest days, as there were no windows.  Visualizing the haymow requires understanding the architecture of the typical Wisconsin round-roofed dairy barn (see section on Founding the Farm – The Barn).   Climbing into the haymow when nearly empty during the early summer would reveal the 32x60 foot space with arching rafters leading to the apex where the “track” was hung for the hayfork to traverse the length of the barn.  The cedar shingles would always pass dots of daylight through the small holidays (that would quickly close as the wood swelled when it began raining), giving the appearance of stars in the arching ceiling.  The hay hoist was mounted in the top East end of the barn, consisting of electric motor and rotating drum (for rope or cable).  The hay door was accessed by permanent ladder, stepping onto a 2x12 inch plank that served as an access for the doors.  The doors folded in on hinges, and were hooked into open position folded against the sides.  Walking the plank was exciting for a young lad, with a 20 foot drop to ground on the outside and a 12 foot drop to the haymow floor on the other.  Ascending the ladder into the haymow was also interesting, as the ladder followed the curvature of the roof, leading to a “leaning backward” posture at the highest elevations that could be quite disconcerting.   The haymow was not large by modern or adult standards, but seemed immense to a young farm lad.  The most striking feature was the gracefully curving laminated rafters forming the roof, a source of much wonder to me.   The haymow had moods, depending on the season and circumstance.  In the winter, it was accessed twice daily to provide hay for the cattle below.  The mow was hostile, dark and cold.  It was an enemy, unwilling to give up the compacted loose hay to a struggling youth.  It was shadows, isolation and loneliness, with the cold wind howling outside and the ladder steps “cracking” in the cold as one ascended into the dark gloom.  I never saw the haymow monster, but I always felt its presence, until it apparently died when I was about 14. In the early spring or summer, the haymow was a much more hospitable place.  It was home for kittens (farm cats almost always hid their new broods in the haymows).  It was accessed by choice to hunt for the kittens, or sometimes with playmates to jump from the hay door plank into the hay below.  Once in the history of our farm, the haymow was the site of a barn dance (sadly, Rose and I were too young to attend).  The dance was in June, nice weather, haymow empty, band seated on the covered water tank (which sat in the haymow to provide gravity-fed water to the cattle below.)  Uncle Ervin built a special stair for access to the mow for the dance.  Legend has it that it was a great dance, talked about for years.  So the mow had a party mood, at least once in its life!

But in hay season, the mood in the haymow was work!  Hard, hot, dusty work.  Stripped to the waist, the farm lad toiled with pitchfork to distribute the large fork load of hay to the sides of the barn, while working thigh deep in the hay.  This task was necessary get maximum hay into the barn and to make it much easier to “mine” the compacted hay the following winter.  Bales made the job easier, carrying and stacking the bales neatly throughout the mow.  The footing was better when walking on the bales, and the chaff and dust much less.  Whether loose or baled, it was a race to keep up with the fork loads of hay entering the mow. 

How hot was it in the mow?  Usually about 15 degrees hotter than the outside temperature, with no air movement.  Hot enough to stream sweat.  The hottest job on the farm.  A task to be endured, because this too shall pass.   There was also danger.  We were taught to never ever stand under a fork load of hay traversing the overhead track, because it could accidentally be tripped and dumped on us.  As the next fork load of hay neared the track, it was time to back off to the side, let the load traverse the track to the desired point, and holler when the load reached the desired point.  The fork man would trip the load, and the work began again.  We would know that the wagon was empty when the forks were not pulled back for another load.  

Cooling Off

After finishing in the mow, we would then descend the ladder hurriedly to get out of the hot mow.  Our tanned but dust-covered upper torsos would be covered with sweat-soaked streaks, like little rivulets.  In the early days, we went straight to the milk house, where the milk cooling tank contained refreshingly cold well water into which we would submerge our head, and then let the cold water stream down our chest and back.  This step would be repeated several times.  The next action was to take a long drink of water from the tap (direct from our well, at 49 degrees year ‘round), slaking the thirst and keeping our bodies hydrated for the hot work ahead.  When the milk cooling tank was replaced by mechanical coolers, we would wash down with cold water from the tap to cool off.  It was then onto the empty wagon for the return trip to the field.  Not a minute to lose! 

Hay Day Schedule 

Understanding making hay requires understanding the overall daily schedule.  Up at 5:30 a.m. to get the cows and do the morning milking.  That done, breakfast at about 8 a.m. for a 30-45 minute respite and fortification. Then it’s preparations for the day of making hay, while the warming sun dries the dew off the hay waiting in the field. Making hay usually started about 10 a.m., interrupted about 12:30 for lunch.  Dad usually rested about 15 minute after completing lunch, giving a short respite that might be spent laying outside in the shade.  Then back to making hay, wrapping up about 5:30 p.m. for supper.  After supper, back to the barn for the evening milking.  With chores done about 8 p.m. it was time to make the short bike ride to Sandy Point for the refreshing evening swim (and bath) that capped the day, returning home about 9 p.m., refreshed but exhausted from the 15 hour day.  By 10 p.m. we were more than ready for bed. 

Racing the Wind

Making hay is done in the heat of the summer.  Afternoon thunderstorms are common during the heat of the summer. Rain is the enemy of hay, because wet hay cannot be put in the mow.  Many’s the day that we raced the wind back to the barn with a final load of hay.    Summertime thunderstorms in rural Wisconsin are dramatic and wondrous things.  They begin building in the early afternoon, as the heat and humidity increases.  Fluffy white cumulous clouds begin transforming into towering thunderheads.  A general haze begins to develop.  The air becomes sticky and absolutely still. The lake becomes mirror smooth in the still air.  Flies buzz loudly, and begin biting (I never got a good explanation for this phenomena, but flies would always start to bite as a storm grew near).  The haymow becomes unbearably hot as the humidity increases.  The sky in the west starts turning a dark, even blue color.  Not the beautiful blue of the morning sky, but the angry blue of dense clouds.  The storm always moves in from the west, the direction of the prevailing winds.  For us, this means watching the storm form with an unobstructed view across Horseshoe Lake.   The approaching storm meant that we worked harder and faster, to get more hay in the barn before the rains came.  (Hay left in the field would need several days to dry again, and would have to be raked again, losing both nutrients and leaves in the overall process).  So the challenge was always to get one last load of hay before the storm struck.  Sometime it took several hours for the storm to develop.  Sometimes it was much quicker.  Either way, there was always one more load to bring in.  All during this time, the low rumble of distant thunder would grow ominously.  We were racing against the wind.    The warning sign that the storm was imminent was the line of white-tinged clouds forming against the dark blue background in the low sky across Horseshoe Lake.  Dad called these “wind clouds,” and their arrival always brought the strong wind of the thunderstorm, perhaps 25-40 mph or more.  We could watch the wind hit the other side of Horseshoe Lake, and from that point we had only about 30 seconds until it hit us.  The mirror smooth lake would be whipped to fury in seconds.  The rain would follow right behind the wind, along with the lightening and thunder.  Rain would fall in sheets, driven by the wind. Lightening and thunder were almost continuous.  The storms were awesome, and the lightening a real hazard.  The hay day was over.

When It’s Over

When the first crop of hay was completed in mid-July, the hay doors were closed, but would reopen again for “second crop” in September.  The second crop of hay was always smaller, the growing season cut short by the calendar which dictated that the hay be harvested before a freeze.  But the ritual was the same, with the break of a little cooler weather.  And then the haying season was done for the year.  The mow was filled to capacity, sometimes requiring that the extra bales be stacked outside, and covered with tarps to keep out the rain.  But I always took one last long look at the full mow.  I would see it again twice every day once the cattle were brought into the barn for winter, and the hay was tossed down the chute for feeding.  But the long last look when the last fork load had been distributed in the mow and the hay doors closed for the final time was important.  What I saw was accomplishment, and what I felt was pride.



Birds and wildlife were one of the great joys of being raised on a farm.  Like many treasures of our youth, their value was not appreciated fully until later, particularly the birds. Birds were common, everywhere, just part of the farm.  But the variety of birds became an unfolding wonder as I grew and learned to identify the species, their habitats, and their songs. The great variety of birds can best be recalled by visualizing them in their habitat. 

Farm buildings

Some birds shared our farm buildings, making their homes right along with us.  English sparrows (the vanilla wafer of birds) were with us year round, and a nuisance without song.  Even so, their slightly raucous “cheep-cheep” could be heartening in the cold dead of winter.  But other farm-setting dwellers were more enjoyable.  Most entertaining were the barn swallows, building their mud nests under the eaves of the barn and in the garage.[1] Remarkable aerial acrobats, the fork-tailed barn swallows would fly for pure enjoyment, circling the yard, performing intricate maneuvers, and dive-bombing the farm cats just to torment them!  Each evening the pairs of swallows (always paired) would perch upon the electric wires supplying the barn, fly sorties, then return to their perches as if they too were enjoying the beautiful summer evening.  Their dark blue back and red breasts were quite striking, and I always thought they were intelligent birds.  They truly seemed to enjoy human company.  We certainly enjoyed them. Robins were favorites too, being the most eagerly awaited bird as harbinger of spring, usually arriving in mid April while remnants of snowdrifts still remained.  The robins had a beautiful song and a perky “hop” as they searched for food in the lawn.  Every farm kid learned the color “robin’s egg blue” by finding the real thing.  The robins were most obvious in May and June, and then generally disappeared, their whereabouts in late summer still a mystery to me.  Robins are deservedly the state bird of Wisconsin.  Catbirds are also neat! The northern equivalent of a mocking bird, the catbird was not common but we always had a nesting pair in the trees by the lakeshore, behind the shed.  The catbird could mimic a cat, and was as saucy as any mocking bird, if less striking in its dull gray plumage.  I liked to watch the catbirds, but they were generally people-wary.  Cliff swallows were smaller versions of the friendly barn swallows, making their homes in tunnels burrowed into the dirt “cliffs” of the washout in the steep bank to the lakeshore.  They were secretive, and we saw them only in their evening pleasure or feeding flights.  Nighthawks were the master of the twilight evenings around the farm buildings, their aerial demonstrations a source of wonder, as was their whereabouts during daylight hours.  Not a hawk at all, this very interesting nocturnal bird apparently feeds on the wing in the evening hours, catching insects with intricate flight maneuvers.  They were a familiar and comforting sight in the evening twilight, seeming to say that everything was all right with the world.  Visiting birds to the tree around the farm building setting included blue jays, and occasional cardinals, warblers and baltimore orioles.  The orioles were uncommon enough to be considered a treat!   Wrens were not common, but many summers we had a nesting set of wrens in the coffee-can wren house that I put on the back of the old milk house.  The jaunty wrens were terribly nervous, but their song was beautiful.  We were always glad to have resident wrens.

The swamp

The large swamp below the farm building was a great reservoir of bird life.  While milking the cows in the evening, one could lean against the east door of the barn, and watch twilight preparations among the bird life in the swamp.  The redwing blackbirds were king of the swamp, by virtue of both numbers and song.  The distinctive “trill” of the redwing was one of the sounds of my youth, and invokes many memories.  These birds were so common that their beauty was often overlooked.  Jet black with a striking red patch and white stripe on each wing, these birds made their nests among the reeds of the swamp.  They would perch on these vertical reeds and trill their song to the world, at any hour of the day.  I killed one once with my BB gun and was sorry I had done so. (Sparrows were not so fortunate.) 

While the redwing was king of the swamp, the mallard ducks were the most exciting inhabitants!  Something there is about waterfowl that excites the soul, perhaps appealing to the primitive hunting instinct.  We usually had nesting pairs of mallards in the swamp, where they were reasonably protected from fox (who also have the hunting instinct called hunger).  In the morning and evening, the adult ducks would be seen leaving the swamp in rapid take off, and returning later in long graceful gliding arcs, their distinctive bodies silhouetted gracefully against the sky.  I could always spot where they landed, but never saw any of the duckling brood.  The swamp was too good a place for hiding!  

Hiding was essential for another large inhabitant of the swamp, the least bittern (or “shikepoke” as Dad called them).  A large clumsy wading bird, the shikepoke had a croaking call and a slow, lumbering flight.  They could be seen exiting and entering their nesting areas, large wings working hard on take off to get the heavy body airborne. Even their landings seemed “heavy,” like an overweight glider.  Their silhouette was also distinctive against the sky, but not at all exciting like a mallard duck.  The most remarkable aspect of the shikepoke was their camouflage technique.  Their mottled color blended perfectly into the reeds of the swamp, but their particular expertise was the ability to visually camouflage their profile.  This was done by extending themselves into a motionless vertical pole (poke?) comprising long legs, body, long neck and long bill, all pointing straight up like a pole.  The effect was to blend into the vertical reeds and become almost invisible.  They would keep this motionless pose in spite of being approached quite closely, taking to lumbering flight only in last resort.  Usually, they simply were not seen.

Another swamp grass inhabitant defied identification until my high school years, when I finally figured out it was a woodcock.  Also a game bird, this wary bird was seldom seen (I only spotted one on the ground in all the time on the farm).  The woodcock became known to me by its distinctive pattern of evening flight, high in the evening sky, where I first discovered the bird with binoculars while trying to identify the “mystery sound” coming from the air. What mystery sound?  The unusual, faint, “hoo-hoo-hoo” sound reminiscent of laughter but sounding more like wing noise than an actual vocal call.  It came from high in the evening sky, with a distinctive pattern, on about a five second cycle.  It could be heard only in the absolute stillness of twilight, because any other noise would drown it out.  The noise would begin, faintly and increasing in volume and tempo, lasting for about three seconds.  Then silence for about five seconds.  Then a repeat of the same noise.  It would continue for perhaps 30 minutes, ending as dusk was settling in.  This summertime sound was a great mystery to me for several years.  The first clue finally came on an evening when sitting on the back porch with binoculars, searching the sky.  I observed a small bird perhaps 300-400 yards in the air, flying a systematic climb and dive pattern at that elevation, with the same cycle time as the noise.  Since the distance traveled to my ear delayed the sound, it took some observation to conclude that the noise was produced during the dive pattern.  The flight seemed to be for pure enjoyment, or perhaps to mark the bird’s territory, or even to attract a mate.  Whatever the reason, it was a unique display.  But what bird was it?  The next clue came on a subsequent observation when the bird began a descent before being masked by deepening darkness.  I watched as it spiraled down in long gliding arcs, settling where?  The swamp!  Having earlier spotted a woodcock as a resident swamp resident, I considered the mystery solved.  Was I right? 

The Lake

Undisputed king of the lake birds is the common loon, so named, but not at all “common” because of their unique behavior and call.  A large water dwelling bird, the loon is a prodigious diver, feeding on fish caught by diving (and underwater swimming) to whatever depth might be necessary.  The loons also nested along the lakeshore, in an isolated stretch protected from development by inaccessibility (no roads because of no firm land access).  Loons are beautifully plumaged, but rarely seen close up.  Their diving ability is the perfect escape from close inspection by a curious human.  If encroached upon, the swimming loom merely dives, returning to the surface several minutes later and hundreds of yards away.  A curious feature of their diving is the ability to minutely adjust their depth while swimming on the surface.  Using some principle of buoyancy (inflatable bladder?), the loon is able to ride high on the surface, or gradually sink to any level so that only the head and neck break the surface.  (Submarines do the same thing of course, running at periscope depth when they choose.)  Having evolved for life on the water, the loon is extremely clumsy on land, with an overbalanced body (legs and feet are definitely “rear drive”).  The loon solves this by rarely going on land (I think), nesting very near the waters edge.  The loon appears to be an adequate flyer, with airborne profile much like a large duck or goose.  But getting into the air is anything but easy or graceful.  Being a large bird with large wings, the loon has a hard time leaving the water.  I don’t know why the loon cannot do as well as a goose, but loons are definitely “take-off” challenged.  The only way they can get airborne is to make long “take-off” runs across the surface of the water, using both wings and feet to gain forward speed.  This take-off is both noisy and highly visible, being accompanied by the splashing of frantically churning webbed feet, and I always thought wing tips too (although I never got a close enough look to confirm this).  The take-off requires up to 100 yards, and churns the mirror smooth surface of the evening lake, also sending distinctive splashing sounds across the quiet lake.  Given all the hard work it took to get airborne, I often wondered why they flew at all?  Their home and their food was the lake, so why go anywhere else?  Perhaps just to stay “flight qualified” for the migratory flight facing them in the fall?  Or perhaps to teach the young brood how to fly?  Diving and take-offs made this bird different, but the hallmark of the loon is its voice.  The loon has a remarkable vocal instrument, with at least two completely different calls.  First is the long, haunting and piercing call, repeated several times in decreasing volume, the final call trailing into the nighttime darkness.  The second is the remarkable laughing call.  Both defy being described in words.  But the call of the loon is one of the most distinctive and recognizable sounds of the early evening hours of a quiet summer night.  Musical magic that we took for granted as part of the normal course of things.  Yet the mysterious call of the loon marked me deeply.  I went to sleep many evenings with the lonely and beautiful call coming through the screened window of my upstairs bedroom.  But the seasons dictate that loons leave Wisconsin before the lakes freeze.  Nobody knew when the loons left (or where they went), but they were always gone before the lake froze in late November.  But one winter a loon provided conversation throughout the winter months at many dinner tables around Horseshoe Lake, because nobody had ever seen a loon stay the winter!  We first noticed this loon swimming in a small area of open water across the lake from our place, perhaps 500 yards away.  It was easy to spot, a large dark bird against the white snow covering the recently frozen lake.  We presumed the bird was unable to fly, perhaps a result of a broken wing, because it otherwise seemed healthy enough to dive for long intervals finding fish to eat.  The loon kept the patch of water open by body heat and constantly swimming.  We wondered what would happen to it as the deep cold of December thickened the ice to 16 inches, and the blizzards swept across the desolate frozen surface of the lake.  As days turned into weeks we watched the loon’s open water hole steadily shrink, until it was perhaps no larger than several feet in diameter.  Some neighbors talked about trying to rescue the bird, but it merely dived when approached.  I suppose any one of the lakeshore residents could have dispatched the bird by rifle shot as an act of mercy, but there was something stirring about this bird’s plight and pluck.  I think we all wanted to see how this odyssey turned out.  We were all pulling for the loon!  So December and January passed, February too, with the loon continuing his lonesome survival to the wonderment of all.  But life is not perfect, and neither is this story. The mists of time obscure the ending.  While the Hollywood ending would be that the loon successfully survived the entire winter, my best recollection is that the bird disappeared about March.  But the life lessons from this bird were not completely overlooked.  Courage in the face of adversity.  Steadfastness.  Make the best of what you have. Do what you have to do.  Keep on keeping on!

Another bird of the lake was the kingfisher.  Slightly smaller than the robin and distinctively plumaged, the kingfishers would perch on the electric wires providing power to the lakeshore cottages.  From this vantage point overlooking the lake, the bird would fly sorties over the lake, making flying snatches of small minnows spotted near the surface.  Small shorebirds resembling sandpipers also frequented the lake, but I never identified this species. Great blue herons also nested in the secluded marshes of the adjacent “Mud Lake” but these were never observed from our farm.

Transition areas

Many birds love the transition area between open pasture (or fields) and heavy wood.  The cover of the woods is near while the more open area gives greater vision and access to feeding areas.  These transition areas are a great place to observe bird life.  Eastern bluebirds were not common around our area of Wisconsin, but we occasionally observed these beautiful birds in the transition areas.  So too did we sometimes spot the amazing scarlet tanager with distinctive red plumage and black wings, and the equally exciting indigo bunting.  Warblers of nameless varieties (which we covered with the generic name “canary”) were also frequent flitters in the brush along the transition zone. Two others personal favorites sometimes seen were the wood thrush (cousin of the robin) and the exciting brown thrasher.  What made the thrasher exciting?  The beautiful color of its red-brown plumage and the long beautiful tail!  The sparsely wooded area of pasture below the barn was also home of the remarkable redheaded woodpecker.  One of the most beautiful of birds in its black and white plumage topped off with a totally red head, this woodpecker would fly from tree to tree, frequenting the dead and dying trees in search of the insects that lived therein.  Alighting on the trunk of the tree, the bird would find the right spot and then begin his rapid jackhammer drilling to open the hole that would gain access to the larvae therein.  The sound of this woodpecker drilling on a trunk would travel hundreds of yards on a quiet day.  Very common during my youth, this colorful bird sadly went into decline and is rarely seen now.  Another wood pecking resident was the flicker with the bright yellow vest. 

The fields

Some birds preferred the hay fields or open pasture.  Two that come first to mind are the meadowlark and the bob-o-link.  Both had distinctive calls, but the meadowlark had song and voice.  Meadowlarks were observed either on the ground, or perched on the electric lines anywhere, from which vantage point they would fill the air with beautiful song bursting forth from the bright yellow breast with its striking black V.  This bird should have been first runner up for state bird!  The bob-o-link was another field dweller, with distinctive yellow top-notch and the familiar “bob-o-link” call that announced its presence to the world.  Also emanating from hidden places in the fields or the roadside fencerows were the distinctive calls of the bobwhite.  While this game bird was not common in northern Wisconsin, we almost always would hear the bob white calls during the summer.  But I don’t recall ever actually seeing this bird.  Hawks of several varieties were also common, including red-tailed and marsh hawks, and others that I never identified.  Hawks are interesting to watch as the soar over the fields at 20-50 foot elevations, searching out the small rodents and snakes for their daily meal.  Large and graceful, the hawks dive suddenly to clutch the prey, sometimes eating it at the site but more often quickly taking to the air to carry the fare back to the nest.  Hawks would often perch in dead trees along the ridge of the far east pasture, with a view of the whole farm at their command.  I recall watching for 5-10 minutes at a time from the window of our house as hawks hunted in the field across the road. 

Open pasture

Killdeer were common ground dwellers in the open pasture, particularly along the lake road.  This bird taught us all the art of deception, using its classic “broken wing” trick to lure predators or humans away from its ground dwelling brood.  Cowbirds deserve mention, just because they were there.  No other reason.  It’s not clear to me that the world would be a worse off if cowbirds (and starlings, grackles and pigeons for that matter) just didn’t exist. 

The woods

If the loon is king of the lake, then the ruffed grouse (partridge) is king of the wood!  What an exciting bird!  The first partridge I ever saw was on a trip in the “40” across the road with sister Rose.  The bird exploded from the brush a few steps away, the loud wing noise of the rapidly accelerating game bird ignited my imagination or hunting instincts.  I was hooked on partridge.  I loved them, and learned to hunt them when I became of shotgun age.  Some of the most enjoyable times of my youth were spent each October hunting the lakeshore woods, the “40” across the road, and the strip of trees on the south side of the “40.”  I became a good shot with my bolt action 16 gauge, and Mom would cook the partridge.  Self-taught, I hunted alone except for the several seasons that my dog (and buddy) Corky hunted with me during my high school years.Crows also live somewhere in the woods.  Although common, the wary and intelligent crows were seen mostly only in flight.  Some crows (perhaps all?) generally stayed through the winter.  I think I would have shot crows with the .22 if given a chance.  However, crows were too smart for that.  It simply was not possible to get a shot at a crow!  I don’t know where the kingbirds lived, but they should be mentioned along with the crows.  Why?  Because of the deadly serious aerial exhibitions of nature represented by these two species.  Kingbirds are small birds, but fearless.  They will attack any other bird in defense of their nest or territory.  Particularly crows, I think.  A common site was a lone crow winging across the sky in straight flight, being marauded by several kingbirds.  It was much like a WWII aerial dogfight, the crow representing the lumbering bomber and the kingbirds the swarming fighters.  It was never revealed to me how these encounters began.  Did the crow use its size to raid the nest of the kingbird, and then just endure the consequences?  Or were the kingbirds just spoiling for a good fight and chance to harass an enemy?  I also don’t know the outcome of these encounters, as the battle almost always continued until out of sight.  I always rooted for the kingbirds.  On some occasions the kingbirds would “break off” the engagement, apparently satisfied with the punishment meted out to the offender.  

Owls also were wood dwellers.  I only saw one owl at roost, but they made their presence known at night, when the distinctive “who-who” of the remote owl would complement the call of the loon and symphony of frogs.  My one face-to-face encounter with a daylight owl got me to thinking about why owls have the reputation of being wise.  I suspect it’s because they are one of the few birds with a human-like face, in that both eyes face frontward (like a human face).  This makes them look more like us – hence “wise.”


Eagles were present in natural Wisconsin, according to accounts of early settlers.  None remained when I was growing up, a result of encroachment and predation of humans (the eagles had disappeared from our area beforeDDT was invented).  In 2002, sister Rose and I observed a bald eagle resident in the marsh area around Skinaway Lake on the Canyon Road.  As the farmlands revert to nature, the majestic hunter is now returning.  Welcome back!

Game birds

Our game birds were partridge, a few ring necked pheasant, ducks, and itinerant geese on their way south (not counting the bob white which were not present in enough numbers to hunt successfully).  In recent years, geese have become resident as land reverts to nature.  But as I was growing up, the duck and goose hunting was mostly of the migrating birds.  I was never very successful at duck hunting, lacking decoys and the opportunity to hunt with someone experienced.  But the migrating waterfowl were tremendously exciting to me.  The long V’s of birds passing over the farm, the honking of the geese, the constant shifting of position within the Vs as various birds took their turn at breaking the wind in lead position.  While the aerodynamics aren’t clear to me, the V is an efficient flight formation, like drafting in a car race.  Migrating geese seldom landed on Horseshoe Lake, or if they did it was unobserved at night.  I do recall one occasion when I was quite young that a large flock spent the day on the lake, out of range of all hunters.  It was exciting nonetheless.

Winter Birds

Bird life was sparser in winter, but present.  The sparrows made home around the farm buildings, looking for food and shelter (they would enter the machine shed if the doors were left open, for shelter and because the oats granary was also inside the shed).  Blue jays were the beauty bird of winter, their colorful bright blue plumage and their loud cry actually cheering up the winter scene.  Slate gray juncos, smaller than sparrows and never seen in summer, hopped around the winter snows in search of food from dead grasses, easy prey for a BB gun until I decided they were better to have around than to shoot (a dead junco in my hand wasn’t good for anything!).  The nuthatch could be found among the pine trees, while somewhere in the wood the crow and partridge survived the winter, the crow raucous and visible from a distance and in flight, the partridge never seen.  We saw pheasants stalking the winter snow, looking gaunt and cold, and sickly.  Winter isn’t easy for birds in Wisconsin.

Bird book

When I was about eight years old, I contracted undulant fever, the human form of the bovine “Bang’s disease.” Missing school for about 6-8 weeks, my classmates sent me a get-well card with about $10 in cash.  Under Mom’s guidance, we used the money to buy “Birds of America” published by the Audubon Society.  This much-used gift still exists, not only in my being, but physically.  After I left the farm, Mom used the book as a teaching resource for her third graders for years.  Our daughter Teresa now has the book.  Although tattered, it’s still doing its thing!


The white tailed deer were the most graceful and exciting of our local wildlife, and always a pleasure to see, grazing in the alfalfa fields (but never far from cover), or sometimes traversing the open area between the lakeshore woods and the “40” across the road.  In June we would sometimes see the doe with fawn making this journey (once with twin fawns).  Other woodland wildlife included raccoons, squirrels (gray, fox and red, and an occasional flying squirrel), and chipmunks.  Bear were gone in the Wisconsin of my youth, but have now reportedly returned as the land reverts to wild.  Swamp life included muskrat, turtles and of course the frogs.  Bullfrogs and leopard frogs (spotted green) were the common varieties, and the frog chorus emanating from the lake and the swamp every summer evening was a part of the farm life.  The tenor and soprano voices of the smaller frogs were punctuated with the deep throat call of the bullfrog.  A few mink were around, but I never saw one.  Weasels too. Pasture wildlife included the reclusive badger (I never actually saw a badger, only the badger holes), fox (gray and red), rabbits (cottontail and jack), and of course skunk.  Every farm lad has a skunk story, frequently involving the farm dog.  I recall watching one of our dogs be sprayed as he tried to fend off an intruding skunk around the farm building.  The skunk won of course, and it was remarkable to see the pain inflicted on the dog.  Yelping in surprise and pain, the temporarily blinded dog ran through the grass with nose in the turf and dirt, trying to remove the spray.  When able to collect his senses a little, the dog tumbled down the steep embankment to the lake to wash the spray from eyes and body.  This seemed to relieve the eye problem a great deal, but there were still hours of whimpering and days of lingering odor.  Quite an experience!

I trapped muskrat for several years, self-taught (which is a slow learning process).  But I caught a few and sold the pelts for a few dollars.  I also caught a raccoon (by accident) and a skunk.  I killed and skinned the raccoon, but I don’t recall what I did with the skunk.  In dry falls, the swamps would go dry, forcing the inhabitants to the lake for survival.  In such times, the muskrats would occupy the lake, often digging tunnels from an underwater entrance onto the dry shore.  These tunnels could be located by sight, and then it was a great game to roust the muskrat from its underground bunker by tromping the adjacent lakeshore.  The muskrat would emerge from the tunnel at flank speed into about one foot of water like a streak of lightening, leaving a wake of churned sand and bubbles.  It was all a great process of discovery for a youth.  Later, I did most of my muskrat trapping in the lake. It is still not at all clear how the muskrats survived winters in their lakeside homes, because the access to water almost certainly froze solid.  Another mystery. 

As a young boy, I learned about coon hunting from neighbors (the Rileys), but never experienced such an adventure.  Then while in college at Eau Claire, I met two guys with coonhounds who loved to hunt coon, then fairly hard to find in their area around Mondovi.  So I invited them up for a Friday night coon hunt on a crisp autumn night, complete with their two hounds.  I decided to try the woods below the Wittenbreer farm, because of the standing cornfield and easy access by road.  We parked the car, released the hounds (where the Yellow River Company would later locate their gravel operation) and within a minute they were on scent, plunging through the darkness in pursuit of the running coon.  We ran after them, carrying one .22 rifle and flashlights that were mostly useless on the dead run.  We ran through the pitch-black woods, brush whipping our face and clothes.  We ran through briars.  We ran full speed into a barbwire fence.  We plunged through swamps.  At one point the coon circled back towards us (hound’s baying getting closer) so we stopped and waited.  The coon and dogs came crashing past us within 20-40 yards, based on sound.  Then they disappeared again into the distance.  We ran until we were whipped and the dogs were lost.  My friends, initially so eager, were now fearful of having lost their dogs in this god forsaken place.  It took about two hours to link back up with the exhausted dog.  My friends decided to return to their Mondovi home that same night.  I decided to never go coon hunting again!

Turtles of two varieties occupied the swamps and lakes; the harmless mud (or painted) turtle and the larger and dangerous snapping turtle.  The painted turtle was so named because of the multicolored underside shell, mostly coral and yellow colors as I recall, with darker swirls marbling.  These turtle could be picked up by their shells, closely observed, and kept as “pets” for a while.  Snappers were dangerous animals in a 3-4 inch zone around their head.  While we were still young Mom used a stick to demonstrate the ability of the snapper to quickly grab and mercilessly hold anything that its mouth could reach.  The lesson stuck.  Both varieties of turtles were common in the lake, and they could be seen floating lazily with only their heads above water.  I once snagged a snapping turtle by accident while fishing, the hooks of the lure engaging flesh between the head and front leg.  I was faced with a problem.  I didn’t want to lose the artificial bait (it was a Lazy Ike or Flatfish as I recall), but I had no way to extract it safely.  So we had a standoff at five feet, with the hooked turtle looking up at me from the water and me looking back.  After pondering this situation, I successfully used the oar to jab at the bait, luckily pulling it loose from the flesh.  I was much relieved.  The snapper was not available for comment.

Timber wolves were no longer present in Wisconsin as I was growing up, having been hunted out or driven to more isolated areas of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota.  However, one day Dad spotted two wolves traversing the pasture at a steady lope from the lakeshore wood to the “40.”  Although 500-600 yards away, Dad was sure that they were not dogs, based on their loping run.  This was the only wolf sighting of my time on the farm.  Wolves have now returned in considerable number. 

I did have another sighting of two mystery animals in my very early life.  I was quite small, and remember the incident only because of the impression it made.  I suppose I was about five years old.  It was a summer evening and I was playing in our driveway.  I looked down the road towards the swamp and saw two animals cavorting in the road, near the lake road at the bottom of the hill.  They were dog-like, but not dogs.  They were black and white.  They disappeared into the “40.”  I ran to tell Mom and Dad.  They came out and looked at the empty road. They asked for descriptions.  Of course, no such animal exists, so it was unexplained.  Mom said, “Well, he saw something, because he sure is excited.”  I’m sure they soon forgot it, but I didn’t.  I saw something!

Such was the magic and mystery of growing up on the farm.

[1]  This meant that the car couldn’t be parked in the garage during the summer, because of droppings.  That was O.K., because the car was only placed in the garage during the winter anyway.  The nest in the garage was also a great place to study developing bird life, because it could easily be observed by standing on a sawhorse.  Some swallow nests were enclosed with tunnel entrances, but the ones in the garage were always open (no rain, therefore no need for a tunnel entrance to an encapsulated nest?)