You can take the Man out of the City but you can't take the City our of the Man


My dad was not "cut out" to be a farmer. He was born in Racine, Wisconsin and as a young man he worked in Chicago for his brother-in-law Gustav Goehner. Because he was indoors so much, he developed poor health and his brother John invited him to join him in Minnesota where they purchased land. He had but a second grade education, however, he educated himself through his reading the Minneapolis paper, books, and magazines. He also had a deep interest in people and what they were doing. Even at age 80+, and in failing health, he would ask for the Daily to see what the Japs and the Chinamen were doing.

Dad served on the town board and also the school board as clerk. The men met at our house and their papers were stored in my folk's upright desk which was partially bought for this purpose. He developed a neat and fluid handwriting style and was very articulate in expressing himself. I am including here, as an example of his language skill, a letter he wrote to Jimmie Benoit. It was custom in those days for a man to ask the father of the future bride for his approval oft he marriage. So evidently Jimmie had written my folks and this is the letter my dad, at age 82, wrote in return:

Brandon, Minn. July 8, 1936

Mr. James T. Benoit

Forest Grove, Oregon

Dear Mr. Benoit

Your letter dated July 4th in which you express the desire for our consent in marriage was received today. We agree with you that this is an old established custom, but since we belong to the older generation it is natural for us to like it. Therefore, we want you to know that we appreciate the formality and give our whole hearted consent to what we hope will be a happy union.

We are getting old and we will miss our daughter very much but we will know she will be happier with a hind and devoted husband!

Mrs. Wilken and myself wish you both a long and happy married life.

Sincerely,

Bertha and William Wilken

Dad was very brave, nothing phased him. We never had a lock or even a hook on the doors. The front outside door was directly in line with the upstairs, and one night Della and I could hear the outside screen door go "squeeeeak" and we called to dad in the next room. He got up, went down to look who was there. The person had already left and we later thought it was a piano tuner (Froelund) who was kind of a bum and was looking for a place to sleep.

On another occasion, I accompanied my dad to Skiles and we had to stay overnight in "the shack. " When we went to bed, my dad said, "We may have tramps trying to get in tonight, so I'll take the ax along side the bed. " Sure enough, shortly after crawling into bed, someone was at the door, but whether dad said something or not, I don't remember, but the tramp left and went to sleep in the barn instead. And we were safe!

Speaking of tramps. At this particular time we milked eight cows-ma and I three each and dad two. Ma would zip Out the milk and the pail would get a big head of foam. Dad would drip, drip ever so slowly. He was getting older too and didn't always clean the barn daily, and so as the saying goes, "the work piled up. " One evening, as we were milking, a rough looking tramp came into the barn. He was about 6' 2" and well built. My mother was afraid of both tramps and the Gypsies, but always put on a brave front. The tramp asked if he could stay over night. Ma said, "If you sleep in the barn. " He said, pointing, "HERE" meaning behind the cows. Ma said, "If you wish!!" Did he ever get angry and grumbled loudly to himself and left.

I'm mentioning the name Skiles quite often. This farm was about seven miles southwest of our place and that my folks bought in 1903. They almost paid for it in one year with a good crop of flax. This farm was homesteaded by this man Isaac Skiles during the 1860's under a signed document from President Andrew Johnson which we still have in our house. So the transporting of machinery, horses, hay, grain and food forth and back was a real chore and consumed much valuable time. Ma spent many hours going by buggy with Dewey (the horse) taking kettles full of cooked potatoes for the men to fry, a large ham, eggs, bread, dozens of donuts, pies, etc. to last for several days. I would have to harness the horse and bring him and the buggy to the house.

On this occasion, dad was going to Skiles to get hay with two racks. Carl was elected to help, but he offered me 25 cents if I would go along instead. So I went, but now dad had to load both loads alone, so it was dark before we left for home. On the way home, we had to go down a very steep hill and over a narrow bridge at the foot of this hill. Dad was in the lead, but it was so dark (no moonlight either) I couldn't see his load just ahead of me. Now down this hill, I hung onto the reins with all my might, but dad didn't have martingales (a leather strap beneath the horse's harness to the neck yoke) on his harness. The horses, therefore, had no assistance in holding back the speed of the wagon because the neck yokes would climb up over the horse's faces. The wagon continued to gain speed the further along we went. Somehow I got down the hill and across the bridge, but I was shaking all the way home!

Dad was also in on the butchering in the fail. The hog blood was saved for "blut" wurst. It had to be cooled down quickly or it would coagulate. After the pig was dead and gutted, it was dropped into a barrel of boiling water so as to loosen the hair which had to be scraped off. One time my dad had John Hopfner to help butcher a steer. I suppose we couldn't waste a bullet, so John was to hit the steer over the head with an ax. The blow wasn't sufficient to kill or even stun the animal, so it broke loose and started to run all over the yard; bellowing and with its tail in the air. Over and through fences it ran, through the garden and around the house. The two men in hot pursuit with the ax raised in the air. The steer finally petered out and collapsed in our summer kitchen platform porch. There John gave it the final blow!!!

Dad also cooked up the soap which was used for washing clothes and bodies. The used or discarded fat was placed in a large black kettle outdoors. The kettle hung on a type of tripod for support, leaving enough space underneath to build a fire. After the fat had melted, lye was mixed in and left to boil. The mixture was poured into pans to cool and solidify. After it was cold, the soap was cut into blocks and stored for future use.

During the winter months, there wasn't any field work to do, so this gave dad an opportunity to sack up grain to take to the elevator in Brandon. A sleigh load was usually about sixteen sacks which was heavy enough for the team of horses to pull to Brandon seven miles away. If the roads were too heavy with snow, it meant breaking a new trail over fields and around woods. It was on these occasions that dad joined with three other area farmers who were known as the BIG FOUR: John Wilken (dad's brother), Fred Meissner (our neighbor to the east) and Ernest Meissner (northwest Lake Moses). They would meet after unloading their grain, resting and feeding the horses, to quaff a few rounds of beer and to brag how much each one had thrashed. One day a Ketter joined them "at the watering hole" and he too began to brag how much grain he had obtained form this years' harvest To which Ernest Meissner replied, "Uh, er will schon auch mit sprechen. " Which means, listen he thinks he belongs up here with us too!!!

There were many difficult and arduous tasks the early pioneers had to battle. None was worse than the making of ice. The neighbors and families would cooperate in a "social" making ice after the lakes had frozen very hard, usually at least two feet thick. They used long saws and by hand cut through the ice, creating big square blocks which were pulled out of the open water with ice tongs. These blocks surely weighed 100 pounds or more and as the men handled the blocks; the water would splash on their clothing. Pretty soon their pants and jackets would be frozen stiff. The blocks were loaded onto sleds and the horses then pulled the load home where they again had to be lifted off the sleigh and placed side by side in the ice house where they were covered with saw dust to keep them insulated. This ice had to remain throughout most of the summer as one means of preserving some of our food supply such as milk, butter and cream. Some farmers had a well pit which kept these items at about forty degrees, but we didn't have a pit.

This ice also came in handy for the making of ice cream. Dad would come to the door and say to ma, "If you stir up the cream, I'll chop up the ice. " The ice was chopped usually be placing chunks in a gunny sack and hitting it with an ax or hammer until it was finally crushed. The ice and several hands of salt went into the bucket and he would turn the crank. At first, you could hear the cream mixture sloshing around and after maybe twenty minutes, the cranking would go harder and finally-the ice cream-the most delicious stuff imaginable. The biggest treat was to see who got to lick off the dasher. Ma just took the cream, eggs and sugar raw. Later I would cook a custard like pudding. This produced more body to the ice cream and a richer and smoother texture. We would whip up a chocolate cake while dad was churning and then we'd feast on huge plates of ice cream and the fresh hot cake. The sight of ice cream coming out of the canister and the smell of fresh cake makes me feel it was just happening today. (But, oh for the calories. )

One characteristic of my father that served him well was his physical toughness. He could be out in -20 degree weather and have both his shirt and jacket open at the collar. In the very early days, I was told, he drove a team of horses to Perham (30 miles one way) to buy a supply of flour. And he would get and take Sr. Jerome to Meir Grove where she taught. Sometimes if we drove some distance in the winter with the team, he would heat bricks in the oven, wrap them in paper, place this in a sack and put it into the sleigh for me to put my feet on to keep warm.

The last years found my dad in steadily declining health for which there wasn't any cure at the time. If he felt well enough, he would sit by ma's bed and talk "a blue streak" to her. They were very much in love all their married life and their devotion to each other remained till the end. My dad was not much for church or religion. He firmly believed if a person kept the Ten Commandments that would suffice. I'm sure God was pleased how he had conducted himself in life and he died in his sleep on October 18, 1939.

A Solemn Requiem High Mass was sung by Father William A. Renner, the celebrant, Father Peter A. Lorsung, deacon, and Father John B. Wilkes, subdeacon who preached the sermon. The pallbearers were: William and Philip Hopfner, Florian, Claude and Charles Wilken and Harvey Brozek. The cross bearer was Carl C. Nelson.


Next