Thistles Cut, Ironing Done

1. THE HOUSE WHERE I WAS BORN

My life began near the village of Markesan in Green Lake County, Wisconsin. The house on the Card Farm (Wallace Card had been the previous owner) was a long frame structure with weathered white paint. It was set in a fenced door-yard sheltered from the west winds by a grove of cedar trees. The garden and orchard protected the east side.

The back door opened into the kitchen on the northwest corner of the house. Cold winds struck directly on that door in winter. To keep some of the chill from going directly into the kitchen a storm house, a temporary frame room was installed on the small back porch. It was a useful idea. A picture of us children taken in early spring shows the storm house in the background.

Just a few yards west of the back door was the woodshed. In it my father positioned a gasoline engine to power my mother's wringer-type washer. Nearly all other women we knew still used hand power to swish the clothes in the washer. This arrangement for my mother was a big help even if she did have to make some adjustments when Sheldon and I were babies to care for us while she was in the woodshed doing the washing. I remember her voicing her concerns many years later.

When I was three years old my parents decided that a basement would make the house warmer as well as making it possible to install central heating, plumbing and an electric light plant. To do this the house was raised on jacks and a horse drawn scoop used to pull the dirt out from under it. Masons, Lesheski brothers from near Marquette, came to make a smooth concrete floor in the basement and to lay a stone foundation of red and blue granite. I watched the workmen as they carefully rounded the mortar between the rocks.

Carpenters came to frame the bathroom off a section of the large kitchen. One of the workers was Fred (Jack) Ewald, who had been my father's hired man and was a family friend. I liked to see the thin curls of wood come from the plane as he pushed it firmly across the board.

So it came about that our house had a bathroom and electric lights when few farm homes had such conveniences.

The light plant had rows of large storage batteries which were charged by running a gasoline engine a few hours on alternate days to build up the current. The operation of the engine was Mother's province. If the motor didn't run as it should she usually detected the problem, but sometimes the repairman had to come, someone who knew about gasoline engines. Electric power from batteries was not endless and we were conscientious about turning out unnecessary lights and heating the electric iron only as absolutely needed. I still turn out lights when no one really needs them.

The white kitchen in this house was a very large bare room. Saving steps for the housewife was not considered. The wood-burning Quick-Meal stove set well away from one wall. A door behind the stove opened into the woodshed. My father and the hired man hung their work jackets on hooks on the wall behind the stove as they came in for meals or for the night. Cupboards faced with wainscoting were built on one wall from floor to ceiling.

In front of the west window was the sink. It was my mother's design. One day she determined to have plenty of worktable space. She drew up a plan without thinking of the size of the overall piece. She gave the measurements to a carpenter. When he notified my mother that the piece was completed, my father went in the wagon to get it. Dad was surprised when he saw it. With help he managed to get it loaded. Then he laughed all the way home. He wondered if this monstrosity would go through the kitchen door. It did. It was very useful. I remember any number of guests passing by it as they walked through the kitchen asking where my mother got it. They wanted one like it. The sunken surface was covered with zinc. There were three deep drawers on the left for utensils, towels and cleaning cloths. On the right side an equally large cupboard held two big dishpans which we set out on top to wash dishes. We moved the sink to the other farmhouses where we lived and not until 1947 did we discard it for a white sink with faucets and drain and a dishwasher. Oh, how we missed the roomy old sink!

Shelves and cupboards lined the walls of the pantry adjoining the kitchen. In it there was room for a drop leaf table. On days when my father and the hired man went threshing, Mother, Sheldon and I had our meals at that table. I remember how good the fresh tomatoes tasted. It seems strange now, but we always sprinkled them with sugar.

Our family of four and the hired man regularly ate in the dining room. A white table cloth always covered the table. A colored table cloth or one with printed design was uncommon. The sugar bowl, salt and pepper shakers and vinegar cruet were left on the table. A carefully ironed, starched embroidered cloth covered them between meals. The dining room was the scene of Christmas dinner for the Schwandt family one year. It was our turn to entertain my father's five brothers and six sisters and their spouses and Grandpa and Grandma, as well as an assortment of our cousins. Two tables were extended to seat twenty-four at one time. After the adults had eaten, the tables were set a second time for us children. We had such a good time that some of the men went home to do the chores and milking and came back for supper even though going to and from was slower in those days.


Cousins: 1915
(back row) Adelaide and Austin
(middle row) Ruth, Myrtle, Frances, and Irene
(front row) Wilson and Jeanette


The living room had bay windows on the corner to the west. In that area a fern on a tall plant stand grew especially well. Visitors often admired it and asked my mother how she made it grow fronds that reached to the floor. I remember a primrose that bloomed in a large round pot.

A library table set in the center of the living room. Until electricity was installed rocking chairs and a Morris chair were grouped around the table where a kerosene lamp gave light in the evenings. (What stories the table could tell! When my mother moved to Nashville it came to our house. It stood in the boy's bedroom upstairs. At one time Alan collected snakes. He set two cages for the snakes on the table. Now my computer and printer set on it in a downstairs room. The lower shelf where my mother set a highly ornamented blue glass slipper holds the continuous printer paper just perfectly.)

In that big living room was a large plate glass window with a leaded glass section across the top. I remember a day my father was sharpening kitchen knives and I watched as he tested the edge of the blade with his thumb. When I thought he was not looking I tested one too. When it cut my thumb slightly I left the kitchen to go to pretend to look out that big window. I expect I felt a little guilty about testing the knife, when I had been warned against trying. In a few minutes Dad came to find me. He'd guessed what I had done. A soft smile lighted his face as he helped me wipe the few drops of blood from my thumb.

Our piano stood against the west wall of the living room. My mother bought it of Uncle Charles Schraeder. How he happened to have a piano for sale when his business was in farm machinery, I never found out. It had a very easy touch so that playing softly on it was easier than any piano I have known. My aunts and cousins liked it too. My Mother played hymns and a few popular songs. "Let the Rest of the World Go By" was new in those days.

With someone like you, a pal good and true,
I'd like leave it all behind, and go and find
Some place that's known to God alone
Just a spot to call our own.
We'll find perfect peace,
Where joys never cease,
Out there beneath a kindly sky,
We'll build a sweet little nest somewhere in the west,
And let the rest of the world go by.

In today's frenzied, crowded world we still dream that same dream.

Unusual drapes hung in the wide doorway that opened from the living room into the sewing room. They were of tiny rolled silk pieces of many colors sewed together in long strings. In the cozy sewing room Father often lay on the hard old-fashioned couch to read in the evening while my mother mended socks or patched overalls. A gooseneck lamp stood on the Wheeler-Wilson sewing machine. In the winter months in the years when my father was Green Lake Town Treasurer my parents set up a folding table, called a sewing table on which they spread out the tax roll. (How simple it was to keep records in that day.)

A bookcase desk of smooth oak wood stood in one corner of the room. Through the tall glass door a box of stereopticon slides could be seen. The Wisconsin Blue Book was there too. In the Beginning, The Story of Genesis introduced me to Bible reading.

My brother and I shared the smaller of the downstairs bedrooms, but it was large enough for his junior size bed and my baby bed, where I slept as long as we lived in that house. Sheldon's bed had a low railing around it. When we undressed we hung our clothes on a rack on the wall. The rack was simply a board covered with cloth with hooks screwed into it. Aunt Anna Sims had embroidered the cloth with the words "Baby's Clothes". Another wall decoration was a picture of a dejected looking big, black dog sitting beside a child's bed on which a few flowers are scattered. He is mourning the loss of his child master. A door opened from this bedroom into the back yard. I often sat looking out through the screen when I was supposed to be taking a nap.

My parents occupied the large front bedroom downstairs on the southeast corner of the house. One day Mother decided that they should move to the front bedroom upstairs. After one night they moved the furniture back downstairs to the room where they felt more at home. As he lifted and carried the tall headboard of the oak bedstead and the large ornate mirror off the dresser and all the smaller pieces my father made amusing comments about people "who liked to move their furniture every day."

The front stairway led from the front door, out of the living room up to a wide hall that extended the length of the house. It was a great place to play in bad weather. An interesting corner provided space for my father's trunk and our toy boxes. (Just now I wonder that my father owned a trunk. He had never traveled more than a few miles from his birthplace.) His baptismal certificate hung on the wall. It was printed in the German language.

One of the bedrooms and the long upstairs hall were carpeted with a rag rug. When dresses and shirts wore out my mother cut them into strips. She sewed the strips end to end and wound the lengths into big balls. She took them to a weaver who used a loom to make strips of carpet four feet wide. A long length of the woven carpet was spread down the center of the hall. By sewing three strips of the four foot weaving together a room size rug had been made for the large west-center bedroom. This type of carpet could be dismantled into the three strips and washed.

In June and July of each year boarders slept in some of the bedrooms. They were young men who came from the large cities, Milwaukee and Chicago, to work for the pea canning factories in Markesan. The factories had machines called viners scattered throughout the countryside. The men who worked at the viners needed places nearby to sleep and have meals. In those days not everyone owned a car so workers could not travel to and from their jobs. Since we had lots of room and my mother was a good cook, two or three men stayed with us during the canning season while they worked at the viner across the road from our house. (A viner took the green peas out of the pods and sorted them according to size as the vines moved through the machine. Today viners have been replaced by a single machine which moves across the field cutting and vining peas at the same time.)

At the far end of the long upstairs hall a door opened out onto a railed porch. It was a convenient place to air bedding or shake throw rugs. It had no visible supports. Mother felt it was insecure and often warned us not to go out on it.

The back stairway led down from that end of the hall to the kitchen. This was the stairway used by the roomers and hired man to get to their rooms.

Neighbors were near by. The Fox family lived just west from our yard and nearer to us across the road John, and Rose Maas lived with their four children. Irene and Inez were close to Sheldon and me in age so that we played together almost every day. If my mother couldn't find us she could shout from our yard to tell us to come home.

Harvey and Iva Maas were thirteen and fourteen years old when Sheldon and I started to school. They walked the long distance on the country road with us younger children. We felt perfectly at home going off to school even though, I was four and Sheldon was five. Starting school was easy with such familiar children with us. The road was a wagon or buggy track that was worn smooth and packed in dry weather. When it rained it was different.

In wet weather we wore low cut rubbers to protect our shoes. Sometimes there was no way to avoid the deeper mud of a low place in the ungraded road. One day my shoe and rubber both slipped off my foot and stuck in the mud. Iva supported me as I stood on one foot while Harvey pulled my shoe and rubber out of the ooze and put them back on for me.

On our walk to school we passed the Phelps Cemetery which had many tall evergreen trees and seemed a dark and gloomy place to a small child. After someone read "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" to me that cemetery seemed to be the setting for the story. I could picture the Headless Horseman riding out of it across the road in front of us.

A short distance from the school a line of apple trees grew on the fence row. They were Greening apples which ripened in late fall. Sometimes we found apples that had fallen to the ground, which we picked up to eat as we walked home from school.

Our one room red school building was called Maplewood School. It was set on a large yard with many shade trees. When we sang "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," "all that he could see was Maplewood School." My father and his brothers and sisters attended school in the same place years before.

My first teacher was Miss Flanagan. She had lovely red hair. Of course, she was always nice to the little girl that I was. In second grade our teacher was Miss Sadie Wilde (Mrs. Arthur Lenz) whose family was well known to the Schwandts. In recent years Sadie recalled those days with me. She remembered that when the weather was very bad Ed Schwandt would come with his team hitched to the buggy or sled to get us and drop her off at her sister's, Mrs. Edna Degener's house where she boarded.

Now the dusty road is a fine blacktopped one and no apple trees mark the fences. The schoolhouse is no longer needed. The dark spruce trees are gone from the cemetery along with the ornate front gate with the name Chauncey Phelps spelled out on its high arch. The cemetery is now a sunny place.

When I was seven we moved away from the big house and this farm. A few years later the house burned and was replaced by a square white structure. The barns are now new ones with big silos. I am especially glad to have pictures showing some of the details of the old house.

I'm glad my Mother posed for this picture on the Card Farm
with the bay windows of the living room in the background.

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Copyright 1991, 2004 by Zona S. Justiss. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise noted, text and photos on this page are property of the author and may not be reproduced, posted, distributed, or used for any commercial purpose without prior permission.