Thistles Cut, Ironing Done

20. VIGNETTES

In 1920 the Markesan High School Band went to play at the Beaver Dam Fair in neighboring Dodge County. Austin Schraeder played saxophone in the band. Uncle Charley wanted to give Ed and Mabel the opportunity to go to the Fair by asking them to take the young Austin. They could drive one of the used cars he kept with his automobile business. Automobiles had a top speed of twenty-five or thirty miles per hour. The poorly maintained dirt roads made driving twenty miles an adventure. Soon they had a flat tire. Ed and Austin got out to fix it. In those days any flat tire meant taking the tire off the rim and removing the inner tube to find out where the air was leaking out and patching it, and then pumping air back into it. Taking the tire off the rim was frustrating and getting it back on without pinching the tube against the metal rim was often difficult. This kind of "work" was not what Ed had grown up with.

After the repairs were made they went on their way only to have another flat. This time Austin searched for a substitute inner tube in the tool box on the running board. He brought it to Ed and said, "This is supposed to be a good one." Ed looked at it skeptically and said, "It ought to be. It has enough patches on it." My parents laughed every time they told this story. They were hesitant to accept the offer of one of Charley's cars forever after.

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Uncle Charley employed a couple of men who were supposed to help with sales of farm machinery. My parents were used to thinking of real work. Selling didn't seem exactly useful or honorable to them. Since both men were well acquainted with our family they often came by our farm just to "gossip" a while. Each time they came our little white fox terrier greeted them viciously, barking and nipping at their heels. My mother said to them, "Snooks can tell if a person is honest!"

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My mother baked cakes that brought questions like, "What do you do to make it rise so high?" Her reputation as a baker of the highest angel food cakes was established in the family. The egg whites were beaten with a flat wire whip in a big bowl. She believed a rotary egg beater would ruin it. The cakes were iced with a boiled frosting. Sugar and water were cooked to the string stage and folded into the beaten egg whites. Those egg whites were also beaten with the wire whip on a large meat platter which she held on her lap as she worked. One day when I was five years old, I stood close by watching the delicious icing take shape. I said, "Gosh, I like that frosting." Mother stopped beating to look into my eyes and said, "Don't ever say 'gosh' again!" I never have.

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In early spring my father and his brothers liked to go to Princeton Cattle Fair. I think farmers brought livestock to trade or sell. I only know that Dad and his brothers liked to go there to possibly trade horses. Traveling to Princeton and back with a team and sled would take all day. At the fair they bought cheese and crackers for their lunch. Mother would say to Dad as he left, "Don't stay until the last dog is hung." I wonder what the origin of that phrase is?

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In an effort to be more organized I am trying to find places to store the strange things that have come to us. The mittens my father wore on only the very coldest winter trips so many years ago came into my hands. The outside is of soft brown leather - somewhat worn. Inside they have a soft hairy lining. Our sons and Howard have worn them a few times on what we considered a very cold day.

As I touched them I was reminded of the longer, cold winter trips when my father wore them. At the time I did not question why Fox Lake was a center that bought livestock for market. We raised fifty or more hogs each year to sell. We lived several miles north of the village. The road had a number of corners and curves which added miles to the travel distance. In winter time Fox Lake froze over. Since it was not an especially deep lake it froze solidly. In January and February it was safe to drive across it with a team and sled.

Dad loaded the hogs for sale into a rack on the sled and drove a well shod team on the snowy roads and across the icy lake. It was an all day trip to the village and back. I'm sure those mittens felt good as he held the reins in his hands all those hours.

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Mr. Bierman, the Watkins man, came to our house twice a year. He knew when he arrived just before noon that he would be offered a good meal. My Mother visited with him as she worked and he displayed the Watkins products. Perhaps she believed they were superior to spices and medications that were offered by the stores or it may be that not all of them could be found in stores. Since her cooking included making pickles, and preserves as well as baking Mother bought large size cans of spices. I still have cloves, allspice in half-pound cans that she bought at least fifty years ago. They came to me after she gave up housekeeping twenty-five years ago when I already had spices in my cupboard. We also have an eleven ounce can of Petrocarbo Salve. Dad used it on the cracks on his hands when they were chapped in cold weather. The same salve was often used for collar burns on a horse's necks. I can't bring myself to dispose of these old products. I guess I am very sentimental.

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Early hay balers were powered by a gasoline engine which was started by cranking by hand. After the motor was running the crank was detached.

One summer day in the 1940's Sheldon came into the house in mid-afternoon. He said, "Ma, you are always able to find things when no one else can. Could you come with me to the field? I can't find the crank to the baler." Mabel stopped her work to go with him to the forty-acre hayfield. Before very long she spotted the eighteen-inch slim metal crank in the stubble where it had been dropped.

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In her first years of living in Riverdale Manor, Mabel had a private telephone. Even though she was in her eighties she could look up a phone number in the directory, close the book and dial it correctly. The manager marveled at the keen mind that enabled such a procedure.

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Salt for livestock came in 50 pound bags made of coarse cloth. When a bag was emptied Mabel rinsed and washed them to bleach out the label. Some were opened up at the seam to make a large square which she hemmed neatly for covering the cream separator or milker utensils after they were washed and dried. Recently I found one that had been carefully patched. The last time it had covered the utensils had been 1943. Now it still speaks of Mabel's skill and thrift.

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In the 1920's when Dad was Treasurer of the Township of Green Lake he collected taxes in January and February. To make it more convenient for the taxpayers he spent a day at each of the banks of Fairwater, Ripon and Markesan. Mother accompanied Dad to help with the work. Winter time travel often presented special problems. Early in the morning they hitched a horse to the cutter to drive the dozen or more miles. They wanted to be ready when the bank opened. It was on such occasions that a horse blanket would be needed. After the exercise of the long trip the horse would be warm. The woolen blanket was thrown over him at the end of the journey to keep him from cooling too quickly in the winter air.

Darkness comes early in Wisconsin in winter time. One day when Ed and Mabel left the Ripon bank at closing time they were soon puzzled about where the road was and which direction they were driving. Snow covered the fields even over the fences and in the dim light they could not recognize the landmarks. The whiteness was the same in every direction. Finally, Dad slightly loosed his hold on the reins and spoke to the horse. He gave the horse "its head" and it took them safely home.

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One day when our grandson, Scott, was sitting at our kitchen table he suddenly asked,

"Grandma, what is that noise?"

It took a second or two for me to realize that there was a noise. It was the murmuring sound of the teakettle beginning to boil. It had not occurred to me that a singing teakettle was not a familiar sound in all kitchens. Many people do not use a teakettle to heat water for tea or coffee or other cooking purposes. We can simply put a container with water into the microwave.

I still keep a small teakettle on the stove but it no longer gets much opportunity to sing as the large teakettles did on a wood-burning stove in earlier years. A teakettle set on the moderately warm part of the stove could give its cheerful song for hours, especially in cold weather when a fire was needed all day. Now, when it begins to sing I turn off the power in order to save on the electricity.

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