The Schwandt family, my father's brothers and sisters, were much a part of my early days. Our farm was only about two miles from "the home place" where Grandpa and Grandma Schwandt had brought up their large family. Uncle Emil and his wife Lily lived on Grandpa's farm by the time I was born. Fred's farm was only a short distance down the road from ours. Their younger brothers, still unmarried, were available to help at all the places with the work, especially with harvesting. When extra hands were needed to drive teams hauling the crops from the fields, Erwin, Aaron and Henry helped get in the hay, helped with the threshing of grain, the shredding of corn and filling silos. In between the Schwandt places were farms belonging to cousins, the Degners and the Welks, who also exchanged help with my father and his brothers.
Emil was the one who operated the steam engine that powered the separator that threshed the grain off the straw. In later years he ran the Titan tractor when it replaced the steam engine. My father's assignment was to supervise the separator, the thresher. When they threshed at our place he also stacked the straw. He and the others wore long sleeved shirts buttoned at the neck for protection from the prickly dust. The younger brothers and cousins drove teams bringing the bundles of grain from the fields. One picture shows two of them pitching bundles onto the apron of the thresher. On another, John Welk stands by the grain wagon where his brother holds two sacks of grain ready to put into the wagon. A team of horses pulled the wagon to the granary, where the grain was poured out into a bin. Lifting full sacks of oats or barley was heavy work.
Each farmer owned his own grain bags. My mother made sure that ours were ready for the next harvest. After threshing she washed them and looked them over. If she found even small holes she patched them. No grain should be allowed to leak out. I still have a few of the sacks. One is covered with large patches put on by my mother's hands. I can not discard the bags. Neither do I want anyone to use them carelessly.
My father and his brothers and cousins were all less than six feet tall but physical labor from very young years gave them endurance to keep working hour after hour. Art Degner was about the same size as Dad, five feet, six inches. Even though they were working hard they felt competitive. One year at threshing time they challenged each other to a wrestling match. I guess Dad lost because he sprained his ankle. Even though it happened before my memory I knew about it very well. In a laughing voice my mother told of the incident many times. She said, "I was angry that Ed would risk getting hurt in the busiest season." In spite of her annoyance at the time, she appreciated the spirit of fun in the two men.
The women of the family also helped each other by going to wherever the threshing was being done to help prepare and serve delicious meals; roast beef and gravy, mashed potatoes, garden vegetables, pies at noon and cakes for the evening dessert. It was a time for socializing as well as harvesting.
Emil and Lily had a son, Bobby, and a daughter, Amee. Bobby became diabetic and died when he was nine years old following surgery for appendicitis. In 1929 treatment for diabetes was not very successful and antibiotics needed after surgery were unknown. When I think of him I remember a winter day when I sat in the living room of their home and heard the clock strike twelve noon, the hour the funeral was to begin. Several of us, cousins of Bobby, carried the flowers to the waiting cars. Whenever I smell the perfume of hyacinths I remember that day. A big snow storm had filled the roads so that a county snowplow had come to lead the way for the funeral procession to the church and cemetery.
Emil and Lily bought a fine house just a block off of the main square in Markesan when they retired from farming. It was at a time when bowling caught the fancy of the local people, and a bowling alley opened in the center of town. Uncle Emil played with a team twice a week and thoroughly enjoyed the game. Aunt Lily joked, "I'd better not die on one of Emil's Bowling days. He wouldn't have time to go to the funeral."
They took much interest in their grandchildren. Whenever Howard and I dropped by to see them they inquired about each of our children.
The last time I saw Uncle Emil he was living in Riverdale Manor. He was ninety-nine years old but when I walked into his room he spoke my name instantly. Even in old age he was a handsome man. He was almost one hundred and three years old when he died in 1988.
Emma was the second sister, just younger than my father. She and Ida, the oldest, told of the work they did in their young years; the household duties and also outdoor work. Even though they were rather small women they shocked grain in the fields. No doubt they carried lots of water for cooking, bathing and laundry into the house and wood to keep up the fires. They helped care for younger brothers and sisters. Emma married my mother's brother Will Sommers, so that their daughters, Adelaide, Ruth, Jeanette, and Edyth, and their son, Lawrence (Chuck), are my cousins on both sides of my family. Emma's busy life continued as a farmer's wife. Cooking, cleaning, gardening, and keeping the fires burning. (Keeping fires burning is a time consuming, constant job.) She sewed very well for herself and her daughters. I spent many nights with Jeanette at her house. Aunt Emma was patient with what must have seemed to her our frivolous behavior.
Adelaide remembers that her mother picked up playing the organ by herself and taught her to play as well. The music teacher, Miss Elvira Luedtke encouraged them to get a piano but money was scarce. Finally her father, Will gave the organ and $100. to Mr. Detert in Markesan for a Kimball piano. Adelaide found that being able to play the piano well helped her in high school and in normal school. For many years she played for church services and accompanied the choir. Even in their later years she and her sister, Ruth were asked to play duets for programs at Ladies Aid and other meetings. Adelaide said, "Even though we played pieces they had heard before, they seemed to appreciate our efforts."
Adelaide also remembers when Aunt Ella Sommers came to spend a few days with them. In the evening she played hymns and other old songs. "Red Wing", "Put on Your Old Gray Bonnet", and "Silver Threads Among the Gold", were some that Emma and Will liked to sing.
The last visit I had with Aunt Emma was in her apartment in the Hotel in Markesan. We found so many thoughts to share that the time slipped away all too quickly. She seemed contented surrounded by possessions from her years of family life and pictures of children and grandchildren.
In their later years, except for Aaron, all my father's family eventually retired to the village of Markesan. Some lived only a few doors from each other. It was easy to have a party any day by telephoning each other to come to an impromptu lunch even on a winter day. One picture shows a group at Charley and Ella Abendroth's home. My Mother (standing in the back) was always pleased to be included in anything Ed's sisters did. At the time of this picture, 1956 she was already a widow as were Ida, Emma, Nora and Edna. Charles Abendroth is on the left next to Nora. Abendroth's daughter, Myrtle (center). Behind her is Emma, then Edna and another daughter, Frances, on the right. Ella and Ida are at center front.
This home of the Abendroth's set on a hillside overlooking Grand River Canning Factory. (Now Del Monte). In the summer of 1950 I worked at the Canning Factory when peas were being canned. When Aunt Ella found that I brought a lunch for the noon meal, she invited me to bring it to her house to eat. Aunt Edna was working at the factory too. We both liked the additions Ella provided to our sack lunch. Usually she had cooked fresh peas or yellow bush beans or carrots from her back yard garden. They were served in a side dish with milk seasoned with salt, pepper and real butter. It was from her that I learned to add a touch of nutmeg with cinnamon to make apple pies more interesting. Ella was a bit taller than her sisters and had brown eyes. Her hair kept its tight curls even after it turned white, just as her Grandmother Louisa's did.
It was Aunt Edna who gave me a hint for mashing potatoes to make them especially fluffy. In the years when Howard and I lived with my parents we often invited some of Dad's family for a meal. On such an occasion I worked to make the potatoes smooth. When I stopped Aunt Edna took the masher. With it she whipped the potatoes until every lump disappeared. Many times I remember her as I mash potatoes. I am grateful for her willingness to share her experience.
Aunt Edna lived to be ninety-six years old but in the final years she didn't always know us. Until then she was always very gracious when we called on her. She could empathize with me in my concern about my mother. I remember a comment she made about being old. She said, "I used to see spots on the front of my Mother's dress and wondered how she could have been that careless. Now, I'm finding spots on the front of my own dress." Aunt Edna was interested in the teachings of the Bible and some of our conversations were about the scriptures. She also had an interest in politics. One year she asked, "Do you think Tennessee's Senator Baker would make a good president?" In 1977 when her oldest daughter, Gretchen, died very suddenly she wrote to us the next day. She told how helpful Gretchen had been to her in her adult years. Then she wondered, "I don't think I ever bothered to thank her when she did nice things for me." I tried to reassure her that Gretchen was probably pleased to do anything she could for her mother and wasn't thinking about being thanked.
In the years of my father's illness his brothers and sisters came often to see him. When Aunt Edna and Uncle Bill Abendroth came, Bill stayed in the kitchen away from the group gathered in the living room. Howard and I enjoyed conversations about current events or politics with him. I saw a side of him that I had not known when I was a child. I had only remembered his speaking in German to Gretchen when we were children and needed a reprimand.
Fred was the fourth child in the family. He had a reputation for remembering facts about the family, dates of weddings, births and the people from the past involved. His smiling, soft, brown eyes let his gentle nature shine through. (Ella, had brown eyes too.) Fred married Martha Welk, whose family lived near the Schwandts. Their daughter, Shirley and I were nearly the same age. They invited me to spend a few days with Shirley during summer vacations. Since they lived near Little Green Lake, it was a special treat for me, because Shirley and I could go to try to swim in the lake at least once a day. At that time, Little Green had a fine clean, sandy beach. In those years, the 1920s there was a project called Fresh Air Kids. Children from Chicago or other large cities were given the opportunity to spend several weeks in the country during the summer. Uncle Fred and Aunt Martha took two brothers into their home from that organization. Norman and Billy were from a home not at all deprived, but staying with Martha and Fred gave them a touch of the way other people lived, especially farmers. One day when we four children returned from the lake we debated whether we should eat the candy bars we had bought at the stand by the lake. Should we eat part and save the rest? Perhaps we should save all of it for the next day? Or should we eat all of it now? Norman unwrapped his candy as he said, "Never put off until tomorrow, what you can do today." Fred's and Martha's calm acceptance of these city children showed their kindliness.
After Aunt Martha's death Fred continued to live alone in the house they had bought in Markesan, just across the street from his sister Lil, and her husband Jack. He continued to drive his car short distances until he was ninety. In his mid-nineties he went to live in Riverdale Manor. After a brief illness he died at ninety-six years of age. In 1966 when I made a trip to Wisconsin to visit my mother then living in Riverdale Manor, I spent the nights with Aunt Ida. I had always stayed with her when I needed a place to stay and she was determined that I continue to do so. Each of the others would have welcomed me in their separate houses. Even though it was December, Ida telephoned the group, her brothers and sisters, to come for a meal at her house. Henry and his wife Dora, Jack and Lil, Emil and Lily, Fred and Martha, Emma, Ella, Nora, and Edna were all there.
For me, it was like being a child again to be with the aunts and uncles gathered together as they had so often in the years gone by. Their family ties remained strong. Even though there had been occasional disagreements between them, now all those were in the past and they enjoyed one another as at the beginning.
On that evening all of them brought generous dishes of vegetables, meats and desserts. Aunt Emma sat next to Uncle Fred. I could hear her urging him to take some of each dish as it was passed. "Did you have some of this?" Uncle Fred was a slim, small-boned man and had not put on any weight all his years. When the desserts were passed I could hear Aunt Emma say, "Fred, you have to have some of this raspberry pie," even though he had already sampled various other pies and the cakes. I was surprised at how much food all of them could eat. No one of them had a weight problem or worried about calories. No one had heard of cholesterol. They would have scoffed at the idea. How could anyone tell them it was dangerous to eat the foods they had eaten for more than seventy years?
In the early years of their marriage, my father and mother enjoyed having the younger sister, Nora, spend Sunday afternoons with them. The snapshots show a smiling young lady with dark curly hair. She had a great sense of humor and could be counted on to respond in a jolly manner. In her early years she helped her brothers and sisters with their families. She kept house for her brother Fred before his marriage. Later she worked as a clerk in a department store in Markesan. There were happy times when Dad's brothers and sisters and their friends ate Sunday dinner at my mother's table. Pictures my mother took show Nora and Alvin Lueptow with the group. They married and spent their lives on their farm near Kingston. They had three daughters, Lois, Helene and Maxine. Lois carries on the work tradition on the farm with the same diligence as her parents and their parents.
The youngest of the twelve children, Henry, was only six years old when my mother married his oldest brother, Ed. Since they rented the Phelps farm next to the home place of the Schwandt's they were closely associated with the family. Mabel enjoyed being part of the work and fun of the large household. Pictures show Henry wearing his hair in shoulder length curls.
The Schwandts spoke the German language in their home. One day the boys and girls were gathered in the house with their mother. The young Henry had his schoolbook open and was trying to practice reading English. (Now that I think about it, learning to read English must have been difficult when one had heard only German at home.) Amidst the talking and laughing going on among the older children Henry came to a word he did not know.
"C-a-n!" he spelled out.
No one paid any attention. He repeated his call until at last his mother, who did not read English answered, "San."
The older children laughed and mimicked her answer. They finally gave Henry the correct pronunciation.
When he was eighteen years old Henry came to live with us and to work for my father, Ed. I think he thought of our home as his home from that time until he married. At least, I don't remember that he had a room in his parent's house in Markesan where they lived after they retired from farming.
Uncle Henry was not afraid to try any hard work. I remember he had a way of rolling his tongue and catching it with his teeth when he was doing heavy lifting or other especially strenuous work.
He was always very quiet. My mother talked a lot so it wasn't really necessary for anyone else to talk at mealtimes. Even when she asked Henry a direct question he could give a one word answer or something equally noncommittal. I realize now, how young he was and that his behavior was typical of his age group. He was protecting his privacy.
Mother made every effort to cook and serve foods that Henry liked and enjoyed seeing him eat heartily. When it was hot weather she made sure he got his share of lemonade. The water or lemonade pitcher set on the table within his reach because he drank a lot with meals.
In the years we lived on the Menke Farm we were given a yellow and white puppy. Henry named him Firpo. A strange name. In recent years I discovered that a man named Firpo was a prizefighter in the 1920s. Henry must have read about him in the newspapers.
Tolerating people was not something my mother did easily, but she was fond of Henry and wanted the best for him in life. In those days the Evangelical Church had a youth group, Young People's Association. They were often involved in the Sunday evening services. Henry attended those meetings. In the last years he worked for us he began to bring a girl home on Sunday afternoons to have supper with us and wait while he did the evening chores. Dora Lentz was as quiet as Henry. Perhaps she may have been self-conscious about being considered a prospective member of the family.
We were grateful that Dora was Henry's choice. My mother had had fears about other girls who had been perusing him. She was afraid this shy young man would not be able to ward off their advances. She openly warned him of the peril he was in if he chose one of them. Now, we happily welcomed Dora.
When it came time for us to go to their wedding at the Lentz farm home my parents found my brother, Sheldon, lying on his bed. When they reminded him to get dressed to go to the wedding, he said, "I don't want Henry to leave us!" Sheldon and I had known Henry as one family of our young years and we didn't like to see change come.
Henry and Dora began farming on a place very near ours. When their first child, Muriel was a baby I went to help entertain her when Dora was especially busy. Their other children are Virgil and Diane.
Just younger than Emil, Erwin was the eighth child of the twelve children of Henrietta and Ferdinand Schwandt. He was fifteen years old when my parents married. He lived with them to help with the farm work. One day Mabel saw him drive on the yard with his horse and buggy. She watched as he threw himself down and rolled on the grass as he laughed and said, "I never thought he would do it. I never thought he'd do it." He had traded his horse to Emil for a better one. Emil was not easily outwitted in choosing horses.
Erve took pride in being able to handle horses that other drivers could not manage. He was a dashing figure with his hat set at a rakish angle on his curly hair as he masterfully drove a fine lively horse. My brother and I listened hour after hour to his stories of the horses he had owned as he reminisced with my father.
His adventurous spirit showed one Sunday afternoon when the family was gathered at his brother Fred's house. After the noon meal Erve strolled out to look at a new car, a Model T Ford belonging to a brother-in-law, Bill Abendroth. Erve said to my mother, "Get in. I'll take you for a ride." They drove several miles on the dusty, country roads. As they returned to Fred's farm, Erve realized he did not know how to stop the forward progress of the car. He drove it against the side of the barn. (Cars of that day seldom reached a speed of twenty-five miles per hour.) It was then that Mabel discovered Erve had never before driven a car. Later Bill Abendroth was heard to remark that his Ford didn't steer very well. My mother laughed every time she remembered this adventure.
Erve was drafted into the Army soon after he and Clara married in 1918. My mother snapped a picture of them when he came to say "Goodbye." They stood at the head of a team of horses my father had hitched up. Although he was in his uniform, Erve's curly hair was uncovered. As if she wanted to touch him, Clara holds his hat as she leans against a horse. Erve was sent to New Mexico for training. Could landscape be more different from the green of Wisconsin, than New Mexico? Erve was very homesick. It didn't help that "boys in camp" were dying every day from the influenza raging all over the land. Erve never forgot those days.
Most of Erve's family lived on farms. He and Clara did too, for a number of years. The difference was that they didn't stay on the same farm as most of the brothers and sisters did. They moved often. Aunt Clara said, "We've moved so often. I can load our furniture by myself."
Perhaps Erve was bored with farm work. When they lived on a farm near Berlin he began to truck hogs and cattle to the markets in Milwaukee and Chicago. Finally, he quit farming and concentrated on hauling livestock. When his son, Roland, and the hired man were drafted in World War II, he taught his daughters, Bernice and Betty to drive the big trailer rigs. No matter that they became skillful at that heavy work, they were still modest gentlewomen at home. An account of their lives would make an interesting book.
When Howard, our children and I visited Wisconsin in June of 1959, Aunt Clara invited all our family to have dinner on a Thursday evening. Their granddaughter, Susan, helped serve the meal. The following Sunday we got the news that Aunt Clara had died that morning. Since we were leaving early on Monday to return to Texas, Uncle Erve arranged for all of us to go to the funeral home to see her a last time.
Aunt Lil, the youngest sister, was a little like her oldest sister, Ida, in that she was determined to be involved with the lives of the younger generation. As a result we miss her. Until a year before she died she wrote long letters to me discussing current events of the world and of her home community. She was much concerned that social standards today were so different from when she was young. She expressed her views emphatically that young people needed to learn to work, not just get an education in schools. For my part, I liked to write to her, someone that shared my values and past experiences.
In her last years Aunt Lil wrote often of her sadness that her younger brothers, Henry and Aaron were so far away that she didn't see them often. She didn't realize that Henry was getting old too, and also was not well. He died when he was only eighty-six years old in 1985. Since Aaron lived in Florida for many years, there could be no close contact maintained with him, but she continued to grieve. When he died she wrote how sad it was that at 91 no one of the family could go to his funeral so far away.
We saw Aunt Lil for the last time in 1987 when my cousins, Betty and Carlie Ruenger invited her to dinner with us. She didn't feel well that night but before she came to the dinner she found the energy to find a photograph of herself and Jack taken in their later years and a small collection of snapshots that I am glad to have. A few months later she gave up her household furnishings and moved into Riverdale Manor. There she continued to write long letters to me. She still liked to sing. She wrote that she played the piano for the other residents of the Manor. They sang hymns and some of the old songs that all of them knew. I was impressed with the fact that although they were of various denominational backgrounds all the residents would know the same hymns. They were all from the small towns and surrounding rural area so that their cultural heritage was much the same. How different from what our generation may experience in a similar situation.
Now she is gone and I miss her letters and miss sharing my thoughts with her. Her death in 1989 indeed marked the end of an era for my cousins and me.
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.