Thistles Cut, Ironing Done


Ferdinand Schwandt     married     Henrietta Kuehn
thirteen children:
Ida 105 yrs. m.   Charles Schraeder
Edward 72 yrs. m. Mabel Sommers 89 yrs.
Emma 90 yrs. m. William Sommers 68 yrs.
Fred 96 yrs. m. Martha Welk
Emil 103 yrs. m. Lily Marquardt
Ella 85 yrs. m. Charles Abendroth 68 yrs.
Edna 95 yrs. m. William Abendroth
Erwin 89 yrs. m. Clara Menke
Lenora 77 yrs. m. Alvin Lueptow
Lillian 94 yrs. m. Fred Ewald
Aaron 91 yrs. m. Pearl Wilde
Frances infant
Henry 85 yrs. m. Dora Lenz

Edward Schwandt     married     Mabel Sommers
two children:
Sheldon Sommer Schwandt
March 8, 1915  died  June 2, 1947
Zona Mae Schwandt, b. March 5, 1916
married Howard Justiss, b. August 31, 1911

Several weeks after his father's death, Uncle Erve walked quietly up the steps of the back porch at his mother's home. He thought she might be resting. But when he reached the back door he could hear her crying. He peeked in and saw her small figure on hands and knees mopping the kitchen floor while she softly wailed. It was impossible for Erve to go in and greet her or try to comfort her. He tiptoed away. He was overcome by his own emotion at witnessing his mother's expression of grief. Parents or children in their family rarely let their feelings show. Now, he didn't know that weeping with her would have let her know he cared.

For the first time in her entire life Grandma was alone. She grew up in a large family and in turn had twelve children of her own. She and Grandpa, Ferdinand Schwandt, had been married sixty-two years when he died in 1939. What a shock it must have been to face life without him after being husband and wife so long. Their lives were built around each other and their family. There were no separate interests.

Even his death occurred in the bed they shared all those years. The bedstead of dark wood and high old-fashioned headboard and the large matching dresser were still there in the room but she was alone. He was gone. He had been ill a short time but the doctor had not given any real information about his condition. Even on the day he died Grandma cooked oatmeal to feed to him. They always ate oatmeal in the morning and this day was no different. She believed that if one could eat you would get well. He didn't want to eat that morning. Now after two weeks Grandma found him out of bed trying to walk. When she asked him where he was going he said, "I'm going east to Jerusalem." Most of us interpreted his statement to mean that he knew he was not going to live much longer.

Grandpa lay in state in the front parlor of their large home in Markesan. With his curly white hair and regular features he had always been a handsome man. He carried his nearly six foot figure with dignity. Dozens of relatives and friends came to pay their respects to one who had established himself in the community as an upright man of complete integrity. That winter afternoon as his children and their families gathered with Grandma to carry out the funeral rites was a marker in their lives. He had been with them until his eighty-fifth year. We had not thought of life without his presence. Many of my cousins and I sat on the open stairway that led upstairs from the front hall. From there we could see Grandma and her children around the Grandpa's casket. Through the window on the stair landing I had a view of the bare trees and winter-weary snow-covered landscape. I wondered about life and death on that gray day in 1939.

On an occasional evening in the years past, my parents and Sheldon and I dropped in on Grandpa and Grandma. We found them sitting in their living room. An electric lamp on the library table had a leaded green-glass shade. Close to the table Grandpa sat in a big chair reading the Evangelical Messenger printed in German. Grandma sat nearby doing a bit of mending. She wore steel-rimmed eyeglasses. If the hour came round to seven-thirty Grandpa said, "Good-night" and with no excuses went to his bed in the next room. If we stayed for some time longer we could hear his very audible snores. He did what was comfortable for himself.

Ferdinand and Henrietta Schwandt
60th Wedding Anniversary, 1937

Grandma wore her hair pulled back into a small bun, in the same style as her mother, Caroline Kuehn wore hers. Grandma's neat dresses always had long sleeves. I never thought of her being interested in fashions, but Grandpa teased her about buying too many new dresses. He said, "Mother has all the closets full of dresses." Perhaps she was more interested in pretty things than I realized. On a picture I have she is wearing a light blouse with leg-of-mutton sleeves heavily embroidered.

I only knew my Grandparents after they had retired from farming and bought the house in Markesan about the same year I was born. The house had two or three acres with it with a barn and garden spot. When my cousin, Adelaide Sommers, drove with horse and buggy from Manchester to go to high school in Markesan, she put the horse in Grandpa's barn while she attended classes. Grandpa kept a horse too, to pull the buggy when he and Grandma drove out in pleasant weather to spend the day with one or another of their children living on farms a mile or two outside the village. A cow had room to graze behind the barn and supplied them with enough milk to share with their daughter, Ida Schraeder, who lived just up the hill. Half-gallon tin syrup pails were used for the milk that Ida came to get once a day. I ran that errand when I happened to be visiting Aunt Ida. Grandma kept a few chickens too, in a fenced area near the barn. It was like farming on a very small scale.

In the house though, nothing was on a small scale. The rooms were big, high-ceilinged spaces. Grandpa and Grandma ate their meals at a square kitchen table which didn't crowd the room at all. Off the kitchen was a pantry with a workspace for rolling out pie crusts and baking bread.

I remember how good the Sunday dinners tasted at the big dining room table. The Schwandt family went to the Evangelical Church which set on a high hill a few blocks away. Often as Grandma left the church building she would say, "Come down and eat dinner with us." Frequently others of her children and their families would be invited too. She had put a beef pot-roast on to cook early that morning. She added water as she started the cooking. When it boiled off the meat was allowed to brown down in the pan and then more water added. On the back of a wood-burning stove it could continue to simmer safely until her return from church. With the meat there would be perfectly mashed potatoes and cabbage slaw. Grandma thought the cabbage must be very finely chopped. It was seasoned with vinegar, sugar and salt and pepper. It was good! There was always pie or cake for dessert. Grandma always gave us wintergreen candies from a covered dish on the buffet.

The Living Room of the Ferdinand and Henrietta Schwandt Home in 1912.
(back) Aaron Schwandt, Laura Lueck, Emil Schwandt, Mabel Degner, Richard Abendroth, Alma Wilde Abendroth, Erwin Schwandt, (front) Edna Wilde Degner, Arthur Degner, Lillian Schwandt

Grandma stayed on alone in the big house but in the early 1940's she didn't feel very well. When she saw a doctor her only complaints were "a rumbling in her chest" and sometimes her head didn't feel just right. When the doctor suggested less salt on her food she didn't think anyone that young could know something she didn't. When served food with less salt she would say, in German, "Es schmeckt nicht." ("It doesn't taste good.") When she felt especially "poorly" her daughter Ida Schraeder spent a few days and nights with her. It was then that I slept several nights in an upstairs bedroom in Grandma's house. It was winter time with lots of snow. I didn't want to drive from our farm home to teach each day in the local school. Aunt Ida arranged I should stay with her at Grandma's house. The upstairs rooms were all comfortably heated from the coal-burning furnace in the basement. I was assigned to one of the four bedrooms with a bath adjoining it. Grandma was still well enough to eat meals at the table and to watch me start for school in the mornings. I dressed for the walk to school in warm skirt and sweater and woollen snowpants. I wore a coat and cap. As I went out the door, Grandma would say, "Put a shawl over your head. You don't have on enough clothes." She was remembering how she dressed in her young years. Styles had changed.

Her children worried about her living by herself. One hot day in July her daughter Edna found her working in the garden. Edna told my mother, "I went down home yesterday. There was Ma in that hot sun hoeing the strawberry bed. Her face was all red."

The conversation continued with schemes to try to keep Grandma from doing that hard work in the very hot weather.

Now that I am almost as old as Grandma was that long ago day I can see from her point of view. Each of us wants to keep doing the work or keep up our daily routine. We don't like to give up what we have always known. Also, we like to be able to see that we have accomplished - that we have done a piece of work to its end. There is satisfaction in seeing the strawberry plants neatly cultivated without the weeds.

One of the interesting sides of this story is that all Grandma's daughters and most of her sons kept working until they were very old. They did exactly as she had done, only longer.

Ida Schraeder was well into her nineties before she gave up gardening. At that time she had only a tiny plot but it had cabbage, beans, tomatoes and other vegetables as well as flowers. She was busy taking bouquets to "shut-ins."

In her late eighties, Aunt Lil still had a very good garden. Since it was quite some distance from the house she set a chair nearby so she could rest between pulling weeds and hoeing. The plot of ground was especially fertile so the vegetables and flowers grew very well.

Grandma's other children kept up gardening and other activities too. People who have worked all their lives are not happy "resting" for long periods of time. Unconsciously they feel they are wasting time if they are not active, even if it is quieter work like crochet or embroidery or quilting.

Sometime in her late years Grandma pieced quilts. She gave me one, a Dresden plate pattern, completely quilted. Her life was not long enough to make one for the younger granddaughters.

In her last few years the family agreed that her daughter, Ella with her husband Charles Abendroth, should move in to live with Grandma. It was not easy for Grandma to let anyone else be in charge in her own home but she submitted to the arrangement. She continued to have the vague ailments. On the evening of January twenty-ninth in 1946 she lay down after supper on the hard couch by the dining room windows to take a nap. When Ella went to rouse her at bedtime she found that Grandma had died. She was a few months short of her ninetieth birthday.

Charles and Ella Abendroth with their three oldest children, Myrtle, Frances and Wilson in 1921 when they lived at Cambria less than twenty miles away. They sometimes spent the night with us.

I did not attend Grandma's funeral because I was living in Florida at the time. Her funeral was carried out in the same order as Grandpa's. Her children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews and sisters made a big crowd in the Evangelical Church. At the front of the building her children were seated with their spouses. The oldest walked down the aisle first, followed by the others with careful attention to the order of their ages. All funerals for the family were carried out in the same manner. One by one as my uncles or aunts died and even some of my cousins, the family gathered and followed this procedure for the public funeral. Today the group has dwindled. It seems lonely without those who were with them so long. After Grandma's death, an outside observer remarked that no tears were shed at her funeral. Tears were not necessary. Grandma had had a long full life and her children appreciated her. In quiet moments tears might come when we remembered being with her. She and Grandpa are buried next to his parents in the quiet, green Phelps Cemetery north of Markesan, just a short distance from where they spent their whole lives.

In the twenties Grandpa bought a Buick car. I don't know how much help he had learning to drive it. He and Grandma cruised along in splendor in the bulky looking car. He drove as if there were no other cars or traffic. I remember riding with him through the main street of Markesan after it had been marked with a center line to control the direction of traffic. He drove down the center as if no line existed. I was relieved when we reached our destination.

Grandpa kept his white curly hair cut short. He wore a neatly trimmed chin beard that I suspect he adopted when he was a young man. One day he had it shaved off. Grandma was angry when she saw him. I expect he looked like a stranger to her. He let the beard grow back as soon as he could. Grandpa was interested in improving his English vocabulary. When he learned an unusual word he put it in his conversation whenever possible. His children smiled at his "showing off." Grandma wasn't interested in speaking English. She spoke a mixture of German and English even to me and her other grandchildren. We learned to figure out what she was saying.

Grandpa still took an interest in farming and the work that needed to be done. One of the jobs that never ended was keeping thistles under control in the fields. One way to do that was to cut them out with a hoe. Grandpa helped us by coming to our farm to hoe thistles. After working through the daylight hours he spent the night with us. He went to bed after the evening meal. By the time we went to bed he was snoring and groaning loudly. The groans sounded as if he were suffering. The next morning my mother said, "I was afraid he wouldn't live through the night." After a wakeful night she was up early because she was afraid she would not have Grandpa's breakfast ready at the first hint of dawn when he was up and ready to go to the field to make war on the thistles.

When Sheldon and I finished eighth grade my parents planned for us to continue going to school. Grandpa scoffed at the idea. But since Sheldon was only thirteen and I twelve we went to high school. Grandpa said, "You don't please me by sending them to high school." In the world he knew, any boy could learn to be a farmer without going to school, and it was taken for granted that Sheldon would follow his father and grandfather in farming.

Grandpa and Grandma were married in October of 1877 in the home of her parents, Daniel and Caroline Kuehn. They lived near Princeton. Rain fell on the day chosen for their wedding. They postponed the ceremony till the next day because they were to make the trip to their new home near Lake Maria with a team and wagon. They carried their household goods with them on the day's journey.

In 1879 Grandpa bought a farm north of Markesan in the fertile rolling country of Green Lake Prairie. The farmhouse set on a hilltop with its front door facing a woods of oak, elm, and maple trees. The back porch provided a view of the barns and farm buildings and of the land spread out around them.

Ferdinand and Henrietta faced life on the farm with energy and determination. They did not hesitate to work because that was the only way to support oneself and family. Grandma was a slightly built woman but no task was too difficult for her to try. She cooked, baked, did the washing on a washboard, cleaned and occasionally helped in the fields. Her thirteen children were all born without benefit of a doctor. The story is told that the day after a child was born she baked bread. This endurance colored her attitude throughout her life. When my mother went to the doctor for pre-natal care Grandma asked, "Why do you need to go to the doctor?" I remember a scene in her living room in 1942 when my father had Parkinson's Disease. Howard and I had brought him to call on her. We helped him from the car into the house and seated him. Grandma sat in her usual rocking chair facing my father across the room. Grandma said to him, "If you really tried, couldn't you walk?" It was incomprehensible that this son, so much younger than she, was disabled.

But Grandma often had a twinkle in her blue eyes and a smile hovered across her lips. When they were young her children knew that they could romp and play in her presence when they didn't have work to do. When a group of them were playing in the house there was fun and laughter until someone looking out the window saw Grandpa coming from his work to the house. Then the call rang out, "Da kommt er!" ("Here he comes.") At that signal all foolishness ceased. When he was ready Grandpa sat down at the table and the children scrambled to find seats in time to hear him ask the Lord's blessings in the German language.

Grandpa and Grandma used German in their home and all their children learned to speak the language. Even into the early 1920's The Evangelical church they attended in Markesan still had a morning service in German for those who preferred it. Grandpa and Grandma stayed on for the services in English. He chose to sit toward the front on the right side. Grandma sat on the opposite side of the building. I knew exactly where to look to find them. Each stayed in the same place. Other couples of their generation followed the same pattern. In my father's age group the husbands and wives sat together. The cultural pattern was changing.

Grandpa and Grandma and their parents before them left us a heritage of decency and uprightness. They and their large family gave me a personal security. When I met someone in the community for the first time they could identify me by asking who my grandparents and parents were. As part of their family a degree of respect was accorded to me. Sometimes it is hard to find one's identity in today's mobile society.

The William and Edna Abendroth family
(from top left) Gretchen, Arno, June, William Jr., Ada, Audrey

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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.