Springtime in Tomah

Tomah1It happens every spring. The whole countryside is “greening up”. It’s a most delightful time of the year, when the leaves take on that light green color and you can peer deeply into the woodlots. Later, the tree leaves take on a dark green color. The corn is up about 2 to 3 inches, barely discernible when looking at the rows from the side, but one can glimpse the neat rows if looking straight on. At this time of the years, the lawns need mowing every 3 or 4 days. The maple seeds are helicoptering down. With a little wind, a whole shower of the whirly things. The lilacs have seen a good run, and are on the downside. There is no more fragrant flower than the lilac. If I die in May, I do want plenty of lilacs at the place of final repose. Make it tulips if the inevitable occurs in April, lilacs in May, sheaves of alfalfa, timothy, and clover in June, stalks of oats and wheat in July, chicory and Queens Anne’s Lace in August, and goldenrod in September. Any other month, you can choose. We’re approaching June, and we can see that the days getting longer and longer, which will keep happening up until around June 21, the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year. We will have about 15 hours of daylight and 9 hours of darkness. Already the point of sunrise on the eastern horizon has moved so far north that we can see the Sun come up from our large picture windows at around 5:45 AM. Reminds me of the Beatles song “Here Comes the Sun”.  “Here comes the sun, and I say, It’s all right.”

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Letters from readers

Letters from readers:

A gratifying aspect of writing a book of memories of growing up on a farm in Crawford County near Seneca is the letters we receive from readers. Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers has struck a chord in people who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s.

We received quite a number of letters and some emails from folks who have read Seneca Seasons or the articles published in Farm Collector magazine, also Good Old Days and The Country Today newspaper

From John M in  Minnesota: “Enjoyed your article in Farm Collector magazine. It brought back a lot of boyhood memories of growing up on a small Minnesota farm.”

From Brian M: “I attended your book signing in Gays Mills. What a legacy to leave for your family. I remember the threshing crews very well. My mother taught in rural schools in Crawford County.”

From Ronald P near Rensselaer, Indiana: “Reading about your threshing days brings so many good times I had. When I was younger I would help my mother and her friends get ready for dinner. What good food we would have. When I got bigger I would take cold water on horseback to the workers. Finally I got to drive a bundle wagon. The work was hard.”

From Jerry K, South Bend Indiana: “I enjoyed your article in Farm Collector magazine. I am ordering your Seneca Seasons book. I was born in 1940 and my dad always had a team of horses. He purchased new Allis-Chalmers WC the year I was born, but he always kept the horses. The hay trolley you describe sounds just like ours. I steered the WC and my dad and brother loaded hay from the New Idea hay loader. Your article brought back many good memories.”

I hear this common refrain at many of our talks and book signings. There are common memories of rural life in Midwest farms for those of us would grew up in the 1940s and 1950s. Long hours of hard work, but many joys, pleasures, and diversions. Great education in the one-room country school. Neighbors were Irish, German, English, Polish, Norwegian-all striving to make a living off the land. Good times and hard times. The farm out on Oak Grove Ridge in the middle of Crawford County was a small place on planet Earth, but remains a big place in my heart.

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What is a Zerk?

12 frontcoverSeveral people have commented about my use of term “Zerk” in our book Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers. A Zerk is a grease fitting on machinery that needs oiling or lubricating so as to reduce friction or wear on moving metal parts.

The Zerk is installed on machines by a threaded connection, with a nipple connection that  attaches to a grease gun. The grease gun forces a ball bearing in the nipple fitting to move back against the push of a retaining spring. The Zerk is really a valve that opens under the force of the grease lubricant, then closes again when the grease gun is removed. The ball returns to its closed position, preventing grease from escaping and not allowing dirt and debris into the bearing. The Zerk is actually a one way valve, or check valve. That idea of a check valve should not seem strange. Our heart has four such check valves.

Growing up as a kid on the Seneca farm, we used the work “Zerk” a gazillion times. But I had no idea of the origin of the name until I was in high school and would browse through the encyclopedias in the library

Oscar U. Zerk was born in Vienna, Austria in 1878, came in America in 1946, and lived in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Quite the inventor, he held patents on quick-freezing ice cube trays, special brakes on trolley cars, leg-slimming hosiery, oil well recovery systems, and over 300 other inventions. In 1900, Zerk helped design the first ever six-cylinder car engine. A patent for the Zerk fitting was awarded to Oscar U. Zerk in 1929, and assigned to the Alemite Manufacturing Corporation.

Zerk was very much in the news in February, 1954. Robbers broke into his Kenosha mansion “Dunmovin”, tied him to a chair, stole dozens of valuable paintings valued at $200,000, and escaped in Zerk’s own car.

A year later, a career criminal, Nick Montos, was arrested in Chicago, and given 7 years for the robbery. He spent a good amount of time in Alcatraz, and died at age 92 in November 2008. Montos was the oldest criminal in Massachusetts history.  Zerk died at age 90 and is buried in historic Green Ridge Cemetery in Kenosha.

Our machinery on the Oak Grove Ridge Seneca farm got a grease job before starting out and several times during the day.  A hay mower might have three or four Zerks. Our McCormick-Deering threshing machine had as many as 16 Zerks. We would fit the grease gun spout over the nipple, pump the handle three or four times, or until you saw grease oozing out of the bearing area.

These days the Zerk is still around, but has been replaced by sealed bearings in many cases. Sealed bearings are lubricated for life at the factory. No oil or grease is lost and no dirt and debris gets in.




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Midwest Farm Show and news from Tomah

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Ann and I had a unique opportunity to speak at the Midwest Farm Show at the La Crosse Center on Wednesday January 14. We gave a talk/PowerPoint about our book Seneca Seasons. My sister Diane, and her husband Owen Ducharme came up from Seneca. Had a nice talk with my aunt, Fern Scheckel, and her two daughters. A number of Seneca folks and Tomah people stopped by to chat. We sold and signed about 40 books. The annual Farm Show, one of 3 in Western Wisconsin, features many vendors, with tons of machinery, booths, products, and sessions. Anything associated with farming, ranching, and rural life can be found there, a real showcase for those making a living off the land. I particularly like looking over the huge new tractors and old antique tractors. St. Joseph Implement from up on the Highway 33 ridge always bring in the Case IH line of equipment. I was quoted a price of $500,000 for one tractor, but I declined, deciding to stick with my 15 year old 12.5 hp Murray lawn mower instead.

The old tractors are a comfort to be around. There was a Minneapolis Moline, Farmall H, a couple of Allis Chalmers, and several John Deere. Gundersen Clinic offers several medical screenings. Food sales were brisk. I like the chicken sandwich. One company was giving away bottles of chocolate milk. The Midwest Farm show is a two day event in La Crosse. Ann and I will also be giving a presentation at the Farm Show in Eau Claire on March 4. We continue to give science shows, and will be at Stratford, Wi, north of Marshfield on Thursday Jan 15. Book talks/signings at Viroqua on Tuesday Jan 20, and Gays Mills on Thursday Jan 22.

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’tis the season

It’s been a busy week in Tomah, getting ready for Christmas. A real treat every year is the St. Mary’s School Christmas Program put on by the 200 + kids, faculty, and parish employees. On Saturday,  Ann and I went thru the Sparta Christmas light display. On Sunday night, we attended the Gloria Dei Potato Supper followed by marimba concert performed by former Tomah student, Brad Steinmetz, currently a band director up in Minnesota.

On Tuesday, Dec 16, 2014 we had an interview with WEAU-TV’s  Judy Clark at 5:20 PM,  concerning new book Seneca Seasons.  After returning to Tomah we went to the Methodist Church where a choir of home schooled kids performed a very special Christmas concert.

Today, Thursday Dec 18 we are giving a presentation and book signing at the Mauston Public Library at 6:00 PM.

And I’ve been out playing guitar and signing  ??? at 6 retirement homes/assisted living places here in Tomah. We pass out a packet of 23 songs and invite folks to sign along or just follow along, or they can just ignore us!!

So do enjoy the Christmas/New Year’s season. Get out and attend some of those events.



AnnLarryEauClaire BradSteimetz at GloraiDeiChurch JudyClarkLarry MethodistHomeSchools2SpartaLights

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News from Tomah

Yes, winter has set in, the quiet season, when the countryside is barren, bereft of greenery and growing crops. But there’s ample life out there, deer and wild turkeys, and we see formations of geese overhead. I think those are the mentally challenged geese, all the smart ones are down in Missouri and points south.

I remember going out in the fields about this time of the year on that Seneca, Wi farm on Oak Grove Ridge to load up the last of the corn shocks to take them in to the corn shredder parked next to the Big Barn. Seems like half the shocks would have mice living under them, having built their warm dwelling for the winter. Here we come along and destroy it. Those mice would often tunnel through the snow at ground level, and those tunnels were visible from above.

We’re into the second week of Advent and the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Mary is the Patron of the United States, you know. A Mass and celebration afterward is held at our Church on Dec 8. The reception/celebration, in St. Mary’s basement, is for all those who do any volunteer work for the Church. That’s over 300 people. Love those meat balls served with red wine!

Ann and I are out doing science presentations and book signings for Ask A Science Teacher and a book out in late September Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers. We go to Elroy library on Dec 10, science presentations on Dec 11, and Dec 12 at Sparta, Mauston library on Dec 18, Midway Farm Show at the La Crosse Center on Jan 14. Television interviews on WXOX-La Crosse on Dec 12, and WEAU- Eau Claire on Dec 16.

Been out playing guitar/singing at assisted living homes and care centers in Tomah. Six of them in total. We do Christmas songs right now, at noon when they are eating and talking. They don’t hear too good, and I don’t play/sing too good, so it all works out fine!



Barnes and Noble WestTowne 080

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The quiet time of year……

We have reached the quiet time of the year. Lake Tomah has frozen over, the trees are bare, and the songbirds have fled Wisconsin for warmer climes south.  The Advent season has begun, Christmas tree lights are alit all over Tomah, the countryside is blanketed with 3 inches of fresh snow.

Ann and I have been out on the circuit, signing both our newest science book Ask A Science Teacher and a book out in late September Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers. We ordered another 96, the fifth such shipment. They come 24 in a box, so we order four boxes at a time. Also, ordered another 50 science books.

We took a bunch down to Johnson’s One Stop Shopping Center in Seneca. You know their motto “if we don’t have it, you don’t need it”. Artie Johnson and wife Deb, a former student of mine in Tomah and a very bright young lady, have graciously agreed to sell both books at their store.

We have presentations coming up at Barnes and Noble at West Towne Mall in Madison on Dec 6, Elroy Public Library on Dec 10, Mauston Public Library on Dec 18.

We have television interviews with WEAU in Eau Claire and WXOW in La Crosse in mid December.

Life is good and good health is truly a blessing. Ran a 5K race last night, the Tomah’s first annual Santa Run leaving from Gillett Park and moving onto dark icy pathways. Took me 37 minutes to run it, about the speed of a fast walk! Substitute bus driving a few times this week.

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