Summer in the Hill Country

Black eyed susansThe summer season is stunning here in Monroe County in southwest Wisconsin. Timely and plentiful rains along with sunny and hot days have insured a corn, soybean, oats, and hay crop that is more than promising.

A bicycle ride on Saturday from Tomah to Camp Douglas along the back country roads of Highway 131, County A, Grosbeak Ave, and ET yields sights of the wild country, a term coined by Tomah writer Tom Muench.

The corn is starting to tassel and develop ears. The soybeans are a lush dark green. The oats is ready to combine, golden fields against a background of verdant green trees and pastures. The Amish have much of their oats standing in shocks. Threshing can’t be far behind. Second crop hay is being cut and baled or chopped for silage.

The soybean and corn fields are practically free of any weeds, a far cry from crops planted 30 years ago, when weeds could choke out the desired crop. The use of GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) seeds and plants may be controversial in some quarters, but Round Up Ready corn and soybeans had insure weed free fields.

The blue chicory and white Queens Anne’s Lace is seen along most every roadway. It’s a shame they mow those beautiful flower. Kill ‘em right on the spot. There has never been a more beautiful crop of black-eyed-susans along Wisconsin I-90 from Tomah to La Crosse.

Sandhill cranes, wild turkeys, and deer, can easily be spotted, especially with the slow going of bicycling. There’s a big crop of red-wing blackbirds this year, warbling a distinctive song and sporting a red feather patch bounded on the bottom with a tuff of yellow.

A doe with three fawns frequently cross the lawn behind the Scheckel house. Don’t know if all three we born to her or whether she picked up an orphan or two.

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Driving The Farmall

Larry and TractorOne of the finest Fourth of July parades in the Midwest can be found in Tomah, smash dab in the middle of Monroe Country in southwest Wisconsin.  The small city of 9,000 folks supports a 10 AM parade of over 120 units, moving right down the main street of Superior Avenue.

You have your usual floats; Cranberry Queen, Butterfest, Knights of Columbus, VFW, American Legion, about 20 in all. My favorite is the Tavern League. They have a live band playing country and western favorites, mixed with a bit of patriotic, gospel, honky-tonk, and bluegrass.  The Tomah High School band always marches. Kids rush out to grab candies tossed by float riders. The Saddle Club is always the last unit in the parade. You might guess why-no need to walk in some of that “pony exhaust”.

A large number of restored tractors are distributed amongst the units. Red Farmalls, green John Deeres, Persian orange Allis-Chalmers, prairie gold Minneapolis Molines, and maybe a gray 8N or 9N Ford.

We have plenty of farm machinery collectors and restorers here in the Driftless hill country.  They know the thrill of searching, finding, and final rescue of tractors that go back nearly a hundred years. They know the pride and satisfaction of turning a piece of rusty old junk into a good-as-new machine.  One such miracle worker is Larry Baribeau.

Larry allowed me to drive one of his International Harvester tractors, a 1958 diesel Farmall 560 beauty. This is the tractor that brought great sorrow to the International Harvester company. The Farmall 560 experienced problems due to the final drive not being strong enough to handle the power of the engine. A new rear end was offered by International in mid 1959, and the company sponsored a massive replacement program. Enough overtime was earned by some IH workers, they could buy a house. John Deere took the lead in farm tractor production.

The Scheckel family had a Farmall 460 gas-powered model on the 238 acre farm outside of Seneca, down in Crawford County. Our Dad traded in a Massey Harris ’44 for the 460 when I was in high school, right about 1958.

I had not driven a Farmall for over 50 years and what a thrill it was to climb aboard the 560, check out the shifting, try the torque amplifier, toot the horn, and feel the power of that 4.6 L, 6 cylinder, 55 horsepower diesel engine.

Best of all; Larry said I just might be able to drive another of his restored Farmalls in next year’s Tomah Fourth of July parade.

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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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